I have begun journeying my way through part one of Barth’s second volume of the Church Dogmatics, which is on the knowledge of God. To keep myself accountable, I’ll be doing short blog posts on my studies; it will consist of seven posts. This being the first post!
The first part of the volume is made up of two chapters: “The Knowledge of God” and “The Reality of God”. What I love about reading Barth is the way he presents a paradox; a tension between positions and doesn’t seek to dissolve the tension. For this reason we simply cannot expect to fully grasp what Barth is going for in short, proof text samples. We have to fully engage him; read him in full context. This is why when I come across criticisms of Barth I usually dismiss the critique. Reason being that a majority of the time it (the critique) is really due to lack of understanding how to read Barth, and taking various passages out of context. Of course this is not true for all who criticize Barth, nor does this mean we shouldn’t be critical of him! Now, onto my readings thus far!
“Every man becomes the image of the God he adores. He whose worship is directed to a dead thing becomes dead. He who loves corruption rots. He who loves a shadow becomes, himself, a shadow. He who loves things that must perish lives in dread of their perishing.” -Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island
In the first part of “The Knowledge of God”, Barth begins to deal with what actually constitutes knowledge of God, and how this is fulfilled in man. He spells out how this is done:
“The knowledge of God occurs in the fulfilment of the revelation of His Word by the Holy Spirit, and therefore in the reality and with the necessity of faith and its obedience.” (p. 3)
For Barth, true knowledge of God comes through revelation of His Word, Jesus Christ, through faith and obedience to His Word by the Holy Spirit. ‘In the Church of Jesus Christ men speak about God and men have to hear about God’ (p. 3). This God is the triune God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), when we speak about Him we speak about his grace and truth, about His kingdom, ‘about the state and life of man in the sphere of His lordship.’ (p. 3) Since this volume deals with the doctrine of God, in it we ‘have to learn what we are saying when we say “God”‘. (p. 3) Barth then poses the question:
“If we do not speak rightly of this Subject (God), how can we rightly speak of His predicates?”
This is where we come to, and are confronted by the problem of knowledge. Here for Barth, the question we must pose cannot be done ‘in abstracto but only in concreto: not a priori but only a posteriori’ (p. 5) What Barth wants to show is that we cannot approach the knowledge of God presupposing a theory of knowledge in which the knowledge of God can be ‘judged and decided in one way or another’, somehow its grounding can be suspended and the human knower can have control over it. This is where Barth utterly rejects a modernist ontology of knowing, the ground up approach based upon the reasoning and capacity of the human knower, not depending on the grace and work of God. Thinking that the knowledge of God is like any other object to be known, that we can inquire this knowledge the same way we inquire about any other thing in our world.
Here Barth speaks of the only two meaningful questions we can ask: how far is God known? and how far is God knowable?
The knowledge of God that concerns us here for Barth takes place ‘not in a free choice, but with a very definite constraint.’ (p. 7) True knowledge of God, for Barth, is bound to God’s Word given to the Church, ‘knowledge which we are concerned is bound to the God who is in His Word gives Himself to the Church to be known as God. Bound this way it is the true knowledge of the true God.’ (p. 7)
When we understand the constraint on this knowledge, we see the constraint is a safeguard for us for the possibility of true knowledge of Him. For ‘any escape out of the constraint of the Word of God means crossing over to the false gods and no-gods’ (p. 7) Idolatry is of utmost concern. Moving forward we begin to enter into some tension filled issues that Barth seeks to spell out. To quote him at length:
“…the knowledge of God in its fulfilment by the revelation of the Word of God is bound to its one, determined and uniquely distinct object, and that it is knowledge of this object and not of another- knowledge of the God who gives Himself to be known in His Word- means further that, without any prejudice to its certainty, but in this very certainty, it is mediated knowledge.” (p. 9)
Barth moves to show that faith is knowledge, ‘faith is man’s orientation to God as an object.’ (p. 13) God gives Himself to be this object of knowing for the human subject. God’s triune self-knowledge is unmediated to Himself; ‘He is immediately objective to Himself’. (p. 16) For the human knower God is ‘mediately objective to us in His revelation, in which He meets us under the sign and veil of other objects’. (p. 16) Here is where Barth develops tension in the clarity of God’s revelation to us. God determines an object in which He discloses Himself (Scripture being one of those objects). We must not think, of course, that God’s self-disclosure is reduced to the medium in which is used for it.
What matters and concerns Barth is that God is utterly free in His action towards us; this action is not arbitrary. We are confronted with the knowledge of God because God determines Himself to be known as the object of our knowledge. Knowledge of God is knowing Him in the events in history, the New Testament is a witness to His “passing before”.
“As we turn back again to the Bible we remember that what is there described as the knowledge of God stands in contrast to all other human cognition in that it always in fact coincides with some action of God. God is known, not simply because He is God in Himself, but because He reveals Himself as such; not simply because His work is there, but because He is active in His work.” (p. 23)
What then is required of the human knower is the act of faith in obedience. For Barth, like Calvin before him, ‘Knowledge of God is obedience to God’ (p. 26). This obedience is not blind, slavish obedience, but like a child to a parent. Faith, rightly construed, is knowledge. This knowledge, which is graciously bestowed by the free action of God, leads us to act in obedience to His Word attested to by the Scriptures.
To summarize thus far:
Our knowledge of God is grounded in the action of God, in which He objectifies Himself to us, meets us in our own plane as a subject calling for a corresponding action on our part in the obedience of faith.
How thankful we should be for His action towards us in love!