Karl Barth is widely regarded as the greatest (Protestant) Christian theologian of the twentieth century. Among a myriad of other things, Barth (1886~1968) is often credited with saying that people should hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.
Barth’s Important Words
It is questionable that Barth ever spoke the words he is often quoted as saying. But in “Barth in Retirement,” a May 1963 Time magazine article, Barth stated that 40 years ago he advised young theologians to “take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both.”
That article also quotes Barth as saying, “I always pray for the sick, the poor, journalists, authorities of the state and church—in that order. Journalists form public opinion. They hold terribly important positions.”
Now, unlike in 1963 or 40 years before that, the news and the work of the journalists is disseminated by digital means as well as by print. So “newspaper” needs to be interpreted as all the ways the news is reported.
And the journalists for whom Barth regularly prayed includes all of those who seek to communicate and interpret the news by all the various forms of public media, even when—or especially when—they are castigated as being the “enemy of the people” by you-know-who.
The Eternal Word
Barth’s theology is often depicted as the theology of the Word of God. The Word of God comes to human beings in three “forms”: the humanity of Christ, the words of the prophets and the apostles (i.e. the canonical Scriptures), and the words of preachers.
Barth, thus, emphasized the Word of God in this threefold sense:
The Incarnate Word of God: Despite the way much conservative evangelicalism has emphasized the Bible as the Word of God, Barth first emphasizes that primarily Jesus Christ is the Word of God. Certainly, that emphasis is in harmony with John 1:1~18 in the New Testament.
The Written Word of God: The Bible is the record of God’s revelation through the Jewish people and then especially through Jesus Christ, the Word of God par excellence.
The Proclaimed Word of God: The preachers, or theologians, that Barth referred to are those who speak not just to share their personal ideas or insights but to interpret the written Word of God in order to know the message of and about Jesus, the incarnate Word of God. No “job” is more demanding/challenging than that of being called to proclaim that Word.
The Ever-Changing Word
Barth was born in Switzerland and always had Swiss citizenship. Most of his higher education, however, was in Germany, and after serving for ten years as a pastor in Switzerland, in 1921 he began teaching in Germany.
Even though he was a pastor and in 1918 the author of a commentary on the biblical book of Romans, he evidently regularly read the ever-changing word in the newspapers. Although he was not a German, in the 1930s he became a leader of the Christian opposition to Hitler and the Nazis.
Barth was a leader of the Confessing Church in Germany and the chief author of the Barmen Declaration of 1934. Barth’s reading of and preaching the eternal Word of God was balanced by his reading, and acting upon, what he found in the ever-changing words of the newspapers.
As so it should be for us Christians today. During Holy Week in April, Pastor Laura Mayo of Covenant Church in Houston, Texas, penned an important op-ed piece, “For all who seek to follow Rabbi Jesus, now is exactly the time to be political.” She doesn’t say so, but it is evident that, just as Barth advocated, Pastor Laura had been reading both the Bible and the “newspaper.”
For many years after I started my preaching ministry at the age of 16, I focused mainly on the Word of God. But gradually I came to understand the importance of Barth’s emphasis on reading both the Bible and the newspaper.
Now I wonder if I spend too much time reading the “newspaper“ (online news articles and opinion pieces) and not enough time reflecting on how all the “news“ should be interpreted by the Word of God.
What about you?