Karl Barth’s, 1949 treatise on The Lord’s Prayer is like a series of exegetical notes placed together in readable format. The text takes the form of a conversational commentary. His thought is lit up by a consistent effort to place everything squarely at the feet of Jesus, ‘the Victor’; it is through and by Christ that we can pray with the certainty that our prayer is heard. Even within the sphere of human limitations we are given the grace and permission to pray. Barth’s main point is that because of this grace; this permission to pray, we therefore, must pray.
‘Faith is not something we carry about in our pockets as a rightful possession. God says to me, “Put your trust in me; believe in me.” And I go forward, I believe; but while going forward, I say, “Come to the help of my unbelief.” (p.10)
Barth infuses the topic of prayer, with prayer. Adding to this conversational tone Barth makes no clear mark for when the prose ends and the prayers begin. They overlap. Each prayer catches the reader by surprise; each prayer an important part of the treatise. (See pp. 34, 39, 42-43, 51, 56-58 & 63-64)
The infiltration is inadvertently deliberate. In ‘Prayer’ we encounter, Karl Barth the Pastor. He gives of himself in a pastoral capacity. Being weary and sometimes critical of showmanship, it’s not a common thing to find Barth putting prayer into academic writing in this way. It’s not common to find a theological text of Barth’s filled with such passionate appeals, which also function as pauses, intermingled with the text.
As much as they are for the Church to God, these prayers are personal. They represent a vulnerable Barth standing by real convictions. Though the early theological conclusions and post-war historical context show a work-in-progress, this picture of Barth’s hermeneutics illustrates both Pastor and Professor at his best.
‘Prayer must be an act of affection; it is more than a question of using the lips, for God asks the allegiance of our hearts.’ (p.19)
‘Prayer’ contains some of Barth’s most memorable stand alone statements. Lingering take away points abound.
- ‘A sad and gloomy church is not the church!’ (p.37)
- ‘May we pray that the Bible will not cease to hold our attention. May the Bible not begin to make us yawn, and thy word, in all its parts not become a boring matter in our minds and in our mouths; may it not become a bad sermon, a bad catechism, a bad theology.’ (p.34)
- ‘The Kingdom of God is the final victory over sin.’ (p.35)
- ‘We participate in His cause even as He participates in ours.’ (p.43)
- ‘The most certain element of our prayer is not our requests, but what comes from God: His response.’ (p.66)
- ‘Forgiveness is already given, and this is the reality by which we live… thou hast severed us from the past. In Jesus Christ thou hast made me a new creature.’ (pp. 56-57)
- ‘The pardon of God enables forgiveness…To know how to forgive is not a merit, a moral effort, or a sort of virtue…Let us not settle down to enjoy the offense done to us; let us not nurse our grudges with pleasure. Rather, let us retain some humor with respect to our offenders. Let us have toward others this small impulse of forgiveness, of freedom.’ (p.55)
- ‘Prayer must take the place of anxiety.’ (p.50)
- ‘We are confronted by an accomplishment which is infinitely beyond our possibilities’ (p.36)
- ‘God’s patience is a gift’ (p.51)
In ‘Prayer’, Barth notes, the consequence of grace is grounded in the revelation of Jesus the Christ. This is an intentional reversal of the consequence of sin. One provoked in humanity by an ‘evil that preoccupies us and causes us anxiety with it’s sly and insidious power.’ (pp.61-62).
This is the impact of God’s incarnation: Human freedom is made free by God’s love and acted out of God’s freedom for our benefit. It is by the consequence of grace – the uniqueness of Jesus Christ – that ‘the sinister wickedness of the enemy is unmasked’ (p.62). It is through Jesus Christ that we are unchained; that humanity becomes fully human; that we get to see again. Even for those who do not see it, ‘such a light already shines on them; grace has already embraced them’ (C.D IV:4, p.181). Because of Jesus Christ we pray; humanity is called to respond, called to become fully human through acknowledgement (faith) and participation (word, deed and attitude) with, for and in Him.
‘In Jesus Christ the human being is revealed. In him it becomes the creature par excellence, which cannot be, which cannot exist, or which cannot act alone…as soon as we have understood Jesus Christ, we have understood our humanity, our nature, our function, which are inseparable from God.’ (p.28)
Included in this exposition of The Lord’s Prayer is a discussion on the eschaton (kingdom come) and evil. It is both illuminating and vibrant. In a matter of a few pages Barth comes close to summarising his entire eschatology, theodicy and theology of evil. For him the substance of absolute evil is nothingness. It is that which God did not will or create. It is the ‘infinite menace…that is opposed to God himself and has imposed itself on creation’ (p.60).
Importantly, Barth makes a distinction between the ‘work of the Evil One and, moral and physical trials’ – the latter involves minor temptation, the former, supreme temptation;
‘one must distinguish between the two, for here it is not a matter of an ordinary threat which might be clearly perceived and resisted. It is the menace that, for the creature, carries with it not only a passing danger, a destruction of secondary importance, a momentary corruption, but total fall, ultimate extinction.’ (p.60)
Of importance is the conclusion this follows: ‘because there is no humankind without God, atheism is a ridiculous invention.’ (p.29) Atheism is not just a rejection of the God hypothesis; it is ultimately the negation of creaturely existence; the supreme temptation of self-annulment. In short, humanity by itself is nothing. But, in Christ, God affirms humanity. He has communicated Himself to the world. Given us hope; a cause and reason to pray.
‘God causes himself to be seen, because ‘the world cannot reveal God; it is God who knows how to speak of God. [and He has done so, freely and willingly]’ (quoting Blasé Pascal, pp.31-32)
Barth asserts that ‘in Jesus Christ the world has reached its end and its purpose.’ Expanding on his statement in Church Dogmatics II:I p.274, he writes:
‘…in Jesus Christ, God reveals that, while being perfectly free and self-sufficient, He does not wish to be alone. He does not wish to act, exist, live, labor, work, strive, vanquish, reign, and triumph without the human race. God does not wish, then, for his cause to be his alone; he wishes it to be ours as well…He permits us to pray, he commands us to pray…He invites us to participate in his work.’
‘Prayer’ provides a glimpse of Karl Barth’s personal faith. Unpacking the Jesus Prayer and with a relaxed tone, he delivers a prose on prayer that reads like a conversational commentary. The conversation between Professor and reader is underpinned by the prayers of a Pastor leading his Church to the feet of Jesus, who is now and will always be, Victor. It is because of this that we are enabled; given permission to pray; permission to load our ‘baggage’ (p.66) onto the God, who hears, chooses to hear and though He may seem silent for a time, is also willing to respond.
‘Jesus Christ has vanquished and He invites us now to participate in His victory […] Prayer is not an undertaking left to chance, a trip into the blue. It must end as it has begun, with conviction: Yes, may it be so!’ (pp.46 & 66)
Barth, K. 1949 Prayer, 50th Anniversary Edition Westminster John Knox Press