The Uncontrollable God

What difference does it make how we think about our knowledge of God? For Karl Barth, getting this right makes all the difference in whether or not we live and act as though all our knowledge of God is an act of God’s grace, extending us a participation in what is God’s by nature but not ours by nature (Church Dogmatics §27.2).

What goal and end does our knowledge of God have?

Because Barth makes an absolute distinction between natural theology and revealed theology, between what we can know by nature and what can teach us by grace, he maintains several key points: (1) knowledge of God is true because it is revealed by God; (2) this means that God both wills and empowers such knowledge.

To my mind, Barth is pushing toward the discussion in which he maintains that this dependence on revelation makes us humble and stirs up people to thanksgiving.

Knowledge of God is the fruit of God’s revelation, of God’s power coming and confronting and enabling and making known. This means that it is always, to a degree, a dynamic process.

One of the highlights of this section for me was the warning, issued a couple of times, not to think that any particular articulation of human knowledge of God is under our control. Simply because human speech has rightly articulated knowledge of God for one moment does not mean that such faithful speech can simply be repeated by someone else as the sytematization of the divine revelation.

By making knowledge of God dependent on revelation, on the Spirit (cf. 1 Cor 2!), Barth takes it out of our hands altogether.

we, who are claimed by God’s true revelation, form our views, concepts and words according to our ability (or inability), we cannot confine ourselves to any one of these words, as if w have already thought of God and spoken of God, and we have only to repeat our concepts and words to attain and express again the knowledge of God. The veracity of our knowledge of God can easily die of this kind of repetition; for it does not possess in itself the knowledge of God; it comes to it from the veracity of the revelation of God. (214)

Sometimes, though, when I get deep into these chapters on revelation, and God revealing from without, and knowledge being sure, and God’s reality being the one after which ours is modeled rather than our language being a grasping after who God is–I start to worry that Barth has taken too much out of the human, engaged, dynamic process of speaking about God.

Is it really the case, for instance, that the words “father” and “son” do not first have a point of reference in our language, which we then apply to God (229)? Are they so true of who God is in Godself that we do not speak “as if” when we use this language in speaking of Father and Son? I wonder if Barth hasn’t underplayed the amount of accommodation and human conditioning entailed in our God-talk?

At the very end, Barth comes back to where he always does when he’s on top of his game. At its heart, the reason why knowledge of God, knowledge of the truth, is only available through revelation is because the knowledge and truth of God are Jesus Christ himself, who is the knowledge of God.

And with this, month 14 of the Barth Together reading group brings us to the end of Dogmatics chapter 5!

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