Monthly Archives: October 2021

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).