Kurt I. Johanson (ed.). The Word in this World: Two Sermons by Karl Barth, trans., Christopher Asprey (Vancouver: Regent, 2007), 66. $7.95
Reviewed by David B. Ward (December 5, 2007)
A delightfully compact and helpful book, The Word in this World provides a glance into the preaching life of Karl Barth through two newly translated sermons. The foreword by Eberhard Busch is as insightful as it is brief in outlining some of Barth's key thoughts on preaching. In Barthian preaching, the "text must always be the master" of the sermon and the sermon is successful only insofar as it remains faithful to the text (p. 8). An introduction by William H. Willimon, written in his striking style, points to Barth's primary homiletical contribution: a return to the subject of preaching. Preaching is about the God who is presented to us in Jesus Christ. Preaching is not about our own "attempt to humanize the divine...to make it a practical something" (p. 12).
Willimon helps us to see the beauty of the early Barth sermon – "The Titanic" – not as an example of how to preach, but rather as proof that we can and must at times change our entire perspective on preaching. It is a model of all that Barth came to "despise" and speak against in his Homiletik. Barth uses the text, in this first sermon, as a justification for making his eloquently opinionated remarks after a long, rambling introduction and only returns to the text as a means of providing a solution to the presented problem in a typical law-gospel pattern. Perhaps more importantly, a liberal view of God as subsumed in the historical process prevails, and socially constructed ideologies control the sermon more than an exegetically formed theology.
The "Bremen Sermon" resonates with the messages collected in Deliverance to the Captives. As in these more familiar sermons, the biblical text drops on the listener like Barth's Romans commentary dropped on the theological scene of early 20th century Europe. It is unsettlingly abrupt, shockingly un-introduced, and the text masters the sermon from beginning to end. Instead of the contemporary event enlightening the text (the Confessing Church's resistance to Nazism or Barth's impending deposition), the text points to God. This God in Jesus Christ is the subject and the interpreter of the dark times in which Barth was then living. Gone is the strongly anthropological focus and analysis of the first sermon. Gone is the great concern for a relevant word to fit the moment.
By presenting these two sermons side by side, this compact and accessible volume introduces the reader to key shifts in Barth's theology. Barth remained from beginning to end a preaching theologian, and it is fitting that he be introduced by his journey in the pulpit. Thus, this little book might well serve the new student of Barth's work. For the more experienced Barth reader, this book offers a crucial reminder by bringing to the forefront the developing Barth. It highlights the stark contrast between his earliest moments and his mature days. Most importantly, it shows us clearly the difference Barth's theology makes in the sphere that he intended it to be made—the pulpit.
The views expressed here are strictly those of the author; they do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Barth Studies or Princeton Theological Seminary.