A N Wilson: Against the Religion of Hatred

<p><img src=”Religion of hatred: Why we should no longer be cowed by the chattering classes ruling Britain who sneer at Christianity

UPDATED: 00:22 GMT, 11 April 2009

A week ago, there were Palm Sunday processions all over the world. Near my house in North London is a parish with two churches. About 70 or 80 of us gathered at one of these buildings to collect our palms.

We were told by the priest: ‘Where we are standing in Kentish Town does not look much like a Judaean hillside, and the other church to which we are walking does not look much like Jerusalem. But as we go, holding our palms, let us try to imagine the first Palm Sunday.’


Jesus Christ: With sneering doubters becoming ever more vocal in their dismissive attitudes towards Christianity AN Wilson says we should no longer be cowed

And so we set off, singing All Glory, Laud And Honour! and holding up our palm crosses, to the faint bemusement of passersby, who looked out of their windows at us, tooted their horns as we blocked the traffic or smiled from sunny pavements.

We were walking, as it were, in the footsteps of Jesus as he entered Jerusalem on a donkey while crowds threw palms before him. Except our journey was along the pavements strewn with the usual North London discarded syringes, chewing gum and Kentucky Fried Chicken boxes.

When we had reached our destination, a small choir and two priests sang the whole of St Mark’s account of the last week of Jesus’s life – that part of the Gospel that is called The Passion.

It is said the chant used for this recitation dates back to the music used in the Jewish Temple in Jesus’s day.

We heard of his triumphal, palm-strewn procession into Jerusalem, his clash with the Temple authorities, his agonised prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, his arrest by the Roman guards, his torture, his trial before Pontius Pilate, his Crucifixion and his death.

So there we were, all believers, and a disparate group of people, of various ages, races and classes, re-enacting once more this extraordinary story.

A story of a Jewish prophet falling foul of the authorities in an eastern province of the Roman Empire, and being punished, as were thousands of Jews during the governorship of Pontius Pilate, by the gruesome torture of crucifixion.

This Easter weekend we revisit the extraordinary ending of that story – the discovery by some women friends of Jesus that his tomb was empty. And we read of the reactions of the disciples – fearful, incredulous, but eventually believing that, as millions of Christians will proclaim tomorrow morning: ‘The Lord is risen indeed!’


Athiest: Richard Dawkins

But how many in Britain today actually believe the story? Most recent polls have shown that considerably less than half of us do – yet that won’t, of course, stop us tucking into Easter eggs (symbolising new life) and simnel cake (decorated with 11 marzipan balls representing the 11 true disciples, with Judas missing).

For much of my life, I, too, have been one of those who did not believe. It was in my young manhood that I began to wonder how much of the Easter story I accepted, and in my 30s I lost any religious belief whatsoever.

Like many people who lost faith, I felt anger with myself for having been ‘conned’ by such a story. I began to rail against Christianity, and wrote a book, entitled Jesus, which endeavoured to establish that he had been no more than a messianic prophet who had well and truly failed, and died.

Why did I, along with so many others, become so dismissive of Christianity?

Like most educated people in Britain and Northern Europe (I was born in 1950), I have grown up in a culture that is overwhelmingly secular and anti-religious. The universities, broadcasters and media generally are not merely non-religious, they are positively anti.

To my shame, I believe it was this that made me lose faith and heart in my youth. It felt so uncool to be religious. With the mentality of a child in the playground, I felt at some visceral level that being religious was unsexy, like having spots or wearing specs.

This playground attitude accounts for much of the attitude towards Christianity that you pick up, say, from the alternative comedians, and the casual light blasphemy of jokes on TV or radio.

It also lends weight to the fervour of the anti-God fanatics, such as the writer Christopher Hitchens and the geneticist Richard Dawkins, who think all the evil in the world is actually caused by religion.

The vast majority of media pundits and intelligentsia in Britain are unbelievers, many of them quite fervent in their hatred of religion itself.

The Guardian’s fanatical feminist-in-chief, Polly Toynbee, is one of the most dismissive of religion and Christianity in particular. She is president of the British Humanist Association, an associate of the National Secular Society and openly scornful of the millions of Britons who will quietly proclaim their faith in Church tomorrow.


Self-satisfied tv personalities like Jo Brand are openly non-believers

‘Of all the elements of Christianity, the most repugnant is the notion of the Christ who took our sins upon himself and sacrificed his body in agony to save our souls. Did we ask him to?’ she asked in a puerile article decrying the wickedness of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories, which have bewitched children for more than 50 years. Or, to take another of her utterances: ‘When absolute God-given righteousness beckons, blood flows and women are in chains.’

The sneering Ms Toynbee, like Richard Dawkins, believes in rational explanations for our existence and behaviour. She is deeply committed to the Rationalist Association, but her approach to religion is too fanatical to be described as rational.

Perhaps it goes back to her relationship with her nice old dad, Philip Toynbee, a Thirties public school Marxist who, before he died, made the hesitant journey from unbelief to a questing Christianity.

The Polly Toynbees of this world ignore all the benign aspects of religion and see it purely as a sinister agent of control, especially over women.

One suspects this is how it is viewed in most liberal circles, in university common rooms, at the BBC and, perhaps above all, sadly, by the bishops of the Church of England, who despite their episcopal regalia, nourish few discernible beliefs that could be distinguished from the liberalism of the age.


Smug: Jonathan Ross

For ten or 15 of my middle years, I, too, was one of the mockers. But, as time passed, I found myself going back to church, although at first only as a fellow traveller with the believers, not as one who shared the faith that Jesus had truly risen from the grave. Some time over the past five or six years – I could not tell you exactly when – I found that I had changed.

When I took part in the procession last Sunday and heard the Gospel being chanted, I assented to it with complete simplicity.

My own return to faith has surprised no one more than myself. Why did I return to it? Partially, perhaps it is no more than the confidence I have gained with age.

Rather than being cowed by them, I relish the notion that, by asserting a belief in the risen Christ, I am defying all the liberal clever-clogs on the block: cutting-edge novelists such as Martin Amis; foul-mouthed, self-satisfied TV presenters such as Jonathan Ross and Jo Brand; and the smug, tieless architects of so much television output.

But there is more to it than that. My belief has come about in large measure because of the lives and examples of people I have known – not the famous, not saints, but friends and relations who have lived, and faced death, in the light of the Resurrection story, or in the quiet acceptance that they have a future after they die.

The Easter story answers their questions about the spiritual aspects of humanity. It changes people’s lives because it helps us understand that we, like Jesus, are born as spiritual beings.

Every inner prompting of conscience, every glimmering sense of beauty, every response we make to music, every experience we have of love – whether of physical love, sexual love, family love or the love of friends – and every experience of bereavement, reminds us of this fact about ourselves.

Ah, say the rationalists. But no one can possibly rise again after death, for that is beyond the realm of scientific possibility.

And it is true to say that no one can ever prove – nor, indeed, disprove – the existence of an after-life or God, or answer the conundrums of honest doubters (how does a loving God allow an earthquake in Italy?)

Easter does not answer such questions by clever-clever logic. Nor is it irrational. On the contrary, it meets our reason and our hearts together, for it addresses the whole person.

In the past, I have questioned its veracity and suggested that it should not be taken literally. But the more I read the Easter story, the better it seems to fit and apply to the human condition. That, too, is why I now believe in it.

Easter confronts us with a historical event set in time. We are faced with a story of an empty tomb, of a small group of men and women who were at one stage hiding for their lives and at the next were brave enough to face the full judicial persecution of the Roman Empire and proclaim their belief in a risen Christ.

Historians of Roman and Jewish law have argued at length about the details of Jesus’s trial – and just how historical the Gospel accounts are.

Anyone who believes in the truth must heed the fine points that such scholars unearth. But at this distance of time, there is never going to be historical evidence one way or the other that could dissolve or sustain faith.

Of course, only hard evidence will satisfy the secularists, but over time and after repeated readings of the story, I’ve been convinced without it.

And in contrast to those ephemeral pundits of today, I have as my companions in belief such Christians as Dostoevsky, T. S. Eliot, Samuel Johnson and all the saints, known and unknown, throughout the ages.

When that great saint Thomas More, Chancellor of England, was on trial for his life for daring to defy Henry VIII, one of his prosecutors asked him if it did not worry him that he was standing out against all the bishops of England.

He replied: ‘My lord, for one bishop of your opinion, I have a hundred saints of mine.’

Now, I think of that exchange and of his bravery in proclaiming his faith. Our bishops and theologians, frightened as they have been by the pounding of secularist guns, need that kind of bravery more than ever.

Sadly, they have all but accepted that only stupid people actually believe in Christianity, and that the few intelligent people left in the churches are there only for the music or believe it all in some symbolic or contorted way which, when examined, turns out not to be belief after all.

As a matter of fact, I am sure the opposite is the case and that materialist atheism is not merely an arid creed, but totally irrational.

Materialist atheism says we are just a collection of chemicals. It has no answer whatsoever to the question of how we should be capable of love or heroism or poetry if we are simply animated pieces of meat.

The Resurrection, which proclaims that matter and spirit are mysteriously conjoined, is the ultimate key to who we are. It confronts us with an extraordinarily haunting story.

J. S. Bach believed the story, and set it to music. Most of the greatest writers and thinkers of the past 1,500 years have believed it.

But an even stronger argument is the way that Christian faith transforms individual lives – the lives of the men and women with whom you mingle on a daily basis, the man, woman or child next to you in church tomorrow morning.

BOOKS RECENTLY READ (March-April 2017)

RECENTLY READ BOOKS  (March – April 2017)

1.  Paulo Coelho: The Alchemist, trans. Alan R Clarke, New York, HarperOne, 2014 (1993)

This is a popularly read book which combines a form of magic realism with a form of Christian and Eastern mystical  teaching written in a smooth, easy to read style for all ages. It has a certain charm and picks up on characteristics of ancient alchemy without being preachy or new age waffly. It is an easy and calm read but may well be too superficial or whimsical for some. The theology points to a Christian world view but the vision is cloudy and incomplete!   3 stars

2. Jack London: The Call of the Wild, illustrated Martin Gascoigne, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, UK, Puffin Books, 1985 (1903).  The ultimate animal story. This edition was Issued in a Puffin series for children but the novel is not really a children’s book..it contains considerable brutal cruelty, killing and bloodshed. Extraordinarily powerful rhythmic language of deep vigour and fire and images that will not be soon forgotten after reading. The image built up of the magnificent dog “Buck” tugs at the heartstrings episode after episode. Also a magnificent introduction to the Yukon and the Klondike gold rush. Exceptional impact for such a short novella (124 pages).   5 stars.

3.  Charles Dickens:  The Pickwick Papers, (The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club),  Nelson Doubleday, New York, 1944  (1837)  A rollicking account of the adventures and misadventures of the indefatigable Samuel Pickwick, Esq, G.C.M.P.C (General Chairman-Member of the Pickwick Club). Pickwick formed this club of good friends (Tupman, Winkle and Snodgrass) who agreed to spend some time together travelling around the country and city sights of England and enlarge their experience of life. It is the first “laugh out loud” book by Dickens I have read  although some of the embarrassing scenarios are difficult to read and some of the horrors of the C19th poorer classes appallng to read about. In particular the account of some aspects of the now defunct  Fleet St prison and the amount of alcohol consumed in daily life everywhere on every occasion both help to remove any glorification of the purity of life in C19th England.   Representatives of the legal and official religious classes come out badly here and as usual Dickens’ description of women is awkward in places. The real hero is not Pickwick but Sam Weller, Pickwick’s heroic man Friday whose expressions are as funny and clever as I have come across. The theme also allows Dickens to retell some ancient English yarns and stories including an interesting tale of a grumpy grave-digger who is transported to Goblin-hell to change his ways1  A very cheerful, if at times tedious read!  4 stars.

4. J I Packer: Knowing God; with Study Guide, London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1993 (1973). This is the third time I have read this spiritual classic at very different times in my life. Packer’s knowledge of Scripture and theology is impressive. A careful study of this book brings one into contact with a vast amount of Biblical material including an excellent analysis of Ecclesiastes and a detailed analysis of Romans (36 pages).Theologically Packer is very much at home quoting Puritan writers to good effect  but also Luther, Calvin, Samuel Rutherford, Wesley, Whitefield, Leon Morris, T C Hammond,  C19th and C18th hymn writers, Jonathan Edwards, John Murray, Tasker, Ryle.  He is also able to quote accurately from Brunner, Niebuhr, and Robinson. Perhaps the most helpful parts of the book are Packer’s wise comments on living the Christian life especially in relation to personal suffering and hardship, Middle Class Christianity, problems associated with the use of images of Christ, Christian conceitedness, super spirituality, finding truth in persons first and propositions only secondarily, understanding the wrath of God, ethics, prayer, hope, holiness, guidance, inward trials and much more. Curiously Packer appears to be Calvinist in relation to who God chooses to bless and Arminian in regard to those who choose to reject God. Packer’s detailed analysis of salvation, judgment, wrath and atonement is hard work for anyone unschooled in dogmatic theology and reading. In 2017 it feels like a gap that Packer does not give attention to the  question of the fate of those who have not heard the Gospel   A thought provoking and challenging book. The study guide makes this book an excellent tool for a committed study group. (5 stars).

5.  How Shall We Worship? Biblical Guidelines for the Worship Wars, Marva J Dawn, Tyndale House Publishers, Wheaton Ill., 2003.  A penetrating, scholarly and useful guide to the issues in the current “worship wars” between supporters of traditional and contemporary worship written by theologian, musician and educator Marva J Dawn who is a Teaching Fellow at Regent College Vancouver British Columbia Canada.  In general the book appears to be aimed at Fundamentalist North American churches who major on loud contemporary music in their worship and have little by the way of liturgy, structure or ordered reflection in their worship. Nevertheless the book also has some hard things to say about the rigidity of some churches using historic liturgies (p76) and our culture’s idolatry of everything new, though in worship, materials the new is often not sorted …on the opposite side, many sacralise the old, without noticing that some hymns and forms from bygone eras have lasted for terrible reasons (such as fatuous sentimentality).  

The structure and chapter headings of the book are based on an exegesis of Psalm 96

I note the following wise comments that should inform the debate about church worship:

  • Music should be of all kinds…traditional, multi-cultural, contemporary..above all it should be what is appropriate for the particular service.  (chapter 1)
  • Worship is primarily in praise of God. She is critical of the culture of narcissism [à la Christopher Lasch: The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. New York, Norton, 1978]  Lasch argues that the C20th produced a momentous selfishness which continues today.
  • Churches should not succumb to the C21st niche marketing rage and divide up congregations into smaller sub-sections based on age or choice of worship style.(chapter 2)
  • Declining church attendance has encouraged “attracting new attenders” as the major preoccupation of church planning and has confused worship and evangelism. (chapter 3)
  • The whole of life is worship…Churches should use “the church’s year” to structure the content of worship and in some cases this means that worship cannot always be upbeat e.g. Good Friday. The author argues that we have failed to train our church members for daily mission, that worship is the job of the whole congregation, and that churches need to be counter-cultural. (Chapter 4)
  • Idolatries and false gods abound today including mammon, worship of nature, idolising “the new”. Dawn provides a useful list of dialectical opposites which are both needed in worship (p53) Some prominent examples are these: (chapter 5)

truth from God…………………….. response to God

head…………………………………… heart

freshness………………………………continuity with the past

contextualization………………… universality

new expressions……………………familiiarity for the sake of participation

order…………………………………… freedom in the Spirit

joy, delight, elation…………………….sorrow, penitence, lament

enthusiastic expression………………silence



  • Worship should be influenced by creation theology…silence and beauty as well as wild power; young and old together in worship (especially in musical instrumentation); qualified use of technology without domination by technology.and more on dialectics (chapters 6 & 7)
  • The importance of liturgy, ritual and mindfulness (chapter 8)
  • Good worship changes our character…examples include offering of ourselves and our means to God; a sense of the communion of saints; even the question of how we dress in church; a sense of the privilege of worship; reconciliation with one another; mission and redescribing the world; using secular songs/cultural symbols in worship vs Christian symbols; robes or not robes. our inability to escape cultural forms; (chapters 9 & 10);
  • Creation as a model for praise; celebrating the cosmos; all nature joins our praise; worship is counter-cultural; It is not a democracy or a hierarchy or a majority..it is a charismacracy; the charismacracy includes the pastor, the musicians and a worship committee. (chapter 11)
  • Worship forms us to be the people of God; are our lives determined by the past, present or the future? We are not pulled down by the past… we live for the present guided by the future; our thinking must be eschatological so that our worship is not utilitarian or entertainment or a backdrop for ‘star clergy’! We carry God’s kingdom wherever we go. We are freed from the power of sin..a community in Jesus’ likeness. (chapter 12)  The book includes useful discussion questions, informative notes, excellent resources for further study and group discussion and a topical index which could have been more useful if more detailed. (4 stars)


6.  Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves,  London, Serpent’s Tail, 2014.   A quirky, very funny but also heart-breakingly sad novel which shines a fierce  light on the use of sentient animals for scientific research. Since a summary of the plot would detract from the pleasure of reading I will simply say that the book is an excellent read. The writing is deceptively simple yet sophisticated; it will improve your vocabulary substantially; the insights into human communication are superbly and humorously drawn; and a mid-novel twist brings surprise and a serious look at some ethical questions regarding scientific method and some components of the study of psychology. Difficult to put down initially but the second half tends to get caught between the story and the message and can’t quite make up its mind. For a deeper understanding of our simian friends this book is essential.(4 stars)

7. Cate Kennedy, Dark Roots, Melbourne, Scribe, 2014 (2006)  Imaginative and evocative collection of short stories written in an Australian environment and cleverly managing to avoid dateable references.Very funny in parts; exceptional ability to get into the minds of individual characters in a very short space of time. It is easy to identify with many of these stories and characters. Well deserved recognition (reprinted seven times since 2006).  (4 stars)

A dialogue with Karl Barth re the importance of preaching in the Church

A dialogue with Karl Barth and his massive Church Dogmatics. In Section 1.1 The Doctrine of the Word of God, in Chapter  1 Barth begins with a discussion about the importance of proclamation or preaching.  In particular he dialogues with Paul Tillich.   I am using the translation of his second edition by G W Bromiley,  London/New York, T& T Clark International, paperback edition, 2004 (1936)  p 47.  Barth’s quotations are in italics. My comments are non-italicized. Barth writes a little like Calvin…he states a bold idea and then begins to hedge around it in such a way that you begin to agree with him once you accept all his “possible alternatives” to his initial bold statement.




 p47-48  Nor all human talk is talk about God. It could be and should be. There is no reason in principle why it should not be. God is the Lord from whom and to whom we exist. …We do not know man, i.e. ourselves, as man in his original estate and therefore as the man of the kingdom of glory….We know ourselves only as the man to whom mercy is shown as one who is fallen, lost and condemned. 

 Only the believer knows this condemnation. The natural man knows only deep down that he or she is lost and “his heart is restless until he finds his rest in Thee”.  There is no point in trying to show non-believers that they have offended against God’s will for their lives. What we can do is live as joyfully and faithfully as we can striving with all our might for the fulfilment of God’s kingdom on earth and caring for the earth.  We can extend God’s love to everyone we meet and encourage them to hear and see God in the wonder and beauty of creation,  and if they are willing, to look into the Word itself and encouraging them to listen to their inner self and conscience. We have a particular responsibility to our own family. 

We stand under the sign of a decision constantly taken between the secularity and the sanctification of our existence, between sin and grace, between a being which forgets God, which is absolutely neutral in relation to Him and therefore absolutely hostile, and one which in His revelation is awakened by faith[fulness] to being in the Church. 

p48  Barth opposes Paul Tillich’s view in Kirche und Kultur, 1924, p10f that from God’s standpoint the historical Church has no advantage over historical society, that revelation is addressed equally to society and the Church [which seems to be what Romans 2 is saying] and that the “invisible community” can be equally proclaimed and actualized  ‘from the religious and cultural angles.’  But Barth does admit that Certainly, God is not bound to the historical Church. He is free and able to raise up children to Abraham from the stones. 

I agree with Barth that the deep fellowship, excitement and joy that comes from a loving Christian fellowship is a particular gift from God and should be cherished when it occurs but the reality is that churches, too, are fallen and in need of forgiveness and some churches  and church leaders/members do and have done damage to folk that  non-Christians do not experience; also of course, being a committed believer inevitably brings secular persecution. There is no value in weighing up degrees of “happiness” between the churched and non-churched. “The rain rains on the just and on the just (but chiefly on the just because the unjust steals the just’s umbrella!). I think both Tillich and Barth have a point here!

p49  Only in faith[fulness]  is being in the Church visible as divine election and  sanctification. What is visible in itself is simply an event within the secular sphere.  Barth quotes Luther, Fastenpostille, 1525..the Gospel is not an eternal, lasting, static doctrine, but like a moving shower of rain which strikes what it strikes and misses what it misses….Barth comments: The one who is awakened and gathered to being in the Church has every cause for full assurance of faith[fulness] but none at all for certainty or over-confidence….the being of man in the Church “ubi et quando visum est Deo”  [“where and when it pleases God”] is a true and concrete event….

Not all talk in the Church’s worship seeks to be proclamation. It does not seek to be such when it is talk addressed by man to God…[this talk is]   a response to God of the praise, confession and thanksgiving of those to whom proclamation concerning Him has come.

p50 …other elements in the life of the Church ..cannot seek to be proclamation e.g. the expression of helpful solidarity in the face of the external needs of human society. [prayers for the world and its people]. Barth cites Matthew 5:14. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. …If God exists for man …then this man…must also exist for his fellow -men……[yet this intercession for the world] is primarily and properly directed to God and not to men. It can neither try to enter into quite superfluous competition with society’s necessary efforts at self-help…..Like prayer, praise and confession, especially in cases like Francis of Assisi and Bodelschwingh, it has always been spontaneous and unpremeditated, and in the final and best sense unpractical talk about God. 

 [Friedrich von Bodelschwingh (1831-1910)..German priest, theologian, politician and social worker; founded schools, charities for the handicapped and the first savings bank.]

p51 The education of youth has to teach and not to convert, not to bring to a decision, and to this extent does not proclaim.  

Finally, according to our understanding of the matter, neither can theology as such claim to be proclamation. It, too, is talk about God to men. Proclamation, however, is its presupposition, its material, its practical goal, not its content or task. Theology reflects upon proclamation. It confronts it as a court of criticism….it is …testing the coherence of modern proclamation by the original and dominant being of the Church, and of giving directions for its correct and relevant continuation….there will unavoidably be invasions of the sphere of proclamation, and they will often be highly appropriate as reminders of the theme. But, here, too, the exceptions prove the rule, namely, that theology as such is not proclamation, but science, instruction and investigation.

p51-2 The talk about God to be found in the Church, however, is meant to be proclamation when it is directed to men with the definitive claim and expectation that it has to declare the Word of God to them. Barth quotes 1 Thessalonians 2:13 And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. 

 [note this: the word of God works in us…we need to read it constantly and hear it so it is able freely to work in us.]

 Barth  also quotes 1 Peter 4:11a whoever speaks, as one who utters oracles of God… and 2 Corinthians 2:17..For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word; but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.

p52  Proclamation is human speech in and by which God Himself speaks like a king through the mouth of his herald, and which is meant to be heard and accepted as speech in and by which God Himself speaks, and therefore heard and accepted in faith as divine decision concerning life and death, as divine judgment and pardon, eternal Law and eternal Gospel both together. 

[Note: “life and death” can refer to how we die and how we deal with living and dying in this life and how we live in this life; “pardon” is the opposite of judgment for those who have faithfulness; for the non-believer the opposite of judgment is not necessarily eternal death….it could be a “hell of accountability” facing up to the true Christ” after death and leading to salvation within the eternal love of God…in what way who knows although we know that those of faithfulness will rule in that world…perhaps they will be teachers and mentors;  the κοσμος is a big place!  I think there will be much to do! à la Billy Graham in an interview long ago with Mike Willissee. Ideas like this do not reduce the urgency of proclamation in this life. As Hebrews notes this is the only life on this unredeemed earth we will ever have..it should be a life of joy, beauty in brokenness, harmony and faithfulness…it is tragic that folk should be living lives and relationships of such harsh misery and misfunction.]

Nor does God’s own Word cease to be itself when it allows itself to be served by human utterance. But as it allows itself to be served by it, it is itself his human utterance, and as this human utterance serves it, it is itself God’s own Word.  For a proper explanation of this “is” we should have to refer even at this stage to the Christological doctrine of the two natures.

It is a decisive part of the insight of all true prophecy that man as such has no possibility of uttering the Word of God. What human utterance concerning God aims to be when it is intended as proclamation is….a means of grace.

p53 Thus proclamation is not asked concerning its formal or material perfection…it is simply asked whether it is service, whether it is commissioned…the διακονια του λογου (Acts 6:4) (the ministry of the word).  Barth quotes Luther: Festpostille: …thou shouldest flee as from hell from speaking a single word, except thou shouldest be bidden and called thereto…none will do any good by preaching except he who is bidden and forced to preach without his own will or desire…but whoso teacheth uncalled, teacheth not without harm, both to himself and the hearers, for that Christ is not with him.

p54 If the Church is visible, this need not imply that we actually see it in its full compass, that the dimensions of its sphere might not be very different from what we think we know them to be. God may suddenly be pleased to have Abraham blessed by Melchizedek, or Israel blessed by Balaam or helped by Cyrus….He can establish the Church anew and directly when and where and  how it pleases Him…..Hence it can never be the case that the Word of God is confined to the proclamation of the existing Church, or to the proclamation of the Church as known to us, or to the talk about God in this known Church which specially claims to be proclamation. Church proclamation itself, in fact, regards itself only as service of the Word of God, as a means of grace in God’s free hand. Hence it cannot be master of the Word nor try to regard the Word as confined within its own borders.

p55 [On the other hand]…a philosophy of culture [eg Paul Tillich] may very well reflect upon things, including an “unconditioned” or a “far side of being” discerned elsewhere than in the command. But it must not imagine that in so doing it has even touched the task of theology.

God may speak to us through Russian Communism, a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub, or a dead dog. We do well to listen to Him if He really does. But, unless we regard ourselves as the prophets and founders of a new Church, we cannot say that we are commissioned to pass on what we have heard as independent proclamation. God may speak to us through a pagan or  an atheist, and thus give us to understand that the boundary between the Church and the secular world can still take a different course from that which we think we discern. Yet this does not mean that we ourselves have to proclaim the pagan or atheistic thing which we have heard. [i.e. proclaim it as the Church.]

p56  But what is this specially commissioned proclamation of the Church which it must accept as a commission to and for men?….

  1. This proclamation is preaching, i.e., the attempt by someone called thereto in the Church, in the form of the exposition of some portion of the Biblical witness to revelation, to express in his own words and to make intelligible to the men of his own generation the promise of the revelation, reconciliation and vocation of God..
  2. This proclamation is the sacrament….visible, sacred signs and seals appointed by God…(Heidelburg Confession)…namely that for the sake of the one sacrifice of Christ accomplished on the Cross He graciously grants us remission of sins and eternal life.[But the question remains: who is “us”? Is it just “our particular group? or is it that Christ died while we were yet ungodly (Romans) ..for the sins of the whole world  (AAPB)]

iii)p 57-59  ….[God]  also and specifically wills that God’s own Word should be proclaimed in and through His Church. [based on Matthew 28:19f]….Again if this announcement is to be legitimate repetition of not just any promise, but of the promise given to the Church by God Himself, then it cannot be arbitrary religious discourse. It must be homily, i.e., discourse which as the exposition of Scripture is controlled and guided….it cannot consist in the mere reading of Scripture or in repeating or paraphrasing the actual wording of the biblical witness….the person called must be ready to make the promise given to the Church intelligible in his own words to the men of his own time. Calling, promise, exposition of Scripture, actuality—-these are the decisive definitions of the concept of preaching….

p60 How is this to happen inasmuch as proclamation must be unambiguously identical with preaching? [It is not just] higher instruction in religion and morals [or] the expression of the personal  piety of the person concerned…it represents the character of promise as event and grace in contrast to all man’s work on the level of human occurrence….it has to be action.

p61 [proclamation] has to be action demanded and controlled by the biblical witness. Again, like preaching, it cannot seek to replace the Word of God itself…it can only be a serving of God’s Word…as word in human thought and expression, …it cannot represent..revelation, reconciliation and calling …as the act of divine grace…enacted once and for all in the epiphany of Jesus Christ.

..promise…action in distinction to mere word, conformity to Scripture, representative symbolical connection with the ‘once -for-all of revelation— these are the decisive definitions of the concept of sacrament.

…we should not omit to point away from the exegesis and back to the actual text before us.

p61-2 Modernist dogmatics is finally unaware of the fact that in relation to God man has constantly to let something be said to him, has constantly to listen to something which he constantly does not know and which in no circumstances and in no sense can he say to himself. Modernist dogmatics hears man answer when no one has called him. It hears him speak with himself. For it, therefore, proclamation is a necessary expression of the life of the human community known as the “Church.” 

p62 Barth moves from the above to criticize Schleiermacher and Tillich because we are forced to conjecture that here too man is finally conceived of as conversing only with himself. Barth quotes Tillich: (Relig.Verwirkl) “..One has a right to say that e.g., Christ and Buddha are symbols in so far as they are a representation of what is ultimately intended in the religious act….the truth of a symbol rests upon its inner necessity for the symbol-creating consciousness…”

p63  Barth replies to Tillich:  …But then Logos in its isolation as word spoken back and forth necessarily becomes one symbol among many others. …The question now becomes in all seriousness: Why do I choose precisely these symbols, talk about God and this form of it, namely, actual exposition of the Bible, along with these two or seven sacraments? Are these really the truest symbols when my spiritual nature should and would express itself. Might there not be truer symbols than these?  

 [I find this a strange way to criticize other symbols of God’s love and power to say they are not “as true” as biblical word and sacrament. The early Fathers argued e.g. that when the pagan philosophers e.g. Plato spoke true words we should accept them as the truth even though they are not found directly in the Bible.  Likewise Paul writes in Romans 1:20  that “God’s invisible nature namely his eternal power and deity, have been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”  Surely a beautiful leaf or flower, or mountain view, a morning in the desert,  or woodland river, or work of human creation can by a symbol of God’s truth and lead us closer to him. To reject all of this out of hand is unnecessary. Yes the bible contains words that God can use to transform our lives but it is the Spirit which achieves this so we worship God in Spirit we do not worship the bible, and indeed à la P T Forsyth we “criticize” the bible textually etc and interpret the bible (in literal form etc) legitimately.  What the bible does do which a leaf or a flower or a painting cannot do, is “reveal the ways of God to us” (e.g. Psalm 103:7). God has chosen Israel and the apostolic witness to the incarnate Logos to be a light in the world. Yet it is clear from the bible itself that God as Barth himself wrote earlier that God can also speak through a Melchizedek, a Cyrus, a Balaam  or even an ass! As for Barth’s question how do we choose which symbol? Surely we don’t have to…Let God be God and let us rejoice in his creation.

A more important question might be ..”is there a hierarchy of revelation”? Can we relate to God without the bible. The answer must be yes. Abraham and Moses had no bible yet they heard God speaking to them and responded. Yes God has sent us messengers, prophets, priests and apostles but above all he has written a covenant by his Spirit into our hearts. We value what the saints of old have written down about God’s revelation and we collect and try to preserve their words but God does not “need” human councils and creeds to express himself to us. (and indeed sometimes the human formulations and translations can be unhelpful and lead us astray.) Above all we are led astray if we set up our own understanding of the bible as the ONLY expression of the boundless love of God. So how do we answer Tillich and the hierarchy question?? In my view we should NOT ignore any of God’s gifts..our conscience,  the wonder of creation, AND the written word of God…God has chosen these agents to teach and inspire us …the written word is a light to our path. To play down this revelation is as ridiculous as to live in a house in a beautiful place and never go out and enjoy it or even look out the window! After all, the basics of human living…love, honesty, caring,  character, endurance, integrity …these are not rocket science…where we find them we should cherish them. Similarly murder, theft, terror, anger, hubris, cheating, aggression, selfishness are to be avoided and opposed.. God has chosen to reveal himself to us in his written word. We should not ignore or marginalise it.  After all, Tillich would have had nothing to write or think about if generations of theologians had not thought deeply and written before him.  God’s revealed word can give us clarity, encouragement and inspiration.  But to ignore or play down other symbols is unnecessary.  How do we choose which symbols?  There is no short cut.  We live, read, talk, discuss, serve, examine, think and we make judgments and learn to trust what is good and useful and to be careful of what is shoddy, untrustworthy, inadequate. It is called “living” and we live to God in the whole of his revelation. I value both Barth and Tillich but Tillich does not discriminate enough and Barth discriminates too much!]

 p63  Barth opposes Tillich’s rejection of ultimate revelation in the bible e.g. Tillich: “..it is quite wrong to equate the Word as a symbol of the self-impartation of transcendent being with the Word as the physical medium of the self comprehension and impartation of the human spirit, and in this way to mix up God’s Word and the word of Scripture or the word of preaching…Word is not only present when it is spoken and conceived but Word is also present when it is spoken in powerful symbols”…..Protestantism has  largely forgotten this. Verbum, the Word of revelation, may (!) be in everything in which spirit expresses itself, even in the silent symbols of art, even in the works of society and law….and that means that nothing less than the whole of life of society in every aspect is ordained to be symbolically powerful of God. [Theology and Culture, 1924]

 [Tillich has surely gone too far here…many aspects of “the whole of life in society” are shot through with eroticism, vanity, neuroticisim, envy, concupiscence, greed, hubris, atheism, corruption, shallow thinking, ignorance, stupidity, covetousness, insincerity, selfishness, narcissism, and just plain human pride and desire for autonomy and its refusal to bow to any authority other than its own “will to power”…and this is just the short list.  These aspects of life or society are definitely not “symbolically powerful of God.”!]

p63  Barth is whimsical about the Berneuchener movement..an evangelical Lutheran youth movement in Germany in the 1920s designed to throw off the influence of liberal theology and  included artistic symbols and other various cheerful things of a similar nature [which] now have a chance of entering into not wholly purposeless rivalry with preaching, which has become less relevant ever since e.g. Julius Smend, Herbert Birtner, O. Dibelius (less preaching! More action and  more of other forms of proclamation!) …Inspiration is needed in poets and in religious speakers…

[ I have some sympathy with this approach but surely it can be combined with preaching. It doesn’t have to be “all art” or “all poetry” or “all philosophy” but it doesn’t hurt to include human reflection or allusion to lighten and vary the sermonic monotone. After all, Jesus himself summarised “the law and the prophets” in his own words and chose “purple patches” from Isaiah to highlight his own teaching. Genuinely original thinkers seldom quote directly from others but most mere mortals can do with a bit of help from the greats!]

p63 Barth asks: Why proclamation at all? Why symbols at all? Why not better be silent? Why not, as the truest word we can utter, renounce all special talk about God, all use of symbols whatsoever?  [This is the way of mysticism or pietism and of Aquinas after his vision when he determined not to say anything more ever again]

p64 Again Barth quotes Tillich:  Undoubtedly the supreme aim of a theological work should be to discover the point at which reality itself speaks unsymbolically both of itself and also of the unconditional, to discover the point at which reality itself without a symbol becomes a symbol, at which the antithesis between reality and symbol is removed… [Rel. Verwiirkl. p.208]

Barth comments:  Understanding of the concept of Proclamation along these lines can end only with its dissolution. Proclamation as self-expression must in the long run turn out to be a superfluous and impossible undertaking….What is the Church, what is it meant to be, if it has no centre, if man is not really addressed in it? Can the truth of its being really be that man is alone in and with his world?  ….Barth finds his answers to these questions in Romans 10:14 (how shall they hear without a preacher …ἀρα ἡ πιστις ἐξ ἀκοης, ἡ δε ἀκοη δια ῥματος χριστου]

p64 Barth now moves to deal with Roman Catholic dogmatics which he argues is concerned with the mutual relations of the concepts of preaching and sacrament….its dogmatics cannot emphasise strongly enough that the Church lives and dies by and in this means of grace. Barth cites various Roman Catholic scholars e.g. H Hurter, Scheeben-Atzberger and Bartmann. e.g. “The Church’s work in performing [the sacraments] is the truest revelation and the outer confirmation of its mysterious life.” [Hurter]

p65 “[The sacraments] are the most concentrated expression and the inmost kernel of the Church’s faith and life” [Scheeben-Atzberger]

Barth comments: …in this dogmatics preaching is not only assigned less importance, but virtually no importance at all compared to the sacrament which is received and celebrated so zealously.  

p65  Barth also opposes those Lutherans e.g. Klaus Harms (1817) who advance the exaggerated view that the Roman Church inclines to cling to the sacrament and build its life around this, that the Reformed Church does the same with the Word, but that the Lutheran Church “more splendidly than either” honours both sacrament and Word..

 Barth disagrees with this and argues that the Reformed and even the Modernist traditions pay much more care and attention to the sacraments than the Roman church does to preaching. [The Roman Church] consistently speak of the teaching office of the Church as though preaching did not even exist as an indispensable means of grace that claims serious attention.

p66  Barth does admit practical Roman writings say positive things about preaching and quotes Franz Hettinger (1909) “through this word of preaching and in it Christ lives on mystically, edifies, extends, enlightens, comforts and blesses HIs Church continually, pursues His work of redemption through every century,, feeds our souls on the bread of truth, just as He incorporates the whole man into Himself through the eucharistic bread”.  But Barth  complains that such thought are not represented in the manuals of Roman Catholic dogmatics.  

p66 Barth argues that the fact …that the Roman Catholic Church has produced more than one outstanding preacher  both past and present, cannot alter …the way in which this function is obviously forced into a backwater even in its exercise, as shown externally by the ruling that the Mass may be complete without it.

p67 …Roman Catholicism—not unlike Modernism in this respect—sees something quite different from proclamation take place as that centre of the Church’s life which we have described as proclamation.

 [It is possible that Barth over-rates the role of proclamation in worship. Effective, powerful, interesting  preaching is a rare gift in my experience and it should be cherished when it occurs but even the finest preaching will be lost if the surrounding worship..prayer/sacrament/hymn singing etc is performed poorly. I think it is not that proclamation has priority over sacrament, singing and public prayer but that public worship should be seen in totality as service to God and therefore carefully prepared, sensitively performed and prayerfully surrounded. The problem with over-estimating proclamation is that it becomes Protestant scholasticism.]

p68  [The Reformers}…thought they could understand the presence of the holy God among unholy men only as the grace of the strictly personal free Word of God which reaches its goal in the equally free hearing of men, the hearing of faith, which for its part, too, can be understood only as grace….[The Roman Catholic understanding] …sees the presence of Jesus Christ in his Church, the mystical unity of the Head with the whole body, in the face that under certain conditions there flows from Jesus Christ a steady and unbroken stream or influence of divine-human being on His people. Barth regards this a “theocentric” theology as opposed to the “anthropocentric” theology of Modernism but both agree in the unwillingness to recognise the ultimate necessity of proclamation. 

[It is almost as if what Barth fears is missing form Modernism and Roman Catholicism is mission…the spoken word which seeks to proclaim and convert..and yet surely church is for insiders not for outsiders. Apart from specific “seeker services” surely when Christians gather to worship they are seeking encouraging fellowship, joint exhilarating worship with fellow believers, the sense of drawing near to the very presence of God in sacrament, exhortation to dig more deeply into their faith and understanding certainly but not the constant proclamation e.g. that they are sinner’s in need of salvation or the repetition of God’s proclamation to the world through his Word…that is surely the task of mission not worship ]

p69  On this  [Roman Catholic] view the sacrament has to become the one and all …and naturally preaching has to be forced into that particular backwater. [The Roman Catholic Church}..regards the faith which comes from hearing the Word only as preparatory to receiving righteousness from God….It cannot be a means of true sanctifying grace…only a means of preparatory grace….For it, then, preaching can have a place only on the extreme margin of the Church’s action.

p70  [The Reformers]…regarded the representative event at the centre of the Church’s life as proclamation, as an act concerned with speaking and hearing… a personal encounter…..hence not the sacrament alone nor preaching alone, nor yet, to speak meticulously, preaching and the sacrament in double track, but preaching with the sacrament, with the visible act that confirms human speech as God’s act…The Evangelical Churches, Lutheran as well as Reformed, can and must be termed the churches of preaching.

  [and yet in Europe in the C20th and C21st many of these Lutheran and Reformed churches are relatively empty and some have become museums while the Catholic churches with their creaky machinery continue to rumble along with large numbers and e.g. in Spain it is the more “superstitious” centres with Mariology at the heart of things that attract more numbers than the more traditional catholic churches. Similarly in the West, Orthodoxy and its mystic Christ experience is growing at the expense of both Catholicism and Protestantism…while the megachurches seem to collapse when their proclaiming guru (e.g. Driscoll, Bell, Piper, Peters, crystal cathedral etc decides to withdraw and follow other paths..twas ever this I guess with e.g. Wesley, Whitefied, Spurgeon, Moody, Stott, Graham…the proclaimers cannot go on for ever and new proclaimers must arise but at the moment (2017) it seems that proclaimed words about Christ are less required than quiet meditation and thinking with Christ…hence the popularity of Benedictine order and thinking…maybe it has something to do with the noise and the tiresomeness of online chatter…]

p70-71  Barth cites many authorities in favour of proclamation above all else as important in the church [ e.g. the Augustininian Confession, Luther, Calvin, Melanchthon,  and writes against C19th Lutheran scholars (Harms, Vilmar, Löhe) who discredited preaching. He closes with a quote from Johannes Rupprecht (1925):…The Word is the primary thing. The Word existed before the sacrament was…The Word is God’s original essence, the sacrament is first aroused by our need. The Word will remain after our need, the sacrament will disappear after our need.  This presupposed, I must say that Word is the audible sacrament and the sacrament is the visible Word. The Word was before the sacrament and exists without the sacrament and will also still exist afterwards.