The Knowledge of God in Creation according to Karl Barth


By John Drury


CD I/2 pg. 306-307


Within the context of his critique of religion as unbelief, Barth picks up the “line of thought in Romans” (306). He acknowledges that Romans 1 emphasizes the heathen “knowledge of God the Creator” (306). This knowledge of God is declared by the apostle “in and with the preaching of Christ” (306). These words of Romans 1 are often used to justify all kinds of natural theology. Yet Barth avers that they “are in reality a constituent part of the apostolic kerygma” (306). Thus Romans 1 is not an independent discussion of the natural knowledge of God. Rather, it forms a part of the apostolic testimony to Christ.


Barth substantiates this point by noting that this “same revelation is a revelation of the wrath of God” (306). The wrathful purpose of any so-called natural knowledge of God should cause the natural theologian to pause before building a system upon this terrifying ground. Barth puts Romans 1 in the context of the following argument in Romans, wherein Paul shows that all (both Jew and Gentile) are under grace and judgment. Thus, this revelation of the wrathful creator presupposes the event of Christ, the bringing of grace and judgment: “it is presupposing the event which took place between God and man in Christ that he says that the knowledge which the Gentiles have of God from the works of creation is the instrument to make them inexcusable and therefore to bring them like the Jews under the judgment and therefore under the grace of God” (306).


Barth’s point is that there is no creature independent of God and therefore no independent knowledge of God: “Because Christ was born and died and rose again, there is no such thing as an abstract, self-enclosed and static heathendom” (306). So all humanity is seen in the light of this event: “Paul does not know either Jews or Gentiles in themselves as such, but only as they are placed by the cross of Christ under the promise, but also under the commandment of God” (306). He goes on to state clearly that “The status of the Gentiles, like that of the Jews, is objectively quite different after the death and the resurrection of Christ” (307).


As can be seen above, a key term for Barth’s exposition of Romans 1 is context.  He uses it in two distinct yet united senses.  First, there is the hermeneutical sense of literary context. Barth connects Romans 1 with the larger argument that Paul is making about the solidarity of Jews and Gentiles under the judgment and grace of God in Christ.  Second, there is the theological sense of covenantal context. Barth blocks any interpretation which would take a single scriptural affirmation in abstraction from the whole of the biblical witness to the covenant between God and humanity fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Accordingly, Barth sets forth the rule: “We cannot isolate what Paul says about the heathen in Rom. 1:19-20 from the context of the apostles preaching, from the incarnation of the Word” (306). So the exegetical bottom line is to always read in context.


In light of the context in which the passage should be read, Barth goes on to indicate how the statements of Romans 1 function. Paul is certainly not appealing the Gentiles’ prior possession of knowledge. He is not trying to “link up pedagogically with this knowledge” (307). He does not regard it as a “primal revelation” (307). There is no “remnant” of the natural knowledge of God (307). What Gentiles do acknowledge is not God at all but a negation of God. Thus there is no netural, “undisputed” heathendom to which Paul could appeal (307). 


What does Barth accomplish in this section?  Barth here (1) blocks the appeal to Romans 1 as a proof-text for natural theology, (2) locates the knowledge of God the creator in its proper literary and theological context, and (3) exhibits a procedure for how one might deal with other well-worn natural theology texts (Acts 17, Ps 19, Amos 9, John 10:16). Note that in contrast to Calvin, Barth places knowledge of God the Creator in a more Christocentric context. However, the use of this knowledge parallels Calvin’s treatment of the idolatrous use of our knowledge of God. So although their theoretical assumptions might be different, the pragmatic payoff is the same.


CD II/1, pg. 117-123


In the context of his discussion of the readiness of God to be known, Barth offers an exegesis of three texts dealing with the knowledge of God the creator: Genesis 1-2, Romans 1, and Acts 17.


Barth starts by noting how Genesis 1 transforms human self-understanding and the myths of its time “into dependent witnesses of the relationship between God and man grounded in God’s revelation” (117). He substantiates this claim by observing the presence of the Sabbath (certainly a covenantal and therefore revealed concept) within the creation narrative. He also notes that the creation is called good, and so only by his grace.  “It is not only created by God but upheld in its created existence and nature by His grace” (117). Here one can see a glimpse of how Barth actualizes the Calvinist idea of ‘common grace.’


Barth then turns his attention to Genesis 2 which is focused on humanity within the cosmos. Barth here suggests how the whole process of giving life, giving a place, the problem of sin, and the gift of woman points forward to God’s continued work in creation. Simply put: humanity is not alone. There is no humanity in general, but a very particularized humanity within the grace of God. Barth makes further appeal to Ephesians 5 in order to show how the New Testament bears witness to the fact that the creation story has its telos in the history of Jesus Christ. Hence it is more than a creation story. It never stands alone as a piece of revelation about creation or the creator. It is at the same time “the promise of revelation and reconciliation” (118).


Barth then turns again to Romans 1. He reminds us that its affirmations are in the context of an accusation against the Gentiles. Barth acknowledges that Paul is referring to “man in the cosmos” (119). Note that here (in contrast to CD I/2) Barth allows Romans 1 to be read with creation as such in mind, most likely following the line developed above with regard to the creation story. Barth boldly affirms that “God is knowable to him … God reveals Himself to him” (119). Barth acknowledges that if we only had Romans 1:18-21 in the form of fragment we might come to the conclusion that “man in the cosmos in himself and as such is an indepedent witness of the truth of God” (119).  However, Barth again appeals to the “quite definite context” of Paul’s statements (119). Paul’s statements are followed by “collective solidarity in sin” as their conclusion (119). They are based on the light of Jesus Christ and the shadow which it casts. These statements have no other conclusion or basis.


Barth defends this reading by noting a parallel between Paul’s description of the judgment on the Jews and on the Gentiles. Just as Jews only know their weakness in the face of the law by the light of Christ, so Gentiles only know of their sinful rejection of the revelation of God in creation by the light of Christ (120). The bottom line is that the gospel is utterly new, both for Jews and Gentiles. The rejection of this revelation only shows the receiver to be an unwilling witness to God.


Interestingly, Barth grants that Paul’s address to the Gentiles is in some sense a “point of contact” (121). But this point of contact is “not regarded as already present on man’s side by as newly instituted in and with the proclamation of the Gospel” (121). In other words, there is no natural point of contact, and yet by grace one is supplied.


Barth swiftly moves on to an exegesis of Acts 17. Following the pattern of his exegesis of Romans, Barth sets Paul’s speech on Mars Hill in the larger literary context. He notes first that the speech, with its mention of the resurrection, was responded to by mockery. Secondly, Barth reminds us that before the speech Paul is described as being indignant at the preponderance of idols. Luke adds further that Athenians loved to hear new ideas. Without this context in mind, Paul’s speech is mistakenly read as an attempt to make contact with the philosophers. But if that was the intent, it failed miserably (122).  Rather, Paul’s speech read in context is a judgment, a scandal, a word from without, and totally strange. Paul is not arguing “from within” as if he had anything to which he might appeal. No, their idol to the unknown God only reveals their ignorance (122-23). Upon hearing the Gospel, they become objectively its unwilling witnesses (123). If they do follow, it will not be a confirmation of what they already had, but rather obedience to the totally new revelation of God.


What does this section (II/1) add to the previous (I/2)?  (1) Barth begins with an exegesis of the creation story to show that his exegesis of Romans 1 can be extended back into the Old Testament. The same covenant that forms the context of Romans 1 is the covenant promised in Genesis 1-2. There is no abstract human, even in the beginning.  (2) He expands his exegesis of Romans to include the insightful parallels between Jewish law and Gentile knowledge of the Creator.  (3) Barth clarifies in what sense unbelieving humanity receives revelation: as unwilling witnesses. Thus Barth can continue to block the idea of an independent revelation in creation while at the same time acknowledging that creatures bear witness to God (certainly a biblical affirmation).  (4) He emphases even more the eschatological and even apocalyptic nature of revelation, especially as it bears on the interpretation of Romans 1 and Acts 17. It may be that it is precisely Barth’s thoroughgoing eschatology that separates him from Brunner on these points.


CL, pg. 120-121


At the end of his life, Barth once again picked up the problem of the knowledge of God and hence also the exegesis of Romans 1 and Acts 17. In a short small print section, Barth reiterates, clarifies and (possibly) develops his earlier treatments.


Reiteration: Barth’s emphasis falls once again on the uselessness of any natural knowledge of God the creator. Though God is revealed, this functions only to render us without excuse. “Man, not God, is at fault if a subjective knowledge of God on man’s side does not correspond to God’s objective knowledge” (121).


Clarification: Barth adds the clarifying categories of objective and subjective (or corresponding) knowledge. Barth mentions the “objective knowledge of God as the Creator of human nature,” distinguishing it from “man’s corresponding knowledge of God” (120). He later notes “man’s subjective ignorance of God … [which] does not alter in the least the objective fact that he and the world conform the one true God” (121). God makes an “offer” that is genuine even if it is rejected by humanity (121).


Development (?): In identifying an objective revelation of God the Creator, is Barth developing his thought in the direction of Calvin? Certainly he understands the Creator in Christocentric terms and thus is not introducing the duplex cognito domini. Yet there seems to be here a clearer affirmation of the objective revelation of God in creation, an affirmation which was only inchoate in the previous sections.


Concluding Questions:


(1)   How do these exegetical remarks clarify, contrast, or complement Barth’s statement in his “No!” to Brunner?

(2)   Does the utter newness of the revelation of God in Christ (II/1, 120) render ambiguous the relationship between this revelation and the objective revelation of God in creation (II/1, 119)?  Is it new only noetically?  In other words, is it new to us, but not new to God?

(3)   Since Barth makes use of a grace-based form of the term “point of contact,” could it be that his quarrel with Brunner was focused more on the problem of nature and grace than on this rather innocuous phrase?

(4)   Is Barth’s distinction in CL between objective and subjective revelation illuminating? For Barth? For Paul? For Calvin? For Brunner?

(5)   Does Barth’s view of the knowledge of God in Creation develop over the course of these exegetical excursi? If so, how?

(6)   Does Barth ultimately come closer to Calvin over the course of the dogmatics, as Berkhof suggests?

(7)   Is Barth’s exegesis convincing? How does Romans 1 relate to the rest of Romans? How does the speech in Acts 17 relate to its context? Could it help to compare it to all the other speeches in Acts?  Would this confirm or nuance Barth’s argument?



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