Karl Barth’s “Radical Revision of Revelation”

In the preface to the first volume of his Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth famously quipped:

I can see no third alternative between that exploitation of the analogia entis which is legitimate only on the basis of Roman Catholicism…and a Protestant theology which draws from its own source, which stands on its own feet, and which is finally liberated from this secular misery. Hence I have had no option but to say No at this point. I barthcrispregard the analogia entis as the invention of Antichrist, and I believe that because of it it is impossible ever to become a Roman Catholic.[1]

As a refresher, the analogia entis, or ‘analogy of being’, to which Barth so vehemently objected is the idea, epitomized by Thomas Aquinas, that although highly dissimilar, there exists an analogical relationship between God and creation such that human beings can come to know the former in a limited but true way by contemplating and reasoning inferentially from the latter. For example, human beings know that they change in ways that are either for the better or for the worse. God, on the other hand, if he is to be a perfect being (implied by the fact that he is God), he must not be subject to change like creatures, i.e. he must be immutable. Why? Because if he could either become better or worse, then he would not be perfect! This is what is commonly called ‘natural theology’ because it is a knowledge of God that derives from the natural order through the use of human reason. And it is precisely this that Barth rejected as inimical to the Christian faith insofar as it fails to account for the devastating effects of sin on human reason and refuses to submit exclusively to God’s self-revelation in Christ. That is why Barth accused the analogia entis as “the invention of Antichrist”: it sets itself in the place of Christ as an alternative way of gaining knowledge of and access to God.

Barth, of course, has been roundly criticized for this, not least by Protestant historian Richard Muller who rises in defense of the analogia entis and its implications for theology. He writes:

Barth polemicizes against any and all attempts to reach God via the analogia entis: he declares categorically, “We possess no analogy on the basis of which the nature and being of God as the Lord can be accessible” [CD II/1, pp.75-76]…Barth believes, in short, that he has saved the God of revelation from association with the god of reason—that, by pressing the issue of divine transcendence in a denial of the analogia entis, he has preserved the God of Christian revelation from a form of logical or philosophical entrapment in the phenomenal order…

[Yet] the analogia entis does not rest on a rational approach to the natural order that is utterly divorced from “revelation.”…Revelation, the making manifest of something that we could not otherwise know, takes place in and through nature as well as in Scripture—indeed, as far as the scholastic theologians were concerned, the great dividing line between the modes of knowing God lies not between so-called “natural” and so-called “supernatural” revelation, but between revelation and the other modes of knowing God, vision (as given to the blessed in patria) and union (as given to Jesus of Nazareth in hypostatic union with the Word). Barth’s radical separation of the analogia entis from revelation, thus, indicates that Barth himself has radically revised the concept of revelation.[2]

As is clear from this last statement, Muller castigates Barth for radically revising the concept of revelation in virtue of his rejection of the analogia entis. Indeed, it would appear that Muller’s charge has merit in that, when compared with many theologians of the past, Barth’s position seems extreme in its limiting of revelation to that which comes through Jesus Christ as opposed to the ‘general revelation’ available through creation.

I agree to a certain extent with Muller’s assessment, but I would demur that Barth’s “radical separation of the analogia entis from revelation” is truly as radical as Muller would have us believe, at least from a biblical perspective. It is certainly radical if, like Muller, we define revelation as “the making manifest of something that we could otherwise know”. But this is precisely where the problem resides. It is important to notice that in Muller’s definition, the purpose of revelation is epistemological, that is, it aims to inform our minds of things about God that we did not know before. Now if our idea of revelation is this and only this, then it is understandable why Barth’s rejection of the analogia entis and natural theology would seem exaggerated and overblown.

Barth, however, was operating with a different definition altogether, a definition that radically alters the picture. It is not that Barth denied that revelation has an epistemological component, rather he denied that revelation can be reduced to its epistemological component. For Barth, revelation is fundamentally soteriological, that is, it aims not merely to supply information about God but to effect reconciliation with God. In this sense, Muller is correct in his assertion that Barth’s understanding of revelation radically diverges from his own (and that of Thomas Aquinas, Roman Catholicism, Protestant scholasticism, etc.). But, I believe, Muller is incorrect to insinuate that Barth’s view is contrary the biblical witness or orthodox Christianity. Why? It is for a very simple reason: in Scripture, knowledge is relational. True knowledge of someone or something is not abstract or theoretical; it necessarily involves a right relationship between the knower and that which is known.

Consider, for example, 2 Corinthians 5:18-20:

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

Notice that for Paul, God’s act of reconciliation in Christ necessarily entails the revelation of that act to the world, the making known of which actually effects that reconciliation between God and sinful humanity. Similarly in Romans 1:16-17, it is because the gospel reveals the righteousness of God that Paul can claim that it is also the power of God to save. Paul could, of course, offer personal testimony to this fact, for when God “revealed his Son” to Paul on the road to Damascus, it was not merely to give him new information; rather, it was to save him from his rebellion and employ him in the service of the gospel.

Moreover, Jesus himself declared in his high priestly prayer in John 17:1b-3:

Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

It does not seem that this could be clearer. To know God, according to Jesus, and to know him truly, is to have eternal life. This is not a mere knowledge about God, a knowledge inferred through the use of human reason, for this knowledge is identical with eternal life and thus involves a restored relationship with God in Christ! It is this understanding of knowledge, and thus revelation, that leads Paul to exclaim in Romans 10:1-2: “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them [Israel according to the flesh] is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge”. Again, we can clearly see that for Paul, as for Jesus, knowledge of God is that which brings salvation. Whatever other ‘knowledge’ of God there may be outside of the reconciliation effected in Christ cannot, therefore, be rightly called knowledge of God.

This is why, for Barth, revelation is reconciliation. Revelation is not simply the means by which God supplies us with information about himself; it is the means by which he reconciles us to himself. If so, then how could we ever consider knowledge derived through the analogia entis – based as it is on corrupt human reason – to be true knowledge of God? How could we ever consider natural theology, which even pagans have, to be limited yet reliable since it leaves those who possess it in emnity with God? If revelation is irreducibly soteriological and relational, how could we ever think that we are able to extract if from nature through our own capabilities? Such a notion can only pave the road of self-justification, the perverse creaturely attempt to live autonomously from the Creator. Such a notion can only stem from the insidious belief that we are capable, through our own efforts, of gaining access to God without having to submit to Christ as the only Way, Truth, and Life and as the sole mediator between God and man. And as Barth insisted, such a notion has no place in a truly Protestant theology that, over against the Roman Catholic view, underscores again and again the great Reformation truths of sola Scripturasolus Christus, and sola gratia.

This is why, contra Muller et al, I stand with Barth in his ‘radical revision of revelation’ against the analogia entis and natural theology. In my view, the biblical teaching that revelation is reconciliation requires it inasmuch as it requires us “to take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).

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[1] Barth, K., Bromiley, G.W. & Torrance, T.F., 2004. Church dogmatics: The doctrine of the Word of God, Part 1, London; New York: T&T Clark. p.xiii.

[2] Muller, R.A., 1992. ‘The Dogmatic Function of St. Thomas’ “Proofs”: A Protestant Appreciation’ in Fides et Historia 24, pp.26-27.

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This entry was posted in Classical theism, Critiques of Karl Barth, Doctrine of God, Karl Barth, Natural theology, Nature and grace, Philosophy, Protestant theology, Revelation, Richard Muller, Roman Catholicism, Soteriology, Thomism. Bookmark the permalink.

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  1. Pingback: Karl Barth, Romans 1, and the Validity of Natural Theology | Reformissio

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