John Franke – Barth’s Doctrine of God CD II

John Franke

Franke, John. Barth for Armchair Theologians. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005, pp 124-30.

The Doctrine of God CD II/1-2

                In this volume Barth builds on his assertion that theology has no other basis than God’s self-revelation as Father, Son and Holy Spirit with a detailed discussion of the doctrine of God. Barth’s presentation provides an account of God’s being that adheres to the rule that God is as God acts. The volume is divided into two major movements. The first, in CD II/1, sets forth an account of God as agent or actor whose being is identical with the activity of loving in freedom. God is as God does, and what God does is love. This movement culminates in a discussion of the attributes or perfections of God based on the actions of God. The second movement, in CD II/2, considers the particular action, performed by God and deeply indicative of the being and character of God, the act of gracious election. The two parts of Barth’s presentation form an exposition of God’s character in relation to humanity as the One who loves in freedom. This discussion falls into four sections: the knowledge of God (pr. 25-27); the reality of God (par. 28-31); the election of God (par. 32-35); and the command of God (par. 36-39).

At the outset of this volume, Barth returns to the idea of the knowledge of God to drive home the point that he has made again and again throughout his writings: God is not at our disposal. To speak of the human knowledge of God requires that God make that which is impossible from the human standpoint possible by an act of grace. Here Barth speaks of the fulfilment of the knowledge of God rather than the possibility of such knowledge. The knowledge of God is brought to fulfilment or completion by the work of the Spirit. In other words, Barth asserts the gracious reality that God is known before investigating how this is possible. The challenge is to maintain the reality of this knowledge for human beings while also ensuring that God always remains the acting subject who is always free in relation to human beings. The knowledge of God is not made available to us in such a way that it enters into our control; it is always an event and never something that humans can claim as a secure possession. Hence, the knowledge of God that is made known to human beings is both objective (it is the genuine knowledge of God that is made known) and dynamic (it cannot be possessed by human beings once for all). We are always dependent on God, from moment to moment, for our knowledge of God.

One of the entailments of this is Barth’s vigorous denial of natural theology, the idea that there is some knowledge of God that is generally available outside of revelation. According to Barth such notions must always be rejected as compromising the Creator-creature distinction. To seek some common ground between believers and non-believers that can be the basis for an apologetic defence of Christian faith is to suggest that the knowledge of God is generally available to humans as humans, and this cannot be, from Barth’s perspective. The problem is not that believers have the knowledge of God while unbelievers do not; far from it. The central conviction of Barth is that no human possesses the knowledge of God, so the impossibility of natural theology is another way of bearing witness to the radical dependence of human beings on the grace of God. The goal in all of this is to shift the tendency in theology to begin with ourselves and then move onto God. Barth seeks to reverse this modern intuition and insist that we must begin with God.

As Barth’s discussion shifts from the knowledge of God to the reality of God, he asserts that the most fundamental preoccupation of Christian dogmatics is the explication of the statement “God is.” The concern here is not the possibility of the existence of God, but the character of God. In keeping with the denial of natural theology, we must set aside all of our assumptions and preconceptions concerning what we already believe to be true of God and instead seek to learn solely from the God who is. For Barth, to say “God is’ means that “God acts” and that the most basic category for understanding the being of God is agency. Therefore, Barth moves immediately to a consideration of the works of God, which are the manifestation of the identity of God. God is known through what God has done, and what God has done emerges from the witness of Scripture. What we see in the pages of Scripture is that God is the One who loves in freedom. Two points need to be made here. First, Barth seeks to expound the biblical assertion that “God is love” and work it thoroughly into the substance of all his theology through an examination of the specific and active character of God’s love. As with our understanding of God, we must not presume that we know the character of love in advance and then impose that on the love of God. The specific way in which God loves is through the ongoing establishment of communion between God and God’s creatures. God’s love for the world is not that of a passionless Deity, but rather that of the One who is passionately involved in the life of the world, and pours out this love lavishly in Jesus Christ.

However, this love is qualified by the fact that God is not simply the One who loves, but more fully, the One who loves in freedom. Here God’s transcendent power and majesty are on display in such a way that God is understood as wholly other than finite human creatures. That God loves in freedom underscores that God loves us in the way that God wills, that God is completely sovereign. However, this sovereignty is not to be viewed simply as the assertion that God can do whatever God desires, but rather that what God does in freedom is love. For Barth, the love of God and the freedom of God cannot be abstracted from each other without doing violence to each of the concepts, the identity of God and the character of God’s love. God’s love is “utterly free, grounded in itself, needing no other, and yet also not lacking in another, but in sovereign transcendence giving, communicating itself to the other. In this freedom it is the divine loving. But we must also say, conversely, that only in this divine loving is the freedom described by us divine freedom: if we abstract the love of God and therefore the purpose of God, however circumspect we may be, we describe only a world principle.” [1] The life of God as the One who loves in freedom is infinitely textured and complex in its numerous and varied perfections, which Barth discusses in detail in paragraphs 29 to 31.

The identity of God as the One who loves in freedom finds its culmination in the gracious action of election as Barth turns his attention to this classical Reformed doctrine he says:

The doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel because of all words that can be said or heard it is the best: that God elects man; that God is for man too the One who loves in freedom. It is grounded in the knowledge of Jesus Christ because He is both the electing God and the elected man in One. It is part of the doctrine of God because originally God’s election of man is a predestination not merely of man but of Himself. Its function is to bear basic testimony to eternal, free and unchanging grace as the beginning of all the ways and works of God. [2]

  Here the culmination of Barth’s argument concerning God is brought to bear fruitfully on the doctrine of election, which is not in his hands an investigation into the machinations of the divine mind who sorts humanity into the categories of the saved the damned, but instead is the very best word of all, for in the act of election we discover that God is God for us.

Election is focused on the reality of Jesus Christ, who is understood by Barth to be both “electing and elected.” Barth appeals to the two natures of Jesus Christ as divine and human in order to reshape the notion of double predestination to God’s self-election and God’s election of humanity, which are both actual in Jesus Christ. In Christ we are able to conceptualise election as divine self-election. Here any sense of arbitrary divine omnipotence is excluded from an understanding of the will of God, since what is important is specificity of God’s will, and God elects to be God known in and as Jesus Christ. “In the beginning with God was this One, Jesus Christ. And that is predestination. All that this concept contains and comprehends is to be found originally in Him and must be understood in relation to Him.” [3] In Jesus Christ we see that God’s self-election is his determination to be gracious and that this grace is not merely one mode or modulation of an absolute will which could be directed in other ways or for other ends. In Jesus Christ we are also able to discern election as the election of humanity, in that the agent of election is Jesus Christ himself and that the means of this election is the sharing of our humanity by Christ in the incarnation. Barth also asserts that this implies an affirmation that election is to the form of human life established by Jesus. Election is election to participate in the covenant life made possible in Jesus Christ.

The result of Barth’s restatement of election is an understanding of the electing God and the elect humanity in which election “is not fate but form. Election and ethics are thus inseparable, since humanity is elect not simply to a state but a way of life. Election is purposive determination, determination to blessedness, gratitude and service as witness.” [4] for this reason Barth concludes his consideration of the doctrine of God with a final chapter on ethics and the moral implications of the doctrine. For Barth, the Christian concept of the covenant of God with humanity includes the doctrine of election as its first element and the doctrine of God’s command as its second. And it is only in this conception of the covenant that the doctrine of God can find completion. “For God is not known and is not knowable except in Jesus Christ. He does not exist in His divine being and perfections without Jesus Christ, in whom he is both very God and very man. He does not exist, therefore, without the covenant with man which was made and executed in his name. God is not known completely – and therefore not at all – if He is not known as the Maker and Lord of this covenant between himself and man.” In light of this reality, the Christian understanding of God cannot concern only God since its focus is on this particular God;  it must also include humanity to the extent that in Jesus Christ humanity “is made a partner in the covenant decreed and founded by God.” [5]

[1] CD II/1:321.

[2] CD II/2:3.

[3] CD II/2:145.

[4] Webster, Barth, 92.

[5] CD II/2:509.


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