Church Dogmatics Paraphrase: §6, “The Knowability of the Word of God”

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July 31, 2013 by mattwilcoxen

barthKarl Barth, Church Dogmatics §6, “THE KNOWABILITY OF THE WORD OF GOD” (pp. 187-247)

Because the Word of God is a mystery–a reality grounded only in itself–our knowledge of the Word of God must be an acknowledgment brought about by the Word of God itself. Its intelligibility must be on its own terms.

The Question of the Knowability of the Word of God (pp. 187-190)

In the church we presuppose that there can be knowledge of the Word of God: an acquaintance with an objective reality in a way that corresponds to that reality. This knowledge affects the knower–it is not mere cognizance of an idea, but rather an objective reality impinging upon us. So the question for theology is not can God’s word be known, but how. In other words, we are asking about the possibility only from the perspective of the actuality. This requires a conceptual openness so that the event of God’s Word might tell us how God’s Word is heard.

The Word of God and Man (pp. 190-198)

We only know the Word of God in that it is spoken to human beings. (Barth makes the caveat that the Word, however, is originally spoken by and to God “in eternal concealment”, something he will discuss later in the doctrine of the Trinity). Does this locate the possibility for hearing in human beings? We cannot avoid speaking of human experience and even a certain human “capacity”, but we can locate no possibility for the hearing of the Word in human persons. The reason is that such a possibility would impinge upon the lordship of God’s Word. Even the denial of the possibility for the knowledge of God is not something we can prove. Such natural knowledge of God is disproven only for the one who knows God in His lordly self-revelation. This “no” to natural theology is known from the “yes” of God’s revelation and not otherwise.

The Word of God and Experience (pp. 198-227)

Barth defines experience as an effect or determination that occurs when one is confronted with an object. To experience God’s Word is to be determined in our existence by God’s Word. There is no cooperation here between our self-determination and God’s determination; rather, we, in our self-determination, are determined by God’s Word. (Barth thus articulates a compatibilist account of divine sovereignty and human agency.) This determination of the human being’s self-determination takes the shape of acknowledgment. Barth defines acknowledgment in nine points:

  • Because the Word that comes to us is primarily speech, acknowledgment entails rational knowledge.
  • Acknowledgement expresses the fact that experience of God’s Word involves personal encounter.
  • We acknowledge the control of the object over us the acknowledgers.
  • Acknowledgment entails the real presence, or contingent contemporaneity, of God’s Word.
  • Acknowledgment involves the human’s own self-determination, showing that God bends (not breaks!) the person.
  • The compatibilist nature of the experience of God’s Word is why the church’s proclamation must always be a call to decision.
  • Acknowledging our self-determination to be the determination by this object means halting before an event which is a divine mystery.
  • Because we acknowledge the divine mystery, we cannot resolve this experience into an attitude we possess. We must always be confronted with the object afresh.
  • Finally, in acknowledgment we remain self-determining but in our self-determining we submit and gain a center outside ourselves.

Barth rejects any attempt to turn this experience of the Word of God into an object of study in itself, outside of the event of revelation. He reasons that such attempts to study Christian religious experience can yield no certainty and that they only deal with phenomena and not the thing itself. Furthermore, such an approach to the event of revelation opens us up to the charge of projection–the idea that what we know in revelation turns out to be nothing more than a projection of our own self onto something we call “God”. If we are to avoid this charge, we must maintain an emphasis on our being determined in the event of revelation, and only here.

The experience we have of this event of God’s Word is not a permanent possession or an immanent possibility, but instead should be described as the miracle of faith. The Word of God (past) creates faith (present) which longs for a new event of God’s revelation (future). Faith is aware that it has no ability to create the event; it is a totally submissive longing.

The Word of God and Faith (pp. 227-247)

Barth defines faith as “the making possible of knowledge of God’s Word that takes place in actual knowledge of it”. Faith refers first of all to the divine decision made about human beings in Jesus Christ, then it trickles down and gains its other uses in connection with this one.

Barth says there are three things said about faith that are peculiar to the “Evangelical” reading of the New Testament, and these three things give us insight into the knowability of the Word of God. First, they emphasize the objectivity of the Word as giving rise to the acknowledgment of faith. This was the route of Aquinas, Calvin, and high Protestant orthodoxy. Second, the objectivity of the Word does give rise to a positive experience of the Word. Barth speaks of a conformity to God’s Word, a conformity that is “loaned” to human beings. The hearing of the Word of God is the restoration of the image of God, but as such the image never becomes a fixed predicate of the human person. The person with no possibility for hearing the Word of God hears the Word of God–this is knowledge akin to “justification by faith”. Third, the human person is only a believer in virtue of the presence of this object of faith. The Christian has her being in this relationship and not outside of it. Faith is the knowledge of God that comes about only by grace.

(Note: If you are trying to understand what Barth means by analogia fidei in opposition to analogia entis, and how Barth roots this in his theology of God’s Word, you would want to look closely at this last section.)


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