Barth Man’s Experience of the Word of God

“When we try to find the content of divine Spirit in the (pardoned) consciousness of man, are we not like the man who wanted to scoop out in a sieve the reflection of the beautiful silvery moon from a pond?” (216)

Finally caught up in the Barth reading for this week! In this section Barth wrestles with the human experience of the Word of God. He wants to affirm a person’s role in his/her experience, reception  of the Word of God (he actually uses the word determination). But, he also affirms that man’s determination in Word of God is within the sphere of God’s determination of man. So, basically Barth states that the person can really have an experience of God’s word yet, the source of this experience lies outside of himself/herself and with God alone. Barth is fighting against a theology of immanence that would say that God is revealed within the general sphere of human experience or in the inner religious self-conscious of humanity. Barth contends against the theory of the knowledge of God found in liberal-protestantism in Europe at the time he was writing. I think these ideas are present today when people say things like “all people have an innate sense of right and wrong” or “all people have a sense of a higher power.”

There are two things that Barth mentions that I thought were really interesting.

First, because God is free in revealing God’s self to humanity, the experience of God’s word can happen within the whole range of the human person or “anthropological centers.” For Barth, the human intellect does  not have to be in opposition to a person’s religious experience with respect to the reception of God’s word. Although, I think Barth is mainly concerned with the anti-intellectualism in pietistic-religion,  by asserting this fact he allows for a kind of pluralism where one person’s reception of the Word of God cannot determine the experience of everyone else.  The same thought crossed my mind when I read an essay by his son Markus Barth about justification by faith. In that essay Markus discusses how the doctrine of justification by faith needs to be separated from the Christian’s experience of it. In his view one of the problems with church unity is that the subjective side of justification swallows up its social character.  The essay is “Jews and gentiles : the social character of justification in Paul.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 5 no 2 Spr 1968, p 241-267. So for (Karl) Barth, one’s experience of the Word of God cannot be determined wholly by the person’s psychological disposition or personality. And, I think it may be a way to talk about the various range practices found in the spectrum of Christian traditions.

Second, he discusses the danger of Christian’s reliance upon the his or her own religious experience or whatever form of experience of the Word of God that one has. The danger is that if one depends on personal experience God will at times seem very absent. If the expectation is mountain tops, where then is God in the valley?  The Christian’s dependence is on the word of God alone not one’s experience of it. He quotes Luther’s statement that, “Whoso then pursueth feeling, he is destroyed, but whoso counter to feeling dependeth heartily upon the Word, he will be brought through” (221). At times like this we must be like the father of the epileptic boy, “I believe, help my unbelief.”


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