Pastor in Safenwil, Switzerland

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After two years as an assistant pastor in Geneva, Barth received a parish of his own in the village of Safenwil in Aargau in 1911. The small congregation was experiencing a phase of social upheaval: While farmers were steadily declining, industry and the working class were growing. Barth put aside his study of theology for the benefit of very careful preparation of sermon and instruction.

Both often took up all of his time. Above all, his sermons asked much of his congregation– not because he preached specialized theological texts but precisely because his sermons were clearly and directly intended to confront every individual listener’s life with God’s word. The socially critical potential this generated soon caused people to avoid the troublesome preacher. Thus, attendance at worship services was often sparse and Barth did not exactly make himself popular otherwise in everyday parish life, either.

This is precisely what a sermon dealt with, which Barth preached on a passage from the Prophet Ezekiel in 1916. Pictured here is an excerpt with the opening of the sermon, which appeared in the “Christliche Welt” that same year – without the author’s knowledge.

Barth seized on his unpopularity as a preacher and compared it to the biblical counterpart of the “false prophet” who wants to spare his listeners: The false prophet is the pastor who pleases the people. Barth admittedly often would have liked to have done that in Safenwil. But God gets in my way, and it doesn’t work.

Thus, this sermon typically reflects the profound change in Barth’s theology, which occurred at this time: God’s claim on individual people’s lives is so absolute that He does not leave any room for the complacency of a Sunday religion. There can be only rejection or acceptance of this claim, but no compromise.

Barth’s time in Safenwil marked the beginning of his “dialectical theology” (as it was called later). In that very year, 1916, Barth starting working in the parsonage on the book that essentially became its founding manifesto, his “Epistle to the Romans”.

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