The Only Point of Contact: Karl Barth on the Possibility of Knowing the Word of God

Following yesterday’s post on why Jesus Christ in the gospel is the only apologetic for the truth of the Word of God, I thought that the following section from Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics I/1 was a fitting supplement to what was said concerning our inability to use “natural” theology or knowledge of God (i.e. appealing to a supposed innate or observable notion of God in the natural realm) as a precursor or preparation for the preaching of the gospel. Barth states:

If this is how it stands with faith, then one may say of the knowability of the Word of God given in the event of faith that it is not a possibility which man for his part brings to real knowledge, nor is it a possibility which in real knowledge accrues to man from some source as an enrichment of his existence. But as faith has its absolute and unconditional beginning in God’s Word independently of the inborn or acquired characteristics and possibilities of man, and as it, as faith, never in any respect lives from or by anything other than the Word, so it is in every respect with the knowability of the Word of God into which we are now enquiring. We cannot establish it if, as it were, we turn our backs on God’s Word and contemplate ourselves, finding in ourselves an openness, a positive or at least a negative point of contact for God’s Word. We can establish it only as we stand fast in faith and its knowledge, i.e., 202779_53393_5944as we turn away from ourselves and turn our eyes or rather our ears to the Word of God. As we hear it, we have the possibility of hearing it.

Hence we do not affirm our own possibility but its reality, which we cannot do except as we stand fast. In its reality we also have our own possibility, not to contemplate it, but only to use it. Contemplating it, we no longer hear, and we thus lose the reality and with it our own possibility that we want to contemplate. As the possibility which comes to us in the Word’s reality it is our possibility, just as faith is our possibility as that which comes to us. It is really ours, the possibility of the entire creaturely and sinful man; yet not in such a way that contemplating this man one can discover it or read it off somewhere in him or on him; only in such a way that this creaturely, sinful man waits for the Word that comes to him and therewith for his faith, so that he believes already, he who, contemplating himself, will continually have to say that he cannot believe.[1]

Barth’s assertion that fallen human beings have no intrinsic possibility of knowing God and his Word may strike many people as exaggerated or extreme, if not offensive. It certainly stands in direct contradiction with Roman Catholic theology that takes as axiomatic the maxim of Thomas Aquinas that “grace does not destroy but perfects nature”. It is natural for us to think that we can know God, however imperfectly, through our own natural capacities, and that perhaps all we need is some form of correction or supplementation (i.e. special revelation) to elevate and perfect what we already know.

Barth, however, contends that the exact opposite is true: as sinful human beings, all that we think we know of God on the basis of our own abilities and possibilities is utterly false because it proceeds from a mind that is utterly twisted and perverted by sin. The only possibility that we have for knowing God must be given to us by the Word of God itself when it encounters us in its grace and power. We resist this idea, of course, because it means that we must admit we are not in control, an illusion that since the fall has driven the human quest for autonomy from God. We must humble ourselves enough to admit, however, that there is no natural “point of contact” at which the Word of God can meet us halfway, as it were, and pick up where our own possibilities for knowing God leave off. No, the Word of God must descend into the black pit of our ignorance and alienation, giving us ears to hear, eyes to see, and a heart and mind to understand.

As difficult a teaching as this is for us to accept, is this not what Paul demands in Ephesians 2:4-5 that we recognize ourselves as dead in our sins and alive only because God has resurrected us in Christ? Do the dead have any inherent capability or possibility of raising themselves up to newness of life? As in Ezekiel 37, must not the Word of God command them to live and, in that very act, create in them new life so that they can do so?

Barth pinpoints the crux of the matter when he says:

God’s Word is no longer grace, and grace itself is no longer grace, if we ascribe to man a predisposition towards this Word, a possibility of knowledge regarding it that is intrinsically and independently native to him.[2]

Indeed. If grace is grace, then the possibility of knowing God does not reside within us but only in the Word that is spoken to us. Thus we must confess, together with the apostle Paul, that it is only “by the grace of God that I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15:10).

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[1] Karl Barth, Church dogmatics I/1 (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), pp.236-237.

[2] Ibid., p.194.

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2 thoughts on “The Only Point of Contact: Karl Barth on the Possibility of Knowing the Word of God

  1. Steve 29 March 2017 / 05:31

    What if I, a natural man, by contemplation/observation come to the conclusion that God must be, what have I learned? Nothing true or something true? I can agree with the above that I know nothing about who this God is apart from faith (which, in the above description, the natural man does not yet have), but haven’t I learned something true and necessary? (let’s not ponder how the natural man came to this knowledge)

    P.S. Continued thanks for the TT shot in the arm on Sundays – most edifying.

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    • Jonathan Kleis 29 March 2017 / 20:47

      That’s a great question Steve. In response, I would want to distinguish between knowledge about God and knowledge of God. That human beings have or can acquire some sense of the existence of a divine being (or beings) is beyond dispute. This is what I mean when I say “knowledge about God”. That this comes anywhere close to “knowledge of God” — knowledge of God for who he truly is — I would hardly affirm. To give a somewhat imperfect illustration, it has happened to me in the past to be in a public work setting with a female colleague without my wife present. On this particular occasion, someone saw us together and concluded (for whatever reason) that my colleague was my wife. Now, in one sense, this person came to a true knowledge about my wife: that my wife does indeed exist. However, I would never say that this constituted in any way true knowledge of my wife who was an entirely different person! Similarly, the natural person can no doubt perceive that some kind of deity exists, yet due to the perverting influence of sin, the conception of God that he or she will come to will always be of a deity entirely different from the God who actually exists — the God revealed in Jesus Christ as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is Paul’s point in the latter half of Romans 1: humanity in its natural state suppresses whatever knowledge of God may be available in creation and exchanges it for a lie. For this reason, I would argue that such a person could never possess a natural knowledge of God that is simultaneously true.

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