A Unique Time of God
Karl Barth's WWI Sermons
Widely regarded as the most important and influential theologian of the twentieth century, Karl Barth (1886-1968) was a Swiss Reformed pastor and professor of theology, and is best known for his monumental multi-volume work Church Dogmatics. However, Barth’s theological output is not simply restricted to this later, more mature magnum opus; his earlier theological works, and even his sermons, are becoming more readily available in critical German editions, with some translated into English. One such sample of Barth’s earlier theology is his World War I sermons given while he was a pastor in Safenwil, Switzerland. This work presents—for the first time in English—a translated and edited compilation of thirteen sermons by Barth that parallel the beginnings of the First World War: July 26 – November 1, 1914.
The book begins with a three-column timeline in which the translator and editor, William Klempa, provides the various weeks and political events surrounding the beginnings of the war, the sermon text and theme that Barth chose to preach from that Sunday, and Barth’s literary activities during that week. Klempa then provides a lengthy and thorough introduction to Barth’s early life and earlier theology, focusing on his education at German universities where he was imbued with the best liberal theology of the day, up to and including his pastorates in Geneva and then Safenwil where Barth became embroiled in the cause of socialism, and helped to start trade unions in which some of his parishioners were members. Klempa then discusses the life-long friendship that began between Barth and Eduard Thurneysen, a fellow pastor in a neighbouring town. This leads Klempa to show how, for Barth, the combination of the outbreak of the war, along with certain former professors supporting the German Kaiser’s war policies—in particular, the violation of Belgium’s neutrality. The insufficiency of his liberal theological education and training for preaching the bible effectively led Barth to break from the tradition of modern—or liberal—Protestant theology and seek out a new way of doing theology. Klempa then discusses, in the remainder of the introduction, the various themes that arose in these thirteen sermons, and how the events of the day influenced and even determined the themes that Barth preached on. Klempa shows how Barth was not simply expositing the text of the bible but was also a social-political commentator who used the unfolding early events of the war to drive home his theological and ideological beliefs. One of the beliefs that is most prominent in these sermons is that the war is a “Time of God” (Gotteszeit) and thus, it is an extraordinary moment in human history in which God allows and judges humanity’s folly for going to war and yet, despite this horrific event, God can use the war to awaken humanity from its sin of warmongering, and hopefully compel it to repent and thereby bringing justice and peace back to Europe and the world.
These thirteen sermons—hitherto only available in German—are a welcome addition to the vast and expanding literature on Barth’s theology, particularly his relatively unknown earlier, that is, liberal theology. The best sources of Barth’s liberal theology, from which he most famously broke in 1915, are his sermons and Klempa has done well to bring these exemplary specimens to the English-speaking world and academy. The introduction provides the reader with the necessary background information in which to situate, better understand, and appreciate Barth’s earlier, liberal theology; and why the First World War was so devastating to him even though he pastored in neutral Switzerland. The translation is eminently readable and there are judicious endnotes that provide the reader with interesting textual notes about the original sermon manuscripts, and helpful references to historical and contemporary events. This book is most beneficial in showing how the First World War influenced Barth’s eventual break with the liberal theology he had been educated in. Although these sermons show that Barth was not quite ready to jettison completely the theology he had so tenaciously held to in his university studies and pastorates, they also reveal the cracks, fault-lines, and the immense pressure the war was having on his liberal theology. Thus, these sermons are best read as evidence of how far Barth moved away from liberal theology when read in the light of his later, mature theology as seen in Church Dogmatics, rather than as an indicator of his overall theology. Therefore, this work is most suited for those who are already well versed in Barth’s theology and who want to gain better comprehension of where his theology began, and what events caused it eventually to change.
Bradley M. Penner is adjunct professor of theology at Briercrest College and Seminary.
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