The Hidden God
Karl Barth works the question of humanity’s ability to know God. I mean, he really works it.
In §27.1 he takes the hiddeness of God as his starting point. The whole section is entitled, “The Limits of the Knowledge of God.” But he doesn’t mean “limits” only in terms of “the end point,” as in, “Ok, we can know God, but where does that stop?”
He means both limits, the boundaries, the starting point and the ending point. Thus, §27.1 presses the question, “Where does knowledge of God begin?”
Barth continues to work with the idea that God is known as the hidden God. What he has said in the previous chapters, in other words, is not a denial of the knowledge of God, or God’s knowability. It describes the character of our knowledge:
Humanity in and of itself cannot know God. Only God knows God. To be wrapped into God’s self-knowledge is, and must always be, an act of grace.
At the end of this section, Barth goes into a lengthy small-print section, discussing the Barmen Declaration’s confession that God is only known as God is revealed in Christ. Here, we seem to arrive at the point that has truly been driving Barth for the previous two chapters.
In distancing knowledge of God from natural theology, Barth has been heading off the conclusion that God can be known in and through not only nature as such, but human society and social movements. The Nazi party cannot be confessed as a new manifesation of the revealed knowledge of God, because God is not revealed in nature, through peoples as such, knowable to people as such.
I find myself at a recurring point as I cycle through various experiences of reading Barth. Every now and then, and now for an extended period of time, I find that the Christocentrism that gives the Church Dogmatics its power fades to the background, as Barth becomes more speculative, bases more of his argument on the inherent nature of God in the Trinity, and the like.
I know that ultimately, this is all a Christological argument, but it has receded too much from view for this leg of the argument to be compelling.
As an overall theological question, however, I think that the one Barth is pressing here continues to delineate different theological groups.
What does it mean to be a fundamentalist? an evangelical? a progressive? a liberal?
In part, the points along this scale are determined by the extent to which scripture as God’s revelation is seen to come into various cultures, from without—critiquing us and calling us to the God who is other, and the extent to which we see cultural moments shaping, limiting, and providing new opportunities for God’s revelation in the world.
Is revelation entirely a word from without? To what extent is it a word contextualized in time? To the extent that it is contextualized, does a new context open up new opportunities for fresh, different, and even overturning things to be revealed? Or do new contexts predominantly open up new avenues for the Other to critique what we would otherwise think we know?
In tackling the issue of how God is known, Barth is traversing the ground upon which many other particular theological disagreements are played out. Whether we are aware of it or not, the questions of how God is known often play significant roles in theological debate and disagreement, keeping us talking past one another rather than talking toward consensus.