Karl Barth Reading Group – Week 4

(Below you will find the fourth installment of my notes prepared for the Karl Barth reading group that I am currently co-leading here at PTS.)

§ 5. The Nature of the Word of God

The Word of God in all its three forms is God’s speech to man. For this reason it occurs, applies and works in God’s act on man. But as such it occurs in God’s way which differs from all other occurrence, i.e., in the mystery of God.

[1] The Question of the Nature of the Word of God

Barth begins with a longish fine print section wherein he interacts with some of those who reviewed his original dogmatics, which we know today as the Göttingen Dogmatics and which Barth tends to call the ‘first draft.’ Primary among these reviewers who Barth addresses are F. Gogarten, and this fine print section is basically devoted to addressing him. This material is full of little gems including discussions of the difference between anthropology and properly theological anthropology, natural theology, the relation of Luther to Schleiermacher and Feuerbach, and perhaps most importantly, Barth’s self-critique of his work in GD. (125-131)

There is only one large print paragraph in this sub-section. Here Barth consolidates the thrust of what he said in the fine print and ties it in to the preceding §4. The problem Barth has set before himself here is talking about the nature of the Word of God, and this is as hard as speaking of God’s nature. The being of God and God’s word is not something that we can discover but something that “God Himself must constantly tell us afresh.” Barth is much more confident in talking about ‘how’ the Word of God is, and in speaking of the ‘how’ we indirectly speak of the ‘what’ of God’s Word. This is the goal of the following subsections that deal with God’s Word as God’s Speech, God’s Speech as God’s Act, and God’s Speech as God’s Mystery. (131-132)

[2] The Word of God as the Speech of God

“God’s Word means that God speaks.” Furthermore, when God speaks, God also acts; or better, God’s speech is God’s act. Further still, God’s speech, which is God’s act, is also God’s mystery. Barth is concerned with the first bit in this section, and so he asks what it means for the notion of the ‘Word of God’ to say that the Word of God is the Speech of God. (132-133)

(1) “It implies first of all the spiritual nature of the Word of God as distinct from naturalness, corporeality, or any physical event.” The Word of God certainly is natural and corporeal and physical event, but it is not primarily these things because it must remain transcendent as God is transcendent. Furthermore, its naturality and spirituality (in the sense of Holy Spirit) are not equal, but the spirituality is primary.[1] Furthermore, the Word of God is rational and not irrational, primarily in the sense that it is heard, understood and obeyed. It is all these things primarily in its spiritual or transcendent aspect, but it also has what Barth calls “natural force.” The naturality of God’s Word may and must be employed in theology and church life, but not without remembering that the transcendent aspect is primary. It is the “spiritual sphere” and not the “natural sphere” which is at issue. (133-136)

(2) “God’s Word means that God speaks. This implies secondly its personal quality.” This is a corollary of the first point: if it is not the natural aspect but the spiritual or transcendent aspect that is primary in the Word of God, then our attention is directed not primarily toward the content of the natural form of that Word but to its speaker. Furthermore, God’s personal speech is always concrete, which leads Barth to again confirm that “God’s revelation is Jesus Christ.” Thus, all system building in theology is ruled out because we are concerned not with a first principle but a person. “The only system in Holy Scripture and proclamation is revelation, i.e., Jesus Christ.” Still, the personal character of God’s Word is not in competition with the verbal character. God is free in relation to the verbal character, but the verbal character is not free in relation to God. (136-139)

(3) “God’s Word means that God speaks. But this implies thirdly what one might call the purposive character of the Word of God.” This section begins with an apology for God’s freedom. God could have not created; God’s Word is real beyond our hearing because of the inter-trinitarian relations. This means that the ‘purposiveness’ of God’s Word is entirely free purpose. Part of this purposiveness is the fact that God always speaks concretely; not in a general way but directed specifically to each hearer. God does not loose freedom in this event of speaking because what God says is always different from what we can say. Barth develops four sub-points to this notion: “First, the Word of God as directed to us is a Word which we do not say to ourselves and which we could not in any circumstances say to ourselves…Secondly, the Word of God as this Word of the Lord directed to us is the Word which aims at us and smites us in our existence…He who makes Himself heard here is the One to whom we belong…Thirdly, the Word of God as the Word of the Creator directed to us is the Word which has obviously become necessary and is necessary as a renewal of the original relation between us and Him[2]…Fourthly and finally the Word of God as the Word of reconciliation directed to us is the Word by which God announces Himself to man, i.e., by which He promises Himself as the content of man’s future.” (139-143)

[3] The Speech of God as the Act of God

While there is a difference between the speech and the act of a human being, the speech of God does not require supplemental act because it “is itself the act of God.” God’s Word and speech actually changes things in the word. What does it mean that God’s speech is God’s act? (143-145)

(1) “The fact that God’s Word is God’s act means first its contingent contemporaneity.” The main problem here is Lessing and his “ugly, wide ditch,” that is, historical distance from God’s revelation in Christ. Barth does not want to collapse revelation into human history in an effort to cross this ditch. The problem is not a problem just because it is God who speaks in Scripture and proclamation, just as the previous sections have discussed. So, in this event of God’s speech, what is clearly for us a matter of ‘there and then’ is with respect to God’s speech a matter of ‘here and now.’ (145-149)

(2) “The fact that God’s Word is God’s act implies secondly its power to rule.” God’s speech as God’s act means that Christ’s lordship makes a claim upon us in the hearing of this speech. Again, God’s Word and speech are effective, grasping us and claiming us for Christ’s lordship. It is not faith that brings about the effect of God’s Word and speech, but God’s Word and speech that creates faith. Brief mention of topics: Law / Gospel relation, church / world relation, sin, baptism, Spirit / Word relation. (149-156)

(3) “The fact that the Word of God is the act of God means thirdly that it is decision. This is what distinguishes an act from a mere event.” This seems to be a reprise of the ‘purposiveness’ theme that arose earlier.[3] He does this here under three sub-points: (a) the Word of God is real in a unique way, it is uncreated as God is uncreated, and it must give itself to be known; (b) because the Word of God is uniquely real and therefore free, “it always implies choice in relation to man;” (c) “the Word of God works on and in a decision of the man to whom it is spoken,” which he goes on to describe thusly, “I am wholly and altogether the man I am in virtue of the divine decision. In virtue of the divine decision I am a believer or an unbeliever in my own decision.” (156-162)

[4] The Speech of God as the Mystery of God

Barth is here concerned with ensuring that we do not become too confident in speaking about God’s speech as though we could speak about it like we speak about anything else. We cannot prove that we are speaking of the Logos, and if we try to prove it, we only prove that we are not! God’s Word is sui generis (of its own kind or category) and therefore it falls outside of anything that we are capable of grasping on the basis of our own potentialities. Thus, we must recognize our limits with respect to God’s Word, and this is what it means to speak of God’s speech as God’s mystery.[4] This is treated in three sub-points: (162-165)

(1) “The speech of God is and remains the mystery of God supremely in its secularity.” This is to say that God’s speech comes in a form that is entirely unsuited to it, and that we only have access to this speech in this unsuitable form.[5] Even when God acts in unveiling, God remains veiled. The unveiling happens only in and with the veil. We cannot read revelation directly off of its veiled form because the form is unsuitable; God must interpret the form. This is followed by some fine print which deal with theologia crucis and theologia gloriae. At the very end of this sub-point we get some fine print material on the analogia entis as well as Barth’s affirmation that God’s existence pro nobis has its foundation in God’s existence in se. (165-174)

(2) “The speech of God is and remains the mystery of God in its one-sidedness.” We never interact with both the secular form and the divine content of the Word of God except through faith. It is faith that perceives the side which we do not at present discern, regardless of which side this happens to be. But, both sides must always be involved to faith because “The secular form without the divine content is not the Word of God and the divine content without the secular form is also not the Word of God.” Faith acknowledges our limit with respect to God’s mystery. The veiling of the Word of God is God’s claiming of the human person (Law?), and the content of that Word is God’s turning to the human person (Gospel?). God’s wrath is the “hard shell” of God’s grace. (174-181)

(3) “The speech of God is and remains the mystery of God in its spirituality.” In this last sub-section we reach (as usual) the heart of Barth’s point. ‘Spirituality’ here means the Holy Spirit, who is the agent of our hearing of God’s speech – and that is the point. “The Lord of speech is also the Lord of our hearing.” We do not hear God’s speech on the basis of our own capacity or activity, but on the basis of God’s own activity as Holy Spirit. That means that God’s speech (and our hearing) is in the realm of human experience, but not of that realm, and can thus not be possessed or “domesticated.” (181-186)

[1] Barth’s use of spirituality here is tricky, seeming sometimes to reference the Holy Spirit and sometimes to reference human spirituality. On another note, this ordering principle is in keeping with an an/en-hypostatic Christology.
[2] One wonders on the basis of this very brief section as to whether or not Barth is as thoroughly supralapsarian in his conceptions as he would later become.
[3] Barth seems to be covering the doctrine of predestination here in the sense that he did in the Göttingen Dogmatics (§18) with reference to the reception or hearing of God’s Word / speech, although it doesn’t come out explicitly (i.e., the specific terms ‘election’ or ‘predestination’ don’t show up as far as I can tell).
[4] What I take the be the fundamental point of this whole section is given by Barth in the short fine print section on page 165: “Mystery is the concealment of God in which He meets us precisely when He unveils Himself to us, because He will not and cannot unveil Himself except by veiling Himself.” This is parallel to Barth’s affirmation in §4 that “The direct Word of God meets us only in this twofold mediacy” of Scripture and proclamation (121).
[5] We can discern Calvin’s notion of accommodation in the depth grammar of this point, and throughout this section.


duckmonkey said…
I'm also 100% positive that the "first edition/draft" is not the Göttingen Dogmatics but Die christliche Dogmatik im Entwurf, which falls between Göttingen and CD I/1.
duckmonkey said…
Sorry, this is David Congdon. I'm on my wife's Google account. :)
That's such a funny picture...

Anyway, you are likely correct. Of course, im Entwurf was a revision / re-writing of Gottingen. They are all of a piece.
I meant to say "almost 100% positive," not "also." But you're right, they are of one piece.
I thought it was Amy making fun of us! Oh well. :-)
Dear WTM,

I love this quote: “Mystery is the concealment of God in which He meets us precisely when He unveils Himself to us, because He will not and cannot unveil Himself except by veiling Himself." I did not catch from which of Barth's works this is taken--would you please give the full citation?


It is a great quote! It comes from Church Dogmatics paragraph 5, which is in I/1, page 165 (at least that is the page number I have above).

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