Karl Barth on the Hiddenness of God
Church Dogmatics II/1, 193.
"It would be a serious misunderstanding of the Deus definiri nequit [Editorial Note: “God cannot be defined”] if we were to conclude from it that theology and proclamation must be completely silenced. The positive origin and meaning of the matter would then not be understood. Deus definiri nequit is, rightly understood, the confession of God’s revelation by which we certainly affirm that the incapacity of our own viewing and conceiving of God is disclosed, but by which the mouth is not stopped by opened for the delivery of the divine mandate. And again, it would be a misunderstanding if the conclusion were to be drawn from the Deus definiri nequit that all theology and proclamation has to take the form only of negative statements, and that in this form, as “cataphatic” theology, in the form of a revocation or relativising of all the definiteness of the divine nature, it is in a position to express and to establish true knowledge of God. Taken in this way, as in Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and all his disciples, the Deus definiri nequit is not understood radically enough. Again, we cannot flee from the hiddenness of God into the possibility of a negative comprehensibility, as if this were less our own human comprehensibility than a positive, and not just as incapable. And again, it would be a misunderstanding of the Deus definiri nequit if theology and proclamation tried to renounce the viewing and conceiving of God Himself in order to become instead a theology and proclamation of the underlying feeling of “absolute dependence.” For this time, as in Schleiermacher, it is not understood that the assertion of the incomprehensibility of God does not point us away from God to man, but simply tries to cleave to God, yet to the grace of God in His revelation. The Deus definiri nequit means that the Church receives permission and command to keep to the true knowledge of God bestowed upon it and not to escape into the supposed knowledge of God of a self-explanation of the pious man. Taking the latter course, it will know only a god who will certainly be apprehensible, but who will not be the true God. The true God is the hidden God. The Church must not flee from the task of knowing and proclaiming just this God. The misunderstandings of the Deus definiri nequit which we have mentioned – they are the misunderstandings of different varieties of mystical theology – are all of them attempts to evade this task, which means, to evade the true God in His hiddenness. It is advisable not to take part in these attempts."The point that Barth seems to be trying to make about the hiddenness of God is that God truly is hidden to us, and that this goes not only for the constructive task that is called ‘natural theology’, but also for the various forms of what Barth here calls “mystical theology.” The via negativa is no better than the via eminentia. Both depend on human capabilities to know, and it simply is the case that human’s are not capable of knowing God on their own steam. As Barth says in the first words of the thesis statement for this section, “God is known only by God.” For this reason, we can know God only where God has made himself known – i.e., Jesus Christ. As Barth says at the top of the next page when he switches back to large print, "Knowing the true God in His revelation, we apprehend Him in His hiddenness. And just because we do this, we know the true God in His revelation." Any attempts to circumvent this locus of the knowledge of God is fundamentally un-Christian and, moreover, impossible.