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).
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.