Karl Barth Reading Group – Week 5

(Sorry about the delay in posting weeks 5 and 6. As I'm sure you deduced, the group has been over for some time but I was unable to post these because of the Barth Blog Conference, etc.)

§ 6. The Knowability of the Word of God

The reality of the Word of God in all its three forms is grounded only in itself. So, too, the knowledge of it by men can consist only in its acknowledgment, and this acknowledgment can become real only through itself and can become intelligible only in terms of itself.

1. The Question of the Knowability of the Word of God

Barth begins this section with a review of the preceding, and then goes on to do some ground clearing with reference to knowledge. He is assuming that the Word of God is and therefore can be known, and that this knowledge is self-involving (as opposed to “mere cognizance”). Knowledge of God is the presupposition of the church and the church is the presupposition of the knowledge of God, which in each case means that the Word of God becomes knowable to human persons. All this leads to four “preliminary observations”: (1) Barth is not asking ‘how’ one knows God, but as to whether one ‘can’ know God; (2) furthermore, Barth is not concerned with a human person in general but in particular; (3) this particular is not Christians in a general sense but in the sense of called and elect by God, and only God knows these people; (4) on a slightly different track, Barth does not intend to work with any particular philosophical account of the concept of knowledge because he does not want to be dependent upon that account. The object of knowledge in this case is unique and cannot be measured by a general account of knowledge. (187-190)

2. The Word of God and Man

God’s Word is first and foremost to be understood within the context of intra-Trinitarian communication, but it is also addressed to human being. Because it is addressed to human beings, it presents “the so-to-speak anthropological problem” of how the human person can receive the Word of God. Barth accepts that this reception is event, and that there must be a capacity of the human person that corresponds “logically and materially to this event,” but: “The question is whether this event ranks with the other events that might enter man’s reality in such a way that to be able to enter it actually requires on man’s part a potentiality which is brought by man as such, which consists in a disposition native to him as man, in an organ, in a positive or even a negative property that can be reached and discovered by self-reflection, by anthropological analysis of his existence, in short, in what philosophy of the Kantian type calls a faculty.” This is the key question that Barth is dealing with here in §6. What Barth seeks to maintain is the gracious nature of the Word of God, which would be lost if the human person had something to do with bringing it about. Rather, Barth says that “the possibility of knowledge corresponding to the real Word of God…represents an inconceivable novum compared to all [one’s] ability and capacity.” (190-194)

Barth’s basic affirmation is that human beings “can know the Word of God because and in so far as God wills that they know it.” Thus, if there is an ‘anthropological problem’ here, it is only a problem of theological anthropology. And so, Barth makes two points: (1) It is true that there is a loud ‘No’ here to the notion that human beings as such possess a capacity to receive God’s Word, but this should not lead one to overlook the even more powerful ‘Yes’ to the notion that human beings do in fact receive God’s Word; (2) that human beings receive the Word of God must be presupposed just as God is presupposed, and this means “recollection of its promise and hope of its future, i.e., appeal to the biblical Word and expectation of its fulfillment.” All counter-proposals cannot be argued away, but can only be preached away, because the power to which theology refers is not under its control. In other words, all this is a matter of faith and not apologetics. (195-198)

3. The Word of God and Experience

“If knowledge of God’s Word is possible, this must mean that an experience of God’s Word is possible.” If knowledge is self-involving, that means it determines a person’s existence, and this determining is what Barth will call experience. This is not to be equated with the self-determining activity of the human person.[1] Human self-determining and God’s determining of that person operate at different levels and thus cannot even be dialectically set against each other. The divine determining occurs with reference to the sum of human self-determining. Material that parallels Barth’s doctrine of election in Göttingen Dogmatics comes up here in tears of hearing to obedience or disobedience, etc. The main point remains: “Our very self-determination here is subject to determination by God…men can have experience of God Word…men in their self-determination can be determined by God’s Word.” And so Barth gives us three points: (1) we need not identify any one faculty as the anthropological locus of divine determination, (2) thus there is no need to be theologically suspicious of the various faculties such as intellect, (3) nor is there a need to discover a new faculty upon which to ground theology. (198-204)

What, then, does this “determination of the whole self-determining man by God’s Word” consist? Acknowledgement, and Barth gives us 9 points on what this means: (1) the concept of knowledge, (2) interpersonal relation, (3) not merely necessity but the meaningfulness of this necessity, (4) “respect for the fact that takes place in God’s Word” in its coming to us, i.e., the experience of Christ’s presence, (5) obedience and submission, (6) decision, both divine and human, (7) mystery, (8) an act and not simply an attitude on the part of the human person, (9) submission or yielding. The appropriation of God’s Word by the human person is a work of the Holy Spirit and is thus the Word’s own act. All of this depicts the experience of a Christian, but does this mean now that the Christian has an organ or faculty that was not present before on which basis the Word is received? Barth’s answer to this “indirect Christian Cartesianism” is No. (204-214)

In speaking about Christian experience, we are not left to our own analysis. Rather, we must look what ‘the promise’ (Scripture) tells us about it. In acknowledgement, the Word of God becomes “real and…established psychologically…But the fact that all this happens and must happen does not mean in the least that the possibility of experience of God’s Word is to be seen and found in this event,” and the person caught up in this event will not understand it this way. How then can it be understood? Barth gives this answer: “The possibility of knowledge of God’s Word lies in God’s Word and nowhere else…This possibility…the possibility of human experience of the Word of God understood as the possibility of this Word itself, is one that we can and must affirm with certainty.” The knowledge of God’s Word is not under the control of the human person and occurs freely, which means that there can be no self-assurance. The only assurance is that of confession on the basis of promise and looking forward in hope. It is “a trembling assurance” grounded in prayer. “It is then in the circle of promise and faith in which is no Yes and No but only Yes.” (214-227)

4. The Word of God and Faith

Barth defines faith as “the making possible of knowledge of God’s Word that take place in actual knowledge of it.” Faith, then, is an event that “rests on” and “relates to” the Word of God.[2] Knowledge of the Word of God is born in the event of faith. Barth goes to divide this material into three sub-sections: (227-229)

(1) “In faith as real experience the acknowledgement of God’s Word which we have understood to be the concrete form it its experience by man is as it were put into effect by the Word of God known.” Faith is experience, but experience is not self-evidently experience of God’s Word. Christian faith requires a certain object, and that object must give itself. This is elaborated in a long fine print section on Anselm, Luther, Melanchthon and the New Testament. (229-237)

(2) “If what happens in faith is that acknowledgement of God’s Word…[then] in faith men have real experience of the Word of God.” Faith as a possibility given for the knowledge of the Word of God is a possibility given for use, and cannot be understood abstractly as a possession of the human person as such. Faith means the ‘adaptation’ of the human person to the Word of God, not the ‘deification’ of the human person. This is elaborated in a fine print section dealing with Brunner and his ‘point of contact’ as well as with the analogia entis, where it is affirmed that “faith means union with what is believed, i.e., with Jesus Christ” a la Calvin. There is a ‘mutual indwelling’ between the Word of God and the human person, but this does not imply a transformation of that which is human. When the Word of God is known, “the manner of this knowing corresponds to that of the Word of God itself.” This is manifest to us only as promise and hope, and thus we can affirm this only in its hiddenness, but we confess by faith that it is the case. This section concludes with some fine print on the analogia entis and analogia fidei, the last described as “the divine act of knowledge which takes place on man rather than through man.” (237-244)

(3) “If it is true that man really believes 1. that the object of faith is present to him and 2. that he himself is assimilated to the object, then we are led in conclusion to the third point that man exists as a believer wholly and utterly by this object.” Barth has two sentences in this section that, for me, sum up everything that he was trying to get at throughout this paragraph: first, “Man acts as he believes, but the fact that he believes as he acts is God’s act,” and, second, “The Word of God becomes knowable by making itself known.” (244-247)



[1] It is interesting that Barth rejects a number of theories that want to understand the human person’s determining by the Word of God as self-determining by appeal to “the self-knowledge of man in real experience of God’s Word.” This sounds a bit like the use Schleiermacher makes of the feeling of absolute dependence in Part I of The Christian Faith. Of course, Barth adds, “…in real experience of God’s Word as we know it from the biblical promise.”

[2] There is a nice fine print section here on ‘faith’ in the New Testament.

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