Karl Barth and the nature of revelation

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— 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.

He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” (Matt.13:9 NKJV)


About Mel Wild

God's favorite (and so are you), a son and a father, happily married to the same beautiful woman for 41 years. We have three incredible adult children. My passion is pursuing the Father's heart in Christ and giving it away to others. My favorite pastime is being iconoclastic and trailblazing the depths of God's grace. I'm also senior pastor of Cornerstone Church in Wisconsin.
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13 Responses to Karl Barth and the nature of revelation

  1. 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 why it is so important to understand the very nature of the Holy Spirit. Too many Christian’s, when hearing about the Holy Spirit say, “The Holy who?” Without a relationship with the Holy Spirit to give that special revelation, the words will just be words to some and law to others.

    • Mel Wild says:

      Exactly right, Patrick. The Bible is inspired if you’re inspired reading reading it. To the point you’re making, people have even used the Bible text to justify doing evil things.

      Instead of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, some Christians have made it Father, Son, and Holy Bible.

  2. Good stuff, Mel. The Word must be experienced or felt, both Jesus and the text itself. The Bible is a bit like that too, we need to know Him and to know His intentions and so, “my sheep hear my voice.”

    I heard a great quote in church the other day, “a church that is not supernatural, is superficial.” Where I live there is often great fear of special revelation or extra biblical knowledge or something, so in response or reaction we’ve gotten more material, natural, and superficial.

    • Mel Wild says:

      I love that quote. Amen, if we’re not supernatural we really are superficial. Probably the biggest problem facing the Western church. We don’t need the Holy Spirit to function.

      The fear you speak of is exactly why pastors and leaders want to keep revelation to just the Bible text. That way, they can control the environment (with their own particular interpretation of the Bible, too). Another part of this is that there seems to be no evaluation of what is said when people have a “revelation.” But there’s no need to fear letting people hear from God when you put protocols in place to help people grow in hearing God. The New Testament is very clear about how to do this. Ironically, what we fear is primarily what our meetings are to be about! All these gifts are for the body to build itself up in love.

      26 What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. (1 Cor.14:26 NIV)

  3. hawk2017 says:

    I think the written word(written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) leads us to the reality of the Living Word, Christ Jesus.

  4. tsalmon says:

    Wonderful things to think about Reverend. How does one know if someone’s revelation is inspired by the Holy Spirit rather than the human rationalizations that you elude to? Also, do think that it is possible for an encounter with the Holy Spirit to lead to a kind of general revelation? Or in other words, once one, through the Holy Spirit, has had a revelation of the presence of God, can’t that person come to see God through His love, mysteriously suspending and moving the universe in all things? I make no claim to be graced with any great revelation, but I feel His presence, mainly through His manifested love, surrounding and embracing everything constantly.

    I have always disliked the magical and superstitious connotations of the word “supernatural”, as if there could be something, anything that, although strange to us and transcending our comprehension, is other than natural to God.

    • Mel Wild says:

      Thanks for your questions, tsalmon. We can know if something is inspired by the Holy Spirit if it sounds like Jesus, it has grace on it and/or gives us understanding we wouldn’t otherwise have. The fruit is always going to be love, joy, peace, kindness… (Gal.5:22-23). Of course, it won’t contradict the Bible (but it may contradict our current understanding of the Bible!). We should also be in relationship with people we trust, who hear from God, and bounce it off of them. This is also a great way to learn how to hear God.

      It’s important to understand that when we actually encounter God in a manifest way, it changes us. Generally speaking, it should make us more loving and gracious (again, fruit if the Spirit), otherwise, it’s not God. For me, personally, it was way different than trying to be a better person. My disposition actually changed toward others (although, it didn’t all happen at once.) On the other hand, if we’re ungracious, harsh, angry, and unforgiving, that’s totally us. 🙂

      To your other question about seeing God in the world, if our heart is open, we will feel His presence all the time, and we will see His handiwork everywhere. But, like the text, His handiwork is not the revelation, it’s what God is showing us in nature that’s revelation.

      • tsalmon says:

        I’ve never quite thought of it that way or read it put so well and so simply. Thank you for those answers.

        There is so much hatefulness and criticism that calls itself Christian these days. I had a delightful conversation with a Pentecostal church goer the other day. She was so full of joy and love for Jesus. I smiled for the rest of the day. I think we make believing way too complex sometimes. The hard part isn’t knowing and believing – all we have to do is ask and God gives. The hard part is living it with love. I remember someone once said that if Christianity does not fill you we love and joy, maybe you’re doing it wrong. My Pentecostal friend seemed to be doing it right and so do you. Even your criticism is framed in love. Thanks again.

  5. Mike says:

    Is Barth one of the theologians that shaped you in what you believe about God today? Also, who are some other teachers that have inspired & helped you?

    • Mel Wild says:

      I actually never read Barth until recently. I had heard about him from others but when I finally read what he had to say I found that he had a profound understanding of things we have not seemed to have grasped.

      Other than commentaries, my early influences were people like Watchman Nee, C.S. Lewis, and Brennan Manning. Later, theologians like C. Baxter Kruger, T.F. Torrance, N.T. Wright, Rene Girard, Walter Wink, and David Bentley Hart. Leaders like Bill Johnson, Brad Jersak, and Frank Viola. Also, most of the early church fathers (pre-Nicene). Especially Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nissa. They were giants in the faith. There’s probably a lot of others I’m missing here, and I also find myself reading a lot of people I don’t necessarily agree with on everything but they have helped me work through what I do believe so, in a way, they have influenced me positively.

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