Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol. II, Part 1: Let’s Review!

It was a tryptic similar to this that Barth had in front of him while writing his Dogmatics

It was a tryptic similar to this that Barth had in front of him while writing his Dogmatics

It is usual for an author to recap particular matters and issues when moving on from one section or chapter to the next.  Particularly in matters as complex as theology, it becomes important to show the interconnections among not only our intellectual apprehension but the reality of the object of our faith.  Thus it shouldn’t surprise even a learned reader that, having spent two part-volumes on the question of faith, revelation, and the specificity of the Trinitarian reality of God as both subject and object of faith that, turning to the Doctrine of God, Karl Barth would begin with the matter of how it is we can and do know God.

At the same time, it is surprising that the basis for our claims of faith now become background to the specific matter of identifying this “God” of whom we claim to speak, in whom we claim to live, and is the source of our hope.  Not only does he reiterate his insistence, detailed and expanded in the previous two volumes, that the source of our faith in God is God through God’s word; he not only repeats that revelation, therefore, is that which proves itself by being both the subject and object of the act through which human beings come to know God; he further states that, precisely because of this reality two corollaries apply: (1) There is no point outside revelation that can critique the faith claims of the Christian Church, no human ratio that will suffice to make a counter-claim intelligible; and, (2) that because of this rootedness in God, doubt within the Christian Church is not possible as long as the claims of faith are consistent with the Word of God.

This expansion of assurance and its banishment of doubt goes against much of the grain of contemporary theological and church discourse.  We are all too ready to welcome doubt, to demand something more than the repetition of the claim that our faith in God is rooted in God’s revelation, therefore it cannot be questioned from outside the claims of faith.  We are all too willing to take our increasingly secular society’s doubts about the reality of God seriously on their own terms, rather than challenge them on our own.  We are all to eager to accept the claims of a negative theodicy, which sees God’s absence in the realities of injustice, violence, and oppression, as a question that demands an answer about who God is.  Barth closes off any such avenue of criticism, insisting that a church faithful to God’s Word as both subject and object of any claim about God, God’s existence, and what Barth calls God’s perfections (as opposed to the more traditional discussion of God’s attributes) will repeat that God is precisely because there is a Church that lives upon the Word of God as the source of our faith, our hope, and our love.

Because of Barth’s insistence on the specificity of the claims of the Christian faith rather than being a claim of universal truth, he cannot and does not allow for any questioning of our faith in God that is not rooted in the Word of God precisely because it is only through God’s own revelation through the Word, a revelation that already tells us something about who God is, that we can and do know that God is and who God is.  Any ratio that insists on staking a claim outside the Word is not questioning the God revealed through Divine self-giving in the Word, but a god of human creation, whether we call it the prime mover, ultimate reality, or something else.  Even the generalized “God” of western Christendom is not the God of the Church of Jesus Christ because it is a general, vague image of something rather than the specific actions of the God who reveals the Divine Life to the world through the Church’s faith in the Word.

I think this bold move on Barth’s part, in the face of the claims of the German Church movement to align itself more closely to the Nazi party line can continue to be a source of strength for Christians in light of the increasing secularization of western culture and the too-often ignorant and odd counter-claims it makes against what it believes “God” to be.  This “God” Barth rightly calls “no-god”, even “anti-god”, a creation of human projection either of desire or weakness upon a Cosmos that, understood through purely human reason, sees no place for either human beings or the God who loves them and calls them very good.  It reverses the long-held insistence by modernity that the Church should be answerable to its demands for proof, using its criterion of truth, using its limits on what is and is not evidence.  A Church willing to live this way would indeed be a Church against which even the gates of hell could not stand.

Needless to say, I like this part of Barth.