Brief Reviews, VOLUME 2


A Brief Review of

The Early Preaching of Karl Barth:
Fourteen Sermons with Commentary by William H. Willimon
Paperback: WJK Books, 2009.

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Reviewed by Bob Cornwall.

This review originally appeared on Bob’s blog:
It is reprinted here with the reviewer’s permission.

Preaching has changed over the years, whether for the good or ill is difficult to say. In an earlier day, at least as seen from reading sermons by the young Karl Barth, preachers demanded more of the listeners than is normally expected of someone sitting in the pews today. There is less emphasis on the “practical” and more on the “theological.”

This book contains fourteen sermons preached by Karl Barth to the people of the small Swiss village of Safenwil between 1917 and 1920. They have been carefully selected by William Willimon, and translated by John E. Wilson. Barth began his pastorate in 1911, but the sermons come from the end of Barth’s tenure in the pastorate – just before he left for a teaching post at Gottingen. They also come from an interesting period of European history – from the closing years of World War I through the immediate aftermath. It is a period of transition, marked by the Revolution in Russia – an event that is very much present in Barth’s mind and preaching. Both the war and the revolution seem to represent the movement into a new age, where old paradigms no longer hold true.

The sermons represent Barth’s period of turning from the liberalism of his theological training. Themes that appear in the Romans commentaries are present as well. As he preaches, his focus is not on anthropology, but Christology. His sermons point to the in breaking of the divine, the wholly other, into the world. His sermons, while not always strictly rooted in the text, seek to be true to the biblical message. He takes the bible seriously, and expects to hear from it a word from God. And yet at times the sermon, while theologically deep, seems oddly distant from the text itself. These are not, necessarily, expository sermons. But they do seek to connect with the text as touchstone.

These are very theological and even philosophical essays. As Willimon notes, his “preaching is counter to just about everything contemporary preachers have been told we ought to be in our preaching” (p. ix). They are challenging, even for the theologically trained, and so one wonders how they were received by Barth’s original audience. Willimon does hint that Barth saw himself as a failure, so that does suggest he might have misread his congregation.

As one reads the sermons, one gets the sense of a change of ideas. There is a darkness that hangs over the sermons, a recognition that we as human beings are caught in the grip of sin. There is also that sense here, especially as the years pass, that God is truly “wholly other.” We are unable to rectify our situation on our own, and thus we must turn to God for help, but we can’t approach God unless God first approaches us – thus the strong Christological message. There is a strong protest here against “religion,” which he famously saw as humans trying to climb their way to the hidden God. Thus, as one peers into his vision of the world and God’s interaction with the world, one sees little of the optimism of an earlier Protestant liberalism, an optimism that seemed to think humanity was ready to remake itself on its own. The War had thoroughly shaken that sentiment from him.

This is a collection of sermons that preachers need to read simply because they stand as a protest against shallow preaching. Barth may not have been a perfect preacher or pastor. Indeed, he may have been a failure at both. We need not copy his style or his theology. But, Barth reminds – as does Willimon – that our job as preachers is not to mimic the self-help gurus in the pulpit. We are called to address the issues of life and death from a different place. While Willimon can be rather critical of Barth in his comments, and while he doesn’t always believe that a sermon works as a sermon, and while does think that over time Barth’s preaching did improve, Willimon believes that we can learn something important from Barth. Indeed, the essence of the message here is contained in this comment by Willimon attached to the final sermon in the collection:

Whereas it is popular today for purpose-driven, prosperity preachers to commend Jesus as the solution to our problems, the key to a happier life, and a technique for getting whatever it is we happen to crave, more than Jesus (Feuerbach ascendit!), Barth says that the only way to think such drivel is never to have met Jesus. The preacher has contempt for these who, by forgetting Jesus, contrive to make God “accessible, inexpensive, cheap.” Ouch. (p. 153).

And Willimon notes that it’s no surprise that Joel Osteen rarely refers to Jesus. Barth, on the other hand, is very much willing to put his focus on Jesus, and call us to a different kind of faith. The way of grace isn’t an easy path. It doesn’t involve a nice walk, but rather takes us on a narrow path, with only one possible path to take. There is no place to rest comfortably. Still, “we have no choice, but to keep moving forward on this way attentively, carefully and without stopping” (p. 123).

Willimon is to be commended for bringing to our attention this collection of sermons, for it allows us not only to see the flowering of Barth’s theological imagination, but provides us a challenge as preachers to think deeply about the message we bring to our congregations. Are we willing to take a more difficult, costly path?

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at:

Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior

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  1. Thank you Bob for the fine review. I like Barth and Willimon.

    Bob, you are right to suspect Barth was not a great pastor. After Barth was rumored to have spoken up about a political issue “four of the six members of his church committee resigned” (Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts, 106). Then Barth was denied a pay raise–he had been working at almost the same salary for 7 years (107). Finally, it was increased but “with 99 dissenting votes” (107). He was considered for two other churches but they did not offer him a position (122-123).

    I’m fascinated by Willimon’s current measurement of pastors’ performance as a bishop–see his most recent podcast How Appointments Are Made
    Tuesday, November 24, 2009 at –and yet his writing the forward for Michael Horton’s book Christless Christianity. I’m cheering Willimon on as he tries to be Barthian and a good bishop.

    Willimon also has another book Conversations With Barth on Preaching that I want to read.

  2. Carroll B. Merriman

    Hi from Ireland, very good post, deserves a Digg.