Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Do the Barth man

Alongside my two theological heros - Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin - I am quickly falling in love with Karl Barth. Below is a humble offering from an essay I wrote on Barth's doctrine of revelation and the Trinity. If any have comments, positive, negative or otherise, please feel free to offer them! The conclusion has been deliberately left out, I need to work on it some more!

§1. The self-disclosure of God
Despite the length of the section that deals with God's self-disclosure, Barth has a fairly simple thesis, namely, that the Trinity is essential to our understanding of God and therefore dogmatics as a whole, because the Trinity is who God really is, and he has truly revealed himself as such. Barth’s understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity is thus inseparable from his understanding of the doctrine of revelation.

Barth’s insistence on revelation as an act in which God himself is present is the key to this understanding. God does not reveal himself through a medium other than himself. Thus Barth famously states that ‘God reveals Himself. He reveals Himself through Himself. He reveals Himself.’ (CD I.1, 296). According to Barth therefore, God is identical not only with his act in revelation, but also with the cognitive effect in revelation (Webster, J., (2000), 58). ‘God Himself is not just Himself. He is also his self-revealing… He Himself is not just Himself but also what he creates and achieves in men.’ (CD I.1, 298, 299)

For Barth, the idea that God reveals himself through himself in a dynamic relation to the one receiving revelation necessitated the Trinity as the foundation of our entire understanding of God (CD I.1, 296). The Doctrine of the Trinity must therefore, be the presupposition of any analysis of God in the traditional dogmatic sense, simply because the Trinity is who the God who has revealed himself in himself really is. As Webster says,

‘Revelation is not the manifestation by God of realities other than God: as self-revelation it is trinitarian in character, since God is God’s self as Trinity.’ (Webster, J., (2000), 58)

Barth quotes Calvin to this effect,

‘For he so proclaims himself the sole God as to offer himself to be contemplated clearly in three persons. Unless we grasp these, only the bare and empty name of God flits about in our brains, to the exclusion of the true God.’ (inst. I.XIII.2)

In this sense however, Barth moved creatively beyond both the canons of reformation protestant theology, which tied the principium cognoscendi to something exterior to God, namely Scripture qua revelation, and the liberal location of knowledge of God within the realm of experience. The former tended to result in discussions of how we know God and what God is as a prolegomena to the task of dogmatics itself, the latter anthropocentrised the knowledge of God to the extent that it lay open to the accusation of being subjective projection. Barth himself recognised this progression. He remarked on his Trinitarian understanding of the shape of revelation and therefore of all theology that, ‘… we are adopting a very isolated position from the stand point of dogmatic history.’ (CD I.1, 300) It is of central importance for Barth’s thinking therefore, that the doctrine of the knowledge of God should not be conceived of as something essentially different from the doctrine of God itself, but that,

‘In the doctrine of the knowledge of God, we are already within the doctrine of God itself and not within the sphere of mere prolegomena, where other considerations rule… God is known by God, and what is more, by God alone. But if this is the case, we are already concerned with God with God himself when we want to talk of the nature of God.’ (CD II.1, 233)

The Trinity is, therefore, what makes the Christian Doctrine of God distinctively Christian as opposed to any other idea of God, and the Christian doctrine of revelation distinctly Christian as opposed to any other idea of divine revelation. That in his self-disclosure, God is revealing none other than himself as he really is, it is essential that the doctrine of the Trinity should not only provide the foundation for dogmatics, but should also be that which frames and shapes the whole. It is the knowledge of who God is (that God is Trinity) which underscores all of our understanding of what God is and what God does.

§2. The ‘root’ of the doctrine of the Trinity
In the light of having established that the anterior question to that of the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of God must be the ‘who’ of God. And that the who of God must be answered with a statement of God as Trinity, Barth goes on to discuss the ‘root’ of the doctrine of the Trinity. For Barth, the thought of looking outside of God himself for this root is unthinkable. Thus, ‘God’s revelation has its reality and truth wholly and in every respect – both ontically and noetically – within itself.’ (CD I.1, 305). A revelation of God over which we set ourselves as judge, in Barth’s opinion, ipso facto, ceases to be revelation. (CD I.1, 305). The root of the doctrine of the Trinity is therefore found in the totally free ‘threefold Self-unveiling’ (CD I.1, 315) of God as Lord, first in his inscrutability, second in his self-manifestation (that is, ‘in the form of something He Himself is not.’(CD I.1,316) ) and third in his coming to us (that is, his effect on our understanding). The doctrine of the Trinity is thus predicated on a consideration of revelation itself, or rather, on God as revealer, revelation and being revealed. (CD I.1, 361). The Trinity is, in no sense to be sought in an appeal to the Vestigium Trinitatis, that is, remnants of sociality in the created order which hint at a natural threeness. This for Barth, would have turned the entire idea which he carefully unpacked on its head. We cannot understand God by referring to anything outside of God. If the God who is essentially veiled is to be known, he must freely and graciously make himself known. In Barth’s mind, the Vestigium Trinitatis, which had for the early Church been a helpful method for articulating trinitarian faith, had actually been a Trojan horse, in which an unchristian method for describing God had crept into the theology of the Church. (CD I.1, 336). The only vestigia of the Trinity are found in God's taking form, which happened decisively and most perfectly in the person of Jesus Christ. In a later volume, Barth goes on to highlight that the most complete revelation of God that there is, is when Jesus hung as a derelict on the cross, and it is ‘… in this humiliation [the crucifixion of God the Son] God is supremely God…’ (CD IV.1, 246, 247). This theology, that on the cross we encounter God was to prove a highly fruitful and interesting avenue for future theologies, perhaps most notably that of Jurgan Moltmann.