Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol. II, Part 1: Knowledge, Faith, Mediation

Moses & The Burning Bush, 1890, The Holman Illustrated Bible

Moses & The Burning Bush, 1890, The Holman Illustrated Bible

Adoration Of The Trinity, Albrecht Durer, 1511

Adoration Of The Trinity, Albrecht Durer, 151








Thus, to the particularity of this event which, in contrast to all other objects, is grounded in the nature of God, there corresponds the particularity of one such object which, in the sphere of creaturely reality, points to the nature of God, a uniqueness which does not belong to this object in itself and as such, but which falls to its lot in this event in which it is now effective.   But it is effective, not on account of its own ability, but in virtue of the institution to the service which this object has to perform at this point.  In other words, it is effective in virtue of the special work to which God has at this point determined and engaged it, because it has become the instrument of this work and has been marked off and is used as such. – Karl Barth, CD, Vol II, Part 1, p. 17

Of all the things about Barth’s writings that I simultaneously adore and detest, his insistence on the specificity of the event of God’s revelation stands out more than any other.  I adore it precisely because it is the correct answer to the on-going question regarding God’s existence that do not rely upon the actual testimony offered in Scripture, let alone the traditions of the church, the church’s experience, or the peculiar and particular ratio of the church.  I detest it because he spends what I find to be an inordinate amount of time on matters of knowledge, and particularities of Christian knowledge of God as faith, and the matter of mediate versus immediate knowledge of God that could be dispensed with had Barth not been looking back at Schleiermacher, Kant, and the liberal tradition and instead focused on developments in 20th century philosophy a bit more closely.  Specifically, the whole matter of knowledge, the specificity of that knowledge, and the question of mediation become, to an early 21st century person, superfluous matters that can be addressed as we discuss the “who” of God, which always begins with God’s self-revealing act.

In particular, the matter of the distinction between God’s immediate knowledge of the Divine Life within the Trinitarian interpenetration of the Godhead, and our mediated faith in this same Three-Persons-In-One-God as not only an important distinction to hold, but a necessary distinction to make before we move forward strikes me as so much nit-picking.  We can and do have knowledge of the Trinitarian Life of the Christian God only because that is our understanding of our experience of the human encounter with God.  We come to understand the inner Trinitarian life, what is usually called the immanent Trinity, through our experience (and reflection upon the experience) of God’s gracious condescension to us.  To begin with this distinction before we have become clear how such a distinction is even possible begs many questions.

Furthermore, the matter of mediation and how human beings come to know and understand their experience, while certainly prevalent through the 19th century, became less and less so as it became clear all human knowledge and understanding is mediated: through language, through how our brains interpret (and sometimes misinterpret) sensory information, through filtering experience through our previous experiences.  Furthermore, immediate self-knowledge has been questionable, at least on a philosophical level, at least since Hegel made clear that we only come to know who we are through our interactions with others.*  Precisely because Barth insists that the Trinitarian life provides the Godhead with immediate knowledge, he confuses his terms while muddying the waters of what is and is not understood by “immediate” and “mediate”.  Claiming that the Father and Son know one another “immediately” only means there is no creaturely object that “stands in” for one or the other in their encounter.  Yet, as distinct persons, their knowledge of one another is indeed mediated by their mutual love for one another, which is the Third Person of the Trinity, the Love that binds the Trinitarian Life together, and brings human beings in to relationship with this God.

To attempt the distinction Barth makes here between the particularities of human knowledge, human knowledge of God as a specific kind of knowledge called “faith”, and a knowledge that is mediated, leaving creaturely understanding always at a remove from the object of faith while also allowing human declarations about the inner life of this object which we can and do only know through mediate knowledge not only leaves a hole large enough to drive a truck through.  It also leaves me wondering about the necessity of insisting on these distinctions, at least at this point.  Precisely because of the demand for specificity in the self-revelation of God to humanity as testified in Scripture, the mechanisms by which human beings understand and come to know themselves to be the subject of faith, and faith the object of their relationship with God, who is both subject and object of faith, becomes superfluous.  Barth has already made clear the source and norm for faith, defined it, and in defining it already said something about who God is.  The distinction between the inner Trinitarian Life and the human encounter with God not only becomes superfluous, it introduces terms that muddy the waters, rather clarify answers, leaving Barth open to the just criticism that he allows knowledge of God to stand and fall precisely upon a particular form of human ratio rather than the criteria he as already asserted is the sole criteria for judging human knowledge of God: God’s Word.

*Hegel is often the unmentioned source of much of Barth’s approach to matters of human understanding. I’m not quite sure why he felt it necessary to leave out his debt to Hegel, but a close study of both shows Barth works within a Hegelian framework without ever once saying that is what he is doing.  I owe this insight to Dr. Kendall Soulen.