Karl Barth and the Phenomenon of Prophetic Preaching
There is a need for Spirit-empowered sermons that are transformational in their effect.
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My already passionate commitment to the task of preaching was further enhanced when as a young seminarian I was exposed to the theology of Karl Barth. According to Kurt Anders Richardson, "Barth wanted his readers to focus on the active revelation of God's Word, which God is constantly accomplishing through Scripture, and the preaching of Scripture by the power of the Holy Spirit" (Reading Karl Barth). In Barth I discovered some theological support for something I'd experienced but couldn't define: preaching that's empowered by the Holy Spirit in a special way. This discovery was important to me at the time. Thirty years and thousands of sermons later, it still is.
Barth and my preaching journey
I became a Christ-follower and a young preacher within an ecclesial tradition that nurtured within me an appreciation for preaching that's "anointed" by the Holy Spirit. Though I eventually came to believe that the earmarks of this anointing had to involve something other than the preacher's volume and the degree of emotionality the preacher's rhetoric was able to produce, I continued to believe in and prize it. Yet it remained for me a mysterious phenomenon. I knew it when I experienced it but didn't really understand its nature and its purpose.
Then came my study of Karl Barth's theology of preaching. From the very beginning I was inspired by the importance he placed on preaching. Additionally, Barth provided me with a theologically-informed understanding of anointed preaching. I came to understand that anointed sermons not only convey biblical truths, but, with the help of the Holy Spirit, evoke a sense of personal spiritual encounter with the speaking God!
Together, these twin takeaways influenced my approach to preaching. Even during decades when I was pursuing church growth and striving to be seeker-sensitive, my goal each Sunday was to do more than entertain. Barth and my experience in the pulpit produced in me the conviction that Spirit-empowered preaching will do more than give people goose bumps or provide them with instruction that strikes them as remarkably relevant. Truly anointed sermons help people sense that Jesus has been there speaking to them, caring, confronting, and calling as only he can.
The concept of encounter that permeates Barth's understanding of revelation and proclamation, when combined with his emphasis on the sacramental and transformational nature of Christian preaching, together yield some implicit support for a type of "prophetic preaching" that's not often talked about. I'm referring to biblically-grounded and Christ-honoring sermons that, because they're also Spirit-empowered, facilitate life-shaping encounters between sermon hearers and the risen Christ. Not only am I convinced that this type of preaching occurs, I've found it to be a game changer when it comes to the formational and missional ministries of the local church.
Barth's encounter-oriented views of revelation and proclamation
Barth was convinced that preaching not only could be more than merely human discourse, it must be! As a young pastor, Barth understood the need for preaching that is genuinely prophetic in nature—not prophetic simply because the sermon focuses on the end times, is confrontative in nature, is based on writings of the Old Testament prophets, or even because it encourages social change, but in the sense that it creates the possibility of a personal encounter between the sermon's hearers and the living God. In a moment of willful precision, Barth wrote:
Proclamation is human speech in and by which God Himself speaks like a king through the mouth of his herald, and which is meant to be heard and accepted as speech in and by which God Himself speaks, and therefore heard and accepted in faith as divine decision concerning life and death, as divine judgment and pardon, eternal Law and eternal Gospel both together (Church Dogmatics, I/1, 52).
Talk about a high view of preaching! A sense of the prophetic seems to permeate this succinct yet profound description of preaching. Even as a young pastor and a seminarian I resonated with this "prophetic" understanding of Barth's take on preaching and still do. Over the years I've interacted with many preachers who've had the sense that sometimes something prophetic seems to occur as they proclaim God's Word. There have been times when we've found ourselves boldly articulating biblically-grounded, Christ-honoring truths that, even though they weren't included in our sermon prep, seemed to affect the congregation in an especially powerful way!
Barth's incarnational and sacramental understanding of Christian preaching
While such a notion can and should strike preachers as exciting and ennobling, it's also humbling. After all, who are we to think that the Spirit of Christ might choose to speak through us during preaching for the strengthening, encouragement, and comfort of Christ's followers (1 Cor. 14:3)?
Barth addressed that sobering question when he emphasized the incarnational dynamic at work in Christian proclamation. According to Barth, true proclamation can facilitate a sacramental encounter with God's speaking, the humanity of the preacher and sermon notwithstanding (Church Dogmatics, I/1, 93-94). In other words, for Barth, true proclamation involves the phenomenon of incarnation (Church Dogmatics, I/1, 94).
Barth's reasoning was this: Just as the Word of God revealed (Christ) involved the assumption of human flesh and just as the written Word of God (the Scriptures) involved the pen and intellect of human authors, even so, the Word of God proclaimed (Proclamation) involves the full involvement of fallible, imperfect human heralds. Thus, while it's always appropriate for us to approach preaching with humility rather than arrogance, this doesn't mean that it's wrong to hope that something prophetic might transpire.
Barth sought to make it clear that a preacher cannot, on their own, conjure the reality of God or effect revelation (Barth, Homiletics). At the same time, he certainly seemed to indicate that, because of the incarnational dynamic involved, it's possible for imperfect human preachers to deliver sermons that are extraordinary in their influence, and, in other words, anointed.
Barth's sense that proclamation will be transformational
But what's the sign of prophetic preaching? How can preachers know that it's occurring or has occurred? My experience over the years has been that, in addition to the startling degree of serendipity that earmarks the collection of resources for some sermons and the sense that the Holy Spirit seems to "speak through me" during preaching, the dead giveaway that something prophetic is occurring in the preaching moment is that the Spirit moves in my listeners' hearts in an especially powerful manner. In other words, genuine transformation occurs.
Barth was famous for his assertion that the ultimate test of true proclamation is its effect. "Proclamation is true," said Barth, when it is "talk which has to be listened to and which rightly demands obedience" (Church Dogmatics, I/1, 93). Barth's assumption seems to have been that when God speaks, you know it (cf. Jer. 23:29; Is. 55:10-11). Barth seems to have had in mind the possibility of encounter-facilitating preaching that leaves a mark.
I've come to believe that this "mark" is a Spirit-imparted ability to render to God the spiritual, moral, and missional faithfulness he desires and deserves. This is why I refer to the tremendous importance of sacramental, encounter-facilitating preaching for the formation ministries of the local church.
For sure, the Holy Spirit is at work in prophetic preaching to awaken and strengthen faith in the risen Jesus. But he is also doing more. He is graciously drawing those who have ears to hear, deeper and deeper into the reality of an intimate, interactive, life-changing relationship with the living God. Indeed, it has been my experience that, at times, he may provide some spiritual, moral, or ministry guidance that is amazingly timely and specific!
While I'm not talking here about the proffering of "new revelation," I am suggesting the possibility of Spirit-empowered sermons that facilitate life-transforming, paradigm-shifting, and faithfulness-producing encounters with the risen Jesus. The critical question is this: If such preaching is possible, what's the key?
Barth's insistence that how preachers approach the task matters
Barth believed that a profound sense of expectancy can and should animate the congregation each Sunday morning. Moreover, according to David Buttrick, Barth was insistent that if this corporate sense of expectancy is to occur, it needs to begin with the preacher:
Those who preach the scriptures will not be pontificating clerics or detached visionaries or merely dull. For, again and again, the scriptures will speak God's new word. "The proper attitude of preachers," Barth says, "does not depend on whether they hold on to the doctrine of inspiration but on whether or not they expect God to speak to them …." Barth calls ministers to "active expectation" and "ongoing submission" in their study of the Bible ("Foreword" to Barth's Homiletics).
Barth was adamant, it seems, that given the prophetic potential inherent in the preaching moment, it's imperative that preachers approach it with a sense of holy expectation and reverent submission. In other words, a theologically-informed, Spirit-sensitive approach to preaching will be neither perfunctory nor presumptive. Instead, it will be earmarked by a tremendous degree of anticipation and sense of responsibility born of the realization that when empowered by the Spirit, something prophetic might occur.
Barth's assertion that prayer is key
So then, what does a theologically-informed, Spirit-sensitive approach to preaching involve? According to Barth, "it is prayer that puts us in rapport with God and permits us to collaborate with him" (Barth, Prayer). Following Barth, I will suggest that at the heart of a Spirit-empowered approach to preaching is a certain kind of praying. To be more specific, I've found that the likelihood that I will experience something prophetic occurring while I am preaching correlates with some serious time spent engaging in prayer that is theologically real, missionally-discerning, in the Spirit, in the moment, and deferentially and enduringly hopeful.
Theologically real prayer, because it reckons with God's real and personal presence, takes the form of conversation rather than monologue. In it, we talk to God rather than at him, not only making requests but asking questions and "listening" for responses.
Building on this foundation, missionally-discerning prayer has us seeking discernment regarding such things as:
- what the Holy Spirit is currently doing in the life of this congregation;
- what the Holy Spirit was doing in the biblical text;
- what the Spirit is doing in the text;
- the best way to communicate the message to our ministry context; and
- how we might encourage congregation members to engage in their own dialogue with the Spirit regarding the existential significance of the text and message for their lives.
I've come to believe that a discernible correlation exists between my spending time intentionally praying in the Spirit prior to a preaching or teaching event and the likelihood that something prophetic will occur during it. It only makes sense, doesn't it, that a Spirit-sensitive approach to preaching will involve time spent praying in the Holy Spirit.
Further, to pray in the moment is to have the presence of mind, during the preaching moment itself, to interact with the Spirit of Christ, petitioning him for discernment and an anointing. Obviously, this is an internal reaching out to Jesus for his assistance. No one else needs to know it's happening (Matt. 6:1, 6). This "pursuit" of what I refer to as Christ's empowering presence is, like any spiritual or ministry discipline, a practice that must be cultivated (Tyra, Christ's Empowering Presence). That said, I can personally attest that it's possible to engage in this activity even as we preach his Word to others. Once again, it's my sense that our doing so increases the likelihood of something prophetic occurring in the process.
Finally, to pray in a manner that is deferentially and enduringly hopeful is to recognize that it's not our job to convince or convict. Instead, once it has concluded, we can and should entrust the sermon and its effect to the Spirit of mission (John 16:8). I submit that our preaching isn't fully Spirit-sensitive if we preachers spend our Mondays either congratulating or castigating ourselves over Sunday's performance. What's more, I'm fairly confident Barth would agree.
While Isaiah's famous encounter with God in the temple immediately precipitated a spiritual and moral renewal, it ultimately led to an engagement in mission (Isa. 1:1-8). Moreover, the apostle Paul once referred to the dramatic, missional influence a prophetic, encounter-rich, and ecclesial environment can have even upon those who are not yet disciples (1 Cor. 14:24-25).
What I am insinuating here is the huge missional import of anointed (biblically-grounded, Christ-centered, and Spirit-empowered) sermons that, precisely because they are prophetic in nature, are sacramental (encounter-facilitating) in their effect.
Working with thousands of members of the emerging generations has taught me that while increasing numbers are becoming post-Christian (in other words, post-religious) in orientation, they still crave the experience of something transcendent. Just think of it: sacramental sermons that not only empower a spiritual, moral, and missional faithfulness among congregants but that can be used by the Holy Spirit to revive Christian faith in the wandering (James 5:19) and generate it within uninitiated seekers (John 3:5-8)! This type of preaching has been my prayerful aim since I read what Karl Barth had to say about Spirit-empowered preaching.
"If anyone speaks, they should do it as one speaking the very words of God" (1 Pet. 4:11).
Editor's Note: Some of the material in this article has been adapted from Gary's book Getting Real: Pnuematological Realism and the Spiritual, Moral, and Ministry Formation of Contemporary Christians (Cascade Books, 2018).
Gary Tyra is professor of biblical and practical theology at Vanguard University and author of numerous works including The Holy Spirit in Mission (IVP Academic, 2011) and Getting Real: Pneumatological Realism and the Spiritual, Moral, and Ministry Formation of Contemporary Christians (Cascade Books, 2018).