Thinking coram Deo

It would be difficult to overestimate the impact that reading Karl Barth’s Evangelical Theology has had on my life. No, I am not a Barth scholar. Nor have I read through the Church Dogmatics as I thought I would when I was twenty-something. But in reading that little book of Barth’s I fell in love with theology. Oddly, it isn’t a book I re-read–I’ve read Middlemarch three or four times now, but Evangelical Theology just the once. I recommend it, I assign it, I return to bits of it.


If there is one bit I return to more than others, it is the description Barth gives of theological grammar. Theology is a response; we have been addressed by God, and our reply is necessarily in the second person. The object of my study is not an object at all, but a subject; not an “it” but a “you”.


Sometimes I forget that, at my peril. I forget that thinking about God isn’t really possible– I mean, thinking apart from God, with some sort of critical distance. There is no such thing as critical distance, here. We are always thinking coram Deo, thinking in the presence of God, who is more present to us than we are to ourselves. There is no place for idle speculation here, there are no ‘academic’ questions. That isn’t to say that it’s not important to think hard, to read attentively (thanks, Ben Myers), and to speak clearly. But it is to say that all the hard work in the world won’t get us closer to God than we already are, won’t show us God more clearly. Only God can do that.

So Barth would have agreed, perhaps, with Evagrius–the theologian is one who prays. Maybe somewhere in the pages of the Church Dogmatics I haven’t read, he says so. Either way, I am glad of the reminder that, however much I doubt my adequacy for the task of theology, I can do no better than to respond, and begin nowhere else but in prayer: Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum.


Remembering why I like Karl Barth

Karl Barth

Barth writes:

Revelation itself is needed for knowing that God is hidden and man blind. Revelation and it alone really and finally separates God and man by bringing them together. For my bringing them together it informs man about God and about himself, it reveals God as the Lord of eternity, as the Creator, Reconciler and Redeemer, and characterises man as a creature, as a sinner, as one devoted to death. It does that by telling him that God is free for us, that God has created and sustains him, that He forgives his sin, that He saves him from death. But it tells him that this God (no other) is free for this man (no other). If that is heard, then and not till then the boundary between God and man becomes really visible, of which the most radical sceptic and atheist cannot even dream, for all his doubts and negations. Since the boundary is visible, revelation, which crosses this boundary, is also visible as a mystery, a miracle, an exception. The man who listens here, sees himself standing at the boundary where all is at an end. Whichever way I look, God is hidden for me and I am blind to Him. The revelation that crosses this boundary and the togetherness of God and man which takes place in revelation in spite of this boundary, make the boundary visible to him in an unprecedented way. No longer need he yield to deceptions regarding the cosmos of realities that otherwise encounter him. This cosmos will lose the power to prepare for him either illusions or disillusionments. He knows all about it. Not because he has supplied himself with information about it by intuitive or analytico-synthetic means, but because he has been informed about it. But this information is, that among the realities of this cosmos there is not one in which God would be free for man. In this cosmos God is hidden and man blind. Once more, it is God’s revleation which gives him this information. That it does so is its critical significance. By that very fact, however, the further question is thrust at us: how far is God free for us in revelation? ┬áNo less than everything, i.e., no less that the whole of man’s cosmos, seems to speak against this possibility taking place. Even if it is ever so great and rich, as it actually is, how could one of its realities have the power to be God’s revelation to man? Once again, man would have to leave the real revelation of God out of account; he would have to forget that he is informed about God and about himself, if he is to assert boldly the presence of such a power as one of the realities of his cosmos…

If he were looking steadily at the cross and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, he could not look in any other direction, neither could he any longer allow talk about such possibilities to pass his lips or to flow from his pen.

-II/1, pp. 29-30

I admit that I haven’t missed the lack of inclusive language, which distracts somewhat (for me, at least) from the text. But I love the way that Barth characterizes revelation: it hides as much as it reveals. As I am preparing to teach on the Incarnation (not till February, I confess), I have been looking for the right passage(s) from Barth, in which he makes explicit this reality of the Incarnation. All is revealed truly, and at the same time all is hidden in Christ. It’s no wonder Barth kept repeating himself (as he himself says elsewhere in the volume): again and again he returns to this center of theological reflection, this singularity, because he knows there is only one place from which we can do theology, and that is the foot of the cross.