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.

marc-chagall-christmas

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.

Thomas Henry Louis Parker (1916-2016)

A few days ago, May 25th, John Webster passed away. He was 60 years old. I heard about his sudden death at the Refo500RC Conference in Copenhagen. Home again, I soon found out that his death is lamented at various weblogs: here for example, here, here and also here. His passing away has attracted a lot of attention, and rightly so. Webster truly was an exceptional theologian.

However, in this post I want to pay attention to another theologian who recently diedT.H.L. Parker: the Rev. Dr. Thomas Henry Louis Parker. He died on Monday April 25th of this year, at the blessed age of 99 years. Parker was an outstanding scholar, both versed in Calvin Studies as well as in Barth Studies. His death has not attracted the same amount of attention as John Webster’s, but I gathered it was mentioned on Facebook, and also on the website of Refo500 and in this contribution by Lee Gatiss.

These contributions, valuable as they are, do not tell us much about his career. As far as I have been able to figure out, it looks like this:
1948-55 – Vicar of Brothertoft, Lincs.
1955-61 – Rector of Great and Little Ponton (near Grantham) Lincs.
1961-71 – Vicar of Oakington, Cambridge
1971-75 – University of Durham; Lecturer in Theology
1975-81 – University of Durham; Reader

T.H.L. Parker wrote important books about Calvin’s commentaries on the Old and New Testament. He edited some of Calvin’s commentaries and sermons. He wrote a concise, but very informative biography about Calvin. He published studies on Barth and was involved in the editing of the Church Dogmatics, together with T.F. Torrance.

Especially his books Calvin’s Preaching (a profound reworking of his earlier book The Oracles of God) really has been a revelation for me, from the moment I started to read it. There are not many books in my library that I have used more intensively than this book. Not only does it offer a wealth of information, but it captures my attention by its lively style of writing. Writing for example about the lost sermons of Calvin, which were removed from the Genevan library in the 19th century, he recounts that some of Calvin’s sermons were refound. He then continues:

“A few years later (1963) the pulse of life in my quiet country vicarage was quickened by the receipt of a letter from the Librarian of Lambeth Palace, saying that he had recently bought a manuscript volume of Calvin’s sermons on Genesis from Bristol Baptist College; would I please see them and pronounce on their authenticity. This, of course, I was only too willing to do.” (p.70)

About a year ago (March 2015) I unexpectedly came in touch with him by email, because I informed after him at BiblicalStudies.org. To my surprise the editor passed on an email [sic] of Dr. Parker himself. As a tribute to this outstanding scholar I’d like to cite a few sentences from this email, omitting the more personal details in it:

Twenty years ago I would have thought 98 was really very aged. Now that I am 98 it doesn”t seem much different from 58, 68, or 78, except, of course, that I can no longer indulge in the physical activities that I enjoyed then. I live on my own and more or less look after myself (…).

So, like the shepherd boy in Pilgrim’s Progress, I am content with what I have, little be it or much; and Lord contentment still I crave, because thou savest such.
Every good wish,
Yours sincerely,
T.H.L.Parker.

The last sentences really impressed me and made me glad because of the steadfast faith and hope that speaks out of it. This ‘shepherd boy’ has come home. We thank God for his life and work.

“Preaching is essentially a priestly function!” Thomas Torrance on the priestly character of the ministry

It has been silent here for quite a long time. There are good reasons for that, as I try to make progress in my studies. But this evening I discovered a sermon of Thomas F. Torrance, delivered at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1982. I was struck by it. Of course, as readers of this blog may know, I’ve a weak spot for TFT. But it was more than that. And yes, in this sermon Torrance follows the lead of Calvin and his exposure of the priestly character of the ministry. Of course, I’m studying Calvin, but once again,torrance-big that’s not the whole story. The point is this: in a few words (it’s not a long sermon) Torrance uncoveres a deep spiritual insight about the nature of the ministry.

Let me explain why this struck me. In the Netherlands, some theologians call for a more prophetic stance in the ministry of the Word. But – as you will see – Torrance strongly disagrees. He offers a very convincing and thought provoking plea for the priestly character of the ministry. In what follows I will briefly summarize this sermon of his. But let me assure you: it’s worth listening!

Torrance opens his sermon about Malachi 2 with a reference to the munus triplex, the threefold office. But – he says – Calvin had become deeply aware that the priesthood is ‘the primary aspect of the holy ministry’. At the end of his life, he is reformulating his thoughts on the subject, as his prayers at the end of his lectures on the minor prophets show.

Calvin is now convinced that there is now a priesthood within the corporate priesthood of the Church, the Body of Christ. This thought determines his view on the ministry. Every young minister – Torrance says – believes he has to behave like a prophet when he gets up into the pulpit. No, he has to behave like a priest. “As a priest he has to be the messenger of God”. Torrance emphasises three aspects of this thought:

  1. The priesthood has to do with a unique and awful function to which some people are separated. The priest has to bear the iniquities of the people of God and to bear God’s judgment on them. As Calvin understood it, there was a intimate bond between the priest, the offerer and the offering. They were inseparable. And the priest can offer only the oblations and prayers of the people in so far as he himself takes their hurt upon himself and penetrates into their needs and himself bear, penitently, the judgments of God. You can’t be a minister of the Gospel unless you are prepared and willing to bear their sins upon yourself and offer yourself with them before God. That is a priestly aspect, says Torrance, which we have forgotten.
  2. Calvin was aware that where ever the Old Testament speaks about memorial it was always, without exception, a memorial before God. That too is something we (Protestants) have forgotten or changed. We think of the Lord’s Supper as remembring Christ’s death, of what He did. That is not ‘memorial’. The priestly cropped-supperlast2.jpgofferings in the OT are memorials before God.  It is in that sense we have to think about the Eucharist. As Calvin explains in his comments on Numbers 19: Christ is our Memorial and we offer Christ daily to the Father. And that’s what we do in the Eucharist. We are participants in Christ’s sacrifice.
  3. The ministry of the Word is a priestly function. The priest is God’s messenger. His prime task is to bring a Word of God to the people, but in such a way that he evokes or provokes or bring their offering toward God. The priestly function is dual. He ministers from God to man and from man to God. I don’t believe, says Torrance, that anyone can do that simply from the pulpit or simply through conducting the liturgy. He can only do that by visiting the people in their homes and bring the Word of God there and open up their whole life before God. So that he can share their hurts and needs, understand their responses. And then he can  proclaim the Word of God and in the worship of the church bring their true responses back to God.

Preaching is essentially a priestly function. It is in this light that Calvin understood the priestly character of the Word. Because it is only as you share in, by your prayer life, your intercession, your sympathy with people, in the priesthood of Jesus, that you can say in His Name: “Be reconciled to God”. As Calvin saw it, you are representing the person and the role of Christ as a minister.

Time to repent – the forgotten sermons of Thomas Torrance

T.F Torrance (1946)

T.F. Torrance (1946)

It is hard to tell which book of Thomas Forsyth Torrance is his most popular. His books on trinitarian theology, like The Trinitarian Faith and The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons, are perhaps among his best known publications.  At the other hand we might also think of his books on Science and Theology: Theological Science for example, or God and Rationality. How this exactly may be, it seems to me that his two collections of sermons, When Christ comes and comes again (1957) and The Apocalypse Today (1960) are largely forgotten nowadays. It’s a fate which they seem to share with other books of that particular period. The two volumes of Conflict and Agreement (1959/1960) for example are hardly ever mentioned in recent literature. In those years TFT was very productive, writing a lot about ecclesiological topics, like the sacraments. The edition of some of his sermons fit in this picture. In his Preface, Torrance indicates that he wanted to offer ‘some doctrinal material for the use of those actively engaged in the work of evangelism’ (When Christ comes…, p.7). Although Torrance would be a theologian of the church all of his life, he was probably at most so in the late fifties.

Alyth Parish Church - Old pulpit

Alyth Barony Church – interior (old situation)

The relative impopularity of his collections of sermons strikes me as odd. In fact, it was due to his book When Christ comes… I became interested in Torrance. About four years ago, I stumbled across this volume in a second hand book shop. At home again, I started reading and from the first page I read, I was struck by the power and intensity of these sermons. Shortly after, I bought The Apocalypse Today, containing, as the title already indicates, sermons about the last book of the New Testament. He preached those sermons during and after the war to the congregations of the Barony Church, Alyth and Beechgrove Church, Aberdeen. One remark about the sermons on the Apocalypse, shouldn’t be omitted: “…while seeking to understand the language of the visions from their Old Testament sources, I have sought throughout to give them the Christological interpretation they demanded”.

As far as I know, there are no other books with sermons of TFT, although a few of them were published in theological journals. In the Preface on The Apocalypse Today, Torrance seems almost as reluctant to publish his sermons as John Calvin was in his days. He writes that ‘…they were not intended for publication’, that ‘they are not meant for the scholar, but for the ordinary member of the Church, who (…) often finds little to guide his understanding outside the fantastic interpretations of the sects’ (The Apocalypse Today, p.5) In the remainder of this post I will offer you two passages from his sermons. Quoting from sermons is, of course, a very arbitrary enterprise. But these quotations both engage with the questions of time, eternity and the need for decision. I hope that, by doing so, it will become clear that – in spite of Torrance’s own proviso – they offer a wealth of theological, pastoral and homiletical reflection.

“God cannot hold Himself back for ever, or rather the sinner cannot live for ever entrenched in his independence, surrounded by all the defences which he builds around his mortal life, in order to protect himself from God. So long as he lives on earth, he can hide himself in time, for as long as he is in time, God waits to have mercy upon him. But when he passes out of time in eternity, all his defences fall away from him, and he stands naked before God. But in eternity he has no time for decision, for repentance, or for faith, for in time the voice of God calls to him and gives him time to make up his mind, and to answer. But when he passes from time into eternity, then all that has gone on in his soul comes to is ultimate crisis. Once that crisis begins, as so many of the parables of Jesus tell us, there is no time for preparation or action. It all happens in a flash, in a moment, in a twinkling of an eye.”

Sermon ‘The approach to God’, on Exodus 3,1-15 and John 13,6-8 (When Christ comes and comes again, p.133)

“The Word of God towers over land and sea, and dominates the ages. In the presence of that mighty Word time stands still. Time, as it were, is no more in that hour – it is the moment of eternal decision.
How dearly we human beings love to cling to the passage of time, and how we love to take refuge in days and months and years to escape that decisive moment when we are dragged out of past and present and future to stand face to face with eternal God. Man loves to clothe himself with time. He hides himself behind it, and so hides from eternal God in the multitude of minutes and passing events. That hiding place is discovered when the Word of God falls upon man out of the blue of God’s Heaven, for man is interrupted in his life, dragged out of his hiding place behind procrastination. The Word of God refuses to let him drift aimlessly down the current of time any longer. He is confronted with Eternity and at last he must decide. He cannot bluff himself any longer. That is the divine stroke that suspends the flow of time – the moment of eternal destiny and predestination: mankind face to face in time with the eternal Word of God.”

Sermon ‘The Word of God and Time’ on Revelation 10 & 11:1-15 (The Apocalypse Today, p.83,84)

Heiko Oberman and the hot lava of Calvin’s sermons

In September 1994 Calvin’s sermons on Acts 1-7, edited by prof. Willem Balke and dr. Wim Moehn, were published. I had been kindly invited to the presentation of the new volume of the Supplementa Calviniana (Neukirchen Verlag) Special guest of honour that day was prof. Heiko Oberman (1930-2001). He was by then known for decades as a world famous expert on the history of the late Medieval and Reformation period. H.A. ObermanIn the Netherlands, however, his name had become associated with a particular committee, which from 1987 to 1989 had been investigating the quality of the various institutions of theological education in Holland. The committe became known as the ‘Committee Oberman’, although he wasn’t its chairman. But the final report caused quite a stir. So, the name Oberman was well known.

To be honest, it was largely because of Heiko Oberman, I attended the presentation of this new edition. I wasn’t familiar with Calvin’s sermons, nor was I aware of their importance. But it became a memorable day. Oberman didn’t disappoint me. On the contrary, I can still remember the excitement his small talk evoked. Oberman made a comparison between Calvin’s sermons and the lava of a volcano. The sermons, he said, are like hot lava. Touching them means burning your fingertips. In the Institutes, by comparison, the lava is cooled and set. You won’t get blisters from laying your fingers on that. In his talk he criticized vehemently those theologians who based their knowledge of Calvin’s theology exclusively on the 1559-edition of the Institutes. He made a plea for the 1536-edition as a ‘powerful catechism’. Furthermore, he criticized the lack of quality in Calvin-research, compared with the standards in Luther-research. And I remember him talking about the importance to locate Calvin’s theology in the context of refugees. It is prominent in the title of his John Calvin and the Reformation of the Refugees (Droz 2009 posthumously edited).

His talk in 1994 inspired me very much, because it connected with my own intuitions about Calvin. I had attended a class about Calvin’s Institutes of 1559 shortly before, which was a huge disappointment. The Institutes were read through the lens of the later tradition, wrestling with questions about the doctrine of double predestination.
Inspired by Oberman’s talk, I tried to find a way out by turning to the young Calvin. Although I didn’t buy then the fresh edition of the sermons (it was way too expensive for me then), I bought the first two volumes (1.1 & 1.2) of the Studienausgabe of Calvin’s writings between 1533-1541 instead (much cheaper!). A second impulse was given by a small study-group with professor Balke. With a group of about 7 students we read parts of Calvin’s commentaries and sermons. It opened my eyes for a very different Calvin. A Calvin who was not obsessed by the doctrine of double predestination, but who tried as faithfully as possible to explain the Holy Scriptures to the Genevan congregation and (as Oberman would add) his wider audience among the refugees in Europe.

However, my interest in Calvin waned gradually, although it never completely disappeared. But the appeal to the ‘younger’ or the ‘pastoral’ Calvin didn’t work out for me. I needed an alternative systematic perspective, which I found in the work on synchronic contingency of the members of the Research Group Duns Scotus. Finding answers to my questions, cleared in the end the way for a return in 2009 to Calvin, and in particular his sermons on the Lord’s Supper. So, in 2011, 17 years after its appearance, I bought my own copy of this particular volume of Supplementa Calviniana with Calvin’s sermons on the Acts of the apostles. And I agree: the reading of Calvin’s sermons is quite sensational. Thanks to the meticulous work of Calvin’s stenographer Denis de Raguenier, it is possible for us to follow Calvin in his preaching sunday after sunday (or in the case of weekday sermons even from day to day). Oberman was right: reading the sermons is different from reading the Institutes. It is not unlike reading letters. You can ‘smell’ – as it were – the historical context. Reading the sermons is hearing Calvin at work.

The edition of Calvin’s sermons in Supplementa Calviniana started in 1936 with the seminal work of Hanss Rückert (whom Heiko Oberman succeeded in Tübingen). The sermons on the Acts of the apostles were the sixth volume of the Supplementa Calviniana, preceded by volumes on 2 Samuël (1936 partially/1961 complete); Isaiah 13-29 (1961); Micha (1964); Jeremia 14-18 & Lamentations (1971) and Psalm- and Festpredigten (1981). Since 1994 the following editions were published: Isaiah 30-41 (1995); Genesis 1-20 (2000, 2 vol.); Ezekiel (2006) and Isaiah 52-66 (2012, 2 vol.).
To the best of my knowledge we can expect additional volumes with sermons on 1 Corinthians 1-9 (Elsie McKee); Ezekiel 1-15; 18; 20; 22; 23-35 (Erik de Boer) and Isaiah 42-51 (Ruth Stawarz-Luginbuehl & Michel Grandjean). The editing of the sermons Manuscript Sermon Calvinhowever is a very demanding and time-consuming job, as you can easily conclude from the picture with one of the pages of the original manuscript of the Isaiah sermons. So, there is a lot of work to do. In the meantime, a new critical edition of the printed sermons is planned as part of the Ioannis Calvini Opera Omnia Denuo Recognita (Droz). The first volume, Plusieurs sermons, edited by Wim Moehn appeared in 2011.

The late Heiko Oberman was right: Calvin’s sermons are like hot lava. You can smell, touch, feel and hear the wrestling of a man, called by God, to speak in His name to the people in Geneva, part of God’s Church worldwide, a perspective Calvin never would forget. The lava of Calvin’s might help us not to become ‘nonchalant’, a word identified by Oberman in his 1986 Kuyper Lectures (Chapter X ‘Calvin’s Legacy’ in: The Two Reformations (2003)) as a catch-word for Calvin. Let me finish by quoting Oberman himself, writing about Calvin’s personality:

Calvin escapes the limitation (of self-sufficiency, free from external influences [AT]) this implies when he says that the Christian Stoic must add emotional involvement. This is particularly clear when Calvin expresses it in his mother tongue, in letters, and especially in sermons, making it as clear as he can that the genuine Stoic who tries to steel himself against the outside world is more a child of Satan than of Christ. To this emotional armor the Christian must add misericordia. Calvin sums this up in a word which could indeed be found in the French language before his time but only later becomes common parlance. The word is nonchalant, and when he uses it, it has not yet become trite, as it is today. A Christian may not be nonchalant toward his fellow human beings. That would be on the same level with poking fun in relation to God; it would be indifferent, nonchaleur, to have no warmth, to be unconcerned about others. Calvin is different; he is concerned and as such lives an encumbered life: enriched, to be sure, but clearly burdened by his deep and extensive God knowledge. (p.127)

Calvin, Christmas and Holidays

It’s nearly Christmas. As some of you will know, the reformer John Calvin has gathered a notorious reputation as the one who did abolish the celebration of Christmas in Geneva. And indeed, from the sermons of Calvin that survived, we can gather that he continued his lectio continua of Scripture at the 25th of Decembre. Take for example the year 1559. Calvin preached on weekdays on the book of Genesis. So, that’s what he did on this monday: he preached on Genesis 8:20-22. (You can find the sermon in Supplementa GenevaCalviniana XI/1, p.453-463). That’s the part of the story that is well-known.

But not so very well-known is the fact that Calvin (and his colleagues in Geneva) on the sunday closest to Decembre 25th preached on the gospel of the nativity, be it from the gospel of Luke, Matthew or John. Moreover, at this sunday the Lord’s Supper was celebrated in all the Genevan churches. This was truly a festive sunday, meant as alternative Christmas. So, Calvin didn’t completely abolish the celebration of Christmas. He ‘only’ replaced the celebration from the 25th Decembre to a nearby sunday. But why did he do that?

This move of the reformer was prompted by the disastrous consequences of the late medieval practice of holy days and all sorts of festivals. These were days devoted to all sorts of saints, holy persons, saint patrons of the city, and so forth. At each of these days the inhabitants of a city were expected to go to church, visit the mass, say prayers in a chapel, participate in a procession, and so on. That took half the day, and not infrequently the whole day. Now you understand the meaning of our word ‘holiday‘. A day of leisure… Yes, but also an enormous loss of labour and productivity. It has been calculated that up to 50% of the workdays got lost in this way.

CalvijnCalvin, and the other reformers, abolished nearly all these holy days and holidays. And in case you are inclined to think that this confirms the liaison between calvinism and capitalism (Weber), remember that these were the days that poverty was a real problem. That social problem was, besides the idolatry involved in the veneration of all these saints, Calvin’s chief motivation for doing what he did. Sundays were the days of rest; the other days the days of doing what God calls you to do! But on all these days there were sermons, from Calvin and his colleagues. Because God never rests. He is always at work, for our salvation!