Preachers Dare

William Willimon

Christian preachers dare to talk about God. Even on the presupposition of the mediation of revelation by holy scripture this venture would always be impossible without the third presupposition that God acknowledges it and will himself speak as we speak, just as he spoke to the prophets and apostles and still speaks through them…. It is pure doctrine if the word of the preacher gives free play to God’s own Word. (Karl Barth, The Göttingen Dogmatics: Instruction in the Christian Religion, vol. 1, ed. Hannelotte Reiffen, trans. Geoffrey Bromiley [Eerdmans, 1991], 265)

Moving from his forlorn, small-town parish in Switzerland to the rarefied world of academia as a professor at the University of Göttingen, Karl Barth began a series of lectures on Reformed theology. Barth surprised his students by opening his lectures with the assertion, “Preachers dare.” He then told them that the only good reason for studying dogmatic theology was preaching. “Pure doctrine,” to everyone’s surprise, is neither wooden, literalistic interpretations of Scripture, nor faithful adherence to church teaching. Doctrine is pure only to the degree that “the preacher gives free play to God’s own Word.” Theology exists to test the language of preaching, then to dare preachers to get out of the way so that God might use our sermons to speak to God’s people. The only good reasons for preaching are theological; the only means of communicating the Word of God to God’s people is God.

During one of his lectures. Barth told his students that they had better listen up, because when they got into the church and began to preach, they would need to be theologians in the worst sort of way.

Preachers dare.

Why does preaching require daring? It’s a daunting task to stand up and speak truth in a world that believes that “truth” is merely a commentary on your personal convictions. Who are you to tell me how to live? Is your need for self-presentation so irresistible that you must bother me with your take on “truth”?

Christian preaching is a daring activity not because public speaking tops the list of phobias. What causes preachers to fear is not the audience, but preaching’s peculiar content and means, Jesus Christ.

I have a three-point sermon on how and why—for even preachers as compromised and accommodated as we—preachers dare to speak about God who dared to come to us as Jesus Christ in a world that thinks it already knows God.

Preaching about Christ

Paul (ironically) bragged, “We preach not ourselves” (2 Cor 4:5). Paul must have preached a long time ago. Today, (judging from the size of their congregations) prominent preachers find that preaching themselves—trumpeting their self-diagnosed needs, preoccupations, and self-centered experiences—draws a larger crowd than talk of, to, and by Jesus.

A prominent homiletics professor concisely critiques everything that Barth would despise about contemporary American preaching:

Today we see far more self-disclosure in preaching. Previously, ministers thought they should never talk about themselves in the pulpit because that would only get in the way of God speaking. Today’s approach is much more incarnational: God speaks to us through our experience. The top-down mode has yielded to a more dialogical approach, an invitation to the congregation to explore the sermon’s themes together. Authority is based on the authenticity and vulnerability of the speaker. Instead of announcing, “This is the Word of the Lord!”, the preacher is willing to say, “This is how I see it—how do you see it?” (Lenora Tubbs Tisdale, “Women and the Pulpit: An Interview with Lenora Tubbs Tisdale,” Yale University Reflections [2019])

No guts are required for talk about what everybody else is already talking about, namely, our vaunted, overexposed subjectivity. In a relentlessly subjective, narcissistic culture, too much of our preaching has become the Oscar Wilde definition of conversation: “Come over here and sit next to me, I’m dying to tell you all about myself.”

A decade after his homiletics lectures in Göttingen (slyly disguised as lectures on dogmatics) Barth was stirring things up in Bonn. Bonn’s aged homiletics professor, like most of the faculty, had fallen willingly into the hands of the Nazis. Barth brashly announced that he would offer a series of lectures on preaching (his tour de force, Homiletics). In those lectures, Barth declared that we preachers ought recklessly to aim our artillery over the trenches of immediate human relevance and instead risk sermons controlled by the content and intent of the biblical text.

Rather than our merely human solutions based on our bogus sociological/psychological assessments of the “human condition,” Barth told the German church of the 1930s that preaching is about, “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture … the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death” (“The Barmen Declaration,” in Karl Barth: Theologian of Freedom, ed. Clifford Green [Fortress, 1991], 149). Therefore, we preachers must discipline ourselves to reject, “as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.”

“The Bible is so much more interesting than you are,” Barth said to preachers and their congregations. Angela Dienhart Hannock is right to call Barth’s Bonn lectures an “emergency homiletic” for the dark days of National Socialism (Karl Barth’s Emergency Homiletic, 1932-1933: A Summons to Prophetic Witness at the Dawn of the Third Reich [Eerdmans, 2013]). I wonder if in our own day, with our politics dominated by the first unapologetically pagan president and his toadies, it’s high time for us American preachers to risk the Barthian move of taking the Bible more seriously and ourselves less so.

A woman told me that last Sunday she dressed her two children and returned to church after a long absence, having gone through a hellish time in her life. The sermon laid upon them that Sunday stressed the importance of being a good friend. “I needed to come to church to hear that?” she complained. “Why don’t preachers stick to the only subject they’re supposed to know the most about?”

Preachers dare.

Preaching by Christ

Barth said that Christ is not only the content of faithful preaching, public speech about and addressed to Christ; Christ is preaching’s active agent. It’s not a sermon until Christ utilizes the sermon to walk among his people (Bonhoeffer). Christ elevates a sermon from an exchange of religious information to a miraculous, personal address by Christ. Says Barth, preaching rests upon the bold assertion Deus dixit, “God said.” By the grace of God, in even our poorly wrought sermons, God speaks. We are able to preach because, as Bonhoeffer said, there’s only one preacher—Christ.

The sermon is the most distinctive practice of the Christian faith because of the sort of God we’ve got. God is relentlessly self-revealing, doggedly determined to be in conversation. We speak in the light of the wonder that the Triune God not only speaks to us but also miraculously enables us to hear.

Taking the declaration of the Second Helvetic Confession seriously, Barth says without shame that the preached word is God’s word. Our preached words become God’s word by the eventful enabling of the Holy Spirit. Just as Christ was silenced neither by Caesar’s cross nor the bonds of death, Christ is determined to save his people by conversing with them. The Easter commission to the women at the tomb was not, “He is risen! Now you will see our loved ones when you die.” The angel commanded, “Go! Preach!” (Matt 28:7).

Barth opens his Church Dogmatics with the longest modern exposition of the Trinity in order to assert that before we do any speaking of God, God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—speaks and will yet speak. There are too many reasons having to do with God and with ourselves that render us unable to speak of God. Still, because of who God is and what God is up to, our words can become God’s word. Preaching is the impossible possibility. We, with all our communicative limitations, may truthfully to speak for God because God speaks.

In an age of widespread pessimism about God’s self-revelation (what has been called the “false humility” of contemporary theology) we preachers fearlessly speak under the conviction that God will have God’s say.

Preachers dare.

Barth believed that the great misunderstanding, especially in modern times, is the supposition that a personal encounter with God was somehow given in the structure of human nature itself. The preacher need only uncover that point of contact within the listener’s self and build a bridge from the biblical text to that innate point of contact in the listener. Barth’s denial of that point of contact was due, not only to his great pessimism about human nature, but rather to his great optimism about the self-revelatory capacity of the Trinity. Barth thought that preaching that thinks it has uncovered some human yearning for the Word was only deceiving itself, offering the world nothing more than a false god. As for the true God, the Word made flesh, the Word “completes its work in the world in spite of the world” (Witness to the Word: A Commentary on John 1, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed. Walther Fürst [Eerdmans, 1986], 66).

The great modern error was to suppose that divine revelation is problematic, not sufficiently given in Christ, and therefore revelation must be derived from the depths of human self-consciousness or human moral experience. Yet when our personal encounter with God was understood in these terms—the terms set by human nature—it was inevitable, Barth argued, that two things would and did eventually happen. First, Jesus Christ would cease to be understood unequivocally as the Lord; and second, we ourselves would consequently usurp the center that rightfully belongs to him. Rather than understanding ourselves from Christ, we would attempt to understand Christ from ourselves and thereby we would refuse to “give God glory” (Rom 1:21), devising some means of getting to God through our own glorious selves.

Preaching is not simply a human endeavor. It is a miracle. Preaching is in trouble today, not because it has difficulty finding the proper form or style, but because it has lost its Christological subject matter—Christ neither as a principle, nor as a system, but as the living person who speaks.

Barth tells us poor preachers that we can find continual rejuvenation, confident that despite our poor preaching and our people’s poor listening, the God will have the last word with God’s people.

Men with their various (but by nature unanimously hostile) attitudes towards the Word of God come and go. Their political and spiritual systems (all of which to some extent have an anti-Christian character) stand and fall. The Church itself (in which somewhere the crucifixion of Christ is always being repeated) is to-day faithful and to-morrow unfaithful, to-day strong and to-morrow weak. But although Scripture may be rejected by its enemies and disowned and betrayed by its friends, it does not cease … to present the message that God so loved the world that He gave his only-begotten Son. If its voice is drowned to-day, it becomes audible again to-morrow. If it is misunderstood and distorted here, it again bears witness to its true meaning there. If it seems to lose its position, hearers and form in this locality or period, it acquires them afresh elsewhere.… The maintaining of the Word of God against the attacks to which it is exposed cannot be our concern and therefore we do not need to worry about it…. We can be most seriously concerned about Christianity and Christians, about the future of the Church and theology, about the establishment in the world of the Christian outlook and Christian ethic. But there is nothing about whose solidity we need be less troubled than the testimonies of God in Holy Scripture. For a power which can annul these testimonies is quite unthinkable. (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, trans. G. W. Bromiley, G. T. Thomson, et al., 4 vols. in 13 parts [T&T Clark, 1936–77], 1.2: 680–81.)

How I cling to this passage as consolation in my own failures to preach well!

Under Barth’s tutelage, contemporary preaching has the opportunity to recover preaching as a theological endeavor. Preaching is of God. Preaching, in Barth’s view, is distinctive as a theological activity, not only in substance but also in means. In a day when preaching too often degenerates into moralistic advice (Methodism!), principles for better living (Joel Osteen and nearly everybody else on TV), political commentary (whether of the right or of the left), or helpful (but essentially superficial) hints for humanity, Barth recalls us to an idea of preaching as witness to the very voice of God.

Preaching Christ in Spite of Our Congregations

One more Barthian word to us contemporary preachers: Barth frequently underscores the way we preachers exist in a rather ambiguous, potentially contentious relationship to our congregations. The congregation is the Body of Christ, that gathering whom God has convened to hear the royal proclamation. However, the congregation responds with the same incomprehension, cowardice, disbelief, and rebellion that is found in any human gathering (and in the preacher’s own heart) when assaulted by the Word. As Barth might put it, the church and its preachers are just full of “religion” and therefore replete with idolatry and credulity, resistance and artful dodging of the Word. “Religion” enlists preaching as another vain human attempt to tame a resurrected Lord.

While some homiletical cowardice may be due to our fear of our people, more likely is that our people have loved us into silence, playing on our innate pastoral empathy. It’s easier for us pastors to be popular than to be truthful. Though the church may say that it wants to hear the Word of God, the church lies. Perhaps the church’s resistance to the Word is so pronounced because the church knows firsthand that (1) God’s word is always a summons, an address, a vocation and an obligation, and (2) God has daunting work in mind for the church. It’s a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a living, active God (Heb 10:31). A dead god, an idol, is never a threat to the status quo. That’s why church tends to be, even if unconsciously, not only training in discipleship but also in various techniques of idolatrous avoidance of the Word of God.

It’s not wrong to love our people; it’s wrong to love them other than in the name of Christ. Particularly in our age of lies, we’ve got to love them enough to tell them the truth. Because Jesus Christ is not only the way and the life but also the truth, preachers sometimes get the shakes in the pulpit.

Still, by the grace of God, preachers dare.

Posted Apr 15, 2020

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