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A Leap In The Dark (LF Summer 2019)

A Leap In The Dark (LF Summer 2019)

San Juan Bautista - Hermano Leon

San Juan Bautista - Hermano Leon

Karl Barth gave a nod to his publisher and close friend, Arthur Frey, in the preface to Church Dogmatics III/4. In 1937, and just before he completed volume I/2, the Nazis censored Barth from publishing his work with presses located on German soil. Forced to end his longstanding relationship with Christian Kaiser Verlag in Munich, Barth switched over to the Swiss press Evangelische Buchhandlung (later Evangelischer Verlag), which Frey piloted from before the war until his death in 1955.

Barth ended up publishing with the Swiss firm for the rest of his life, partnering with Frey on many of the remaining volumes of the Church Dogmatics (up to IV/2) and on numerous shorter books on various themes in Christian theology. “I do not think that there are many publishers,” Barth remarks in 1951, reflecting upon his years working with Frey, “who could have brought with them the understanding and the love, but also the skill and width of vision, which were necessary for something which more than once perhaps looked like a leap in the dark.”[1]

I have thought about these comments from Barth on many occasions during the past few years, and especially in recent months as I’ve worked on this, my first issue as editor of Lutheran Forum. Barth marshaled the metaphor of a leap in the dark to capture all at once several dimensions of the uncertainty surrounding the publication of the Church Dogmatics. He and Frey had commenced an author-editor partnership that would take them through the throes of war and into the uneasy reconstruction that followed. Years before all that, and only a few months after Hitler’s appointment as chancellor, Barth famously urged his fellow pastors and theologians in Germany to “endeavor to carry on theology, and only theology, now as previously,and as if nothing had happened.”[2] The tyranny, suffering, slaughter, and ruin descending upon Europe in the 1930s and 1940s would test the limits of Barth’s plea.

Turns out Barth hardly could shelter even his own theological vocation from what was happening in the world during those dark times. “Voluntary and involuntary involvement in the general events of the past years,” he writes in 1945, “has contributed to a greater enrichment, but also a greater alteration and postponement, of my original programme than I could have desired.”[3] Setting off on their new publishing relationship in 1937, Barth and Frey could not possibly have known the extent and severity of the devastation on its way and how it would impact Barth’s thinking and writing. That Barth managed to complete several volumes of his opus during the hell of war and death marks the Church Dogmatics as a miracle of sorts in the history of theological literature.

But Barth seems to have made his ‘leap in the dark’ comment also with tongue firmly in cheek. Did his new editor have any idea at the time how much effort, energy, and manpower it would take to serve a work of such scale? Frey undoubtedly knew he was committing his press to a massive undertaking, for Barth gives a sketch of his project’s anticipated design at the outset of I/1.[4] A sense of the unknown, however, hovers over grand literary works such as the Church Dogmatics. Did Barth really have what it takes to push the project through to the end? Could he sustain the work’s central thesis over the course of so many sections and volumes? And, in any case, would the project succeed as a publishing endeavor, finding a sufficient number of readers possessing enough patience and theological sophistication to tarry with Barth as the volumes unfold?

Frey, as it were, was entrusting the power of the press to Barth for the long haul. It was a matter of considerable risk for everyone involved, especially given the unabated sense of crisis poised over Europe during the ascendancy of the Third Reich, but also because of the sheer magnitude of what Barth was up to in the Church Dogmatics. Those of us who continue to learn from Barth’s witness are indebted to Arthur Frey for mustering the courage to take a leap in the dark.

A Risky Enterprise

In these first words to you as editor of the Lutheran Forum, I want to toy around a bit with Barth’s metaphor of the leap in the dark, the blind step of faith, marking the partnership of authors, editors, and readers located at the heart of the enterprise of theological publishing. For Barth’s turn of phrase and the circumstances surrounding it point us to the riskiness of going public with words devoted to God, theology, and church.

You’ll forgive me, I hope, if I take some liberties with Barth’s already lively language. A wooden interpretation of his metaphor of a leap in the dark will carry us only so far. After all, we don’t have many Barths among us these days, attempting sprawling, decades-long expositions of the Christian faith—major works, that is, which we might consider risky by virtue of their massive scales and uncertain timeframes. Moreover, although our own times are, in a way, hellish and unsettled, they pale in comparison to the terrors of the 1930s and 1940s. In our day blacklisting and other forms of reprisal occasionally surface at the denominational level, and one might just find oneself excoriated on social media for going public with an unfashionable theological opinion or hypothesis. As a rule, though, we live and work and write without the fear of facing government censorship on account of our published theological discourse.

These differences between the eras notwithstanding, I suggest that we may receive Barth’s remarks as a more general reminder that we take a leap in the dark every time we go public with words written about God and all other things in relation to God. When we really think about it, the enterprise of Christian writing is fraught with peril. There are practical hazards that publishers must bear in mind when counting the real costs of going to press. This is just as true today for those of us responsible for producing Lutheran Forum as it was for Frey during his years at the helm of Evangelischer Verlag. Also, and as I already have suggested here, that there can be genuine social, political, ecclesial, and vocational consequences for us when we dare to go public with our ideas about God.

Beyond all that, let me name another danger ever lurking in our theological words. Ephraim Radner makes the case that theology always is either blessed or broken, edifying or blasphemous, tertium non datur.[5] The idea warrants careful consideration. The end of theological work—that is, of written theology in any of its forms, genres, and sub-disciplines— is the glory of God and the edification of the saints. But theology certainly can dishonor God and cause the saints to stumble, stunting their growth, or else obscuring their knowledge of God and creatures.

I am, of course, playing fast and loosely with Barth’s metaphor, wandering astray from his original intention in Church Dogmatics III/4. But the metaphor sticks. For power indeed resides in the words we use to speak about God, whether for good or for ill. Publishing those words is not something to do flippantly or immodestly. In certain strands of the literary tradition of Lutheran theology, we notice a connection drawn, at least tacitly, between published theology and preaching: both are modes, as it were, of Christian proclamation. It is a dangerous and even harrowing thing to press ‘SUBMIT’ or ‘PRINT’, just as it is to ascend the pulpit on a Sunday morning. Both involve a leap in the dark, a step of faith into the unknown. God might take our loaves and fishes and feed a hungry soul. Then again, we might go public words that harm or mislead, or else fall on deaf ears.

Many of the faith’s great teachers left behind reflections on the strange and risky enterprise of writing about God. In his preface to the Proslogion, for instance, St Anselm acknowledges the insignificance of his own published meditations on the being and existence of God. “In my opinion,” he remarks, “neither this tract nor the other I mentioned before [the Monologion] deserves to be called a book or to carry its author’s name.”[6] Centuries later, and in a passage familiar to many readers of this quarterly, Luther offers some thoughts on his own publishing career, numerous works of which were then being anthologized in the Wittenberg Edition. “I would have been quite content to see my books, one and all, remain in obscurity and go by the board,” Luther writes, in a register similar to Anselm’s. “There should be less writing,” he goes on to say, “and instead more studying and reading of the Scriptures. For all other writing is to lead the way into and point toward the Scriptures, as John the Baptist did toward Christ, saying, ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’ (John 3:30).”[7]

I detect not an ounce of false modesty in such statements. Anselm, Luther, and others before and after them have recognized the terrifying prospect of writing about God and getting it all wrong, or otherwise distracting readers from the urgent task of wrestling with the Scriptures. Barth is helpful here as well, even as he bends the same concern toward a slightly different direction. In his book Evangelical Theology, he warns readers that theological work is scarcely worth doing when undertaken half-heartedly, morosely, or absent a genuine sense of astonishment regarding theology’s object.[8]

All of this suggests that reading theology, too, is not without its perils or demands. If writing about God calls for courage, humility, patience, and great care, then reading about God requires these same virtues, not to mention charitableness, respect, generosity, and an eagerness to learn. Reading carries us before the power of words, opening us up to new possibilities as we consider another’s insights and perspectives. In just this way reading can change us, compelling us to think and act differently. And if this is true in a general sense about the act of reading, it is especially so for reading theology, where the subject matter is God and all other things in relation to God. Woe to us if we forestall, with our impatience or carelessness or closed minds, the possibilities for discovery and genuine change that come with reading about God!

Leaping with Linked Arms

Let me twist Barth’s metaphor one final time as I bring these reflections to a close. Many years ago I went spelunking in southern Kentucky. During one portion of our tour, the guide switched off the string of lights running along the floor of the cave and instructed us to power down our headlamps. We plunged into an absolute darkness that was at once disorienting and terrifying. Surrounded by the pitch black, our guide proposed an experiment: “Link arms with your partner,” he instructed us, “and take a few steps forward.” We had just observed that the cavern stretched ahead some twenty yards and that the floor was dry and relatively smooth. Still, that brief jaunt in the dark took faith, courage, patience, and much teamwork.

“We invite our readers into a partnership,” Glenn Stone wrote fifty-two years ago in the inaugural editorial of Lutheran Forum.[9] In the same piece, he surveyed some of the challenges and prospects facing the church in the late 1960s. Stone initiated an agenda for this journal as a genuine forum, bringing together authors and readers from across the landscape of North American Lutheranism to reflect theologically on the issues of the day. His successors have been faithful to pass along from generation to generation the journal’s original editorial vision. Paul Hinlicky, Leonard Klein, and Ronald Bagnall, the trio of editors following in turn after Stone, maintained the journal’s profile as a forum for difficult conversation, even while upping the theological stakes by alerting readers to the numerous crises facing Lutheran witness at the hinge of the millennia. My immediate predecessor, my friend Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, brought new authors and readers into the debate chamber, and gave fresh attention to the global and ecumenical dimensions of the Lutheran story. All along the way during these five decades of excellent theological journalism, our editors have published courageously, pursuing and supporting authors who dare take up their pens to write about God, and building quarterly issues that compel our readers to think about God anew.

I consider it my mandate to continue this tradition of risky but joyful theological journalism, inviting authors and readers to meet each quarter for genuine and lively conversation about the challenges before us. The stakes are high. North American Lutheranism is divided and diminished, and needs this sort of forum now more than it ever has before. If even some of us can agree to come together each issue, crossing what divides us in order to find common ground for discussion, our forum just might be used by God to do a work in and between our Lutheran churches. But you may rest assured that we will not go unchanged after leaping together in the dark with linked arms.

In his prefatory note from 1951, Karl Barth praises Arthur Frey for possessing understanding, love, skill, and width of vision. I’ve been doing editorial work long enough to know that these virtues do not take root overnight. We at Lutheran Forum covet your prayers as we begin this new season together; prayers for a deep understanding of and commitment to the editorial mandate of the journal and the needs of our readers; prayers that we would love the work we are called to do, even when the prose is brambly, the hours late, the contributors grumpy, and the deadlines long past; prayers for the skills necessary to serve both authors and readers as we select, evaluate, review, and proofread articles; and prayers that our vision for this historic quarterly would be deep, wide, and flexible, firmly grounded in our traditions even while ready to face whatever the future throws our way.

R. David Nelson is the editor of Lutheran Forum


1. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics [hereafter CD] (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1936-1977) III/4, xiv.

2. Barth, Theological Existence Today! A Plea for Theological Freedom (London: Hodder and Stoughton), 6.

3. Barth, CD III/1, x.

4. Barth, CD I/1, xii.

5. See Ephraim Radner, Time and the Word: Figural Reading of the Christian Scriptures (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), especially pages 197-201.

6. Anselm of Canterbury, Proslogion, in idem, The Major Works, eds. Brian Davies and G.R. Evans (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 83.

7. Luther, “Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of Luther’s German Writings,” in LW 34, 283-284.

8. See Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963), passim.

9. Glenn Stone, “To Serve the Present, To Seek the Future,” reprinted in LF 51 no. 1 (2017), 63-64.

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