Friday, October 21, 2011

Karl Barth on Faith

This post is based on Barth's little book "Dogmatics in Outline", which I highly recommend to those who have never studied his theology. It's a great introduction to a profound Christian theologian - perhaps the most important one of the 20th century. Readers of this blog will note that I have my disagreements with Barth, to be sure, but I very much appreciate his work.

Barth defines faith in the following fashion:

"Christian faith is the gift of the meeting in which men become free to hear the word of grace which God has spoken in Jesus Christ in such a way that, in spite of all that contradicts it, they may once for all exclusively and entirely, hold to His promise and guidance."

So for Barth, we can see that faith as “the gift of the meeting” is deeply Christocentric. This means that the starting point of Christian faith itself is the Word made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. In the gift of the meeting, we become free to hear God’s Word made flesh.

Barth argues that the believing subject or person is entirely determined by the object or Word of faith. As such, in no way does Christian faith mean that humans can first somehow discover God on their own. The meeting of the Word has nothing to do with human initiative, but everything to do with God’s initiative. We are actually enabled by God to hear the Word, so there is nothing about humans that already inherently implies Christian faith: “it rests not upon a human possibility…" Important for understanding Barth’s radical assertion here is his claim that there is absolutely no ontological continuity between humans and God. This implies that faith cannot be centered around the subjective act of faith. As Barth writes, “…what interests me is not myself with my faith, but He in whom I believe."  Faith is precisely and entirely about the object of faith: the Word made flesh, who bridges the infinite ontological divide between God and humanity.

For Barth, humans are utterly incapable of discovering the infinite God in whom they place their faith as Christians. Only because the one true God has crossed the infinite ontological divide in the historical person of Jesus is faith possible at all. It is only through grace that we are able to hear the Word and have faith: “The gift and the becoming free belong to each other." This ‘gift’ is absolutely new and unprecedented in history. As for human experience and knowledge, there is no question to which the Word made flesh is an answer. Human reason cannot possibly conceive of the God who is infinitely Other, much less the specific God of the Christian faith revealed in the incarnation of the logos. For Barth, human reason is subordinated to the revelatory Christ-event, which then ultimately illuminates all human reason.

In the end, Barth concludes that Christian faith means ‘trust.’ More specifically, Christian faith means trusting in “the faithfulness of Another, that His promise holds…‘I believe’ means ‘I trust’." Through faith alone are we justified, not through our own efforts to grasp God – or anything else, for that matter. Through faith, the Christian holds in confidence to the promises of God revealed in the Christ-event. Yet this faith is not to be seen as a burden, but exactly the opposite: it is freedom to trust in God ‘in spite of’ everything that seems to contradict the Word, including “God’s hiddenness." As such, Christian faith is not to be grounded in ‘proofs’ for the truth of Christian doctrines or God’s existence. This does not mean that Barth disregards reason in terms of the need for internal coherence of Christian doctrines. It means that there are no external reasons to be found by finite humans that can justify this faith that is the gift of the meeting. Yet Barth does not confine the realm of faith to ‘religion’, but argues that faith is concerned “with life in its totality, the outward as well as the inward questions..." Because God has ‘gone public’ in the most objective way with the incarnation, so faith must go public. Faith involves public confession and action because God first went public in the Word made flesh.

What does Barth’s definition of faith have to do with his doctrine of God? We have already started to see important characteristics of Barth’s doctrine of God, implicitly and explicitly articulated: God is fundamentally Other, infinite, unprovable, inconceivable, totally self-sufficient, omnipotent, and only truly revealed in the incarnation of the Word. We cannot conceive of this God with the powers of human reason, but only through trust in the Word. As Barth also writes, “God is the Object of faith." But we have yet to see how God is understood in a specifically Christian way, which is trinitarian. As it turns out, the Trinity is already implied in Barth’s definition of faith: what is being revealed is the Father, the ‘meeting’ is the Word made flesh (the Son), and what makes us free to receive the Word is the work of the Holy Spirit. Because of God’s gracious initiative to cross the divide, we are children of this triune God: “…in His Son and through the Holy Spirit, not on the ground of a direct relationship between us and God, but on the ground of the fact that God of Himself lets us participate in His nature, in His life and essence."

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