Sunday, November 29, 2009

Book Review: The Early Preaching of Karl Barth

The book review for November is 'The Early Preaching of Karl Barth.' This is a collection of fourteen sermons preached by Barth between 1917 and 1920 while serving as a pastor in Safenwill, Switzerland. Following each sermon William Willimon provides us with a brief commentary. Unlike Willimon, I certainly am no expert on Barth, all I have read is the first volume of Church Dogmatics. Thus, I don't think that I am in too much of a position to engage on a detailed level with these sermons. However I will make some general comments that I hope are useful if you are thinking about checking out this book.

Because these are sermons, this book is much more accessible than Church Dogmatics, however, they do not form a good introduction to Barthian theology. What struck me most, especially in the beginning of the book (the sermons are arranged chronologically), was how much his theology developed over time. His early sermons sound, in some ways, very un-Barthian. Early on, especially before he wrote his Romans commentary, you can see the strong influence of a semi-socialist liberal Protestantism on him. As the book progresses, you see Barth progress. Several of the sermons towards the end capture one of the distinctives of Barth's theology, the complete 'otherness' of God.

William Willimon's commentaries on Barth's sermons make the book. He helpfully frames the sermons both locally (the life of Barth and his parish) and internationally (the setting within Europe as a whole). This helps give some perspective to the sermons and explains why Barth stresses some of the things he does. Willimon is also especially strong at comparing each sermon with Barth's later theology, giving you a clearer picture of how Barth's theology developed. I also appreciated that Willimon was not afraid to critique Barth's sermons, thus providing homiletical help to those who read the book.

Overall, this was a fairly interesting book. I don't think it'd be near the top of my list to recommend, but if you have a strong liking for Barth, it's worth the time to go through it. You'll gain a greater appreciation for how he grew into the theologian that he became.

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