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The First Commandment as an Axiom of Christian Preaching

In March of 1933 Karl Barth delivered a lecture, “The First Commandment as Theological Axiom” (cited parenthetically hereafter). This lecture is fascinating for several of reasons. First, it is historically interesting. The lecture was delivered shortly after Hitler was elected and about three months before Barth wrote his essay Theological Existence Today, in which he rails against the idea of conforming the German church to Nazi state goals.[1] Second, it provides a snapshot of Barth’s polemic against natural theology and how he connected natural theology to what was happening politically. Third, the idea of the first commandment functioning as an axiom of theology is fascinating in its own right. In this essay, I want to briefly put forth aspects of Barth’s argument and then ask what it would mean for the first commandment to function as an axiom of Christian preaching.

An axiom, according to Barth, “is a statement which cannot be proven by other statements … [i]t proves itself. It is a statement which is sufficiently comprehensive and substantial to form the ultimate and decisive presupposition to the proof of all other statements of a particular scientific discipline” (p. 63). To say that theology is an axiom is to say that there is a presupposition upon which theology relies that needs no proof, nor can it be proven. Barth argues that this axiom is the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3). To say that the first commandment is the axiom of theology, one must recognize that the concept of an axiom is “given a content and a meaning which it can have only in theology” (p. 63). In other words, the first commandment functions as an axiom in an absolutely unique, sui generis, way. What does Barth mean by this?

Normally, an axiom functions as a timeless and self-evident principle. Think of the mathematical axiom a+b=b+a. It is self-evident in that it cannot be reasonably denied. No matter what numbers we assign to a and b, it is true. Furthermore, it is always true. The first commandment cannot function as an axiom in this kind of way; it is neither self-evident nor timeless. The first commandment is a written word, a personal address within time, and it is a commandment that demands obedience (pp. 64-66).

It is nothing like a mathematical axiom. In that the first commandment is a written word, it belongs to the book that gives the Church its existence. As a personal address within time, the first commandment establishes God’s relationship with his people, and this relationship is not a timeless relation between God and humanity, but a history that occurs in time. And given that the first commandment is a commandment, it demands obedience. In other words, as an axiom of theology the first commandment demands that the theology that follows must be faithful. It is easy to see how Barth’s use of the first commandment as an axiom of theology undermines the normal definition of the word axiom.

What does it mean for the first commandment as a written word, a personal address within time, and a commandment that demands obedience, to function as a strange axiom of theology? To begin, the first commandment assumes the existence of gods. What is a god? Utilizing Luther, Barth argues that a god is whatever people hang their hearts on, whatever they trust (p. 69). A god can be both the gods of pagan antiquity or money, possessions, art, wisdom, power, favor, friendship, or honor. In the sense that people take these things as gods by giving their hearts to them, by trusting in them, they are all too real. As an axiom of theology, the first commandment demands that theology turn from these gods to the one, true, living God. Theology is held responsible for its obedience to this commandment.

Second, as a personal address within time the first commandment is a matter of God’s self-revelation, and the content of this self-revelation, and the very meaning of the first commandment, is Jesus Christ. Therefore, theology is Christocentric.

Finally, that the first commandment is an axiom of theology means that revelation is absolutely, and uniquely, preeminent in the work of theology. Here is Barth’s polemic against liberal Protestant theology. Revelation is not to be made into a “concept” that relates to other criteria. Insofar as theology must speak about its relationship to other criteria (e.g., reason, experience, history, the state, morality, etc.) the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ must retain its primacy.

With these aspects of Barth’s argument in front of us, what would it mean for the first commandment to function as an axiom of Christian preaching? I will begin with an ad hoc definition of Christian preaching. Like the first commandment, Christian preaching is a personal address within time. Through Christian preaching, Jesus Christ is “publicly exhibited as crucified” (Gal. 3:1) to a particular audience in a particular time and place. This temporal address, by the grace and action of the Holy Spirit, is none other than God’s address to his people.

For the first commandment to function as an axiom of Christian preaching means that God demands the obedience of the preacher. The content of this temporal address is Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. I have already laid out some consequences of allowing the first commandment to function as an axiom of Christian preaching. This is impossible to avoid; the content of Christian preaching determines what Christian preaching is. But here are more consequences: for the first commandment to be an axiom of Christian preaching means that preaching is polemical, political, and trinitarian.

As Barth states, “Nothing is less obvious than the notion that even theology has no other gods before [the Lord]” (p. 71). The Christian preacher addresses those who give reality to the gods by hanging their hearts on them. Yes, Christian preaching in the Church is primarily directed toward those who have been baptized, those who have renounced the gods. But one does not rise from the baptismal font into glory. Instead, we are here, called to a life of repentance as our heart is torn between God and the gods. Therefore, Christian preaching is polemical, aiming its sights at the gods and proclaiming the one true God.

As a polemical act against the gods, Christian preaching is political. I imagine that this point will be the hardest for many people to stomach. Shouldn’t Christian preaching stay out of politics? Shouldn’t Christian preaching refrain from laying a stumbling block in someone’s way in the form of politics? If what is meant by politics is the deeply partisan politics of the United States, then yes, one should refrain. But by “politics” I have something else in mind. Namely, we must recognize that the political ideology we all adhere to, liberalism, attempts to answer theological questions in contradiction to Christian theology, which is not to say that Christian theology and preaching should undermine liberalism. As a political ideology, liberalism is commendable because it sees the individual as having inherent dignity. Christian preaching must say more than that (but not less).

As Francis Fukuyama notes, liberalism is agnostic on humanity’s final end; Christian preaching cannot be.

Liberalism envisions the human person as an autonomous rights-bearing individual who has the freedom to determine their final end. While it is good for a political order to eschew coercion and uphold this right to self-determination, Christian theology and preaching must boldly state that our final end is not indeterminate or a matter of individual self-selection.

In preaching Christ crucified and risen, Christian preaching proclaims that to become truly human, we ought to renounce our rights for the sake of our neighbor and that to be truly free we must submit ourselves to our God-given final end; that we will behold Jesus face to face. For too long, Christian preaching has allowed people to equate a Christian view of the human person with a vague notion of liberalism’s view of the human person. The consequences have been detrimental to Christian faith.

Finally, as a polemical and political act, Christian preaching is trinitarian. In renouncing the gods and challenging our inherent political assumptions, we must know what God we are turning to. To put it simply, to the question which “God do you worship?” the Christian must answer: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I am not saying that we must preach trinitarian dogma, but that trinitarian dogma must be inherent in all our preaching. To say that the content of Christian preaching is Christ crucified and risen is to say that what we are preaching is the unmerited love of the Father who sends his Son on our behalf, and that the Spirit of the Father and the Son consummates God’s work, indwelling our hearts and pouring into us the love of God.

During seminary I would often hear the joke that come Trinity Sunday the rector would have the curate preach because of the enormous difficulty of preaching about the Trinity. To the extent that this is just a joke, so be it. To the extent that there is truth to the joke, that an Episcopal priest cannot enter the pulpit and have something meaningful to say about the Trinity and the Christian life, it is our condemnation. Christian preaching must be trinitarian. If it is not, who knows what god we are talking about?

[1] Christiane Tietz, Karl Barth: A Life in Conflict, 211.


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