Tag Archives: Swiss theologians

Review: Deliverance to the Captives

Karl Barth (1886–1968) was a Swiss Protestant theologian, known for his involvement in the Confessing Church in Nazi Germany, as well as his commentary on Romans and his multi-volume work of systematic theology, Church Dogmatics.

Deliverance to the Captives (1959; Eng. tr., 1978) is a collection of sermons preached at Basel Prison in Barth’s later life. It is one of several small collections of spoken addresses and prayers by a man much better-known for his theological writings. Though Barth mostly wrote, preaching was no small part of his life-work. Those of his spoken addresses that I can find in English are the following:

  • A Unique Time of God: Karl Barth’s WWI Sermons (2016; sermons preached in 1914)
  • The Early Preaching of Karl Barth (2009; preached 1917–1920)
  • Come Holy Spirit (1933; preached 1920–1924)
  • The Word of God and the Word of Man (1928; lectures given c. 1922)
  • The Word in This World (2019; preached in 1934)
  • Prayer and Preaching (1952; seminars given 1947–1949)
  • Deliverance to the Captives (1978; sermons preached 1954–1959)
  • Call for God: New Sermons from Basel Prison (1967; preached 1959–1964)

Of these, two slender volumes contain Barth’s preaching to the prisoners at Basel Prison from 1954 to 1964: Deliverance to the Captives (German, Den Gefangenen Befreiung) and Call for God (German, Rufe Mich An = Call on Me).

Barth preached at Basel Prison 27 times, usually on holidays such as Christmas or Easter. Those who knew him wrote that he relished these opportunities, and that the prisoners listened with gratitude. He was in his seventies when most of these were preached.

The sermons savor less of academia than many that I have heard on a Sunday. They are fresh and encouraging in their outlook, and they display what Barth himself called his “solidarity” with these prisoners. The sermons are evangelical in tenor and frequently include invitations to trust in Christ.

Themes prominent in his theology come out in the sermons from time to time, but he does not have many theological axes to grind.

The sermon “God’s Good Creation” gives us a brief look at Barth’s theology of creation, based on James 1:17.

“Teach Us To Number Our Days” was the most interesting with respect to theology. It outlines his explanation of the work of the atonement as God’s No to sin and death and God’s Yes to life.

What happened in the death of Jesus did not happen against us, but for us. What took place was not an act of God’s wrath against man. Quite the opposite holds true. Because in the one Jesus God so loved us from all eternity—truly all of us—because he has elected himself to be our dear Father and has elected us to become his dear children whom he wants to save and to draw unto him, therefore he has in the one Jesus written off, rejected, nailed to a cross and killed our old man who, as impressively as he may dwell and spook about in us, is not our true self. God so acted for our own sake. In the death of Jesus he has cleared away, swept out and let go up in flames, smoke and ashes the old man in us, that we may live a life of freedom. That he may himself say to us his divine ‘yes’, valid once for all and unconditionally, to this old companion who has no traffic with our true self, to our old ways and byways, and he did say ‘no’, unmistakably, in the death of Jesus as the substitute for us.

Karl Barth, Deliverance to the Captives, p. 122–123