6.1.1 Karl Barth

Karl Barth

The first detail of note, is that Karl Barth placed the section regarding the doctrine of the Trinity at the beginning of his work Church Dogmatics. This alone represented a shift in approach regarding the doctrine. Schleiermacher for instance, put the doctrine of the Trinity at the end, since it represented the most obscure and indefinite of qualities among the doctrinal subjects. Barth consciously decided to put this topic at the beginning; to him the doctrine of the Trinity was the foundational discussion of the nature of God. Clarifying this subject, according to Barth, enabled the theologian to properly tackle all following doctrinal subjects more accurately. It is the doctrine that makes all the other doctrines possible. It is the literal Trinity which creates the possibility of God revealing himself to sinful humanity. It is an “explanatory confirmation” of revelation. It is an exegesis of the fact of revelation. “God reveals himself. He reveals himself through himself. He reveals himself.” Barth utilizes this phrase as an encapsulation of the framework for speaking about the Trinity; the revelatory nature of God. Deus dixit!; “God has spoken” – in revelation, and it is the task of theology to inquire concerning what this revelation presupposes and implies.

Barth defines the task of theology as being a reflective exercise, Nach-Denken, a process of “thinking afterwards” about what is contained in God’s self-revelation. Barth implores theologians, that we have to “inquire carefully into the relation between our knowing God, and God himself in his being and nature”. In some sense, Barth conducts the development of the doctrine of the Trinity in reverse. The outset of the topic is from what we know to be true about God historically, and scripturally (which are often one and the same thing). We know that God has revealed himself to humanity. The question rather becomes, how this is possible? Since God is transcended and holy, how does his self- revelation reach sinful humans in any direct way? Yet God’s revelation, at least from our perspective as hearers, is uninhibited. Barth wants to discover: what needs to be true about God for his self-revelation to be received. All of this can be summarized with two basic propositions:

Sinful humanity is fundamentally incapable of hearing the Word of God. Nevertheless, sinful humanity has heard the Word of God, in that this Word makes its sinfulness known to it.

One aspect of Barth’s theology is crucial to understand as we unpack his thesis. From Barth’s perspective, sinfulness makes it impossible (literally impossible) for human beings to receive and understand the voice of God. Revelation is therefore fully the responsibility of God; from beginning to end, all revelatory capacity lies squarely with him. It is therefore necessary for God to be the kind of being which can communicate himself to sinful creatures, and himself bypass the obstacles to revelation, and cause those same sinful creatures to be receptive to his Word. Understanding this paradox is helpful for following the logic used by Barth surrounding the terms revelation and self-revelation. There needs to be a correlation between the revelation of God, and the self-revelation of God; or in other words, a correlation between the immanent Trinity, and the economic Trinity. For Barth, there cannot be any intrinsic or even functional difference between the two. God is God, therefore his self-revelation is a mere outgrowth of his revelation. If “God reveals himself as Lord” (a characteristically Barthian assertion), then God must be Lord “antecedently in himself”. Revelation is the reiteration in time of what God actually is in eternity. These two:

the revealing God;
the self revelation of God,

are inextricably tied to one another. Trinitarianly speaking, the Father is revealed in the Son. There is of course a third rubric; the position and role of the Holy Spirit in God’s revelation. Here, Barth introduces the concept of “revealedness” (Offenbarsein). This is actually best understood by way of an illustration, provided not by Barth, but by Alister McGrath. In it he asks us to

“imagine two individuals, walking outside Jerusalem on a spring day around the year A.D. 30. They see three men being crucified, and pause to watch. The first points to the central figure, and says ‘There is a common criminal being executed.’ The second, pointing to the same man, replies, ‘There is the Son of God dying for me.’ To say that Jesus is the self- revelation of God will not suffice; there must be some means by which Jesus is recognized as the self-revelation of God. It is the recognition of revelation as revelation that constitutes the idea of Offenbarsein.”

As stated above, Barth does not allow for human beings to, in any way, contribute to the act of God’s self-revelation; even in the case of hearing or recognition. There must be a translational agent present in order for the revelation to be properly recognized as revelation. Humanity does not become capable of hearing the word of the Lord (capax verbi domini), and then hear the word; hearing and capacity to hear are given in the one act by the Spirit. For Barth the reality of the Trinity is mirrored by the revelatory procession by God in world and history. This can at times have a modalist aftertaste, since there is no way to prove that the conditions of revelation aren’t merely an outgrowth of the utilization of a different mode of being by God. This charge appears to fall flat, since the fundamental assertion made by Barth is that revelation, self-revelation, and revealedness are eternally constant. This would cut against the claim of different modes being appropriated throughout time. In order to drill down a little deeper, let us move on  to Karl Rahner and his theology of self-communication.