Friday, September 5, 2014

Blogging with Barth: CD 2.1 §27.1 "The Hiddenness of God" pp. 179-204

Barth lecturing in Gwatt on July 6, 1941.
Check here for previous posts in the "Blogging with Barth" series or check here for a detailed reading schedule for the Church Dogmatics with links to the respective posts I've written to accompany each day's reading.

The Leitsatz (thesis statement) for §27 states: "God is known only by God. We do not know Him, then, in virtue of the views and concepts with which in faith we attempt to respond to His revelation. But we also do not know Him without making use of His permission and obeying His command to undertake this attempt. The success of this undertaking, and therefore the veracity of our human knowledge of God, consists in the fact that our viewing and conceiving is adopted and determined to participation in the truth of God by God Himself in grace."

In paragraph §27 ("The Limits of the Knowledge of God") and in subsection §27.1 ("The Hiddenness of God"), Barth begins a review of where we have been:
How far is God known? and how far is God knowable? We have answered these questions in principle in the two previous sections. We may summarise our answer in the statement that God is known by God and by God alone. His revelation is not merely His own readiness to be known, but man’s readiness to know Him. God’s revelation is, therefore, His knowability (179).
Barth wants to now explore the limits of the knowledge of God in this section. He divides the paragraph into two sections, the first dedicated to the topic of the hiddenness of God (which will be covered in this post), and the second devoted to the authenticity of our knowledge of God (which will be covered in the next post).
The limit which is our concern in the first part of this section is the terminus a quo, the point of beginning and departure in the knowledge of God. We have said that knowledge of God is the presupposition of all Christian doctrine. But this means that it is the basis of the Church and its confession, the basis of the faith of all those who, in the Church and by the Church, are called to fellowship with God and thus to their own salvation and the glorifying of God. Knowledge of God in the sense hitherto defined by us as the knowledge of God which is objectively and subjectively established and led to its goal by God Himself, the knowledge of God whose subject and object is God the Father and the Son through the Holy Spirit, is the basis—and indeed the only basis—of the love of God which comes to us and the praise of God which is expected of us (180).
Thus the hiddenness of God is the terminus a quo (the starting point) of our knowledge of God.
The terminus a quo of the knowledge of God is therefore the fact that in it we have to do with God Himself by God Himself, in insurpassable and incontestable certainty, and that therefore it is real knowledge of God. We may equally well say (pending more detailed definition) that this will also be the terminus ad quem (ending point) of which we must speak later.
Of course, God is the primary object and subject of this knowledge, and we are secondary subjects.
The fact that it has God not only for its object but also as its origin, and that its primary and proper subject is the Father who knows the Son and the Son who knows the Father in the Holy Spirit, and that it is a sure and perfect and genuine cognition because God is known by God, does not mean either the abrogation, abolition or alteration of human cognition as such, and therefore of its formal and technical characteristics as human cognition. But human cognition is fulfilled in views and concepts. Views are the images in which we perceive objects as such. Concepts are the counterimages with which we make these images of perception our own by thinking them, i.e., arranging them. Precisely for this reason they and their corresponding objects are capable of being expressed by us (181). 
And even though it is our own cognitive capabilities that enable us to understand the knowledge of God, this knowledge is not ultimately attributable to our cognitive capabilities - God is only known by God (183).
At this very point it emerges that although the knowledge of God certainly does not come about without our work, it also does not come about through our work, or as the fruit of our work. At this very point the truth breaks imperiously and decisively before us: God is known only by God; God can be known only by God. At this very point, in faith itself, we know God in utter dependence, in pure discipleship and gratitude. At this very point we are finally dissuaded from trusting and confiding in our own capacity and strength. At this very point we can see that our attempt to answer God’s revelation with our views and concepts is an attempt undertaken with insufficient means, the work of unprofitable servants, so that we cannot possibly ascribe the success of this attempt and therefore the truth of our knowledge of God to ourselves, i.e., to the capacity of our views and concepts. In faith itself we are forced to say that our knowledge of God begins in all seriousness with the knowledge of the hiddenness of God (182-183).
Our knowledge of God begins with the knowledge of the hiddenness of God. What is God's hiddenness? God's hiddenness is God's incomprehensibility. But this is 'incomprehensibility' in the biblical sense, not in any other, particularly the philosophical sense:
With this assertion we confess that, knowing God, we do not comprehend how we come to know Him, that we do not ascribe to our cognition as such the capacity for this knowledge, but that we can only trace it back to God. It is God alone, and God’s revelation and faith in it, which will drive and compel us to this avowal. Without faith we will definitely remain satisfied with the delimitation which we allotted to ourselves. And the lack of seriousness in this delimitation will probably be betrayed in two ways. We shall ascribe to ourselves a capacity for the knowledge of God in opposition to the revelation of God. And we shall, therefore, treat God’s revelation as something which stands at our own disposal, instead of perceiving that the capacity to know God is taken away from us by revelation and can be ascribed to us again only by revelation.
When in Ps. 139:6 it says of God’s action: “It is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it”; or in Job 36:26: “Behold, God is great, and we know him not”: and when Paul calls God invisible (Rom. 1:20, Col. 1:15, 1 Tim. 1:17), we can ascertain from the more immediate and more general contexts of the passages that there is definitely no question here of the terminus ad quem* set up by man himself, but of the terminus a quo* set up by God in His revelation. But this enables us to understand the corresponding voices of the Early Church and its theology, although here we are occasionally faced by the linguistic problem how far they were clear about the fact that, when they spoke of the ἀκαταληψία (incomprehensibility) the incomprehensibilitas, the incomprehensibility of God, they were saying anything basically different from what Plato and Plotinus could also say when they spoke about the inaccessibility of the true and supreme being and the transcendence of the knowledge of this being (184-185).
The assertion of God’s hiddenness (which includes God’s invisibility, incomprehensibility and ineffability) tells us that God does not belong to the objects which we can always subjugate to the process of our viewing, conceiving and expressing and therefore our spiritual oversight and control. In contrast to that of all other objects, His nature is not one which in this sense lies in the sphere of our power. God is inapprehensible (187).
That which we apprehend, which we comprehend, is that which we control. We do not control God or understand him in a human way. How is it that we comprehend God?
The beginning of our knowledge of God—of this God—is not a beginning which we can make with Him. It can be only the beginning which He has made with us (190).
God is invisible and inexpressible because He is not present as the physical and spiritual world created by Him is present, but is present in this world created by Him in His revelation, in Jesus Christ, in the proclamation of His name, in His witnesses and sacraments. He is, therefore, visible only to faith and can be attested only by faith. But this means that He is to be seen only as the invisible and expressed only as the inexpressible, not as the substance of the goal or origin of our seeing and speaking, but because He Himself has given us permission and command to see and speak, and therefore by His Word, and in His free and gracious decision, has given us the capacity to see and speak (190).
We comprehend God because of His revelation. God's hiddenness is a judgment upon humanity:
We thus understand the assertion of the hiddenness of God as the confession of the truth and effectiveness of the sentence of judgment which in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is pronounced upon man and therefore also upon his viewing and conceiving, dispossessing him of his own possibility of realising the knowledge of the God who encounters him, and leaving him only the knowledge of faith granted to him and demanded of him by the grace of God and therefore only the viewing and conceiving of faith (191).
But God's hiddenness is also God's grace because knowing God's hiddenness we know God:
But by this same fact we are already impelled to the positive meaning of the statement. Where we really confess God’s judgment, we also confess God’s grace. The assertion of the hiddenness of God is not, therefore, to be understood as one of despairing resignation, but actually as the terminus a quo of our real knowledge of God, as the fundamental and decisive determination, not of our ignorance, but of our cognisance of God. It affirms that our cognisance of God does not begin in ourselves, since it has already begun in God; namely, in God’s revelation and in faith to Him. The confession of God’s hiddenness is the confession of God’s revelation as the beginning of our cognisance of God (191-192).
Thank goodness for revelation, which give us terms to think about God. Otherwise, left to our own devices (and impotence) to say anything about God, we would always struggle. But we hold on to revelation as the unique source and norm of our knowledge of God:
Only if this assertion is valid are we held fast to the revelation of God as the unique source and norm of our knowledge of God. Indicating its inner limit, it also indicates its external limit. For if we have no capacity of our own to view, conceive and speak in regard to God we are thrown back on the fact that our viewing, conceiving and speaking—whose capacity we must ascribe to God Himself—is necessarily instituted by God’s revelation. We are therefore thrown back upon God’s revelation, not merely in the sense that all cognition is referred back to its object, but in the sense that the knowledge of God is referred back to God as its object and free origin. If this is established, and if, therefore, it may be regarded as certain that the capacity to know and therefore to view and conceive God cannot be reinterpreted as a capacity of man but only understood as a divine gift, then we can take a second step and say that the God who quickens us to faith in Him by His revelation can and may and must be spoken about, so that He can and may and must be viewed and conceived by us. The limit within which this takes place must be remembered. But we are not now concerned only with the limit, but also with the matter itself (196).
Only the Trinitarian God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - can speak properly of God's Self (198-199). God has made God's Self apprehensible in Jesus Christ (199). So, in the end, the incomprehensibility of God is not a reason for silence. God has given us in Jesus Christ, in revelation, something to say and God expects us to say it. God permits us to conceive of him. is finally to be said that labour for the truth in the sphere of human views and concepts and words about God need not be an impossibility, and therefore superfluous, because it is performed in this sphere. Theology can, of course, be sheer vanity. It is this when it is not pertinent, and that simply means—not humble. The pertinence of theology consists in making the exposition of revelation its exclusive task. How can it fail to be humble in the execution of this programme, when it has no control over revelation, but has constantly to find it, or rather be found by it? If we presuppose this happening—and we can, of course, presuppose it only as we pray and work—theology is as little vanity as the “old wife’s” stammering. If she may stammer, surely theology may also try to speak. The attempt may and must be made, within the limits of human cognition, to ask about the truth, to distinguish the true from the false, and continually to carry the “approximation” further—although always knowing that the goal as such is attainable only to faith and not to our viewing and conceiving as such. This means, to seek after better human views and concepts in closer correspondence with their object, and therefore, so far as we are able, to make the witness to the reality of God more complete and clear. If this presupposition is valid—as it can and will be valid—theology can be pursued in the confidence which is not forbidden but commanded us against the background of the hiddenness of God, without any pretensions, but also without any false shame, so much the more so because it is not an arbitrary undertaking, but one which is necessary to the task of the Church’s proclamation. If this presupposition is valid, theology is on firm ground for its undertaking—indeed, on disproportionately firmer ground than all other sciences (203-204).