Tag Archives: Knowledge of God

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).


Reading Karl Barth on Election (5)

Church Dogmatics Study EditionSelection: The Church Dogmatics II/2:44-51, The Foundation of the Doctrine.

Barth names the fourth inadequate foundation for the doctrine of election as a doctrine which begins with a view of God in terms of omnipotent will. God is wrongly conceived if viewed as absolute power, and God’s election is also wrongly conceived if viewed as a sub-set of a thorough-going determinism in which God is viewed as the almighty causative agent of every happening. Certainly, for Barth, God is almighty but God’s divinity is not considered in abstraction from election. Indeed, his election is the context within which we conceive of his divinity and providence. The god of absolute power is not the God of Scripture (44-45).

Barth identifies the tendency to subordinate election as one moment in an overarching providence in Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventura, and Zwingli. It is to Calvin’s credit that he broke with this tradition, treating providence together with creation, and predestination as the climax of the grace of God revealed and active in Jesus Christ. However, “that predestination should not only be subordinate to providence but superior to it was apparently not what Calvin intended” (46). Thus, Calvin’s followers again returned to the former tradition in which the ruling concept of the doctrine of election became once more, that of an “absolutely free divine disposing” (46). Barth cites extensively from the recently published volume by Boettner to show the contemporary continuation of this approach, which he attributes to Gomarus rather than Calvin (47).

Barth rejects this approach: “latet periculum in generalibus” (‘danger lurks in generalities!’; 48).

Once again we must say that use has been made here of a presupposition which is not so self-evident as it makes itself out to be. Recourse has been had here to an apparent movement in formal logic from the general to the particular, without any demonstration whether or not such a procedure corresponds to the specific logic of this subject. … If [the doctrine of election] is grounded upon the logical necessity of the free and omnipotent divine will active both in general matters and in particular, both in the world as a whole and also in relation to the salvation and damnation of man, this means that it is…abstractly grounded so far as concerns the electing God (48).

For Barth, the electing God must be properly identified, not abstracted from a general theory of deity. God is sovereign and does indeed rule, but as the one God has self-determined himself to be, in the concrete limitation of his being as given in this election, the particular God known in his self-revelation. Thus,

The true God is the One whose freedom and love have nothing to do with abstract absoluteness or naked sovereignty, but who in His love and freedom has determined and limited Himself to be God in particular and not in general, and only as such to be omnipotent and sovereign and the possessor of all other perfections (49).

If God is viewed abstractly in terms of absolute power and omnipotent will, not only is he viewed in a manner distinct from his self-revelation and the testimony of Scripture (49), it is difficult to escape the danger of portraying God as a tyrant, and of understanding his rule as that of absolute caprice (50-51).

Infinite power in an infinite sphere is rather the characteristic of the government of ungodly and anti-godly courts. God Himself rules in a definite sphere and with a definite power. What makes Him the divine Ruler is the very fact that His rule is determined and limited: self-determined and self-limited, but determined and limited none the less; and not in the sense that His caprice as such constitutes His divine being and therefore the principle of His world-government, but in such a way that He has concretely determined and limited Himself after the manner of a true king (and not of a tyrant); in such a way, then, that we can never expect any decisions from God except those which rest upon this concrete determination and limitation of His being, upon this primal decision made in His eternal being; decisions, then, which are always in direct line with this primal decision, and not somewhere to right or lift of it in an infinite sphere (50).

It is impossible to read these comments written in the early 1940s without hearing veiled references to the absolutist tyranny of Hitler’s Third Reich. Although God is indeed Almighty, his rule is not to be confused with the absolutist pretensions that marked Hitler’s rule. In the decision of election God has determined his being to be God only in a particular way.

Calvin’s “True and Sound Wisdom”

Calvin holding InstitutesNearly all the wisdom we possess,
that is to say, true and sound wisdom,

consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.

So begins Calvin’s monumental Institutes of the Christian Religion. In tonight’s class we have our first seminar based on the opening chapters of Book 1. By the end of the semester we will have worked our way through Book 1 and into the first chapter or two of Book 2 (except for the chapter on the Trinity: we will keep that for next semester so the students have something to look forward to!).

I wonder how this cohort of students will respond to the great Swiss Reformer? In the past, I have had some students appreciate him, some despise him, some find him difficult to read and comprehend, and some argue that they should not have even to read him.

I have encouraged to class to engage him rigorously, carefully and with due respect. I consider the Institutes to be the most important Protestant theology yet penned, because it gathered and systematised the thought of the early Reformation in its most complete and exalted form, and set a pattern for theological reflection and exposition that continues until this day. That does not mean, of course, that we must adhere to all of his positions. We are free to question his proposals, dispute with him, even reject him if we believe we have sufficient grounds. The problem too often, however, is that we think we can dismiss Calvin before we have read him, listened to him, heard him, understood him. In such cases our rejection says much more about us than it does about him and his work.

Back to Calvin’s opening words: what does he mean? I think I am still learning the depths of this seemingly simple statement. For Calvin, we live and move and have our being in God (cf. Acts 17:28). Every moment of our existence is lived in the immediate presence and under the immediate rule of this divine sovereign. If this is the case, then “true and sound wisdom” is learning to acknowledge and accept this as the reality of our existence and to live in its light. That is, we are learning to be God’s creatures, and so to acknowledge God as Creator, Ruler, Sustainer and God. We are learning to take our place under his reign, and so find ourselves lifted up and freed.

This knowledge becomes the “law of our creation.” In knowing God we come to know ourselves, our place in the cosmos, the fundamental principle of our life, the goal and telos of our existence. So thus, we might begin to gain wisdom. The great tragedy, of course, is that this is precisely what we refuse to do.

Besides, if all men are born and live to the end that they may know God, and yet if knowledge of God is unstable and fleeting unless it progresses to this degree, it is clear that all those who do not direct every thought and action of their lives to this goal degenerate from the law of their creation (I.iii.3).

Finally, it is also worth noting that Calvin’s goal is wisdom – sapientia – rather than abstract knowledge. He is not interested in a philosophical or speculative knowledge that seeks to understand all mysteries but does not issue in a life of love and reverence towards God.