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.


I want to thank Shannon for giving us in this post a very clear summary of Barth’s most extensive exegetical treatment of our text, and also Kevin for providing the penetrating response. Two points come to mind:

(1) It seems to me that a lot depends on how one takes Paul’s rhetorical force in this passage. Is the point that the Gentiles did in fact know better, or that they should have known better given what the Christian can see to be the case from within the orbit of Christ’s revelation? The latter account rules out natural knowledge of God; the former leaves it as a potential possibility, although not necessarily so.

(2) If Shannon, following Barth, is correct that Paul is using the Gentiles to represent basic humanity as a whole, then my suggestion that perhaps Paul is glossing the first 7 chapters of Genesis would be a live possibility. The more I think about this, the more I like it. Such midrashic renderings would be just the sort of thing one might expect from a well-trained pharisaic rabbi writing to a community that included at the very least a sizeable minority of Jews.
Shane said…
I'd like to register a complaint about a particular locution that Barth students seem to use a lot. They often say that it's important to take Barth's claims to be doing exegesis "at his word". That's well and good if what you mean is treating Barth as offering a commentary on the biblical text. But just because Barth says (or even thinks) that he's doing exegesis doesn't mean he is. So there's a distinction between taking him at this word and taking what he says at face value. I'm not offering this particularly as a criticism of Shannon, I just want to lodge a complaint.

So, to the matter at hand. Barth thinks that Romans 1 can't be endorsing the possibility of natural knowledge of God because that would contradict what he says in 1 Cor 2.

Presumably the passage Barth has in mind is this: "Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, the things God has prepared for them that love him . . . but the natural man receives not the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned."

All this passage implies is that there are some things "the things God has prepared" that are not knowable to the natural man. This, in itself, is no objection to natural theology, because the fact that all truths about God are not accessible by reason doesn't imply that none of them are. Nor has the natural theology tradition ever claimed that all the truths about God, his trinitarian nature, etc. were accessible by reason.

So a big swing and miss for Barth there.

The reason Barth misses so big, it seems to me, is precisely the one Kevin has pointed out. Barth cognizes only one kind of knowledge of God, the full, rich, deep experiential kind of knowledge that is produced by the miracle of faith. But, pace Barth (and pace David from an early comment thread), Paul does cognize several different kinds of knowledge. The sort of natural knowledge the gentiles possessed in Romans 1 obviously wasn't the deep, experiential salvific kind, but there's no suggestions here or elsewhere in Paul that it wasn't real knowledge, i.e. true beliefs about God.

Another quibble about Barth's position. Cranfield also punts for that split between objective and subjective knowledge. But that kind of distinction strikes me as incoherent. If 'objective' knowledge is knowledge you possess but can never act on because you must always be in principle unaware of it, then it isn't really knowledge. That's just not what 'knowledge' means. And Kevin is right again, Barth is simply importing this subjective/objective distinction into the text, trying vainly to rescue his desired conclusion from the plain sense of the text.

Further, I don't think Barth's argument about the context in the book of Romans is any good either. As I explained in my post earlier, I think the argument of Romans 1-3 actually requires the gentiles to be able to have some knowledge of God, precisely because the point I see Paul building up to is that God is just to condemn everyone for having sinned. But it would be unjust for God to condemn the gentiles if it were simply utterly impossible that they know anything about him. Therefore, in order for Paul's argument to really get to "for we have accused both Jews and Gentiles that they are both under sin" (Rom 3:9), he needs to say why the gentiles who don't have the law can nevertheless be justly held accountable for failing to live up to the measure of the knowledge of God they were able to have had.

It should be noted that Barth held joint chairs in both NT and Theology, and he taught exegesis classes throughout his career. So, if he thinks he’s doing exegesis, and has the credentials, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt.

Further, you consistently make this distinction between types of knowledge of God. That is precisely what we’re arguing about. I would be interested to hear your response to my above comment, which touches on these matters.

Also, I posted a comment with reflections on hermeneutics in the thread on day 2, which I don’t think you replied to (correct me if I’m wrong). The hermeneutic question is key here.

Finally, I seriously doubt that Paul is worried about the “just-ness” of God’s activity here. The entirety of Romans is about how God makes just a situation that is fundamentally unjust, and the way in which God does so is Christ. Furthermore it does not seem very just to give the Gentiles some nominal knowledge of God while also slapping them with restraints from the Fall (cf. Romans 5, et al) that are insurmountable but do not stem from their own doing, and then blaming them because they had this nominal knowledge.  
Shane said…

I'm perfectly willing to give Barth the benefit of the doubt that he's trying to do exegesis--that's why I'm finding fault with his exegesis, because it is bad. I'm just not willing to pretend that he's right about everything because he's Karl Barth.

As I said in another thread, I think it's perfectly consistent with the overall witness of the NT and with Paul's own usage to see 'knowledge of God' coming in two varieties. James speaks of a distinction between these two kinds of knowledge, as you've already admitted so we've got canonical grounds to go looking for such a distinction.

So let's look at the Pauline evidence. Paul uses "gnosis" or some inflection of it 23 times in the NT.

Paul usually uses the term to mean the kind of knowledge of God gained by grace through faith, and the connotation is obviously positive. Cf. Rom 11:33; 15:14; 1 Cor 1:5(?); 12:8; 2 Cor 2:14; 4:6; 6:6; 8:7; 10:5; Eph 3:19; Phil. 3:8; Col 2:3.

In some cases, however, Paul seems to have a much more minimal understanding of what 'knowledge of God' amounts to: Rom 2:20; 1 Cor 1:5(?); 8:1, 7, 10; 13:8; 2 Cor 11:6; 1 Tim 6:20. So I think there is some justification for finding two kinds of knowledge in Paul, even though the first kind is obviously the sort most important to him and the sort he discusses more often. But that's what we should expect--Paul is an apostle trying to preach the gospel, not a philosopher trying to extend the limits of human knowledge.

One quick point about this last case in that list above. 1 Tim is the only place where I see Paul suggesting that pagan knowledge might actually be false. I think Paul's point there probably actually segues with what he wants to say in Romans 1: that it was possible for the gentiles to have knowledge of God, but they were perverted in their investigations by their bad desires and so it is no wonder they actually believe all these fables and lame arguments by which they think to oppose the truths we know about God on the basis of revelation.

And I certainly agree with Paul there. If natural science or philosophy has an argument that purports to prove some claim essential to the Christian faith to be false, then it is not a genuine piece of knowledge that the philosophers have discovered, but only a sort of science "falsely so called". But that does not imply that for all the other matters on which the philosophers have discovered things consonant with the christian faith that those bits of knowledge are also 'falsely so called'.

So I don't see any good reason for a general opposition to the idea of there being two kinds of knowledge in Paul. In fact the only reason I can think of to hold that Paul has only kind of concept for knowledge is an apriori commitment to Barth's being right about Romans 1 at whatever cost.

As to your objection about God's justice, I think it's important to realize that God doesn't 'slap them with the consequences of the Fall" in the sense of actively frustrating their ability to know and do good. Since God simply observes, but does not cause, the corruption of the gentiles' consciences he can legitimately punish them for that corruption.

I looked back through the comments earlier and couldn't find the hermeneutic point you were wanting me to address. Could you re-present it for me and I'll try to answer as far as I'm able.

All of your "arguments" have rested on this basic claim: "Well, that's not what Paul says in Romans 1."

This leads me to the conclusion that you think that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, Romans 1:19-21 is the hermeneutical key to Paul's theology. That is, you think Rom. 1:19-21 is the clear text, and all of the rest of Paul's letters must be explained in light of what Paul says there.

I think precisely the opposite is the case. Rom. 1:19-21 is the obscure text which needs to be explained in light of the rest of Paul's corpus. The claims you extract from these verses have no corroboration anywhere else in Paul's letters. And if you take 1 Cor. 1-2 (I think the first chapter is even more important than the second) and Phil. 2 seriously, you have grounds for rethinking the tradition on Rom. 1.

But of course you don't want to rethink Rom. 1. You want to uphold the tradition because it gives you justification for engaging in philosophical apologetics. It is the pursuit of apologetics that forms the origin, basis, and goal of your reading of Paul. Everything is subordinate to this enterprise.

My claim would be that it is precisely philosophical apologetics which is the extra-biblical import into Paul's letters, not Barth's theological commitments. You can say all you want about different kinds of knowledge, but the one indisputable fact of Rom. 1:19-21 is that it is bracketed by Paul's proclamation of the gospel and is inexplicable outside of this context. By extracting these verses from their context, by engaging in proof-texting, you do violence to Paul — and all for the sake of justifying your own philosophical interests. You are manipulating Paul to serve your own ends, and there is no justification for that.
Unknown said…
Barth scholarship has got to be one of the most insular and self-referential scholarly fields in existence. The entirety of it is obvious to Barthians and borderline nonsense to everyone else. The only one that is having violence done to him is Shane. He's at least trying to speak in a way that attempts to move beyond question begging... for which he is accused of question begging. Do you guys pay him to show up for these things or is he just a masochist?
By the way, Shane, I'm not suggesting that philosophy is a waste of time or that Christian philosophers can't think rationally about the claims of theology. But what I reject is the notion that philosophers have their own access to truth about God outside of Jesus Christ which allows them to make competing claims about God. Either we find God where God has given Godself to be found, or we simply engage in speculation that may have interest for some but is not relevant to the church.

I am all for thinking rigorously and philosophically, but I question the entire motive behind positing a natural knowledge of God. It seems like a very suspect way of legitimating the vocation of the "Christian philosopher."

Shane, David, and I are friends from college, where we all lived on the same dorm floor. Shane and I were even room-mates for a year. So, he's not a masochist. This is just an extension of the conversations we have when we get together around beer or anything else. :-)

Also: yeah, yeah yeah. We get called something like 'fideist' on a regular basis, and it doesn't bother us much. ;-)


You and I have conversations going in multiple threads. I'm going to work on a reply and try to consolidate it all here for convenience.
Bobby Grow said…
Shannon and Kevin, thank you.


I like what you have to say here, you sound like Calvin, in fact. But you seem to nuance your position a little differently. In other words your not dichotomizing this situation into an either/or (per Shane, either there is Natural Theology, or there isn't).

Could you elaborate on how you might differ from Shane's approach to this issue? I'm not trying to facilitate or foster a debate between you and Shane (even though I'm the oldest child in my family, with two younger sibblings ;-); I genuinely would like to know how you parse your perspective differently from Shane as the foil.
Lucy said…

I am wondering to what end you want to defend the possibility of natural knowledge of God. David speaks of your interest in philosophical appologetics. Is this right?

Or another way to ask the question: What kind of natural knowledge do you want to claim as possible? Knowledge arrived at from rational argument, or knowledge that is somehow innate in every human consciousness, apart from the excerise of rational argument?

That is, in what way is knowledge of God naturally available to us? Is it like physics and astronomy, in that we have to work at uncovering the basic laws at work in the universe, or is it like certain types of physcology, that works largely with what humans experience in their subjectivities behind and before the excersise of rigorous intentional logic?

Does this question make sense?
Shane said…
@ Hill,

God has gracious provided me with David and Travis in order that I learn patience in all things.

@ David,

I don't think Romans 1 is the core of Paul's theology--but I do think its pretty vital for figuring out what he might have thought about natural knowledge of God.

You can keep accusing me of reading my own desired conclusions into Romans one if you like, but I think it's pretty clear to anyone considering the matter dispassionately that Barth's the one desperately casting about for any possible way to make his beloved rejection of natural theology come out square with the biblical data. Even if he has to import an obviously fabricated and nonsensical distinction between objective and subjective knowledge.

@ Lucy,

I want to defend the possibility of natural knowledge of God because I regard it as an empirical question whether anything is provable about God philosophically or not. That's a question for philosophers to resolve, not for theologians to pronounce a priori upon and then pretend that the issue is settled about. Imagine if Barth had found it necessary to reject the claim that the sky is blue in order to defend the cogency of his rejection of natural theology. There would be droves of dissertations on the significance and theological epistemology that underlies Barth's courageous break from the tradition of 'metaphysical' meteorology. But no good Barthian could ever be troubled to open a window outside and look, of course. For that's not how theology's done.

I'm not sure I'm clear on your second question. Are you asking whether metaphysical claims like claims about the nature and existence of God are really somehow just artifacts of the human cognitive apparatus rather than being things that exist in reality, or something like that?
Kevin Davis said…
Unfortunately, I have been at work all day (and most of this week). I appreciate the points made, and, when I'm not so tired, I will get to read them more carefully.

I do agree with Shane that Barth fails to interpret Paul as talking about a genuine knowledge of God that is different from the knowledge of Christ. I think we can clearly demonstrate that Barth is reading post-Kantian concerns back into Paul -- epistemological problems that are totally foreign to Paul.

And, I've yet to be convinced that general revelation compromises the interpretive norm of special revelation, especially when our language (analogies) used in theological discourse is largely derived from the former (nature).

Here is the hermeneutics bit – it is from one of my comments (perhaps my first) on your post:

“I appreciate all the leg-work you did in getting into the background to this passage, and looking at the commentaries, etc. Your point about Campbell seems convincing. Lynn has added some very helpful bits as well (such as the notion of embodied knowing). But, I would argue that all this leg-work is really only the first stage of interpreting Scripture. The next step is to integrate a particular passage into an account of the canonical whole that takes into consideration certain dominant trajectories of thought. This is what Barth has done, and sometimes that means reading a passage in a way that, though it is a plausible reading, is not perhaps the most plausible from the standpoint of that particular text alone. One reason why this is acceptable is that it is not the mind of Paul that is authoritative – it is the text we have from him. Undeniably, understanding Paul’s context, etc, is important to help us understand the text he gave us at the most basic level – this is what you did – but it is the text as taken up into the canonical whole, and as a witness to Christ, that is authoritative. This is what Barth was on about, and what those of us trying to follow him want to affirm. Basically, we’re trying to read the Bible as a book about God precisely because it is a book about Jesus.”

I only pointed out Barth’s qualifications because you seemed to call into question whether he was in fact doing exegesis. Now that that is settled, we can focus again on whether his exegesis is any good. :-)

I don’t think I ever admitted your point about James.

All your discussion of ‘gnosis’ in Paul suggests to me is that the term is not technical for him. As for your passages, Romans 2.20 is about knowledge through the Law; 1 Cor 1.5 refers to knowledge with reference to Christ; 1 Cor 8.1 refers to those Paul addresses, not those outside of the gospel’s orbit, as does verse 10 while verse 7 is not concerned with knowledge of God; 1 Cor 13.8 refers to a spiritual gift of knowledge; 2 Cor 11.6 is not concerned with knowledge of God; and I would suggest cheekily that 1 Tom 6.20 refers to your position. ;-P

The key here is how we determine what is “consistent with the Christian faith,” and this is precisely what we have been arguing about. Something is consistent, we seem to agree, if it is exegetically fitting. I’m willing to grant you that your reading of Romans 1 is plausible, and I might even go so far as to say that it is the most plausible given that text alone. But, I also think Barth’s is plausible, and that it fits much better given the canonical whole and the dominant theological trend lines we see there.

I agree with you point about divine justice. My point is simply that I don’t think this is a very big concern for Paul, so I don’t think it ought to be too much of a consideration in interpreting Rom 1.
Shane (again) and others,

Do David and I get to claim you as an instrument of God teaching us patience as well? ;-P

I’m not sure the distinction between objective and subjective knowledge is much more farfetched than that between saving and non-saving knowledge of God. Each side just likes one or the other better. ;-)

I don’t see how God’s existence or any other knowledge of God could be an empirical question. In other comments I have reflected on the doctrine of creation to this end. There is precious little empirical that theology seeks to maintain: the existence of Jesus of Nazareth is about it. Any reference to God qua God (which, we would argue, is only possible on the basis of Jesus) is not possible on the basis of empirical inquiry. Luckily, Scripture never asks us to believe the sky is green.

Again, I would refer to my hermeneutics bit above – this, I think, is the key battleground.
Unknown said…
Again, I want to point folks to Berger's "signals of transcendence"—which is quite the empirical inquiry. In an interview in The Christian Century, Berger states in response to a question about where he is today, epistemologically, that…

"In my early youth I was sort of a neo-orthodox fanatic of a Lutheran variety [read: more Barthian than Barth]. I don't think I was a fanatic in a personally disagreeable way, but intellectually I was. And then I got out of that…."

And so he now considers there to be signals of transcendence all over the place (an impossibility, I suppose, for Barthians or fideists of any sort?). Such signals are clues or signs that lead people to consider the possibility that human nature and the nature of the world are not accidents of chance. Rather, humans and nature are ordered by something greater than themselves from which they derive meaning. These "signals" are not proofs, but pointers beyond themselves to universals, or principles of reality, upon which existence itself is ordered and built.

To be sure, questions about God's existence and the knowledge of God, from a Christian perspective, entail more than this, but certainly not less. So, while most references to God qua God might be subject to your point about empirical inquiry, WTM, it's simply not the case that any reference to God qua God is not possible on the basis of empirical, or inductive, inquiry.
Shane said…
Well Travis, my response to what you're saying should already be well known to you. But I'll trace it out here again, for the sake of stating it publicly.

Sometimes in order to support a big overall theory (whether an interpretive position or a philosophical theory, or whatever) you have to make a holistic case that doesn't rely on your theory's making perfect sense of every single particular item it's supposed to cover, but providing the best explanation of the greatest number of items.

I agree with that point completely. Further, I'll even grant you that to be completely fair to Barth we would have to consider his position as a whole, but obviously we aren't going to be able to do that in this blog-format. I'm not sure you could even do a task like that in the length of a monograph.

However, at this stage in the conversation, I don't think the holistic route is going to justify Barth's position on Romans 1 either because every particular text we've looked at does not seem naturally to support Barth's position. John 1 and 1 Cor 2 can be made to sound Barthian, but, I submit, only by reading the Barthian convictions into them. I don't think that's the most natural ways of reading those texts. And I suspect, by inducting over past failures in Barth's exegesis, that most of the texts he would draw on for that holistic support of his view are going to be similar.

You can build a holistic case for an overall view that gets a couple particulars wrong. Barth's view gets all the particulars wrong, as far as I can see, so I don't see how a holistic case is going to help him.

To be fair, of course, we haven't dealt in any depth or detail with some of these other passages. But that's because that wasn't our primary focus for this blog conference, right? This was supposed to be about Barth's exegesis of Romans 1, right?

tl;dr, you're hermeneutic point is correct, but it doesn't get Barth off the hook; it just postpones his execution.

Incidentally, I just spent some time on ATLA looking for NT articles on the concept of knowledge in Paul. There are none, that I could find. But the question is obviously important, so perhaps researching this out and writing it up could be a little feather in one of your exegetically-minded reader's caps. Just a suggestion. At any rate, if we want to write the big book titled "Why Barth Is Wrong" this could be a chapter.

I admit that there are aspects about the world we inhabit that seem to raise questions about something beyond that world, i.e., the problem of an infinite causal regression. But, raising questions is a far different thing than giving answers however limited or tentative. Answers to these questions are always human constructs with unverifiable truth-values, unless - of course, it is the answer revealed in Christ.


You suggest that we are reading Barthian themes into texts. It looks equally like you are reading your own themes (2 sorts of knowledge of God) into text. You say that this is legitimate given Romans 1 as a foundation for such a distinction. Fine, we argue on the contrary that our move is legitimate given other passages. It is true that these other passages were not the point of this conference(let the record show that I only brought up John 1 - all other passages have been introduced by other people), but the point of the other passages is simply to show that the whole can be read in multiple directions.

The more basic, exegetical point limited to Romans 1 is this - both readings are plausible. Even if I were to grant your reading a certain greater degree of plausibility as far as this single text is concerned, that does not rule out reading the text in the direction we are. That is the point of my above hermeneutical reflections. And, I think we have to do things in this manner lest we fall back into something like Charles Hodge's way of reading Scripture and doing theology.
Tim said…
@ David,

I don't think Romans 1 is the core of Paul's theology--but I do think its pretty vital for figuring out what he might have thought about natural knowledge of God.

You can keep accusing me of reading my own desired conclusions into Romans one if you like, but I think it's pretty clear to anyone considering the matter dispassionately that Barth's the one desperately casting about for any possible way to make his beloved rejection of natural theology come out square with the biblical data. Even if he has to import an obviously fabricated and nonsensical distinction between objective and subjective knowledge.

I would like to return to this moment between David, our sharp-penned Barthian Gabriel, and Shane, the cunning philosopher. Let's take a step back from this heated exchange over Romans 1, shall we? Let's just, for a minute, consider who it is we're talking about when we talk about the authors of the New Testament. These were Hellenized Jews. These were Greeks. I submit to you that not a single one of them would have recognized Barth's rejection of natural theology as something they would have been interested in doing. John's logos becomes unintelligible to John himself. Paul's appeal to the law of nature becomes unhinged. Of course, the Barthians think this is a good thing for some bizarre reason, but I would submit that this inclination comes merely from a disdain for modern liberalism, which in itself is surely wicked - but it's not worth sacrificing the intellectual and historical context which gave rise to biblical revelation.

The problem with Barth's biblicism is that it pits "static" Hellenism against a "dynamic" Hebraism -- a dichotomy that is impossible to prove as having held sway in the first, second, third, fourth, or fifth centuries. Harnack's ghost looms large.

You really ought to read more in the field of hermeneutics. It is probably the key legacy of the Enlightenment that almost everyone today, both conservative and liberal, thinks that the "meaning" or "significance" of Scripture is found in the original authorial intent. But this is myth, an illusion. You can't get back to the original authors, nor should you. The text itself is the authoritative Word, and it speaks anew to each generation by the power of the Spirit. There is certainly a place for historical exegesis. But historical criticism is the prelude to the interpretive task, not the conclusion. I can't spell it out all here, so I'll point you to Hans Frei's work, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative. But really, almost any hermeneutical text will do, particularly contemporary theological hermeneutics. The meaning of Scripture is not found in returning to some original intention in the past; it is found in the faithful and obedient hearing of God's Word here and now in the present.
ken oakes said…

It is simply wrong to assume that Barth pits "pits "static" Hellenism against a "dynamic" Hebraism." I could point you to a variety of places to prove the contrary (CD I/1, the sections on Scripture in CD 1/2, and the discussion of "the Greeks" in CD III/2), but really...
Shane said…

I utterly reject the notion that I'm reading the theme of two different kinds of knowledge in Paul into this text in Romans 1. I think the text itself forces you to make that kind of distinction. In fact, I've been extremely perplexed that you and David have tried to object to my finding two different kinds of knowledge in Paul precisely because Barth himself thinks there's two kinds of knowledge in Paul. If my interpretation of Paul is wrong for positing two kinds of 'knowledge' without sufficient independent exegetical evidence to meet your exacting standards, then why are you more than willing to grant Barth has distinction which also posits two kinds of knowledge? Even Barth himself recognizes that Paul calls what the gentiles here possess 'knowledge' and that it is clearly not the same as the knowledge of God that the true Christian believer has. I'm trying to suss that distinction out in terms amenable to the NT text itself and in the light of the whole of the canon. (By the way, it is simply obtuse to claim that there aren't two kinds of knowledge operative in James). Barth, on the other hand, is importing a subjective/objective distinction that is couched in the language of nineteenth century neo-kantian philosophy. I simply cannot imagine that Paul could have thought of the matter at hand in the terms that Barth explains it by, whereas I can easily imagine Paul thinking of the matter in the terms that I've laid out.

So I completely reject your tu quoque defense of Barth's eisegesis of this passage.
Shane said…

Rumors of the death of the author have been greatly exaggerated.
Tim said…

You really ought to drop the patronizing tone. In general.

I can't spell it out all here, so I'll point you to Hans Frei's work, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative. But really, almost any hermeneutical text will do, particularly contemporary theological hermeneutics. The meaning of Scripture is not found in returning to some original intention in the past; it is found in the faithful and obedient hearing of God's Word here and now in the present.

Indeed, I am familiar with this line, but I have found it wanting. We kill the author but then presume to assert the life of the text? So much for "the spirit giveth life." "Hermeneutics" is an intellectual blank check. History matters. Aren't you Barthians and your historicized christology supposed to be pointing us to God's "particular revelation"? Furthermore, I don't need to get back to some pure original authorial intent to know that twisting Romans 1 into Barthian biblicism doesn't represent the spirit of the text. And I don't need to develop a German education in Hellenistic history to know that.
Shane said…

If you're in the NYC area, email me. I want to buy you a beer.
Tim said…

I wish I were in NYC, too. Then we could speculate about what God might be like based on our knowledge of the creation. And then go sacrifice goats or something cool.
Unknown said…
I would fly to NY to participate in any theurgy that you guys might be planning.
It is impossible to compete with snark of this quality! C'mon guys, play fair!

*runs off to pout
Shane said…
Here's what I do whenever I feel confused or perplexed about some thorny theological issue. I go to the little picture of Karl Barth that I have in my apartment and light some candles in front of it. Then I offer KB a little beer and some pipe tobacco and say a little prayer to ask him for his help. As I pray, suddenly I realize I don't have to think to figure out my dilemma, I just have to say that Jesus Christ is the answer to the problem and call it a day.

Derek said…
Tim & Shane,

Great sarcasm! Shane, while i lean more towards David & Travis' perspective, my theological convictions are relativized in the light of free dark liquids :)

So, if part of your "ceremony" involves baptizing converts, count me in.
Tim said…

Thank you for the warm reception of our banter, which, given my original intentions (unarticulated to you in any communication apart from this), proves that I as the author am not in fact dead, but am very much alive! Hurrah! Thank God! Let the baptisms begin!!
I've discovered the underlying problem with your camp - you're all credo-baptists!!!!
Derek said…

Well i hope you (and shane) are alive; the text in these blog comments sure aren't buying me a beer later! Perhaps that should be the criteria for who/what controls the meaning of texts.
Tim said…
Also, this is incisive and indirectly apposite, especially to the poise of Congdon. In particular, this:

Governing the quest for 'primal Christianity,' whether taking longer or shorter routes, are astonishing and, in my view, utterly incredible convictions which have dominated a great part of Christian theology for the last two centuries. To have faith in its possible success, we are required to believe that the philosophies which have determined the theological enterprises of our centuries are closer to the mentality of Patristic Christianity than is the philosophy which enabled both its formation and propagation. We are also required to accept that, if we strip away the nearly two millennia which constructed our difference from the Apostolic age, the Christian saints and their Saviour thus uncovered look more like us than they resemble their Hellenistic contemporaries because they really are more like us! Moreover, we must allow that philosophy in Antiquity and the Middle Ages has the same relation to experience as that posited by the most enervated anti-metaphysical philosophies of our own time. A successful espolio will require that Ancient and Medieval philosophies, even Platonism and Aristotelianism, are mere conceptual structures which neither give nor imply an experience of being. Despite what the texts themselves and the historians of philosophy teach, the anti-metaphysical (not to say anti-philosophical and anti-doctrinal) theological project requires that these philosophies can be put on or taken off by an independently established religious experience in a way comparable to our changing coats. This is to be accepted despite the well-established scholarly judgment that religion and philosophy are bound together in the Patristic period.
Tim said…
*should read "pose" of Congdon.

Hermeneutics is a "blank check"? Says who? You? Look, no one is questioning the importance of history. What I think one has to question is the notion that doing the historical work on a text someone exhausts the text's meaning.

In biblical exegesis, the position of Krister Stendahl represents this perfectly. I've already critiqued this, however briefly, in my own contribution to this blog conference. Are you suggesting that Stendahl's position is the right one? Or do you have an alternative beyond empty assertions like "history matters"?

(If you don't want me to sound patronizing, then say something with real substance.)

I also don't know what you expect me to make of that quote. Are you simply saying that we can't differentiate between theology and philosophy? That if we claim to be theological descendants of the church fathers that we are bound to accept their philosophical commitments as well? Simply posting a quote without commentary is meaningless. You seem to think the point is self-evident, but it isn't.

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