Barth on Biblical Exposition

I feel so theologically sophisticated now… I’m reading Karl Barth. Much is made of this man and now that I’m getting acquainted with him I can see why. His thought crackles with liveliness and has a force of directness. His background and journey gives one much appreciation for his theology. And he was prolific in his output. Many consider him the greatest theologian of the 20th century. I’m seriously considering purchasing his magnum opus, the 14-volume set entitled Church Dogmatics, at the tune of about $175. At any rate, I’m spending a little time in his (thankfully smaller!) volume called Homiletics. And let me tell you, it is chock full of great insight and advice for the preacher. The following quote is an example of why I’m liking this guy so much. He has expressed in words something I’ve only nurtured in thought. Here it is:

Positively, preaching must be exposition of holy scripture. I have not to talk about scripture but from it. I have not to say something, but merely repeat something… Our task is simply to follow the distinctive movement of thought in the text, to stay with this, and not with a plan that arises out of it.

Boom! He nailed it. Man, that’s good! I have noticed that most sermons (including most of my own) only talk about scripture… even use scripture as a springboard into entirely different subjects to never return thereto. Ministers many times know what they want to say… and then go to scripture to find material to support their talk. (Topical preaching can easily fall prey to this approach). So instead of getting the Word, often times people come to church and get opinion (human at that!). If it rises above opinion, then people get biblical themes – but only a few of the predictable ones. But, how can we let scripture speak in all of its fullness and on its own terms? Barth and many others advocate biblical exposition. Let the Word speak for itself. And to do that Barth says, “follow the distinctive movement of thought in the text.” This requires our sermons to literally take the shape of our text. So, instead of cherry-picking the Bible for proof texts of what we would like to say, try taking one passage, stick with it, and follow it’s movement throughout the duration of the sermon. Our people hunger to hear an unfiltered Word of God and to see how it applies to their life today. There’s enough in that venture to keep the preacher plenty busy. Biblical exposition get’s us appropriately “off to the side” and Jesus and His Word “front and center.”

This was Barth’s conviction and it is no surprise that Mathis Grunewald’s painting called, John the Baptist hung over his desk throughout his ministry. He took it to be a metaphor of worthy preaching. The preacher draws no attention to himself, but with text in hand follows its distinctive movement until his finger falls decisively upon Christ who occupies center stage. LOVE IT.




  1. Boom shakalaka! I would love to see what this looks like. The Word, the Holy Text, all I/we do is cherry pick it to prove our Acronyms, or our 5 steps to 'better' ministry. But what does “follow the distinctive movement of thought in the text” really look like. I'm interested. I want to know how I can use preaching like my personal study in the Word. Because when I read text, I don't follow a 'cherry-picking' format; no, I read a body of text. And the whole of the text brings life and depth. But if I followed a prepared topic bible study – it'd be different. Does that make sense? I was going through some old things recently and found a bunch of my 3×5's from my bible study days – total cherry picking. Good times, but I had a lot to learn, still do….

  2. 5 steps for this 8 steps for that… you're absolutely right, Joe. We abstract the Word into our largely American pragmatic lists for a better life, but we carve up scripture to do so. Instead we should honor scripture just the way it comes down to us (as much as possible). Much like a garden… the authors of scripture compiled their material in a certain way. They are the gardeners. Yet we come snipping through the garden, arrange a sermon-bouquet, and take that to our people. But, how bout we take our folks directly to the Rose Garden of God and stroll them up and down the isles! No snipping, but just enjoying the arrangement, the aesthetics as He intended.

    Yeah, I'm still learning too, bro. Our Bible Studies years ago were very 'snipped up.' But, hey, better to have cut flowers than no flowers. We had to start somewhere.

    And thanks for your thoughts about “off to the side” the other day. I've been thinking about that and it totally came together for me today as I was making this post. Plus, the John the Baptist painting exhibited that perfectly. Many things that I'd been thinking about converged for me all at once!

  3. Thanks so much for the interaction, brother. I'm really appreciating your thoughts and insights.

  4. Likewise D, likewise. It seems that no matter how old and jaded I have become – you always know how to spark a little hunger for the Word out of me. Thanks for taking the time to post thoughts – you have at least 1 full time subscriber!

  5. You've always had an excitable heart for the Word of God. I've always admired that about you.

    šŸ™‚ Your 'subscription' means a lot.

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