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.