Volume II: Rediscovering Precious Values,
"Karl Barth's Conception of God"
[2 January 1952]
The purpose of this paper is to present and criticize Karl Barth's doctrine of God. We may conveniently discuss his doctrine of God under three main headings: 1. The transcendent God 2. The unknown God, and 3. the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Our chief sources for the present study are: The Epistle to the Romans, The Word of God and the Word of Man, The Knowledge of God and the Service of God according to the Teaching of the Reformation, and Dogmatics in Outline. Before undertaking the above stated task we may mention something of the life and career of Karl Barth.
Karl Barth was born in Basel, Switzerland in 1886. He was educated at Bern (where his father held a theological chair), Berlin, Tuebingen, and Marburg. During the first world war he was engaged in Pastoral work in Geneva and Safenwil, Switzerland. In 1921 he was appointed professor of Reformed theology at the University of Goettingen. Afterwards he taught at Muenter, and Bonn. In 1934 he was expelled from Germany. Since 1935 he held a professorship in the University of Basel. While a student at Berlin and Marburg he came under the influence of the two great Ritschlian scholars, Harnack and W. Hermann. For a short while he was associate editor of the Ritschlian journal Die Christliche Welt. But this liberal influence was not long to remain a positive factor in Barth's life. As Sasse put it, "in Karl Barth liberal theology brought forth its own conquerer. He could overcome the liberal theology because he was bone of its bone and flesh of its flesh."[Footnote: Stasse, HWS, 155]
The Transcendent God
One of the cardinal points of Barth's doctrine of God is that He is the transcendent God. On every hand Barth is out to set God immensely above the dieties of the world, and the substitutes for God which modern philosophy and scientific research into Nature's forces have put into "modern" man's mind. "The power of God," says Barth, "can be detected neither in the world of nature nor in the souls of men. It must not be confounded with any high, exalted, force, known or knowable."[Footnote: Barth, ETR, 30] All modern ideas of immanence are thus set aside by this emphasis on God's transcendence.
From the foregoing we can see that Barth procalims the utter separation of the high God and the world. The two are totally unlike and exclusive. At no point does God touch the external world with its corrupted nature and evil matter. No part of the world is, therefore, a manifestation or revelation of the infinite, majestic Deity. Barth's God is "above us, above space and time, and above all concepts and opinions and all potentialities."[Footnote: Barth, KOG, 28] In other words God is the "Wholly Other." Here "otherness" implies "exclusive separation." Such thinking ends in the entire divorcement of God and our human experience. Take, for an instance, the following passage from The Epistle to the Romans,
Such a passage reveals that we are complete aliens until God wills to give himself to us. If we are not to end up defining ourselves when we think that we are defining God, we can only take the second way and therefore "hold fast to the incomprehensible majesty in which God meets us in His revelation, the majesty of His person as Father, Son and Holy Spirit."[Footnote: KOG, 33]
In harmony with his general position Barth asserts that man cannot find God by the study of the soul of man. The qualitative distinction between God and man makes this totally impossible. "It is evident that the relation to God with which the Bible is concerned does not have its source in the purple depths of the subconscious, and cannot be identical with what the deep-sea psychical research of our day describes in the narrower or broader sense as libido fulfilment."[Footnote: WGWM, 70] God is the one who stands above our highest and deepest feelings, strivings and intuitions.[Footnote: DO, 37]
It is to be noted that Barth is explicit in rejecting each and every
acknowledgment of a theologia naturalis. This rejection came about
primarily because of Barth's emphasis on God's transcendence and man's
impotence. The rejection of Natural Theology put Barth in a peculiar position
when he was invited by the Senatus of the University of Aberdeen 1935,
to deliver the Gifford
The Unknown God
Barth makes it explicit from the beginning that God is the unknowable and indescribable God. The hidden God remains hidden. Even when we say we know him our knowledge is of an imcomprehensible Reality. Consider, for instance, the personality of God. Barth writes: "God is personal, but personal in an incomprehensible way, in so far as the conception of his personality surpasses all our views of personality."[Footnote: Ibid, 31]
Barth also contends that even through the knowledge which comes by faith, than which "no more objective and strict form of knowledge can lay claim more definitely to universal validity,"[Footnote: Ibid, 25] no full knowledge comes to us. Even when God reveals himself to the man of faith, or, more accurately, to the man to whom he gives faith, still that man with faith "will confess God as the God of majesty and therefore as the God unknown to us."[Footnote: Ibid, 28] Man as man can never know God: His wishing, seeking, and striving are all in vain.[Footnote: ETR, 91]
In order to understand Barth at this point it is necessary to understand his objectivism. The absolutely objective, the transcendental (Kant) cannot be reached by man. It can only be reached in actus and such actus Barth finds in Scripture and pre-eminently in Christ and the Holy Spirit. And yet, as stated above, even in his revelation of himself God is ontlogically unknown and unknowable. On Romans 1:19, 20, Barth says:
The more we know of God the more he is yet to be known.
We give another passage from Dogmatics in Outline, on God's unknowablility, in which Barth's characteristic ideas and modes of expression are closely joined together.
Barth's contention is summed up in the dictum: Finitum non Capax infiniti, the finite has no capacity for the Infinite. "There is no way from us to God--not even via negativa not even a via dialectica nor paradoxa. The god who stood at the end of some human way--even of this way--would not be God."[Footnote: WG, 177]
In order to understand Barth at this point it is necessary to know something of his method. Barth constantly reiterates that his method is dialectical, proceeding by affirmation and denial, the yes and no, with no safe, ascertainable midway resting place. Astounding as it may seem, Barth boldy affirms that his affirmations and denials are meant to be, not God's absolute truth, but as most human and fallible concepts thereof.
The language of dialectic is that of paradox. Paradox is the juxtaposition of an opinion alongside of it, implicated with it. Examples given by Barth are: The glory of God in creation and yet his concealment; death and its transitory quality alongside of the majesty of another life; man's creation in the image of God conjoined with his fallen being; sin so awful, yet only known when it is forgiven. In God we see the same contrasts. Creation, and Providence; grace and judgment; promise and fulfilment; forgiveness and penalty--"Thou forgavest them though thou tookest vengeance of their inventions." In man's religious experience the same speech of paradox has to be used. Flesh with spirit; faith and obedience; freedom, yet under law still; "autonomy and heteronomy; "justified, yet still a sinner"--these are examples frequently appearing in Barth's works.
The method of dialectic is to counter the no by its opposite yes: the thesis by the antithesis. Barth uses the procedure of the examination room where questions are put requiring answers. The answer contains the question and the question implies the answer. We pass from one side to the other, and often the no is but a concealed yes. Often in the commentary on the Romans, Barth has recourse to algebraical formulae. The minus sign placed before the series of plus terms enclosed in brackets, changes the values, and conversely, the plus sign transforms the minus sign. Every positive implies a negative and every negative hints at a positive.
It is quite difficult at times to recognize which method of dialectics Barth prefers--the Platonic-Socratic, the Aristotelian or the Hegelian. Sometimes Barth writes as if truth lies, as with Aristotle, in the mean between two extremes. At other times he seems to incline to Hegel's neat scheme: thesis, antithesis, synthesis, which combines the preceding two in a higher unity. Usually, however Barth takes another line; he passes back behind the contraries to the previous state from which they emerged into contradiction. "The truth," says Barth, "lies not in the yes and not in the no, but in the knowledge and the beginning from which the yes and the no arise."[Footnote: WGWM, 72 f] And again: "Our yes towards life from the very beginning carries within it the Divine No which breaks forth from the antithesis and points away from what now was the thesis to the original and final synthesis. The No is not the last and highest truth, but the call from home which comes in answer to our asking for God in the world."[Footnote: Ibid, 312]
What is the ultimate way out of this arena of paradox? It is found in God. The contradictions will be solved not in time, nor on this plane of earth, but "from God who is our Home" prior to, subsequent to, Creation--"not now, but in the Better Land".
The Revelation Of God In Jesus Christ
On every hand Barth speaks of time and eternity as two distinct realms, an unbridged chasm between God and man, and the unknown God. All of this ends up in the view that there is no way from man to God. There is a way, however, from God to man through Jesus Christ. "He who hath seen me hath seen the Father." This Christ who is the Word of God is no "Jesus of history."[Footnote: WGWM, 277] That "historical Jesus is but a construct of historians' minds, designed to reconcile contradiction which will not down. The Christ of the flesh is not proclaimed by Barth any more than by Paul, but the Christ, crucified and risen. It is in him that the impossibilities are combined, the irreconcilables are here reconciled: God and man, eternity and time, death and resurrection.[Footnote: ETR, 144; WGWM, 201] Here in him, the conflict is somehow resolved,[Footnote: ETR, 276 f.] and thus we are saved. At this point we might give a rather long quotation from the Romans which well summarizes Barth's view at this point:
The above passage exhibits the characteristic features of what may be called a theology. In Jesus Christ we have the solution of the problems raised to the mind by the transcendence of God, the brokeness of humanity, and the unknown God. It is the mark of this kind of theology, in contrast to the usual method of procedure followed for almost a century now, to start from above, from the God-side, and work down to man.
Criticism of Barth's Views
The leading ideas of Barth's doctrine of God have been presented in the preceding paragraphs: it remians for us, in this closing section, to indicate the main lines of criticism which they have called forth in my mind. Most of my criticisms stem from the fact that I have been greatly influenced by liberal theology, maintaining a healthy respect for reason and a strong belief in the immanence as well as the transcendence of God.
First let us take the point of God's transcendecne, for it is here that Barthianism irks the liberal Christian mind probably more than elsewhere. Not that God is not transcendent. The liberal so believes, but he also contends that God is also immanent, expressing his creative genius throughout the universe which he is ever creating and always sustaining as well as through the essentail goodness of th world and human life. It is not that God is above us to which the liberal objects, but he does demur when he is asked to affirm that God is with us only in a tiny segment of "experience." (Barth would not use the term, but rather "revelation" or "divine confrontation"); namely, in that which comes only when God gives his word to us. The liberal also finds God in the beauty of the world, in the unpremeditated goodness of men, and in the moral order of reality.
Another point at which Barth irks the liberal is his emphasis on the unknowableness of God. "A God about whom we dare not think is a God a thinking mind cannot worhsip."[Footnote: Brightman, FG, 26] Note that Barth says that the Word of God is the norm and standard of truth. Let us turn to it.
Job ask: "Canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection?"[Footnote: Job 11:16] This verse is typical of the Bible representation generally. We can know God as we know anything else, only imperfectly. In the book of Exodus, in the scene in which God appears to Moses we read; "Thou canst not see my face" but "thou shalt see my back".[Footnote: Exodus 33:20] A signal proof that God reveals himself in nature is seen in Psalms 19: "The heavens declare the glory of God, etc." The New Testament writers are even more explicit at this point. According to Paul, man through reason, may have sufficient knowledge of God to render him inexcusable."[Footnote: Romans 1:18-23] This passage, found in the Epistle to the Romans, is practically ignored by Barth. He says: "We know that God is the one whom we do not know and this not-knowing is the problem and origin of our knowing. . . . What are God's works in their absolute riddeness (absolution Raelhselhaftigkeit) other than questions without an answer."[Footnote: ETR, 45]
It must also be noted at this point that Barth speaks of the generally accepted metaphysical and ethical attributes of God, sovereignity, majesty, holiness, ect., with a degree of certainty. It was once said of Herbert Spencer that he knew a great deal about the "Unknowable" so of Barth, one wonders how he came to know so much of the "Unknown God."
In criticism of Barth's method we may say that there is the danger that one may take a side, the No, or yes, without carrying the dialogue through. This is precisely what Lenin did, with such disastrous consequences to religion in Russia. Again, if a position implies a negation, and a negation a position, then faith carries disbelief with it, theism, atheism, and if one member of the pair comes to be doubted the result may be disastrous to religion itself.
These seem to me, to be some of the great difficulties implicit in the Barthian position. In spite of our somewhat severe criticisms of Barth, however, we do not in the least want to minimize the importance of his message. His cry does call attention to the desperateness of the human situation. He does insist that religion begins with God and that man cannot have faith apart from him. He does proclaim that apart from God our human efforts turn to ashes and our sunrises into darkest night. He does suggest that man is not sufficient unto himself for life, but is dependent upon the proclamatiom of God's living Word, through which by means of Bible, preacher, and revealed Word, God himself comes to the consciences of men. Much of this is good, and may it not be that it will serve as a necessary corrective for a liberalism that at times becomes all to shallow?
THDS. MLKP-MBU: Box 113, folder 20.
The Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.