The impossible possibility of being a minister

Many Barthians, non-Barthians and anti-Barthians alike like to quote and debate the so-called ‘impossible possibility’ in conversations about soteriological universalism and about das Nichtige. But a more pressing ‘impossible possibility’, for Barth, concerns the fact that the Word of God might be unveiled ‘through the foolishness of our proclamation’ (1 Cor 1.21). I was reminded of this again recently while reading Barth’s wonderful chapter on ‘The Task of the Ministry’ in The Word of God and the Word of Man wherein Barth sums up the pastor’s dilemma thus: ‘As ministers we ought to speak of God. We are human, however, and so cannot speak of God. We ought therefore to recognize both our obligation and our inability and by that very recognition give God the glory. This is our perplexity. The rest of our task fades into insignificance in comparison’ (p. 186).  I am also reminded of the ‘impossible possibility’ when I read Arnold Kenseth’s poem ‘Sunday’s Hour’:

Comes Sunday’s hour, and speech hangs itself
On God’s red tree. Preacher, word-monger, I
Defy the interdict, naming dark Yahweh, taking Him
And His fire in vain. O havoc, cry havoc! Sigh
His deep blue breath into phrases and praises.
Still, it is impossible. He will not dwell half
Or anywhere in my capture. Yet I must draw home
The net, try to catch somehow His graces.

For it is by grace we live, and all the people
Must be told. So I could wish my body more
Contained Him, that my walks more shaped, here
And there, His amble. How ill beneath a steeple
I incarnate! Despite me, then, come now,
Let His enlightening strike us row by row.

– Arnold Kenseth, ‘Sunday’s Hour’ in Seasons and Sceneries: Poems (Iowa City: Windhover Press, 2002). [HT: Rick Floyd]


  1. AS one recovering from knee replacement surgery, I’m continually reminded that what I do is fired by and full of the intervention and empowering of the Holy Spirit – that’s when I get out of the way and let it be like that. Two doses of burnout over a period of ten years had persuaded me that ministry was NOT all about me (though I thought I knew that), and is indeed all about the Lord, His grace, His resurrection presence, His Spirit’s relentless calling and enabling.
    Thanks for great stuff Jason.
    I’d love more time to read Barth at depth having been directed away from him while training – something I never understood once I read the two things I do have of his. The short version of his commentary on Romans and his little book on the apostles’ creed.


  2. Dear Jason,
    As I wrote you you in an earlier email, your blog has yet to fail to be an inspiration to me. As I read “The impossible possibility of being a minister” a quote by Martin Buber occurred to me: “I can’t talk about God–but I can talk with him” I think this is where many preachers fail. They try to talk about God. Rowan’s sermon sounds more like his experience with having had many conversations with God. It reminded me of R. Tagore’s first poem in Gitanjali.

    You mentioned the German word “das Nichtige” ; I am assuming this came from Karl Barth. German speaking theologians a great creating words denoting an heretofore ineffable concept. (Rilke was a master at this) I certainly did not hear this word before. Yet, it makes sense as the opposite is “das Richtige” –the “right thing”
    Kindest regards,
    Gerhard Heinen


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