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SJT 63(1): 70–92 (2010) doi:10.



Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd 2010

‘Thy word is truth’: the role of faith in reading scripture theologically with Karl Barth
Paul D. Molnar
St John’s University, Queens, New York 11439, USA

Following the thinking of Karl Barth, this article demonstrates how and why reading the Bible in faith is necessary in order to understand the truth which is and remains identical with God himself speaking to us in his Word and Spirit. After developing how faith, grace, revelation and truth are connected in Barth’s theology by being determined by who God is in Jesus Christ, this article explains why Barth was essentially correct in claiming that we cannot know God truly through a study of religious experience but only through Christ himself and thus through the Spirit. I illustrate that for Barth the truth of religion simply cannot be found in the study of religion itself but only through revelation. That is why he applied the doctrine of justification by faith both to knowledge of God and to reading scripture. In light of what is then established, I conclude by briefly exploring exactly why the thinking of Paul Tillich, and three theologians who follow the general trend of Tillich’s thinking (John Haught, John A. T. Robinson and S. Mark Heim), exemplify the correctness of Barth’s analysis of the relation between religion and revelation, since each theologian is led to an understanding of who God is, how we reach God and how the doctrine of the Trinity should be understood that actually undermines Barth’s emphasis on the fact that all knowledge of God and all doctrine should be dictated solely by who God is in Jesus Christ.

For Karl Barth four vital words are indissolubly connected: faith, grace, revelation and truth. To speak of faith, without acknowledging at once that it is by the grace of God who alone is truth that one can so speak, is to speak primarily of ourselves in place of God. For Barth, humanity’s greatest need is for the righteousness of God – a righteousness without which we cannot live but that we cannot grasp at or control either – because it can only come to us as an act of revelation and reconciliation on God’s part that itself establishes and maintains us in fellowship with God. This is ultimately an act of divine election that cannot be systematised by identifying it with any absolute decree or any result visible to historical, philosophical, psychological or even

The role of faith in reading scripture theologically

theological inquiry. Just as there is a creatio continua there is an electio continua, which Barth says is better described as ‘God’s faithfulness and patience’.1 In 1916 Barth identified the ‘Strange New World within the Bible’ as ‘the world of God’2 which consists in the truth of the biblical witness and which we do not read about ‘either in the daily papers or in other books’.3 For Barth ‘The Bible gives to . . . every era such answers to their questions as they deserve’4 and so it can be disconcerting to discover that we are challenged to wonder exactly what it is that we are looking for in the Bible. For Barth the Bible gives us no rest at all and drives us ‘out beyond ourselves and invites us . . . to reach for the last highest answer’.5 Moreover, the Bible will interpret itself to us ‘in spite of all our human limitations’ if only we dare to move, through the Spirit of God, beyond ourselves and into this new world. What is it that constitutes this daring? It is faith; and we read the Bible rightly . . . when we read it in faith. And the invitation to dare and to reach toward the highest, even though we do not deserve it, is the expression of grace in the Bible: the Bible unfolds to us as we are met, guided, drawn on, and made to grow by the grace of God.6 Even though Barth’s emphasis here is on the world of God coming to us as an act arriving from outside of history, it is a divine act that includes us in a genuine relationship with God in faith. That is God’s grace. Without being obligated to us, God places himself under obligation to us in his Son Jesus Christ.7 Hence, ‘Where grace is revealed and operative, God Himself is always revealed and operative. It is not necessary for us to strive after a higher, better, more helpful revelation.’8 Because this is God establishing his kingdom on earth in Jesus Christ, Barth insists ‘One can only believe – can only hold the ground whither he has been led. Or not believe. There is no third way.’9 Knowledge of the truth that takes place in faith is a knowledge that is obedient to the call of God in


3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4 vols. in 14 pts. (hereafter CD), I/2, The Doctrine of the Word of God, trans. G. T. Thomson and Harold Knight (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1970), p. 349. Karl Barth, The Word of God and the Word of Man (hereafter WGWM), trans. and foreword by Douglas Horton (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1978), ‘The Strange New World within the Bible’, pp. 28–50, at p. 33. WGWM, p. 29. Ibid., p. 32. Ibid., pp. 33–4. Ibid., p. 34. CD II/2, p. 101. CD II/1, p. 356. WGWM, p. 41.

302. Does Christian utterance derive from Him? Does it lead to Him? Is it conformable to Him?16 In this light ‘what is required is [the church’s] criticism and correction in the light of the being of the Church. p. CD III/3. p.g. And obedience for Barth is a free human act ratifying the divine action in our favour that has taken place in Jesus’ life. 6.14 ‘He is the Spirit of truth because in Him it is none other than the living God.10 The kind of faith Barth has in mind ‘cannot be compromised’ because it is ‘a victory of grace towards and in ourselves which corresponds to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and is like the divine certainty of Jesus Christ’. [which] is the question as to the agreement of the Church’s distinctive talk about God with the being of the Church . . CD I/1. p. Jesus Christ. . pp.e. “worship and service”’. was changed into faith’. ‘what we are to think concerning God. p. 264ff. He is the Spirit of the Father and the Son. 450. p.’15 For that reason [The Church] puts to itself the question of truth . that is. p.’: CD I/2.13 The Holy Spirit creates the relation between God and us without which we cannot exist. But he immediately insists ‘there is something greater in the 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 See e. 4. but – from unbelief . ‘The genuine believer will not say that he came to faith from faith. CD I/1. of Jesus Christ as its basis. CD I/1. CD II/1. how we are to find him. who is present and revealed and active. 156. 404. . . . The Bible and religion Barth also stated that true religion. p..18 is revealed in the Bible.11 Since we are enemies of grace apart from Christ. death and resurrection. 350. p. p. i. i. not their knowledge. 72 .scottish journal of theology Jesus Christ himself. 41. the trinitarian God. and how we are to conduct ourselves in his presence – all that is included in . . Barth seeks a ‘true and certain faith’.12 Faith’s meaning therefore must ‘not start from the believing man but from Jesus Christ as the object and foundation of faith’. a faith that is not the continuation of our self-knowledge because ‘The New Testament witnesses tell us how their unbelief. CD IV/2. . 155.. goal and content’. Ibid. God in His gracious revealing and reconciling address to man.e. namely. CD II/1. WGWM. .17 That is what is witnessed to in the whole of the Bible beginning with the story of Abraham and ending with Pentecost and beyond.

21 Right religious practice then will follow from faith and not otherwise since the Word ‘claims ourselves as doers of the work which corresponds to its content’. p.. 73 . each insisting that it is the ‘religion revealed in the Bible. The Bible tells us not how we should talk with God but what he says to us. p. we cannot. but the covenant which he has made with all who are Abraham’s spiritual children and which he has sealed once and for all in Jesus Christ. 365. 43. 457. far away from reality.The role of faith in reading scripture theologically Bible than religion and “worship”’. see also CD I/1. it represents a form of self-justification and thereby illustrates why religion is so problematic and can never in itself lead to the truth revealed in the Bible. or what might become reality in our lives’. or at least its most legitimate successor’. Here Barth turns his definition of religion upside down by reversing the whole enterprise: It is not the right human thoughts about God which form the content of the Bible.. Ibid. we not only do not have to put ourselves into right relation with God through some religious practice. pp.22 19 20 21 22 Ibid. p. Barth claims that if we read the Bible in faith we discover that this is entirely the wrong question. CD I/2. p. noting that Catholics and Protestants each appeal ‘with the same earnestness and zeal to the Bible’. but how he has sought and found the way to us. not the right relation in which we must place ourselves to him. but the right divine thoughts about men. Without faith we will always assume that we actually can find the proper way to speak about God by means of our religious quest.19 Yet Barth will not enter the dispute about which group is right or wrong because he sees that as an unending conflict about ‘religion’. and cause it to be heard. nor will he say that everyone is right either. It only leads to conflict and controversy. 41–2. But faith alone will allow us to recognise that God has already sought and found us in Jesus Christ. Arguing over the truth of religion leaves us ‘in the midst of a vast human controversy and far. In this sense ‘to speak God’s Word. We only have to believe and accept the Word of God which binds us and enables us to worship God in Spirit and in truth and also to know him with a certainty that is impossible to achieve without relying on the grace of his own selfrevelation in Jesus Christ.20 While religion concerns our inquiry about what we are to think about God and how we are to reach him. Ibid. Consequently. not how we find the way to him. 763.. is and remains God’s concern’.

. Cf. 74 . which is offered in the Bible. pp. CD I/2. 51–96. reach out and take it. but the belief . which is the ‘surest of facts’. What we call religion and culture may be available to everybody. is not available to everybody: not at any time nor in any respect can any who will. ‘Biblical Questions.. p. Responding to ‘the fact of election’ we discover the meaning of both our own existence and of history. Ibid. and CD IV/3. pp. Whereas Augustine and the Reformers unfortunately shaped the doctrine according to the ‘psychological unity of the individual’ and then stamped the ‘rigid laws of nature . 16. religious and political ideals at the centre in a way that changes the righteousness of God. and yet we do not let it enter our lives and our world’23 because we are concerned primarily with our seeking God.24 Recognised or not. Barth insists that the doctrine of election is indeed ‘well adapted to the requirements of individual freedom’ because ‘our responses cannot be determined once and for all: they are constantly to be made anew’.26 Here the Bible tells us that ‘the knowledge of God is the eternal problem of our profoundest personal existence. at p.25 The Bible offers true knowledge of God which is not ‘one supposed truth among other truths’. .. pp. 103. the most fundamental. from which we are separated and yet are not separated’. p. and Vistas’. WGWM. WGWM. 44–5. . the failure to accept the grace of God’s election and revelation itself as the truth of our lives and activities. But this is impossible as long as we do not believe – as long as we cling to the deception that we can rely on ourselves at least in part to become righteous with the righteousness that comes only from God. into ‘the highest among various high ideals’ and thus something that is ‘our very own affair’. pp. 58. p. 59. ‘The Righteousness of God’. that it is the starting-point at which we begin and yet do not begin. Insights. 58–9. 380. . instead of something that can be realised only by God himself. . upon each man’s salvation or damnation’. Ibid. at pp. also CD IV/2. . 9–27. Clinging to this deception represents the failure to believe.27 In other words we are sinners 23 24 25 26 27 WGWM. p.scottish journal of theology The righteousness of God In another 1916 lecture Barth observed that ‘the really tragic. this taking God’s righteousness under our management is the pride from which only God can rescue us. As Barth explained in 1920: When we ask the Bible what it has to offer. 14–15. once and for all . Therefore we place ourselves and our various moral. it answers by putting to us the fact of election. error of mankind’ is that ‘We long for the righteousness of God.

31 But Barth insists Resurrection – the Easter message – means the sovereignty of God. because ‘It is not a possibility of the old order: it is not a religious possibility. when Peter began to question Christ’s going to the cross. pp.30 Death really is a ‘closed wall’ before which we all stand and the resurrection cannot simply be presupposed. We really may find the cross a stumbling block and foolishness. Jesus simply had nothing to do with religion.. . piety and experience. it is that Jesus Christ is risen. Barth asks: Does life really come from death? Perhaps ‘it is possible to remain standing before the secret of the cross in perplexity. 88. terror. Jesus will be understood wholly or not at all. 85. and distributes it’. Ibid. p. p. the sovereignty of God. 86–7. 83. He is . WGWM.29 The knowledge of the truth comes only from beyond the o grave because ‘in the sacrifice of Christ the sacrifice demanded of us is made once and for all’.. This is the central statement of the biblical witness for Barth: ‘If there is any Christian and theological axiom. Ibid. 84. and despair’.. because it is an act of God. . 44. p. feasts upon it. This act of God opposes ‘Religion’s blind and vicious habit of asserting eternally that it possesses something. culture. But God himself can and does. Resurrection. 75 . p. And it is upon this rock that the church is built. Ibid. p. Thus. Ibid. Barth says. is the purport of the life of Jesus from the first day of his coming . history and psychology cannot provide an answer. .. Because we ourselves are sacrificed with Christ. he no longer spoke from revelation but humanly ‘in the rˆ le of Satan’.’28 Flesh and blood did not reveal to Peter that Jesus was the Christ but the Father in heaven did. that He is truly risen’ CD IV/3. . we have nothing to bring. 82. Within this perspective the ‘Messiahship of Jesus must be kept secret’. I make all things new’. yet the moment we focus on these in themselves we ignore the truth of God’s electing grace attested in scripture – we ignore the very reality that alone gives meaning to our lives. . ‘Behold.32 And the secret of Jesus’ life is that he is the Son of the living God. the authoritative bearer of divine power..The role of faith in reading scripture theologically whose unbelief and belief leave us in perplexity and fear so that we are led to the point where we realise that religion.33 Hence: 28 29 30 31 32 33 Ibid. God’s truth is the secret meaning of history. . p. The significance of his life lies in its possessing an actuality which no religion possesses . the champion of the divine honor.

To say revelation is to say ‘The Word became flesh’. will stand in shame in the corner. than attempting to explain who Jesus was historically. Cf. in the faith in which we begin to know. either in the spiritual or the natural realm. It precedes with sovereign majesty all knowledge and therefore all faith and confession that it is so. p.’36 Better this. as a revelation 34 35 36 37 38 39 CD IV/3. Ibid. if misunderstood. [theological work] always takes place on the narrow way which leads from the enacted revelation to the promised revelation’. ...37 This is why Barth says that the truth of dogmatic inquiry which is known in faith ‘is in no sense assumed to be to hand. . In this sense Christ’s resurrection and second coming. Since the resurrection means a wholly new creation. as the only real happening in history this event is ‘not a real happening of history’.34 Yet this secret ‘belongs neither to history nor to psychology. pp.35 Because Christ’s power comes into history from outside in order to completely recreate it. p. a world of an entirely different quality and kind. ‘is not a historical event’. Consequently. CD I/1. which Barth says is the same thing. 76 . also CD II/1. . 91. according to Barth. . p. 200. . It is the condition which conditions all things without itself being conditioned . and cease. [it] means the unveiling of what is veiled . 90.e. . a new world. as a myth. we cannot discover the genuine meaning of our world except in the power of the resurrection itself.scottish journal of theology The believer knows that He lives . . his divinity and power cannot be read off history. and it is only then that we may know and believe and confess.39 Furthermore. p. Ibid. . p. ‘The Logos.38 And for Barth revelation denotes the Word of God itself in the act of its being spoken in time . . i. and begin again .. 118–19. . . The truth comes. for what is historical and psychological is as such corruptible’. We are first known by the One whom we may know.. 90. That meaning ‘is not a continuation of anything that has been or is. WGWM. but [it] comes to our mind spontaneously as a new creation’. Ibid. Revelation in fact does not differ from the person of Jesus Christ nor from the reconciliation accomplished in him. . p. 45. the Holy Spirit alone who makes us participants in revelation is the Spirit of Jesus Christ and ‘is not to be regarded . 14. The fact that Jesus lives is true and real in itself.

however. . Sallie McFague. pp.The role of faith in reading scripture theologically of independent content. that goes beyond Christ. WGWM. 1987). 452–3. for how this applies to Christianity and other religions.. p.47 In reality. is not a kingdom which we must create by our acts of good will. ‘Our Father . 136. beyond the Word’.42 God’s morality. . Ibid. Jesus’ uniqueness 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 Ibid. since this new world of God himself comes from beyond the scope of history.44 And that love confounds our ordinary sense of morality because God’s love takes place in accordance with his own sovereign decision to be for us in his own way. For example. This is the new world within the Bible.46 Since Jesus’ significance for faith rests on the community’s choice. p. Nuclear Age (Philadelphia: Fortress Press. WGWM. For instance. Barth notes that in light of God’s morality and his kingdom ‘David is a great man in spite of his adultery and bloody sword: blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity!’ And in this world ‘the publicans and the harlots will go before your impeccably elegant and righteous folk of good society!’ Indeed. See CD IV/3. Models of God:Theology for an Ecological. p. 670. as a new instruction . . For Barth. Ibid.. it ‘makes straight for the point where one must decide to accept or to reject the sovereignty of God. Sallie McFague writes that Jesus is ‘special to us as our foundational figure: he is our historical choice as the premier paradigm of God’s love’. morality and religion. of love as God understands it’.43 It is not the unfolding of love as we may know it and practise it at all but ‘the existence and outpouring of eternal love. it often contradicts what these pursuits present as truth. Barth insists upon seeking the truth of revelation and not just religion in the Bible..’41 But again.40 Faith and unbelief The stark disparity that Barth perceives between faith and unbelief applies to all aspects of theology including biblical theology. Ibid. the kingdom of God for which we pray. who is absolutely lost and feeding swine – and not his moral elder brother’. she claims ‘Jesus is not ontologically different from other paradigmatic figures’ who manifest God’s love for the world.45 Perhaps the disparity between faith and unbelief can be most clearly seen when contrasted with a view that has become rather widespread today. 77 . p. in this world Barth explains that ‘the true hero is the lost son. if we read the Bible carefully. Because it also confounds our ordinary view of religion and of history. 40. p. p. 44. . 41.’. 40.

his personal participation in revelation.54 This thinking. precisely because such faith is tied exclusively to the person and work of Jesus Christ himself as the true Son of God by nature.g. p. This is why Barth firmly asserted that ‘Sin is always unbelief. p. hidden in the cross and revealed in his resurrection. p. CD I/2. 328. and III/3. It is not pride or unbelief but the refusal of 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 See CD I/1. p. McFague speaks for many when she redefines sin: sin is the turning-away not from a transcendent power but from interdependence with all other beings. 453. 454. represents a form of self-justification because it is Docetic in orientation and design and thus fails to allow the man Jesus from Nazareth in his unity with the divine Word to be the starting point and determining factor for its reflections. See CD I/1. pp..49 In other words. however. there literally can be no circumventing Jesus Christ if there is to be genuine knowledge of God.’51 As such the Spirit is in us but never becomes identical with us since the Spirit remains the Lord. since Jesus himself is the way. 400. See e.scottish journal of theology is not at all defined by the decisions of the community but by who he is as the only begotten Son of the Father from all eternity. CD IV/2. pp.50 It is revelation as a sovereign act of God. the truth and the life.53 Consequently. Hence. 78 . II/1. 314. faith and revelation. that makes faith objectively true. McFague. pp. pp. And unbelief is always man’s faith in himself. including the matrix of being from whom all life comes. p. Ibid. 105. CD I/2. 179–80. faith is no longer tied to the object of faith presented by the Bible but is tethered to our own attempts to construct theological meaning by relying on our own self-chosen agenda. she believes we should remythologise the incarnation to recognise that we now have the power to kill God in the body of the world rather than in the particular man Jesus in order to help us preserve the earth. 319–20. From McFague’s perspective. one literally cannot speak of truth in abstraction from God’s grace.’55 By contrast. 72–3. revelation and grace. Cf. 461. Ibid.52 And it is indeed only by the Holy Spirit that anyone can confess Jesus himself as the Lord. 422. His true divinity can never be seen or acknowledged unless it is accepted on its own terms48 as the starting point for all theological reflection. in a dogmatic theology that is biblically grounded. Models.. And faith itself is not under our control because ‘The Spirit guarantees man what he cannot guarantee himself. p.

Cf.56 Because she reconceives God as mother. you shall be freed indeed’63 and that ‘if in one sense or another the faith of the Christian is faith in himself . To be of the truth means to hear His voice in encounter and confrontation with Him . but to God as He is in His inmost essence. CD IV/1.60 In Barth’s words. 139–40. 192. . CD II/2. ‘To become obedient to Jesus is actually to become obedient to God. See my ‘Myth and Reality: Analysis and Critique of Gordon Kaufman and Sallie McFague on God.). Models. It is pride – the human refusal to allow God to be God for us in the way he has freely chosen. pp. 208. a term which describes our relationship with the world and a vague belief in a God who is on the side of life and its fulfilment. 568–9. Faith in Christ means precisely surrendering to him alone as the source of all freedom and truth. was not only profound but prophetic. 23–48. 579–83. .The role of faith in reading scripture theologically relationship . Wherever and whenever God’s actual sovereignty is ignored or called into question. and Salvation’. . not a conceived and imaginary God. 254ff. 38–48.57 For her the word God itself has become a myth. in his Word and Spirit. To be of the truth means first to believe in Him. 456. 252. lover and friend instead of recognising God in faith and through his own self-revelation as he eternally exists in his own transcendent freedom and love as Father. p. 79 . Models. Cultural Encounters: A Journal for the Theology of Culture. Barth’s thinking about God’s righteousness. Even after our reconciliation with God in Christ. Son and Holy Spirit.58 Sin is merely a horizontal relation between us and the world imagined as God’s body and can no longer be understood as a vertical relation of opposition to God who is above. already noted. 1/2 (Summer 2005). p. CD I/1. See CD II/2. . This subverts the biblical meaning of faith as faith in Christ himself and not at all in ourselves. also CD II/1. . pp. . McFague. p. then we 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 McFague. . the gracious God. Cf. 407. . as in McFague’s analysis. . the God in whom we may believe. pp. the resisting element in us continues especially when we create world-views in order to avoid the truth of God’s action in Christ on our behalf (CD IV/3. pp. Christ. p.59 Many today argue that sin should no longer be understood as pride and thus espouse some form of religious self-reliance.’62 Hence Barth insists that ‘If the Son therefore shall make you free. at pp. that is. pp. . It is a horizontal refusal to be part of the body of God rather than a vertical refusal to be inferior to God .’61 ‘He is the truth . p. CD IV/2. the genuine problem of sin and unbelief is illustrated. McFague is no longer able even to distinguish God from the world.

But this does not mean that we allow our thoughts. along with our enmity against God’s grace. 102. 718. CD II/1. but in Jesus Christ. 503. p.65 Barth rightly insists that when we encounter the triune God we renounce any attempt to bring about our own conversion because ‘This is forbidden and prevented by the object of faith’ since faith in Christ ‘absolutely excludes any other helpers or helps’. 80 . but at most adorned ourselves with their feathers. see also p. ended and destroyed. it entails subordinating ourselves to the witness of scripture. This is perhaps the greatest challenge for much contemporary theology since so many today. p. and certainty concerning the truth of all human activity becomes shrouded in obscurity and doubt once again. even momentarily. In Him. this thinking is not meant to eliminate human being and action in face of God’s action but to say that no human action can be allowed. ‘In that case we should not have subordinated ourselves to them. Here. Barth insists. p. WGWM. 45. Conversion to God takes place in Christ alone so that in the power of the Holy Spirit ‘in Jesus Christ man is directed by God to awakening and life in the freedom for which He has made him free’. 386. Hence the new world of God’s sovereignty which meets us in the biblical witness is his glory and his incomprehensible love. see also CD IV/2. That is what it means to believe. in spite of all their good 64 65 66 67 68 69 CD III/3. history and religion. pp. 249–50. ‘Not the virtues of men but the virtues of him who hath called us out of darkness into his marvelous light! Not human standpoints but the standpoint of God!’69 Once again.’68 It means accepting the true implication of their witness and acknowledging that God is right ‘instead of trying to prove ourselves right’. concepts and convictions to be ‘supplanted’ by those of the prophets and apostles. 159. we must do the better thing. yet we continually try to flee from this faith. p. ‘Not the history of man but the history of God!’ writes Barth. CD IV/1.64 Christ is the one who represents us by turning faithfully to God in our place. CD IV/1.scottish journal of theology need not be surprised if it is not the victory which overcomes the world’.’67 Since faith means allowing God to speak to us through the biblical witness. the needful thing: ‘We have to believe: not to believe in ourselves. 632.66 If we try to understand faith by looking at ourselves. our flight from faith too is limited. p. p. Whenever that happens God is displaced. to have the first and final word concerning our morality. what we see is a lie and it may well lead us to question its possibility and to regard it as intolerable. CD I/2.

46. the Saviour and Comforter of all who turn to him. While we might say that the content of the Bible is God himself. 205 and 181. p. 158.. The new world is the world of ‘incomparable peace of such a life hid with Christ in God’. 729. pp. true knowledge of God is ‘an event enclosed in the bosom of the divine Trinity’75 so that we really know God himself in our views and concepts as God enables us to participate in his own self-knowledge. grace. p. 46. But it is not the whole truth because we must grow beyond the question. revelation and truth itself. pp. p. CD II/2. CD I/1.71 All of this and more Barth says is true. In his ‘Strange New World’ lecture Barth says that one who is led by God himself to ‘the gates of the new world. Ibid.The role of faith in reading scripture theologically intentions.’74 And because God can only be known in faith and by his own gracious self-revelation. see also e. CD II/1. I/2.. p. Biblical faith lives upon the objectivity of God. 4ff. to the threshold of the kingdom of God 70 71 72 73 74 75 WGWM. and IV/1. ‘Who is God?’ Barth’s thinking here is similar to the way he began CD II/1 concerning our knowledge of God where he insisted that knowledge of the truth that takes place in faith never asks whether God is known72 because: Faith is the total positive relationship of man to the God who gives Himself to be known in His Word. the Lord and Redeemer. while true. II/1. because he knows himself to be bound and fully bound. Jesus Christ himself to be the first and final Word in all their reflections upon God. p. II/2. 240. p. ‘Biblical faith excludes any faith of man in himself – that is any desire for religious self-help. 580. 12. Ibid. Ibid. 149. Faith and the knowledge of God At the close of his ‘Strange New World’ lecture Barth notes that a whole new series of questions may arise about who God really is who meets us in the Bible and calls us to faith.73 Accordingly. any religious self-satisfaction. 13. pp.. Barth asks. See also Barth. 463. p. It is man’s act of turning to God. do not actually allow the Word of God. It is the Yes which he pronounces in his heart when confronted by this God. This is the problem of self-justification.. any religious selfsufficiency. namely. faith. are nonetheless inadequate because they may still represent the content of our wishes and not God himself as he comes to us.g. 81 . Ibid. 580. p. of opening up his life to Him and of surrendering to Him. ‘what is the content of the contents?’70 And he lists a number of answers which. p.

It has no respect for old traditions simply because they are traditions . . In Christ he caused his word to be made flesh. ye shall receive!” God is God. new men. the glorious beginning of a new world’. p. “Believing. however.’76 Anyone who is still asking ‘Who is God?’ has halted. new relationships. 48–9. p. 47. The Holy Spirit establishes the righteousness of heaven in the midst of the unrighteousness of earth and will not stop nor stay until all that is dead has been brought to life and a new world has come into being. when we dare with Paul not to be disobedient to the heavenly vision. Yet that is not the end of the story. pp.80 76 77 78 79 80 WGWM.’78 Even when we believe. monotonous. There one knows. There one hears. But we know him as ‘the heavenly Father even upon earth. This God does not allow his life to be divided between a here and a beyond and he will not ‘leave to death the task of freeing us from sin and sorrow. we must still pray ‘Lord. There one sees. .79 And the Bible tells us further that God is the ‘Spirit in his believers’ who makes a new heaven and a new earth and. . He is the redeeming Word of God who existed in the beginning and is expected as the one who is coming again. I believe. high-church. Ibid. Ibid. Ibid. refused to let the Bible speak and has ‘failed somewhere truly to desire – to believe..’ In Christ eternity has dawned upon time and he has in fact established a new world. There one no longer gives his petty. 49–50. There one has. He will bless us.scottish journal of theology .. narrow little answers. when we find God in the Bible. then God stands before us as he really is. or meaningless.’77 It is because of our unbelief that we are so perplexed by the question ‘Who is God?’ The answer the Bible gives is: ‘“He that hath seen me hath seen the Father” . problematical – narrow. . not with the power of the church. Yet in the midst of our unbelief we may really know God through his grace and when we do know God we know him as the heavenly Father. help thou mine unbelief’. He is the redeemer of humanity as it has gone astray and indeed he is the redeemer of all creation. At the point of halt the truth again becomes unclear. . and upon earth really the heavenly Father’. pp. The Bible also tells us that God is God the Son who has become the Mediator for the entire world. 48. . new families. for itself. new politics. Ibid. confused. therefore. asks no longer.. 82 . stupid. non-conformist. but with the power of life and resurrection. It is in this sense that ‘all the events of the Bible are the beginning. The Holy Spirit has respect only for truth.

83 Knowledge of God too must be prayed for because only God can make himself known. CD I/1. 576). as a human decision that corresponds with God’s decision concerning us.. p. See also CD III/3. 246. by allowing the object of faith – the triune God – to determine what is thought and said. Barth’s dogmatic theology is an application of his understanding of biblical faith. Ibid. that is. We must simply live by grace and for grace according to Barth (CD II/2. the free act of God on man and his work’ which will enable dogmatic work but will always question it as well. means we have already ceased to live by grace and by faith. where Barth insists that the Christian religion can never find its justification in itself either. p. He is the image of God and His action when his own action reflects and to that extent copies the grace of God’. Once again.’84 This means that knowledge of God takes place only as free obedience. ‘God’s action is that He is gracious. p.82 This questioning by the Word of God is not something that can be solved humanly speaking. 576. dogmatics itself is an act of faith that has ‘its basis in the divine predestination. 22. any attempt to explore the meaning of our relationship with God. p.81 Barth saw this critical point in a number of contexts with great clarity and his vision is worth noting today. 81 82 83 84 85 See CD I/2.85 Hence. where Barth links faith. here too faith. pp. That is why prayer is necessary. 22–3. Hence ‘The position of grace cannot be taken up and held in any other way than by asking and praying for it. by focusing on ourselves as those justified and sanctified by the Holy Spirit through grace alone. p. obedience and prayer together in a manner similar to the way the three persons of the Trinity are perichoretically related.The role of faith in reading scripture theologically But it would be the greatest misunderstanding of Barth’s intentions if one were to shift the weight of emphasis here away from the Spirit acting within us as the Lord and giver of life and onto our own new families and new relationships with the idea that wherever families are renewed and relationships change for the better there can be seen the kingdom of God. it is not a means by which we can count on success in our work but an act of faith trusting completely in the Lord to enable our work. CD II/1. Prayer allows us to recognise that we can accomplish nothing by ourselves. and man in his action is committed to correspondence to this action. CD II/2. grace and revelation are indissolubly connected. 358. pp. especially when so many theologians seem to want to divide their loyalties between a strictly theological method that operates in faith. and a method that allows our human experiences and insights to set the questions that faith is then supposed to answer. 83 . 23–4.

Some believe that Barth went too far in his critique of religion in CD I/2. but continually makes it free’. it is known by grace. 150. in his doctrine of Providence. Yet it is worth asking whether and to what extent those who believe this have embraced a view of religion that has already domesticated revelation in some subtle or overt way. p. to the realm of his knowing as well as the realm of his doing’. Torrance accurately described Barth’s theology ‘as the application of justification to the whole realm of man’s life. 213. 163. T. Son.scottish journal of theology The being of God is either known by grace or it is not known at all. 1965). CD I/2. Barth insists that ‘Revelation is understood only where we expect from it. Interestingly. and Holy Spirit’. Barth’s thinking confirms Torrance’s judgement. It is because the triune God is eternally rich that in his works in his Word and Spirit ‘there is no reason whatever why the activity of the creature should be destroyed or suppressed by his omnipotent operation’. CD III/3. Because of this ‘it is necessarily the case that the omnipotent operation of God not merely leaves the activity of the creature free. then we are already displaced from that secure position and put in a position where the consideration of God can consist and be fulfilled only in the act of our own decision of obedience. p.86 Here we pray to be relieved of the many temptations that would lead away from clinging to grace alone for our knowledge of God.88 Let us compare some of what Barth says about the truth of religion and our knowledge of God with what Paul Tillich proposes when he sees faith as in some sense dictated by our ‘ultimate concern’. 295. Frequently some form of self-justification or self-sanctification guides those who believe they can know God and thus also the truth of ‘religion’ by exploring peoples’ religious experiences. If. F. F. p. 84 . Torrance. Barth links faith. focusing on the relation of religion and revelation.87 In what follows we shall explore some implications of such a biblically grounded dogmatic theology for our knowledge of God. and from it alone. 27. obedience and prayer in a similar way and concludes that when God guides creation he does so in the eternally rich activity of his Word and Spirit and ‘The eternal riches of God are the riches of His trinitarian life as Father. however. p. the first and the last word about religion’89 and that even the slightest concession to ‘religionism’ in the attempt to understand 86 87 88 89 CD II/1. Theology in Reconstruction (London: SCM Press. T. See CD II/1. p. Religious experience and self-justification – Paul Tillich Contemporary theology often does not allow Jesus to have the first and final word.

That depth is what the word God means. therefore. of the earthly-historical life of the Church and the children of God. of the source of your being. . It contradicts it. You cannot then call yourself an atheist or unbeliever. and John Haught. The same is true. He who knows about depth knows about God. Hence The Christian religion is simply the earthly-historical life of the Church and the children of God. Jesus’ humanity ‘has no hypostasis of its own’ because ‘It has it only in the Logos. 85 . and by concluding that we can change the word God as traditionally 90 91 92 93 Ibid. Perhaps. translate it. Tillich claims: The name of this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being is God. 22. 14–15.92 Tillich’s thinking embodies all that is wrong with an approach to theology which begins with religious experience and not with faith in Jesus Christ. For if you know that God means depth. you know much about Him. 57. and therefore of the Christian religion. The Shaking of the Foundations (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. If you could say this in complete seriousness. Honest to God (Philadelphia: Westminster Press. John A. 1948). What is God? How to Think about the Divine (New York: Paulist Press. p. rely on this thinking for their approaches to God. 1986). of what you take seriously without any reservation.. p. but otherwise you are not. . by equating our experience of depth with knowledge of God. CD I/2. Robinson. relying on depth psychology and exploring experiences of depth to understand God. And we must remember what we are told concerning his human nature in Jn. and speak of the depths of your life. For Barth ‘Revelation does not link up with a human religion which is already present and practised. Paul Tillich. . What is the reason for this? It is the plain fact that Jesus alone is the Word of God incarnate. you would be an atheist.’91 By contrast. and thus subverts the priority of revelation over religion. in order to do so. Ibid. just as religion previously contradicted revelation’. p. you must forget everything traditional that you have learned about God . p. As such we must think of it as an annexe to the human nature of Jesus Christ. 348. For you cannot think or say: Life has no depth! . 1963). T. . pp. And if that word has not much meaning for you. of your ultimate concern.The role of faith in reading scripture theologically religion theologically is fatal. 303. There never was a man Jesus as such apart from the eternal reality of the Son of God.90 Importantly.93 While Tillich assumes we can know the Christian God by exploring our experiences of depth. 1:14.

347. ‘: CD I/1. pp. And. also CD IV/2. For Barth. . then our own deepest ground of being. It is true in and by its source. upon which it is dependent but which is not dependent upon it. We continually dwell in this depth without focusing 94 95 Ibid.scottish journal of theology understood as long as we know that depth means God. . . as we have already seen. 345. Haught reasons that ‘God may be “thought of” as the inexhaustible depth and ground out of which all of our experiences arise. Citing Tillich. faith. 108. and opens the door to a universalism that can claim knowledge of God without ever believing in God himself who is present to us in history in his Word and Spirit. is true . faith knows God precisely as the eternal Father. Son and Holy Spirit. . Son and Holy Spirit – as one who is hidden from any and all our experiences no matter how deep they may be. ‘Christian experience . to the extent that it lives entirely by Him and cannot curve in upon itself in self-sufficiency. it is a specific freedom that comes miraculously from the Holy Spirit in particular circumstances. CD IV/1. p. in and by Jesus Christ as its basis.94 This is why grace. p. Faith is not something we create or can control since. When God is truly known in an encounter with his Word through his Spirit as attested in scripture. Cf. one immediately knows that we cannot learn of God by exploring our experiences of depth. this shows that there is no true knowledge of God outside of our relationship with God established and maintained by God himself in Christ and through the Holy Spirit. the occurrence of His revelation. See CD I/1.’95 John Haught One can see the damaging nature of Tillich’s thinking when one sees what John Haught makes of it. 377. and therefore that He is love in Himself without and before loving us. Barth observed: ‘If “Immanuel. 176 and 205–8. any attempt to equate experiences of depth with knowledge of the triune God amounts to an overt reduction of theology to anthropology. p. Thus. whatever we think concerning it. revelation and truth are inextricably connected in Barth’s theology.. since this freedom comes to us and enables us to know God in truth and to act as those who have been liberated for service of the Word. This is why faith always means acknowledgement of God’s Word and Spirit coming to us ‘absolutely from without’. 90. with us sinners” is true. . 249. As Barth insisted: We cannot say anything higher or better of the ‘inwardness of God’ than that God is Father. . And we can say this only in the light of the ‘outwardness’ of God to us. and without being forced to love us. 86 . pp. Such an approach is closed to us. cannot be the past revelation of God .

. 21. 99 Such thinking seems to confirm the accuracy of Barth’s understanding of religion as our attempt to create the God we want instead of living by faith and accepting God as he has acted for us in his Word and Spirit. . Belief in God is a matter of ‘what you take seriously without any reservation’. . T. . For religion is also a confident naming of the dimension of depth. 22.97 but ‘religion is more than a search. Ibid. ‘religion may be understood as the search for depth’. it thus reduces God to our knowledge of our own depth. p. For Barth ‘man tries to grasp at truth of himself .’96 Hence. not whether a Being exists beyond the bright blue sky. 315. or anywhere else. p. it is the degree of seriousness whereby we ask ultimate questions. John A. persons or occasions where the depth has broken through the surface of our lives in an exceptional way . If he did. 302). of what for you is ultimate reality. that is. Honest to God. He does not believe . Ibid. then religion is the confident search for this depth as well as the celebration of those events. but in religion he takes something for himself’ (CD I/2. Ibid.The role of faith in reading scripture theologically upon it. Robinson. p. to God. .102 96 97 98 99 100 101 102 Haught. Ibid. p. .98 In sum Haught says if God is the depth of existence. a priori’ and in that way demonstrates unbelief because ‘he does not do what he has to do when the truth comes to him..100 Haught’s idea that religion is our confident search for depth demonstrates the truth of Barth’s view that ‘religion is . 20. thoroughly self-centered’101 and cannot transcend the limit of experience.’ And conversion means ‘a new turn and a new confidence in the unending journey to the depth of our lives’. and not the degree of doctrinal certitude. . p. 87 . 55. In this sense a study of religion and religious experience leads directly to the conclusion that we can have a true knowledge of God without relying on the grace of God revealed in Christ. Robinson John Robinson explicitly relies on Tillich’s thinking and reaches the following questionable conclusions: The question of God is the question whether this depth of being is a reality or an illusion. What is God?. p. . he would accept a gift. 24.. p. that determines whether we are surrendering to the transcendent depth of our lives...

Torrance believes Robinson’s thinking is merely mythological projection and as such is useless for any real understanding of God (p.107 Barth’s view of Robinson’s Honest to God was similarly negative. MI: William B. Torrance believed Robinson’s thinking was ‘unable to distinguish God from [our] own swollen subjectivity’104 and called him a ‘theological solipsist. 41. J¨ rgen Fangmeier and Hinrich Stoevesandt. ed.e. 102. Eerdmans. p.. 40. 29. who cannot see finally outside of himself or identify a God “out there” in distinction from the ground of his own being’. First. reissued Edinburgh: T&T Clark. p. with and under the conditioned relationships of this life: for he is their depth and ultimate significance’. Haught and Robinson amounts to a form of self-justification excluded by the very nature of revelation as Barth understood it. the ‘God’ they want.108 Both Torrance and Barth refused to allow grace to be detached from Jesus himself as the Word of God incarnate and located in the wider sphere of religious experience because they believed such universalism represented a Gnosticising of the Gospel. Karl Barth Letters 1961–1968. p. also p. he believes ‘The Trinity teaches us that Jesus Christ cannot be an exhaustive or exclusive source for knowledge of God nor the 103 104 105 106 107 108 Ibid.105 By resorting to ‘pictorial images’ for God.103 No wonder T.. 88 .. Any such thinking undermines the intent and content of various Christian doctrines. God and Rationality (London: Oxford University Press. indeed even trinitarian theology can become very misleading when placed within this Tillichian context. i. one to suit themselves and modern ‘secular’ man. F. Bromiley (Grand Rapids. Ibid. Thomas F. 80). and u ed. 1971. The thinking offered by Tillich. 60. rather than the God of costly grace who calls for the renewing of our minds in which we are not schematized to the patterns of this world but are transformed in conformity with His own self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Robinson’s thinking becomes unscientific because it is a ‘failure to understand things out of themselves in accordance with their natures’. trans.scottish journal of theology Consequently God ‘is to be found only in. 1981). not least of which is the doctrine of Trinity. 116. 82.. pp. p. Mark Heim Let me illustrate this very briefly with several problematic remarks made by S. 44. Ibid. Mark Heim. 2001). p. Ibid. Geoffrey W. Torrance.106 Torrance concludes that Robinson and other so-called ‘new theologians’ are out for cheap grace.

as he also finds God in Jesus Christ and in Him alone’. that taught by Holy Scripture the Church listens to Jesus Christ and no one else as grace and truth. 569. 89 . or event. p. p.111 This exclusivity is not meant to exclude other religions by way of competition because it is the action of the one. In fact Barth believes the will of God is often done better outside the church than in it. MI: Eerdmans. p. 320. whatever their religious commitments may be. that He is unceasingly recognized as the way. and not to an affirmation of it. and the life (Jn. because his starting point for a theology of religions is not Jesus Christ and faith in him as the one Word of God and the unique saviour of the world.’109 Compare this assertion to Barth’s unequivocal remark that the true and essential distinction of the Christian religion from the nonChristian. the truth. and undermines soteriology. Thus Barth insists that ‘Man never at all exists in himself [but] in Jesus Christ and in Him alone.113 Heim’s claim that Jesus cannot be the exclusive source of our knowledge of God and the exclusive saving act of God at work in history amounts to a denial of the content and meaning of the doctrine of the Trinity.112 As a christological statement ‘It looks away from non-Christian and Christian alike to the One who sovereignly confronts and precedes both’. not being slack but always cheerful to proclaim and believe Him . p. . CD II/1. CD I/2. CD II/2. true and ever living God on behalf of all people.The role of faith in reading scripture theologically exhaustive and exclusive act of God to save us. CD I/2. pp. the truth of the Christian religion is the fact that Christians may live by grace because ‘It is of grace that the Church and the children of God live by His grace’. Consequently. 91. And ‘the Church must . . so that he may use the doctrine to affirm the goodness of a plurality of religious ends. 327–8. At the crucial point of Heim’s trinitarian theology of religions. can be demonstrated only in the fact. he exchanges the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the one Word of God for a religious approach that sees the doctrine of the Trinity as a way of affirming communion and relationality. 344. . Mark Heim. p. Second.110 Hence. 345. 149. The Depth of the Riches: A Trinitarian Theology of Religious Ends (Grand Rapids. the Church lives ‘through the name of Jesus Christ’. 134. And we must apply the judgement of grace acutely to ourselves and others and see ourselves in solidarity with them as we anticipate them in repentance and hope and live by faith and grace.6)’. Heim then argues that ‘The communion Christ came to instigate is 109 110 111 112 113 S. p. 2001). CD I/2. and with it its character as the religion of truth over against the religions of error. see that it expects everything from Jesus Christ and from Jesus Christ everything. p. 14. CD IV/3. CD II/1. .

scottish journal of theology itself the fundamental instrument for understanding who Christ is. God will in crucial measure conform God’s relation with the person to the person’s choice of terms on which to relate to God. Religions represent real relations to aspects of the triune life and aspects of God’s economic activity . 127. Whereas Barth insisted that all religion (including the Christian religion) is inherently unbelief because it refuses to allow Christ himself to be the starting point and norm for what is said about the truth of God and revelation. for Barth. 367.’116 Importantly. Ibid. p. Ibid. Heim’s thinking unfortunately leads him to assert that ‘Trinitarian conviction rules out the view that among all the possible claimed manifestations of God. who is the truth. CD II/1. salvation and the Trinity. p. . p. Depth of Riches. 114 115 116 117 118 Heim. p. . But it is the freedom of grace which is revealed in this way. one narrow strand alone is authentic.. Heim claims that religions demonstrate that every movement of human response to God’s ‘Yes’ to creation is met by God’s further ‘Yes’ as well . thus the truth of religion can only be recognised through faith and not by incorporating revelation into the context of a conception of communion dictated by anything or anyone other than Jesus Christ.’118 Here truth.117 Only the believer speaks of this opposition of grace. He justifies the ungodly. Barth thus insisted that because God is ‘both gracious and holy: gracious as He is holy and holy as He is gracious’ that ‘The freedom of grace is revealed in the fact that it is always manifest in judgment.115 The problematic nature of this statement can only be seen in faith when one acknowledges that the triune God relates with us according to his free choice and not at all according to ours. in its identity with Jesus Christ. however. has been undercut at its root with the idea that the doctrine of the Trinity allows and commands us to recognise as valid a plurality of religious ends. then and to that extent it can no longer be Christ alone who is and remains the criterion of our thinking about communion. In this case the instrument clearly becomes religion and a study of religious ends that receive their truth not from the Word of God incarnate in Jesus Christ but from the degree of communion thought to be perceived by the inquirer. 268.’114 But if communion is the instrument for understanding who Christ is. Depth of Riches. 90 . 137. . . 361.. p. God is always present to us as one who is in opposition to us as we are. Heim.

It is the deepest thing we have in common. 233. Accordingly. how can Muslims in any sense be said to have recognised the ‘I’ of the Trinity? Whatever ‘I’ they have conceptualised.’121 Yet.The role of faith in reading scripture theologically Heim even believes that other religions. On the other hand he claims that ‘the Muslim religious end focuses on the personal “I” of the Trinity’. relation with what is unlike (and this includes most basically of all the fact that we are different from God who made us). God’s being is in communion. On the one hand he argues that Islam finds the Christian doctrine of the Trinity offensive because Muslims think it introduces division into God. 229. it is certainly not the divine subject known by Christians through faith in Jesus Christ and by the power of his Holy Spirit. Ibid. 91 . pp.119 Yet. As three persons. But communion is not God. Ibid. Heim’s trinitarian theology of religions fails to allow God in Christ to determine his understanding of who God is. represent little more than aspects of the dimension of depth articulated by Tillich. one being.. p. as long as the homoousion between the Father and Son is denied. It is not an immanence that can be seen or described apart from faith in Christ himself – a faith which itself comes only from the Holy Spirit. with their very different ends. Moreover. in light of biblical revelation and faith. Failure to make this distinction leads Heim to say: The very fact that our being is constituted in relation with others. with absolute Brahman. it can signify in practice only our enslavement 119 120 121 Ibid. then. In faith one discovers that ‘If the freedom of divine immanence is sought and supposedly found apart from Jesus Christ.120 But do we really have a life in common with God that is directly perceptible in this way without faith in Christ? This is a relevant question when you consider Heim’s statement that ‘I as a Christian do not deny that a Hindu may actually realise identity with the divine. is the most fundamental way that we are like God. 126–7. this thinking fails to acknowledge that God’s immanence is identical only with his immanence in his Word and Spirit. the only way this could be true is if divine and human being and action are identified so that our relationality gives us something in common with God. What Heim describes as dimensions of the triune God.. God is not just a ‘communion-nature’ as Heim believes. if the Muslim idea of God’s oneness excludes the oneness in being between the Son and Father. p. I regard this as in fact identity with the underlying immanence of the triune God. Robinson and Haught. place their members in contact with dimensions of the triune God..

no matter how universally appealing. 92 . grace. as the grace of God manifested in history.scottish journal of theology to a false god. our sloth and therefore our attempt to render innocuous the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. 406. 122 123 CD II/1.123 And yet. 319. Christ causes offence because of his exclusive claim on us. and towards faith in the Word of God incarnate in Jesus Christ who. following Barth’s thinking. faith. alone is the truth who promises to give meaning to our thinking – but only on his terms and not at all on ours – no matter how offensive that may be. the God we grasp at in religion is a sign of our unbelief. our sin.’122 For Barth. p. revelation and truth are so indissolubly connected according to the biblical witness that both religion and trinitarian theology itself are necessarily and always directed away from all self-chosen agendas. So we are ‘basically illuminated and radically questioned and disturbed and therefore offended by the deity of God in the concrete phenomenon of the existence of this man’. The God of religion does not. as I have argued in this article. p. CD IV/2.