"Powers of Folly": An Early Barth Sermon on the Principalities

The Deserter by Boardman Robinson (1916).
(PD-1923, via Wikimedia Commons)
Reading some of the sermons Barth delivered in Safenwil, Switzerland, in 1914 yields a few tantalizing surprises. I found some of these in his homily from October 18, an almost uncanny meditation on the principalities and powers.

A Unique Time of God: Karl Barth’s WWI Sermons, Trans. & Ed. B y William Klempa (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2016).

Barth's sermon text was Romans 8:38-39, the culmination of one of the most profound and perhaps one of the most perplexing passages in the New Testament. Having pondered the groans of a creation eagerly awaiting liberation from the bondage of death, Paul writes:

I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

In wrestling with this passage, Barth both grasps onto his faith in the coming Kingdom of God, an ethical commonwealth of peace and justice on earth, and also grapples with the seemingly ineluctable reality of evil at the individual and social levels. He begins in a somewhat irenic tone, which strikes my as a little discordant in view of the jeremiads throughout the book, with the concession that the war has, indeed, roused some of the better angels of human nature -- courage, sacrifice, and patriotism(!) among the virtues. And yet he urges his congregants to be "permeated with the truth" that the war is an unspeakable blight that has unleashed forces that threaten to unravel the social fabric (p. 145). In such times the believer must stand firm for justice and peace, in the name of conscience. The posture apropos of the hour, for all the countries involved, is repentance, not an overweening hubris.

So there is right and wrong, conscience and deption, honor and cruelty. But what lies beneath all this? A certain mysterious realm of ... what?

We understand, don't we? There are evil powers in the world between heaven and earth, between God and human beings. They are powers of folly, darkness, and destruction. They exert a powerful influence upon humanity that we experience daily in our hearts and lives. They are permitted to exert this influence because God has given them the freedom to do so. In the difficult struggle against them, God's kingdom will be established. We know nothing about them except that we have to struggle with them and overcome them (p. 152).

Do these malign forces emanate from the corrupt human heart? Or are they primarily social and political? Or perhaps they operate simultaneously from within and from without. At any rate, the outbreak of war has served to reveal, to expose them; for Barth the war is a unique moment of divine judgment.

Those are the evil powers that are now at work. Not only now, but for a long time, indeed always -- but now their activity has once again come to light (ibid).

Now Barth introduces a notion that seems, on the face of it, to prefigure a claim he will make in his later writings: The principalities and powers, in their fallen character, are objectifications of created human capacities -- good in and of themselves -- that have gone awry.

One of the best sentiments of humanity is its love of home, nation, and homeland, and also of the state, the instrument of order on earth and the greatest achievement of human beings. But the powers have seized both and transformed them into a work of devilry (ibid.)

These are capacities that would serve human flourishing, if only the affections of the heart were rightly ordered. But they run amok and are turned against humanity. To flip a metaphor Barth would later use in his Romans commentary: The watchman has become prisoner.

And men and women have heeded these powers instead of listening to the unerring voice of conscience and the gospel of God. And now they rule over men and women, over the world (ibid.).

How this picture might hang together is a question that deserves some further exploration -- perhaps even on this very website. So stay tuned.

Note: WJK kindly sent me a complimentary copy of this book, with no expectation of a positive review.

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