Barth on the being and knowledge of God

Who was it that said recently that a day without reading something from Uncle Karl is a day wasted, or something to that effect? Well today, a friend of mine reminded me of this interesting passage (not least in light of the fruitful discussion that arose from my post on Ten (Draft) Propositions on the Missionary Nature of the Church) from Uncle Karl (CD §28), who, at least on my reading, properly refuses to collapse epistemology and ontology:

‘When we ask questions about God’s being, we cannot in fact leave the sphere of His action and working as it is revealed to us in His Word. God is who He is in His works. He is the same even in Himself, even before and after and over His works, and without them. They are bound to Him, but He is not bound to them. They are nothing without Him. But He is who He is without them. He is not, therefore, who He is only in His works. Yet in Himself He is not another than He is in His works. In the light of what He is in His works it is no longer an open question what He is in Himself. In Himself He cannot, perhaps, be someone or something quite other, or perhaps nothing at all. But in His works He is Himself revealed as the One He is. It is, therefore, right that in the development and explanation of the statement that God is we have always to keep exclusively to His works (as they come to pass, or become visible as such in the act of revelation)—not only because we cannot elsewhere understand God and who God is, but also because, even if we could understand Him elsewhere, we should understand Him only as the One He is in His works, because He is this One and no other. We can and must ask about the being of God because as the Subject of His works God is so decisively characteristic for their nature and understanding that without this Subject they would be something quite different from what they are in accordance with God’s Word, and on the basis of the Word of God we can necessarily recognise and understand them only together with this their Subject.

At the same time we must be quite clear on the other side, that our subject is God and not being, or being only as the being of God. In connexion with the being of God that is here in question, we are not concerned with a concept of being that is common, neutral and free to choose, but with one which is from the first filled out in a quite definite way. And this concretion cannot take place arbitrarily, but only from the Word of God, as it has already occurred and has been given to us in the Word of God. This means that we cannot discern the being of God in any other way than by looking where God Himself gives us Himself to see, and therefore by looking at His works, at this relation and attitude—in the confidence that in these His works we do not have to do with any others, but with His works and therefore with God Himself, with His being as God.

What does it mean to say that “God is”? What or who “is” God? If we want to answer this question legitimately and thoughtfully, we cannot for a moment turn our thoughts anywhere else than to God’s act in His revelation. We cannot for a moment start from anywhere else than from there.

What God is as God, the divine individuality and characteristics, the essentia or “essence” of God, is something which we shall encounter either at the place where God deals with us as Lord and Saviour, or not at all. The act of revelation as such carries with it the fact that God has not withheld Himself from men as true being, but that He has given no less than Himself to men as the overcoming of their need, and light in their darkness—Himself as the Father in His own Son by the Holy Spirit. The act of God’s revelation also carries with it the fact that man, as a sinner who of himself can only take wrong roads, is called back from all his own attempts to answer the question of true being, and is bound to the answer to the question given by God Himself. And finally the act of God’s revelation carries with it the fact that by the Word of God in the Holy Spirit, with no other confidence but this unconquerable confidence, man allows being to the One in whom true being itself seeks and finds, and who meets him here as the source of his life, as comfort and command, as the power over him and over all things.

If we follow the path indicated, our first declaration must be the affirmation that in God’s revelation, which is the content of His Word, we have in fact to do with His act. And first, this means generally—with an event, with a happening. But as such this is an event which is in no sense to be transcended. It is not, therefore, an event which has merely happened and is now a past fact of history. God’s revelation is, of course, this as well. But it is also an event happening in the present, here and now. Again, it is not this in such a way that it exhausts itself in the momentary movement from the past to the present, that is, in our to-day. But it is also an event that took place once for all, and an accomplished fact. And it is also future—the event which lies completely and wholly in front of us, which has not yet happened, but which simply comes upon us. Again, this happens without detriment to its historical completeness and its full contemporaneity. On the contrary, it is in its historical completeness and its full contemporaneity that it is truly future. “Jesus Christ the same yesterday and to-day and for ever” (Heb. 13:8). This is something which cannot be transcended or surpassed or dispensed with. What is concerned is always the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, always His justification of faith, always His lordship in the Church, always His coming again, and therefore Himself as our hope. We can only abandon revelation, and with it God’s Word, if we are to dispense with it. With it we stand, no, we move necessarily in the circle of its event or, in biblical terms, in the circle of the life of the people of Israel. And in this very event God is who He is. God is He who in this event is subject, predicate and object; the revealer, the act of revelation, the revealed; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God is the Lord active in this event. We say “active” in this event, and therefore for our salvation and for His glory, but in any case active. Seeking and finding God in His revelation, we cannot escape the action of God for a God who is not active. This is not only because we ourselves cannot, but because there is no surpassing or bypassing at all of the divine action, because a transcendence of His action is nonsense. We are dealing with the being of God: but with regard to the being of God, the word “event” or “act” is final, and cannot be surpassed or compromised. To its very deepest depths God’s Godhead consists in the fact that it is an event—not any event, not events in general, but the event of His action, in which we have a share in God’s revelation.

The definition that we must use as a starting-point is that God’s being is life. Only the Living is God. Only the voice of the Living is God’s voice. Only the work of the Living is God’s work; only the worship and fellowship of the Living is God’s worship and fellowship. So, too, only the knowledge of the Living is knowledge of God’.

– Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1 (ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance; trans. T.H.L. Parker, et al.; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957), 260–3.

So if you’ve read this far you can now sleep tonight in the full knowledge that your day wasn’t a complete waste of time. Certainy mine wasn’t: I drank gallons of Milo, finished marking a ute-load of assignments, and read some Barth. Oh, and we also decided on a school for our daughter, or at least I think we did!


  1. Yuck milo! Hope you didn’t make the decision under the influence of milo. By the way I think your quote nailed it (re uncle Karl’s view and the epistemology ontology distinction)in the first paragraph you cited.


  2. This is a very important passage, IMHO, in light of recent debates about Barth’s ontology. In my view the passage borders on incoherence. And I love Uncle Karl like a grandfather. He says God’s act cannot be transcended, but earlier says, in effect, that God himself transcends his act in that he is who he is “before, after, over,…without” his works. I agree God is not “tied” to his works, but in that God is wholly the free lord IN his works ad extra, there is no need to posit a being of God “before, after, over and without” these works to make that point. My two cents.


  3. I wonder what R Jenson would make of this passage? I know he would agree with Barth’s insistence on talking God, and not being in abstraction, but I can’t imagine he would like the claim that God’s works are bound to him, but not he to them. Perhaps he would accuse Barth of simple inconsistency? For my part, I tend to side with Hart, et. al., against Jenson on this point (although on few others), but I wonder what you make of it.


  4. I agree, Jason (Goroncy), that we should not “confuse” epistemology and ontology. But surely we should relate them. The problem with classical orthodoxy, in my view, is that it tends to drive a wedge between what God is for us in revelation and what God is in and for himself, a tendency Barth had by no means avoided in the passage you quote, though he also shows himself willing to do so. And the problem with that is, it tends to be less than clear how it is we are supposed to know what God is in himself if not through revelation. How would you relate epistemology and ontology?


  5. Jason, I share your concern that while it is important to distinguish between divine ontology and epistemology, no wedge should be driven between the two insofar as the God given to us in gracious self-disclosure really is God as God is. Certainly there is no God hiding behind Jesus Christ! Those who have seen him have seen only in the Spirit and they have seen the Father. So Barth here: ‘in [God’s] works He is Himself revealed as the One He is’. My other concern, however, is to affirm that God’s being is not constituted in the economy. I have tried to articulate that concern here. Hope that helps.


  6. Surely, Barth’s point is that we do know who God is in revelation? Just because he argues God ‘is who he is without his works’ does not of course mean that God’s self-disclosure in such works is insufficient. Is Barth not implying that because we cannot look elsewhere than revelation, that this in turn compels us to say some things about God the Subject, about God in se, which must be shaped by our apprehension of that which God has granted for us to interpret. Such boldness would need to be founded in a sort of epistemic provisionality. So one can see a ‘wedge’ or a necessary anological gap.


  7. Sorry! Somehow ‘unsufficient’ made it into my comment! I mean of course insufficient … I’m sure it was just a typing error!


  8. Andrew, I’ve used my editorial right and made the change. Thanks for your comment too. (Now if I had my Bible I’d be able to check if what you’re suggesting is true ;-) … I like to think that most books are boomerangs)


  9. Yes, the Bible is indeed a boomerang … didn’t Jesus say in Isaiah 55:11 that God’s Word would not return void? Which I also take to mean that you are surely in line for the abundant prosperity that he so clearly taught somewhere else.

    However, I fear all that is beside the point, for we all know that the Bible has nothing to do with theology.

    Thanks for fixing my spelling, and be assured that everything I say is completely true … well almost.


  10. Andrew–

    I think the problem is when we think that through revelation we know what God is outside of revelation but not in it. So for instance if we say God suffers in Christ but somehow not in himself.


  11. Jason (Knott) –

    I’m just not so sure that there is always a clear demarcation between what we confess to know about God because of God’s revelation and theologomena which purports to say something about God in virtue of that revelation.

    Your example of impassibility is an excellent case in point. You seem to be implying that a ‘classicly orthodox’ conception of divine apatheia is an unwarranted and speculative notion which perhaps does not fit the scriptural witness. In my view, this is precisely what happens when the ‘interval of analogy’ (as DB Hart puts it) between God in Himself and God for the world is collapsed (getting back to the Jason’s theses) – one is left with a God who may only be determined by finite experiences. Yes, one wants to reject a distant ‘God of the philosophers,’ but I would argue you don’t get that by marginalising ‘classic’ theology. I think theology must prayerfully negotiate the dialogue between scripture and dogma, the former of which provides the coercive pressure and both of which must function in the Spirit’s providence. In your example it depends on how one understands impassibilty, immutability etc. as to whether one could affirm its dogmatic coherence according to Scripture.


  12. “[A] God who may only be determined by finite experiences.” Sounds bad. But turn it around: May God have the freedom to determine himself in such a way that no remainder exists outwith what God is in revelation? Seems classical theology says no. And I would merely ask, on what basis has this determination been made?


  13. Andrew, glad to see you are reading people whose initials are dbh! His contribution is reminding me of something that is wrong with the kinds of ways this debate has been framed… sorry I’m no clearer than that to date.


  14. Jason (Knott), I wonder why such a theoretical possibility should have prima facie plausibility. Is is those who say yes, or those who say no who have a case to answer? It’s probably a silly analogy with obvious weaknesses, but I am reminded of those who see a iceberg and insist that they have no epistemological basis for any remainder other than that which is above the surface of the water. Is this the prima facie plausible position? On what basis would we determine it to be one way or the other?


  15. I think that is a “silly” analogy because in point of fact we do have epistemological bases for what is under the water, or at least we could get them. Nobody denies this, therefore it is of course pedantic or worse to insist that we only know what is outside the water. With God it is different, because it is at least arguable that we have no epistemological bases for knowing God outside of God’s revelation in JC. Of course that is debatable. There are all kinds of claimed bases. It seems to me, however, that all of them of which I am aware either tell us what we already know via revelation, and what people without revelation would not see, or they tell us things that, in my view, are made problematic by revelation. Certain psychological arguments for the Trinity belong to the first category, impassibility to the second. And don’t even get me started about natural law arguments, which especially in our day and age are used to support all kinds of mutually contradictory ethical positions.


  16. You’re right this is a silly example, cause we are being asked to imagine that JC is an apocalyptic (singular) event without any epistemological context (ie without any external bases for drawing conclusions about it). The silliness of the example, however is merely a somewhat abstract thought experiment to push in the direction of the limitations of the notion of apocalyptic. It seems to me that knowing without any external bases (apocalyptically) is different from knowing that there are no external bases in which the event of revelation is grounded. It is here we distinquish between teh question of what is and of what we know. If we are going to talk (only within the context of the singularity itself) of the basis of the singular apocalyptic event, two things are important (i)we should not rule out such a basis (ii) we should be cautious about describing it as a ‘remainder’


  17. Interesting Bruce. Don’t know exactly what you’re talking about, but always ready to learn more. I do think it important to think beyond, say, Hegel and see the imminent Trinity as more than the economic. However, I also think the imminent Trinity needs to be seen strictly as the eternal ground of possibility of the economic.


  18. Thanks Jason K. When it comes to knowing what I’m talking about, I’m not sure I’m at much of an advantage. You are pushing me to my limits and I appreciate the clarity of your logic. I like your final phrase: ‘the eternal ground of possibility of the economic’. It distinguishes without separation.


Comments welcome here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.