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Barth on Preaching and the Sacraments

In distinguishing Evangelical dogmatics from liberal Protestantism on the one hand, and Roman Catholicism on the other, Barth spends a great deal of time focusing on the issue of proclamation and the role in plays in the life of the  church. Here seems to be one of the central points at which Barth’s ecclesiology differs from and challenges Catholic ecclesiology and, more generally, any supremely sacramental ecclesiology.

In speaking of (and commending) the Reformers’ break with Rome, Barth argues that

Proclamation of the basis of the promise which has been laid once for all, and therefore proclamation in the form of symbolic action [the sacrament], had to be and to remain essential for them [the Reformers]. But this proclamation presupposes that the other [preaching], namely, repetition of the biblical promise, is taking place. The former must exist for the sake of the latter, and therefore the sacrament for the sake of preaching, not vice versa. (CD1/1, p. 70)

This seems to be one of the key issues for understanding Barth’s ecclesiology in contrast to Roman Catholicism and other strongly eucharistic traditions. For Barth the nature of grace as God’s “unfathomably free act” (p. 68) requires us to find the church’s “center” not in any act which the church possesses or hands on as if “there flows forth from Jesus Christ a steady and unbroken stream or influence of divine-human being on His people” (p. 68). Any such unbroken continuity between God’s free grace and the being of the church is to be rejected in Barth’s thought. There can be no embracing the idea of the sacrament as a “causare, continere el conferre gratiam” (causing, containing, and conferring grace, p. 69) in that the relationship between divine grace and human response cannot be one of cause and effect, but of “the Word and faith.”

Thus, at the heart of Barth’s claim here is an insistence that the church does not possess or cause grace through its own actions, even the sacraments. Rather the church’s “center” must be the proclamation of the Gospel through which God, thought the Holy Spirit brings people to faith in the event of hearing the Word. As such Barth’s ecclesiology (at least here) is strongly informed by a theology of the missio dei. The church exists by virtue of its being the passive recipient of God’s missional entrance into the world in Christ, which the church then proclaims as an act of obedience. What Barth offers is a missional ecclesiology centered on the ek-centric movement of God’s Word which the church hears and proclaims to the world rather than a sacramental eccesiology centered on the church’s mediation of grace to itself.

14 Comments

  1. Hill wrote:

    “Thus, at the heart of Barth’s claim here is an insistence that the church does not possess or cause grace through its own actions, even the sacraments. Rather the church’s “center” must be the proclamation of the Gospel through which God, thought the Holy Spirit brings people to faith in the event of hearing the Word.”

    Seems to be a false dichotomy. Could one not just as easily say that in the emphasis on preaching, the church seeks to cause the grace of conversion through the effectively of its rhetoric rather than the objective presence of God in the sacraments (which is not “caused” by the Church in any meaningful sense).

    Monday, May 18, 2009 at 4:15 pm | Permalink
  2. Hill wrote:

    effectiveness

    Monday, May 18, 2009 at 4:15 pm | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    Maybe it is, but I’m not quite sure. But for Barth the rhetoric of preaching has nothing to do with the advent of grace in any way that is analogous to how priestly action in the Eucharist effects grace—I mean, that “causare, continere el conferre gratiam” stuff isn’t Barth’s description, its from the Council of Florence referring to what the church’s act of eucharistic celebration does vis a vis God’s grace. So I don’t see how the issue of causation is so far-fetched. It’s immediately present in the canonical documents from what I can see.

    Monday, May 18, 2009 at 4:21 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    And I knew you’d respond to this post immediately, btw.

    Monday, May 18, 2009 at 4:23 pm | Permalink
  5. Lee Wyatt wrote:

    Some of the Church Fathers speak of the Son and the Spirit as the two hands of the Father. Might we speak, following Barth, of the sacraments as the two hands of the Word of God?

    Peace,
    Lee Wyatt

    Monday, May 18, 2009 at 4:26 pm | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    That’s more of a general Reformed notion. Namely that the church is constituted by Word and Sacrament, the priority falling on Word.

    Monday, May 18, 2009 at 4:28 pm | Permalink
  7. Hill wrote:

    I unfortunately don’t have enough familiarity with the documents of that council to have anything interesting to say about it. However, we have to be careful about “causation” and what it means, especially in a context like this. Most of us have little to no familiarity with schema of causation so widely deployed in those sorts of contexts. Given the entire body of Catholic theology, I’d say this reading might be a bit reductive. I’m not even sure it makes sense to say “the rhetoric of preaching has nothing to do with the advent of grace in any way that is analogous to how priestly action in the Eucharist effects grace.”

    Basically: a human or group of humans does what God told them to do, and then God does the rest. Seems to be more or less the same whether it’s the Sacraments or “preaching.” I would also add that there isn’t really a space for a “vice versa” within Catholicism, as the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Eucharist are both inseparable parts of the Mass. I think this formulation severs what is actually a much more organic whole in Catholicism, which has to do with my preference for it.

    Monday, May 18, 2009 at 5:22 pm | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    “Basically: a human or group of humans does what God told them to do, and then God does the rest.”

    That, I think is precisely where the difference lies, for this is manifestly not Barth’s position (or the Reformed tradition’s more generally). Preaching becomes the Word of God only through the utterly free act of God’s grace; it cannot be presumed that if we obediently preach, that it will automatically become God’s Word to us.

    Barth would say the same thing about the Eucharist, though and that’s precisely what puts him at a distance from Roman Catholicism here, for in Catholic theology, the dynamic is the very one you’ve described. From the Catholic perspective, if the church does things according to given criteria=channel of grace, regardless of faith, obedience, or whatever on the part of the people involved (that whole messy ex opere operato thing). Barth’s going to throw down a nein! on that every time because of the different way he conceives the event of grace.

    None of this is to say that Barth is right and Catholicism wrong. I’m really just trying to get at Barth and really understand him through this reading. Though, as you know my sympathies lie more with him, at least currently.

    Monday, May 18, 2009 at 5:31 pm | Permalink
  9. Hill wrote:

    You are still doing some rhetorical hocus pocus: the utterly free act of God’s grace in which preaching becomes the Word of god presupposes a person preaching in exactly the same way the sacraments presuppose a church (people) celebrating them. Of course, the creation and formation of these people were also free acts of God’s grace. My point is that these are distinctions with out a difference. Preaching can no more be a free act of God’s grace than the Sacraments can. They both are, but they both presuppose human action, and that in no way constitutes a threat to God’s freedom. If this is what Barth thinks, then he is in fact wrong on this score.

    I wouldn’t say at all that there is an if/then at work in Catholic sacramental theology. God is in no way constrained by our proper “execution” of the sacraments. This is actually the point of ex opere operato, in a sense. That doesn’t change the fact that God has specific forms of worship in mind which are more pleasing to him (nothing could be more obvious from the Scripture) and that we ignore the proper execution of these at our peril. None of these things bear on God’s freedom, however.

    Monday, May 18, 2009 at 5:45 pm | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    No, I don’t think it presupposes it in the same way whatsoever. The Word of God is free to take any form it wishes, in preaching or otherwise, at least for Barth. For Catholicism can other things manifest the exact same grace in the exact same way as occurs in the Eucharist? I kinda don’t think so.

    And the other way its different is that preaching cannot assume its ability to become God’s Word. The Eucharist, according to Catholic thought, when properly performed always mediates God’s grace. It’s a guarantee. For Barth the confluence of the Word of God with preaching is never a guarantee in this sense. Again, I’m not saying he’s right and you’re wrong, necessarily. Just that there is a real distinction between what Barth’s doing with Preaching and what Catholics do with the Eucharist.

    Monday, May 18, 2009 at 6:34 pm | Permalink
  11. Bruce wrote:

    Halden,

    You say, “The Eucharist, according to Catholic thought, when properly performed always mediates God’s grace. It’s a guarantee.”

    But it’s not a guarantee, it’s a promise. As a Catholic priest, even if I screw up the Mass, God will, according to his promise, find a way to share his life with us. I have no control over God’s promises. And it’s not true that the Eucharist is the only way Catholics believe God can communicate, although we “do this in remembrance of me.”

    Wednesday, May 27, 2009 at 4:26 pm | Permalink
  12. Halden wrote:

    “But it’s not a guarantee, it’s a promise.”

    This seems like nothing more than a semantic distinction to me, I’m afraid.

    Wednesday, May 27, 2009 at 4:28 pm | Permalink
  13. Bruce wrote:

    Yes, perhaps. But does it make a difference if it is God’s promise (or guarantee)? This is my main point. The Lord says, “Do this in remembrance of me.” It isn’t that the Church says, “This is what we are going to do in order to remember the Lord.” Can God bind himself? Doesn’t he bind himself in some way to scripture? And if scripture, why not the sacraments? (Not simply Catholic sacraments, of course) This the risk he takes in creating us and getting involved with us at all.

    Friday, May 29, 2009 at 10:26 am | Permalink
  14. Anders wrote:

    Reading your arguments, I wonder if the positions are as far apart as it would seem.

    Does God indeed bind Himself in Scripture, or does He rather reveal Himself? If the Written Word is the revelation of the Living Word, then every covenant and promise in Scripture is an expression of God’s nature, we might even say His personality. Then what we see is that the distinction between promise and guarantee in terms of >certaintyimmediate efficacyimmediately<. Catholic doctrine allows for this, e.g. Marriage when the Sacrament would be unable to confer any grace, i.e. be 'unreleased', if either party is in a state of mortal sin and only be efficatious once this is removed by repentance. (Cf R. Cantalamessa OFMCap 'Sober Intoxication of the Spirit' ch. 3) The state of the Priest's moral life is irrelevant, (ex opere operato) but the worshiper's is not.

    We have therefore an 'opus operatus' and 'opus operantis', roughly God's part and our part, (again Cf Cantalamessa). The act of the worshiper in receiving the Word and Eucharist alike, is faith. Does this make it any less grace? Not at all, but it does allow us to resist God, as that is the prerequisite of love. (Again, cf 2 Tim 2:11-13 for an excellent treatment of this).

    I am quite possibly deviating far from Barth's original treatise here, but the arguments you both make seem to me quite possible to harmionise.

    Sunday, June 28, 2009 at 2:51 am | Permalink

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