For the Freedom of the Gospel

September 6, 2018 | by: Dale Thiele | 0 Comments

Posted in: Pastoral Encouragement

For my current doctoral class, I have been assigned some reading related to Karl Barth’s theology of preaching. Barth was a Swiss, Reformed theologian in the early 20th century. He taught theology at universities in Germany and Switzerland. Focusing primarily on systematic theology, it was highly unusual for Barth to give attention to the practical theology of preaching. In his estimation, however, the circumstances were dire. 

Barth petitioned the preaching professor at the University of Bonn in 1932 to allow himself to teach a couple of courses on preaching. Barth ended up holding two seminar classes during the academic year of 1932-1933. They were titled Exercises in Preaching Preparation. If you are familiar with German history leading up to World War 2, you recognize that this was the time the democracy was dismantled in Germany and Hitler rose to dictator power of the Third Reich (Reich = kingdom). 

So, what’s astonishing about a systematic theologian teaching a seminar on preaching? Simply, Barth’s boldness for the sake of the Gospel in the midst of epic, historic, political and religious upheaval. 

Angela Dienhart Hancock documents the historical and political context in which Barth rose up to teach preaching in her book, Karl Barth’s Emergency Homiletic 1932-1933. The propaganda machine of the Nazis had flooded the nation with a message that centered on the strength and hope found in the German people. This message infiltrated the pulpits of the churches in Germany.

 One example Hancock gives is from the preaching of Otto Dibelius, a leader overseeing a region of churches. The sermon she speaks about was given two days before the Enabling Act, which finalized Hitler’s rise to dictator. She writes, “His Potsdam sermon on March 21, 1933, ostensibly on Romans 8:31 – ‘If God be for us, who can be against us?’ – was full of enthusiasm for the ‘new beginning’ for Germany…that the gospel was not foreign to the German character, but was the very thing that would enable them ‘to become German again.’ Dibelius expressed confidence that the Reich government would soon restore order and there would be no more need for extreme measures. The sermon was punctuated with the exuberant refrain, ‘one Reich, one Volk, one God!’”[1] (Volk = the German people). 

Hitler, of course, meddled with church affairs as well. He was working the angles so that everything in Germany would fall under his dictatorial leadership.  So he called for a special election in the churches in July 1933. These elections would appoint new leaders for the church. Members of the Nazi party joined churches in droves in order to participate in the elections. The Nazis won a large majority of the leadership positions in the church. 

Hancock tells us that on the night before these church elections, “Hitler made a well-publicized speech that was broadcast on every radio station in Germany. In it he explained that the church and the state were dependent on each other. The church needed the protection of the state, and in exchange for that protection it owed the state its support. The church could have its ‘inner freedom,’ but it should therefore play its part ‘in standing up for the freedom of the nation.’[2] 

What did Karl Barth teach in the midst of this hurricane of turmoil in Germany? He taught his students to “preach from the Bible.” Do not get caught up in preaching the current events of the nation. He emphasized that they do not preach specifically to the Volk, the German people, but to God’s people. 

In the church elections of July 1933, Barth decided to run. He called his party, “For the Freedom of the Gospel.” He explained, “the gospel is something that is said to us; it is not something we can say to ourselves.”[3] Barth was a minority voice, proclaiming Christ, while the vast majority of religious and political leaders around him proclaimed something else. Astonishing boldness and clarity for the Gospel. 

We are not living in the midst of the rise of the Third Reich. But we are still bombarded with competing messages for the allegiance of our hearts. For the freedom of the Gospel, let’s not lose sight of our one hope in Christ.

[1] Hancock, page 251-251.

[2] Ibid. page 319.

[3] Ibid. 319.


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