Knowing One Particular God

Is there some idea of “knowing” that simply have to fill with the right, God-given content, in order to understand how we know God?

Is there some idea of “being” or essence that we simply have to fill with the right, God-given content, in order to understand the God who is?

Do we begin with knowledge and being to know the God who truly is?

When we think about who God is as Lord, Creator, Redeemer, and Reconciler, do we reason upward from our general ideas to a God who is Lord, Creator, Redeemer, and Reconciler because he is such notions of ours writ large?

No, Barth will argue throughout the first part of his discussion of “The Readiness of God” (Church Dogmatics ยง26.1). We do not have general categories which God fills in a bigger way, and thereby conforms to humanity’s innate ideas. We know the true God as this God is revealed in Scripture. God is known as all these things: Lord, Creator, Redeemer, and Reconciler altogether–so that knowledge of the true God depends on what I would call here the story to which God has bound Godself as primary actor, not simply human notions of what someone called god should do.

In fact, Barth wants to push it back farther than this and to say that it’s not merely our ideas of Lordship, Creation, and the like that are derivative from God’s revelation of who God truly is.

The very idea, and long-standing philosophical problem, of God’s very knowability, is dependent on a prior action of God as well. We can know God because God is actually known and has actually chosen to make himself known. We can know the truth of who God is because God “is” before we are, and this truth of himself is known: Father to Son and Son to Father by the Spirit.

Knowledge of God is, then, an act of grace in which God makes Himself known. This means that it is not an act of nature, in which people might simply reason their way to true knowledge of the true God.

That last piece, an argument against natural theology, takes up a great deal of Barth’s energies as the chapter moves on.

I confess to finding myself torn here. As someone who deals with the deeply contextualized, historically situated texts of the Bible, I stumble over the idea that our images and metaphors for God are revealed rather than varied human expressions of various people in various times and cultures. Note well! I do believe that God reveals and speaks through the images–but that this revelation is known and understood and used because it carries certain preexisting connotative freight for the first hearers.

But on the other hand, I appreciate Barth’s insistence that we not affirm some “god” in general in vain hopes that someone serving such a being will one day attain to faith in the Christian God in particular. This skepticism of natural theology, not only in its validity but also in its purported pastoral value, is well grounded.

Those were my impressions of these 30ish pages. You?

5 thoughts on “Knowing One Particular God”

  1. My college training was in natural sciences, so I appreciate both the (vague, general) awareness of God that can come through natural means and the limitations of theological statements on this basis. My appreciation for Barth and Torrance emerged directly out of my internal conflict with Carl Sagan (one of my teachers).

    God can freely use any sign to reveal Himself, but all such signs are partial and provisional to His will. Even *gasp* the cross.

  2. Your question about whether our images for God are revealed is a good one. It does seem as though, in his effort to get away from natural theology, Barth comes down on the “revealed” side of the question, which I suppose could be seen as a lack of perspective, or a reification of human ideas for God, however much Barth insists that that is not what he is doing. Ultimately, though, as you say, God teaches us what these terms mean: e.g., what it means to be Lord – we learn that it does not mean “lording over,” but coming in weakness to serve. Since the key is “it is Jesus Christ who is God’s revelation” (p. 74), any image or language we use for God has to be (re)evaluated in the light of who Jesus is and what he did. If Jesus stands over and above all our language and images for God, I think that is generally liberating rather than limiting.

    The thing I most appreciated about this section was that Barth’s extended critique of finding points of contact with unbelief really has immediately practical applications for what the Church has to say and how the Church ought to say it. On another blog I read last week, much energy was devoted to whether churches should host Super Bowl parties in the name of being “missional” or “evangelistic.” My take is that Barth would see such a plan as a bait-and-switch unworthy either of the Gospel (certainly) or of non-believers: “We are not taking [our unbelieving conversation partner] seriously because we withhold from him what we really want to say and represent… What use to unbelief is a faith which obviously knows different?… What right has masked faith really to expect anything else [than rejection]?” (p. 93). We have to take our faith seriously *and* we have to take unbelief seriously, not in a condescending, “of course we know better” way.

    Which is why I think my favorite quote from this section is: “Who is it who really has to stoop down at this point? Not one man to another, a believer to an unbeliever, as all natural theology fatally but inevitably supposes. He who stoops down to the level of us all, both believers and unbelievers, is the real God alone, in His grace and mercy” (p. 95).

    I am curious, given Barth’s apparent lack of use for apologetics as traditionally understood (pp. 92-93): Is there any record of what, if anything, Barth thought about C.S. Lewis? It seems as though things like “Mere Christianity” (which I myself have always highly regarded) could fall under the heading of “natural theology” to the extent that it depends upon arguments like “We all have a sense of what is right,” etc. I’m not saying the whole thing is natural theology – obviously, it’s not, since Lewis explicitly presents the Christian Gospel – but I would be curious to know how, if at all, Barth reacted to Lewis’ enterprise.

    (PS to Michael – Good reminder that even the cross is partial and provisional – sacramental. But, of course, we couldn’t say anything about God that would contradict that partial and provisional sign, correct?)

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