Faithfulness of god, not human beings

This emphasis upon the faithfulness of God and faith as an acceptance and confession of this faithfulness would continue in Barth’s mature account of faith in the much later Church Dogmatics IV (1953). Here faith has its origin and content not in itself, but in its ‘object’, which is God in Jesus Christ. Faith is the free renunciation and abandonment of being oriented and based upon oneself in favour of being oriented and based upon Jesus Christ. Faith is an awakening by the Holy Spirit, the creation of a new person who follows Jesus Christ and lives within the community Jesus Christ created and still guides: the church.

Barth describes the act of faith by using three variants of the German word kennen (to know): acknowledgement, recognition and confession (anerkennen, erkennen and bekennen). The act of faith is a free and spontaneous human act, and yet it is a free human act which is always a response. Acknowledgement, recognition and confession are all types of responses. One can only acknowledge, recognize and confess something. Without that which is acknowledged, recognized or confessed, we are not left with anything interesting or substantial. Faith acknowledges the presence and call of Jesus Christ as he makes himself known in and through the Christian community. Faith recognizes who Jesus Christ is and what he has done. It recognizes that Jesus Christ accomplished what the believer never could and that the work of Jesus Christ is pro me, for me, and pro nobis, for us. It is thus not only recognition of Jesus Christ but is also self-recognition, for I too am affected by what he has done. Faith is confession, a public and visible standing with Jesus Christ and his community. It confesses that Jesus Christ is the basis of its faith, hope and love, and that it exists and lives only because of him. It confesses that who Jesus Christ is and what he has done matters not only for Christians or the church but is of import to everyone.

Barth’s sense is that even when we talk about ourselves and our faith, we are not really talking about ourselves or our faith. When discussing Christian faith, we are always talking first and foremost about God and his faithfulness and then secondarily about ourselves. Faith knows that it lives only from its ‘object’, from Jesus Christ. It can also see, then, that the only advantage of the Christian over those who might one day be Christian is that the believer can be actively for Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, the believer also knows that Jesus Christ is for everyone, for the whole world. The one who has faith knows that God is faithful to all.

In the language of the Protestant Scholastics, Barth argues that assent (assensus), or acknowledgement and recognition in his terms, proceeds knowledge (notitia). Certainly one must understand what is being claimed about Jesus Christ before one can have faith in him and follow him in free obedience. Yet Barth is worried that by ‘knowledge’ the Protestant Scholastics had in mind ‘an abstract acknowledge of all kinds of truths which a man may amass and enjoy without its having any further relevance to him’.[1] As we have seen, some of the Protestant Scholastics were also worried about this possibility and so made the ‘primary’ aspect of faith trust (fiducia) in God’s promises (Barth even admits this). Nevertheless, Barth wants to emphasize that the ‘assent’ of acknowledgement and recognition is an obedient following of Jesus Christ, not a neutral or detached contemplation. We might say that here the Reformed Barth is following Calvin’s line that ‘all right knowledge of


God is born of obedience’.[2] Two different images might help for getting at Barth’s concern. The situation of humanity is not like that of scientists in a laboratory who make hypotheses and run experiments in a sterile environment, peacefully and autonomously considering the results. Instead, the situation of humanity is more akin to a group of prisoners made hopeless and inhumane by their detainment in a prisoners of war (POW) camp. The life of faith then becomes a long and perilous journey away from the camp, of constantly following the rescuers who lead the way even if the prisoners themselves do not know where they are headed.

Like the other figures in the ‘modern theology’ who came before him, Barth was strongly opposed to natural theology and to making philosophy a basis for theology. This was as true of the ‘liberal’ Barth as of the mature Barth. Generally speaking, natural theology means thinking about God solely from the general features of the cosmos, or our moral intuitions and daily experiences, or our logic about how reality must be. But if God has revealed both who God is and who humanity is through Jesus Christ, then it seems strange to go looking elsewhere to know who God and humanity are. Barth is nervous about what we will dream up when we look around the world and think about who God is without taking Jesus Christ into account. Perhaps we will imagine a wrathful or absent God. What seems likelier, though, is that we will imagine that God is just like us, so that God likes the people and things we like and hates the people and things we hate. Another name for this type of natural theology is idolatry, and it is fully reasonable and justified for theology to ignore it and look to God in Christ. Barth will readily admit that we must always speak about God from the ideas and language that we already have, from the perspective of our own philosophies about the world. For what would the alternative be? Philosophy, then, is inevitably present in all our theologies, and surely some natural theology will creep in as well. The important thing, nevertheless, is to always look to the faithfulness of God in Christ in order to think about who God is and who we are.

Study questions

  • 1. What do you think ‘from faith to faith’ means in Rom. 1.16-17?
  • 2. Do you think Barth’s criticisms of Schleiermacher are fair?
  • 3. In what ways are acknowledgement, recognition and confession more or less illuminating as descriptions of faith than knowledge, assent and trust?
  • 4. Are Barth’s worries about natural theology justified?

Further reading

Prefaces to the first and second edition of Barth’s, The Epistle to the Romans, 1-15.

Barth, Karl, Church Dogmatics IV/1, The Doctrine of Reconciliation, ed. G. W. Bromiliey and T. F. Torrance, trans. G. W. Bromiley (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1961), pp. 757-779.

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  • [1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1, The Doctrine of Reconciliation, ed. G. W. Bromiliey andT. F. Torrance, trans. G. W. Bromiley (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1961), p. 765.
  • [2] Calvin, Institutes, I.VI.2, p. 72. Barth, CD IV/1, p. 761.
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