Saturday, August 22, 2009

2009 Karl Barth Blog Conference: Conclusion and ToC

It is time once again for the most unsavory blogging business that I ever have to execute as the proprietor here at DET, namely, declaring this year’s Karl Barth Blog Conference to be officially over. You are welcome, of course, to continue commenting and conversing with one another. In fact, you are encouraged to do so! But, regretfully, there are no further posts forthcoming.

As unsavory as closing the blog conference may be, it gives me nothing but pleasure to thank all those who have participated. You have made this year’s blog conference an even greater success than last year! Special thanks to all our plenary authors and their respondents – you folks are the lifeblood of this enterprise. Still, these authors would not want to put in the time writing plenary posts and responses for an event like this were it not for the host of you readers willing to surf by and check things out, and especially for those of you who stop to comment and converse. Those who stop by to comment are the ones for whom this conference is organized – so thanks for making our efforts worthwhile! Finally, extra-special thanks to Shane Wilkins for being so cheerily willing to stick it to us Barthians, and who almost single-handedly made this conference what it has been.

How worthwhile, you ask? Well, our traffic numbers have already outdone last year as of the time of writing (Friday afternoon, EST), and we still have a bit more time to go. But, traffic is secondary to the conversation that traffic spawns, and on this score we have outpaced last year’s blog conference and lapped it a few times! At the time of this writing, we have had 120 comments in this years conference, compared 74 last year and – again – we’re still going.

I find it nearly impossible to express how gratifying it is to see these rich fruits of organization and authorial labor.

By way of conclusion, I want to take a step back and reflect on the conversation we have had. It seems more than clear that neither side in this argument has convinced the other to change their minds. Some tactical victories have been won on each side, but no strategic victor has clearly emerged – although I’m sure each side would claim such victory for their efforts! What can we learn from this? (1) We can learn that arguments can be had without a loss of humor, and without the rupturing of relationships. Theology can be fun! Even, or especially, when people disagree. (2) We are reminded of the baggage – theological, theoretical, etc – that one always brings to exegesis. There is no way around this, and that is why conversations like the one we have had are so valuable. (3) There are a lot of fertile theological minds surfing the internet. :-)

Finally, a comment about the future of the Karl Barth Blog Conference. I am pleased to announce that David W. Congdon will be joining me as co-organizer for the upcoming year. There are big plans in the works for the 2010 Barth Blog Conference, so stay tuned! We’ll publish more information as it becomes available. Suffice it to say that the theme will Barth in Conversation, with posts dedicated to exploring the relationship between Barth and numerous other theological thinkers of the modern period. If you are interested in participating as an author in next year’s conference, please e-mail me at the address posted in the sidebar on the right. See you all next year!

Table of Contents

Friday, August 21, 2009

2009 Barth Blog Conference: Day 5

Reading Romans 1:3-4 Axiomatically: Karl Barth’s Resurrection Exegesis

By Nathan Hitchcock

Time has shown that there are many ways of approaching Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans – and precious few that take him seriously as a biblical exegete. There is the possibility, however, of understanding him as a genuine commentator even while recognizing his crucial theological foci. In this vein I want to contend that he interprets Romans 1:3-4 axiomatically, as the interpretive center of the epistle, and that the resurrection of the dead (which is axiomatic in speaking of God) governs the dialectical activity in all of 2Ro. God’s gloriously disruptive gospel is that which concerns “His Son, born out of David’s line according to the flesh, and powerfully appointed the Son of God according to the Holy Spirit through His resurrection of the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.” For Barth these verses ground and guide the content of the epistle.

The present essay starts with a historical-biographical argument for this inquiry, showing how Barth, at the same time he is writing 2Ro, makes the resurrection of the dead the interpretive center of 1 Corinthians, and that the crosspollination of 2Ro and RD is evident. Next, by diagramming the text of Romans 1:3-4, I want to draw out what Barth was seeing, viz., a Pauline statement about the forceful sublation inherent in revelation. Some exegetical observations will make clear how Barth understood the resurrection axiom to set the stage for 2Ro.

The Interpretive Center of 2Ro and RD

Much of Barth’s work in the 1920s was a search for the heart of the text. Disenchanted by the degeneration of pietism and Neo-Protestantism, and having rediscovered for himself the strange, new world of the Bible, he longed to hear the scriptures speak out of their alien power, out of their from-Godness. Reading the scriptures meant for Barth a discerning of the Sache, the subject matter. He sought neither to extract the kernel of truth from its husk, nor to isolate an abstract principle by which the epistle’s actual content could be weighed as valid or not. Instead Barth believed in the discovery of a theme, a red thread, a sustaining note ringing throughout the text. To detect this is to detect the gospel itself. Moreover, while all scripture is God-breathed, sometimes the subject matter is especially close to the surface in a particular verse or chapter.

The most outstanding example of an axiomatic passage is found in Barth’s interpretation of 1 Corinthians. Here the fifteenth chapter is not arcane speculation on revivification. Rather, “[t]he ideas developed in I Cor. xv. could be better described as the methodology of the apostle’s preaching, rather than eschatology, because it is really concerned not with this and that special thing, but with the meaning and nerve of its whole, with the whence? and the whither? of the human way as such and in itself” (RD, 109). The entire epistle is an outworking of ethical and doctrinal matters in light of the radical reconstruction effected by God’s world crossing into ours. We – our lives, thoughts and capacities – are the dead, and God is the resurrection. But the Bible speaks of the resurrection of the dead: having encountered Him in revelation, believers are the dead who nonetheless live in God.

While Barth’s class lectures of 1923 were published as RD in 1924, a resurrectocentric approach to reading scripture was operative several years earlier. In November 1919, a startled Barth wrote to Eduard Thurneysen about his study on 1 Corinthians 15, saying, “The chapter is the key to the whole letter . . . and out of its last wisdom comes disclosures about this and that, striking several of us lately like pulses from an electric ray.”[2] Soon after, he was so bold as to call resurrection “the common theme” of the Bible, the word “which occupies the central point of importance in the New Testament . . . the word that contains in itself what the whole of Christianity really is.”[3] And were it not for some incompleteness in his notes, Barth indicated he would have lectured on the resurrection of the dead– “the presupposition [Voraussetzung] of Christian theology” – even earlier in his professorship at Göttingen.[4] All this to say, the thought of resurrection-as-presupposition culminated at the same time as Barth’s writing of 2Ro, which was prepared from 1919 to 1921 and published in 1922.

Textually this can be seen in the overflow of RD’s thoughts into 2Ro. At times one wonders if Barth is saying that 1 Corinthians 15:50 – “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” – is the thesis verse of Romans![5] Reciprocally, at the crux of Barth’s argument in RD is a thorough correlation with the sub-themes of the book of Romans (RD, 118-9). There are patent differences between 2Ro and RD, but these are attributable to a shift in genre, from expressionistic commentary to more lecture-friendly prose. Their thematic-methodological center is one and the same.

Still, the fact being that Paul’s letter to Rome did not come with the Corinthian letter attached to it, one would expect to find a specific epicenter in each, laying out the same axiom. I suggest that one does, at least according to Barth’s commentating.

Exegeting Romans 1:3-4 with Barth

Of course, resurrection appears as an important idea in Romans at several junctures (4:16-25; 5:9-11; 6:1-11; 8:9-11; 8:18-25). But in 2Ro Barth calls attention to the resurrection right away, in Romans 1:3-4, insinuating that it structures Paul’s thought from the very fore. Easter (conceived as a consistent eschatological event) is the miraculous frontier of all contact between heaven and earth: “The Resurrection from the dead is . . . the transformation: the establishing or declaration of that point from above, and the corresponding discerning of it from below” (2Ro, 30). There is a hard distinction between God’s world and our own made by the resurrection even as it transformationally connects the two.

How Barth arrives at this delineation and unity is derived from the text itself. He is more attentive than most exegetes to the parallelism of the verses, which I have diagrammed below in the Greek and a fairly literal English translation.

A tou huiou autou

B tou genomenou

C ek spermatos Dauid

D kata sarka,

B' tou horisthentos hoiou theou en dunamei

D' kata pneuma hagiōsunēs

C' ex anastaseōs nekrōn

A' Iēsou Christou tou kuriou hēmōn

A His Son,

B who came

C from the seed of David

D according to the flesh,

B' who was appointed the Son of God in power

D' according to the Spirit of holiness

C' from the resurrection of the dead,

A' Jesus Christ our Lord

Barth’s fresh translation of the Greek into German (2Rö, 3) shows, I think, greater attentiveness to this layout than what is conveyed in most translations, including the one substituted by Hoskyns in the English version.[6]

A seinem Sohn,

B geboren

C aus Davids Geschlecht

D nach dem Fleisch,

B' kräftig eingesetzt als Sohn Gottes

D' nach dem Heiligen Geist

C' durch seine Auferstehung von den Toten,

A' von Jesus Christus unserm Herrn

Which can be translated back into English as:

A His Son,

B born

C out of David’s line

D according to the flesh,

B' powerfully installed as the Son of God

D' according to the Holy Spirit

C' through His resurrection of the dead,

A' Jesus Christ our Lord

The first noteworthy thing in these verses is the singularity expressed. Everything said here is held together by a single person. Barth brackets out these verses under the name of Jesus Christ, who is the content of the gospel, for “[i]n this name two worlds meet and go apart” (2Ro, 29). This singularity is called for by the text, since A and A' form an inclusio. For all of the iconoclastic negativity with which readers are battered in 2Ro, Barth’s key assertion is positive and unitary: God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. He is risen! – meaning this selfsame man from the fleshly line of David, the Son of God – this One. By extension this suggests another singularity, that we who are caught up in the one revelation of God remain ourselves (indeed, can only be our true selves) in the grace of God.

Nevertheless, Barth’s translation makes sure to point out the contrast between the two worlds, the differentiation precipitated by the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ life in the Spirit is a powerful (kräftig) installation, and so stands out in bold relief against Jesus’ identity as the (ohnmächtig?) seed of David, which, for all its religiosity, is earthly, inglorious, limited, sinful, characterized by death. It is kata sarka, the visible world known to us, whereas the invisible world, kata pneuma, is that Primal Origin which is unknown even in its being made known. The resurrection creates and facilitates this diastasis. The two worlds cannot be conflated.

Third, and most importantly, Barth finds here a radical transformation in the event of revelation. Observe how much Barth reads out of horisthentos (B'). His translation and use of the verb suggest an elevation, a re-positioning of Jesus through the resurrection. He is “appointed,” “installed,” “ordained,” “raised up to prominence.” This is surprising at first, since Barth goes on to speak of the resurrection mostly in the noetic, revelational, seemingly non-ontological sense (“declared”). Something more is afoot. Jesus’ crossing from Good Friday to Easter is an active transposition of that which is flesh as it meets the frontier of death, which by grace is also the frontier of the Spirit. For us the revelation of God means that our religious, historical-psychological human lives must be “dissolved” [aufhebt] and “established” [begründet] in God.[7] It seems to me that Barth is using einsetzen as a kind of composite synonym for the aufheben/begründen pair. We in all our worldliness are dismantled and taken up – appointed – by the grace of God. The limitations of the English language are most apparent with the verb aufheben, the semantic range of which leads to renderings like “to dissolve” or “to abolish.” A better, precise reproduction would be the technical “to sublate.”[8] The crisis Barth has in mind is not supposed to result in an extinction of the historical. Sublation is not an obliteration, but a “taking up” of the negated object into a higher synthesis in which the negated thing is not lost. This is why Barth keeps the positional sense of horisthentos: because resurrection is an active election by God in which He conquers the world of the flesh in order to reconstitute it divinely. This sublation is utter miracle, total paradox. It means we are what we are not. It means the knowledge of the unknown God. It means justified sinners. It means the resurrection of the dead.

A final observation is that the whole process is resurrection-facilitated. Barth identifies the resurrection of the dead as nothing less than the linchpin of all human knowing and being. The human world and God’s world touch only at the frontier it patrols. Barth’s translation calls attention to this. Notice how he treats the preposition of C', ex, as the Greek dia, translating it “through” (durch). The resurrection is the pivotal instrumental power by which the human Jesus is appointed and presented to us as the Son of God. And it is the event by which we as human recipients are negated and re-posited on a new foundation. Breaking the parallelism of C and C' actually underscores the resurrection, setting it apart, making it the arbitrator of the two katas and the whole sublational process. But this emphasis comes at the cost of adding confusion as to whether the resurrection is a predicate of the Son or the Spirit. Just whose resurrection is “His” (seine) resurrection? The Son’s or the Spirit’s? And if the both (and ours, for that matter), then how?[9] The risk involved with Barth’s axiom is that it becomes too axiomatic, thereby too generic a concept for Trinitarian dogmatics. But for the Romans commentary it has real utility. The resurrection of the dead offers the possibility of hanging the many Yeses and No’s of God, indeed, all of Paul’s theology, upon a central hinge.


The scope of this essay has not charted how Romans 1:3-4’s formal structure plays out in the rest of 2Ro. Suffice it to say that resurrection-shaped revelation is that which sublates all natural knowledge of God and every pretension of religion; as that by which believers’ forensic status becomes always a iustificatio impii; how ontologically the everlasting life is a disclosure of all that has been dissolved in God; and how, grounded in the resurrection, ethics can only be freedom exercised in the gracious disturbance of the Other. Each of these thrusts are patterned on the miracle of the resurrection, which draws a hard line between our world and God’s even as it makes them touch.

What has been presented more intentionally is that we have every reason to think that Barth wrote 2Ro in the same basic impulse as RD. The resurrection of the dead is a kind of governing method of interpretation for the early Barth, which leads him to identify 1 Corinthians 15 as a kind of skeleton key to its epistle, and, as I’ve argued here, the same is true for Romans 1:3-4 vis-à-vis its own content. The concept in these verses is axiomatic, a foundation and lens through which readers may understand the jarring content of that which follows. I am not arguing that Barth uses these verses as a constant prooftext to buttress his points. He does not. But I am contending that the resurrection of the dead, which pervades his commentary formally and materially, is best encapsulated in these verses.

Such a conclusion extends R. Dale Dawson’s premise that the resurrection is of “radical systematic significance” for Barth’s theological architecture.[10] This study also joins those who are reevaluating him as a serious student of the Bible. Though not without its problems, Barth’s “dialectical” interpretation of Paul’s letter is hardly arbitrary. If Barth has identified the Sache, and if his procedure is grounded in the text itself, there can be little force to his critics’ complaint that his method in 2Ro seems to “hang in the air,” unconditioned by history or psychology. Is that not the point?, Barth retorts. Is not the epistle borne aloft by its own axiom?

[1] For expediency I have opted to abbreviate Barth’s texts. B-Th = Barth-Thurneysen Briefwechsel; 2Rö = Der Römerbrief (1922); 2Ro = The Epistle to the Romans, sixth edition (virtually identical to the second edition); RD = The Resurrection of the Dead; WGWM = The Word of God and the Word of Man; CHS = Come Holy Spirit. Footnotes have also been kept to a minimum, although full references are available from the author upon request.

[2] Karl Barth to Eduard Thurneysen, 11 Nov 1919, in B-Th I, 350.

[3] WGWM, 86; CHS, 164-5.

[4] Karl Barth to Eduard Thurneysen, 16 Feb 1921, in B-Th I, 469.

[5] More accurately, this verse is the center when paired with its epistemological adjunct, Mt 16:17, that flesh and blood does not reveal the divine incognito (e.g. 2Ro, 98, 102, 181, 281, 290). Or consider how at one point Barth even dares to suggest that 1 Corinthians 15 is the guiding light of Paul’s epistle to the Romans (RD, 5).

[6] 2Ro, 27. Hoskyns generally chooses to use preexisting English translations in the place of a re-translation from Barth’s German (2Ro, xiv-xv), an oversight in this instance.

[7] E.g. 2Ro, 30, 35, 36, 79, 139, 141, 158, 162, 165, 218, 289, 298, 344, 417.

[8] This misleading terminology is Garrett Green’s chief reason for retranslating CD §17 (Karl Barth, On Religion: The Revelation of God as the Sublimation of Religion, trans. Garrett Green [London: T&T Clark, 2006], viii-ix. With Hoskyns (2Ro, xiv) I do wonder if the English “dissolve” at least holds the potential of being helpful when understood in its chemical sense, as when a solute is dissolved in a solution, the former preserved (or not?) as it is restructured in the latter.

[9] According to Barth’s rendering, I sense that the main truth of the resurrection is not so much that the Son came out of the realm of the dead but that the Holy Spirit is the One through whom all mortal things are lifted to their Origin. It is His resurrecting of the dead. The resurrection is revelation, which belongs to the activity of the Spirit. But even after Barth’s overcompensating shift to a more Christocentric paradigm and a delineation between the objective basis and subjective basis of revelation, the resurrection remains overly pneumatic and noetic in that the locus of activity is in us. However much it stems from Christ, the resurrection is a manifestation of His eternal-historical being to us; the Holy Spirit is the risen Christ’s prophetic arm stretching out to us, etc.

[10] R. Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), 17.

Response by John Drury

Resurrection is at the heart of Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans. In his essay, Nathan Hitchcock reminds us of this crucial fact by linking it with the particularities of Barth’s exegesis of Romans 1:3-4. He claims that this particular passage is axiomatic for 2Ro as a whole.[1] I would like to respond by challenging this central thesis. Although I am in complete agreement with Nathan that the resurrection of the dead is axiomatic for 2Ro, I remain unconvinced that Romans 1:3-4 in particular is axiomatic. Instead, I would suggest that Barth’s exegesis of Romans 1:3-4 substantiates the larger thesis that resurrection is axiomatic for 2Ro. I believe that Nathan has proven this much, and that this is sufficient for advancing his objectives.

My reason for challenging the axiomatic status of Romans 1:3-4 is that Barth does not explicitly assign it such status, like he does to I Cor. 15 in RD. I welcome Nathan’s historical observation that Barth discovered the axiomatic status of I Cor. 15 in 1919 while working on 2Ro. This observation corroborates the claim that the resurrection of the dead is axiomatic for Barth’s exegesis and dogmatics during this period. I would even add that it is not limited to this earliest period, as Barth advances the same thesis in Phillippians, a publication based on lectures from the Winter semester 1926/27 in Münster, concurrent with the beginning of his second cycle of Dogmatics lectures.[2] All three of these commentaries in their own way advance the thesis that the resurrection of the dead is at the center of the Pauline epistle under investigation. However, 2Ro is more like Philippians inasmuch as each advances this thesis without identifying a particular chapter or verse as axiomatic. RD is unique in this regard. So it seems to me more appropriate to claim that 2Ro shares with RD the axiomatic status of the resurrection of the dead, and that Barth’s exegesis of Romans 1:3-4 is the first place where this axiom appears in the text.

However, my reframing of Nathan’s thesis is not intended to undermine his insights into the significance of this passage for Barth. First of all, Nathan underlines Barth’s exegetical savvy. Barth shows his attention to detail by translating Romans 1:3-4 in way that highlights the parallelism of the original language. This sort of reading the Bible alongside of Barth helps to overcome the continued prejudice against taking him seriously as an exegete, and has greater potential to yield constructive results than interpreting Barth exclusively as a dogmatic theologian. Secondly, Nathan has shown how the sublationist logic of revelation in 2Ro is intertwined with Barth’s doctrine of resurrection. The dialectic of revelation in Barth’s early period is easily misunderstood when it is abstracted from the embodied dialectic of resurrection. Nathan’s discussion of Barth on the verb horisthentos serves to overcome this common misunderstanding. Thirdly, Nathan rightly identifies the weakness in Barth’s early doctrine of resurrection: that resurrection tends to be a function of revelation, rather than vice versa.[3] Now Nathan and I differ on the extent to which Barth’s later Christocentrism overcomes this problematic tendency.[4] But we concur on the great utility and great danger of Barth’s close identification of resurrection and revelation in 2Ro. If there’s one thing we can learn from Barth’s exegesis of Romans 1:3-4, it’s that Jesus Christ in his resurrection by the Holy Spirit is the site of God’s disruptive grasping of his creature, and so Easter is the prototype and model for all God’s gracious dealings with us and our knowledge of him. We ought to keep this in mind as we read Scripture along with and beyond Barth.

[1] I have adopted Nathan’s abbreviations: 2Ro = Romans, 2nd Ed.; RD = Resurrection of the Dead.

[2] Karl Barth, Erklärung des Philipperbriefes (München: C. Kaiser, 1928); ET: The Epistle to the Philippians, translated by James W. Leitch; introductory essays by Bruce L. McCormack & Francis B. Watson (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002). For the timing of these lectures, see Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts, translated by John Bowden (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), p. 171f.

[3] Probably the clearest instance of Barth’s identification of resurrection and revelation is tangent/circle passage, at the head of which Barth states, “The Resurrection is the revelation,” (2Ro, p. 205).

[4] See footnote 9 of Nathan’s essay for an intimation of his position on the later Barth.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

2009 Barth Blog Conference: Day 4

Defending Barth’s Commitment to “Let Paul Speak for Himself” [1]: Romans 1 and Paul’s Rejection of the Possibility of Natural Knowledge of God

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[2] 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”[3] or “arguments against any ‘natural’ knowledge of God”[4] 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.”[5] 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.

[1] Karl Barth, A Shorter Commentary on Romans by Karl Barth, ed. Maico Michielin (trans. D.H. van Daleen; Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), xxv.

[2] 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.

[3] A. Johnson, Interpretation 14 (January 1960): 107.

[4] Eric H. Wahlstrom, Lutheran Quarterly 12 (Fall 1960): 80.

[5] Karl Barth to Eduard Thurneysen, 18 May, 1924, Karl Barth-Eduard Thurneysen Briefwechsel, 1921-1930 (Zürich: Theologischer Verlag Zürich, 1974), 252-253.

Response by Kevin Davis

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.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

2009 Barth Blog Conference: Day 3

The No-God and God’s No: Barth’s Exegesis of Romans 1 in Romans II

By David W. Congdon

Barth’s Der Römerbrief needs no introduction. It fundamentally changed the landscape of modern theology. The first edition, published in 1918, set forth the basic contours of Barth’s break with 19th century liberalism. But it was the explosive second edition (hereafter referred to as Romans II, and from which I will exclusively cite), published in 1921 and translated in 1933, which established Barth’s lasting reputation.1 However, as important as it has been and continues to be, one easily forgets that Barth’s Romans is a biblical commentary.2 People tend to view it as a theological treatise, but Barth always intended it to be an exegesis—certainly, a theological exegesis—of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome.

With this in mind, I want to focus on Barth’s interpretation of the first chapter of Romans, specifically the latter half of this chapter (vv. 16-32). Specifically, I want to address two issues: (1) the way Barth reads Romans as a letter against the liberal historicism of his time, and (2) Barth’s handling of Rom. 1:20 and the problem of natural theology.

The No-God of Modern Liberalism

The story of Barth’s break with German liberalism is well-known, as is the central place of Barth’s Römerbrief in this theological revolt. There is, unfortunately, a lot of confusion about the nature of this revolt. What exactly is being rejected? The common response, based on Barth’s later writings regarding the analogia entis, is natural theology. But this is an anachronistic misreading of Romans II in light of the Barmen Declaration and the Church Dogmatics. Natural theology was not really on the radar at all for Barth in 1921. This can easily be seen by the stark difference between his treatment of Rom. 1 in this commentary and his treatment of the same passage in his Shorter Commentary on Romans, which began as lectures in 1940-41 and was published in 1956 (ET 1959). The later commentary directly addresses the issue of natural theology and remains, in my opinion, the best and most succinct argument against finding natural theology in Paul’s letter. The earlier commentary, however, says nothing about this topic. I will address what Barth does say later, but for now it will suffice to point out that Barth’s commentary has a different polemical target in mind.

F. W. Graf calls the break with liberalism the “anti-historicist revolution” in Protestant theology, and this insight helps to specify what it is that Barth is so angry about in Romans II. The issue is not with natural knowledge of God; that target would arise later in his dealings with Erich Przywara and Roman Catholicism. The issue here is with the liberal historicization of God, or more accurately, the objectification of God. “Historicism” has its basis in 19th century German theology and philosophy, but it reached its apotheosis in the work of Ernst Troeltsch. Troeltsch takes the historical-critical method as his starting-point, which, as he says, “relativizes everything,” and then he subjects Christianity to this method. He doesn’t reject religious absolutes; he simply identifies this absolute as the telos of the immanent historical continuum. The absolute arises out of the progress of history. Not everyone followed historicism to Troeltsch’s logical conclusion, but at the very least what made theology liberal was this subjection of Christianity to historical-critical research. That is, liberalism grounds the Christian religion on “objective” realities which can be established by “neutral” scientific methods. Most importantly, liberalism makes the so-called “historical Jesus,” as opposed to the Christ of orthodoxy, the basis for Christian faith.

Liberal theology thus implicitly presupposes what Rudolf Bultmann, in his well-known 1924 essay, calls a “pantheism of history,” in which God is given to us directly in social history as an object available for our investigation. It is this “givenness” of God within the nexus of social relations, human personality, and scientific history that defines liberalism. The consequence of this view is that revelation becomes a historical-psychological phenomenon, Jesus becomes a great religious personality (Persönlichkeit), and faith becomes a religious “feeling” (Gefühl) or “sense of value” aroused within the human conscience. In short, liberal historicism leads to the idolatrous deification of humanity.

We cannot understand Barth’s Romans if we do not see his commentary as an attempt to read Paul’s letter as a response to modern historicism. Now, before I demonstrate how this affects Barth’s interpretation of Rom. 1, some might object that this does violence to Paul’s text. A brief word on biblical hermeneutics is thus in order. In 1962, Krister Stendahl famously distinguished between “two senses” of meaning in a biblical text: “What did it mean?” and “What does it mean?”3 For Stendahl and others, the present meaning of a text is merely the application of its past meaning, with the latter established purely on the basis of descriptive-scientific exegesis. Barth completely (and rightly) rejects this scheme, preempting Stendahl by some forty years. In the preface drafts to the first edition of his commentary on Romans, Barth repeats a central and radical axiom throughout: “Whoever does not continually ‘read in’ because he participates in the subject matter cannot ‘read out’ either.”4 Exegesis is not possible without a certain kind of eisegesis—a participatory involvement in the subject matter (die Sache) of the biblical text.5 In the published preface to the first edition of Der Römerbrief, Barth says that “our problems are the problems of Paul; and if we be enlightened by the brightness of his answers, those answers must be ours” (1). And later in the same preface he says: “The conversation between the original record and the reader moves round the subject-matter, until a distinction between yesterday and to-day becomes impossible” (7). Barth’s theological hermeneutic is the basis for his exegesis, and we can only assess what he says later once we acknowledge this interpretive starting-point.

So with that said, how does Paul’s letter become a polemic against liberal historicism? Barth finds the key in Paul’s emphasis on the gospel (euangelion), a word which appears three times in the first chapter alone (1:1, 9, 16) and is more or less the theme of the entire opening to the letter. For Paul, the gospel is “apocalyptically revealed” (apokalupto) in Jesus Christ as the power of God (1:16-17). The gospel of God sets Paul apart for his particular vocation as an apostle. The gospel constitutes the church as a missionary community serving a missionary God, who sent Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit to reconcile the world. This gospel is therefore not some new piece of wisdom teaching, because it “brings salvation” to those who are otherwise dead in their transgressions (1:16; 6:23; cf. Eph. 2:1-5); nor is it a secret message about the spiritual world, because as Paul makes clear throughout the letter, the gospel calls us to a this-worldly life of obedience and love (1:5; 13:10; 16:26); nor is it a self-evident truth which could be established on extra-revelatory grounds, because the gospel is the subversion of everything that was previously self-evident. It is the scandalous truth of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. It is a truth that remains “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23), even while reconciling them both to God.

For these reasons, Barth declares in Romans II that “the Gospel is not a truth among other truths. Rather, it sets a question-mark against all truths” (35). Anticipating Bultmann’s critique of liberalism, Barth also says that the gospel of God is “not a religious message to inform mankind of their divinity or to tell them how they may become divine. The Gospel proclaims a God utterly distinct from men. . . . The Gospel is not one thing in the midst of other things, to be directly apprehended and comprehended” (28). God is not one god among many, nor is the gospel a truth among many other truths. The gospel of God’s resurrecting power is instead a gospel for which one cannot be ashamed, which needs no external justification. God does not compete within the world as a person or thing among other persons and things clamoring for attention and authority. God, in short, does not need the world. As Barth puts it, “no divinity remaining on this side the line of resurrection; no divinity which dwells in temples made with hands or which is served by the hand of man; no divinity which needs anything, any human propaganda (Acts 17:24, 25)—can be God” (35-36). The god which needs the world—i.e., the god which is the ideological and infinite projection of human needs—is the No-God, the non-deity, the golden calf, the object of Babel.

All of this leads Barth to present a full-scale attack on metaphysics as a form of quasi-theological propaganda. The No-God of this world is the metaphysically-derived deity of religion. It is important to realize that Barth is operating with a very specific definition of metaphysics, and that this definition is historically situated in the context of his battle against liberal historicism. To flesh this out, let us examine Barth’s commentary. Directly following the passage last cited, Barth continues in his exegesis of Rom. 1:16 by stating that “the power of God can be detected neither in the world of nature nor in the souls of men. It must not be confounded with any high, exalted force, known or knowable. The power of God is not the most exalted of observable forces, nor is it either their sum or their fount. Being completely different, it is the krisis of all power, that by which all power is measured . . . . It is the Primal Origin (Ursprung) by which they all are dissolved, the consummation by which they all are established. The power of God stands neither at the side of nor above—supernatural!—these limited and limiting powers. It is pure and pre-eminent and—beyond them all” (36). As Barth says elsewhere, God is not “the extension of nature into a super-nature or a behind-nature (metaphysics).”6

The problem with supernaturalism is that it actually fails to live up to its promise. Supernaturalism claims to make God distinct from the world, but in fact turns God into an extension of it. The “supernatural” is epistemologically (and ontologically) dependent upon the “natural.” That is, we can only define what is supernatural on the basis of our prior knowledge of the natural world, which means that God is limited and determined by something external to God. The being of God is thus not sui generis, but rather the extension of something that is already given. God becomes an objectifiable datum that we can extrapolate from other data accessible outside of any revelatory encounter with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. This act of divine objectification occurs even—or perhaps especially—when we endow God with the highest metaphysical attributes. As Paul Tillich rightly puts it, in relation to God, “superlatives become diminutives.”7 The supernatural, infinite god remains bound in a polar relationship with the natural, finite world. The infinite god needs the finite. Omnipotence is simply the extension of our limited creaturely power, and omniscience the extension of our limited creaturely knowledge. In every respect, the metaphysical-mythological deity is nothing more than a devout human projection in the manner of Feuerbach. It is the No-God of religion, the pious object of Babel: “In ‘believing’ on Him, we justify, enjoy, and adore ourselves” (44).

What becomes clear in these passages is the radical distinction or diastasis between God and creation. Critics of Barth often misinterpret him to mean that God exists in a kind of static, abstract transcendence, as if God is “out there” and the world is “in here.” They usually make reference to the famous image of the tangent that touches the circle without touching it (30; Barth’s math is wrong, but we get the point), drawing the conclusion that Barth’s God is so beyond the world that God has no real relationship to creation. Barth is effectively a deist, or some kind of über-metaphysician. These kinds of critiques miss the point. Throughout the letter, Barth is at pains to emphasize the existential nearness of God, the God is other than us precisely as the one who is nearer to us than we are to ourselves (Augustine). Barth’s rhetoric regarding the “infinite qualitative distinction” serves not to make God distant from us, but to subvert the attempt on the part of historicism to objectify God as a given entity that can be analyzed and assessed apart from God’s gift of faith—that is, apart from the gospel that is “apocalyptically revealed” in Jesus Christ.

Metaphysics, as Barth defines it, is the theological program of liberal historicism. The No-God is the religious object constructed by metaphysical-historicist reasoning. By contrast, Barth’s method of theological exegesis is the hermeneutical antithesis of metaphysical liberalism.8 The God to whom Barth witnesses does not negate nature or reject reason, as some claim. The God of the resurrection is not a scandal to human rationality simpliciter. Such a god would in fact be a demon—the destroyer of creation instead of its reconciler. On the contrary, the God of Jesus Christ is a scandal to reason and nature in their bondage to sin and death, in their captivity to the ideological powers and principalities of this world. John Howard Yoder makes this point well in a theopolitical context when he writes the following:
The behavior God calls for is not alien to us; it expresses what we really are made to be. Yet, unfortunately, later Catholic strategy has foreshortened the critical potential of that vision by confusing the “nature of things” with the way things are now in the fallen world, especially in ethnic and national definitions of community and patriarchal definitions of order. When society has been defined as the nation and social order as patriarchy, then it is no longer true that grace completes nature; in the face of that definition of “nature,” the word of YHWH has to be like a fire, like a hammer that breaks rocks into pieces. Yet when the “nature of things” is properly defined, the organic relationship to grace is restored. The cross is not a scandal to those who know the world as God sees it, but only to the pagans, who look for what they call wisdom, or the Judaeans, who look for what they call power. This is what I meant before, when I stated that the choice of Jesus was ontological: it risks an option in favor of the restored vision of how things really are.9
We might translate Yoder for our purposes by saying that the “faith seeking understanding” which God calls for is not alien to us, but expresses what we really are made to know and believe. In the face of a metaphysical attempt to objectify and historicize God as a given entity for our intellectual control, the gospel of God has to be like an all-consuming fire, an “exploding shell” which leaves behind a crater-like void (29). Yet when we are seized by divine grace and reconciled to God through the gift of faith, the relationship between the Wholly Other God and the natural world is made clear. With Eberhard Jüngel, we can speak of a “more natural theology than so-called natural theology” (Christ, Justice and Peace, 26). God no longer seems like a distant supernatural thing, but a loving Creator who is existentially near to us. The cross is only a scandal to those who look for a god they can posit on the basis of a rationality which has not submitted in obedience to Christ. The cross is a scandal to those who are looking for a god to justify and affirm the power-structures of this world. The event of Jesus Christ is an epistemologically and ontologically determinative event: it simultaneously reveals and constitutes the way things truly are meant to be.

God’s No as Existential Anxiety

At its heart, the No-God of the modern world is the result of a “secret identification of ourselves with God,” which means that “[m]en have imprisoned and encased the truth—the righteousness of God; they have trimmed it to their measure, and thereby robbed it both of its earnestness and of its significance. They have made it ordinary, harmless, and useless; and thereby transformed it into untruth” (45). But as Barth goes on to say, “the situation might . . . have been very different” (47).

We come, then, to the controversial text of Rom. 1:19-21, in which Paul writes: “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened” (NRSV). As numerous commentators have noted, it is deeply problematic to proof-text this passage and assume that Paul endorses a kind of general revelation in nature. Read in context and in light of his other letters—especially 1 Cor. 1:18-29—it becomes clear that if the traditional interpretation of this passage is correct, Paul is in serious contradiction with himself. How can Paul say that the pagan Gentiles “knew God” but “did not honor him as God,” and then later in the same letter, state that “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (8:7-8)? Moreover, Paul consistently speaks of the “power of God” in relation to the cross and resurrection of Christ as a strictly soteriological—and thus christological and pneumatological—reality (cf. Rom. 1:4, 1:16; 1 Cor. 1:18, 1:24, 6:14; 2 Cor. 4:7, 12:9, 13:4; Phil. 3:10; 1 Thess. 1:5). In other words, the power of God is something which must be “apocalyptically revealed”; it is an act of divine revelation and redemption, not something self-evident and objectifiable. For all these reasons and more, an alternative reading of Rom. 1:19-21 is necessary if we wish to respect the intelligence and authority of Paul the apostle.10

Barth certainly offers an alternative reading, but he seems utterly unaware of the debates over theologia naturalis in Paul. The contested verses would not become a source of concern until his 1934 wrangle with Emil Brunner. Instead, as I’ve already said, the issue in Romans II is with liberal historicism. And he responds to liberalism with his unique version of theological existentialism.

His exegesis seems to work like this: when Paul speaks of the Gentiles knowing God in 1:21, what is known about God, based on the context, is the wrath of God (cf. 1:18). There is no indication whatsoever that the Gentiles could have knowledge of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Moreover, this wrath is an act of divine justice against the moral trespasses of the pagans. In short, the only real knowledge that pagans can have of God is that they stand guilty before the divine Judge. As G. K. Chesterton once said, original sin is “the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.” This pagan knowledge isn’t really a knowledge of God per se; it is knowledge of oneself, a self-understanding, as one who is held accountable before a Power or Being that is invisible and unknown. In existentialist terms, the knowledge that the pagan can have is a sense of her own existential anxiety. For this reason, when Paul says that “the invisible things of God are clearly seen” (1:20), Barth translates this in the following way: “The insecurity of our whole existence, the vanity and utter questionableness of all that is and of what we are, lie as in a text-book open before us” (46).

In his well-known book on The Courage to Be, Paul Tillich offers a helpful typology of existential anxiety, which he defines as “the awareness of one’s finitude as finitude.”11 Anxiety is the experience of the threat of nonbeing (or what Barth calls Nothingness, das Nichtige) upon our existence. He notes three ways in which nonbeing threatens us: ontic (the anxiety of fate and death), spiritual (the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness), and moral (the anxiety of guilty and condemnation).12 Barth is saying, on the basis of Paul’s text, that ontic, spiritual, and moral anxiety is indeed naturally perceivable—which, by the way, is quite different from saying that our “sinfulness” is perceivable (and for that reason, Chesterton isn’t quite right). We all, “by nature” so to speak, experience a sense of insecurity and questionableness. Every person recognizes that something is wrong with the world and with themselves in this world. According to Barth, the Gentiles stand guilty because they refuse to acknowledge this anxiety; instead of recognizing their need for something Ultimate, Primal, and Beyond, they take refuge in idols they can objectify and control.

Barth therefore makes a direct connection between the failure to acknowledge our existential anxiety, our utter questionableness, and human religion. The refusal to recognize our creaturely limitations results in the hubristic deification of humanity and the idolatrous objectification of deity. For this reason, “We make of the eternal and ultimate presupposition of the Creator a ‘thing in itself’ above and in the midst of other things, of that which is living and abstracted from all concreteness a concrete thing—no doubt the highest—in the midst of other concrete things, of the Spirit a spirit, of what is inaccessible and therefore so nigh at hand an endlessly uncertain object of our experiences. Rather than see in His Light—eternal and which no man can approach unto—the Light, we allow Him to become a light—no doubt the most brilliant and, indeed, immaterial and supernatural—at which we kindle our own lights and then, quite consistently, seek to find in concrete things their own light” (47). By making God a “thing,” the Spirit a “spirit,” the Light a “light,” we turn God into an object for our rational and religious manipulation. This is therefore the essence of metaphysics: an unwillingness to recognize our creaturely limitations which results in the attempt to grasp and control the divine apart from God’s apocalyptic self-giving in the event of Jesus Christ.

Barth’s reading of this passage may not have the exegetical rigor of Campbell’s, but it is certainly an improvement over the tradition. To turn Paul into an apologist for natural theology places him in contradiction with himself and does exegetical violence to the overall theological argument of Romans. In his brilliant virtuoso performance in Romans II, Barth offers an alternative interpretation within his existentialist and anti-historicist context.


I have sought in this brief essay to argue that Barth reads Romans as a letter directed against liberal historicism. Barth makes the central verses of Rom. 1:16-17 the interpretive key for the letter as a whole. His emphasis is on the apocalyptic power of God which is revealed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Everything we say about God must conform to this unique concrete event. While Barth is unconcerned with the issue of natural theology, it is clear that this non-objectifiable conception of God has important implications for metaphysics and natural theology. As those who seek to think with and after Barth, we can certainly draw out these implications, but we must always keep in mind that Barth’s own interests lay elsewhere. Barth’s mind would later change, of course, but I would argue that the fundamental concern in this commentary—viz. that God is a non-objectifiable event, contra liberal historicism—remains basic to his entire theological enterprise. For this reason, we still have much to gain from returning again and again to Barth’s Epistle to the Romans.

Response by Halden Doerge

We should all be grateful to David Congdon for his erudite analysis of Barth’s exegesis of Romans 1. Indeed, it is something of a challenge to offer a critical response to it in that I am already in substantial agreement with all of the salient points. However, there are a few points that bear making, at least in helping to clarify and extend this analysis of Barth’s thought on the matter of metaphysics and theology.

What is perhaps most helpful in Congdon’s treatment is the way it exposes the early Barth’s true theological concerns. The tendency to read Romans through the lens of Barth’s conflict with Brunner has clearly impeded attempts to properly understand the nature of Barth’s early theological project, and indeed the way in which that trajectory informs his later developments. By situating Barth’s concerns in the problem of liberal historicism where they correctly belong we are able to see the real conflict into which the Romans commentary fell like a Molotov cocktail, and thus to discern the real importance of Barth’s theology on this point.

What emerges from properly situating the Romans commentary in the context of Barth’s dispute with liberal historicism is the crucial point that for Barth, the question of God’s relationship to history is of the utmost importance. For Barth it is utterly axiomatic that the God of Jesus Christ be distinguished from the No-God of liberal historicism. Indeed, as Congdon points out, it is precisely the sort of historical “givenness” that liberal historicism that is his primary target. What is vital for Barth is that any theology that identifies God with the movements of human history (which inevitably entails identifying God with our own movement in history) is a denial of the utterly free Triune God revealed in Jesus.

It is vital to situate Barth’s critique of metaphysics in this context. As Congdon helps us to see, the metaphysics that are in Barth’s crosshairs are those of liberal historicism. Barth is certainly not rejecting ontology as such, or even the investigation of “being” (though utter clarity about what that means is vital). Rather Barth is attacking what Nathan Kerr refers to as “the metaphysics of history” (Christ, History and Apocalyptic, 37). What is to be rejected is any metaphysical framework that locates and defines God within the immanent frame of human history. As Herbert McCabe might put it, Barth is opposed to any metaphysical vision in which God becomes a being among other beings, or where God and the universe could ever be conceived to add up to make two. God is not to be found within us—the idolatrous divinization of humanity—but rather as missionally coming to us from without. God’s action toward the world takes the form of a radical and unprecedented interruption. The interruption of grace. For Barth all of this turns on rejecting the ideological postulation of God’s givenness in favor of receiving God as an utterly singular apocalyptic gift.

It is precisely at this point that I would like to do what I can to extend Congdon’s excellent analysis of Barth’s attack on liberal historicism. As we have seen, what lies at the heart of Barth’s critique is the way in which liberal historicism circumscribes God, rendering God as a teleological positing of history. Barth’s apocalyptic Christology utterly forbids any such teleological frame of reference. God can never be identified as the “absolute” which “arises out of the progress of history” as its telos. As such, Barth’s attack on liberal historicism arises out of a fundamental concern that God never become a predicate of any earthly-historical reality.

This is the point I wish to expand on, even if only briefly. The claim I wish to introduce is that Barth’s attack on liberal historicism and his vigorous critiques of Roman Catholicism are of a piece. As we have seen, Barth’s attack on liberal historicism was rooted entirely in his concern that God not become objectified within an immanent, ideological frame. I would like to argue here that it is precisely the same concern that grounded his objections Roman Catholicism. For Barth the Roman Catholic construal of the church as the effective mediator of grace, and indeed, of Christ’s presence elides the singularity and freedom of Christ in precisely the same way as liberal historicism. For Barth, the Catholic perspective on how the office of Christ is exercised through the office of Peter is unacceptable precisely in that it turns the church into a kind of entelechy which makes Christ’s own agency a predicate of the historical-institutional church.

In a way that may seem ironic to many readers of contemporary theology today, Barth construes Roman Catholic holism and liberal historicism as two sides of the coin. Both, in different ways seek to securely “place” God within a stable framework and in doing so objectify God in a way that Barth found extremely dangerous. In a quest to secure God’s givenness from within a stable historical framework, both Catholicism and liberal historicism resist accepting the grace of God which comes to us not as a given, but as an apocalyptic gift. Whether or not one accepts Barth’s critiques of Catholicism and liberal historicism (and I think they have purchase), it is certainly vital that we all remain attuned to the ideological temptations that beset all attempts to do theology. The gift is ever vulnerable to our attempts to turn it into a possessed given. And in resisting this temptation the witness of Barth is a vital one indeed.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

2009 Barth Blog Conference: Day 2

St. Paul and the Possibility of Natural Knowledge of God in Romans 1

By Shane Wilkins

Let's begin our investigation with a few quick definitions and distinctions. Revelation means either an act whereby God gives someone knowledge of himself or the knowledge so given. On the view I defend, revelation comes in two varieties, special and general. Special revelation involves God taking a special direct act different from his normal activity as the creator and sustainer of the cosmos. In general revelation God acts simply in his normal way as the creator and sustainer of the cosmos. Corresponding to the two kinds of revelation are the two kinds of knowledge which they produce. When God specially reveals himself we call the result special knowledge. Knowledge of God produced by general revelation is called natural knowledge of God because God reveals it indirectly by means of the created world. In both cases God brings revelation about: either directly by his own activity or indirectly by means of creaturely reality. Hence, both kinds of knowledge of God are properly understood as manifestations of God's grace or God's unmerited favor towards us.

Thomas Aquinas, following a venerable tradition, appeals to Romans 1 as the explicit theological authorization of the possibility of natural knowledge of God. Among modern biblical scholars Dunn, Black, Bayne and Fitzmeyer agree with Thomas that this text endorses the possibility of natural knowledge of God. Karl Barth, Cranfield, Barrett and Douglass Campbell endorse the opposite view that the text absolutely prohibits the possibility of natural knowledge of God.

I think there are three major pieces of evidence that show the tradition is correct and Barth and his followers are wrong. The first is purely exegetical. Reading Romans 1 in the context of the OT and intertestamental literature to which it alludes and also within its context in the first three chapters of the epistle strongly suggests that Paul believes the gentiles could have had knowledge of God without the benefit of special revelation. The second piece of evidence is the theological rationale behind the position Paul is adopting. How could God justly punish the gentiles for violating his law if it were impossible for them to know God's law or indeed whether God existed at all? The third piece of evidence for my view is the serious difficulties and inconsistencies that face the opposite interpretation. Since Paul either endorses the possibility of natural knowledge of God in this text or he does not, every difficulty in the latter interpretation strengthens the case for the former.
  1. Exegetical Evidence

    The first piece of exegetical evidence in favor of my position is the literary context of the passage. The OT wisdom literature assumes that it is justifiable to blame people for not knowing that God exists. Psalm 14 calls one who denies God's existence a fool (aphron). (Cf. also Isaiah 32:6.) Furthermore, Wisdom 13, to which Paul is directly alluding in Romans 1, links the ideas of foolishness and ignorance of God even more closely:
    [1] For all men were by nature foolish who were in ignorance of God, and who from the good things seen did not succeed in knowing him who is, and from studying the works did not discern the artisan; [2] But either fire, or wind, or the swift air, or the circuit of the stars, or the mighty water, or the luminaries of heaven, the governors of the world, they considered gods. [3] Now if out of joy in their beauty they thought them gods, let them know how far more excellent is the Lord than these; for the original source of beauty fashioned them. [4] Or if they were struck by their might and energy, let them from these things realize how much more powerful is he who made them. [5] For from the greatness and the beauty of created things their original author, by analogy, is seen. [6] But yet, for these the blame is less; For they indeed have gone astray perhaps, though they seek God and wish to find him. [7] For they search busily among his works, but are distracted by what they see, because the things seen are fair. [8] But again, not even these are pardonable. [9] For if they so far succeeded in knowledge that they could speculate about the world, how did they not more quickly find its LORD?
    The writer of Wisdom seems almost astonished. Given that the pagans (presumably he has in mind the Greek philosophers) have “so far succeeded in knowledge that they could speculate about the world,” one would assume they would continue thinking and discover the Lord. But, in fact, despite their successful study into the principles and causes of the natural world, they foolishly remained ignorant of the God who created it. Since Paul is alluding to this passage, it is very likely that he agrees with the conclusion of its author that those who do not know God are fools (cf. also Rom 2:20, where Paul says that Israel was supposed to be a instructor to the foolish, aphron again.) Further, the context of the remark in Wisdom and the parallel passage in Romans indicates that it is gentiles here who are being blamed for failing to know God.3 But of course no one is a fool for not knowing what cannot be known. There is no greatest prime number. Hence, I cannot be said to be foolish for failing to know what the greatest prime number is, just because that would be impossible for me to know. On the other hand, I may be a fool for having lost my keys precisely because I could have known where my keys were if only I had been a little more thoughtful and careful. One could scarcely blame the pagan philosophers for being ignorant of God if it were simply a priori impossible for them to have been otherwise. On the other hand, it makes a lot of sense to censure the pagans for their foolishness if it were possible for them to have had knowledge of God, which they failed to attain simply through lack of care or because they were led astray by their wicked desires. Two further clues tell us the kind of knowledge of God which the gentiles could have possessed is natural knowledge rather than special knowledge. First, the people being blamed are gentiles and so they do not possess special revelation. Second, the people singled out for censure are those who investigate the natural world most closely and so should be expected most easily to find out its creator.

    The second piece of important exegetical evidence is the context of Romans 1 in the first three chapters of Romans as a whole. A very simple and natural way to read these texts is to see 1:18ff. as a proclamation of divine wrath against the gentiles. Then in 2:2, Paul turns to condemning the sinfulness of Jews, which is, if anything, more inexcusable since they have direct revelation from God through the Law of Moses. The stunning conclusion comes in 3:10: “there is no one righteous, not one.” The point to which Paul is driving is that neither the Jews, nor the Gentiles are innocent before God, and so everyone stands in need of salvation by grace through faith. The theological point Paul is trying to make here requires that natural knowledge of God be possible in order to vindicate the righteousness of God's calling the gentiles to account for their sin, as we shall see in the next section.

  2. Theological Evidence

    It is unjust to punish someone for doing something they could not possibly have avoided doing. Further, we acknowledge that honest ignorance excuses: Suppose I buy a brand new car and ten minutes down the highway the brake lines snap resulting in a fatal accident. I say that in that case I am innocent; I had an honest ignorance of the tragedy that was going to take place, hence there wasn't anything I could have reasonable been expected to do to avoid it; hence I am not guilty for it. (The case might have been different if the car were old and generally unreliable, in which case one might think that I did have a reasonable ability to know that it was dangerous and therefore a duty to have it thoroughly inspected.)

    God condemns the gentiles and will punish them for their sins according to Paul. The theological problem here is how God can justly do so; for the gentiles might quite plausibly claim that their actions were undertaken in honest ignorance of God's commands since, after all, the law of Moses was not given to them and indeed they did not possess any special revelation by which to know whether God even exists! However, Paul responds that God is just to condemn the gentiles because God's law is already written on their hearts by nature (Rom 2:12-15). Indeed, in our passage in Romans 1 Paul says that “God's invisible qualities are manifest” and follows it with a result clause: “ . . . with the result that people are without excuse.” In other words, since the gentiles could have known about God's existence and his qualities because they were made manifest, and because they could have known his law since it was written on their hearts by nature (or more properly by the Author of nature), then it is perfectly just for God to punish them for failing in their duties.

    Paul's argument in Romans absolutely demands the possibility of natural knowledge of God. If it were Paul's position that natural knowledge of God were impossible, then God could not justly condemn the gentiles, and hence the conclusion would not follow in chapter 3 that everyone is guilty and liable to divine punishment and therefore in need of grace. Further, I think the possibility of natural knowledge of God is perfectly compatible with the Pauline emphasis upon the necessity of grace for knowledge of God, since as we have seen, according to Paul it is God himself who makes himself known through creation (v. 19). Further, the possibility of natural knowledge of God poses no threat to the notion that it is salvific faith requires special revelation by the direct action of the holy spirit, since there is no suggestion whatsoever in Paul that the possibility of natural knowledge of God suffices for salvific faith, so there is no backdoor for pelagianism here.

    I think these two pieces of evidence I've presented give a pretty strong reason to think that Paul is indeed holding out the possibility of natural knowledge of God here in Romans 1. The text demands it and it seems perfectly consistent with Paul's other theological commitments. But my case can be bolstered even further by briefly pointing out some of the enormous difficulties that face the contrary interpretation.

    Barth's exegesis of this passage in both his Romans commentary and in Church Dogmatics II/1 strikes me as vague and obscure. I don't see any good argument exegetical or otherwise in either of those texts for saying that natural knowledge of God isn't possible. All I see is Barth repeatedly asserting what he thinks about the matter. But what is asserted without proof can be denied without proof. Therefore natural knowledge of God is possible. QED.

    Cranfield and Douglass Campbell both accept Barth's interpretation, but they each also try to actually provide an exegetical argument to support that interpretation, so they deserve (slightly) more mention. Cranfield admits that Paul's text requires that we say that the pagans have knowledge of God, but he tries to save Barth's position by distinguishing between objective and subjective knowledge. (p. 113) Cranfield thinks that everyone has objective knowledge of God, but because of original sin, no one is capable of being subjectively aware of this knowledge. This is nonsense. Knowledge you cannot even in principle be aware of is not knowledge. Presumably the concern that leads Cranfield into holding this awkward conclusion is the worry about pelagianism. But I've already shown that my position does not entail pelagianism, so Cranfield's worry is beside the point.

    Campbell tries to save Barth's position in an entirely different way. He admits that all of the things Paul says in Romans 1 add up to an endorsement of the possibility of natural theology, but say that Paul is employing the literary device of prosopopeia, namely speaking not in his own voice but in the voice of his opponents to refute their position. This is an extremely unlikely interpretation for two reasons. First, simply because prosopopoeia is a fairly rare literary device in the NT, so we would need some fairly compelling reason to think Romans 1 is an instance of it. And we don't have any such compelling evidence. In fact, we've got a fairly strong lack of evidence. In prosopopoeia, usually we have a short pithy sentence expressing the opponent's position and then immediately a contradictory claim in the author's own voice refuting it. Cf. 1 Cor 8: “We all have knowledege. But knowledge puffs up, whereas love builds the church.” If you read these passages straight, they sound contradictory. You only punt to prosopopoeia to make the contradictions disappear. However, there is nothing contradictory about reading Romans 1 straight, as I have suggested above. So there's no good textual reason to postulate the existence of a very rare literary form like prosopopoeia. Second, there's no good theological reason to postulate it either, since, as I have tried to show above, the possibility of natural theology is broadly consistent with Paul's theology as a whole and his emphasis upon the necessity of grace. If my interpretation above was correct, then the things Paul says in Romans 1 about natural knowledge of God are broadly consistent with the rest of his theology and indeed are demanded by the overall argument of the first half of the book of Romans. Campbell thinks that Paul is saying all of this in the voice of his opponent. But that simply doesn't make any sense. Why would Paul say things that he agrees with and that serve to make his own point in the voice of his opponent?
I see no good exegetical reasons to suppose that Paul is doing anything in Romans 1 other than endorsing the possibility of natural theology. Indeed, I think all of those contrary interpretations are going to inevitably face insurmountable problems. Hence, we must admit that Paul believes natural knowledge of God to be possible.

Response by Lynn Cohick

Perhaps the most important point to keep in mind when reading Romans is that Paul presents the work of Christ to two groups, the Jews and the gentiles. He notes right up front that the gospel is for the Jew first and then the gentile (1:16). Why does he express it thus? Because the two groups know God or about God differently. The Jew, as Paul will state in chapters three and nine, has advantages which we would classify as special revelation: the promises, the Law, the prophets, the covenants, the Temple, the adoption, and the Messiah (according to the flesh). The gentile as a human bears God’s image, but does not live out God’s truth. The contrast between Jew and gentile is not only what they know or do not know, but also what they choose to do with that knowledge. For Paul, the gentile has knowledge of God but refuses to live according to it – that is, the gentile does not glorify the one true God or acknowledge his power and blessing.

Paul assumes in his argument the ancient institution of benefaction, wherein the gift giver expects honor from the one receiving the gift. Failure to thank a benefactor was unpardonable. In fact, Seneca remarks about a movement afoot to make it illegal to fail to publically honor or praise one’s benefactor (On Benefits 3:15-16). Seneca is against the measure, in part because he’s afraid that once a number of people are charged with such malfeasance, others will become numb to the gravity of the offense and follow suit. Seneca’s response reveals the commonly held assumption that the recipient of a gift MUST give honor to the giver or be judged a social outcast. Thus when Paul judges the gentiles’ failure to act on their knowledge of God, Paul is placing the gentiles’ actions within the institution of benefaction. He knew that his readers would be appalled that a recipient would fail to honor or thank their benefactor. Not only did the gentiles deny honor of their true benefactor, they set up a false benefactor. This is another way of describing idolatry. As Paul argues, it is not simply that idolaters have intellectual hang-ups about particular aspects of deity. No, the idolater stands in the center of town and in everyone’s presence declares allegiance to that which is not God.

But it is not only the idolater which is condemned, it is also the gentile who judges those idolaters but fails to understand the true problem underpinning the practice. The former has substituted one from of idolatry for another – a stone statue for human Reason. In both cases, the end result is failure to praise the one true God. Here I part company with Wilkins in one detail, in that I think 2:1 speaks about gentiles who embrace the popular philosophies of the day, such as Stoicism, which mock the superstitious attitudes and behaviors of their less educated country-folk. Paul, it should be noted, does not mention Jews directly until 2:17, when he tackling them on their failure to live out the truth of the law.

A second important aspect of Rom 1 and 2 which I do not have space to develop, is that of ‘doing’ belief. As Paul states, it is not those who hear who are justified, but those who do (2:13); it is those who live out their understanding of the one true God who are blessed (2:6-8). He presents humans as capable of acting outside the explicit knowledge of the law (special revelation) in ways which honor God their Benefactor. Their behaviors and attitudes are praiseworthy because they are consistent with God’s character. Knowledge of that character does not come from the special revelation given the Jews, thus it most likely comes from the natural revelation given by the Creator God.