By Shannon Nicole Smythe
By the time Karl Barth’s course of extra-mural lectures on Romans, given in Basel during the winter of 1940-41, was published in 1959 under the English title A Shorter Commentary on Romans, the shock waves of the 1918 and 1921 editions of his Romans commentary, Der Römerbrief, had already come and gone with such great force, almost entirely negative, that few scholars took notice of this later and, of course, shorter piece of theological exegesis. The few who did held, to varying degrees, a common opinion that Barth’s own system of thought (at times more softly expressed as a “Barthian emphasis”) was the basis of his reading of Paul. Most specifically in this regard, the reviews found a “rejection of natural revelation” or “arguments against any ‘natural’ knowledge of God” to be one of the most obvious Barthian imports on the text. Barth’s famous rejection of natural theology and passionate “Nein!” response to fellow Swiss theologian, Emil Brunner, was no doubt common knowledge to these reviewers. But, can it be right that Barth’s reading of Romans 1:1-3:20 was simply an exercise in placing his already held beliefs over the top of the text of Paul’s letter to the Christian community in Rome?
It is the contention of this essay that such a conclusion misses the mark. It belies a rather flagrant refusal to take Barth at his word when he says he is committed to letting Paul speak for himself, and it contains an equally brash rebuff of the actual Pauline text. This essay will proceed by taking Barth at his word and thus seeking to highlight Barth’s logic in reading Romans 1 as Paul’s defense of the Gospel’s power to be a revelation of God’s righteousness, which is God’s work of salvation through Jesus Christ. This good news is revealed only in Jesus Christ and thereby rules out any possibility of a second or separate revelation.
Barth divides Romans 1 into two main sections. The first contains verses 1-17, which Barth titles “The Apostolic Office and the Gospel.” The second section, 1:18-3:20, is titled “The Gospel as God’s Condemnation of Man.” Right away Barth has already made certain decisions concerning the thrust of the opening chapters of Romans. The theme of the Gospel is announced in connection with Paul’s apostolic office. Within Paul’s introductory remarks, Barth finds Paul’s reason for writing the letter and main theme to be presented: the Gospel. By placing the rest of chapter one with chapter two and chapter three, up to verse 20, Barth highlights Paul’s thematic coherency within these chapters. Whereas the second half of Romans 1 is often cordoned off as its own diatribe against sexual immorality or else defended as demonstrating the possibility of natural knowledge of God, Barth sees it as part of a bigger Pauline argument having to do with the Gospel’s proclamation of the condemnation of humanity--both the Gentiles (1:18-32) and the Jews (2:1-3:20).
The fact that the opening seventeen verses of Romans 1 comprise their own chapter in Barth’s Shorter Commentary indicates the important role that they play in Barth’s reading of Paul. Barth points out that within Paul’s opening greetings he has already set down a “substantial” statement about “the cause that moves him” (7). The cause is nothing less than the person of Jesus Christ, for whom Paul is a slave. Jesus Christ himself is the content of the Gospel, and Paul’s Lord, because he has been revealed as the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead.
The connection between the apostolic office and the Gospel that Barth gestures toward in his title for verses 1-17, is seen, as Barth remarks, when the gift of the Spirit that Paul desires to pass on to them (v. 11) is nothing other than the Gospel, which has been entrusted to him (v. 5). Verses 16-17 fill out the definition of the Gospel it is Paul’s apostolic office to preach in Rome. The power that is the Gospel is God’s almighty power, not some power among any other power, and therefore the reason Paul has already proclaimed that he is not ashamed of the Gospel (v. 16). Furthermore, because Paul has already set out that the content of the Gospel is the very person of Jesus Christ (v. 4), Barth helps us understand how the very Gospel itself is God’s power.
This Gospel is the powerful work of salvation. Barth notices that Paul explains this as the revelation of God’s righteousness, or just verdict, which takes place in the Gospel (v. 17). Jesus Christ, the content of the Gospel, reveals in himself God’s just verdict. In other words, “God’s just verdict is God’s work of salvation” (11). While Barth acknowledges that the following phrase “by faith unto faith” is not easy to understand, he finds in them a kind of play on words that points to the verdict pronounced by Jesus originating in God’s faithfulness and subsequently aiming at the trust, or faith, of those who hear this verdict. Barth suggests that Paul’s words about the person who believes are impossible to understand unless Jesus Christ is in the background. It is the proclamation of this Gospel message, whose content is Jesus Christ, for which Paul has been appointed an apostle and why he wrote his letter to the Romans.
In the second half of chapter 1, Barth observes that it has often been assumed that Paul is here abandoning his office as a messenger of the Gospel in order to speak in another capacity, such as a religious interpreter of history. If this is what Paul is up to, then Barth likens him to a bad preacher who begins with a long discussion unrelated to the sermon he’s already announced. Barth finds no external evidence that Paul has made such a change, nor does he think Paul’s words about the Jews in 2:1ff are coherent if spoken generally rather than from the perspective of the Gospel. Following this same line of reasoning, Barth concludes that it makes no sense to see him speaking from some general perspective about the Gentiles either. The specification that this revelation is “from heaven” (v. 18) makes this clear. God’s power is “the sum total of all heavenly majesty;” there is simply no other source of revelation (13). This means that this section of the chapter does not put us in some “outer court, but right in the heart of the matter” (13). In other words, there is a dark side to God’s just verdict—God’s wrath. Noting Paul’s grammatical cues, Barth finds the “for” of 1:18 to form a series with 1:16 and 1:17. Thus, the Gospel as God’s work of salvation pronounces God’s condemnation of humanity because of their sin. “The death of Jesus Christ on the cross is the revelation of God’s wrath from heaven. That is the starting-point of Paul’s argument” (14).
Barth further reasons that only if 1:19-21 had come separately as an anonymous fragment could we even begin to think that they indicated a type of natural knowledge of God possessed by the Gentiles “prior to and independent of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ” (14). Barth suggests that entirely too much has been read into these verses. They are, in fact, not an anonymous fragment, but rather occur in the specific context of Paul’s letter to Rome and take their place in Pauline literature in general. Barth cites 1 Cor. 2:6-16 as an example of the way such a reading of these verses flies in the face of Pauline theology. Barth finds the weight of Paul’s writing to be in his court on this issue. If the verses were to be read as indicating evidence of a Pauline conception of natural knowledge of God, then Paul would use it to his advantage throughout the rest of Romans and indeed in his other letters as well.
Taking into consideration the Pauline corpus, Barth argues instead that Paul is speaking of the Gentiles in light of the Gospel, and he is telling them that it concerns them—that God has always been revealing himself to them so that “objectively speaking, they have also always known him” (15). This is why both Jews and Gentiles stand before God without an excuse for their opposition to him. Yet the knowledge of this reality is only seen in the revelation of Jesus Christ on the cross. The Gentiles “come from God” (16) and that is why they, too, are subject to God’s wrath in their rebellion. Furthermore, if the Gentiles could make the excuse that God was a stranger to them, Paul would not unashamedly call the Gospel the power of God (v. 16). Barth puts it well: Paul is not trying to pay the Gentiles a compliment, he is trying to call them to faith in God’s verdict. The rest of the chapter plays this out. Their objective knowledge of God notwithstanding, they have failed to give God the worship God deserves. They hold back the truth (v. 18) and exchange it for a lie (v. 25), subsequently making their thoughts vain and their hearts dark (v.21); they claim to be wise but have become fools (v. 22).
Barth argues that Paul begins by looking at the Gentile religion (v. 23) as the prime example of the extent of their rebellion—confusing the Creator-creature distinction— demonstrating with utmost certainty that there is no possibility of natural knowledge of God. Human religion can only ever produce idolatry. Religion is the exact opposite of belief in God’s revelation. It stems from human arrogance and is the object of God’s wrath—the reason God abandons (v. 24, 26, 28) humanity to the catalogue of natural and unnatural sins Paul lists. In their highest wisdom, the Gentiles, whom Paul uses to represent all humans “as such” (17), try to put themselves in God’s place. Barth concludes his direct commentary on chapter 1 by remarking that what Paul has said here about the Gentiles is the first thing that must be said when humans are confronted by the Gospel. But because the Gospel is Jesus Christ himself, Paul does not stop there. The first word to humanity is a word of condemnation. But the good center to such news comes already in 1:17 and again in 3:21-4:25, when Paul proclaims that “the Gospel is the divine justification of those who believe” (26).
Committed students of Barth will no doubt recognize Barth’s voice and commitments in his reading of Paul. Barth understands salvation within a forensic framework. Paul’s apostolic office is to witness to the Gospel. Jesus Christ is front and center as the very content of the Gospel. These are but a few examples. But, before you think I’ve ceded a point to Barth’s detractors, consider this: Barth was a steadfast student of Paul throughout his life, might it not be the case that Paul’s theology shaped Barth’s theology rather than the other way around? Barth is, after all, the man who once stated, “What delights me most is . . . Paul! That’s what it is! Next to him all dogmatics is slime, and ethics too.” Might it rather be true that Barth’s staunch refusal of the possibility of natural knowledge of God derived from his continual reading of Scripture, in particular, Paul’s letters? Before Barth even arrived at the second half of Romans 1, he had already gone to painstaking ends to highlight Paul’s definition of the Gospel and the call it places on those who receive it in faith. Finally, as Barth himself wondered, if the purpose for writing the letter is to highlight God’s Gospel as his almighty power to save, why indeed would Paul forsake this in the course of three verses in order to show that the Gentiles are the exception to this rule, that they in fact are in possession of natural knowledge of God and so for them, the Gospel is not this power of God that Paul so unashamedly proclaims? Barth has rightly read Romans 1:19-21 within the context of the rest of the chapter as well as within what follows in Romans and in other Pauline literature. There are no systematic gymnastics here. Paul’s voice truly has the last word.
 Karl Barth, A Shorter Commentary on Romans by Karl Barth, ed. Maico Michielin (trans. D.H. van Daleen; Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), xxv.
 For a listing of the five reviews see Maico Michielin’s introductory essay to A Shorter Commentary on Romans by Karl Barth, ed. Maico Michielin (trans. D. H. van Daleen; Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), viiin.3.
 A. Johnson, Interpretation 14 (January 1960): 107.
 Eric H. Wahlstrom, Lutheran Quarterly 12 (Fall 1960): 80.
 Karl Barth to Eduard Thurneysen, 18 May, 1924, Karl Barth-Eduard Thurneysen Briefwechsel, 1921-1930 (Zürich: Theologischer Verlag Zürich, 1974), 252-253.
I thank Shannon for her clear presentation of Barth's argument against the natural knowledge of God in his Shorter Commentary on Romans. I will first commend her reading of Barth, highlighting and rephrasing what I believe is most important. Second, I will challenge some aspects of Barth’s presentation itself, namely its fidelity to Paul.
I wholeheartedly agree with Shannon’s contention that Barth's exegesis should be read as just that – exegesis. Not only is this Barth's express intention, but the work itself reveals this purpose. This critical feature of Barth’s commentaries is perhaps veiled to many readers who are too adjusted to the average academic commentary, with its textual critical concerns. While Barth gives some attention to such matters -- and he certainly does not dismiss the value therein -- Barth’s exegesis is of a different and more classical sort, found in the tradition of the Church, especially with John Calvin. Barth’s foremost desire, as in his Shorter Commentary, is to reveal the mind of the Apostle, in his (Paul’s) special commission as a messenger of the Gospel. As such, the purpose of the exegete is to make the text as comprehensible as possible to the modern reader, while, as Shannon notes, “letting Paul speak for himself.”
The text is not a starting point to be surpassed by other, perhaps more clear or accurate, principles which extend beyond the text. The text is the end point. If indeed Barth’s rejection of natural theology is an “import on the text,“ this would be a grievous violation of his task as an expositor of Scripture. It is not Barth’s ideas that matter, because Barth is not the Apostle elected and sent by the power of the Gospel. Barth finds his election in the salvation in which the Apostle is gathered. All of this is highly commendable, and I have no objections to Shannon’s presentation of Barth’s arguments. She faithfully follows his line of thought and pinpoints the appropriate emphases. I am, however, less confident that Barth himself is as faithful in his task to let Paul speak for himself. I do not believe that Barth is intentionally importing his beliefs into the text, either as a supplement or corrective. He intends nothing other than a literal reading of Paul’s thought, and rightly so.
The question is whether Paul is saying what Barth is saying.
In large respects, Barth is indeed saying what Paul is saying. The first chapter of Romans is framed by Paul’s calling to the apostolate, his “setting apart” by Christ, and his confidence in this Gospel, which “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (1:16, NRSV). This otherness of the Gospel -- it’s origin and power outside of ourselves -- is rendered even more foreign by Paul in his immediate turn to the condemnation of all, both Jew and Gentile. Barth rightly insists that Paul has not abandoned this concern to proclaim the Gospel when he begins, in verse 18, to detail the grounds for condemnation of the Gentiles, which is likewise extended (with greater force) to the Jews in the second chapter. The Gospel reveals new knowledge of the situation in which men stand: their condemnation in the cross of Christ. The Gospel is this new knowledge. It is knowledge which then must issue forth in repentance and faith. Thus, the “salvation to everyone who has faith” is not known outside of the election of Christ. Precisely, we must know that we are justly judged in Christ’s election to the cross.
It is impossible for the Gentile, prior to and outside of the Gospel-proclamation, to know this truth. Critically for Barth, this knowledge of the Gospel is also the knowledge of God, and without the Gospel there can be no true knowledge of God. The true God is the God who condemns in the full measure of Christ’s cross (and saves in the full measure of his resurrection), but this is the “hidden wisdom of God, which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, which does not enter into the heart of any man, which the natural man does not accept, which he cannot apprehend, which only the Spirit of God can know and which man can only know through this Spirit of God” (p. 15). Thus, Romans 1:18-32 is written by Paul, according to Barth, in order to emphasize the spiritual blindness of the Gentiles -- of their rebellion and idolatry. As such, Paul’s point is not that the Gentiles know God but choose wickedness; rather, they evade God in their wickedness and know nothing of the full measure of his wrath, else the futility of their idolatry would be displayed. The true knowledge of their sinful and wholly condemned situation only comes with the revelation of Christ, the exegesis of the Father and the only true God.
And now we come to my criticism. Given this wholly foreign knowledge of God, hidden until the work of Christ, Barth declares that “it would be very strange indeed, if Paul suddenly regarded the Gentiles as being in full participation and possession of a genuine knowledge of God” (p.15). The difficulty I have with such a statement is that Barth is filling-in the idea of “knowledge” with such terms as “full participation” and “possession” of a “genuine knowledge” of God and contrasting this with the idea of knowledge in the first chapter of Romans, in particular, knowledge of God by the Gentiles “ever since the creation of the world.” This language of “full participation,” etc., heavily tilts the argument in Barth’s favor, but I believe Paul is working with a more limited understanding of knowledge: a genuine knowledge of God but without the soteriological value and definitional content. Thus, famously, Paul is able to say that God’s “eternal power and divine nature” is known through “the things he has made” (1:20), yet “though they knew God, they did not honor him as God (1:21). Also, more critically, Paul ends the section with, “They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die…” (1:32). A certain knowledge of God is made available to the Gentiles outside of Christ, though it is knowledge that only leaves them in condemnation. It lacks the object of saving faith.
In regard to the Gentiles, Barth does claim that -- “objectively” -- we can say that God has always “been declaring and revealing himself to them” through his creation and that they have always had the “opportunity of knowing God” (p. 15). Barth goes further and even states, “And again, objectively speaking, they have always known him. In all that they have known otherwise, God as the Creator of all things has always been, objectively speaking, the proper and real object of their knowledge… (ibid). Barth could perhaps be understood as admitting here that there is a natural knowledge of God outside of Christ, but, in line with his other statements, I believe Barth is distinguishing between what we (as exegetes of Christ) are able to know about the object of their (Gentile) knowledge and what they themselves are able to know about their knowledge. In other words, we know (through Christ) that they have God as their object of knowledge, but, in their perversion, they only know an idol and not the God against which this idol (or idols) is in rebellion. Thus, the “objectively-speaking” is only, and can only ever be, knowledge gained through Christ.
The problem with this is that I do not see the warrant from the text. More precisely, I do not see Paul saying that the Gentiles do not really know God. Rather, Paul is content with saying that the Gentiles truly do know God through his creation and that they choose to exchange this “glory of God” (1:23) -- a glory known to them -- for lesser, mortal creatures. They know that they “deserve to die” (1:32), yet they continue to extol their wickedness. This knowledge of God is not hidden from them (indeed, its evidence is clear enough to render them all “without excuse”), but there is not salvation in this knowledge. The knowledge that is hidden -- the knowledge which “does not enter into the heart of any man, which the natural man does not accept” -- is the knowledge of God as Savior and not merely powerful, divine, glorious, and perfect (the Gentile knowledge).
There is still the difficulty that God’s attributes are constitutive of one simple essence; thus, God’s perfection, power, and justice must include his mercy and covenantal faithfulness. In the fullness of revelation, to speak of one attribute is to speak of all. However, this does not require that any delimiting of one attribute is necessarily erroneous without the others -- only incomplete. That’s a discussion for another time, though it is a possible objection to whether we can say there is knowledge of God outside of Christ.