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Johanson, The Word in this World (Review)

Johanson, Kurt I. (ed.)
The Word in this World: Two Sermons by Karl Barth 
trans. Christopher Asprey (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2007). 
66pp. ISBN: 1-57383-411-4

This little booklet contains two Barth sermons from different periods of his life, a foreword by Eberhard Busch, an introduction by William Willimon, an afterword by Clifford Anderson and acknowledgements by the editor which tell the story of how the booklet came into existence. Altogether it is an attractive and interesting little package. Johanson declares his hand on page 24: “It is also a clarion call to the pastors who herald the glorious gospel of our God from the pulpit, and to those who hear it in the pew, to powerfully proclaim and witness to the Word in this world.” But not only pastors:

I want nothing more than the church, and her scholar-preachers, to be able to offer, in one unified voice, as a part of her calling, a confident word to the world. It is my simple hope and prayer that the Pastor and the Professor can work together toward the recovery of courageous and powerful biblical preaching (28).

Thus the book is concerned with Barth as homiletician rather than theologian, although in truth, the two cannot be separated: “The main value of Karl Barth for us contemporary preachers is that he is a theologian,” says Willimon (10), for “thin descriptions of God are killing our sermons” (18). Thus, Barth’s insistence on the priority of the biblical text, on giving “close, obedient attentiveness” to God by means of this text is what preaching is about. Further, this attentiveness concerns itself, says Eberhard Busch, not simply with what God said once-and-for-all, but with what God says. “Barth learned from the Reformers that the sermon in the service of worship is to correspond to the prophetic office of Jesus Christ” (7-8).

So what do we find in Barth’s sermons? The first, from April 1912 when Barth was just twenty-five years old and a newly-minted pastor, is a pastoral response to the sinking of the Titanic which had occurred earlier that week. The second, from November 1934, was preached in Bremen’s Frauenkirche in the darkening days of the Nazi regime. The first is the work of the young “Red” pastor of Safenwil, the second, that of the seasoned professor of Bonn (although he was stood down from his position shortly afterwards) and a leader in the Confessing Church.

In Barth’s Titanic sermon we see the young liberal pastor at work. His text is not Scripture but a world event. For this Barth, God speaks to and addresses us through these events, though we must make the meaning from them. Barth assumes that we can read the will and purpose of God in and through the events of the world. The “divine spirit in humanity” is equated with human progress, creativity and inventiveness. God wills this progress, this mastery over nature (36). We see also the young socialist pastor at work as he blames the disaster on capitalism. Barth even notes that the president of the shipping company “is among those who have been rescued—unfortunately, we are almost tempted to say” (40)!

The argument of the sermon develops in three points. First, Barth addresses the hubris of humanity which draws divine judgement from God. Second, he insists that this hubris is grounded in self-interest and leads to destruction. Finally, the way of Christ, or of mercy, is seen in the self-sacrifice of some ordinary sailors that others might live. This spirit must prevail.

So this shipping disaster doesn’t merely point up our helplessness and our faults, our broken arrogance and our secret egoism. Nor does this [mercy] just proclaim to us our transience and its cause. It declares to us with a clarity we rarely experience that God’s purposes are advancing in the world. One senses something of how Christ is becoming an ever greater force in the world, when one reads of those who did not seek to save themselves but did their duty, who ultimately did all they could, not for themselves but for others, who silently and nobly retreated in the face of death to allow those who were weaker than them to continue on the path of life. In view of facts such as these, it takes great unbelief to keep referring to our age as evil and godless (41-42).

As a communicative exercise, it is possible to appreciate Barth’s style and rhetoric. He draws on a contemporary event that has captivated the daily press and is no doubt prominent in the thought and discussion of his parishioners. The reader can sense the energy and pastoral concern with which the sermon might have been delivered. As a sermon, however, some commentators have given Barth a great Fail. Barth himself lamented, in later life, about this sermon delivered in his “misspent youth.” Why the concern? A number of reasons might be given, but primarily, Barth later came to expect the biblical text to be the master of the sermon, something obviously not the case in this sermon, focussed as it is on a contemporary event. The sermon is more social comment than biblical exposition. More problematic, Barth does not preach Christ at all in this sermon, but uses the name of Christ—only once in the sermon—as a cypher, or as a symbol for an ideal of human and social progress. Just two years later Barth’s liberal optimism came crashing down with the onset of the war which forced a radical re-evaluation of his theology, on the basis, not least, of his discovery of the “new world in the Bible.”

The second sermon is entirely different and reflects this discovery. According to Hughes Oliphant Old, Karl Barth’s Bremen sermon was “one of the outstanding sermons of the twentieth century” (25). The sermon is clearly addressed to the congregation living “in these days and times” of great temptation and struggle, urging them to courageous obedience to the lordship of Jesus. In this sermon the biblical text is front and centre, and the sermon begins without fanfare, introduction, or contextual remarks. Barth’s method is simply to exposit the biblical text itself (Matthew 14: Jesus—and Peter—walking on the water), line-by-line. Yet the exposition is not “historical” but applied as though the text speaks directly as “our story.”

The way to counteract paganism in the form of National Socialism is by close, obedient attentiveness to another God. The very form and structure of the sermon is itself a kind of theological claim (Willimon, 21).

Barth provides a theological and ecclesial interpretation of the text. In Barth’s hands, Peter images the Confessing Church, boldly stepping out in obedience to Jesus, but fearful and faltering—and also helped! It is hard to imagine a more forthright summons to the church assailed by Hitler’s regime, yet this is precisely how Barth is applying the biblical text. Just as Peter by his action was distinguished from the other disciples,

There is distinction like this in the church; people who are distinguished by what is demanded of them, distinguished by the dangers to which they expose themselves, but also distinguished by the help that comes their way. And distinction like this, a specific event like this, has always been the mystery of the great periods of the Christian church. Is it the case that distinction like this is to be granted to us too in these days and years, to us, to our evangelical church, in that from the midst of everything that bears the name of church, a crowd has dared to step out in obedience and become the confessing church? (56)

No longer the young, liberal, we see here Barth as an ecclesial theologian of the Word, doing theology for the sake of proclamation, that the church might truly be the church, bound only to one lord, and thus truly free. Discernment in the time of decision is often unclear and even fraught. But the church must risk obedience and act. We do wait; we must hasten! And Christ is with us.

And if you say to me, “Indeed, but isn’t there always still room for error; couldn’t the voice of our own hearts always try to pass itself off as the voice of Jesus Christ?” then my reply is, “We may and must continually seek the word, the conclusive word of Jesus Christ himself, in the word to which the prophets and apostles are witnesses, the word of those who for every age have born testimony to him, to his revelation, to his work, to the love of God which has appeared in him.” And whoever hears this testimony to him knows that he himself is there, that the light is there, the truth is there, the victory is there; not a human victory but God’s victory in his church, even in such times of tribulation and division as we are now living through. We can be sure that the victory is always on the side of the Holy Scripture, and so it is today (53).

Doctrine as Life-Skill

In his excellent essay on “Providence” (in Kapic & McCormack, Mapping Modern Theology, 203-226) the late John Webster suggests that the classical doctrine of providence was not so much metaphysical speculation as practical theology,

Providing orientation and consolation to believers by instructing them in how to read the world as an ordered, not random, reality—ordered by divine love and directed by divine power for God’s glory and the creature’s good (207).

Thus the knowledge of providence is not theoretical or metaphysical knowledge, but

One of the skills required for and reinforced by living life in a certain direction. . . . Knowledge of providence can [console and direct] because it refers us to the objective realities of God’s antecedent purpose, present active care, and promises for the future (216).

When I read this I was intrigued by the idea of doctrine understood as a skill for Christian life and service. Those Christians equipped with a theological understanding of providence are prepared in some sense for living “in a certain direction,”—that is, toward God. The doctrine orients and consoles, provides direction and a framework for thinking about life’s blessings and difficulties, opportunities and threats. It provides assurance that life is fundamentally purposeful and in some way ordered, and so also encourages the believer to live purposefully and confidently in trust that the provident God sees, provides, directs and cares.

If this is true of the doctrine of providence, is it true of other doctrines also? Do they also provide certain “skills” for fruitful Christian living “in a certain direction”? Beth Felker Jones argues that this is the case in her Practicing Christian Doctrine in which she argues that theology and Christian life are bodily realities which press towards visibility in the world. Therefore the careful articulation of doctrine must issue in practice if it is to be faithful to its intent. Doctrines are not simply about intellectual development or “getting the faith right.” They are equipment for Christian life.

The corollary is also true: a Christian without doctrinal foundations may be considered “unskilled in the word of righteousness” (Hebrews 5:13). We owe to ourselves and to our congregations to learn and teach good doctrine, and to reflect and deliberate on the significance and implications of these doctrines in the mundane affairs of daily life that we may become skilful with respect to Scripture, doctrine and life.

An Easter Vigil (Cont’d)

Let the dancing begin!

Let me continue my story of this vigil by telling how the time passed:

The first hour really was arriving, preparations (including learning some songs), and getting settled. Shortly after midnight we all (except mum) exited the building, and the lights were turned off. Outside a fire had been prepared and there was a short liturgy involving prayers and the lighting of the main candle, and then each of us with candles lit entered the darkened church, playing on and enacting the obvious symbolism of the gospels, especially John. The next two or three hours were given over to Scripture and worship. Nine readings in three sets of three were read, seven from the Old Testament, one from Paul, and one from Matthew’s gospels. Each reading was introduced with a short orientation and admonition, read, and then a song of worship was sung, the song itself echoing or extending the theme of the reading.

The readings included:

  1. Genesis 1 – Creation
  2. Genesis 22 – The Testing of Abraham
  3. Exodus 14 – The Crossing of the Red Sea
  4. Isaiah 54 – The Covenant Love of God
  5. Isaiah 55 – A Call to Repentance and Life
  6. Ezekiel 36 – A New Heart
  7. Romans 6 – Baptism
  8. Matthew 28 – Jesus’ Resurrection (the gospel, read by a priest)

There was obviously one other reading but I cannot remember it now. After the first set of three, participants were invited to “resonate.” This is to offer one’s own reflection on the readings, with a particular focus on how it is speaking to oneself. After the second set of three, children present had opportunity to ask their parents “tough questions” about faith. Some of the questions really were tough and put the parents on the spot! They answered well. The third set offered another opportunity to resonate.

Then one of the priests offered a short and encouraging homily. Two babies were baptised with the full liturgy of corporate prayer and response, the dipping (three times) of the naked babies in the font, including full submersion on the third dip, the anointing of the babies with oil, and their clothing in white, and the “splashing” of the whole congregation with the baptismal water in an act of baptismal renewal. There was evident joy in the congregation during this liturgy and bapism, including what appeared to me to be outbursts of spontaneous praise. It possibly was not spontaneous, but a practice cultivated in the community expressing their exuberance at “two new Christians tonight” as I heard one woman saying excitedly to another after it was all over.

Finally, the Eucharistic liturgy was enacted (sung, as was the gospel “reading”) by the priests, with communion in both kinds being offered to all in the congregation, sometimes several times (to drink “all of it”?). The kiss of peace with much mutual affection was given all round, and the celebration finished with the chairs all pushed back, and a kind of folk dancing with lots of movement, joy and laughter.

With mum

Early in the evening one of the younger women who has been a good friend to mum came up and said to her, “You are a hero!” I think she was referring to mum coming to stay all night to worship God, and wait on his Word. Another woman said to me, “You have the most beautiful mum.” Both women were right: I have the most beautiful mum, and she is somewhat of a hero. She has been walking faithfully with Christ for many years now, faithful in sometimes the most difficult of circumstances, faithful especially in her prayer, her consideration of others and her witness. It was mum who continually witnessed to and prayed for me, and her life and devotion continues to inspire.

After the dancing many would go on to have breakfast together as the light of Easter day broke. These, however, had been enlightened already. I took mum home, and then headed home myself, tired enough to miss the freeway exit! I missed church at my own church that day—which Monica tells me was a wonderful service.

But actually, I didn’t miss church at all.

An Easter Vigil

My mother has been a devout Roman Catholic all her life and raised me in the Church. Unfortunately, I have been a wayward son, leaving the Church for a different branch of Christianity, and migrating through several forms and denominations over the years.

My mother has had her own journey within the Church, the Roman Catholic Church being large and diverse enough to accommodate a variety of forms within its overall structures. In the early 70s she became an early participant in the Catholic charismatic movement. Later, she became more deeply involved in a covenantal community movement within the church although, on account of her family, she never actually joined the community. More recently, which means in the last decade or two, she has participated in the Neocatechumenal Way, or the “Neo-cats” as she sometimes calls them.

Each Easter Saturday for quite some time now, mum has attended an all-night vigil on Easter Saturday (after the foot washing on Holy Thursday, and Good Friday services!). We would arrive sometime on Easter Sunday for family get-togethers, and mum will have been up all night and still going, preparing the house and the food and welcoming us all in.

Mum is in her mid-eighties now, and though increasingly frail, still very much alert and sociable. But after a full day out with one of my brothers on Easter Saturday, she was tired and did not think she could attend the vigil; the logistics simply made it too difficult. I asked her if it would make a difference if I came along with her, stayed the night, and so, if she needed anything, I would be there to assist. She said she would have a rest and call me back. She called back within five minutes—no time to rest! I picked her up later that evening and we arrived at the vigil about 11pm as things were just about ready. Once mum was seated she didn’t get up for almost seven hours! (Getting up and down is pretty difficult.) Nevertheless, she loved every minute of it.

It was my first time at the vigil. So what was it about?

First, it was a combined celebration with, I think, four distinct catechumenal groups meeting: two from the Cathedral, one from Kelmscott (or were there two groups from Kelmscott?), plus the newest group, from St. Kieran’s in Tuart Hill, who also hosted the event. There were perhaps 60-80 people present, including a good number of children. It was very multi-ethnic and multi-cultural, perhaps an indication of the strength of Catholicism in non-Western contexts, though there were also a good number of “typical Aussies” there (sorry for that; everyone there was likely an “Aussie.” I will have to find an expression that conveys accurately, those with an Australian heritage going back several generations!).

The evening seemed mostly led by laity, both men and women participating in readings, exhortations, and worship. A number of priests were present but their participation was quite limited apart from the formal aspects of the mass. It was clear that those present were very ordinary in terms of work, relationships, family, schooling, and financial responsibilities, dealing with the struggles and joys of life common to just about everyone. The youngest were infants, mum amongst those most elderly. There were not many teenagers, though I do know that a number of the young family groups became involved in the community when they were teenagers.

What set these otherwise quite ordinary people apart was their faith, their sheer devotion to Christ and to their Church. Also evident was a sense of genuine and at times quite exuberant joy, tempered but not constrained by the liturgical form the evening took. Also prominent is the love of the group which I have previously noted in the way the group cared for my mother after my father’s death, and the way in which they have long included her in their communal life, assisting that inclusion with very regular and practical support.

The Neocatechumenal Way emphasises liturgy, Scripture and community with a focus on Christian formation in the tradition of the catechumenate of the ancient church. Given that the Roman Catholic Church practises infant baptism, it is a largely a post-baptismal formation. They also emphasise worship and vibrant communal singing, for the evening was full of it. The worship style was a particular kind of folk music, based on guitar and percussion: not an electronic or electric instrument in sight. The simple rhythms made it easy for the kids to join in too, with each kid able to play a variety of percussion instruments during the night.

What I observed on Saturday evening-Sunday morning indicates the rich fruits of this formational activity, and suggests, to my mind, the crucial necessity of such formation in the increasingly hostile environment in which the church exists in the contemporary west. I could not help but be reminded of Stanley Hauerwas’s continual emphasis that the church must become of community of people capable of forming others in the practices that sustain a truly Christian existence and witness in a world torn and suffering and idolatrous.

A little anecdote captures something of the evening for me: during one section of the proceedings the children present were invited to pray (and many did), the community as a whole responding, “Lord, hear our prayer.” One little girl aged perhaps eight or nine, prayed for those present, for the babies who were baptised, and “for all those sick and suffering,” that they might be helped by God and by others. Already she was learning that to be a Christian is to pray, and to care, to be aware of the needs of others, and of the necessity of responding to their need.

So what did they do for over six hours? Stayed tuned!

Continued Tomorrow…

Scripture on Sunday – James 2:20

JamesJames 2:20
Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith without works is barren?

James continues the assault on the position of his interlocutor, this time pressing his point with a question. In verses 18-19 he countered the idea that faith and works can be separated, as though some people have faith, while others have works. The two cannot be separated: such “faith” is not faith at all, but simply knowledge about God rather than true reliance on God (see Moo, 107). This verse now serves as an introduction to a new phase in his argument: James will prove his point using Scripture, specifically, the examples of Abraham and Rahab (vv. 21-25).

“Do you want to be shown…?” (Theleis de gnōnai) is the first of three rhetorical questions in this section. James also will introduce the Abraham and Rahab examples with questions (vv. 21, 25). Gnosis typically means “to know” but here has the sense of “to be shown”. “You senseless (or foolish) fellow” (ō anthrōpe kene) is direct address in the second person singular. Again, even though it is possible that James’s hearers had been exposed to a distorted form of Paul’s teaching, it is better to understand this rhetoric as directed against an imaginary debating partner: such rhetoric was commonly practised in the ancient world. James is not using harsh words against an actual person, of the kind he will shortly reprove (3:9-10; 4:11; cf. Matthew 5:22; see McKnight, 243).

The adjective kene literally means “empty,” though it is used metaphorically in many places in the New Testament, including James 4:5. Here, James may be addressing his “empty-headed” opponent. Most commentators, however, suggest that the term refers not simply to intellectual but also to moral deficiency (e.g Moo, 107; Davids, 126; Vlachos, 95). This fits the context well: the person without works is not simply lacking understanding, but is out of step with the generous mercy and goodness of God.

The last phrase drives home James’s point with a play on words: “that faith without works is barren?” (hoti hē pistis kōris tōv ergōn argē estin). The word for “barren” or “useless” (argē) is negatively related to the word for “works” (ergōn). It means “no-work”—that is, a faith without works does not work! It is useless, barren, unfruitful and unproductive; it will not produce the salvation and blessing for which one hopes.


Garmen 1999In early November I clocked 1000km on the bike, and then decided to ride 100km per week. I have succeeded in the 100km per week every week except one, and that week I was unwell for several days.

It took more than six months to achieve the first 1000, but just over two months to reach 2000; well almost…On Saturday I thought the next 1000km would tick over – alas!