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.


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)



CD II.1 (Part 2 of 7)

I hope I can get these out more frequently, but my schedule is not always allowing such things to happen! Which is actually a good thing but I digress. The further I dig into this volume of Barth’s Church Dogmatics the more enjoyable it is becoming. The ebb and flow of Barth’s thought becomes captivating and rather addicting. I recently acquired a copy of Otto Weber’s Introduction to Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, which has proven to be a wonderful guide in my journey. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for help in understanding what Barth is getting at in the Church Dogmatics.

In my first post of this seven part series, the summary of this volume 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.”

What should be highlighted at this point is that for Barth, God’s freedom to reveal Himself is his (Barth’s) utmost concern. We respond in faithful, child like obedience to the Word God has revealed. The fulfillment of the knowledge of God is only possible because God Himself as actually spoken to us.

“Therefore, everything else that He has to say to us, all truth and reality, all enlightenment and salvation, depends on the fact that primarily and comprehensively He is speaking about Himself.” (p. 48)

All knowledge of God depends on if He is actually speaking of Himself. Even our faith has been given to us by God, as Barth declares:

“…where God stands before man as the One who awakens, creates and upholds his (man’s) faith, and where God offers Himself to man as the object and content of the knowledge of his faith, He does it in this being and action- as the One who remains a mystery to us because He Himself has made Himself so clear and certain to us.” (p. 43)

It is not to be understood that mystery and clarity are strict contradictions here. The more knowledge of God we have, the more profound the mystery of His being becomes to us, and the more we become aware of the lack of ability for our words and terms to grasp His majesty. Barth on the meaning of mystery:

“Mystery means that He is and remains the One whom we know only because He gives Himself to be known. He is and remains the light visible and seen only in His own light.” (p. 41)

Moving on from mystery, Barth contends God’s objectivity is “primarily” trinitarian. We receive is a “secondary objectivity” (p. 55):

“His works and signs in our creaturely sphere, before our eyes and ears, and in our hearts. As such, and of themselves, they are not capable of yielding a knowledge of him.” (p. 55)

Since we are marred by sin and are unable to yield knowledge of God by our own capacities, God designates and elevates objects to be ‘sacramental’ means in which He communicates Himself to us. The ground for sacramental realities is to be found the human nature of Jesus Christ. He is the first sacrament (p. 54). He establishes the possibility of sacramental realities.

“It is the case everywhere that when there is unveiling there is also veiling, when God sets up His lordship it means the self-humiliation and self-alienation of God, when He reveals Himself His hiddenness is confirmed. Revelation occurs for faith, not for unbelief.” (p.55)

We then come to a critical point in understanding how sacramental realties are in themselves not revelation:

“Yet the sacramental reality, the selected subject-object relationship, is not in itself and as such identical either with revelation or with real knowledge of God. It serves it, because God reveals Himself and is known.” (p. 55)

Scripture is to be thought of as a sacramental reality. Much debate happens with the frame of Biblical inerrancy (I don’t intend to entertain those debates currently), and this can help us see a way out of the rigid Biblicism that collapses God’s revelation and word within the written letter of the Bible. This, according to Barth, must not and cannot happen. God is the living God who speak to us today. He is always speaking and if we had ears to hear we could hear Him speaking constantly. This is where some dialectal tension gets involved, which can be dizzying at first. The tension comes in for good reason, reading Scripture can become idolatry if we are not careful. We think we are hearing the Lord, when in reality it can very well be our own voice and we could be worshipping a God made in our own image. Idolatry is always close by for us and our affections directed at anything can quickly dive into a despairing false worship.

From there we move into Barth’s treatment of God being an object for Himself, and how when we use His name it is His name He has determined for us to call Him by. God is free and uncreated, He creates things outside of Himself, and brings Himself to be the object of knowledge for His creation. He is the one who determines Himself to be known, and how He is to be known. True knowledge of God, for Barth, is entirely monergistic. He is the one who does all things to reveal Himself to His creatures/creation whom He loves and gave Himself up to reconcile all things to Himself. This is where Barth really shines, and where I very much enjoy reading the run on sentences and repetition that comes into play with his words. Barth proclaims:

“The knowability of God is not knowability of God if finally-even considered from man’s side-it is something other than the work of God Himself (and therefore an object of praise). (p. 66)

It must be the work of God to establish true possibility and true knowability to man’s side if man ever wants to have true knowledge of God. What is most wonderful is that God’s action is never arbitrary; it is always out of His triune self giving love which is out of freedom. It is grace:

The fact that God is revealed to us is then grace. Grace is the majesty, the freedom, the unreservedness, the unexpectedness, the newness…in which the relationship to God and therefore the possibility of knowing Him is opened to man by God Himself.” (p. 74)

‘God is being and nature are not exhausted in the encroachment’ (p. 75) but for Barth:

“God is wholly and utterly the good pleasure of His grace and mercy… He is wholly and utterly in His revelation, in Jesus Christ.” (p. 75)

For Barth there is no analogy ‘on the basis of which the nature and being of God can be accessible to us.’ (p. 76) Again, not going to enter in the debate of ‘analogy of being’ and ‘analogy of faith’, but for Barth God is so utterly distinct from us that we have no analogy to which God can be accessible to us outside of the gracious action of God to establish it. Moving from there we start to see why Barth was so opposed to natural theology (revelation and knowledge of God outside of the person of Jesus Christ). Man cannot establish or make encroachment for true knowledge of God. I think some of his critiques are certainly warranted given the popularity of natural theology among apologists today. The next blog post will deal with that section (pg. 85-103).

CD II.1 (Part 1 of 7)

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!