The Perils of Patriotic Preaching

What does a theologian teach to young preachers at the dawn of the Third Reich? Such was the dilemma of Karl Barth, a Swiss-born theologian, noted professor and outspoken critic of Adolf Hitler.

Barth launched a resistance movement amidst the German firestorm of 1932-1933 with a series of “open” lectures—not on the subject of political theory or military conquest, but on preaching.[1] Angela Hancock recounts the theological and political framework of those lectures in her book Karl Barth’s Emergency Homiletic. Over 100 young people regularly “packed the house” to hear this older professor speak on the subject of preaching. Barth was well-versed in social critique and certainly could have addressed the political turmoil of the day. But it was preaching that drew his interest, for he believed preaching was the only thing that could save the country.

The backdrop to these “emergency lectures” was Hitler’s cunning, systematic overhaul of Germany. The nation was reeling in the aftermath of the Treaty of Versailles, and many of the Volk had their hopes set on a Fuhrer who would lead them back to political and societal salvation. Unbridled patriotism fueled the ambition that enabled so many, including many in the clergy, to turn a blind eye to the horrors of the Nazi regime.

The church and, more specifically, the pulpit, is where Karl Barth took his stand.

In one particular lecture, Barth dealt with the relationship between the preacher and the Bible. He concluded by reminding his students of “three fatal possibilities” that preachers must avoid, especially when compared to the “political theology” of his day. Preachers of modern pulpits would do well to heed the same warnings.

First, the preacher who attends to Scripture cannot be a “cleric.”

Barth proffered a posture of humility on the part of the preacher. A preacher should not be conceited about his office, mission or theology. He should recognize that his ultimate authority is rooted in the Word of God, not in the office conferred to him by the church. Barth declared, “Where Holy Scripture reigns, no clericalism can develop, and no preacher can be secure or self-satisfied.”[2] One needs to look no further than the German church of the 1930s to see what happens when this advice is not observed.

Hitler, with the help of Bishop Ludwig Muller, branded an entirely new denomination of “German Christians” practicing what they called “Positive Christianity.” A patriotic fervor mixed with fear of the totalitarian state fueled many clergymen to throw out the “Jewish” Old Testament, redefine Jesus as “the greatest Aryan hero” and proclaim the cross as a symbol of war against the Jews. The church was no longer a bastion of orthodox Christianity. It was now a cesspool of Nietzschean social Darwinism.[3] The power vested in the priestly office by the state superseded the power of the Bible in the congregation.

Second, the preacher who takes the Bible seriously should not preach his own “great thoughts.”

Barth cautioned against preachers as “well-meaning idealists, who push big ideas around in their heads but have no grasp of reality.”[4] One possible explanation for why the church allowed itself to be manipulated by the state is that it had already, for quite some time, traded biblical authority for a higher critical method that undermined the Bible.

Rationalist Enlightenment preaching had set its hooks deep into the heart of the German pulpit, yielding topical sermons that blurred the lines between matters of faith and matters of political propaganda. Many Protestant preachers saw their primary work as comforting the political fears of citizens while simultaneously urging them to sacrifice their all for the nation.[5] Barth, however, counseled his students to do theology “as if nothing happened,” centering their preaching in the Bible and not in the national Politik.

Third, the preacher should not be boring.

The decades-long push for topical, war-time sermons in Germany had a practical dimension. People in the pew found the pedantic preaching of the German pulpit to be boring. Church attendance was plummeting. Pastors were searching for an easy fix to tickle ears and create a crowd.

A new “modern” preaching took hold that elevated contemporary issues and diminished the Bible. And it worked! But the Word of God, rightly divided, is never boring. Barth declared, “If a sermon is biblical, it will not be boring.”[6]

Here, we text-driven preachers offer a boisterous “Amen.” The Word of God is not boring. The structure, spirit and substance of each text offers a depth of material by which we can, thrillingly, re-present God’s Word to His people. Barth referred to this depth of material as a “mystery” and said that trying to fully exhaust it was like trying to drain the ocean with a spoon.[7]

Conclusion

Barth’s contention was not with patriotism in and of itself, but with any rival to the Word of God as central in the life of the church. To be sure, we should proceed with caution when reading the famed professor. His admirable view of preaching stems, unfortunately, from a less than authoritative view of the Bible. Barth did not believe that the text itself was the Word of God, only that it was a witness to the Word of God when rightly preached. Nevertheless, Barth’s lectures on homiletics and his warnings against the perils of political theology are massive contributions.

Angela Hancock sums up the significance of these lectures well. She says, “Barth’s classroom in the summer of 1933 was like the eye of the hurricane—a place of relative calm amid the roar and bluster of the Third Reich.”[8]


[1] These Predigtvorbereitung lectures were published several decades later in a book entitled Homiletics.
[2] Karl Barth, Homiletics (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1991), 79.
[3] Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 173.
[4] Barth, Homiletics, 79.
[5] Angela Dienhart Hancock, Karl Barth’s Emergency Homiletic (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013), 160.
[6] Barth, Homiletics, 80.
[7] Ibid., 128.
[8] Hancock, Karl Barth’s Emergency Homiletic, 321.