Humanity Ready for God

Karl Barth claims that God is ready to be known by people, and hence actually knowable by people. In §26 of the Church Dogmatics, he approaches this from two different angles.

First, as we discussed previously (here and here), Barth draws us back to revelation, claiming that God is only known as God has revealed himself in and by the word.

In §26.2, Barth takes up the same question from the human side. If God is knowable, there must not only be a God who makes Godself known, but a humanity capable of receiving this knowledge.

Who, then, or perhaps what, is this humanity?

First, Barth returns to the question of natural theology, applying his previous arguments about God as knowable through the natural order to humanity as those who can know as they are by nature.

Well, not exactly as humanity is “by nature.” What humanity is in its “fallen nature” is more to the point. We’ll come back to this in a second. At any rate, humans as we actually are cannot truly know the true God through a natural theology, but only through God’s revelation.

“Anthropology” is not the route to humanity’s ability to know God.

Interestingly, and again, perhaps, surprisingly, Barth is equally insistent that ecclesiology, humanity as addressed by the church, is not the humanity able to receive the revelation of God. Humanity in the church is as liable to deception about its understanding of God as humanity in general. It is as liable to control it for its own purposes, as humanity in general.

Though I don’t recall Barth saying so explicitly, I wonder if this twin denial isn’t a recurrence of Barth’s regular two-sided glance: on the one hand he wants to show how evangelical dogmatics stands over against Christian liberalism; on the other he wants to show how it stands over against Roman Catholicism.

If not anthropology or ecclesiology, then on what basis can we discover humanity’s readiness for God? Unsurprisingly, it comes from Christology.

God is known knower in the triune, eternal relationship between Father and Son. This Son who has eternally known God, becomes human, thus joining the eternal self-knowing God with human flesh. How can people know God? Because, on the human side as well as the divine, God knows Godself. “On the human side” meaning, in this case, the humanity of the God-man.

I have a couple of questions about Barth’s construction.

First, do his stances against anthropology and ecclesiology as means by which we might see that God is knowable to people underplay the significance of Christ as The Human One and of the church as the Body of Christ? In the salvation story, there is a redefinition of humanity, of “image of God,” of the people of God, of “the church,” that is derivative from Christ himself.

Does Barth take this incorporation into Christ seriously enough in his denial that as humans or as the church we can know God?

Second, and related, does Barth give too much play to sin as a defining element in our human nature? Not that all humans aren’t born in sin and all the rest. But being sinful isn’t at the core of what it means to be human. Yes, it’s the reality that we are born into and from which Christ ushers us into a better future.

But Christ was fully human, and yet without sin. So if it’s sinfulness that keeps us from knowing God, it’s not our humanness that keeps us from God, but instead it’s the lack of true humanness that keeps us from knowing God.

So then, third, why is it that Christ offers a new humanity in which God is knowable? Is it because Christ is God? Or is it because Christ is truly human? Has Barth retreated too quickly to the Trinity rather than taking full stock of the inherent value of humanity as created in God’s image and recreated in the image of God in Christ?

That’s the real fun stuff. On a side note: is there a difference between natural theology and general revelation? The latter phrase keeps the requirement of “revelation” on the table, as Barth says is necessary, but allows for a broader compass of revelation than we find in only scripture, Christ, and preaching.

7 thoughts on “Humanity Ready for God”

  1. Thanks for this summary of Barth. It arms that these moves, especially the denial of anthropology and ecclesiology are common moves of Barthians, from Vanhoozer, Webster, and those connected to Princeton.

    While not reading Barth, whenever I read these others I often has the same critique as you, that they underplay the body of Christ as incorporation in Christ as the restoration of humanity. Ecclesiology is not sociology with another name, but humanity az it is in Christ.

  2. I suppose he could be accused of retreating too quickly to the Trinity (although he’d probably respond, to what else can Christians appeal, and why not get there quickly?); but, yes, I think Barth is insisting that only Jesus is fully human. As I read it, Barth would agree: being sinful is, indeed, not the core trait of humanity. But sin so distorts us (since “man as such,” “natural man” is, because of sin, at enmity with God), that we can only find true humanity in Jesus. Jesus is the Word who takes on our flesh (of which sinfulness is not a necessary part); so, “In our flesh God knows Himself” (p. 151). We do lack true humanity, because sin has robbed us of it; Jesus, through sinless obedience to God, restores true humanity to us, and so Barth invokes Col. 3.3 (p. 149). “Here, too, we have a man” — as if to say, at last, and for the first time since Adam and Eve — “But he is definitely not a man as such.” (p. 150). He is fully human, more human than any one of us. Barth doesn’t deny that “as humans we can know God” – he denies that our everyday experience of being fallen is what it means to be human.

    As for your first question, Barth sounds as though he is taking the Chuch as the body of Christ seriously on pp. 160-61, e.g.: “The Church is not another body. It is just the earthly form of this His own heavenly body…” And he does say that so long as the Church hews to the “basic rule of all sound doctrine,” that all we say and are is derived from Christ, “there can and will actually be a Christian anthropology and ecclesiology” (p. 162). I took his earlier objections to anthropology and ecclesiology to be disciplines “as such,” derived (supposedly) from sources other than God’s revelation in Christ.

    With your third question, might Barth say that even the situation as you state it is only knowable thanks to God’s revelation in Christ? That we only know “the inherent value” of humanity because God has gone to such lengths to redeem it in Christ? The Church has the responsibility, he says, “to tell the world that by which alone, if at all, it will stand int he assault of the divine judgment, namely this, that Jesus Christ has died and risen again for it, that God has so loved it that He has given His only begotten Son for it” (p. 172). We do not know that we are made in the image of God, nor recreated in the image of Christ, apart from Revelation.


  3. How is “Revelation” free from the problem of Hermeneutics, which is essentially the inherent problem of the “anthropological” knowledge of God? Revelation seems a syntactical “deus ex machina,” using a Divine Passive (“God makes God’s self known,” rather than “humans know God.”) to cover over the inherent problem of the interpretation of phenomena. In other words, since God is omnipotent, and God makes God’s self known, therefore the boundaries for “knowing” God are removed.

    The problem, especially from the perspective of the Bultmanniac that I am, is that the inherent problem lies not in God’s ability, but in the process of knowing itself. God can be experienced for sure, but knowing is a linguistic process limited by language, space, and time, thus knowledge of anything is hindered at every corner. God is wholly other, fully experienced, but never known.

    1. Adam writes: “knowing is a linguistic process limited by language, space, and time, thus knowledge of anything is hindered at every corner. God is wholly other, fully experienced, but never known.”

      But (said I, innocently, but admittedly ignorant of Bultmann), what do we do with the witness that God made Godself known in Jesus of Nazareth — a person/event “limited by language, space, and time”? It seems the answer is the doctrine of the Incarnation, that the disciples’ experience of the God of Israel in Jesus was, in fact, authentic knowledge of God, because God condescended to be known under those conditions and in that way.

    2. Adam, the problem of epistemology from the side of hermeneutics never goes away. But we might be inclined to think that the hermeneutical circle goes nowhere most when we aren’t actually looking at what we think we are. The quest to understand God, when pursued through nature however (dis)organized — even in the (dis)organization of the church — is never actually looking at God. The best we can get there is negative theology, because we’re looking in the wrong place and that’s all it can tell us.

      The question of God as an object of science cannot be answered correctly by trying to observe God as a natural object. God is not a natural object — we cannot reveal God by any elaborate or simple means of looking. And considering God as a supernatural object isn’t any more helpful! God is not involuntarily an object of knowledge. So it isn’t just a grammatical trick to say that God self-reveals. It’s a question of keeping in mind the true nature of the source of revelation. You know that interpretation is hard enough when you have the right object — how much harder when you don’t, or even when you misunderstand what revelation is? God reveals; God reveals Godself.

      1. So, if God has revealed Godself, then is God revealed? Is God unveiled and the masses just aren’t noticing? Has God revealed Godself only to an elect? What’s the point in a God who self reveals if the revelation goes unnoticed, especially by people who claim to be trying to notice? And what’s the difference in God voluntarily becoming an object of knowledge and any other object of knowledge, because epistemology is still involved? I guess I have yet to understand what revelation is, because it still seems a false path away from epistemology.

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