How Can We Know God?

I had a breakthrough this week in my reading of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. Much of what I have read so far has been sufficiently opaque that I could not comprehend it well enough to be able to write about it with any sense of confidence. But in the past few days of my ten-pages-a-day reading project, I started to understand something clearly.

I’m reading Volume II.1 – The Doctrine of God. In the first part of this 667 page tome, the good Swiss theologian discusses The Knowledge of God.
Barth writes, “For it is by the grace of God and only by the grace of God that it comes about that God is knowable to us” (p. 69). A few pages later he gives this lavish definition of grace:
“Grace is the majesty, the freedom, the undeservedness, the unexpectedness, the newness, arbitrariness, in which the relationship to God and therefore the possibility of knowing Him is opened up to man by God Himself. Grace is really the orientation in which God sets up an order which did not previously exist, to the power and benefit of which man has no claim, which he has no power to set up, which he has no competence even subsequently to justify, which in its singularity—-which corresponds exactly to the singularity of the nature and being of God—-he can only recognize and acknowledge as it is actually set up, as it is powerful and effective as a benefit that comes to him. Grace is God’s good pleasure” (p. 74).

Then Barth identifies the opponent of his teaching as the basic theology of the Roman Catholic Church. “Our identification of the truth by which the truth is revealed to us with the good-pleasure of God is in flat contradiction to what is said in the Constitutio dogmatica de fide catholica of the Vatican Council, cap. 2 De revelatione (April 24th, 1870, Denz. No. 1785): Eadem sancta mater Ecclesia tenet et docet, Deum, rerum omnium principium et finem, naturali humanae rationis lumine e rebus creatis certo cognosci posse. And we have done what is condemned in a canon of the same Council (De rev. I. Den. No. 1806): Si quis dixerit, Deum unum et verum, creatorem et Dominum nostrum, per ea quae facta sunt, naturali rationis humanae lumine certo cognosci non pose, anathema sit.”

For those of you, like me, who don’t know Latin, here is the translation of those two sentences:
“The same holy mother Church holds and teaches that God, the beginning and end of all things, can with certainty be known from created things by the natural light of human reason.”
“If anyone says that the one true God, our Creator and Lord, cannot with certainty be known through that which is created, by the natural light of human reason, let him be anathema/accursed.”

Here is the difference, as I understand it, between the teaching of the Vatican and the teaching of Barth. The Vatican teaches (or at least taught) that we can know God by using our human reason while Barth insists that we can only know God by his grace which comes to us by revelation. In even sharper focus we could put this difference as a question: Do we know God by reason or by revelation? Barth would answer this question most emphatically that we know God only by revelation.

And Barth goes to great lengths to show that there are no analogies by which the nature and being of God are accessible to us.

It seems to me that not only formal Catholic teaching, but also the doctrines of most religions and much popular theology teaches that we can reason our way to God, that we can look inward to discover the spark of divinity within each of us. To all this Barth says, “Nein.” Only by God’s grace in His revelation can we know God. God has revealed himself in history and supremely in Jesus the Christ. This history is recorded in the Bible and preached in the Church.

Based on what I know from the Bible, I agree with Barth. When God first revealed himself to Abraham, Moses, Mary, and Peter, it was not because they reasoned their way to a knowledge of God. They were all surprised by God’s gracious revelation. This means that if anyone wants to know God, they should not try to discover God by human reasoning, but expose themselves to the revelation of God in the Bible and the preaching of the Church.

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