Humans Receive God’s Word

For all the topics of Christology and ecclesiology and pneumatology and Trinitarianism that we are rolling through in volume 1 of Church Dogmatics, we are still working through “The Word of God,” how God reveals Godself to humanity.

Jesus, the God Man, is the revelation of God. But God’s revelation always comes to people who do, in fact, hear it and respond to it. It is the reality of human response to the revelation of God that Barth takes up when he turns to the Holy Spirit as a constituent agent of the revelation of God.

Barth is at his strongest as he articulates this move to incorporate the Spirit into the doctrine of the word. We not only know that God reveals, but we know that people have responded.

That given of human response to the revelation of God–witnessed to in scripture–is what Barth intends to explore here.

How do people respond? We don’t know. That they do is the reality of Christian life, the reality of scripture whose prophets have heard and speak the word in response to the God who has spoken.

One question I had: Barth here incorporates our illumination by the Spirit into Revelation itself, rather than relegating it to a separate category of “illumination.” I know that this writing of our response into the doctrine of revelation would be seen as problematic in some circles.

What do you think? Is it good or is it dangerous to put the human response by the Spirit in the same category of “revelation” as Christ himself is the revelation of God.

Theologically, what I found most engaging about this section was the idea that those to whom this revelation come become an extension of God’s revelation to the world. There is an “in Christ” theology that demands the church to take seriously its own life as an extension of Jesus Christ, the revelation of God.

The revelation of God is in the body of the incarnate Christ, and the church, being in Christ by Spirit-engendered faith, is the body of Christ on earth. There is a seriousness to Christian identity in Christ as the continuing revelation of God that we need to recognize as an essential part of our calling.

I realized that the intro to this section made me anticipate some talk of election; I’m not sure if that’s coming up in the next section, or if that anticipation KB has created is simply a factor of his theological method, and the way that all the parts are integrated.

To say that our reception of the word must happen by God creating freedom in us to respond to God’s free act means that we are not free as humans, but only as humans who have received the grace of God. No doubt, more talk of this “God making us free” is in the offing soon.

10 thoughts on “Humans Receive God’s Word”

  1. Daniel,

    I haven’t had my second cup of coffee, I am late for work and I haven’t read Barth, so I am at great risk of embarrassing myself here. But does that stop me from responding anyway? Of course not!

    Much of what you’re writing about eclipses my understanding but what caught my eye was your question of whether it’s “good or dangerous to put the human response by the Spirit in the same category of “revelation” as Christ himself.” I don’t think they are the same and thus I don’t look at the question in black or white terms, but they are definitely related so it is a question worthy of exploration.

    I chose to respond because I have been writing on the relationship between creativity and the divine and this interplay bears some connection to your question. It’s an interesting phenomenon that God not only created the world, he spoke it into being. And while we are not God, we also have the ability to create through use of our imaginations and words. In this we reflect aspects of the Imago Dei.

    I believe this ability can enhance our relationship with God. And this skill contributed to the bible emerging as the inspired word of God. So while the human response inspired by the Spirit is not always the same as God’s voice himself revealed, there is an interesting connection that needs to be acknowledged. The difference is that we’re fallen creatures so we are a work in progress… and we have to get out of our own way.

    And I hope I didn’t just embarrass myself and miss the point entirely. Sometimes I read other people’s responses and realize, oh. That is what this post is about. I was way off…..

    1. It seems to me that you’re tracking with the topic, but from a different angle. Some theologies try to keep inspiration of scripture and our illuminated response to it in separate categories. That makes it easy to say scripture is perfectly inspired, we’re often imperfectly illuminated.

      But there are other streams that keep the two more closely tied, and the idea that we co-create as part of our image-bearing rule of the world for God seems to be part of that stream that would draw together inspiration of scripture and inspiration of other creative acts.

  2. Haven’t read Barth, but as to your question:

    Doesn’t Paul keep the “objective” and “subjective” work of the Spirit pretty closely together in 1 Cor 2.10ff?

    The Spirit works on both ends–on the revelatory giving and the revelatory receiving. Without both parts “revelation”–as in a personal communion of Godself with humans–would not take place. (Or, if a tree falls in the woods and no one is around, does it still make a sound?)

    The separation of revelation and illumination strikes me as being based on a (more) propositionalist/modernist understanding of revelation. Revelation is the giving of “information,” which of course must be done “perfectly” so that info corresponds to reality. Illumination, then, is about guiding the “application” or teasing out the implications of this “info.”

    But if revelation is personal and sacramental, then it is both objective and subjective because it based on participation. When, by grace, we participate in the Spirit and the Nous of Christ, all reality is illumined because God fills all things by his Logos and Spirit …

    1. I agree with your assessment, Justin, that the separation is probably more modernist than Christian. It has become entrenched in many theological systems, but perhaps for reasons other than good biblical precedent.

  3. I think that the theological stance of a spirit-filled human response as God-like revelation isn’t primarily concerned with whether or not it fits the same mold of Christ. I wonder, rather, if it is, first off, concerned with a more basic testament and belief: scoring a creation theology prior to that of the fall and the need for salvation; only after scoring this fundamental truth does this bear importance on Jesus’ work (hence, N.T. Wright’s emphasis on Paul being a “creation theologian”). Jesus, thus reversed, recaptured and potentiated an ancient intent, one that withstood the fall, intact.

    In this way, not only do I think it is good to put the spirit-filled responses in the same category of Christ’s revelation of God (as Barth does), but that it is necessary and crucial to do so in order to even begin to understand Christological categories.

    Does that make sense?

    1. I think I’m with you, Michael. This whole creation theologian perspective demands that we see the goings on on earth in much more intimate connection with the ongoing work of God in both revealing and reconciling the world to Himself.

  4. Help!

    J. R. Daniel Kirk (or anyone), please, a little help. This is killing me. Because this is exactly the question that I want to revisit in Barth: “Is it good or is it dangerous to put the human response by the Spirit in the same category of ‘revelation’ as Christ himself is the revelation of God?” My biased answer is this conflation is simultaneously good and dangerous (“to put human response…”), and far worse, it’s unavoidable lest we deceive ourselves that an un-Spirited interaction with Christ is somehow miraculously less biased and less dangerous than a still confused, though Spirited-interaction with Christ. But, it’s exactly my bias that I want to double-check! Against Barth as a source. I’m less argumentative here than uncomfortably expansive. A season of life. I just don’t have access to the sources.

    I’ve done my Barth homework. I plowed through the Dogmatics on my own and for love’s sake a few years ago. My only formal work on Barth came via Langdon Gilkey (a load of fun), and too generous doses of David Tracy on the formal staying power of Barth in reception despite scholarly protests disclaiming against Barth’s influence (Lindbeck comes to mind, that is, how Lindbeck claimed heritance from Wittgenstein and Geertz, but amounted in substance to a closet Barthian – I think that’s Tracy’s take on Lindbeck?). My problem is that I need to get these voices out of my head. Wonderful and fun though these guy were, they’re not giants of a charismed-Spirit based reading of Barth! I want to revisit Barth de novo (yeah, I know this is a fantasy). But, I don’t have access to the sources and my huge rural service area makes it impossible to get regular university access to the Dogmatics, and worse, no way I’m forking over several hundred for the CD’s (read: cheap).

    The problem here in this forum is baby-Barth snippets buried under mountains of opinion. Can anyone please either link to free access online (I don’t think this exists), or instead, maybe export to text or “pdf” and copy and paste block chunks of Barth to this forum, either inside the posts themselves, or maybe in linked external sidebars. Copy and paste should be relatively quick and easy compared to time-expensive scanning, that is, if anyone here does have electronic access. So long as it’s credited, it shouldn’t violate copyright. For readers haunting hereabouts and who are not reading Barth intensively (c’mon, Barth is a massive commitment, and you need to be nearly insane to do it, plus life is short!), generous block quotes instead of baby-Barth snippets buried under opinion could provide substantial sample doses of Barth for readers who don’t otherwise know the giant shadow he cast.

    My memory is that Barth does more self-revelation in his footnotes than in his main text, so online access would be even better than block quotes in the main.

    Alas … the topic now is killing me, and I’ve got some work to do …



    1. There’s so much here, I’m not sure where to go. So I’ll try this: Yes, I think it is simultaneously good and dangerous to wrap ourselves up into the same sort of revelatory work that God does in Christ and in scripture. In fact, I often find that true and good and dangerous are inseparable!

      In terms of Barth reading–I’m not sure if you’re aware, but the way this whole weekly blogging through the Dogmatics started was because Hendrickson republished it and CBD is selling it for just over $100 for the whole set.

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