According to Karl Barth, the Word of God exists in a threefold unity: Preached, Written, and Revealed.  In this post, I want to explore the Word Preached.

The Word of God can only be preached because God first spoke to us through Scripture. In his own words, Barth says,

Proclamation from the church is only possible because it began as proclamation from God through the Word. It is proclamation of the Word which gives the church identity and meaning.

In an age when we are struggling to define the meaning of Church through discussions of methods, models, and meeting locations, I find Barth’s assertion quite refreshing.  Simply put, the church is not the church unless She first and foremost speaks out the Word of God.

Proclamation must ever and again become proclamation. From being an action which, coming forward with the corresponding claim and surrounded with the corresponding expectation, wants to be and should be proclamation, it must become an action which is proclamation. And because the event of real proclamation is the function of the Church’s life which governs all others, we have to say that in this event the Church itself must ever and again become the Church. Proclamation and the Church are, of course, simply and visibly there just as the bread and wine of Communion are simply and visibly there and the distributing, eating and drinking of the bread and wine in Communion take place simply and visibly.

Preaching the Word defines our existence as church, but when everyone seemingly has competing theology how can we know that our proclamation is sound and reliable?  In answer to this question, Barth provides the following framework of assurance that our proclamation of hte Word is sound.   Barth says that if our Dogma is to become Proclamation, we must understand four decisive connections.  He describes these connections as four concentric circles that stand between Dogma and Proclamation.   I have given each of these areas my own designation and made the following graphic to help illustrate his point.

1. Source: Proclamation of God’s Word is Commissioned By God

The source of the words we speak matters if the proclamation by the church is going to be the tangible manifestation of what God has already spoken.

Proclamation and the Church are, of course, simply and visibly there just as the bread and wine of Communion are simply and visibly there and the distributing, eating and drinking of the bread and wine in Communion take place simply and visibly…Real proclamation, then, means the Word of God preached and the Word of God preached means in this first and outermost circle man’s talk about God on the basis of God’s own direction, which fundamentally transcends all human causation, which cannot, then, be put on a human basis, but which simply takes place, and has to be acknowledged, as a fact.

2. Substance: Proclamation has God’s Word as its Only Object

Our culture does not limit the proclamation of God’s Word.  Each person presents the word within their own perspective and penchant for art, science or politics, but this influence does not serve as the true object or undermine the substance of the Word we speak.

In calling the object or theme of proclamation God’s Word we mean that it is not merely or even primarily the object of human perception. It must become the object of human perception to be capable of being proclaimed. But to the extent that it is really proclaimed it is not at all the object of human perception…Preaching and sacrament are, as we have seen, the promise of future revelation on the basis of the revelation that has already occurred. How, then, can one speak of this object except in the form of this promise, which is quite distinct from that of science, art, or politics? Real proclamation, then, means God’s Word preached, and in this second circle God’s Word preached means human talk about God on the basis of the self-objectification of God which is not just there, which cannot be predicted, which does not fit into any plan, which is real only in the freedom of His grace, and in virtue of which He wills at specific times to be the object of this talk, and is so according to His good-pleasure.

3. Subject: Proclamation is Judged by God’s Word

No one can change the truth we speak.  People may question our authority or doubt our motive, but these judgments can not infringe upon the message we preach.  The Proclamation by the church is subject only to the Word of God.

The one who proclaims must submit to the question: What do you know of the thing you speak of? And: What is your concern in speaking of it? He has to let his work be judged by these questions. The only point is that what he says is not affected as proclamation by such judgments. What is assessed by them is its scientific or ethico-political or aesthetic character. Intrinsically proclamation as it takes place in preaching and sacrament presupposes that neither the nature of its object nor the situation or concern of the speaker is or can be so clear to any man as to put him in a position to pronounce on its truth…Real proclamation, therefore, is the Word of God preached, and in this third inner circle the Word of God preached means human talk about God which by God’s own judgment, that cannot be anticipated and never passes under our control, is true with reference both to the proclaimed object and also to the proclaiming subject, so that it is talk which has to be listened to and which rightly demands obedience.

4. Satisfaction: Proclamation is God’s Action

The proclamation of God’s word is only satisfied when it becomes action. Actions motivated by the Word never violate the freedom of individual, yet action must be in line with the Word of God.

Without depriving the human element of its freedom, its earthly substance, its humanity, without obliterating the human subject, or making its activity a purely mechanical event, God is the subject from whom human action must receive its new and true name: not just a title tacked on; no, the name which belongs to it as essentially and primarily as possible in the full supremacy of the will of its Creator and Lord. Where Church proclamation takes place according to this will of God, where it rests on the divine commission, where God Himself gives Himself to it as its theme, where it is true according to His judgment, where, in short, it is service of God, there on the one hand its character as an event that can be seen and heard on earth is not set aside.

Summary Questions

  • What is the Source, Substance, Subject and Satisfaction of the message you preach?
  • How do you make sure your Dogma (theology) is consistently a Divine Proclamation?

FOOTNOTE

* All quotes from Karl Barth, Geoffrey William Bromiley and Thomas F. Torrance, Church Dogmatics, Volume I The Doctrine of the Word of God, Part 1, Translation of Die kirchliche Dogmatik.; Each pt. also has special t.p.; Includes indexes., 2d ed., 88-99 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 2004).

Dr. J.R. Miller is a Professor of Applied Theology and Leadership & Dean of Online Learning at Southern California Seminary. Outside work, he is a church planter. Dr. Miller has a diverse educational background and authored multiple books on church history, biblical theology, and Leadership. Joe and his wife Suzanne enjoy the sun and surf with their 3 sons in San Diego, CA.

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