Reflections on Bultmann’s ‘Task of Theology’ (1)

A couple of days ago I posted an exposition of Rudolf Bultmann’s ‘The task of Theology in the Present Situation’ from May 1933. I want to reflect a little further on this lecture and task.

First, Bultmann reflects on the contemporary political situation as a theologian, and more specifically, “on the meaning of our theological work in this situation” (158). That is, what does it mean to be a theologian and to undertake theological work in a situation of dramatic political change and inflamed nationalist sentiment? His intent is neither to affirm nor to criticise the events themselves: ‘Rather we must look at these events simply from the standpoint of their immense possibilities for the future and ask ourselves what our responsibility is as theologians in face of these possibilities” (158, original emphasis). He takes it as a given that the theologian works in the service of the church ‘to develop the basis and meaning of Christian faith for our generation’ (158). Again, toward the end of the address he states, ‘it is not my task to expound how we might wish things to be, but only how they actually are, according to the teaching of the church’ (163). And this he has done:

Ladies and gentlemen! There cannot be the slightest doubt that this is the meaning and the demand of the Christian faith, and that these are the thoughts that the theologian has to advocate. For what I have said is simply taken from the thoughts of the New Testament and the Reformers . . . We have attempted in face of the immense possibilities that are now open to us to understand our responsibility as it becomes clear to us through the critical power of the Christian faith (163-164).

Bultmann views theology as a work in service of the church in its task of nurturing the faith—and the life of faith—of the Christian community. He claims to be reiterating only the message of the New Testament and the Reformers—Scripture and tradition. From these sources he affirms the ideas of the ‘ordinances of creation,’ and their ambiguity due to human sinfulness, the love commandment and with it, one’s responsibility to one’s neighbour, and all within an overarching understanding of God as creator, judge, and redeemer. Together, these lines of thought provide the ‘critical perspective’ (163) he brings to his reflection on the situation.

My second reflection concerns the idea and role of faith. Prominent in Bultmann’s understanding of the task of theology is the responsibility to ‘develop the basis and meaning of Christian faith for our generation’ (158). Just what he means by this phrase requires more extensive grounding in his work than I presently have (this is my first direct engagement with his work). But it is suggestive. The focus of the theological task is constructive and creative for without it Christian faith would seem to have ‘in our [any] generation’ no basis or meaning. He must intend this in a relative rather than absolute sense for the faith he wishes to commend is faith in the biblical God. Yet his focus is on faith, the human response as it is directed toward God as Creator and Judge of the world, and its Redeemer in Jesus Christ. That the theologian’s task is to develop the basis and content of this faith suggests that these are not givens, that the basis for faith must be developed (created?), as must its content. This stands in contrast to Barth’s approach in which the task of theology follows the objectivity of revelation given us in Jesus Christ and in which God himself creates the possibility and reality of faith.

This faith is evident more in its demonstration than its content as such, realised ‘precisely in our experience and action as obedience’ to the Lord who encounters us in the concrete situation of the moment (159). Faith, then, is not merely, perhaps not even, a belief in God as the cause or source of the world, but an acknowledgement of God’s lordship that meets us in our existence in the world. Human life and action are not determined by a timeless plan of providence but by the concrete situation of the moment within which we have been placed and wherein we are confronted by the divine lordship. This suggests a divine immanence that Bultmann will quickly relativise: God is not to be identified with the ‘ordinances of creation’ although one’s action with respect to them may be characterised as responsible obedience or as sin (160).

Bultmann’s ‘faith’ refers ultimately to Christian faith: faith ‘knows God not only as the Judge, but also as the Redeemer, who through Jesus Christ restores his original creation’ (162, emphasis added).

Only he who knows the transcendent God who speaks his word of love to the world in Christ is able to extricate himself from this sinful world and to achieve a perspective from which the world’s ordinances can really be known as ordinances of creation—i.e., as ordinances for which he must gratefully rejoice and in which he must silently suffer and serve as one who loves. He alone has a critical perspective over against the loud demands of the day, in that he measure the good and evil in such demands by asking whether and to what extent they serve the command of love. And he alone also has a critical perspective with respect to himself, which enables him to ask whether his own action is really selfless service (163)

Faith, therefore, is a form of knowledge deriving from God’s redemptive action in Jesus Christ by which the believer knows God as Creator, Judge and Redeemer, and therefore knows him or herself and the world in which they live. Presumably, this knowledge of faith is that developed by the theologian as they serve the church.

Rudolf Bultmann on the Task of Theology in 1933

On May 2nd, 1933, Rudolf Bultmann began his lecture series unusually, with a comment about the rapidly developing German political situation.

Ladies and gentlemen! I have made a point never to speak about current politics in my lectures, and I think I also shall not do so in the future. However, it would seem to me unnatural were I to ignore today the political situation in which we begin this new semester (in Existence & Faith: Shorter Writings of Rudolf Bultmann, 158).

He is quick to note that what he aims to say is not political per se, but to inquire ‘what our responsibility is as theologians in face of these possibilities’ (158).

Bultmann begins by describing the relation of faith and politics as an implication of faith in God as Creator and Judge of the world, and its Redeemer in Jesus Christ. Faith in God as Creator is not a philosophical theory or the foundation of one’s worldview so much as the confrontation in which God encounters us as Lord in the concrete experience and situation of our everyday existence. This faith is realised in our experience and action in the moment, not as a general response of, say, ‘cultivating our humanity,’ but in our obedience to our Lord as this man or this woman in this place, time, and situation. Bultmann’s understanding of the situation includes our existence within the scope of the ‘ordinances of creation’ which includes such things as family, work and possessions, the relations of the sexes and those of different age, education, nationality, and state. Faith in God, then, stands in a positive relation with nationality since God has placed us in our nation and state, and encounters us in and through these earthly realities (159).

It suffices to understand—in the words of F.K. Schumann—that ‘nationality means being subject to an original claim; that to stand in a nation or to be a member of a nation means to share a common destiny, to subject oneself to the claim of the past, to let one’s own existence be determined by others, to be responsible for a common future, to receive oneself from others and thus also to be able to sacrifice oneself in return’ (159-160).

Although God encounters us in and through creaturely realities, he is not immanent within them, nor to be identified with them: he is the Creator and as such stands outside and beyond the creation. That is, God is not merely Creator but also Judge, and thus our relation to the ordinances is not merely positive but also critical. Bultmann cites 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 to argue that human sinfulness corrupts our relation to the ordinances of creation, making the creature self-serving:

Everything . . . can become sin at man’s hands; i.e., it can become a means for pursuing his own interests and disposing of his existence. Therefore, all of the ordinances in which we find ourselves are ambiguous. They are God’s ordinances, but only insofar as they call us to service in our concrete tasks. In their mere givenness, they are ordinances of sin (160).

The ordinances may be placed at the service of God or of sin, though their original purpose was the service of God who by them intended to bind us one to another in relations of justice. But we and all our history are also ambiguous, shaped inevitably by our history of sin, infected with a “sinful self-understanding in which man wills to pursue his own interests and to dispose of his existence” (162).

With these thoughts now in mind, Bultmann turns again to the question of nationalism:

No state and no nation is so unambiguous an entity, is so free from sin, that the will of God can be read off unambiguously from its bare existence. No nation is so pure and clean that one may explain every stirring of the national will as a direct demand of God. As nature and all our personal relations with one another have become uncanny as a result of sin, so also has nationality. From it emerge deeds of beauty and nobility; but there also breaks out of it the demonry of sin (162).

Thus, it is the role of Christian faith, “precisely in this time of crisis,” to ask again, “what is the true and normative meaning of the nation” (162). It demonstrates its “essentially positive character precisely in its critical stance” (162). The criticism offered by the church is grounded not merely in its knowledge of sin but also of grace. It knows God not merely as Creator and Judge, but also as Redeemer. This knowledge provides the believer with a criterion by which to measure the noisy demands of the day, “by asking whether and to what extent they serve the command of love” (163). In the “present struggle” this criterion must be applied concretely rather than as an abstraction, and be applied to oneself as well as to others. That is, we must be concerned with “the concrete neighbor to whom we are now bound in the present by all the commonplace ties of life” (163). Further, only those may truly serve the nation who view each neighbour in light of this criterion; that is, those who have been freed to love by receiving the love of God in Christ.

Bultmann concludes his address with a powerful and straight-forward exhortation to act responsibly in light of the critical power of this Christian faith.

Will we preserve the power of our critical perspective and not succumb to the temptations, so that we may work together for Germany’s future with clean hands and believe in this future honorably? Must I point out that in this critical hour the demonry of sin also lies in wait? (164)

The slogan—We want to abolish lies!—from a recent student demonstration provides a means for making his call concrete. He deplores the widespread use of denunciation and defamation to label and castigate opponents as an example of ‘lies’ used, supposedly, in their abolition.

‘We want to abolish lies!’—and so I must say in all honesty that the defamation of the Jews that took place in the very demonstration that gave rise to this beautiful sentiment was not sustained by the spirit of love. Keep the struggle for the German nation pure, and take care that noble intentions to serve truth and country are not marred by demonic distortions!

But there is yet this final word. If we have correctly understood the meaning and the demand of the Christian faith, then it is quite clear that, in face of the voices of the present, this Christian faith itself is being called in question. In other words, it is clear that we have to decide whether Christian faith is to be valid for us or not. . . . And we should as scrupulously guard ourselves against falsifications of the faith by national religiosity as against a falsification of national piety by Christian trimmings. The issue is either/or!

Reading Karl Barth’s Doctrine of God (4)

Selection: The Church Dogmatics II/1:25-31,  §25.1 “Man before God.”

We saw in our previous discussion Barth’s contention that “Biblical knowledge of God is always based on encounters of man with God” (23). In this encounter—the divine encounter of grace—the human subject is confronted with the reality of God and called to a human act and decision in response and correspondence to the divine act and decision. God reveals himself as Lord, and the human is directed to God and called to obedience: this is the knowledge of God.

Knowledge of God is obedience to God. Observe that we do not say that knowledge of God may also be obedience, or that of necessity it has obedience attached to it, or that it is followed by obedience. No; knowledge of God as knowledge of faith is in itself and of essential necessity obedience. It is an act of human decision corresponding to the act of divine decision; corresponding to the act of the divine being as the living Lord; corresponding to the act of grace in which faith is grounded and continually grounded again in God (26).

The outcome of the encounter is not pre-determined but may issue in disobedience as well as obedience. That is does, in fact, issue in obedience remains the work of divine grace by which the person is directed by God to God (27). Although distinct from God on account of their sinfulness, yet they are also united to God precisely in this act of divine grace and condescension.

Barth supports his position by means of a short excursus exploring Calvin’s insistence that “we shall not say that, properly speaking, God is known where there is no religion or piety” (Calvin, Institutes, I.ii.1; 1:39). Barth’s reflection seeks to demonstrate that Calvin did not teach a natural knowledge of God but that such knowledge is possible only as we give ourselves obediently to God. Nevertheless, by the Holy Spirit such knowledge is efficacious (CD II/1:27-29). While insisting on the divine precedence that grounds the knowledge of God, Barth also insists on the two-sided nature of this knowledge:

For Calvin the fulfilment of the real knowledge of God is a cycle. God gives himself to be known in His will directed towards us. God is known by us as we are submissive to this His will. It is obvious that this cycle corresponds exactly to what is called knowledge of God in the Old and New Testaments. The encounters between God and man in the sphere of that secondary objectivity of God mean singly and in the aggregate that taking place of a history (Calvin: a negotium [= ‘dealings’]) between God and man. This history begins with a voluntary decision of God and continues in a corresponding voluntary decision of man. This history develops systematically and completely. The will of God offers itself as good will towards men and is met by faith. Man with his will yields and becomes submissive to the will of God. Faith becomes the determination of his existence and therefore obedience. And in this way the knowledge of God takes place. According to the Bible there is no knowledge of God outside this cycle. Knowledge of God means knowledge of the way or ways of God, which as such are good, true, holy and just. How can they be known except as God gives them to be known, i.e., gives Himself to be known as the One who goes these ways? Everything depends on this divine precedence. But again, how can they be known except as man for his part travels ways which in his sphere correspond to the ways of God—ways of wisdom, of life, of peace, which are indeed no longer his own ways, no longer the ways of the heathen and godless? Thus everything depends too on this human proceeding and going with God (28-29). 

Where God in His benevolentia [goodness] gives Himself to be known by man, and where man stands before Him as the one who knows this benevolentia as such and is therefore determined by it and obedient to it, there and there alone is there a fulfilment of the real knowledge of God (29).

Barth’s account of the human knowledge of God, therefore, depends on God making himself an object of human consideration, giving himself to be known by them. In this benevolent self-giving God remains ever the Lord, addressing the person as their Lord and calling them to faith, trust, and obedience. In this construal, revelation is personal and relational, the act of God in a history of dealings with humanity and with each person, and in which their decision and corresponding act is necessary. Faith is not mere belief but a decisive reorientation and determination of a person’s life such that their life now moves along a path in correspondence to the paths along which God, too, goes. Faith means that now this person ‘goes’ with God. That they do so does not make them superior to others for it is not their work but God’s.

This account of the knowledge of God has its critics for it bypasses rational explication. This is the vulnerability of the knowledge of God understood as faith: it has no rational or apologetic foundation but is grounded solely in the event of revelation and the corresponding act of faith.

It is quite impossible to defend and maintain [this position] unless we represent its reality and possibility from withing outwards, and do not try to establish its reality and possibility from outside. ‘From outside’ means from the point of view of a human position where truth, dignity and competence are so ascribed to human seeing, understanding and judging as to be judge over the reality and possibility of what happens here. … Already we have had to understand the knowledge of God bound to the Word of God as an event utterly undetermined by man but utterly determined by God as its object (31).

Reading Karl Barth’s Doctrine of God (3)

Selection: The Church Dogmatics II/1:21-25,  §25.1 “Man before God.”

Barth began his discussion with the insistence that God is known in the church because God has given himself to be known in his revelation, supremely in Jesus Christ, the Word become flesh. The knowledge of God is necessarily the knowledge of faith because in his revelation God reveals himself indirectly, utilising creaturely media as the vehicle of his revelation. Yet in and through these creaturely media God speaks, acts, and reveals himself, giving true knowledge of the true God. If we would know God we can do so only in faith, and only in those places where God has given himself to be known. Otherwise, we do not have the knowledge of God but of false gods and no-gods, gods of human invention.

Barth continues his discussion by developing a third point: the knowledge of God is always a gift of divine grace in which the human knower can never have precedence: “Only because God posits Himself as the object is man posited as the knower of God” (22). Grace means that God initiates humanity’s knowledge of himself and indicates also the freedom of God with respect to humanity. God and the knowledge of God are never at human disposal but we may and must pray for its fulfilment, that God may give Himself to be known.

Biblical knowledge of God is always based on encounters of man with God; encounters in which God exercises in one way or another His lordship over man, and in which He is acknowledged as sovereign Lord and therefore known as God. They are encounters which are always initiated by God, and which for man always have in them something unforeseen, surprising and new (23).

Nor is this a once-off encounter with a person for in Barth’s description the Christian life involves constant renewal in the knowledge of God, revelation, and faith.

For example, it is not the case that Abraham, Moses and David, once chosen, called, enlightened and commissioned, knew once for all how they stood with God. But what was once for all decided concerning them by God had to be worked out and fulfilled in them in a long history of renewals—for as long, indeed, as they lived . . .

Without new grace and without the effectiveness of God in His works Israel would have departed from God at every turn and then have been inwardly destroyed. Everything depends on the fact that God does not cease to bear witness to Himself as the one eternal God in new manifestations of His presence, in new revelation of His former ways, leading His people continually from old to new faith (23-24).

Barth acknowledges that the portrayal of the New Testament apostles is quite different to that of the Old Testament characters he discusses. It certainly appears that they are in fact possessors of the knowledge of God in a way that does not seem to need constant renewal. But Barth distinguishes between their need as men and the apostolic office in which they stand. As men they do need such renewal though

In their existence as apostles the secondary objectivity of the human appearing of Jesus Christ Himself is repeated. And hidden within this is the primary objectivity of God Himself, call to faith, awakening faith, establishing and renewing faith, and with faith the knowledge of God—not by these men’s own strength but by the power of the Holy Spirit communicated to them, in the freedom of grace (24-25).

In this remarkable statement we see that the apostles are given a share in Jesus’ revelatory ministry, entirely by the Spirit, so that his objectivity is repeated in them, and in and through them, the primary objectivity of God. That is, in and through their ministry, God speaks, calls, addresses, and converts. This, too, is the hope of the church in its ministry. And for this the church must pray, as the apostles did, and as Jesus himself did (25).

Reading Karl Barth’s Doctrine of God (2)

Selection: The Church Dogmatics II/1:12-21,  §25.1 “Man before God.”

When Barth speaks of ‘man before God’ he means the person who does in fact stand before God, the one in whom the knowledge of God has been realised or fulfilled. How does this occur, that someone knows God and therefore stands before God? Barth’s answer to this question is twofold: the person has been encountered by God, and thereby knows and acknowledges God (31). This knowledge is itself, faith.

Faith is the total positive relationship of man to the God who gives Himself to be known in His Word. It is man’s act of turning to God, of opening up his life to Him and of surrendering to Him. It is the Yes which he pronounces in his heart when confronted by this God, because he knows himself to be bound and fully bound. It is the obligation in which, before God, and in the light of the clarity that God is God and that He is his God, he knows and explains himself as belonging to God. But when we say that, we must at once also say that faith as the positive relationship of man to God comes from God Himself in that it is utterly and entirely  grounded in the fact that God encounters man in the Word which demands of him this turning, this Yes, this obligation; becoming an object to him in such a way that in His objectivity He bestows upon him by the Holy Spirit the light of the clarity that He is God and that He is his God, and therefore evoking this turning, this Yes, this obligation on the part of man. It is in this occurrence of faith that there is the knowledge of God; and not only the knowledge of God, but also love towards Him, trust in Him and obedience to Him (12).

The realisation of the knowledge of God in human life has, therefore, this dual aspect: the act of God making himself an object for human contemplation, and the corresponding and subsequent human act of recognition and commitment—faith. In the recognition of God as God—something possible only in the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit—the person finds themselves confronted, encountered, bound in such a way that they respond to this new reality by turning, opening, and surrendering themselves to this God. They stand before God.

Biblical faith lives upon the objectivity of God. In one way or another, God comes into the picture, the sphere, the field of man’s consideration and conception in exactly the same way that objects do, uniting Himself to man, distinguishing Himself from him, evoking by His existence and nature man’s love, trust and obedience; but before and in and above all this, bearing witness to Himself by establishing from His side this orientation of man, this uniting and distinguishing. Biblical faith stands or falls with the fact that it is faith in God (13).

In confronting the human creature God reveals himself—as Another—thereby distinguishing himself from the person and yet also uniting himself to them, and evoking a corresponding reaction from the person. Genuine faith will include love, trust, and obedience but prior to these responses it is knowledge of God given in the act of revelation itself. Thus, faith is knowledge of God and conversely, the knowledge of God is faith. To have faith is to know God; to know God is to have faith. This, too, is an epistemological claim: to have faith is a particular way of knowing, similar to other forms of human knowledge of other objects, but also unique because this object of knowledge is unique, distinct from all other objects of human knowledge.

In the Bible faith means sanctification. And in the Bible sanctification is the execution of a choice—of particular places, times, men, events or historical sequences. Where this sanctification and therefore this choice occurs, there, according to the Bible, knowledge of God occurs also. The foundation and subject of this sanctification and choice is, however, the object of scriptural faith, electing and consequently sanctifying Himself in glory. And this object is God, the one who is certainly an object, but the utterly unique object of a unique human knowledge; . . . What happens throughout the Word of God is the history of this choice and sanctification. It is this history that we recount; and our own faith only comes into play in so far as we keep to this history (15-16).

God reveals himself, so making himself an object for human knowledge, but does so by sanctifying himself amongst all other objects, and by electing, calling, and sanctifying those to whom he is revealed. This setting apart which occurs via revelation, is faith.

That God can make himself an object for human knowledge is grounded in the primary objectivity in which God is immediately objective to himself in all eternity in the intra-trinitarian relations.

We call this the primary objectivity of God, and distinguish from it the secondary, i.e., the objectivity which He has for us too in His revelation, in which He gives Himself to be known by us as He knows Himself. It is distinguished from the primary objectivity, not by a lesser degree of truth, but by its particular form suitable for us, the creature. God is objectively immediate to Himself, but to us He is objectively mediate. . . . First to Himself, and then in His revelation to us, He is nothing but what He is in Himself (16).

God knows himself in all eternity directly and immediately in the relationship of the Father to the Son and the Son to the Father. In his revelation to us, however, God is known indirectly and mediately, for he appears to us not directly in his naked glory “but clothed under the sign and veil of other objects different from Himself” (16). Thus, the recipient of this revelation stands before God in faith, truly knowing God and trusting God though only indirectly. God cannot be identified with the media of revelation: he remains ever distinct from them but also utilises them as the vehicle of his revelation and through them gives himself to be known.

At bottom, knowledge of God in faith is always this indirect knowledge of God, knowledge of God in His works, and in these particular works—in the determining and using of certain creaturely realities to bear witness to the divine objectivity. What distinguishes faith from unbelief, erroneous faith and superstition is that it is content with this indirect knowledge of God . . . it is grateful really to know the real God in His works. . . . But it also holds fast to the particularity of these works. It does not arbitrarily choose objects to set up as signs, in that way inventing a knowledge of God at its own good pleasure. It knows God by means of the objects chosen by God Himself. It recognises and acknowledges God’s choice and sanctification in the operation of this knowledge (17-18).

In all this Barth is interested in the nature of human faith as a response to God’s revelation and evoked by that revelation. Faith has its basis in God’s sovereign election—his subjectivity, while the church is the sphere of revelation. It is impossible for humanity to arrive at the knowledge of God independently, and nor may they decide for themselves how God may be known, or set up their own means to the knowledge of God. “We must seek Him where He Himself has sought us—in those veils and under those signs of His Godhead. Elsewhere He is not to be found” (18). The veils and signs of which Barth speaks are his works:

It is this God in action . . . He really stands before them; He really speaks to they; they really hear Him. But all this takes place, not in a direct, but in an indirect encounter. What direct confront them are the historical events, forms and relationships which are His work.

The Messiah, the promised Son of Abraham and David, the Servant of Yahweh, the Prophet, Priest and King has appeared; and not only as sent by God, but Himself God’s Son. Yet the Word does not appear in His eternal objectivity as the Son who alone dwells in the bosom of the Father. No; the Word became flesh. God gives Himself to be known, and is known, in the substance of secondary objectivity, in the sign of all signs, in the work of God which all other works of God serve to prepare, accompany and continue, in the manhood which He takes to Himself (19-20).

“Letting this be enough for oneself is not resignation but the humility and boldness of the man who really stands before God in faith, and in faith alone” (20).

Times Have Changed

This is from the opening paragraph in the General Introduction of The Library of Living Theology. The first volume of the series appeared in 1952, and thus the General Introduction probably also appeared then:

As we enter the second half of the twentieth century, religion and theology are less likely to be neglected by thinking men. Whatever may be the causes of the present-day return to religion, the fact remains that religious thinking has again become intellectually respectable. As against the climate of a generation and more ago–when the notion of a ‘Christian intellectual’ was almost a contradiction in terms–we now see religiously minded men–motivated in their thinking by basic religious and theological assumptions–taking a more and more prominent and commanding place in the world of thought (Charles W. Kegley (ed.), The Theology of Emil Brunner, vii).

It seems to me that the confidence expressed in this announcement changed, and rather quickly. I imagine that by the end of the sixties the tide was already in ebb. Perhaps not universally since serious theological conversation did continue in institutions of higher learning and amongst their participants. But this is more an intra-mural than public conversation. Change in both church and culture shifted the focus of ‘thinking men’–of thoughtful people–with the result that religion and theology were not merely neglected but often rejected.

No doubt many factors were at play in both church and culture that led to this unanticipated neglect. No doubt some factors at work in the religion and theology of the period also contributed.

My point here is not an attempt to delineate these factors. Rather, I am simply musing on the confidence of the series editors in mid-century USA who did not anticipate the seismic shifts about to rock their world.

And I am wondering whether and how theologians might again find the means of commending the gospel in the cultural context in which now live. This is necessary, not as an adjunct to the gospel but, if we would learn from the ancient apologists, the Church Fathers, the great preaching bishops, medieval monks, and reformers, etc., as a part of what faithful and fruitful gospel proclamation means and requires.

Reading Karl Barth’s Doctrine of God (1)

Selection: The Church Dogmatics II/1:3-12,  §25.1 “Man before God.”

Barth begins his treatment of the doctrine of God with a chapter entitled “The Knowledge of God.” The chapter has three sections, the first being “The Fulfilment of the Knowledge of God” itself comprised of two sub-sections.

In the first sub-section, “Man before God,” Barth provides a description of how the knowledge of God occurs—from a human perspective. He begins by assuming that the knowledge of God is a reality in the church: “In the Church of Jesus Christ men speak about God and men have to hear about God” (3). That this knowledge occurs in the church is a result of the gracious gift of God by which God has made himself known and makes himself known. True confidence must begin here—with the actuality rather than the possibility of the knowledge of God. We do not ask whether God might be known but rather how far God is or might be known (5). This is an epistemological claim: the knowledge of God occurs only in its occurrence—where God is actually known, where the fulfilment of this knowledge takes place. There is no neutral position or standpoint whereby one might test, explore, or prove the knowledge of God without having already heard the Word of God and been brought within the circle of the knowledge of God.

God is a unique Object, known only as he gives himself as an object of human knowledge. God is not one amongst others, not one in a series, nor an abstract postulate such as a ‘Supreme Being’ or ‘First Cause.’ God—the true and living God—is not a god one might identify or choose for oneself; such an entity could never be God. For Barth, this principle is self-evident for there is, in fact, only one God—the self-existent One who exists eternally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To have knowledge of this God is to have the knowledge of God. To have knowledge of some other god or concept or being is not the knowledge of God.

The knowledge of God with which we are here concerned takes place, not in a free choice, but with a very definite constraint. It stands or falls with its one definite object. . . . Because it is bound to God’s Word given to the Church, the knowledge of God with which we are here concerned is bound to the God who in His Word gives Himself to the Church to be known as God. Bound in this way it is the true knowledge of the true God (7).

This, therefore, is the ‘very definite constraint’ with which the church is ‘bound,’ that is, God is known only as he gives himself to be known in his Word. “Any escape out of the constraint of the Word of God means crossing over to the false gods and no-gods” (7).

Confident Christian speech about God—good apologetics—must begin under the discipline of this constraint. Nor is it the case that we choose the constraint: we rather find ourselves constrained by the Word that has come to us. “We can only come from the real and original constraint by the Word; we cannot come to it” (9). Barth cites Psalm 127:1-2 (Except the Lord build the house, their labour is but lost that build it), giving it epistemological force. “Good apologetics is distinguished from bad by its responsibility to these words” (9).

Barth’s first point, then, is that the knowledge of God is mediated knowledge; there is no unbound, non-objective, or immediate knowledge of God. We know God only through the mediacy of his Word in the church where he gives himself to be known as an object of human knowledge.

If God gives Himself to man to be known in the revelation of His Word through the Holy Spirit, it means that He enters into the relationship of object to man the subject. In His revelation he is considered and conceived by men. Man knows God in that he stands before God. But this always means: in that God becomes, is and remains to him Another, One who is distinct from himself, One who meets him. Nor is this objectivity of God neturalised by the fact that God makes man His own through the Holy Spirit in order to give Himself to be owned by him (9-10).

In making himself an object for human knowledge, God remains nevertheless “the primarily acting Subject of all real knowledge of God, so that the self-knowledge of God is the real and primary essence of all knowledge of God” (10).

Several observations about Barth’s point can now be made: first, any true human knowledge of God is always a gift of divine grace. Barth takes it as axiomatic that genuine knowledge of God is beyond human capacity. God is not an object of human observation or enquiry in a manner similar to other phenomena. Rather, God makes himself an object of human knowledge by giving himself to be known by humanity as this object. Unless God does this, humankind cannot know God. That God has done this is an act of divine condescension and grace, an act of the Holy Spirit who makes the human subject capable of the knowledge of God (10).

Second, the knowledge of God is a personal and relational knowledge: God comes to the human person as Another, meeting them as this Other, and giving himself to be known by them. The human subject finds themselves encountered by God—a transcendent Subject who makes himself an object for their apprehension—and so come to know Him and not merely about him. While God knows himself perfectly and immediately, they know him only mediately and contingently yet still truly. The knowledge they have is an aspect of God’s own self-knowledge.

Third, as noted, this knowledge of God is also a mediated knowledge, a knowledge given to us by his Word in the church. Only by starting out and staying on this path can one attain the knowledge the God. God can only be known where God has given himself to be known: other paths lead to false gods and no-gods, gods of human invention and so not at all the knowledge of God. Barth warns against mystical attempts to ascend to God immediately:

This ascendere and transcendere means abandoning, or at any rate wanting to abandon, the place where God encounters man in His revelation and where He gives Himself to be heard and seen by man. . . . If we really soar up into these heights, and really reduce all concepts, images, words and signs to silence, and really think we can enter into the idipsum [the ‘self-same’; the thing itself], it simply means that we wilfully hurry past God, who descends in His revelation into this world of ours. Instead of finding Him where He Himself has sought us—namely, in his objectivity—we seek Him where He is not to be found, since He on His side seeks us in His Word (11).

 

Let’s Get Growing (3) – As Gospel Community

(This brief article was published in the Advocate in August 2021 (page 13), the third in a series of articles on spiritual growth. The Advocate is published by the Baptist Churches of Western Australia.)

Many years ago, Monica and I took our youth group for an all-you-can-eat buffet at Pizza Hut. During the evening, I saw a some guys at another table, probably stoned, one ‘resting’ his face in the pizza pan. I smirked. “Look at him!” Monica, concerned for the youth, whispered quietly, “The only difference between you and him, is Jesus.”

Monica was right. My smug sense of self-satisfaction, my snide superiority, my willingness to gloat over the failure of another all pointed in one direction: I had completely misunderstood, or even worse forgotten, the grace of God.

There are two ways to misunderstand grace: one is the way of self-righteousness: I assumed I was ‘more righteous’ than someone else because my life ‘looked better.’ The other is to fail to realise the depths of God’s goodness and love, and so fail to receive—and live in—the reality of this grace.

The two errors often are connected. The first error forgets that all of us lives only by the forgiveness of sins, not our own performance. The second error doesn’t quite believe that God can really forgive our sin. We still feel shame in our hearts and perhaps believe that we are beyond forgiveness. This shame is compounded when we believe that if others knew who we truly were and what we have done, they would never love us. Therefore, we learn to hide what we think is the ‘real’ me; we work harder, wear masks, and practise image-management, trying to earn our belonging, and prove our worthiness. We hide, and we perform.

Both errors indicate graceless community. The self-righteous person parades their own virtue and judges others—as I did, creating an environment where it is not safe to be less than perfect. They cannot create gospel community because they don’t believe the gospel. Their so-called righteousness is their own work and not the work of God’s grace. They have not learned to receive God’s love so they cannot show it to others. Where self-righteousness reigns, only moralistic communities are formed, and these can never become communities of grace and healing. Without a living experience of God’s mercy and grace we are like Adam and Eve in the garden, hiding from God—and from one another—in fear and shame. The possibility of gospel community is destroyed because self-righteousness destroys openness and trust.

Gospel communities are places of healing and growth because God’s grace has become real in the believers’ lives. We find a place where we are truly known, even in our sin, and yet deeply loved. We find a place where God’s love, acceptance, and forgiveness is mediated to us through others. Convinced of this love, we take the risk of letting our masks slip. We begin to expose our struggles—our hearts—to another, and healing grace begins its work. Believing—experiencing!—God’s love and forgiveness through others, we learn to trust him more deeply—and to offer the same love to others. This is gospel community.

Picture Credit: Katie Workman

Center for Baptist Renewal Reading Challenge

I have only now become aware of this reading challenge from the Center for Baptist Renewal, and too late to join it this year, obviously. I don’t think I would have had time for it this year any way.

The list of readings provides a great introduction to the history of Christian theology, and maybe I will tick off the readings a little at a time. I have read only one of them entirely (Athanasius), though parts of many of them, but the idea of a systematic reading of twelve seminal works in twelve months is attractive. Though, given my time constraints I may well take longer than a month for each anyway. And it may be that I would swap some of them. For example, I have a copy of Irenaeus’s Against Heresies, but not On the Apostolic Preaching.

Worth considering, I think!

Let’s Get Growing (2) – in the Gospel

(This brief article was published in the Advocate in June 2021 (page 13), the second in a series of articles on spiritual growth. The Advocate is published by the Baptist Churches of Western Australia.)

The Apostle Paul wrote, “Don’t be conformed to this world but be transformed” (Rom. 12:2). To the Corinthians he said, “We are being transformed into the image of Christ!” (2 Cor. 3:18). Yet it seems that this ‘transformation’ comes ever so slowly, especially in my own life!

Can our lives really be changed?
Can our lives be really changed?

Significant growth in a Christian’s life comes through a range of experiences, some unique to each person, others necessary for any Christian who wants to grow. All Christian growth is a result of the work of the Holy Spirit and involves a deepening engagement with Scripture and our response in prayer and thanksgiving. Trials, suffering, service, and ministry are also common catalysts of growth.

At the root of all Christian growth, however, is a fresh encounter with the gospel of Jesus Christ. The story of Jesus is the gospel (Mark 1:1), and includes the story of his birth and baptism, his preaching and teaching, his healings and miracles, his parables and promises, his compassion and companionship, and supremely, his suffering, death, and resurrection. By returning again and again to the Gospels—prayerfully, studiously, hopefully, and in conversation with others—we open our lives to a transforming encounter with the gospel.

These stories speak to us, challenge, call, and commission us. They summon us to repentance and faith, to believe impossible things—and to hope for their reality, to a vision of the kingdom of God, to a life of companionship with Jesus, and to a participation in his mission.

So let’s get growing by reading, meditating, and pondering their message. And let’s do this in conversation with others in our small groups and at church. And with those who have written commentaries, and with the great preachers and theologians of the church. Let’s deepen our engagement with the gospel so that its message might penetrate the deepest corners of our minds, spark our imagination with new visions of life, and guide our decision-making and will in those directions.

But I want to say more.

If engagement with the gospel is the root of transformation, at the heart of the gospel is a message of grace. At the heart of the gospel is the story of God who has loved us, and turned to us, come to us, and suffered for us and in our place. God stoops to gather us up, even in our sinfulness and alienation, even in our opposition to him.

But this is a disruptive grace by which God not only forgives our sins but also claims us as his own. By this grace, he calls to us out of the life we have independently constructed, and into a new life of friendship and obedience. To be touched by grace is to know that we are profoundly loved—and confronted. When Peter saw Jesus’ majestic power and authority, he also saw himself with fresh eyes and cried out, “depart from me O Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8). That Jesus did not depart is pure grace. That he called Peter into a life of discipleship and service—this too is the same grace, and the two cannot be separated.

At the heart of the gospel—and therefore at the beginning of all Christian growth and transformation—is God’s gracious gift of the forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:47), and of friendship with God (John 15:13). But only real sinners need apply! It seems that it is only as we face up honestly to our own willfulness, brokenness, and sinfulness that this grace captures our hearts with its transforming power. Where sin abounds, grace much more abounds (Rom. 5:20)—and begins its healing work.

How might we experience this transforming and liberating grace? By turning again and again to Jesus, the Friend of Sinners (Matt. 11:19), coming clean with him, and with those we have wronged, and letting grace do its work. And by participating in communities of grace where the gospel of this grace is practiced and exemplified. We’ll talk about that next time.