Karl Barth and William H. Willimon, The Early Preaching of Karl Barth: Fourteen Sermons with Commentary by William H. Willimon. Translations by John E. Wilson. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), xvii + 171. $24.95

Reviewed by David B. Ward (October 06, 2010)

Where some theologians’ works read like sunken ships full of historical treasure, Barth’s writings and sermons give the reader an inside view of a caterpillar’s metamorphosis. The transformation we encounter in Barth seems ever present and ever current as we face our own need for theological and ministerial transformation.This metamorphosis is precisely why this new translation of Barth’s early sermons is so valuable to English speaking students of Barth. We are familiar with the later sermons found in Deliverance to the Captives. More recently The Word in this World: Two Sermons by Karl Barth has given us a brief before-and-after contrast view of the homiletical transformation that both drove and was driven by Barth’s theological shifts. The Early Preaching of Karl Barth now illuminates what came between the before and the after.

Fourteen sermons are presented from Barth’s time as a pastor in Safenwill. The sermons begin with March 4, 1917 and end on December 26, 1920. This critical three-year period extends from the tail end of the First World War to the year preceding Barth’s invitation to be a professor at Göttingen. Just one year prior to the first sermon in this volume, Barth presented his lecture The Strange New World of the Bible, confessing the nearly limitless and impossible task of preaching accompanied by the necessity of preaching in face of the divine call to preach.

Several distinct and significant shifts occur over the course of these fourteen sermons. The first sermons all begin with “Dear friends!” This direct address usually moves immediately into a discussion of the generalized human condition. For example, the first sermon uses the beggar on the way to Jericho as a metaphor for “what ‘life’ can make of us, today”(1). The homiletician could easily lay the template of a problem-solution form over Barth’s sermon and find it very fitting. The problem of the human situation is prompted by “a blind beggar sitting by the road” and Christ is presented as the answer to despair and resigned hopelessness. The fourth sermon on Luke 3:21 follows Barth’s brief greeting with “Truthfully all of us wish that God would be well pleased with us” (37). Human needs seem to drive these sermons from beginning to end, even as Barth turns his attention Godward.

The first clear and significant shift occurs in December of 1918. “Dear friends” is dropped from his manuscripts and does not return. The sermon immediately focuses on the preoccupation of the text without concern for developing a human point of contact. By 1919, in Willimon’s words, “Barth’s sermons sound as if the young preacher is finding his voice” and, unlike his earlier sermons, “this sermon manages to maintain focus and attention”(107). Those familiar with Barth’s chronology will find this distinctive shift fascinating in connection with the publishing the first edition of his commentary, Der Römerbrief (1919). By the last two sermons the key themes of Barth’s theology start to emerge in their homilietical form. There is a thoroughly christological focus centered in the text that stands in stark contrast to the first few highly anthropological sermons. The criticism of religion as a way of climbing to God, or trying to speak of God by speaking of human beings in a louder voice, receives rhetorically forceful treatment. The dialectic between the revelation and hiddenness of God, as well as the wholly Other God and the God of the incarnation, strike strong resonant notes in the last few sermons collected in this volume. This God cannot be known simply by reflecting on human needs or through religious striving. The transformation is well under way.

Willimon offers highly accessible introductions to the development of Barth’s thought and the theological milieu in which he was situated. His analysis of Barth’s sermons seeks to be both appreciative of even the most immature preaching represented in this collection, and also objectively reflective on the most thoroughly ‘Barthian’ of these sermons. Willimon says of this theological giant-in-the-making’s March 3, 1918 sermon, “this sermon just doesn’t work as a sermon”(54). Some readers may tire of the commentary on Joel Osteen and Rick Warren that crop up repeatedly. Willimon’s frustration with health and wealth preaching on the one hand, and purpose driven preaching on the other, is clear. However, he is likely preaching to the choir on these points. The readers would have been better served if this hobbyhorse had been replaced by in-depth reflection on more academically accepted preaching practices that Barth’s own preaching development might challenge.

A significant note of praise for Willimon arises in his recognition of a praxis orientation in Barth’s theological development, although Willimon does not use this technical phrase. Praxis orientation moves from theory-laden practice, to theoretical reflection on that practice, and back to practice again. Willimon notes that for Barth “the true theme of theology” was the difficulty of preaching itself, and highlights the role Barth’s own parishioners had in rupturing his preceding theology and homiletical practice (xii). Though he may exaggerate the point through undue generalization, Willimon is certainly correct about Barth when he claims that “before it matures in the classroom, faithful theology is born in the pulpit” (xiv).

The English speaking Barth scholar will find fluid translations of Barth’s early sermons to aid in her studies of Barth’s theological development as it presented itself in the pulpit. Homileticians will be prompted to reengage several perennial questions for homiletics: how to speak of God when we cannot speak of God, and how to proclaim the gospel when the people want to know how to save their marriage, their jobs, or their war torn world. The young pastor will likely find comfort in Barth’s stumbling attempts to learn to preach while preaching. More experienced and thoughtful preachers will also see a transformation of theology in the pulpit that should prompt long examination of many current preaching models, and the implicit theology they embody.

The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.