Barth, Credo – “In God”

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Karl Barth, “In Deum”  Credo, 11-18.

Barth begins his exposition of the content of the creed by paying attention to the phrase “in God” (Latin, In Deum). He argues that this first word of the Creed may also be understood as “the cardinal proposition of Dogmatics”  (11).

So what, then, does it mean to say, “I believe . . . in God”?

The main point of confession of belief in God is to indicate that the God confessed is not someone or something that is already generally known, to which the Creeds adds further information. It is not, Barth says, as if we already know God “in general” and need the creed to give us more details about what this God is like. On the contrary, to say “I believe in God” is already to confess that Who and What God is is entirely based on what God has given in his self-revelation as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To say, “I believe in God” is to already to utter that God “is absolutely and exclusively He Who exists under these three names in these three modes of being, that is to say, absolutely and exclusively God in His revelation” (14).

Barth here is, not surprisingly, resistant to all forms of natural theology. Barth explains, “When Paul says (Rom. i. 19)  that what can be known of God (τό γνωστὸν τοῦ θεοῦ, cognoscibile Dei) is manifest to them, for God manifested it unto them, the whole context as well as the immediately preceding statement (Rom. i.18) shows that Paul sees the truth about God ‘held down’ among men, made ineffective, unfruitful. What comes of it in their hands is idolatry” (11). Consequently, even the “unknown God” of the Athenians of which Paul spoke, “was, to Paul’s view, an idol like all the rest. Only God’s revelation, not our reason despairing of itself, can carry us over from God’s incomprehensibility” (12)

What are the implications of this confession of belief in the God who reveals himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Barth notes four:

  1. For a person to confess belief in God is to have “the ground of a general faith in God . . . taken away from under his feet in so far as he sees himself, in his confidence that man could of himself believe in God, confuted by God’s revelation. The very fact of God’s revelation signifies: Man cannot of himself really believe in God. It is because man cannot do that that God reveals Himself. What man of himself can believe in are gods who are not really God” (14). In other words, belief is of grace only: “He who believes lives by grace. He who lives by grace knows that he is forbidden to snatch at deity” (15). [I loved that line!]
  2. If general faith is taken away from under one’s feet, however, the person who “believes in God in the sense of the symbol has from God’s revelation absolutely immovable ground under his feet when he thinks of God, reckons with God, speaks of God, points to God, abides by the name of God, and proclaims this name to others. He certainly does not believe in a God whom he has chosen for himself” (15).
    [I find it fascinating that Barth removes all confidence in human reasoning on the one hand, arguing that it leads no where in regard to the knowledge of God, but on the other hand replaces it with a confidence, indeed, a certainty of reasonable faith. To confess belief in Father, Son and Holy Spirit gives, as it were, objective certainty–not an objective certainty based on natural reason, but an objective certainty based on gracious faith. Grace enables a kind of certainty which is “certain in the teeth of all uncertainty” (16). What I think is important to note here is that Barth does not advocate for epistemological certainty (the idol of the modern age), but rather for a form of pistemic (“faith”) certainty.]
  3. Belief in God, in the sense of the symbol, is a thankful belief. It is thankful not because God has enabled or gifted us to figure Him out, but thankful because He has given Himself at all! Were God not a self-revealing God, we would know nothing of him. But thanks be to God, we do know him because he has given himself to be known!
  4. Finally, to believe in God, in the sense of the symbol, means to recognize that one stands under God’s commands. As Barth puts it, “That [man] resists [God’s commands], that he keeps transgressing them, that he fails to give honour to God and that he cannot stand his ground before Him, that is …true. But it is still truer that he stands under God’s commands, that in his total foolishness and wickedness he is claimed by God, God’s prisoner, that he must again and again make a fresh start with the commands of God, and return to them. . . [God’s word] continually judges him, but it also holds him” (17). In other words, to stand under the commands of God is to believe in God’s holiness. “Even God’s holiness is not a truth that can be ascertained as such by an observer…[but] is apprehended in the fight of faith, in the sanctification of the believer through God’s revelation” (18).

[I found this chapter to be beautiful in its simplicity, even if jarring in its accusation of man’s (including theologians’!) tendency to toward idolatry. But I wish Barth would have been a bit more explicit about how this informs the “question of dogmatics.” It is as if the connection, which was more clearly spelled out in the first chapter, had almost been lost. Nevertheless, it is implicit throughout, I think, that Barth contends that the work of dogmatics, like the confession of faith, starts:
a) not with a general philosophical conception of God which is then “filled out” with revelation, but rather on the basis of an acknowledgement that our ability to speak of God depends wholly on the fact that God has first given himself to be known;
b) with gratitude to God rather than on a perceived sense of “personal mission” or on a sense self-fulfilment to be accomplished by our gifts and ingenuity;
c) with a clear sense of our subservience to God in the entirety of our work, a subservience that continually forces us to submit both ourselves and our work to be tested and judged by the standard of God’s own Word.]

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