Preaching the Incomprehensible Word

Barth’s discourse on the Word of God takes its final turn when he moves to preaching as the Word of God.

He has already spoken of Christ as Word of God, and also the Bible. The question he wrestles with now is how it is that human speech about God, not the speech of the apostles and prophets but the speech of any preacher, might be the word of God.

Barth puts forward to central ideas. First, the challenge for us to speak the word of God comes from the fact of our humanity and the otherness of God as the subject about whom we would speak.

Barth Must Speak

When I was in seminary much ado was made about the “Creator-creature distinction.” The point: God is simply other. God “lives” in a way that our “living” only dimly approximates. God “is” in a way that cannot be defined or limited by “being” as we know it.

How can such a God speak within this sphere?

That’s the question of the word of God in Christian preaching–how the God who is other becomes present and revealed in human speech. This is a problem, not of human sinfulness, but of humanness as such. God is what we are not. God exists where and how we do not.

So how can we speak of God? How do we even know it’s possible?

This is a real question that haunts our modern day theological and ethical debates as much as it occupies the minds of theologians.

Ever been fighting about something (in a good way, of course) and hear (or say), “How can you even know what God thinks about that?” There’s a denial of the very possibility of revelation–that we could know what God thinks, that God could speak to us, that we could ever speak for him.

But Barth says no. This is false humility.

The Christian confession is that Jesus Christ is the very word of God. God has spoken. In time. In human space.

And the church is, at the heart of its calling, in Christ.

So the church must neither think that it can speak God’s word on its own (no, it is human and God is God), there is no room for arrogance; nor that it must wait for some special work of the Spirit (no, it has received its vocation).

Because the church is in Christ, the Christ who has come and spoken as none other than the word of God itself, it must also faithfully speak the word of God, and hear the word preached as the word of God.

Barth once again places the Christ event at the center. The coming of Jesus shows us the possibility by which we know everything else that is possible. Because God has spoken, in Christ and the Bible, we must speak as well.

3 thoughts on “Preaching the Incomprehensible Word”

  1. P. 754 in small prints Latin, citing Luther: Dominus ubi tantem laudem…..Translation (Footnote En10): When the Lord ascribes such great praise to outward teaching, he does not separate it from the secret power of His Holy Spirit. For when God chooses men for Himself as ministers, whose works he uses for the edification of His Church, He is at the same time working through them by the secret power of His Spirit, so that their labour might be effective and fruitful. Whenever Scripture commends that efficacy in the ministries of men, let us learn to ascribe what has been received to the grace of the Spirit, without which the voice of man would be useless, and float out into the air…

    1. Furthermore, from Barth’s Evangelical Theology: an Introduction, chapter 5
      It is clear that evangelical theology itself can only be pneumatic, spiritual theology. Only in the realm of the power of the Spirit can theology be realized as a humble, free, critical, and happy science of the God of the Gospel. Only in the courageous confidence that the Spirit is the truth does theology simultaneously pose and answer the question about truth. How does theology become the human logic of the divine Logos? The answer is that it does not become this at all ; rather, theology may find that the Spirit draws near and comes over it, and that theology may then, without resisting, but also without assuming dominion over the Spirit, simply rejoice and obey its power. Unspiritual theology, whether it works its woe in the pulpit or from the rostrum, on the printed page or in “discussions” among old or young theologians, would be one of the most terrible of all terrible occurrences on this earthly vale.

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