Karl Barth's Emergency Homiletic 1932-1933 -- A Review

KARL BARTH'S EMERGENCY HOMILETIC, 1932-1933: A Summons to Prophetic Witness at the Dawn of the Third Reich.  By Angela Dienhart Hancock. Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, Co., 2013.  Xvi +356 pages.

               Karl Barth was clearly one of the most important figures of twentieth century Christianity.  Creative and provocative, his writings impacted a wide spectrum of Christian theologians.  His commentary on Romans was received, it was said, as if a “bombshell [falling] into the playground of the theologians.”  His God centered theology stood as a rebuke to the anthropocentric theology of the liberalism of his day.  Contextually, his theology stood as a warning against the dangers of merging Christian theology with nationalist aims.  The Romans commentary emerged out of his rejection of a German liberal theology that allowed his own teachers to embrace the Kaiser’s war aims as divinely inspired.  His need to respond to the merging of nationalism with the gospel didn’t end with World War I.  It continued on throughout his career, but became most manifest in the 1930s as he took a stand against the National Socialist attempt to subsume the Christian faith under its totalitarian vision, making the church a tool for creating the Third Reich.   

                The years 1932-1933 are central to the story of the rise and fall of the Third Reich.   As the German people sought to create a new identity after the humiliation of World War I.  Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist Democratic Party appealed to the sensibilities of many in the country who sought to return to a position of power and honor, and they were willing to let this occur through a totalitarian state.  Central to this was Hitler’s preaching the gospel of the F├╝hrerprinzip (leadership principle), the idea that certain people are gifted for leadership and thus demand absolute obedience.  Hitler used this principle to undergird his own leadership of the nation, but German Christians embraced it as foundational for the church as well.  Thus, they pursued a unification of the church under a Reichbishop, who would govern the church much as Hitler governed the state.  Of course the Reichbishop reported to Hitler.  The church was expected to preach a gospel that enhanced the power of the state.  This vision found a ready reception in many parts of the church, including among some of its leading theologians such as Paul Althaus and Emmanuel Hirsch.   Standing against this tide was a small coterie of theologians that included Karl Barth, who had gained German citizenship when he took a teaching position at Gottingen in the early1920s.  It is important to note as well that he was active in the Social Democratic Party that played a leading role in the flailing Wiemar government.  Needless to say his politics stood far from that of the nationalists, whether Nazi or not.  But it wasn’t just his politics that were at stake – it was the faith he embraced as well.  Fearing that Germany’s future pastors were being drawn into a foreign understanding of the Christian faith, one that merged Christianity with an unChristian German nationalist ideology, Barth decided he needed to instruct his students in preaching.

                Barth took up the task of teaching homiletics to a group of students at the University of Bonn in the winter of 1932.  The outcome of these two semesters of instruction have been published in several formats, most recently published in English as Homiletics (WJK, 1991), with an introduction by David Buttrick.   Homiletics wasn’t part of Barth’s duties at Bonn, but feeling the need to prepare his students for what was to come, he wrote to the professor of practical theology, informing him of his decision.  Thus began an important period of Barth’s teaching career.   To understand the importance of what he was teaching, one needs to understand his context.  Germany was experiencing a period of near chaos.  The government was collapsing.  Nationalist elements including the Nazis were on the rise.  Barth could see that the church was in danger from this turmoil, and he felt the need to stand against it by addressing the issue theologically.  As he was teaching his students Hitler was appointed chancellor and then instituted in a matter of months the first stages of his totalitarian vision on both the state and the church.  I’ve not yet read the English translation of Homiletics,  but I was intrigued by the title of this book and  thus requested a review copy from Eerdmans.  In the course of my reading I came to an even better understanding of this crucial period in German history as well as Barth’s theological views.  

                The book is rooted in Angela Dienhart Hancock’s dissertation at Princeton.  Hancock, who is currently assistant professor of homiletics and worship at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, notes that when she began her program in practical theology, she learned that “Barth’s theology was often identified as something responsible practical theologians must overcome if they want to engage real people and real issues.”  She came to discover that this “Neo-Orthodox Barth” that was being discussed didn’t fit with what she found as she delved into Barth’s actual work (p. ix).  We are the beneficiaries of her rehabilitation of Barth from his “neo-orthodox” prison cell. 

                Because Barth believes that divine revelation depends on God’s initiative and not human initiative – a theology from above rather than a theology from below – it is often dismissed as antiquated and irrelevant – too abstract and heavenly minded to be of earthly good.  And yet Barth had good reason to be suspicious of liberal attempts to make Christianity relevant to the modern world.  The embrace of cultural Christianity that looked as much to national identity for revelation as it did from scripture posed significant dangers to the church and to the gospel.  His emphasis on divine revelation and the need to look for it in Scripture led some to believe him to be a biblical literalist, but this would be a mistake.  He wasn’t a conservative evangelical.   He embraced historical criticism as a tool, but he rejected forms of natural theology that could corrupt the gospel.   Revelation came most explicitly in the person of Jesus Christ, and in the witness given to him by Holy Scripture.  Proclamation of the Gospel, therefore begins with this witness to God’s revelation.    

                Our misreading of Barth and his theology, both theoretical and practical, comes largely from our failure to take into consideration his context.  In this book, Hancock makes every effort to set the record straight by placing him and his teaching on preaching in context.  The title of the book signals that Barth didn’t assume that he was offering a universal homiletic.  He was offering instruction to preachers who faced a critical moment of danger to the gospel.  Therefore, a significant portion of the book is devoted to setting the context.   We learn about German theological, political, and cultural dynamics.  We’re introduced to German homiletical theory popular in that era, including the influence of persons like Schleiermacher.  And then in two lengthy chapters, we are taken session by session through his preaching classes.  As we move through these sessions, Hancock informs us of the political, culture, and religious context.  We see what Barth is wrestling with.  He doesn’t stay silent as David Buttrick seems to allege in his introduction to the most recent translation of Homiletics.  Instead, we finds Barth seeking ways of influencing those who are engaged in resisting Hitler and the nationalist effort to subsume the church under the program of “German renewal.”  As I read this, I couldn’t help but wonder if the American churches are any different in their willingness to let national aims determine the gospel.  We might not have a Hitler or a cultural understanding akin to that of the Nazi’s, but we too ask God to bless our nation and its aims.  Pledging allegiance to God and to nation are often merged together as we sing God Bless America in church and ball park.  So, maybe Barth’s focus on developing a theological response to his day is warranted for our day as well. 

                The first semester (November 1932 through February 1933) consisted of fourteen sessions, with an enrollment over one hundred.  The second semester, running ten sessions from May through July 1933, had an enrollment larger than the first semester.  Among his students were those who would have stood with him on politics, but also present were conservative nationalists and German Christians who would subsume the gospel under German identity.  It was during this summer semester that the various regional Protestant churches, both Lutheran and Reformed merged into a national Protestant church, to be led by a Reich Bishop – ultimately the Nazi-affiliated Ludwig Muller.   And while in universities across the nation young nationalists and Nazi’s had disrupted classes, they attended with due attention to Barth, allowing him to share his message, one that would have challenged the beliefs of many in the classes. 

                In this context he believed that the church, if it was to remain true, needed to find its source of help in theology – a theology that was rooted in God’s revelation present in Jesus and witnessed to by Scripture.  Although Barth was not a teacher of practical theology – he made a request to the professor of practical theology at Bonn, the nationalist Emil Pfennigsdorf, to teach the class, noting that his students had been asking that he do so, so as to make a connection between his theology and Christian practice.  In session one Barth offered his central point – theology is done in service to proclamation of the gospel.   Theology is not simply an academic exercise.  It has powerful theological implications.  Amazingly Barth was able to bring this word to the attention of a large number of students, including those whose politics was far from his own.  He might not have succeeded immediately, but many of those who embraced his message would provide leadership for the Confessing Church that emerged over the next several years as Hitler’s grip over the national church strengthened.  His voice wasn’t a quietist one, but a subversive one that looked to God’s initiative to reveal Godself in Jesus, as witnessed to in Scripture.  Yes, the word that Barth offers us, in the words of Angela Dienhart Hancock is:  “Preach from the Bible, that is where God’s witnesses speak.  Not anywhere else.”  (p. 321).  As one who seeks to root my own theology and preaching in Scripture, and yet recognizes the need to listen for the voice of experience, I take this message as a call to keep in mind the primacy of God’s revelation that speaks to us over the centuries through this book we call Holy Scripture.  I don’t know how Barth would feel about current discussions about discerning the wisdom of our experience, but I do know that he would want us to continually return to Scripture, even if we must argue with it, as we discern God’s word for today.

                This is a most useful and important book.  It is a clarion call to rethink the way we who preach do business.  It is a reminder that the gospel sets the tone.  It is a reminder as well of the dangers posed by letting culture and national interests determine how and what is preached.  As I finished reading the book, and examined Hancock’s reflections on the course of transmission of this preaching text, I feel the need to read Barth’s Homiletics, but also recognize with her that a new text, one that is cognizant of context, needs to be produced.  My hope is that having set the context, she will produce that new translation so that we might benefit from it.       


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