Christmas in Basel – Karl Barth’s sermon from 1954

Every year again I use to read two or three classic Christmas sermons. John Donne’s Nativity sermons are among my favorites, for example. This year however, I decided to take up the volume with ‘Predigten’, held by Karl Barth in the karl-barth1prison (Strafanstalt) of Basel. This fact is surely important. From 1947 until 1954 Barth’s preaching activities were interrupted. But in 1954 he started preaching again more regularly. However, he restricted himself almost completely to the prison of Basel as his pulpit. These sermons have become famous because of their pastoral nature. The sermon for Christmas Day 1954, about Luke 2,10-11, offers abundant testimony to this quality.

After a short, direct prayer Barth sets off: ‘My dear brothers and sisters!’ (‘Meine lieben Brüder und Schwestern’). This is a sermon on its own, in which he embraces those prisoners. ‘Now we have heard the Christmas story’, he says. ‘And how did we hear it?’ Barth specifies a few options. Some of us, he says, might have missed it, because they were distracted. Others will have heard it like a nice fairytale, which they deeply question. Yet others will have had cherished childhood memories, a wonderful Christmas sentiment which will never return. ‘I  just want to say, dear friends’, Barth continues, ‘this is what we make of Christmas. All of us’.
Until the angel of the Lord arrives… ‘The angel surely has gone through the streets and squares of Basel. He was there for those, who are lonely and sad or those who celebrated Christmas Eve perhaps too joyous and stupid. He is there for those, who are asleep now… And he will visit the churches from Basel this morning…’.

Barth’s pastoral introduction stands out. It might strike you as being at odds with his emphasis on the vertical dimension of the Gospel (‘senkrecht von oben’). In this sermon, however, Barth very consciously introduces his message in relation to the experience of his hearers. This does not mean that the vertical dimension is absent. On the contrary, Barth emphasizes it quite literally, refering to a picture that he had seen recently, on which the angel comes down like a thunderbolt. This is the truth about his message, Barth says, it really strikes us. There can be no doubt, that the Gospel comes to us from God and from Him alone.


In the remainder of his sermon, Karl Barth highlights three moments of his text. To start with he emphasizes the ‘to you’ (Euch) from the angel’s words: ‘For to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord’. It is this ‘to you’ that makes the message of the angel different from other messages. In the latter case we could think: it is not my business. But the angel says: ‘for you’. Barth doesn’t shun a bit of selfmockery. ‘The angel of the Lord was not a professor, as I am. A professor would perhaps have said: To the people the Saviour is born. That is spoken in general. It makes one think: it is not about me, but about others.’
Then Barth underscores the words: ‘this day’ (Heute). That does mean that we are not talking about a remote past event, Barth says. It means we are living in the present, in a new day, God’s day. We need to hear it, in order that we take courage!
Lastly, he marks the word ‘Saviour’ (Heiland). It is the core of the Christmas story. ‘The Saviour is the One who brings us salvation, who rescues us, who liberates us. He is the One who brings salvation to all! He makes no exceptions, because we are all in need of his salvation and because He is the Son of God, who is the Father of all of us. As He became man, He became our Brother!’ Here we see that the way Barth adressed his hearers in the beginning of the sermon was no coincidence!

In the closing part of the sermon Barth returns to the different experiences he evoked in the introduction. Do we stick to the distractions, our questions or nostalgic memories? Or do we really notice, get up and convert? ‘The angel of the Lord does not compel anyone – says Barth – and I really am unable to do so. A compulsive hearing and a forced participation in this history, that is our history, would be nothing. It is about a free obedience and a free participation in this history’.

‘Euch ist heute der Heiland geboren’ (Lukas 2,10-11, Weihnacht 1954, Strafanstalt Basel), Karl Barth Gesamtausgabe vol.12, reihe I. Predigten 1954-1967, Herausgegeben von Hinrich Stoevesandt, p.9-17.


Union with Christ: objective and subjective

To round off this year, I offer you a voluminous quote on the union with Christ. Guess who wrote these words. You may be surprised… Speaking of the union of Christ, our author says:

There are objective and subjective sides here. The objective is primary and determinative. It is God’s grace. The subjective is secondary and becomes possible only on the basis of the objective side. It is man’s faith. The objective side of the union of Christ and his church is the Incarnation-that is, the becoming man of the Son of God and the reconciliation which he effected in his humanity. By his grace in becoming man the Son of God united himself to man and man to himself. Thus in Jesus Christ, the Son of God is united with man and man with the Son of God. This unity of divine and human in Jesus Christ is the foundation of the unity between Christ and his church, between the Head and the Body. But the union is not purely one of being. According to the Reformers, Jesus Christ was man in our place. In our place and for us he fulfilled the Law which man could not fulfil. In our place and for us he died as a sinner, under the curse, the rejection, of God. By thus taking our place he united himself with us as those under God’s judgment, and he united us with himself as the one judged and condemned by God. But the crucified man rose again to eternal life and glory. Because it was in his human body that he gloriously rose, the eternally glorious Son of God united himself with men and men with himself. All this is the objective side which, as God’s grace, is primary and determinative. It stands whether man knows it or not. Nor can man’s lack of faith negative it, overcoming God’s grace. If man does not believe, Jesus Christ is still the God-Man who has made himself one with man in sin and glory.
But there is the subjective union of man with Christ. And this union is faith. Note that the Reformers do not say that the union is by faith, but that it is faith. Faith itself is the subjective union of man with Christ. Sometimes they will speak of faith and sometimes of the Holy Spirit as being this union, but they plainly believed that they were saying the same thing in a different way. Faith, which is God’s creation in man, is the recognition and acknowledgment that the reality of man’s existence is to be found, not in his own antagonistic existence, which is not the truth but the denial of the truth, i.e. a lie, but in the existence of Jesus Christ. ‘Who am I?’ faith asks. And answers: ‘I am the man who joyfully and willingly has fulfilled the Law, the will of God. I am the man who died to sin once and over whom therefore sin has no dominion. I am the man who has risen from the death of sin to the life of righteousness.’ I, the breaker and hater of the Law? I, the sinner who prefer my way to God’s? Yes; the reality of my existence is in Christ, who united himself with my humanity and did all that he did for my sake and in my place. This is the recognition and acknowledgment ofthe reality, truth and validity of Christ’s uniting himself with man. And on the subjective side, it is the recognition of the possibility and the acknowledgment of the actuality of the person’s uniting himself with Christ. What is true of the individual is true here of the church. This corpus of men is the corpus Christi on the basis of this twofold union.

This is a wonderful quote, according to me. The author is obviously very familiar with the Reformers. But you can feel, he is also acquainted with Barthian theology. Is it T.F. Torrance? No. Maybe one of the other Torrances: James or David? No again. The author of these words is Thomas Henry Louis Parker. As far as I know, he is still alive, being now 97 years old. He lectured on the university of Durham, but was also for many years a country vicar, combining his pastoral duties with his studies of the Reformation. Outside the circle of Calvin-specialists, the name of T.H.L. Parker is not very well-known. [The only picture of him I was able to find is on the back of his extraordinary book Calvin’s Preaching (1992).] Books of his on Calvin are a biography (with Bruce Gordon’s biography still one of the best), writings on Calvin’s commentaries and two monographs on Calvin’s preaching. T.H.L. ParkerFurthermore, he edited one of the volumes of Supplementa Calviniana.  Less well-known: he was also a Barth-scholar, writing on Barth’s theology and editing a Festschrift on the occasion of Barth’s 80th birthday. Both strands of his theological stance become audible in this quotation: traces of Luther, Calvin and Barth are easily recognizable.

P.S. He wrote these words in an article, titled ‘The Reformation and the Church today’ Churchman 87.1 (1973); p.29-35. You can read it yourself here.

New Finnish Luther and Barth Interpretation?

Recently, I have been reading about the Finnish Luther Interpration. The last three decades a new Luther interpretation has been born in Finland. The founder of this line of interpretation, Tuomo Mannermaa, claims an alternative understanding of Luther’s writings. Instead of reading him as the advocate of an forensic concept of justification, Mannermaa holds him to be a theologian for whom concepts like the union with God, conceived as a union of being, and the (real-ontic) indwelling of Christ are at least equally important. In an article, titled ‘The Study of the Fundamentals of Martin Luther’s Tuomo MannermaaTheology in the Light of Ecumenism’, he introduces his findings. Besides his own work, he mentions the work of others in his trail. They have paid attention to the question why the interpretation of Luther became so fixated upon a forensic understanding of his doctrine of justification. Mannermaa’s colleagues and pupils (Simo Kiviranta; Risto Saarinen; Eeva Martikainen) detected and documented the massive influence of the German theologians Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889) and Wilhelm Herrmann (1846-1922). Mannermaa summarizes their findings into two lines of thoughts (quotations are given without reference to page or paragraph numbers, because they are lacking in the original (internet) source).

  1. The first is the ‘transcendental-ethical justification of religion’. The crucial distinction in this regard is that between ‘person’ and ‘nature’. “As ‘nature’ the human being is part of mechanical causality and belongs to the domain of theoretical reason. As ‘persons’, however, human begins are beyond nature because of their will, that is, because of their practical reason, which sets values.” In the light of this distinction it is illegitimate to speak about theosis as a union of being. Mannermaa once again: “I do not think that the reach of the influence that the transcendental-ethical justification of religion has had upon the later understanding of Christian faith can be overestimated. One example of the outcome of this influence is German theologian Adolf von Harnack’s (1851-1930) conception of the history of dogma, and his negative appraisal of the doctrine of divinization.” I find myself in full agreement with Mannermaa.
  2. The second hermeneutical tradition that according to Mannermaa has contributed to a mere forensic interpration of Luther’s doctrine of justification goes back to Ritschl as well. Ritschl adopted from the ontology of Hermann Lotze (1817-1881), German philosopher, “the idea that God can be known only in the acts (Akten) of God’s effects (Wirkungen) on human beings. According to Ritschl (and here he differs from Lotze), the origin of these effects, as well as their ontological nature an sich, remains unknown. From this selective adoption of Kant’s and Lotze’s positions arises actualism, ‘Aktualismus’, which has had a significant influence on the understanding of both revelation and the concept of the word in dialectical theology.”

So far, I’ve been chiefly quoting Mannermaa’s article. He points out how these two ‘hermeneutical traditions’, as he calls them, influenced the interpretation of Luther. But, as we saw, they had a profound impact on the development of Karl Barth’s theology and that of other representatives of dialectical theology. The first line of thought can be traced in Barth’s resistance against any form of theosis/deification (unlike T.F. Torrance, who was in this regard deeply influenced by the church fathers). The second line of thought is recognizable in Barth’s so called ‘actuallism’. Though it’s quite difficult to fully clarify what Barth is aiming at (this post on Out of Bounds might help you), it seems clear that Barth endorses the thesis that God can only be known in his acts, that is in history. All knowledge of God is determined by His revelation in Jesus Christ. So, there is no way to speak about God (and his being) apart from his acts in history. If this is correct, it shows that Barth not only criticized Enlightenment philosophical thoughts, but was deeply influenced by them as well. In short, the findings of the Finns are worth to be applied to the interpretation of Barth as well, although I’m certainly not an expert on Barth. You might call it a new Finnish Barth Interpretation.

But is it as new as it seems to be? As early as 1907, the Dutch theologian Isaäc van Is. van DijkDijk refuted Harnack’s thesis that: “Dogma in its conception and development is a work of the Greek spirit on the soil of the Gospel” (History of Dogma I (1885; transl.1894), p.17. Instead, Van Dijk wrote: “Dogma is in its conception and development a word of the Christian spirit with Greek resources” (Gezamelde geschriften (1917), p.327). A few years later, in 1921, a pupil of Van Dijk, Maarten (!) van Rhijn wrote a short book with studies on Luther’s doctrine of justification (Studiën over Luther’s rechtvaardigingsleer). In the first essay he points out that the forensic interpretation of the doctrine of justification is due to later developments (e.g. the conflict between Melanchton and Osiander). For Luther, writes Van Rhijn, justification implies the ‘self-M. van Rhijn (jong2)communication of God, by the indwelling of Christ in the sinner’s life’ (p.35). So, this book anticipates in a certain sense the Finnish Luther interpretation. But Van Rhijn has also a keen eye for the development in Luther’s theology. He observes that in Luther’s first period (up to 1517) the idea of ‘Christ in us’ was the dominant theme, whereas after 1517 the thought of ‘Christ for us’ became more important. And that fits perfectly with an often made criticism with regard to the Finns, that their ‘new’ interpretation can only be held in the light of the early works of Luther, but falters with regard to his later works. How that may be, both the New Finnish Luther interpretation and its critics seem to be anticipated by the Old Dutch interpretation.