CD II.1: Barth & Natural Theology (Part 3 of 7)

“The revelation of God, in which man’s fulfillment of the true knowledge of God takes place, is the disposition of God in which He acts towards us as the same triune God that He is in Himself, and in such a way that, although we are men and not God, we receive a share in the truth of His knowledge of Himself. Certainly it is the share which He thinks proper and which is therefore suitable for us. But in this share we have the reality of the true knowledge of Himself.” -II.1, p. 51

In the previous post, we were venturing into the section in which Barth is beginning to lay his ground work against natural theology. Natural theology is defined as ‘a program of inquiry into the existence and attributes of God without referring or appealing to any divine revelation.‘ (IEOP) To be sure, Barth’s argument and discussion with Emil Brunner over natural theology is a famous one, and need not concern us for our purposes here.

From what we can gather from previous readings of Barth, we can already see why Barth would be so adamantly opposed to such “sciences” as it were. I am not going to give this the full treatment it deserves, but offer my humble assessment.

As we have seen in the previous posts here and here ;

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.

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God’s revelation is a free act of triune, self-giving revelation dependent upon the free act of God and in no way depend on man’s cognitive ability or action.

We are still working through the sub section entitled “The Readiness of God”.

God’s readiness means:

“He is in His nature, and as He confronts us in His action, so constituted that he can be known by us” (p. 70)

His knowability is dependent upon His action, reflecting on John 1:14:

“We are mindful of God’s grace when we say that God is knowable.” (p. 74)

Barth works within the Reformed tradition in regards to his understanding of natural theology, where the Reformed tradition is suspicious of such a practice. I do think Barth goes father than the tradition though, especially when it comes to mere “natural knowledge” of God, which is a separate issue from natural theology. What needs to be understood is Barth’s concerns are not mere academic speculations, but pedagogical and pastoral. A concern is found with the conversation and an effective basis of conversation between Christians and non-Christians, between the Church and the world. For Barth, this conversation must be done with faith acting towards unbelief:

“But this work must be the work of faith itself and alone, and therefore a faith acting sincerely towards unbelief. This is the work which must be done in any such conversation.” (p. 96)

We can see somewhat of an analogy (ironically) between how God moves towards us, who are in unbelief and gives us faith, in the same way Christians must move forward in faith towards unbelief. Not that we can give any one faith (what a silly notion). Believers should not pretend to be in some ‘neutral’ position with the unbeliever in terms of the knowledge of God and their ability to grasp it, since God is Himself infinitely distinct from us and the way we know God is through His free action towards us in Jesus Christ, the Word of God, that establishes and sustains our faith. Faith, for Barth, is knowledge and not just mere affectionate trust (although this is included in genuine faith).

What Scripture presses upon us is not so much a concern for a “natural theology”, based on human autonomy and cognitive abilities, but God’s confrontation with us in His revelation in Christ.

“The natural man is permanently occupied with the natural life of man.” (p. 86)

“What is ‘God’ to the natural man, and what he also certainly calls his ‘God’ is a false god. This false god is known by him and therefore knowable to him. But as a false god it will not lead him in any sense to a knowledge of the real God.” (p. 86) 

“…God is really known, and therefore known in His knowability; that the natural man can therefore know God without revelation, simply on the strength and in the success of his attempt to master himself and the world. There is no such compulsive fact in the whole known circle of human history.” (p. 87)

This is where I think Barth is strongest; rejecting the enlightenment project of the ability of man to master all things in the universe purely by man’s autonomous reasoning and empirical investigations. This I do hope more and more Christians begin to accept this reasoning, especially in this recent age of rationalist apologetics, in which we have implicitly accepted the notion of neutrality . Barth is not completely negative towards natural theologians, but even his positive comments really aren’t going to satisfy the individuals who practice natural theology. What Barth is moving towards is our knowledge of God is dependent on the ‘readiness of God’ and not at all dependent on the ‘readiness of man’ so to protect God’s freedom in how He chooses to reveal Himself, and in those revelations God is not mastered or totalized in our conceptions or attributes we assign to God. He is uncontrollable, totally free from us and is not collapsed into any of the sacramental realities in which He chooses to use as a medium of communication.

There is no such thing as a twofold revelation (general and special revelation) for Barth. Barth does not consider belief or unbelief as mere cognitive activities, nor should any Christian. Revelation is reconciliation. To quote from another work of Barth:

“Revelation, as the Christian apprehends it, is certainly such communication of truth [theological doctrine]. But it is also the work in which God Himself acts in His relation to man–originally in Jesus Christ, mediately in the Church of Jesus Christ. It has therefore been impossible for us to speak of the essence of revelation without straightway speaking also of Reconciliation.The truth revealed to us in revelation is not a doctrine about reconciliation but is the reconciliation itself, the reconciling action of God” (Revelation, ed. J. Baillie and H. Martin, NY: MacMillan, 1937: 74)

Revelation is actively the act of reconciliation, as we are confronted by God’s action in grace and mercy towards us. It is an act of reconciliation and thus knowledge of God is not something static in the phenomenal world for us to experience outside of God’s gracious action and communication of Himself to us.

There is a theme that runs through all of Scripture us towards something of a “static” natural knowability of God in nature and the cosmos. Man is not “independent” of God’s revelation (p. 113). The co-witnessing word of man always points “to the Word which God as his Lord has already uttered and will utter again.” (p. 128)

There is much more that can be said here, but for now this should suffice in a basic outline of Barth’s position.

To conclude, the availability of the real knowledge of God comes to us only, according to Barth, in the form of the witness to the Word, who is Jesus Christ, which is mediated by the Church. Any attempts to establish knowledge of God outside of this is to say there is access to God outside of the person and work of Jesus Christ. We will move onto the ‘Readiness of Man’ in the next post.

“We started out from the proposition that apparently nothing is more simple and self-evident than the knowledge that we find God’s knowability only in the readiness of God Himself, that we can accept it gratefully only out of the free grace and mercy of His revelation as the inaccessible made accessible to us, and therefore a theology which seeks another knowability of God is incontestably impossible in the sphere of the Church…” (p. 126)

 

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