By Jordan Hillebert
In a justly renowned 1916 address at a village church in Leutwil, Switzerland, Karl Barth (then pastor in the neighboring town of Safenwil) asks, “What is there within the Bible? What sort of house is it to which the Bible is the door? What sort of country is spread before our eyes when we throw the Bible open?” (Karl Barth, “The Strange New World within the Bible,” The Word of God and the Word of Man [Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1957], p. 28)
A few possible answers spring quickly to mind: In one sense we discover history — a vast collage of religious history, literary history, cultural history, and human history of every sort. But the business of history is to seek after the natural causes of events, to probe after the mores and machinations that led a person to act in a particular way or that allowed a crisis to unfold. In this respect, declares Barth, “the Bible meets the lover of history with silences quite unparalleled” (p. 36). The Bible witnesses, not to the natural/human causes of individual decisions and world events, but rather to a divine cause, to a God beyond history who nevertheless speaks and acts within history.
Perhaps then it is morality that we discover in the Bible, a collection of ethical teachings and moral exemplars. We certainly encounter women and men of considerable virtue in the pages of Scripture, though it must be said that we are just as likely to stumble across egregious acts of violence, arrogance, cowardice, and utter foolishness in some of the Bible’s greatest heroes. Moreover, in the world of Scripture, it is often the women and men of ill repute (the swindlers, the prostitutes, the wasteful and ungrateful son) who find a place at God’s banquet, while the “impeccably elegant and righteous folk of good society” find themselves perpetually at odds with the movement of God’s kingdom. No, Barth declares, in the end the Bible’s chief consideration “is not the doings of man but the doings of God — not the various ways in which we may take if we are men of good will, but the power out of which good will must first be created” (pp. 39-40).
What about religion? Is not the Bible’s chief concern what we should think about God and how we should conduct ourselves in his presence (the conjoined laws of belief and worship)? Again, Barth turns this familiar answer on its head:
It is not the right human thoughts about God which form the content of the Bible, but the right divine thoughts about men. The Bible tells us not how we should talk with God but what he says to us; not how we find the way to him, but how he has sought and found the way to us. (p. 43)
Ever the dialectician, Barth’s account of the Bible’s content is brimming with hyperbole and often overstated dichotomies. One might (rightly I think) insist upon a both/and while Barth is prone to emphasizing an either/or. Nevertheless, one can scarcely shake the feeling that Barth has stumbled upon the key for unlocking the whole, the answer hidden in plain sight, the ideal vantage from which to survey the Bible’s strange terrain. What is there within the Bible? Barth answers:
a new world, God, God’s sovereignty, God’s glory, God’s incomprehensible love. Not the history of man but the history of God! Not the virtues of men but the virtues of him who hath called us out of darkness into his marvellous light! Not human standpoints but the standpoint of God! (p. 45)
If Barth is correct, if what we discover in Scripture is primarily a God who lives, and acts, and speaks — one who creates, and liberates, and redeems — to what extent does Christian preaching bear witness to this mysterious other? How often do we explore this strange new world from the pulpit? To put the question more bluntly: How much does our preaching actually evoke a God who says or does anything?
To be sure, there are a number of pressures conspiring against the confident articulation of this strange new world, a conglomerate of cultural and ecclesial trends that push in the direction of a woefully anaemic account of divine agency.
For starters, as citizens of a secular age, we inhabit what the philosopher Charles Taylor describes as an “immanent frame,” a disenchanted universe in which meaning is immanently construed and/or constructed, and the self is securely “buffered” against all spiritual/supernatural forces (A Secular Age [Harvard University Press, 2007], pp. 539-93). The strange new world of the Bible is surely unbelievable (if not wholly unintelligible) within the confines of such a purely natural frame.
Thus, out of a sense of discomfort or outright disbelief in the strangeness of the biblical witness, preachers all too often restrict their attention to the immanent and the immediate. The Bible is treated as an all too human artifact from which we might glean some helpful (among some not so helpful) examples about how people in the past understood themselves in relation to God. God in turn is reduced to a feeling (childlike wonder, gratitude, inner peace), or a principle (love, justice, compassion), or a call to action. The sermon becomes an occasion for motivational vignettes and social commentary, rather than a place of encounter with the living God.
Without downplaying the seriousness of the incongruity between the world within the Bible and the closed universe of secular modernity, this pressure need not result in the kinds of paralysis that we so often encounter from the pulpit with respect to God’s involvement in history. The rise in spiritualism and popular forms of mysticism, for instance, surely attest to the persistent allure of transcendence, even in our secular age.
The disenchantment of secular modernity can also serve as a helpful tonic for demythologizing some of the more mythological accounts of divine agency. The creator is not a creature. God is not simply a being (however exalted) among other beings jockeying for space within the universe. There is what theologians often refer to as a “non-competitive relation” between God and his creatures: God acts in and through his creation without thereby suspending the activity of his creatures. Thus we read in the Exodus narrative that the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is at once self-inflicted and a work of God (cf. Exod. 7:3; 8:15, 32). St. Paul likewise instructs his readers, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13). God works through the works of his creation. The task of Christian preaching is in part to inculcate the kind of seeing that learns to recognize the workings of God even in the mundane.
Neither of these responses to the challenge of a secular age comes close to resolving the tension between a disenchanted universe and the drama of God’s creative and redemptive work. The strange new world within the Bible is, after all, a strange new world. The aim of Christian preaching, however, is not to remove the scandal but rather to provide an occasion for that scandal to do its work. As St. Paul reminds us, the message of the cross — the supreme manifestation of God’s loving engagement with his creation — is “foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). The proclamation of the “foolishness of God” (1:25), particularly within the context of the Church’s liturgical and sacramental ministry, is a means of re-enchanting the world, of making the world transparent to the grace and judgment of God.
Coupled with the pressures applied to preaching by a secular age is a general impatience among many preachers to get to the practical application of the biblical text. This is in some respects a direct offshoot of the “immanentism” mentioned above. Without some sort of appeal to transcendence, the practical demands of the “here and now” become the primary/exclusive homiletical concern.
Even for those preachers happily inhabiting a more enchanted universe, it is tempting to understand the primary purpose of preaching as engendering certain behaviors and dispositions in one’s congregants. The sermon is primarily geared toward encouraging private devotional practices, or eliminating particular vices, or inspiring a commitment to social activism. This kind of preaching can all too easily lend itself to either an anxious legalism or a deistic self-reliance. God is either a hard-won reward for moral compliance or an absentee creator leaving his creatures to sort out their own affairs. Either way, the activity of God is grossly subordinated to the activity of human beings.
Calls to action and personal transformation are certainly vital components of all Christian proclamation. As St. Augustine insists, the aim of Christian preaching is to speak of things that are just, and holy, and good in such a way as to “instruct, delight, and move” (On Christian Teaching IV). The Christian faith is a call to discipleship, to conformity to the likeness of Christ, and thus to active participation in his ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:11-21). But sprinting directly to application means circumventing the very grounds for Christian action.
For the Christian, who we are and what we do flow out of who God is, and what God has done, is doing, and has promised. Christian faithfulness is a response to the faithfulness of God, a movement set in motion and sustained by the movement of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We address God in prayer because God has addressed us in his Word. We forgive others because God in his mercy has forgiven us. We sacrifice ourselves for the good of another because “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). In order to navigate our world aright we must therefore learn to attend closely to the strange new world of God.
In a second instalment, I will argue for the critical appropriation a particular tradition of scriptural reading and reasoning that might assist us in our proclamation of this strange new world, a way of locating both ourselves and the biblical witness in relation to the fulfilment of God’s reconciling work in Jesus Christ.