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Karl Barth the Preacher: “Keep before your eyes our Lord Jesus Christ”

Prior to his ‘forty years as a professor’, Barth spent ‘twelve years as a preacher’ (Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (from the Foreword to the German Edition). As a theologian, he never lost sight of the importance of preaching. Although he worked for so many years in the university, he always saw his theological work as part of the church’s work: ‘I said to myself. “If I am a theologian, I must try to work out broadly what I think I  have perceived as God’s revelation. What I think I have perceived. Yet not I as an individual but I as a member of the Christian church”. This is why I call my book Church Dogmatics. “Church” here does not mean that the church is responsible for all that I say, but that I as one member of the church have reflected on what may be perceived in revelation and tried to present it to the best of my conscience and understanding’ (A Karl Barth Reader, 113, emphasis original).
Barth’s theological work was a part of the church’s work. Ultimately, however, it was a part of God’s work. At the heart of his work lay his relationship with God, a relationship which involved him in listening to God and speaking to God. Concerning the importance of listening to God, he writes: ‘The object of theological work is not some thing but some one… The task of theological work consists in listening to Him’. Stressing the importance of speaking to God in prayer, Barth insists that ‘without prayer there can be no theological work’. He stresses that this ‘rule… is valid under all circumstances pray and work!’ This does not mean that we begin with prayer and then regard prayer as incidental to the work which is done - “theological work does not merely begin with prayer and is not merely accompanied by it’. Barth stresses that ‘prayer… is work… very hard work’. He insists that the work itself is essentially a prayer: ‘every act of theological work must have the character of an offering in which everything is placed before the living God’ (Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, 163 (emphasis original), 160).
As we hear Barth speaking of the importance of prayer, we come to the very heart of the man not simply the theologian before his students, not merely the preacher before his congregation, but the man before his God, the man listening to God and speaking to God, the man who says to us, ‘Keep before your eyes our Lord Jesus Christ’ (A Karl Barth Reader, 104).

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