Contemporary European Views of God (1): Karl Barth on the Knowledge of God

As Claude Welch put it, Karl Barth ushered in a “contemporary revivial of theology” with his highly influential Epistle to the Romans.  Karkkainen agrees, stating that it is appropriate both “thematically and chronologically with Karl Barth (125).”  Barth was one of those few extroardinary thinkers who possessed such originality while still striving to remain fathful to many (if not all) of the classical tenets of the faith.  He was a “paradigm shifter,” whose influence is still heavy today.

Barth’s theology was born out of historical factors, like all are.  He studied within the 19th centuries’ classic Liberalism.  Such talk about how doctrines like the Trinitarian and Christological assertions of the 4th century church were “hellenistic deteriorations of dogma,” detracting from the pure and simple “gospel of jesus” were unsettling to Barth, as was the Liberal tradition’s overemphasis on the Immanence of God, viewed through experience.  In a revealing quote by Barth regarding Schleiermacher, who Veli-Matti Karkkainen (VMK) informs us Barth saw as the backbone of the era’s “pervasive immanentism,” Barth accuses him of relegating “God-talk” into “man-talk,” at the expense of God–“the God who is sovereign Other standing over against humanity (125).” 

The combination of the human-centered, experiential focus of Liberal theology with the by and large European Liberal church’s wedding with Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime drove Barth back to the Bible and forced a rejection of their views.  This foundational shift was made known with his Epistle to the Romans, which was likened to “a bombshell being dropped on the theological playground.”  Now that we have a bit of canvas against which to view Barth, let’s look at the highlights of his understanding of God, at least according to VMK.

  1. In stark contrast to Liberalism’s focus on God’s immanence, in Barth’s theology God is radically transcendent.  In fact, as VMK points out, Barth goes as far as to say that there is “absolutely no way to know God apart from revelation (126).”  So if God is unknowable through practically any means other than His revelation, where do we find this revelation?
  2. The knowledge of God is found in Jesus Christ.  It is important to note that Barth isn’t necessarily referring to Scripture, but rather to the God-man himself: “When holy Scripture speaks of God, it concentrates our attention and thoughts upon one single point . . . And if we look closer, and ask: who and what is at this point upon which our attention and thoughts are concentrated, which we are to recognize as God? . . . From its beginning to its end the Bible directs us to the name of Jesus Christ (CD, 2/2, 52-54).”
  3. This assertion raises some important questions regarding knowing God.  VMK points out that Barth is “skeptical at best” regarding whether or not people can know God apart from the revelation of Christ (126).  Barth went from completely ruling out any form of “general revelation,” to backing off a bit.  However, his fundamental skepticism and position for the absolute supremacy of the living Christ as revelation never changed.  As VMK points out, this is b/c for Barth genuine revelation has inherent redemptive content.  A vague “general revelation” of God, cannot properly be called “Christian revelation.”  “Only knowledge of God that helps us know God as savior can be called Christian revelation (126).”

I think that Barth’s view of God’s transcendence, and hence his doctrine of revelation, gives us many key questions to think through today.  I’m particulary interested in how giving the risen Christ primacy in revelation critiques our modern mind-set’s approach to epistemology, ethics, and the nature and proper interpretation of Scripture.  I hope to blog on each of those subjects at somepoint.

For many this will be your first taste of Barth, particularly if you are an American.  There is much more to talk about, but for the sake of readability, if it isn’t too long already, this is enough for now.  The reality is that Barth literally wrote several thousand pages of work (he was a machine!), so whatever we do here will be a thumbnail sketch at best.  Hopefully however, your appetite has been “whetted,” and you are ready to delve more into the heart of his thought.  Tomorrow, Barth on the Trinity and his revival of the most ancient of Christian views on God.

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6 responses to “Contemporary European Views of God (1): Karl Barth on the Knowledge of God

  1. This is good, but I don’t think it quite gets to the radicality of Barth’s position on this question. It is true that Barth constantly affirms that Jesus Christ is God’s revelation and the only basis upon which knowledge of God can be gained, but this is not merely Jesus Christ as statically and objectively conceived. Rather, this must be conceived in terms of Jesus Christ as event and acting subject.

    The form of revelation is always ‘secular’ for Barth, which means that it is always hidden or veiled, even in moments of unveiling. This means that we only grasp the revelation lying behind the secular form in monents or events when Jesus Christ works as an active subject to reveal himself to us (through the Holy Spirit) in and with the secular form. In other words, there is no way to read Jesus’ divinity off his historical existence as a human being without this further event of understanding that is brought about by Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, and not in any way by our own activity.

  2. WTM,

    Thanks for your reply. I’m not sure i understand your point, but let me try to put what i think you’re saying in my own words, and then please do tell me if i’m understanding you accurately.

    You’re saying that we are misunderstanding Barth if we think he construes revelation from Christ coming from “Gospel propositions.” Rather it is only as Christ acts and moves to reveal himself to us within the “secular” form of the pages of the bible. Hence his focus on the role of the Holy Spirit in ethics, and how the bible could only “prepare” one for the command of God, not actually give him the command. The bible “becomes” the Word of God, instead of possessing a timeless authority contingent on Him.

    This leaves us pretty dependent on God for knowledge then doesn’t it, b/c his actual revelation to us through the Spirit isn’t tied to any form by necessity, including the bible itself. Wow, very interesting. No Cartesian born anxiety here! This seems to give “experience” primacy over “reason.”

    Thanks WTM, i love dialoguing with deep with a deep understanding of Barth, as i hope to learn about him more.

  3. Yes, I think you grasped what I was awkwardly gesturing toward!

    I think it interesting that you mention “Cartesian born anxiety,” because Barth discusses Cartesianism and something that he calls ‘Christian Cartesianism’ at some length in paragraph 6 (CD I/1).

    One further note: it is not only Scripture that is a secular form, but the very incarnation itself.

    Part of the logic here is that knowledge of God is self-involving knowledge, and that such knowledge cannot be disconnected from reconciliation. So, he takes the traditional Reformed understanding of conversion as utterly dependent upon God, and applies it to the knowledge of God.

  4. wtm1,

    i have to confess, i borrowed the idea “Cartesian anxiety” from Ben Myres’ good friend Kim Fabricus over @ F & T. We were discussing the “horrors” or biblical inerrancy, and his comments were very enlightening to me, although i have to admit i am still concerned of such a strong disconnect between God and the Bible. That said, i am not willing to stake my life on a rather abstract belief in the trustworthiness of Scripture, as important as Scripture may be. I think only a person, a God, is worthy of that type of trust.

    Finally, it is interesting how Barth arrived at this, being influenced by the Reformation doctrine of total depravity (to use our term). I thought i smelled some deterministic thought somewhere.

    Let me close with a question. How does Barth begin with such a Reformation based conception of howwe can know God, and yet in the end being accused of being a universalist? I know that this is to be unfair to him, but he himself said that “consistency” in his thought would have taken him there. I’m sure it could work out, but on hte surface this seems a little counter-intuitive to me.

  5. There is a great article in the most recent Scottish Journal of Theology that deals with Barth’s universalism, and it is the best that I have ever read on it (and some of the PTS faculty agree with me about that). Barth’s often confusing stance on universalism is finally the product of his unwillingness to put any principle at the head of his theology, but rather a person – Jesus Christ.

  6. Pingback: Contemporary European Views of God (1): Karl Barth on God & Creation « A Thinker’s Progress

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