Scripture on Sunday – James 3:2

James 3:2
For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well. (NASB)

The opening sentence of this verse continues the first-person plural of verse 1b, and may be read as though James continues his instruction concerning teachers. Verse one, however, is not addressing teachers directly but the congregation generally—‘my brothers and sisters’—about those who might consider becoming teachers. The congregation knows that ‘we’—teachers—will be subject to greater scrutiny in the judgement, and thus, not many (πολλοὶ) of them should become teachers. In this verse the ‘we’ returns to its general sense: “For we all stumble in many ways” (polla gar ptaiomen hapantes; πολλὰ γὰρ πταίομεν ἅπαντες)—James again, is addressing all his ‘brothers and sisters.’

This statement is a truism: each one of us continues to stumble in many ways (NASB) or, ‘over and over again’ (JB)—the polla can signify either meaning, and there is little between them. Although the way in which we stumble may differ from one person to the next—we do not all stumble in exactly the same way—each does stumble, and likely does so ‘over and over again.’ To ‘stumble’ seems to indicate relatively minor transgressions, what McKnight (274) refers to as ‘peccadillos.’ But even a minor transgression may become a more serious issue for the teacher whose more visible public role may mean that the stumble has greater or broader impact.

Now James will focus on a particular issue: while all may stumble in different ways, it is virtually inevitable that all will stumble with respect to their speech. This is, of course, particularly the case for teachers whose role involves a good deal of public speaking. Nevertheless, while “if anyone” (ei tis; εἴ τις) could certainly refer to teachers, it could equally refer to anyone at all. James is making a general statement that he will discuss further in what follows. “If anyone does not stumble in what he says” (en logō ou ptaiei; ἐν λόγῳ οὐ πταίει), literally, ‘in word’ (en logō) “he is a perfect man” (houtos teleios anēr; οὗτος τέλειος ἀνὴρ). Typically, James refers not to an abstract ‘sinless perfection,’ some indefinable or intangible ideal, but to a fully developed maturity of character. We have seen in 1:4 that to be teleios refers to mature character shaped by endurance in the face of trial and suffering. It is described as being complete or entire, lacking nothing. 1:25 suggests that such ‘perfection’ is the fruit of a life shaped by the ‘perfect (teleion) law of liberty,’ as one gazes into and practises the Word and is a doer of the work. Here, the ability to control one’s tongue so as not to stumble in word, is indicative of such maturity. Those able to bring the tongue into submission are also, according to James, “able to bridle the whole body as well” (dunatos chalinagōgēsai kai holon to sōma; δυνατὸς χαλιναγωγῆσαι καὶ ὅλον τὸ σῶμα). So difficult is it to control one’s tongue, that mastery here suggests a degree of self-control that is able to master one’s other passions and appetites as well.

This verse is a forceful reminder (Davids, 138) of 1:26 where, if one fails to ‘bridle’ (chalinagōgeō) one’s tongue, their religion is worthless. For James, a controlled tongue is central to genuine spirituality and indicative of maturity.

It is worth noting that James’ concern for the proper use of the tongue continues a prominent strand of reflection in Israel’s wisdom tradition and in the teaching of Jesus. It is worth noting also that while Scot McKnight’s argument that ‘body’ in 3:2 refers to the messianic community supports his contention that James is referring to and addressing teachers throughout this section, this seems an unlikely interpretation of the verse (276). James does not develop the ‘body’ metaphor for the church as Paul does in his writings, and makes no reference to this idea anywhere in his letter. And while it is true that James’ overall purpose is harmony in the congregation, he will arrive there by a different route.

Scripture on Sunday – James 3:1

James 3:1
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.

With this verse James begins a new topic—or does he? It is possible to read the verse in connection with what has already been said, as though James is warning the church, and especially his interlocutor of 2:18ff., of the dangers of being a false teacher. But it seems more likely the beginning of a new section, as signalled by the words, “my brothers and sisters” (adelphoi mou; ἀδελφοί μου—cf. 1:2, 16, 19; 2:1, 5, 14), and perhaps one in which he is addressing those who would be or are presently, teachers in the congregation. But this, too, is somewhat problematic, since in verse two James begins a long argument for control of the tongue, with reference to teachers disappearing altogether. In the latter half of the chapter he deepens the discussion by considering the character of true wisdom and suggesting that only those who display the characteristics of the ‘wisdom from above’ may be considered truly wise. Again, there is no explicit reference to those who teach. The first verse, then, appears to be a fragment, the apparent commencement of a new section in the letter yet isolated from what follows. We have at least three options concerning how to interpret the verse:

  • As a single-verse admonition, disconnected both from what precedes and what follows it.
  • As the commencement of a new theme in which verses 2-12 are particularly directed toward would-be and actual teachers.
  • As connected more particularly to Vv. 13-18 which also addresses the leadership of the community, so that vv. 2-12 are viewed as a (not unrelated) digression, but with a more general intent than applying only to teachers.

It seems best to adopt the third option. James addresses the whole community, even in verse one, and not merely teachers alone, though what he says across both major sections of the chapter and especially the second, is relevant also to those who seek this ministry.

“Not many of you” (Mē polloi; Μὴ πολλοὶ), says James, “should become teachers” (didaskaloi ginesthe; διδάσκαλοι γίνεσθε). Of the whole community, only few should ‘become’ teachers. The idea of becoming a teacher in the early Christian communities could well be desirable: in a world with few opportunities for advancement, especially for those of the lower classes, the role of teacher promised increased status and reward (Davids, 136).

Was this a role to which anyone could aspire and so take to oneself? Or was one called to the role by God, with this call being recognised by the community, with the result that one was appointed to the task? The answer is probably bothand. On the one hand, Jesus, Paul, and presumably the other apostles recruited followers to learn the ways of the Christian life and ministry, and who were thereby equipped and appointed for service in the churches. On the other hand, in 1 Timothy 3:1 Paul makes a ‘trustworthy statement’ saying that anyone aspiring to the office of an overseer desires a fine work. It is possible, then, and even legitimate, for a person to seek such roles within the Christian community. It is noteworthy, though, that Paul qualifies this aspiration by noting first that it is the work more than the office itself, which is sought, and second, by listing the characteristics suitable for those who would serve in this way. Perhaps James intends something similar in this chapter; that is, by detailing the character, ethos, and practices of mature spirituality he provides a criterion for the community by which they might recognise those suitable for the role of teacher, and also a standard for the would-be teachers themselves.

The New Testament makes clear that while many people sought to be teachers not all were suitable. Some were accused of being ‘false’ teachers intent on leading others astray, others of having poor motivations, still others of having inadequate knowledge. As we shall see, James 3 suggests that there were those in his communities who were seeking this role within the churches for reasons other than the wellbeing of the people of God.

According to James, those who teach can expect a stricter judgement: “for you know (eidotes; εἰδότες) that we . . . will be judged with greater strictness” (hoti meizon krima lēmpsometha; ὅτι μεῖζον κρίμα λημψόμεθα). This reminder should serve to give pause to those intent on seeking a teaching ministry. Moo (119-120) suggests that the teacher will be subject to a closer scrutiny of both their doctrine and their life, for those who presume to teach are thereby claiming greater knowledge of Christian truth. The teacher has responsibility both for the content of their teaching and for their life which is to illuminate and exemplify what is taught. The content of the teaching is presumably, the word of truth (1:18), the perfect law of liberty (1:25), and the contours of ‘pure and undefiled religion’ (1:27). James does not reference either the gospel per se, or the ‘word of Christ,’ though his own reliance on Jesus’ teaching would suggest this. In broader canonical sense, however, one would have to speak of faithfulness to the apostolic witness, to the gospel, to the message of the New Testament. Not only must the teaching be sound with respect to knowledge and doctrine, but the teacher is to embody the message; their life is to display a congruence between word and work.

Jesus, too, in Mark 12:38-40, warned of a stricter judgement for those who abuse their positions of trust. Those who use their position as a vehicle to honour and personal advancement, or who use it exploit the vulnerable will “receive greater condemnation” (lēmpsontai perissoteron krima; λήμψονται περισσότερον κρίμα; cf. Luke 12:47-48).

Devotional Use of the Psalms

Even I, by no means an Old Testament scholar, am familiar with the common suggestion that the first two psalms serve as an introduction to the whole book. I recall one reading from my undergraduate days in which the author mentioned this, and noted that the first psalm especially, but also the second, commended ‘theological reflection’ as the purpose of the psalms. This perspective was supplemented by other perspectives which suggested this purpose as prayer and praise, extended further by other views which located the meaning of the psalms in the liturgical structures of ancient Israel’s worship.

In his essay, “Towards a Canonical Reading of the Psalms,” Gordon Wenham argues similarly to the first of my undergraduate readings (See Wenham in, Bartholomew, Hahn, Parry, Seitz, and Wolters (eds), Canon and Biblical Interpretation Scripture & Hermeneutics series, Volume 7 (Paternoster), 333-351). Wenham does not suggest that a canonical reading is the only way in which to read and interpret the Psalms, but that it is fruitful and warranted to read them also in this way. His primary argument is that available evidence suggests a deliberate arrangement of the Psalter in which individual psalms are carefully situated within the whole, and sets the whole within a wisdom framework that also incorporates a prominent royal theme that raises questions concerning the Davidic dynasty and hope for a ‘New David’ in Israel’s future.

A canonical reading of individual psalms will read them with several contextual horizons in view:

  1. The whole Psalter, and especially the particular psalm’s near neighbours.
  2. The Jewish canon (i.e., the Hebrew Bible), and,
  3. The Christian canon of Old and New Testaments.

I found several of Wenham’s points very helpful for my own use of the psalms, and especially this citation from Gerald Wilson’s The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter which, to my mind, reclaims the Psalms from the sphere of the professional scholar for use by every member of the people of God.

The effect of the editorial fixation of the first psalm as an introduction to the whole Psalter is subtly to alter how the reader views and appropriates the psalms collected there. The emphasis is now on meditation rather than cultic performance; private, individual use over public, communal participation. In a strange transformation, Israel’s words of response to her God have now become the Word of God to Israel (336). 

Again, this is not a case of either private devotional use or public participation in communal worship. Although it may well be the case that the psalms had their origin in Israel’s liturgical life, this is not their meaning. The editors’ selection of Psalm 1 at the head of the Psalter has effected this ‘strange transformation.’ The opening psalm authorises a devotional approach, the reception of these words as God’s Word to his people which they may also use in their theological reflection, their prayer and worship, their lament and celebration, devotionally and privately as well as devotionally and corporately.

“As If Nothing Had Happened”: Karl Barth’s ‘Responsible’ Theology

My latest essay has just been published at Religions, Vol. 13 No. 3 as part of a special issue concerning “Karl Barth’s Theology in a Time of Crisis” edited by Mark R. Lindsay. My essay examines how theology might proceed responsibly, in times of crisis. It explores Barth’s treatise Theological Existence Today, to understand Barth’s own response to the crisis confronting German Protestantism in the face of Hitler’s rise to power.

The abstract for the essay is:

Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in early 1933 precipitated an ecclesial and theological crisis in the life of the German churches. Karl Barth responded to the crisis in his treatise Theological Existence Today, calling the German church to steadfast faithfulness in the face of increasing pressure to compromise the central commitments of its faith. This essay provides an exposition of Barth’s treatise, exploring his understanding of theological existence, and evaluating his rather infamous assertion that he would “carry on theology, and only theology, now as previously, and as if nothing had happened”. It finds that Barth called his peers to ‘responsible’ theology, the practice of which required a particular ethos and specific methodological commitments. Such responsibility was critical if the church was to retain both its integrity as the people of God, and its ministry, during this crisis.

If you have trouble using the above link, go to:
https://www.mdpi.com/2077-1444/13/3/266/htm#fn001-religions-13-00266

Karl Barth’s “Unfortunate” Affair

This is a good reflection on the Barth-von Kirschbaum relationship from Carolyn Mackie (Women in Theology). She notes some of the difficult decisions made and rightly concludes that “The production of a brilliant piece of theology is never sufficient justification for harming others.” I agree. Charlotte von Kirschbaum indeed proved indispensable to Barth’s theological work and perhaps her contribution might still have been made even had the circumstances differed.

I think I would use a stronger term than ‘unfortunate’ to describe the affair. There is, of course, much that we will never know, and the story reflects the ofttimes tragic nature of human relationships. Yet we ought not to justify, least of all religiously and theologically, that which cannot and should not be justified. It is better clearly to acknowledge that Barth crossed a line that should not have been crossed.

Mackie is also correct to assert that Barth’s theological work should be assessed in the light of this knowledge to ascertain how his domestic arrangements may have influenced his theological construction. His discussion of marriage in the Command of God the Creator is a case in point (CD III/4), and warrants further examination.

Reflections on Bultmann’s ‘Task of Theology’

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).