07 July, 2007

Karl Barth Dreaming

I wandered into the library to kill 10 minutes. Of course, that's it's weird enough to kill 10 minutes that way, but I decided to look for theology there by NT Wright. And just in case that wasn't weird enough, when I stumbled upon Karl Barth's commentary on Romans I just had to snatch it up.

When getting to know someone completely new, I sometimes start in the middle. With Barth I started in Romans 9. You'd have to be stone-cold dead to fail to write something amazing about chapter 8, but chapter 9 is fraught with danger and I want to see what he does with it.

So far I'm only on verse 5, and the man has already proven himself unique. He seems bent to make sure he drives everyone nuts. :-)

I'm sure his spiritual wealth shames my own, but he seems like exactly the theologian I wished I was twenty years ago.

If I may summarize my first impressions of Mr. Barth's position, it goes like this. God is too massively real to be known. His immense perfection and absolute eternity crush our hopes of knowing Him. And yet we continue to imagine that we do know Him, when really we barely know a couple surface trivialities about Him. And every time we try to speak something in mere words to contain this hyper-infinite God we end up creating "Church."

Church is awful. Church is a lie that doesn't even know it's lying. Church markets itself as the very place God where has chosen to reveal Himself, when really, it is just the chief place that the spiritual sins of men naturally express themselves. Church always fails.

And Paul will never leave the church.

He won't reform it, nor abandon it for something better. To do either would be a waste of his time. God is just too much to be contained, so rejecting the Church for failing to contain Him is an even greater offense than the failure was. Neither the fiery reformer nor the anti-denominational, home church advocate is spiritual. Anyone can find fault with the faulty. The spiritual man pours his heart and soul into the Church as it is.

(Mr. Barth does not think much of me.)

And, yes, Barth derives all these thoughts from the first 5 verses of Romans 9. He looks at Paul's continued, present tense identification with Israel, and finds in that nation the simple pattern for all "Church" of all time. Israel had everything Church has now, and the Church has nothing Israel lacked. Therefore, the horrible failings of Israel as recorded in scripture are the same failings the Church is making even now. Paul doesn't reject his people, so how can any of us reject our Israel?

I find a lot of truth in what I've read, and a lot to question.

I have not forgotten that I am talking about fewer than 10 pages of this man's thought. I have no idea whether I'm reading something indicative of his thinking, or more of a one-off for him, but it sure seems like he's comfortable with what he's saying. I also don't know yet whether I like what he's saying, though I have to love his over-the-top passion and overuse of adjectives. He's quite serious about everything he says, and I adore sincerity in all its forms.

My biggest question is whether Barth is right that we cannot know God. I believe that we can, though the entire Eastern Orthodox Church joins with Barth in calling me deceived and a danger. It's a solid point of contention, and Barth contends for it strongly. If he's right, my whole theology and ecclesiology need to be torn back to their foundations.



Milly said...

I do believe that we can know God but not in a neat little box the way that some want. God isn’t the kind of Father my dad is, he isn’t going to hang with us, although he is with us. I’m not sure if that’s what he’s trying to say or if he’s saying that God is just too beyond us. I don’t think He’s too beyond us at all. God created us and in our minds we drive the vastness between us and God. (An early morning Millyism for ya)

Kansas Bob said...

Here is another question for you CP:

Can anyone be known?

I submit that God can be known in ways similar to the ways that we can know each other. We can know Him through what He has done ... through what He has said ... through the interactions of conversation (prayer) ... through the testimony of those who have him longer. These are all ways that God, and anyone else, can be known ... and really, who among us can be fully known ... why would we (who know in part) think that we can fully know God?

salguod said...

Dude, you come up with some great posts. (I'm still chewing on that divorce thing.) When I grow up, I want to blog like you. :-D

I think you're both right.

As Kansas Bob said, God can be known on the same levels we know each other - casually as you and I know each other, and even as intimately as a husband knows his wife.

But, He is God, and there's no way we will know Him completely. Even in our most intimate connections with Him, we are just scratching the surface of who God is.

Missy said...

I don't know if he's right or wrong, but I think its a good thing to tear down your whole theology and ecclesiology back down to the foundations every once in a while. :)

codepoke said...


Good thoughts. The way I understand the "unknowable" thing, is that we are like mice trying to understand the whole of human civilization. We just can't. It's not that we're people and God's People, and we have abandoned Him. Rather, God's God and we are not, so we are hopeless. It's a thing of species/not species - infinity/finite.

codepoke said...


Exactly the same question I wanted to ask Barth! We think on the same wavelength. :-) (I'm sure he answers it somewhere in the other 99.99% of the things he's written.)

Still. I think your conclusion is basically in line with Barth's. We cannot even know each other, but God is much, much more than we are. We obviously cannot know Him.

codepoke said...


> as you and I know each other, and even as intimately as a husband knows his wife.

And here my ignorance of Barth really shows itself. He might believe that we can know God that intimately, as long as we don't flatter ourselves into thinking we can communicate that knowing. Or he might believe that we simply cannot know God intimately.

But that's cool, because I was not really trying to get to the heart of Barth here, but to the heart of knowing God.

So, why do you think you can know God as intimately as a man knows his wife? What do you think is the mechanism of that?

codepoke said...

Good one, Missy. :-)

Lynne said...

Perhaps (and I'm out on a limb here and not sure where I'm going)since we only know God at all by His self-revelation, as he reveals Himself to us in relationship we can know Him according to our limited capacity to know (which may be full to overflowing)But we cannot know the enormity of who he is to Himself, infinitely beyond our smallness. perhaps only God is large enough to know God -- yet another reason for the Trinity, that God, who is relational, may be known. Bubecause we can know him to the limits of our capacity, yet be far from beginning to grasp Him in His infinity, we both know Him and do not know Him at the same time.

As for knowing one another, again it is yes and no. I know my nearest and dearest, their habits of mind and body, their strengths and weaknesses, their hopes and fears -- yet they remain a mystery. At the centre of each person's being is a mystery where eternal things happen, and in even approaching it we stand on holy ground.

and i'm frustrated that I'm going away tomorrow and will have to wait till I get back to catch up on the rest of this conversation!

Danny Kaye said...

Way to go deep, CP. This is just the kind of stuff that makes my heart and mind go in never-ending circles.

I would imagine that God is revealed to each of us a little differently. We all may read the same passage, but because we all look at and respond to relationships differently, and because we all process things differently, we all have different insights into Him and so know Him differently, even though that knowledge would have stemmed from the same passage.

I would also imagine that if we could collectively put into words the things He reveals to us about Himself, and share those things with one another so that we could each understand one another's insights, we would have a more complete view of Him, though I use the word "complete" loosely.

codepoke said...

Thanks Lynne and DK both.

I hate to reiterate everything you guys have said, but I plan to write a post on this one. Let me say here that I cannot find a conclusive statement in Barth that we cannot know God. It may be there, but I was definitely reading too much into him. He clearly says that we cannot put God into words, but I don't know anyone who would take issue with that.

Still, I love to talk about knowing God, so look for a post some time, some how, eventually.

salguod said...

"So, why do you think you can know God as intimately as a man knows his wife? What do you think is the mechanism of that?"

I hesitated to put that in there. I shoulda known you'd ask about it. :-P

I have no deep thoughts on this. I was simply attempting to capture the range of human 'knowing', assuming that our knowing God has the potential to be as deep and intimate as any human relationship. That's not to say that we achive the same level of knowing with God as with others, only that I assume it to be possible. Or maybe, I'd rather not think that I will not know God any better than, or even as well as, I know anyone on earth, including my wife.

It was pretty off the cuff and without too much thought. Sorry to disappoint you. :-D

Danny Kaye said...

"What do you think is the mechanism of that?

When I reflect on the life of Christ and his "knowing" God as intimately as he did, I have to believe that there actually IS a mechanism (for lack of a more spiritual word) in place so that we could do the same.

So I present this question:
Does the possiblity exist that the less we sin, the more we are able to understand and know God?

I have to believe that, if such a mechanism exists, this would be it.

codepoke said...

Hey Salguod! I'm with you. I believe you're right. I was just giving you room to riff.

I'm not sure I can go with you on the "holiness -> relationship" tack. I would reverse that arrow.

Danny Kaye said...

Nevermind which way the arrow goes...for me, the direction is adjustable. For intstance...

There are times when a period of focused, deepening in my relationship with God has helped me rid myself of sins and character weaknesses that dogged me.


There are times when it wasn't until AFTER I fought to overcome some sin or character weakness that God revealed a bit more of Himself to me in a deeper way.

The link seems clear enough to me no matter which way the arrow goes.


For some reason you inserted the word "holy" into the equation in your last comment. I am not talking about "holiness" because I believe that all Christians are already holy to the Lord. And that (holiness) doesn't seem to be the intent of the original post.
I am simply talking about a deepening relationship and understanding of God. Surely you believe that that is a lifelong process, no?

I think I have room in this comment for one more of these "..."


codepoke said...



Thanks, DK. Your followup comment clears things up for me. Now I might draw your point like this:

Seeking -> Holiness
Seeking -> Relationship

And that I'm totally cool with.

As for why I said, "holiness," your statement is "less sin." Most people equate less sin with more holiness, and I was probing to see whether you did too. I agree with you that holiness is a gift from God, given in Christ, and never earned by any man's works.


codepoke said...

I guess I should then say:
Seeking -> Less sin