A problem I see with theology is there’s that which is made up of divine revelation given to us by God, and then there’s the stuff we’ve just made up. What I mean is, we’ve added human speculation and reasoning to divine revelation. And I believe this is where the doctrinal division comes in within Jesus’ Church, which is why I think we should consider what German theologian, Karl Barth, has to say in this regard.
I’ve already mentioned Karl Barth (1886- 1968) in “Jesus Christ is how we understand God.” Barth was a major influence in 20th Century theology. He, along with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, were two of the few voices that spoke out against Hitler and the Nazis before World War II. Barth was educated as a liberal theologian but later rejected it, emphasizing the transcendence of God. He gets mixed reviews from Western theologians, and understandably so.
General and Special Revelation?
Let me emphasize that Barth was no liberal theologian, quite the contrary. He was orthodox in the fundamentals of the faith. Nonetheless, he was somewhat controversial in other areas. For instance, he did not believe in general or special revelation as it was traditionally taught. He rejected the notion that general revelation comes from what we know or experience in nature and special revelation comes from the Bible. And I believe this is where he gets misunderstood by many evangelicals.
Here’s his point: Barth did not believe that the Bible text is special revelation because it’s made up of words, and words depend on a common ground between the person talking (or writing) and the person listening (or reading). But God is “wholly other” so there is no such commonality.
Barth believed that divine revelation is found in an event or encounter, but not in the words themselves. Barth saw the Bible as a witness to revelation, even a reliable witness, but it, in itself, is not special revelation. It is text that witnesses to divine revelation.
This is probably how Barth would interpret Romans 1:20, that the natural world is a witness to the God who created it, but nature itself is not natural revelation.
My own take on how we’re to understand the Bible is similar to Barth’s, which I’ve shared in posts like, “The Nature of Biblical Inspiration” and “Encountering the God of the Word.” I won’t repeat what I said there.
The Word of God is Jesus Christ
What Barth believed is that Jesus of Nazareth Himself is the Word of God, and that He is the sole and exclusive expression of the divine revelation of God. The incarnation of God, in the person of Jesus Christ, is the special revelation event in human history, and He explains God to us.
18 No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him. (John 1:18 NASB)
Why this is important is because it’s what makes Christianity unique from other world religions. Peter, John, Paul, and the other New Testament writers were in direct contact with the incarnated God Himself. Barth believed (and I believe) they give us a fundamentally accurate description of His life, and that God has preserved that witness for us in the New Testament writings.
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life— 2 the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us (1 John 1:1-2 NKJV)
Barth said we should read the Bible but not confuse the text with the word of God, because the word of God can only come to you in a moment of encounter. In other words, revelation happens when God meets us in the moment while reading the Scriptures (or through preaching or other means by which God can speak to our hearts).
This is why simply reading the Bible doesn’t mean you comprehend the truth it’s representing.
Natural theology leads to humanism
Barth did not believe in general revelation because he thought it leads to natural theology, which is only one small step away from humanism, which he saw led historically to the Enlightenment with all its atheistic tendencies. In that regard, I think he’s spot-on.
This also highlights an important point we may not fully grasp having grown up under the ubiquitous influence of Western Enlightenment with its mechanistic view of reality, which is one reason why so many have struggled with faith today. While rationality, reason, and logic are good and even necessary for understanding things in nature, and useful in physics and the sciences, those things can be disastrous for theology and useless for receiving divine revelation. Even logically, we can surmise this to constitute a category error. Indeed, this is precisely the point made by Paul:
13 These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. 14 But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Cor.2:13-14 NKJV)
So, I believe there are several reasons why we should ponder what Barth is saying here. First, it explains a lot about what’s behind our doctrinal disagreements, our fallacious arguments for or against God, and why people struggle with believing the Bible. But, most importantly, he brings up a critical point on the nature of revelation. After all, we don’t come to Christ based on good arguments or rationale. While these things may lead us to consider faith in Christ, it’s in the moment of encounter with the living God, when our heart is open to Him, that transforms the human soul.
9 He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” (Matt.13:9 NKJV)