Sunday, December 3, 2006

Barth: Revelation

Man could not possibly work his way up to a true knowledge of God through philosophical and anthropological supports. Barth saw in every form of natural theology a failure to do justice to the ‘infinite qualitative distinction’ between God and man. Our search for intellectual understanding only functions within the framework of faith. In his mature discussion on the theological method of Anselm, Barth wrote, “Therefore it is not a question of faith requiring the ‘proof’ or the ‘joy’. There is absolutely no question at all of a requirement of faith. Anselm wants ‘proof’ and ‘joy’ because he wants intelligere and he wants intelligere because he believes.”

Revelation, in Barth’s understanding, is neither a collection of static statements found in Scripture nor mythical metaphors representing the truth found behind Scripture. Barth sought to do justice to the dialectic between the word of God and the words of man, disclosure and concealment, the form of revelation and the revealing Subject. As a witness or vehicle of revelation, Scripture points away from itself to the self-revelation of God. Torrance summed it up in this way, “Biblical statements are true not because they capture the truth in themselves but because they refer to truth independent of themselves. A distinction is thus to be recognized between true statements and the truth of the statements.” Instead of an inerrant deposit of divine truth, revelation is conceived as a dynamic event whereby the Word himself freely and actively speaks to us through the historically conditioned, sometimes contradictory and limited human words of Scripture. The words of man in scripture and preaching become the Word of God whenever that sovereign and gracious personal act happens .

“The Bible is the concrete means by which the Church recollects God’s past revelation, is called to expectation of His future revelation… The Bible, then, is not in itself and as such God’s past revelation.” In response to the emergence of biblical criticism and Strauss’ search for the historical Jesus, Barth does not deny the value of studying the biblical text as a text per se. However, he would object to the attempt to find God by treating the texts as merely an object of historical study. Truth cannot be captured in “abstraction from an encounter with the person of the living God”. God must ever be the Subject who freely reveals despite its human imperfections in and of itself. From that vantage point, divine revelation remains possible and invincible, unperturbed by any archeological finding or textual evidence that may suggest any scientific or historical errors.

It has been popular nowadays to repeat clich├ęs like “Truth is a person, not a proposition”. Indeed, Jesus is the Word of God. However, the personal character of God’s Word should not be played off against its verbal character. It rather means that Jesus Christ is a free subject, rather than a thing that can be objectified or captured. “He is not bound to it but it to Him. He has free control over the wording of the Holy Scripture. He can use it or not use it… What Holy Scripture proclaims as His Word can be proclaimed in a new wording as His Word so long as it is He himself who speaks in this wording.” As such, the wording in Scripture could never be reduced or fossilized as a human system. The human subject should always be the object of the speaking God who initiates and completes his knowledge. This personal encounter should not be mistaken for some mystical feeling for God speaks in the form of Word with its cognitive content. “As event or happening we can no more hold on to it or recreate it than we can cause it. We can only live in faith, recollecting it has happened once in the past, and trusting God’s promise that it will happen in the future”. We should not confuse the event of a romantic encounter with the empty hall in which it once took place.

An Evaluation of Barth’s View of Revelation

There has been increasing interest in the evangelical community to rediscover Barth as scholars sought to rethink theology within an emerging postmodern context. His methodology in which theology retains autonomy over other sciences has been lauded as a fruitful non-foundational response to the Enlightenment demand for objective and universal truth. In light of some affinities with postmodern tendencies, post-foundational theologian John Franke is hopeful that Barth’s greatest influence still lies in the future through the works of Hans Frei, Graham Ward, Walter Lowe and others.

Barth’s emphasis on the unique Word of God, from above, also offered a prophetic stance over world events, powers and movements. When Hitler rose to power in 1933, Barth was quick in criticizing Nazi ideology of expelling Jewish Christians from ministry and growing encroachment of a “German Christian” movement which regarded the Fuhrer as a German prophet . Co-founding the Confessing Church, he was also instrumental in drafting the Barmen Declaration, which resisted the temptation to identify God’s revelation in other events, powers and historical figures beyond the God incarnate, Jesus Christ. His courageous refusal to submit to the Fuhrer cost him teaching positions in universities and he was subsequently sent back to Switzerland. From our vantage point after the World World, we could see with moral clarity the evils of Nazi ideology. However, it is a testament of Barth’s theology that it offered a powerful critique of oppressive political powers at a time when the church and world in general were still having moral blind spots.

Hans Urs von Balthasar once likened his theology to an hourglass “where God and man meet at the center through Jesus Christ. There is no other point of encounter between the top and bottom portions of the glass.” However, in his understandable zeal to emphasize the transcendence of God’s revelation in Christ, an alleged “christomonism” may have failed to do justice to God’s general revelation available to the entire human race through nature as mentioned in Romans 1-2 and Psalm 19. His assumptions that genuine revelation would always bring forth positive and salvific response influenced his interpretation of such texts as merely expressing a witness in nature that is already known from special revelation. Yet the thrust of Paul’s argument in Romans 1 is that both Gentiles and Jews, with and without the law, knew God because He has made it plain by the things that have been created. Therefore, they are without excuse of being totally ignorant of God. Bertrand Russell’s plea that God has not given him enough evidence for faith would have some currency if God did not leave a universal and accessible witness apart from the law. For Paul, at least, the issue is willful suppression of knowledge already in their comprehension.

In the works of conservative scholars like Francis Schaeffer and Cornelius Van Til, Barth was criticized for clinging to the ‘upper story’ of religious meaning without being grounded in the ‘lower story’ of historical facts, rationality and science. “His position was that though the Bible contains mistakes, “a religious word” comes truth anyway. “Religious truth” is separated from the historical truth of the Scriptures.” There is no way to verify its truth claims. The critique of fideism should not be dismissed too quickly. Concerning those who would use any ‘other fact’ besides the fact of God to support the Christian religion, he has this poignant critique:

“But the Christian religion cannot be supported from without if it can no longer stand alone. If it does stand alone it does not allow itself to be supported from without. Standing alone, it stands upon the fact of God, which justifies it, and upon that alone. There is therefore no place for attempts to support it any other way.”

In more recent times, Wolfhart Pannenberg, a former student of Barth, has made necessary corrective to what he perceived to be increasing privatization of modern theology as a merely subjective sphere ‘sheltered’ from public scientific or historical inquiry. The retreat of theology into a cultural ghetto owes much to a post-Enlightenment milieu which views authority with suspicion. Systematic theology ought to be a discipline in search for universal truth that illumines all human knowledge. As such, theological statements ought to be boldly open to rational inquiry of the historical basis on which they rest. Faith is not to be seen as a pietistic leap in the dark. The Christian faith hinges on the historical event of Christ’s bodily resurrection in space-time (1 Corinth. 15:14). As an event in history, it is open to rigorous investigation according to sound principles of historiography.

While Barth would insist that the human words in biblical text are fallible, he also forbid judgment to be made since there is no “absolute position from which to establish actual errors”. We may justifiably suspect that Barth is happily inconsistent at this point. For what hermeneutical value is it to “say that errors are present but cannot be firmly delineated?” Not a few scholars have also pointed the paradoxical fact that for someone who denies the infallibility of Scripture, he somehow managed to come up with voluminous propositions in the Church Dogmatics! Grenz and Olson put this question pointedly, “Would it have been possible for Barth to spin out his magnificent modern exposition of classical Christian belief if he had held consistently to his theory of Scripture?” Perhaps, evangelicals of an earlier generation like Carnell were right in calling Barth ‘an inconsistent evangelical’ at heart.

Concluding Remarks

In conclusion, evangelicals have much to gain from a closer reading of Barth’s theology in order to avoid the danger of bibliolatry. That is, in our zeal to defend the inerrancy of Scripture from critics, the temptation is to confuse or merge its humanity with its divine character. The result is a docetic view of Scripture. If a Christological analogy is appropriate here, we may stretch it further and say that inspired Scripture is fully human like us in every way yet without sin or error. In the same token, the distinct human dimension should not be ‘separated’ from the divine in a Nestorian fashion either. In holding them in tension, we could affirm an authentic, Chalcedonian union of its dual natures.

After all, the inherent authority of Scripture located in God’s once-for-all verbal inspiration of its authors is compatible with Barth’s stress upon the ongoing internal testimony of the Holy Spirit, which shines in the readers’ darkened hearts to give them full assurance of its authority. Didn’t Article V of Westminster Confession also teaches that “our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts”? There is perhaps more convergence of views here than meet the eye.

However, I am also wary of a certain circularity in this argument here which Strauss called “the Archilles’ heel of the Protestant system”. To be sure, we know that the Word is inspired through the gracious work of the Spirit. However, while showing to others that the Bible is God’s Word, especially in a pluralistic context where our presuppositions are not shared, Christians may need to broaden the circle further. It is legitimate to start from the claims of Scripture and then work out how on its own self-testimony alone could we make sense of our human experience, history, the cosmos and morality in a comprehensive and coherent manner. In our own time, the question of biblical authority encounters the twin dangers of restrictive authoritarianism on one side and lawless individualism on the other. Here Barth is a reliable guide in showing us that in its freedom, God’s word exercise authority and the interpretive community is truly free when it is obedient to the Word.

Instead of accepting everything Barth wrote as ‘gospel truth’ or tearing it apart in reactionary fashion, we should instead read Barth dialectically as a response suggested by Bernard Ramm. “The evangelical who reads Barth dialectically is just as ready to grant Barth one point as to criticize him at another.” With caution, we could recognize a debt to him for dropping a bomb on the theologians’ playground and putting orthodox doctrines like Trinity back to center stage. We also find in him admirable qualities like the humility and courage in which he continually refine his views from foreign philosophical baggage. When someone once asked Barth to summarize his massive volumes, he thought for a moment and then said: "The greatest theological insight that I have ever had is this: Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so."


1. 20th Century Theology: God & the World in a Transitional Age, Stanley Grenz & Roger Olson, InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, 1992

2. Anselm: Fides Quaerens Intellectum, Karl Barth, Translated by Ian W. Robertson, The World Publishing: Ohio, 1962

3. Christianity And Barthianism, Cornelius Van Til, Presbyterian And Reformed Publishing: Pennsylvania, 1962

4. Christian Theology, Millard Erickson, Baker Books: Grand Rapids, 2001

5. Church Dogmatics I..i: The Doctrine of the Word of God, Karl Barth, Translated by G.W. Bromiley, T & T Clark: Edinburgh, 1999

6. Church Dogmatics: Selections, Karl Barth, Selections by Helmut Gollwitzer, T & T Clark: Edinburgh, 1961

7. How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape Of His Theology, George Hunsinger, Oxford University Press: New York, 1991

8. Introduction to the Theology of Karl Barth, Geoffrey Bromiley, Eerdmans Publishing: Grand Rapids, 1979

9. Karl Barth, Biblical and Evangelical Theologian, Thomas Torrance, T & T Clark: Edinburgh, 1990

10. Karl Barth & Evangelicalism, Gregory Bolich, InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, 1980

11. Reading Karl Barth: New Directions For North American Theology, Kurt Anders Richardson, Baker Academic: Grand Rapids, 2004

12. Regarding Karl Barth, Trevor Hart, Paternoster Press: Cumbria, 1999

13. The Gottingen Dogmatics: Instructions in the Christian Religion, Karl Barth, Translated by G. W. Bromiley, Eerdmans Publishing: Grand Rapids, 1990