Monday, August 17, 2009

2009 Barth Blog Conference: Day 1

Calvin and Barth Sitting in a Tree, EX-E-GE-T-I-N-G

By W. Travis McMaken

Ok, so the title is a little silly and doesn’t quite work, but you get the idea. When it comes to question so the possibility of anything like the natural knowledge of God in biblical theologians like Calvin and Barth, Romans 1 is going to be important. Furthermore, given the many similarities between Barth and Calvin (the strong orientation of their theology toward Scripture, for instance) and their status as paragons – in different ways, of course – of the same theological tradition, it only makes sense to compare what they have to say. So, that is what I’ll do in the following. My hope is that sketching these two positions side-by-side here at the outset of the 2009 Barth Blog Conference will help clarify to us some of the key issues and questions involved in our examination of Barth on these matters.

For what it’s worth, I presented a version of this material at the 2009 Mid-Atlantic regional AAR meeting in March.

Calvin on Romans 1

It is important to note at the outset what serves as Calvin’s overarching interpretive framework in his commentary on Romans. Indeed, Calvin makes his interpretive strategy clear when he describes “the main subject of the whole Epistle” as “justification by faith” (Romans commentary, xxix). This soteriological emphasis becomes very clear in Calvin’s comments on Romans 1.16-17. In response to Paul’s description of the gospel as the power of God unto salvation, Calvin affirms “that power shines forth in the gospel,” that “the gospel is a display of [God’s] goodness,” that this power unto salvation “speaks not…of any secret revelation, but of vocal preaching,” and that “By setting forth one salvation [Paul] cuts off every other trust.” Furthermore, Calvin takes the revelation of the righteousness of God found in verse 17 to be an affirmation of all this, saying that “we cannot obtain salvation otherwise than from the gospel, since nowhere else does God reveal to us his righteousness,” and explaining more fully that “this righteousness, which is the groundwork of our salvation, is revealed in the gospel: hence the gospel is said to be the power of God unto salvation” (ibid, 62-6).

Calvin’s soteriological focus continues in his treatment of verses 18-20 (ibid, 66-71), but the aspect shifts. Rather than focusing on the positive side, the gospel and its offer of salvation, Calvin now focuses on the negative side, humanity’s inexcusable failure to make use of the knowledge of God that can be gleaned from observation of the created world. Rather than maintaining that the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, Calvin now discusses the wrath of God elicited by this failure. Interestingly, and unlike his discussion of the revelation of God’s righteousness, Calvin does not identify the source of the revelation of God’s wrath. In any case, the primary point is that “man was created to be a spectator of this formed world, and that eyes were given him, that he might, by looking on so beautiful a picture, be lead up to the Author himself.” Still, because of sin what should have been the case is not the case, although enough perception remains to condemn us “before God’s tribunal.” The revelation of God in nature remains unimpaired even when we, because of sin, can perceive only enough of it to render us guilty for idolatrous and otherwise improper worship of God. Still, some basic knowledge of God’s existence continues to arise through the observation of the created world even in humanity’s sinful state. It is “hazy, imperfect, half-buried, yet still present” (Parker, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 9).

This position is maintained when Calvin treats this topic in his Institutes. While Calvin also discusses an innate sense of God resident within the human person (sensus divinitatis) as well as knowledge of God that is discernable through God’s providential rule over the created order, Romans 1.18-20 comes into direct play only in his discussion of God’s revealing and continual disclosing of “himself in the whole workmanship of the universe” (Calvin, Institutes, 1.3, 1.5.6-8, et al). It is “in vain that so many burning lamps shine for us in the workmanship of the universe,” however, because “the fault of dullness is within us” and therefore the fact that “men soon corrupt the seed of the knowledge of God, sown in their minds out of the wonderful workmanship of nature…must be imputed to their own failing” (ibid, 1.5.14-5). The same pattern holds that was seen in Calvin’s Romans commentary, namely, that knowledge of God is available through observation of the created order, but that this knowledge has been severely restricted by human sin.

It is certainly not the case that this abortive natural knowledge of God serves no salvific function. Calvin clearly states that it is because “Paul’s object was to teach us where salvation is to be found” that “Paul shows that the whole world is deserving of eternal death” (Calvin, Romans, 68). Recognition of humanity’s culpability paves the way for reception of the gospel. In this way, Calvin’s discussion of this ultimately insufficient and yet convicting knowledge of God parallels his understanding of the place of the Law in the order of salvation, which follows Augustine explicitly and Luther implicitly (Calvin, Institutes, 2.7.8). Both the Law and observation of the created world serve the soteriological function of making humanity aware of God and culpable for failing to render proper worship to God, so that that salvation offered in the gospel of Jesus Christ might be received.

In summary, Calvin affirms knowledge of God through observation of the created world in his treatment of Romans 1.18-20 both in his Romans commentary and in the Institutes. This knowledge, however, is severely impaired by sin such that its only function is to render humanity without excuse before God’s judgment. Positively, recognition of this knowledge’s failure functions, as does the Law, as an impetus to reception of the gospel. Thus, both negatively and positively, Calvin’s treatment of this natural knowledge of God is soteriologically driven. Indeed, Calvin’s discussion seems oriented toward salvation history, or perhaps better, the chronology of salvation. Adam possesses knowledge of God through observation of the created order, sin enters into the picture and severely distorts this knowledge until it can do nothing but render humanity guilty and drive us toward the gospel in a manner that parallels the history of Israel and her Law.

Barth on Romans 1

Both Barth and Calvin were interested in practicing theological exegesis. Neither understood the biblical text’s meaning to be found solely in grammatical or historical analysis. The difference between Barth and Calvin on this point resides in the sort of theological exegesis practiced. Calvin’s theological interpretation proceeded from a soteriological center, while Barth’s exegesis of Romans 1 is characterized by a christological orientation. Barth’s exegesis of Romans 1 is undertaken within the larger theological context of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ and, for that reason, Barth is not willing to grant to Paul’s statements any sort of independent or abstract validity. The affirmation that knowledge of God arises through observation of the created world is not something true for all human beings as such – which is Calvin’s assumption made on the basis of a very common-sense reading of this passage – but is true only as derivative of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ.

Turning now to Church Dogmatics II/1, one finds in the opening paragraphs (§25-7) Barth’s most rigorous conceptual analysis of the knowledge of God. This theological epistemology stands in continuity with that found in earlier volumes and discussed briefly above. It is a meticulous application of the fides quarens intellectum pattern, which begins from within the sphere of God’s self-revelation and seeks to clarify – on the basis of what is known of God – how it is that God can be known. The conceptual principle at work here is the affirmation that actuality establishes possibility, and that since God is actually known, it is possible for us to know God. There is no room here for independent critical analysis of whether or not God is known, but only of exploring the questions of in what way God is known and knowable (CD 2.1, 5).

Barth tackles the first of these questions in the remainder of §25. Knowledge of God is bound to the revelation of the Word of God and, as such, is a mediated knowledge. Although God presents Godself to humanity as an object to be known, God’s objectivity is not identical with the objectivity of revelation’s medium. Thus, knowledge of God is knowledge of faith which believes that God’s secondary objectivity – though not identical to the primary objectivity by which God knows Godself – “has its correspondence and basis” in God’s primary objectivity (ibid, 27). Barth is thinking in terms of a sacramental pattern, and thus he affirms that humanity stands always in need of grace. We only know God as God gives Godself to be known in mediated form, and as we live lives of obedience – activity that faithfully corresponds to God’s activity.

The question of how God is knowable occupies Barth in §26. As previously, the basic point is that God is in control of our knowledge of God. In terms of readiness, this means that God must be ready to be known before humanity can be ready to know God. The doctrine of the Trinity has an important role to play here insofar as our knowledge of God is dependent upon God’s self-knowledge (ibid, 67-8). There is a divine self-knowledge that is part of the inner life of the Trinity, and – Barth goes on – our knowledge of God participates in this self-knowledge, albeit in the mediate form of God’s self-revelation.

Jesus Christ is the point where God’s readiness to be known creates the corresponding readiness of humanity to know God. In Jesus Christ we are confronted with the eternal Son of God as a human being, which is to say, the presentation to us of the self-knowledge of the triune God in mediate form. We participate in Jesus Christ, and thereby share in the self-knowledge of God in its mediate form, through the work of the Holy Spirit that gives rise to our life of faith. Thus, God’s readiness to be known becomes our readiness to know God (ibid, 151).

This, then, is how Barth understands the possibility of our knowledge of God on the basis of our actual knowledge of God through God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Because he is working from our actual knowledge of God to its possibility, Barth’s treatment of this possibility is concerned throughout with God’s grace. God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ takes the form of reconciliation, and must therefore be understood as grace (ibid, 153). In effect as well as intention, Barth has elaborated an understanding of the knowledge of God in keeping with the logic of justification by grace alone which, for Barth, ultimately means Christ alone (ibid, 172 – emphasis noted is present in the German text, but not in the English translation).

In keeping with these considerations, Barth’s rejection of natural theology, and similarly of any possibility of any independent knowledge of God arising from the observation of the created world, is proffered on both methodological and material grounds. Methodologically, such purported knowledge of God does not begin from actual knowledge of God based upon God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Materially, the pursuit of such purported knowledge of God ignores the affirmation that knowledge of God is entirely a matter of grace. Rather than submitting to the reconciliation and revelation found in Jesus Christ, such purported knowledge of God rejects God and pursues instead “self-interpretation and self-justification” (ibid, 136).

It is at this point that Barth’s treatment of Romans 1.18-20 appears. Having rejected natural theology for methodological and material reasons, Barth turns to address those passages of Scripture that seems to suggest that natural theology or an independent, natural knowledge of God is possible and ought to be pursued. He rejects this apparent conclusion, however, and argues instead that “Holy Scripture neither imposes the necessity nor even offers the possibility of reckoning with a knowability of the God of the prophets and apostles which is not given in and with His revelation, or bound to it” (ibid, 125). Although Barth exegetes numerous difficult passages on the way to this conclusion, Romans 1.18-20 plays – along with many of the Psalms – an important part.

Barth’s key move in exegeting Romans 1 is to reject the possibility that this text addresses itself to any neutral reader or referring to any neutral reality. Both readers and reality are christologically determined. Thus, both the revelation of God’s righteousness in verse 17 and the revelation of God’s wrath in verse 18 must be understood as referring to Jesus Christ. The revelation of God’s wrath is the shadow side of God’s righteousness without which the revelation of that righteousness is unintelligible. Furthermore, the revelation of God’s wrath adds something new to the equation both for Jews and Gentiles in that they are both shown to have sinned against God. God has always been revealed to the Gentiles in the created world and that they are no less guilty of idolatry than the Jews for suppressing the truth of God available to them (ibid, 120-1).

It must be remembered, however, that knowledge of Gentile guilt does not arise on the basis of some reflection independent of Jesus Christ. Such recognition presupposes the proclamation of the Gospel and cannot be extracted from its place within the sphere of revelation to serve as a timeless, general, or abstract truth. In other words, though it is objectively the case that the created world in some sense reveals God, this revelation is only accessible from within the sphere of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. God’s self-revelation is being read into and not out of humanity and creation. Barth does not deny that humanity and the cosmos know God and that God is knowable therein, but this knowledge and knowability of God are, for Barth, securely located in God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. It is only in the light of Jesus Christ that the witness of the created world can be encountered. Light is an apt metaphor here. The human eye does not see light as such, but things off of which light is reflected. The presence of the created world as witness to God is, thus, illumined by the light of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, and we who live within this created world must admit that while we did not perceive this witness, it was there all along (H.R. Mackintosh, Types of Modern Theology, 147).

Response: Jason T. Ingalls

It is with much appreciation that I write in response to Travis’ post comparing Calvin and Barth’s theological readings of Romans 1. He has ably demonstrated how two important Reformed thinkers have viewed the text, and this blog conference owes a great deal to him and his contribution.

Travis’ argument posits a difference in Calvin and Barth’s theological reading of Romans 1, namely a difference of intentionally theologically informed interpretive frameworks. “Neither understood the biblical text’s meaning to be found solely in grammatical or historical analysis.” Calvin “proceeded from a soteriological center, while Barth’s [reading] is characterized by a christological orientation.” Calvin’s soteriological concern prompted him to ask questions of Romans 1 that concerned the human person in his or her saving relationship with God. Barth’s concern with christology (read: Revelation) conditions him to read the passage in light of broader epistemological concerns.

I will suggest here that it is at least plausible that, while helpful and illustrative, the difference in theological readings Travis suggests are not ultimately determinative of the difference between Calvin and Barth's readings of Romans 1. Instead I will suggest that a different slate of interlocutors might better explain the difference between the two.

In the first place it seems as though “soteriology” and “christology” are not ultimately determinative of Calvin and Barth’s theological readings because it is possible to imagine Calvin “thinking from christology” into a reading very similar to the one we already have from him. There is nothing intrinsic to christology, per se, that demands Barth’s reading, and one can easily imagine a christologically oriented account of Romans 1 that hits all of Calvin’s highlights. Christ, the Revelation of God, is, after all, the creator of the kosmos, and, as such, is free to reveal both his grace and his wrath in the structures of the created order in such a way that sinful humanity is convicted of its sin and convinced of its need for a Redeemer.

But, in the second place, the real problem with Calvin’s reading is that it is unsustainable given a different set of conversation partners. Calvin’s position, as Travis described it, heavily implies that honest human seekers will find their need for a Savior in the “ultimately insufficient and yet convicting” knowledge gained from the created order. Similar to the Law, the revelation of God in the created order is a preparation for the Gospel.

But what if these people are merely hypothetical? Calvin’s cultural milieu might make it difficult for him to come into contact with anything like an “honest seeker.” In Reformation-era Europe, one is either Catholic, Protestant, or a heretic, and even the heretics operated within the spheres of possibility set by Christendom. Even the impinging Muslims of the period would only support Calvin’s readings, as he could easily see their form of monotheism as validating the claim that the natural knowledge of God brings people a long way in recognizing God and knowing their need for Him.

While “honest seekers” might have been merely hypothetical for Calvin, they are not hypothetical for Barth. His interlocutors included the theologians of the natural theology movement, who could not find what Calvin thought they should in the created order. All Barth has to do is grant the honesty of these conversation partners and Calvin’s position becomes untenable, regardless of the theological loci with which he reads the text. Since large portions of Calvin’s reading had been empirically invalidated, Barth could just as easily have read the text through soteriology and would still have come up with different results. This suggests it is at least plausible that a different set of interlocutors is actually more determinative of Barth’s reading than his christological orientation.

In conclusion, I want to thank Travis again for his well-researched and written post. I am sure that I speak for all of us when I express my gratitude for all the work he has done here at DET.


WTM said...

I wish to indicate that I do not see Jason's response as incompatible with my own post. My bit told you the 'what' - Jason tried to provide a plausible 'why'.

Shane said...

"Holy scripture neither imposes the necessity . . . which is not Revelation."

But of course Barth is simply begging the question by throwing around his terms in a sloppy way. It was never part of the pro-natural theology view that somehow natural knowledge of God isn't based on revelation, merely that it isn't based on special revelation. Barth hasn't given us any good reason to think that there isn't such a thing as general revelation or common grace.

One also wonders why in the world we should accept all those 'methodological' presuppositions of Barth's theological exegesis. If Barth's position on natural theology, which is what is going to be under attack here, follows from those presuppositions, then we need to see whether Barth's got good reasons to hold them or not. If he does not have any reasons to support his presuppositions, then my job is easy-peasy; whatever is asserted without proof can also be denied without proof. Barth is wrong, QED.


WTM said...

Shane asks about Barth's presuppositions, and suggests that Barth is being sloppy. Three points:

(1) I've laid a number of them out above in discussing Barth's theological epistemology. This ought to be taken, I think, as a gloss on John's prologue, a very low-level reading of which I recently posted.

(2) Barth's discussion of Romans 1 is embedded in a wider exegetical project that attempts to take the entire canon into account on these matters.

(3) For Barth, the heart of the problem with natural theology is that it claims some kind of natural knowledge of God, no matter how seemingly insignificant, and no matter what gymnastics one does to 'purify' the source, i.e., appeals to a general revelation. Barth everywhere resists any sort of easy identification of history with God's will, and as straightforwardly revealing God's activity. The only way to penetrate behind these things is through faith, and faith that is founded upon and centered in the knowledge of God mediated by Christ.

Shane said...

In response to (1), I don't see anything in the prologue to John's Gospel that does anything to convince me that natural knowledge of God is impossible. I do see an argument that revelation is always necessary for knowledge of God, but that of course has nothing to do with the possibility of natural knowledge of God precisely because the natural theologian agrees that knowledge of God requires revelation. He simply points out that there is general revelation as well as special revelation. So the prologue of John does not pose any exegetical threat to natural theology.

In response to (2). Its fine for Barth's exegetical project to be canonical. My objection in response will be that he's getting his canonicity on the cheap by doing interpretive violence to Romans 1, which shows the overall canonical picture he's trying to paint to be false.

In response to (3). I don't know any natural theologians who would want to identify history with God's will. (Except in the sense that the events of history are permitted to happen by God.) Is Barth arguing against Hegel or against Thomas Aquinas here?

At any rate, Paul pretty clearly thinks there is natural knowledge of God, whether Barth likes that fact or not.

David W. Congdon said...

In response, Shane, the question comes down to whether Jesus Christ is normative for our knowledge of God. That is, even if one agrees that knowledge of God is possible on the basis of the created order, the "Christ-as-norm" position (which I hold along with Barth and others) says that such knowledge must be ruled or judged in light of the more definitive knowledge that we encounter in Christ. Nature as such doesn't tell us anything about God; we have to "read" or "interpret" nature through a particular framework. For the Christian, this framework is the perspective of faith in Jesus Christ as the righteousness of God. For that reason, our "hermeneutic of nature" has to be Christ, or, put differently, we see in nature only what we first find in Christ himself.

So the real issue is whether you are willing to grant that Christ is normative for our knowledge of God. You can argue until you're blue in the face that Paul thinks we have knowledge of God on the basis of creation. Fine, whatever, I don't really care, because that isn't the main problem. What you seem to also want is a two-track method for reaching true knowledge of God. In other words, you want to throw out the normativity of Christ and find in nature an independent means toward knowledge of God.

At that point, I can argue over against your argument that Paul quite clearly presupposes the normativity of Christ. In fact, since your argument rests on basically one verse in Romans, you should just go ahead and concede now. It's not a fair fight. Shane is wrong. QED.

Shane said...


On what exegetical grounds do you derive your claims about Christ's normativity for our knowledge of God? I don't see any evidence you or your Barthian colleagues have ever adduced in support of that claim. Specifically here's what you need to do: a. Define "normativity" carefully and precisely. b. Show why Christ is 'normative' in just that sense. c. Show how your and Barth's position on natural theology follow from Christ's being normative.

I've never seen you or Travis try to do b. You just say that it's done and then gesture vaguely at some sweeping hermeneutical framework. But that's what were supposed to be doing here, is actually looking at that framework. Investigating it critically and not just gesturing towards it as if it were a fait accompli.

Travis mentioned John 1. But I see nothing whatsoever in that text that would countermand the possibility of natural knowledge of God.

Indeed, for any passage that Barth is going to try to turn to in support of his general hermeneutic approach, I'm fairly sure that I can offer an alternative interpretation that makes at least as good a sense of the text in hand as Barth's, if not better. So here's my read of John 1--If you want to know God (in the strong salvific sense) then you can only get there by means of Jesus. But this has nothing to do with whether the existence of God is knowable, because that's knowledge in a different, non-salvific sense. Where do I get that kind of distinction, you mght wonder? I get it from the book of James, chapter 2, where even the demons believe and tremble. However, John does not speak to knowledge in this other sense because his focus is elsewhere.

A side note about James: Is it part of your view that the demons' true beliefs about God are normed by Christ?

So here's my bold claim: For any passage Barth appeals to in order to ground his claims about natural theology, I can offer an alternative interpretation of that passage that makes at least as much sense of the text as Barth. So my interpretation is going to be superior because I can make sense of all the same things Barth does PLUS the passage in Romans 1 that he fumbles.

WTM said...


Briefly, and in the spirit of offering a defeater as opposed to the positive case you want to hear from we Barthians (which, I assure you, I intend to work on this evening), I think your interpretation of John 1 is wrong insofar as you interpose this distinction (salvific and non-salvific knowledge of God). You take this distinction from James 2, and assume that "demonic" knowledge of God cannot be normed by Christ. I don't know how you could prove this, conceptually or otherwise. Reading the gospels, it seems like plenty of demons learned first-hand to tremble before Christ just as before God.

Also, it is far from clear that Barth fumbles Romans 1. What Barth does is interpret one verse (18) in light of the immediately preceding verses (16-7) to say that all revelation discussed in this passage pertains to Christ. He then goes on from this basis to interpret the following verses. At this formal level, it looks like solid exegetical practice to me. :-)

Bobby Grow said...

I think Travis' point is well taken. I really don't see much difference between Calvin's duplex cognitio domini and Barth's faithfulness to the principle of "always reforming" (i.e. Barth's development of Calvin's trajectory). Travis' distinction on "material and methodology," relative to Barth's approach vis-a-vis Calvin; makes alot of sense.

I don't see Jason's point, in re. to Travis' essay; while Travis was highlighting a distinction in emphasis (between Calvin and Barth), I don't see him pitting Calvin against Barth. Rather, all I see Travis doing is explaining why Barth said the things that he did versus why Calvin said the things that he did. Since their emphases were different, so were their conclusions (but I don't see their conclusions at competing poles with eachother --- and this is what I gathered from Travis' article).

As far as Shane and David. I would just say:

And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom He has sent. ~Jn 17:3

How does one "know" God, have life, w/o Christ as the objective norm? Is there a "kind" of "life" (qualitatively) outside of the "life of God" (eternal life) that one can appeal to in order to know "life" (God) apart from that life? That seems to be what Shane is getting at, that we can "know" life, based on another foreign ontology of "life." It seems that any other kind of life, theologically construed, is already condemned --- by definition --- and thus cannot "know" life on its own (only its condemnation).

Shane said...

You've seen my piece forthcoming here, so you know why I think Barth fumbles Romans 1.

To be clear, I'm not interposing a distinction within John of two different kinds of knowledge. It seems to me that John usually means one thing by knowledge, namely the kind of knowledge brought about by saving grace. However, my point is a canonical one: there are other ways of distinguishing knowledge in the NT, and based on what James says it is clear that John is primarily talking about the one kind. Hence I can agree that everything John says about knowledge1 is true, while believing that there are other claims that are true about knowledge2 that would be false if said of knowledge1.

Short version: I'm not saying John distinguishes two kinds of knowledge. I'm saying we can understand what John says best by so distinguishing them.

Shane said...


Sure John usually uses the word "know" in this salvific sense. But not all NT writers do. And so, I understand John to be saying that you only get salvific knowledge of God through Christ. Which, of course, the natural theology tradition completely agrees with.

But that doesn't mean there aren't other kinds of non-salvific knowledge of God that aren't mediated directly through Christ's gift of grace by faith.

Also I think Barth and Calvin's conclusions were too sides of a pole. Barth believed natural theology was impossible. Calvin believed that it was possible. There's not a lot of middle ground there.

Michael Leyden said...

I wonder if we could say something more than 'natural theology is impossible for Barth.' I wonder if, on the basis of God's self-giving in Jesus Christ, we might say that any natural-theology account of God we might derive from creation is superceded by that revelation of God in Jesus Christ in height, depth, and bredth (i.e. that special revelation is more substantive than general revelation) and therefore that natural theology is, in that sense, pointless? It seems better to simply, as Barth seems to advocate, bear witness to Christ and be done with it. I've never met an advocate of natural theology who can claim to have arrived at a knowledge of God (the Holy Trinity) salvific or otherwise by means of natural theology alone - special revelation is always necessary, and always gives more to our account of God. Furthermore, to put the question a slightly different way, if as Barth says Jesus Christ is the revelation of God as he is - God revealing God - then what can creation (as general revelation) tell us about God that is not present in Christ?

Though I agree that Paul makes reference to a kind of natural theology in Romans 1, he does so as one who has received understanding of who God is from an encounter with Jesus Christ: it's not simply natural theology outright. Perhaps its better to think of it as a theology if nature?

Anyway, thanks for the discussion - lots to think about.


Kevin Davis said...

David (et al.),

Why does Christ as normative rule out natural knowledge of God (general revelation)? As Christians, we critique such claims about God derived apart from Christ. We have a definitive and authoritive means -- the Word/Jesus -- to do this critique; after which, we recognize that a "natural" apprehension of God can still yeild true claims about God (e.g., attributes such as omnipotence or certain moral and aesthetic claims). As such, the natural man has some (not complete or salvic) knowledge of God.

WTM said...


Yep - I know why, and we'll have the more exegetical conversation tomorrow. Still, I take issue with how you are handling John 1, because you are interpreting it in light of moves made in James 2 (which is fine, formally) that are highly contentious.

David W. Congdon said...


This is the question: Does Christ reveal who God really and truly is (i.e., does God ad extra reveal God ad intra), or is Christ merely an instrumental means for our salvation?

If you wish to go with the latter, I am more than happy to bombard you with exegesis defending the former. But if you admit the former, then your position, I submit, falls to pieces.

Shane said...


I agree with what John says, that Christ reveals God. I suppose that means I opt for something closer to the former of the two options you laid out. But I'm sure you mean something more by it than what you indicate here.

At any rate the claim that Christ reveals God doesn't not imply that natural theology is impossible. Natural theology is impossible if and only if there is nothing knowable or provable about God's existence or his attributes without the benefit of special revelation.

Natural theology agrees with the claim that all knowledge of God comes from revelation and that Christ is the only agent of revelation. The possibility of natural theology is perfectly compatible with all of that.

jon said...

I appreciate this discussion a great deal. I suppose my question is how we understand the "since" of Romans 1:20 if "it is only in the light of Jesus Christ that the witness of the created world can be encountered."? (Rom 1:20 NIV --> "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities -- his eternal power and divine nature -- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.")

Is something known of God, just not enough? (for salvation, for knowledge of one's sin, for life, or what have you)? Or is nothing known of God until Jesus Christ has come? Or what?

I see the internal logic of Barth's position, but am still unclear on how specifically he supports it in his exegesis of these verses.

Tony said...

I am sorely tempted to think that this discussion between Shane and "Barthians" is rather old hat. But then perhaps what sets this discussion apart is the fact that it is an intra-protestant discussion pitting one reformer against another on the possibility and status of "natural theology." But is this just a re-hash of the Barth-Brunner debate? As far as I can see, Balthasar's book on Barth has answered the question on "natural theology" from a Catholic perspective.

Bobby Grow said...

Shane said:

. . . But that doesn't mean there aren't other kinds of non-salvific knowledge of God that aren't mediated directly through Christ's gift of grace by faith.

And I agree with you, but that knowledge is only condemndatory according to Paul in Rom. 1 and 8:7; which means that it this kind of suppressive knowledge that leads to the worship of creation rather than the Creator.

As I understand Calvin's "Two-fold Knowledge of God," post-fall; he is no advocate of a "natural theology." Here is what he says on Rom. 1:20:

20. Since his invisible things, God is in himself invisible; but as his majesty shines forth in his works and in his creatures everywhere, men ought in these to acknowledge him, for they clearly set forth their Maker: and for this reason the Apostle in his Epistle to the Hebrews says, that this world is a mirror, or the representation of invisible things. He does not mention all the particulars which may be thought to belong to God; but he states, that we can arrive at the knowledge of his eternal power and divinity; for he who is the framer of all things, must necessarily be without beginning and from himself. When we arrive at this point, the divinity becomes known to us, which cannot exist except accompanied with all the attributes of a God, since they are all included under that idea.

So that they are inexcusable. It hence clearly appears what the consequence is of having this evidence — that men cannot allege any thing before God’s tribunal for the purpose of showing that they are not justly condemned. Yet let this difference be remembered, that the manifestation of God, by which he makes his glory known in his creation, is, with regard to the light itself, sufficiently clear; but that on account of our blindness, it is not found to be sufficient. We are not however so blind, that we can plead our ignorance as an excuse for our perverseness. We conceive that there is a Deity; and then we conclude, that whoever he may be, he ought to be worshipped: but our reason here fails, because it cannot ascertain who or what sort of being God is. Hence the Apostle in Hebrews 11:3, ascribes to faith the light by which man can gain real knowledge from the work of creation, and not without reason; for we are prevented by our blindness, so that we reach not to the end in view; we yet see so far, that we cannot pretend any excuse. Both these things are strikingly set forth by Paul in Acts 14:16-17, when he says, that the Lord in past times left the nations in their ignorance, and yet that he left them not without witness (amarturon,) since he gave them rain and fertility from heaven. But this knowledge of God, which avails only to take away excuse, differs greatly from that which brings salvation, which Christ mentions in John 17:3, and in which we are to glory, as Jeremiah teaches us, Jeremiah 9:24

This coincides with Travis' points on Calvin and Barth, as I've read them. I see no space for "natural theology" (scholasticussly conceived) in Calvin's understanding. He does seem to admit that there is a "post-fall" knowledge; but that this only leads to condemnation (which does not seem to be a very fruitful avenue for any kind of "natural theology" i.e. like the "grace perfecting nature" dictum provides).

Per Travis' points (which I think are good ones), I don't see as much material distinction between Calvin and Barth as you apparently do, Shane.

kim fabricius said...

I think Barth's whole approach to natural theology is driven by two things. First, Michael's point (if I may so put it), why have cotton when you can have silk? That is, if God is fully known in Jesus Christ, why bother with epistemological scraps? Barth was in love; he had eyes only for Jesus. So as Paul Newman put it, why go out for a burger when you can eat steak at home?

That exlains Barth's impatience and frustration with the project of natural theology. What explains his outright hostility to it - the second driving factor - is the socio-political context of the Third Reich in which Nazi intellectuals were proposing dual-track approaches to revelation (the "other events, powers, historic figures, and truths" of the opening of the Barmen Declaration). Hence the vehemence of Barth's Nein!: it was not just academic, it was confessional: Christ or nature was parsed as Christ or Hitler.

With those points in mind, I think it must be conceded that Barth's interpretation of Romans 1:18ff. is hermeneutically eccentric, to say the least. Barth himself knew that, historically, he stood here as an almost totally isolated exegete. And Shane's point about the distinction not made by Barth between natural theology and general revelation is a fair, if not conclusive, one. Nevertheless, for what it's worth, I find Barth's position to be heroic rather than quixotic. And, ultimately, it is easily as breathtaking as the one-eyed sightings of the deity of the natural theologians: after all, through the lens of Christ, one ends up seeing God all over the place.

Dave Belcher said...

I think there is a constant tendency among Barthians to make Calvin's theology the opposite of "Christocentric" thought expressed by Barth himself. The way I hear the argument being deployed by Travis above, Calvin errs in Barth's understanding (and I do hear Travis saying that Calvin in fact errs), precisely because he retains an "abstract" focus -- viz., that all human beings can know God on the basis of the created order, even if it is a "dulled" knowledge because of sin -- whereas theology for Barth must begin with the "concrete" center which is God's active and subjective revelation of Godself in Jesus Christ. Really, it seems to me the heart of what is at stake in the above article is that Calvin, in Travis's and in Barth's estimate, does in fact throw us upon the mercy and favor of God as revealed in Christ alone for true knowledge of God, but that he first smuggles in a more abstract "hypothetical" sort of knowledge (if Adam had not fallen...) that takes place "outside" of Christ. So, here we get the Barthian preoccupation with "starting points," as one of my professors, a Schleiermacher scholar, used to complain about. But, again, I wonder if this is simply a false distinction. I don't mean between the abstract and the concrete -- this is absolutely correct -- but between Barth and Calvin on this point.

In the 1559 Institutes, I.ii.1, as Bobby has been pointing out, Calvin offers his understanding of the "duplex cognitio Dei": that on the basis of the universe and the Scriptures, the Lord shows [herself] to be a Creator; while from the face of Jesus Christ, the Lord shows [herself] to be a Redeemer (for now, it is important only to see that Calvin is not here concerned to describe the first sort of knowledge as one that encounters God only as judge, but, rather, God as Creator and Author of life...he makes this explicit in fact not only in his organization of the Institutes, but in I.ii.1 he comes right out and just says that he will deal with that other sort of knowledge which throws us on the mercy of Christ "in its proper place" -- viz., Books II-IV).

Recall that the opening of the Institutes is with a requisite "knowledge of self" in order to know God (that is, as a part of that "natural knowledge"). Now, what this means for Calvin is that by knowing our own immense poverty we are led "by the hand," as it were, to the "infinitude of the benefits of resting in God." By being thrown upon our own poverty and depravity, we are stirred up all the more to trust solely in God's infinite mercy and favor, God's justice and righteousness as Creator of all that is, and of all that is as good. Again, he is not yet describing the second sort of knowledge by which sin brings us before God's terrible judgment only to find Christ as merciful redeemer.

Recall also that in the very section where Calvin first mentions this "twofold knowledge of God," and where he is discussing only the first sort of knowledge, it is a knowledge that comes only by way of pietas, that is, not "a fear which would gladly flee the judgment of God, but...rather in a pure and true zeal which loves God altogether as Father, and reveres him truly as Lord, embraces his justice and dreads to offend him more than to die" (1537 Instruction in Faith). The first part of this "twofold" knowledge of God, then, is specifically not yet taking into account the corruption of human nature by which the person can only find in God a terrible judge and tyrant (though some later folks such as De Moulin, F. Turretin, van Mastricht would do just this...see Richard Muller's article on Duplex Cognitio Dei in Reformed theology on this point). And that this is the case is why I referred to what Barth might call Calvin's "hypothetical" or "abstract" knowledge outside of and prior to Christ above.

Dave Belcher said...

It is indeed true that all of this knowledge, which is supposed to eventuate in our loving worship of God as Creator and Author of life and all that is good (that is, trust and assurance), crashes upon the rocks of human dullness and wickedness. And moreover that we must look only to Christ who is the revelation of God's mercy despite our sin if we are to truly "know" God (here I pause for us to consider what Calvin means by "know" -- it must not be separated from is not "speculation...that flits about in the brain" but takes its root in "the heart" [cor], which, again as Muller clearly argues, is associated with the faculty of the union of intellect and will, but where will has a primacy).

To cut all this short: if we carefully consider what Calvin is doing in all of these passages, we can see clearly that a natural "knowledge" [cognitio] of God for Calvin is meant to throw us upon God with trust and assurance. In other words, this "cognitio" is not a rational intelligentia, but a firm fiducia, a "willing reverence" is much more the kind of intimate knowing that implies sexual union. And here I would suggest that reading Calvin as positing some "hypothetical" or "abstract" knowledge as prior to and outside Christ is simply mistaken, if we consider what he's really after. All of this is pastoral for Calvin, meant to stir up faith and a reverent fear of God, rather than a fear of God's judgment leading only to despair. What Calvin is up to, I believe, is the unveiling of the true nature of God's goodness and mercy and will toward God's creation -- and yes, on the basis of knowledge/fiducia of Jesus Christ! -- in such a way that when he comes to describe the way in which this prior evidence of God in creation is twisted by human "superstition" and wickedness, the reader will not fall into despair, but will be prepared to accept, when Calvin reaches the benefits of knowledge of God as redeemer (Book II forwards), God's gracious favor as granted in Jesus Christ! This is not "abstract" then, because it still serves the purpose of throwing Calvin's readers wholly upon God's grace as revealed in the concrete person of Jesus Christ. In fact, we should be shied away from this "natural theology-Christocentric theology" dualism when we treat of Calvin and Barth if only we consider that Calvin's entire intention when describing this "first" sort of "knowledge" is fiducial trust that stirs up assurance in God's goodness and favor -- whereas Barth's target of "abstractive" knowledge is specifically that of speculative knowledge.

And I would add here that when it comes to Calvin's doctrine of election, this same point must be primary...that is, the entire import of Calvin's "speculum electionis" is pastoral. Barth himself realized this; Barth believed, however, that Calvin simply went "beyond" this point which is meant to grant assurance to believers to a more "abstract," that is, "speculative" framing of election in terms of a predestination cut off from Jesus Christ.

It just doesn't appear to me at all that the same case for abstraction is to be made here with respect to Calvin's "first" of the twofold "knowledge" of God....

Sorry for the length.

Dave Belcher said...

And forgive me if my tone seems wasn't -- just trying to be clear in what I was after. Peace.

WTM said...


Thank you for your lengthy, multi-part comment. I largely agree with your main point, namely, that Calvin’s overall deployment of natural theology / natural knowledge of God is exceedingly subtle and relativized by a number of other factors. Still, it remains the case that he allows the possibility to stand. Ultimately, this comes back to his being more infralapsarian than supralapsarian – and therein lies the rub between Calvin and Barth. I will forgo any discussion of minute points of Calvin interpretation and only note that I do not place as great a stock by Muller and I don’t tend to read Calvin in as Schleiermacherian a fashion. In any case, thanks again for stopping by, and I hope you’ll join the conversation on the rest of the conference posts!

Dave Belcher said...


Thanks for the response.

I must say that I'm sort of at a loss as to what the remark about not reading Calvin in a "Schleiermacherian" fashion is with reference to. I guess you could mean with my repeated emphasis on "piety" in understanding what Calvin is up to with "knowledge" (in both senses) and its close ties with assurance, and perhaps you are linking this with a Schleiermacherian "Gefuhl"... but I don't see how that follows. It is certainly not the case that Muller reads Calvin in a Schleiermacherian fashion! Far from it! The value of Muller for me -- particularly in a conversation where a sixteenth-century thinker is compared to a twentieth-century thinker -- is that he attempts to place Calvin in his historical context, a context that has a continued tradition implying both continuity and discontinuity; especially insofar as his historical method cuts through traditions that may have (and indeed in this case have) formed when making such an historical leap from Barth to Calvin. After all, holding Calvin to a standard of "Christocentrism" is specifically to hold Calvin to a Barthian standard that developed in a specific context -- viz., that of liberal Protestantism which, while holding to a "Christocentrism" of a certain kind, was in Barth's estimate abstract and thus not Christocentric "enough" (I am not at all generalizing this as the sole reason for Barth's sharp criticisms of liberal Protestantism, by the way!). So, Muller becomes helpful for me here only because I believe that he is right to suggest that we can learn much more about Calvin (and probably also about Barth) if we attempt first to "place" them in their contexts, into received traditions with conversation partners who are also a part of that context and have received traditions (perhaps shared, perhaps not). In other words, much more significant to learning about where Barth departs from Calvin is not, I would say, to be discovered by way of a comparison of their respective thought, but rather with the historical development of Reformed thought on this point from the time of Calvin to Barth. I know that is of course outside the scope of what you are attempting to do here, I just think such a comparison as you are attempting in the article can only benefit from that work, while neglecting that historical data can really tend to obfuscate both thinkers. Again, I say all of this in an irenical spirit for the sake of moving conversation forward, not to stop it. Thanks for hosting this conference. Peace.

WTM said...


The ‘Muller’ bit and the ‘Schleiermacherian’ bit are independent thoughts – I, of course, know that these two thinkers are largely incommensurate. Further, I certainly agree that understanding thinkers in their historical context is vitally important, and that is why I have studied both Barth and Calvin from historical as well as systematic perspectives. However, the purpose of this post is primary to set their exegesis side-by-side as a way of jump-starting the conference’s conversation. I’m pleased to have been able to do that as successfully as I have! As any of my colleagues will attest, and as a further perusal of my blog will reveal, I have great respect and affection for Calvin qua Calvin, no less so than for Barth qua Barth. I just happen to think Barth is more right on this point and – were this the time and the place – I would be happy to argue the point on the basis of Calvin’s own theology. But, that is a discussion for another day. Perhaps someone will someday invite me to write for a Calvin blog conference…

Dave Belcher said...


It wasn't at all my intention to question whether you have done that historical work in your own studies; my comments were only a way of asking about the propriety of speaking about one being more "right" than the other when four centuries separate them. We could continue this, but it appears that this is not the place.

I am still curious about the Schleiermacherian bit -- I figured Muller was not your target there, in which case I figured you must have been making reference to the way I was interpreting Calvin, but I don't see how the interpretation I gave is necessarily Schleiermacherian...but, again, perhaps that is for another time and place.

WTM said...

Indeed. Feel free to e-mail me (address in right side-bar).

J. R. Miller said...

Great post and an interesting discussion. Thanks everyone.

I do have one question though since the subject of revelation came up. I have been reading through CD and posting regularly on my blog with my thoughts. I am not an expert, as many of you clearly are, and I got to a sticking point in Barth's discussion of Jesus and revelation.

I am trying to apply the substance of the discussion to my reading of CD, but the question still seems unanswered.

At the end of my post on "Revelation Spawns Religion" I am left to ask."So, according to Barth, which is it; Christianity is one option among many or Christianity is one true revelation among many misleading ones? Or is there something else gong on here I am totally not understanding?"

If anyone is able to help bring clarity to my CD blog, I sure would appreciate it. I don't want to sidetrack things here, so replies directly on my blog are most helpful.