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Review: A Unique Time of God: Karl Barth’s WWI Sermons

Collection of Sermons: A Unique Time of God

A Unique Time of God: Karl Barth’s WWI Sermons. Edited and translated by William Klempa. Louisville, KY. Westminster John Knox Press, 2016. ISBN: 9780664262662

A Unique Time of God: Karl Barth’s WWI Sermons, edited and translated by William Klempa, is a collection of 13 sermons preached by Karl Barth at the beginning of World War I. Given during the period from July 26, 1914 (two days before Austria-Hungary officially declared war on Serbia), to November 1, 1914, these sermons come from a time when Barth was a young provincial pastor in the Swiss village of Safenwil and before he became internationally known on account of his commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. In these sermons we can see the beginnings of Barth’s break from German liberal theology and the birth of many strands characteristic of his own distinctive theology, most especially the sovereignty of God and the unbridgeable distinction between the Kingdom of God on one hand and human civilization and culture on the other.

There are many reasons one might be interested in this book. First, for those interested in the theology of Karl Barth and of its development, the second half of 1914 marks a turning point in Barth’s relationship with German academic theology. Whereas in his youth (and even as late as his tenure as assistant pastor in Geneva) he had been an eager disciple of 19th century liberal theology that flowed largely from Schleiermacher (and whose representatives at the start of the 20th century included Barth’s teachers and associates Martin Rade, Wilhelm Herrmann, and Adolf von Harnack), Barth, who within himself had been quietly growing critical of this liberal tradition, became deeply troubled by academia’s (and the Church’s) wholesale embrace of the spirit of nationalism on all sides of the conflict (but most especially in Germany). Barth believed that 19th century German liberal theology had laid the foundation for this embrace and even made it inevitable. This led him to begin to make a decisive break with liberal theology and to forge a different path that relied more heavily on the Bible and on the Church Fathers than it did on Kant, Hegel, and Scheiermacher. These sermons offer our first real glimpse at the beginnings of this break.

In part because of the book’s outstanding introduction written by Klempa, A Unique Time of God can also act as a rather accessible jumping off point for someone wanting to become familiar with Barth. Barth’s theology is very much a theology born from crisis, from wrestling with the realities of living in a messy world. Inasmuch as systematic theology might be possible (and Barth was skeptical that the words “systematic” and “theology” belonged together), Barth believed that it must derive from what we might call (but perhaps inaccurately) “practical” theology – theology done in the context of the life of the Church, wrestled out of the clash between real life and the Bible. What this means is that his sermons were, in Barth’s own estimation, the foundations of his theology: theology from the front lines, so to speak. Barth’s later theology is intimately tied up in his reaction to the events of his time, most especially the two World Wars. For Karl Barth more than for most other theologians, one cannot understand his theology if one does not understand the historical conversation in which it participates.

Speaking of history, I found this book interesting and enlightening not only for my knowledge of Karl Barth but also for my understanding of World War I. I learned a lot about the events of those first key months in 1914 through reading the sermons, Klempa’s introduction, and Klempa’s explanatory endnotes. While this is not intended to be an introduction to the history of World War I, it was remarkably illuminating to witness the outbreak of the war from the perspective of Swiss pastor in a small town.

Finally, I would recommend this book even for devotional value. Barth’s sermons from 1914 remain astoundingly relevant. It is almost as if he were speaking to us today concerning the resurgence of nationalistic passions in many parts of the Western world, the willful intermingling of the concepts of State and Church by both parties, and the tense and incomprehensible diplomatic situation throughout the world that bears a striking resemblance to the Europe diplomatic situation in the time leading up to June 1914. I can think of no Christian commentary on today’s political situation that strikes me as more insightful and more convicting than these 13 sermons from over 100 years ago.

In short, A Unique Time of God: Karl Barth’s WWI Sermons is a fascinating and highly readable collection of some of Barth’s earliest work that contains his later theology in embryonic form accompanied by a very fine introduction that sets these sermons in their proper historical, biographical, and theological contexts. The book will have academic value to those with professional expertise in Barth, theological value to pastors with an informal interest in Barth’s theology, historical value to those interested in World War I, and devotional value for any interested present day readers. I highly recommend it.

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A Unique Time of God: Karl Barth’s WWI Sermons
By Westminster John Knox Press

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