Angela Dienhart Hancock is assistant professor of homiletics and worship at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and author of the new book Karl Barth’s Emergency Homiletic, 1932–1933: A Summons to Prophetic Witness at the Dawn of the Third Reich.
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One of the questions I always ask students when they read a passage from the Bible is this: “What do you hope this text will say?”
It’s a good question for interpreters to ask themselves, because answering it reminds us of the sometimes uncomfortable truth that we always read with expectations. We come to texts, to people, to situations, to the world, looking for something. The question we must ask ourselves is this: are we genuinely open to finding something else? Something we did not expect? Something, perhaps, that we had secretly hoped not to find?
In Germany in the early 1930s, most preachers knew what they needed to say before they even opened the Bible. They felt sure that God was at work in their time. They could see it in the National Socialist youth so full of zeal, the overflowing pews, all of the positive attention the church received from the Nazi leadership. These preachers wrote their sermons without calling any of that into question. They read the Bible, yes, but they did so in the sure confidence that it fully supported their vision of the future. They were certain they had all the answers.
Karl Barth spent his time in the classroom in the early 1930s trying to get young Protestants to lay down their social and political agendas and listen deeply to a Word beyond the fever of those revolutionary days. Respicere was the word he used to describe what he had in mind. He told his students that the Word of God is not a possession the preacher has, controls, and wields. Every “having” is always a “not-having” — every confidence can only be an unsettled, forward-striding unassurance. We can only be secure, Barth told his students, when we are insecure before God, vulnerable to the “coming near” of heaven. Something might be said to us in the Bible that “affronts us,” that “may shake us to the foundations of our existence.”
The Bible is “an unsettling book,” Barth declared. To those who listen with respicere the Bible always becomes more mysterious, with “depths and secrets” readers could not have predicted. The interpreter stands vis-à-vis the Bible like a child who wanders in awe through a “wonderful garden” and not like a lawyer “who has seen all of God’s files.” Barth thought that listening deeply to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments would move the young German Protestants in his classroom beyond the narrowness of ideology, nation, and race to the wider horizon of God’s story with humanity.
It is easy to look back on what happened in Germany and think we would have done better than the many pastors who supported Hitler’s rise to power. But have we really learned to listen well? Do we read with respicere? Those of us who believe in a God of surprising grace cannot open the Bible confident that we already know what we will find there — confident that we already have the answers. Maybe the deepest listening is not about answers anyway.
Click to order Karl Barth’s Emergency Homiletic, 1932–1933: A Summons to Prophetic Witness at the Dawn of the Third Reich by Angela Dienhart Hancock.