Barthian Exegetical Praxis (aka "Preaching")

Since about the middle of summer, I've been trying actively to follow and respond to the pericopes of the church year. Now, I wouldn't call most of what I do here "preaching" in the proper sense -- there's too much of instruction in it to be wholly words of life (much less holy words of life). But it is what comes before preaching, as reflection and attempted application practiced upon the texts. And in it I try to do what preaching must do: be of service to the church as it goes about living into and out of the gospel.

As a lay doctoral student I do not belong to the order of the ministry of Word and Sacrament. I rejoice in the service of those who are so ordained, but it is not my calling. As a theologian (even if a journeyman at present), I belong to those who are so called, as much as both I and they belong to the body of the church as organs of it. To the extent that there is a clerical division of labor in the church, it is my job to serve the laity, and to help the clergy serve the laity likewise. Because the "laity" are nothing but the laos theou, and the servants of the people of God are likewise laïkos.

And so when I went about getting seriously into Barth, I discovered that I could not do it without learning something in which I had not yet been trained: preaching. (I thank Gary Dorrien for watering the seed of this realization in me.) Because it is not intuitive, this intentional proclamation of the Word of God for the people of God. It is not, as it appears, a matter of getting up and talking about the Bible. I had been trained in that. I had taken classes in hermeneutics, and exegetical method, and done a good deal of self-study beyond them on that end. And yet the first time I got up to preach, no one was fed. Teaching Bible is not proclamation. (And teaching Bible without proclamation might not even be good teaching!)

The answer that preaching provides is a clear hermeneutic: the application of God's grace, witnessed in texts of common meditation, to the life of the assembly. To confess and present and explain and apply what God does for us. It is a Christological hermeneutic to the extent that it is a theological hermeneutic: we focus on Christ as God's most clear action for us, and as the demonstration of God's inevitable will to save. As the frame through which we see God's other actions in and for the world, and remember that God is for us as he drives us toward godly action in and for the world. As such preaching is always about gospel -- always about the proclamation of God's persistent and gracious action that causes us to live again. That feeds us and heals us and helps us in our need. That only consequently enables us to go forth and do likewise.

I say that this is "Barthian exegetical praxis" because I am guided by a quote of Barth's about the futility of exegetical method without it. Burnett, in his book on Barth's hermeneutics, cites what is for me a beautiful statement, made to some students at Princeton in 1962 who asked him about hermeneutical schools. The quote is on page 13:
"The situation has become more and more obscured. The theme of hermeneutics has come up, more and more people speak of heremenutics -- every young man in a different way -- and I regret that in discussing 'hermeneutics' the texts themselves come short, you see? They are always discussing the question of language, of translation, of application, and so on. I have always preferred to do the thing, to try to explain, to understand texts. And now they are fighting especially in the different schools of the 'Bultmannites,' because there are different Bultmann-schools now, and they are fighting on this methodological basis. I can't like this thing. I'm not involved in it, I look, I see, I read it, but I would prefer they would write commentaries or deliver sermons or write, let us say, a good theology of the New Testament, a better one -- yes. Instead of that they are thinking round and round, how do we understand, instead of trying to understand and then make a jump in the water to see if they are able to swim!"
And so for me this blog becomes one massive game of "Will It Float?" For which reason I'm not too happy with the last few posts -- people seem to have liked that I made a post arguing about methodological issues in how I don't like to argue with atheists, but then I made a dense computational analogy which pleased nobody but myself. And neither of them was bread. The last few weeks I've been out of the habit of -- as Barth says -- jumping in the water and seeing if I'm able to swim. I do my job better the closer I am to working with the texts. (Be they scripture, confessions, or Barth!) Hacking away at method may occasionally be necessary -- and as a diagnostician it's part of what I do -- but method doesn't exist without practice. Talking about hermeneutics without preaching or commentary-writing or doing practical works of theology is ultimately unsatisfying. It has to come about, in healthy ways, from engagement with real bread, real meat, real beer. From cooking for and feeding the people of God, however we are called to do it. One does not smoke a pipe -- that's metonymy. One smokes tobacco, or the pipe is simply affectation. And one may smoke good or bad tobacco, but it's futile to argue about the best kind of pipe apart from using it. And for me, the judge of good material is preaching -- which is to say that I judge a theology by the quality of its gospel. And the judge of good method is how it produces good preaching by treating the material and the audience.