In Barth’s cry out against the trends of Christian theology, he makes a radical move from within the Reformed tradition to rule out any human capacity for receiving God’s Word. He rules out any human capacity in at least two way. Firstly, he rules out any moving within the person toward’s God’s Word, saying, “God’s Word is no longer grace, and grace itself is no longer grace, if we ascribe to man a predisposition towards this Word, a possibility of knowledge regarding it that is intrinsically and independently native to him.”1 But going beyond just rejecting a disposition towards God’s truth, he goes furthers to say:
To be sure, it is not these formulae which describe the real content of the Word which God Himself speaks and which He does so always as these formulae indicate, the real content of the real Word of God, that tells man also that they can be no questin of any ability to hear or understand or know on his part, of any capability that he the creature, the sinner, the one who waits, has to bring to this Word, but that the possibility of knowledge corresponding to the real Word of God has come to him, that it represents and inconceivable novum compared to all is ability and capacity, and that it is to be understood as a pure fact, in exactly the same way as the real Word of god itself.2
Barth goes on to ground this assertion in an exegesis of 1 Corinthians 2:6-16, suggesting that the ψυχικὸς ἄνθρωπος (“soulish/natural man”) cannot access the thoughts of the πνεῦμα (“Spirit”). God’s wisdom is not something that has been seen, heard, or thought about in the heart. Thus, humanity has nothing within themselves that can allow them to accept and receive God’s self-disclosure, so it all comes purely from God himself.
But there is an inconsistency between Barth’s principle anthropology concern about human capacity and Paul’s discourse. Paul is talking about the specific content of ideas and thoughts and the incomprehensibility these ideas apart from God’s own disclosure.3 Paul’s focus is more phenomenological, focusing on the specific contents and the way they are received, whereas Barth’s focus is on the ability to even come to these ideas. Thus, there are two different theories of not receiving God’s disclosure: incomprehensibility vs. incapacity.
Let me demonstrate the difference via an analogy. When I was in my first semester of college I was in engineering and I was required to take calculus. So I step into Calculus I with a bit of confidence; I was always a natural of math. I never did spend a lot of time trying to refine my mathematical skill, but I was said to have by a college algebra teacher during my senior year of HS (which I took simply to refresh my algebra when I went to college the next year) that “he has a natural math mind.” So, walking into calculus, I thought I could get it. I had a natural predisposition to such knowledge.
But then reality hit, but only slowly. My first exam I made 80. Not great, but not bad. But then as the semester progressed, my grades became progressively worse, moving towards 50 and then 20. Before my final exam, I had an average hovering in the 50s, a clear, without a doubt, failing grade. I had never failed anything in my life. Desperate not to fail, my mother arranged for me to get some tutoring from a brilliant math whiz. He sat with me and taught me the basics of calculus, starting all the way back from the beginning. The problem that had occurred was that I never really grasped the fundamentals early in the class. I could master the algorithmic process of the early parts of calculus enough to get a decent, B grade in it, but I didn’t really, truly understand what it was all about. I could get the results, but I didn’t actually comprehend what I was doing.
After the tutoring I received, I was prepared to take the final exam. While I never found out what my final grade was, it was apparently a good enough quality that my final grade ended up being a D instead of an F. A D-grade was somewhere between 60-70. I had to still retake Calculus I because you had to make at least a C to advance to Calculus II, but when I then took it again, I made an A. I had obtained a comprehension of Calculus I that I previously didn’t have, even despite my capacity and ability to do it.
What was the block for my comprehension? You could say multiple things. I always struggle with ADHD, so maybe it wasn’t that I was paying close enough attention. Maybe it was my overconfidence that made me think I didn’t really have to focus, until the reality of the grades hit me. Maybe it was being my first time away from home and my parents and dealing with the emotional transitions that come with that. Maybe it was the depression I was struggling with. There are many explanations one might provide, but there was sufficient grounds that block me from comprehending Calculus I, even if I had the capacity to do such. But once a person took me along, suddenly I was introduced into a whole new world of math that I was previously unfamiliar with.4
Contrast this with trying to train a non-human primate in calculus. For them, it isn’t a matter of a block that prevents them from comprehension. They do not have the prerequisite neural “machinery” in place that can allow them to make the necessary abstractions to comprehend calculus, much less lesser forms of mathematics such as algebra. For them, there is an absolute incapacity to comprehend calculus, much less even reproduce the right algorithm to get the right answers.
Barth’s anthropological view is analogous to the ape’s inability to do calculus. Nothing exists in the person to make them able to comprehend God. Just as some evolutionary force would be necessary for the species of ape to even begin to comprehend calculus, but the apes have no control over this, God must also do something to a person for them to be able to receive God’s disclosure. Thus, in Barth’s eyes, the image of God has been entirely defaced and destroyed in the Fall, which one sees if one reads his response to Brunner’s “Nature and Grace.”
Undergirding this view of the block of reception of grace is the notion of power, implicit within the notion of capacity. The Reformed tradition built its theological framework based upon the premise of God’s unilateral power to act. God has all power, and thus humanity has none of this power.
But what if the New Testament concern isn’t, strictly speaking, about divine power and the lack thereof, but of the nature of love. The language of grace isn’t a focus on God’s power, although it certainly presumes the superiority of God over humanity, but is focused upon God’s benevolence towards humanity. To construe grace in terms of a zero-sum view of power, where for humans to have power means it takes away power from God is to miss the entire point of Paul’s language. Yes, God is powerful. But the Gospel of Jesus Christ is to reveals what the nature of this power is in the crucified Christ. God’s power manifests and comes to realization even in the Son’s powerlessness, which is the thrust of 1 Corinthians 1. Meanwhile, the thrust of Romans 5 is to define the nature of this power has love as its core. Grace highlights the nature of God’s benevolence towards humanity as one who has the upper hand, but it is not some specific statement or definition of God’s power in relation to human-power.
So, if love is at the core of God’s grace manifested in Jesus Christ and the Spirit, then perhaps what blocks the reception of God’s self-disclosure may be understood in relational terms, rather than capacity and power. Rather than knowledge of God being blocked because of human incapacity that God must create in the person, the knowledge of God is blocked primarily because we on a personal level are blocked from receiving this divine self-disclosure.
In short, what we love determines what we will receive, and that which threatens what we love we do not receive, but we push away. When there is someone we are angry at or scared of because they threaten our sense of survival and well-being, or even hate, we are not inclined to truly comprehend that person. We avoid them, characterize them as threatening, dangerous, evil, etc. and thus we justify not coming to understand them as a person in any way beyond how we construe them in threatening terms. Perhaps our perceptions of this person are correct. But what if these perceptions are not correct and true? Then, in our ignorance, we block true knowledge of who this person is. Because we perceive this person as a threat to our interests, we close off comprehension of who this person really is. We are capable at a cognitive level of coming to grasp who this person really and truly is, but our hearts prevent us from doing such.
I use this only as a demonstration of a deeper principle, and not as the all-encompassing explanation of why we do not receive God’s self-disclosure. At the heart of the human heart is a resistance to contradiction and dissonance with who and what we value, and so we push away anything that threatens what is laid within our hearts, whether it be done through controlling, violence, denial, ignoring, etc. Then, in this act of pushing away, our understanding of who or what threatens what we value is controlled and framed by our own self-interest.
To be sure, Paul’s explanation would go a bit deeper than this. There is also the reality that we can not known what is not presented to us. If we love someone, we can’t know about them simply because we love them, but because they present themselves to us. Love motivates understanding, making comprehension possible, but love is not sufficient for knowledge. Hence, the Spirit must reveal God’s thoughts, because they are not something we can grasp for ourselves, there is nothing that humanity has seen, heard, or imagine in their heart that matches what God has in store for those who love Him.
But, the human capacity to block reception of God’s self-disclosure does explain the failure of persons to receive what God does make known of himself through Jesus and His Spirit. This is Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 3: Paul cannot teach the wisdom of God to the Corinthians because their love for individual teachers and human wisdom rather outweighs their faith in and, ultimately, their love towards God. Their nature as people oriented towards the flesh makes them think in such a way that blocks the ability to comprehend God’s wisdom, causing them to fight within the community of faith.
For Paul, it is a matter of who and what one trusts and loves that determines whether one can receive the wisdom of God. It isn’t a matter of capacity and power, as much as it about love. Sure, there is importance that one can only know what God makes known, but Paul assumes that God’s will is for the people to know God and thus makes this knowledge possible. Rather, the problem rests in human hearts that resist reception of God’s disclosure.
Herein is where the Wesleyan tradition’s emphasis on the synergism of God’s work and human response is better able to pick up the nuance of Paul’s discourse over the Reformed tradition’s tendency towards unilateral monergism that tends to present the relationship of God and humanity in a zero-sum game of power. Wesleyan synergism accepts that God’s power is a necessary part of the process of the divine self-disclosure, but what is more immediately relevant to the God-human relation is the mutual reciprocity of love that allows for knowledge to flourish. Where the human response of faith and love towards God is hindered by the flesh, there exists what blocks the reception of God’s self-disclosure. This sets up the absolute grace of God, whose makes the nature of His own love known in such a powerful yet counter-intuitive way as to break the hardness and resistance that is set up within our hearts; it is not merely that God makes our reception of God possible, as both the Reformed notion of regenerating grace and the Wesleyan notion of prevenient grace affirms, but that God’s demonstration of love makes the drawing out of our love for Him possible.
So, I end with this basic conclusion: God’s grace is about the way this superior being makes His love known. The appropriate emphasis is on the benevolence of God, not the power of God. So, insofar as the Reformed tradition, and Barth through the Reformed tradition, accentuates the power of grace as the main thing rather than the love that grace describes, there will be an overemphasis on power and capacity that can mask the importance of love and its role in the reception of knowledge. Grace breaks down the motivated ignorance we may have, not just simply any sense of incapacity that blocks our knowledge of God.
- Karl Barth, Geoffrey William Bromiley, and Thomas F. Torrance, Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of the Word of God, Part 1, vol. 1 (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 190-191.
- Ibid., 191.
- Or at least, this is how I understand Paul
- I have since forgotten a lot of which I knew, because I ceased to use calculus as I switched my major, along with my vocation not necessitating advance mathematical knowledge. So don’t ask me to for any help on calculus. I won’t be able to do it!