Friday, March 07, 2008

Karl Barth on the Hiddenness of God

This is one of those especially good little fine-print sections that Barth is wont to give us from time to time, and which we are wont to too easily breeze past.

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.

15 comments:

Luke said...

Nice quote and comment.

I don't know why it remembered me a phrase of Hegel: "religion without pain becomes superstition".

Michael said...

What is the history behind the composition of these fine print sections in the Dogmatics? I once heard the suggestion that these sections were composed by Charlotte von Kirschbaum and then dropped into the relevant part of Barth’s text.

WTM said...

Charlotte did do preliminary research for Karl, etc, but there is no evidence to suggest that she actually composed the fine print.

Michael said...

"Etc"? What do extant records reveal about their Notgemeinschaft? Is there a Kierkegaardian parable here about the hiddenness of God.

Shane said...

I didn't realize you were on first name basis with Barth and Kirschbaum.

WTM said...

Quicker to type that way, and they do visit me in dreams. Apparently Karl and St. Peter were having a discussion the other day when St. Peter stormed off shouting "Nein, Nein!" at the top of his lungs. Charlotte thinks that he is just trying to show Karl what it feels like, but St. Paul agrees with Karl that Peter is simply being unreasonable.

Luke said...

What is Jüngel's opinion on that?

Kellen said...

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.

[...]

Any attempts to circumvent this locus of the knowledge of God is fundamentally un-Christian and, moreover, impossible.

Wow, that last statement is unduly extreme, not to mention grammatically defunct. Why not wrestle a bit with Barth on this score? It's fun!

What if God has made himself known in the creation, i.e., through the imago Dei? To put things in a cute little Barthian quip, who are we to tell God he can't reveal himself naturally? In other words, is it really so impossible that God should create the universe and human beings in such a way that they - to some extent! - can and do know God "on their own steam"?

See you in April! ; )

Kellen said...

St. Paul agrees with Karl...

How could that be??

; )

WTM said...

Kellen,

Why April? Not that I'm complaining. It will be nice to have you in town.

I didn't say what Barth, Paul and Peter were arguing about, did I? Ok, maybe I alluded...

I can go Dogmatics diving to make the case for my reference to natural theology as "un-Christian" and "impossible." Can you? Of course, God can do whatever God wants. But, since we are working from a starting point within the actuality of the knowledge of God offered in Christ, anything else is off-limits. As Barth says in !.1, God may speak to us through a dead dog or a flute concerto, but that doesn't have anything to do with what the church must proclaim.

Kellen said...

I can go Dogmatics diving to make the case for my reference to natural theology as "un-Christian" and "impossible." Can you?

What's that supposed to mean?

Anyway, I'm sure I could rehearse Saint Barth's position on this point if I went digging. But then, I'm not really sure I want to make the case that locating any knowledge of God apart from Christ is "un-Christian" or "impossible." I'm not convinced it is.

Does the "actuality of the knowledge of God offered in Christ" somehow preclude, obviate, or nullify what, say, Saint Paul says? Or no? If yes, then why bother reading what Saint Paul says as though it were God's Word? I should like to think that diving into the biblical text is at least as important for our theological positions as is swimming for hours on end in neon volumes, and I'm sure Barth would agree.

...also, I understand your point about proclamation, but this is a question about knowledge -- two related, but certainly distinct issues. Paul's reflection suggests that, though the Greeks certainly could not have proclaimed the Gospel, they had a pretty good idea of what God is like just from looking around and thinking hard. A good enough idea, at least, that they should be held responsible on the day of judgment for having known about and disparaged of the Creator. But don't lay your concerns with that position at my doorstep.

...and I meant that I'll be at the analogia entis conference in D.C.....

WTM said...

A shame: I won't be at the analogia entis conference.

What I meant by "Dogmatics diving" is that I can "proof-text" my position. :-)

Also unfortunate for you on this is that I recently wrote a paper on Barth's interpretation of this point in Romans 1, so I'm armed and ready to go.

What Barth does is equate the revelation of salvation and the righteousness of God in verses 16 and 17 with Jesus. He then makes the revelation of wrath subordinate to this, basically saying that since Jesus the Gentiles are seen to be in the same inexcusable position as the Jews. But, the key is that this knowledge radiates out from Jesus such that, in the light of him, creation can be recognized as creation bearing witness to its Creator.

Chris TerryNelson said...

armed and ready to go.
You boys are your video game-academics. :-)

I personally have found Douglas A. Campbell's "ironic subversion" reading of Paul convincing. ("Natural Theology in Paul? Reading Romans 1.19-20," in International Journal of Systematic Theology; Nov.99, Vol. 1 Issue 3, p231, 22p).

Campbell reads 1:19-20 as part of a unit extending all the way to 3:20. In this unit Paul establishes a position that he will subvert later on. 1:18-3:20 is part of an ad hominem strategy. Campbell has numerous problems with the traditional reading of Romans 1, but those are too lengthy to recite here.

Kellen said...

...But, the key is that this knowledge radiates out from Jesus such that, in the light of him, creation can be recognized as creation bearing witness to its Creator.

Eh, I dunno. I get the whole identifying-the-righteousness-of-God with-Christ-bit, and I agree, as would anyone, that Christ is the revelation of God in the flesh. But that God has chosen to reveal himself in the flesh does not seem to me to abrogate God's revelation secundum creationem, to which it appears both Jews and Greeks had and still have access before, during, and after Christ's advent. Further, that full knowledge of the Father comes to us only in the fully obedient Son may be granted as well without abolishing the function of creation in the Creator's plan (the heavens proclaim the glory of God!). It seems to me that insofar as we place our theological "starting point" in Christ, we will have to revise significantly our natural theologies, but that does not totally invalidate the natural theological project.

Too bad you won't be in D.C. - I'm sure we'd have a great time discussing this!

WTM said...

@Chris - I've seen that article and find it very interesting.

@Kellen - It is a shame that we won't be able to discuss this in person. I certainly don't think that our knowledge of God has nothing to do with our knowledge of creation: it is we, created human beings, who know God after all. But, as to the question of whether we can know anything about God on the basis of anything in creation alone (as opposed to creation as viewed in the light of Christ), I don't think it is possible. And, I think Barth would agree, even though the overwhelming theological tradition would not.

There is a string of fine-print senctions in CD 2.1, around page 100, where Barth does a bunch of exegesis to support his point. You may want to check it out.