Church Dogmatics Paraphrase §8, “God in His Revelation”


August 23, 2013 by mattwilcoxen

imagesKarl Barth, Church Dogmatics §8, “GOD IN HIS REVELATION” (pp. 295-347)

With §8 we enter a new major section of the Church Dogmatics. §1-7 were gathered together under the heading of “The Task of Dogmatics”. At the end of this section the analysis of revelation as an event of God’s word brought Barth into contact with the structures of the Trinity. Now in §8 we are entering into the content of the doctrine of the Trinity in which revelation is based.

The Place of the Doctrine of the Trinity in Dogmatics (pp. 295-304)

For Barth we have to allow the revelation (through Jesus, the Bible, and preaching) to both raise our questions and answer our questions–to raise our questions through answering them. Under this restraint revelation can be seen as follows:

  1. Who is the self-revealing God? God reveals himself.
  2. How does it come about that God reveals himself? God reveals himself through himself. (i.e., God reveals himself)
  3. What does this event do to the person to whom it happens? God reveals himself.

Each of these three questions interpenetrate one another, so that they can never be separated. God is the subject, object, and verb of revelation. Though the three cannot be separated, neither can they be collapsed into one. God the Father is the revealer, God the Son is what God reveals, and God the Spirit is the state of revealedness.  “It is only–but very truly–by observing the unity and differentiation of God in his biblically attested revelation that we are set before the problem of the doctrine of the Trinity”.

So if we start with what happens to us in revelation, then we are starting with the doctrine of the Trinity. Barth thinks he is doing something rather unique, recognizing this and putting the doctrine of the Trinity at the front of his entire theological work. Barth’s theology is going to be always concerned with who God is for us, but such an approach requires that we inquire into the “who” part of that statement–who is the God that reveals himself as “for us”. The doctrine of the Trinity answers that question. 

The Root of the Doctrine of the Trinity (pp. 304-333)

In the Bible, “Word of God” is a term that is identical to God. Scripture and proclamation are taken up by the Word of God in the event of revelation, but the Word we hear in revelation is God himself, not the text per se, nor preaching per se. Since the Word is God, it (he) can have no higher ground from which it can be judged. The Word is revealed as lord. This lordly revelation, the revelation of something that cannot be anticipated or proven by anything else, is “the root of the doctrine of the Trinity”.

To say that the statement “God reveals God as Lord” is the root of the doctrine of the Trinity means two things. First, it means that the doctrine of the Trinity is not something revealed to us directly. Rather, the doctrine of the Trinity is exegesis of revelation. Second, this means that the doctrine of the Trinity claims to be accurate as an interpretation of revelation. It is indirectly identical with revelation.

Barth does not think that revelation is the basis for the Trinity itself–far from it. Rather, revelation is the basis for the doctrine of the Trinity (i.e., the basis for our conceptual understanding of the Trinity). Though Barth has previously spoken of revelation in somewhat formal and abstract terms (revealer, revealed, revealedness) he does not think that this is where biblical revelation of God as Lord starts or stays. Rather, biblical revelation starts with God as Lord in Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity. It is the revelation of God as Lord in Jesus Christ where we learn the doctrine of the Trinity from. This happens as follows:

1. Christ is the revelation of God–a making present of God in genuine encounter. If this “making present” or personal encounter is itself the true revelation of God, then this means that God must have personal encounter even in God’s own life. We see in the Son (and in foggy ways in the Old Testament) that it is proper for God to distinguish himself from himself.

2. God’s revelation in Christ is the revelation of the God who cannot properly be revealed to human beings. We know this because they have no possibility of anticipating or procuring this event. So even in Christ, God is concealed. The subject of revelation remains a subject even as he becomes for us an object. So here the Father remains transcendent as subject, even as the Son becomes an object. (Note: this can all sound very much like social Trinitarianism, but Barth will continually take measures to mitigate this.)

3. The revelation of God in Christ is always a concrete relation to concrete people. It was a concrete and historical thing in history–that is, it is objective. And yet, it is always an objective event with a subjective force. This concrete historical thing impinges upon us here and now in a real way. This happening, this bringing to bear of God’s revelation of God is accomplished by no less than God the Spirit.

In other words: God takes form, God remains free in taking a form, and in taking form and remaining free, God becomes God to specific people. This is but a pointer to the doctrine of the Trinity, which Barth will develop more fully.

Vestigium Trinitatis (pp. 333-347)

Right out of the gate, Barth wants us to understand that the doctrine of the Trinity is an expression of the fact that God really reveals himself to us as Lord. As lordly revelation, God’s revelation of God is free–it cannot be conjured up out of creaturely possibilities. There is nothing in the created world which would tell us that God is this way.

Many figures in the church’s history (Anselm, Luther, Augustine, Lombard, Aquinas, etc.) have taught the doctrine of the Trinity and have tried to illustrate it with various structures and realities of the creaturely world. These illustrations are referred to as “vestigia trinitatis”. They almost always meant these as just illustrations of a revealed truth. Barth thinks these illustrations are too dangerous, however. Our tendency is to think that there is something in the illustrations themselves, something that could allow us to reason up from creaturely things to the creator. Therefore they are too dangerous, just because they end up compromising the whole point of the doctrine of the Trinity–the point that the God who reveals himself is Lord.

So we are told that we must stick to the one place where the Trinity is revealed to us in creaturely terms: God’s incarnation in Christ.


2 thoughts on “Church Dogmatics Paraphrase §8, “God in His Revelation”

  1. wtm says:

    Keep up the good work on this series!

    Have you read this old KBBC post on the vestigium in Barth ( If so, I’d be interested in hearing your comments.

    • mattwilcoxen says:

      Hi Travis, thanks for the link. I don’t think I had ever read that post. Just responding to the main text: it seems like Jüngel extends Barth’s critique, showing some of the deepest implications of the vestigia, and alternately the gains preserved by avoiding it. To my shame, I am not too familiar with Jüngel and so cannot really comment further. I’ve read God’s Being is in His Becoming twice now, and I find it impenetrably tautologous–a very abstract version of Barth. I’m very certain that there’s more to it than that, given how many people I respect find Jüngel illuminating.

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