Barth, Torrance, and Knowledge of God

Barth and Torrance put a lot of effort into attacking a priori knowledge of God and establishing knowledge of God grounded in Christian experience as the dominant form of knowing God – basically, kataphatic instead of apophatic, positive over negative. Apophatic theology is seen as a form of knowledge of God grounded not in God’s self-revelation but in our conceptual schemes – we cannot say what God is, only what He is not. Torrance and Barth didn’t like this (Barth sides with Barlaam in the ‘Dogmatics’).

A big motivation here was the (in)famous point of contact – which Barth and Torrance denied quite vehemently. True knowledge of God doesn’t arise out of our own abstract speculations about God apart from His revelation – it only comes about as a result of His revelation. God not only gives knowledge of Himself out of Himself, He creates the condition necessary for knowledge of Himself.

That the heart is turned inward upon itself was and is a key point in the theology of the Reformation, and one with which I find myself in full agreement. The Truth must come from outside of man as well as the necessary condition for receiving and continuing on in the knowledge of the truth, and this means that the Teacher must also be a Healer.

The inward turning of the heart means that there is no ‘natural’ point of contact in man then. Apart from the healing which comes from without, the darkening of man’s heart by sin distorts the light of natural revelation (which is seen, distorted though it may be, in things such as broad shared moral principles common to all cultures) and leads to death.

The basic point that Barth and Torrance made, without going into the very dense language used by both of them, is that knowledge of God can only come from God in his own self-communication and self-revelation in Jesus Christ – there is no abstract knowledge of God apart from his self-revelation in Christ.


Musings on Revelation

Let’s say that revelation is the act of God’s disclosure to us. God’s revelation involves communicating true things about Himself – but it is not limited to only propositional data. God’s revelation is of a personal type – but to have true knowledge of anything, one must being in some kind of existential relation to it. On our own we cannot have such a relation with God – the establishing of such a relation is an act of divine grace alone. Since God desires to know us and for us to know Him, His revelation necessarily then involves establishing personal relations between Himself and ourselves. Since even propositional data cannot be gleaned in a relation-less way, God’s revelation to us is throughout relational and personal. However, since we as humans are under the power of sin and cannot of our own accord come into relations with Him, God not only establishes the relations but also the conditions for relations – namely, the eradication of the barrier between us and Him, which is sin. God’s revelation is thus of a two-fold nature: one, the barrier between man and God is eradicated – in Jesus Christ, God has said ‘yes’ to humanity and bridged the gap, so to speak. The second part is the giving of the Holy Spirit, who is both our comforter and teacher and by whom we know Christ.

Bonhoeffer and Guilt

I found this post over at First Things very interesting:

‘Too often we Christians are heard as saying something along the following lines: “Your life of casual sex (or cohabitation, or homosexuality) surely must be leading you to feel empty, unfulfilled, and jaded. But we have the solution for those unpleasant feelings!” To which the reply is often: “I’m sorry to disappoint, but I don’t feel excessively guilty or ashamed or unfulfilled. On the contrary, my gay partnership has given me more emotional peace than I’ve ever had.”

In other words, we Christians are often found making Stendahl’s mistake: in our rush to defend our understanding of sin and human flourishing, we too easily assume that the same emotions must be the universal human result of certain behavioral choices. When those expected emotions aren’t present—when Paul, for instance, feels no guilt after persecuting the early Christians—we’re suddenly left wondering what went wrong with our doctrine of sin.

I submit that Bonhoeffer may provide us with a way out of this conundrum. Avoiding what he calls “an attack on the adulthood of the world,” we may realize that it isn’t part of our Christian calling to first expose (or conjure) guilty feelings before we commend, say, a traditional Christian vision of marriage. Rather, we can simply acknowledge that human emotions are unpredictable; “peace” and “fulfillment” may indeed be the outcome of practices and behaviors that, from a Christian vantage point, we must deem sinful. But no matter. The gospel lays claim to the whole human being in the midst of that “peace.” Here in Advent, we remember the One who told us he did not come to bring peace (Matt. 10:34). He came to demand our all—to ask for our death and our life. No matter how robust our consciences may be, he came to save us all.’

Bonhoeffer on the Conscience

‘This flight, Adam’s hiding from God, we call conscience. Before the fall there was no conscience. Man has only been divided in himself since his division from the Creator. And indeed it is the function of the conscience to put man to flight from God. Thus, unwillingly, it agrees with God, and on the other hand in this flight it allows man to feel secure on his hiding place. This means that it deludes man into feeling that he really is fleeing. Moreover it allows him to believe that this flight is his triumphal procession and all the world is fleeing from him. Conscience drives man from God into a secure hiding place. Here, distant from God, man plays the judge himself and just by this means he escapes God’s judgement. Now man really lives by his own good and evil, from the innermost division within himself. Conscience is shame before God in which at the same time our own wickedness is concealed, in which man justifies himself and in which, on the other hand, the acknowledgement of the other person is reluctantly preserved. Conscience is not the voice of God to sinful man; it is man’s defense against it, but as this defense it points towards it, contrary to our own will and knowledge.

Adam, where are you?” With this word the creator calls Adam forth out of his conscience, Adam must stand before his Creator. Man is not allowed to remain in his sin alone, God speaks to him, he stops him in his flight. ‘Come out of your hiding-place, from your self-reproach, your covering, your secrecy, your self-torment, from your vain remorse…confess to yourself, do not lose yourself in religious despair, be yourself, Adam…where are you? Stand before your creator.” This call goes directly against the conscience, for the conscience says: ‘Adam, you are naked, hide yourself from the Creator  do not dare stand before him.” God says: “Adam, stand before me.” God kills the conscience. The fleeing Adam must realize that he cannot flee from his Creator.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘Creation and Fall/Temptation: Two Biblical Studies’, p. 90-91)

A Polemical Moment

Over at internetmonk, a post on some recent sexual scandals in the evangelical world was published. I won’t reproduce the whole post – but the part I wish to comment on I will. This will be a rhetorical, inflammatory and polemical post.

Folks, Christians are no more or less broken and capable of sinning than anyone else in this world. Simul justus et peccator — we are simultaneously righteous and sinful until the day we are glorified.

It is time to stop pretending. It is time to stop saying we have the answers and can rise above the moral degradation of our times.

All we can do is look to Jesus. We have no room to boast. We have no room to claim any kind of transformation that makes us “different” from our neighbors. We are not different. We are human. We fail.

It’s not about transcending sin. It’s about admitting our own sinfulness, naming our own sin, being harsh with ourselves and being kind and loving and forbearing toward others. It’s about being forgiven, again and again and again. (

This, to put it bluntly, is a load of theological bullshit, plain and simple. The simul justus et peccator principle invoked here is a mere excuse for the bad behavior of Christians – and while it is true that Christians are just as capable of sinning as anyone else, it absolutely does not follow that we have no answers and cannot rise above the moral degradation of our times. The entirety of Scripture testifies to the fact that such an assertion is completely unfounded. We do not have room to boast – but we DO have claim to a transformation that makes us different from our neighbors. Like it or not, there IS a code of conduct that Christian moral behavior is to follow, and it is a higher moral standard than the world outside the church.

While Christianity is not about making naughty people more moral, improved moral behavior is in fact a part of Christianity and one that is strongly commanded throughout the whole of Scripture, from the Mosaic law to the Apostolic writings. Christian character, both in the typical moral sense as well as in a more theological sense is to be visibly different than those outside the body of Christ such that the world outside the Church can do nothing but admit that a fundamental change in the innermost depths of their being, in their very fiber and fabric of their nature, in their very essence, has happened to those inside the church that could not have happened save for a radical encounter with Christ in which the aforementioned change is effected.

Christians are called to rise above the moral degradation of our times; our behavior is to be such that it is noticeable by those who are not a part of the church for both its moral uprightedness and its kindness, love and forbearance – not because Jesus died to make us more moral but because we are fundamentally, ontologically different. Christians are in Christ – our being has undergone a total and radical change its innermost depths such that our former, weaker nature is no more, period. The quoted piece above is nothing but cheap grace and theological bullshit.

Very God and Very Man

Here are a few thoughts from Barth on the idea of Jesus being both man and God, and what this means with regards to the sinlessness of Christ:

‘But if we ask where the sinlessness, or (positively) the obedience of Christ, is to be seen, it is not enough to look for it in this man’s excellences of character, virtues or good works. For we can only repeat that the New Testament certainly did not present Jesus Christ as the moral ideal, and if we apply the canons usually applied to the construction of a moral ideal, we may easily fall into certain difficulties not easy of solution, whether with the Jesus of the Synoptics or with the Jesus of John’s Gospel. Jesus Christ’s obedience consists in the fact that He willed to be and was only this one thing all its consequnces, God in the flesh, the divine bearer of the burden which man as a sinner must bear.

Jesus’ sinlessness obviously consists in His direct admission of the meaning of the incarnation. Unlike Adam, as the “second Adam” He does not wish to be as God, but in Adam’s nature acknowledges before God as an Adamic being, the state and position of fallen man, and bears the wrath of God which must fall upon this man, not as a fate but as a righteous necessary wrath. He does not avoid the burden of this state but takes the conditions and consequnces upon Himself.

This is the revelation of God in Christ. For where man admits his lost state and lives entirely by God’s mercy – which no man did but only the God-Man Jesus Christ has done – God Himself is manifest. And by that God reconciled the world to Himself. For where man claims no right for himself, but concedes all rights to God alone – which no man did but only the God-Man Jesus Christ has done – the world is drawn out of its enmity towards God and reconciled to God.’ (Karl Barth, ‘Church Dogmatics’, I.2, p. 157-158)