Preaching In Hitler’s Shadow: Enter Karl Barth

September 14, 2014 — 3 Comments
Karl Barth

Karl Barth

There are a vast number of books that discuss Karl Barth’s theology.

So far some of the best include Gorringe, Busch, Hunsinger, Bloesch and Webster.

Outside selected writings, which were core readings while I was at college, I’m yet to completely engage with William Willimon, Sung Wook Chung  or explore works from W. Travis McMaken and Hans Urs Von Balthasar.

Given the amount of lecturer-directed reading we did of Barth and the student-directed discussions about his theology over those years, my focus since then (as some of you will know) has been on working through his Dogmatics; consulting ‘companion texts’ or sending off an email to mates for their perspective when I’ve found it necessary to do so.

Places to start actually reading Barth are Evangelical Theology: An Introduction’ and ‘Dogmatics in Outline’. These are almost always readily available and inexpensive.

As far as good, short accessible introductions to Karl Barth’s historical context and theology go, I reckon Dean Stroud’s (2013)[i] outline in ‘Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow’  is a serious contender:

‘In 1930 Karl Barth began teaching at the University in Bonn, and not long after that he was calling Christians to radical opposition to the “Thüringen {Nazi-conformist} German Christian movement.’’ (circa 1920’s-1938[ii])
But even before his arrival at Bonn, Barth’s commentary on Romans had caused a stir.
The first edition had appeared in 1919, which was followed by expanded editions from 1921 through to 1932. In his reading of Romans, Barth challenged readers to hear the epistle as God’s word directly addressing the present moment.
No longer was the letter a relic of the past whose message was more historically interesting than contemporarily relevant.
Heinz Zahrnt, whose history of Protestant theology in the 20th Century contains a lengthy discussion of Barth’s commentary, calling it ‘’a great explosion,’’ (bomb theology) in that Barth ‘’proceeds with the single assumption about the text ‘that God is God.’
For Barth, secular history was not an “idealized pantheistic” course of grand events so much as a record of “naturalistic” and “materialistic” forces.
In short, human history was nothing to brag about and certainly it was no hymn of praise to human achievement and progress, given recent events such as World War One.
As Zahrnt expressed it, Barth “turned 19th Century theology on its head” and then went “not from the bottom up but from the top down”. I.e.: we do not reach God by starting with humanity or human achievements and victories, but rather, God reaches out to us in revelation…
For Barth “God is the subject and predicate of his theology all in one”.
Barth and neo-orthodoxy sounded radical to those trained to view Scripture as a curious example of ancient history, not the sacred word of God.
According to Barth’s interpretation, no longer is the reader in charge of the biblical text but the text judges the reader.
And so when the “German Christians” insisted on inserting Hitler and racial hatred into the Scriptures or removing Paul and robbing Jesus of his Jewish identity, Barth was ready to object with a vigorous regard for biblical authority.
19th Century liberal theology had weakened biblical foundations, and “German Christians” has simply taken advantage of this human-centred interpretation.
Barth’s neo-orthodox interpretation of Romans repeatedly hammers away against idolatry of self-worship in human form, nation, or leader…
The gulf between humans and God is too wide for the human eye; only God in his revelation and his word may cross that divide. Hence every human effort to identify a leader, a nation, a fatherland, or a race with the divine always results in the worship of the “No-God.”
Barth urged future preachers in Germany to take the biblical text seriously, to submit themselves to it, and not the other way around.
By focusing on the text through exegesis, pastors would hold up and alternative rhetoric to the culture. From his lectures it is clear that for preachers in the Barthian tradition, the biblical text reigns supreme.
Without the preacher intending to be controversial or political, the Holy Spirit may make him so in the faithful hearing and proclaiming of Scripture. Barth issued a call to arms against the German Christian movement and argued against any marriage of Christianity with Nazism.
He warned that “what under no circumstances is allowed to happen is this, that we in zeal for a new thing we consider good, lose our theological existence.
God is nowhere present for us, nowhere present in the world, nowhere present in our realm and in our time as in his word; that this word of his has no other name and content than Jesus Christ and that Jesus Christ for us is nowhere in the world to be found as new every day except in the Old and New Testaments. About this we in the church are unified or we are not in the church”
Theological existence today, for Barth, was being bound to God’s Word and to Jesus Christ alone and to no other name or race of land.’[iii]

On the whole I’m uncomfortable with labels outside just being called a Christian, so the term Barthian is not something I’m quick to apply to myself or others with any deliberate zeal.

I am, however, convinced that what The Word of God might say to the Christian through a Barthian lens has the potential to transform lives, beginning with their theology.

Sources:

[i] Stroud, D. 2013 (editor), Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow: Sermons of resistance in the Third Reich, Wm.B Eerdmans Publishing Company

[ii] Ibid, p.23

[iii] Ibid, pp.31-33

Image: Storied Theology – On Loving Freedom

3 responses to Preaching In Hitler’s Shadow: Enter Karl Barth

  1. 

    That’s a really good summary from Stroud. He captures all of the important points accurately and very succinctly — especially the points related to pantheism (or panentheism), which I am increasingly seeing as the summation of all that is wrong with German liberalism (and, by extension, all experience-based theologies today, whether fundamentalist or feminist). If you read 19th century Romanticism in poetry/literature and Protestant theology, you can easily see the overwhelming attraction to pantheistic anti-metaphysics, which continues today.

    And, yes, labels are to be worn lightly. But I think there is a benefit — a humility, in particular — that comes with aligning oneself with a group that is broken and frequently stupid. I could fancy myself as “above” the fray of evangelicalism, for example, but I would be wrong…and conceited.

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    • 

      As an example: I haven’t noticed an overt pantheism in Samuel Taylor Coleridge, or Henry Longfellow – although I wouldn’t be overly surprised to find it there if I looked hard enough. (At the moment, they’re pretty much it for me as far as 19th Century poetry goes).

      I’ve only briefly scraped the surface of Pantheism in my engagement with Darwinian theory, the supposed power in natural selection and how some tried to reconcile that theologically – such as the Anglican churches ‘God created things to create themselves’ (which without restraint – or total rejection? – can lead to the deification of nature).

      I have encountered this with Social Darwinism and how its proponents rejected teleology in the evolutionary thought of the day (primarily in Germany). Which is what, as I understand it, lead to the greater influence of natural theology; some theologians felt they had to appeal to it in order to find ”relevance”.

      I agree with your comment on labels – there is a difference between wearing a badge and applying a label. When it comes down to using a label in order to be better understood, there is definitely ‘benefit in alignment’.

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  2. 

    I was thinking more mid-to-late 19th century, based upon my impressions of a couple anthologies of Victorian poetry that I have. But there is stuff like this in Coleridge (and definitely in Wordsworth):

    The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
    Of that eternal language, which thy God
    Utters, who from eternity doth teach
    Himself in all, and all things in himself.
    Great universal Teacher! he shall mould
    Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.

    (from “Frost at Midnight”)

    This is not necessarily incompatible with Christian orthodoxy, but it seems to me that, in later Romanticism at least, this becomes the faith of modern men and women who find refuge here, against both the sterility of scientism and dead orthodoxy. I do enjoy a lot of this poetry, even wary as I am at times.

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