When I read Barth, I sometimes feel like his writing is like that preacher’s sermon that is powerful and inspiring, but says so much and is all over the place that one will have a really hard time figuring out what the unifying theme is or how he got to his points. For Barth the unifying theme is always Jesus, but when I read the Dogmatics I never know what to expect.
In 2.1 Barth continues his extended essay on how we can know God because God reveals himself in Jesus. In the first thirty pages of this volume, he discusses man’s situation before God with respect to how man can know God. Those looking for some sort of approach to Christian apologetics would be disappointed because Barth does not believe that their is some sort of neutral position that people can stand from in order to have an objective discussion about who God is. Therefore, (as has been noted) Barth’s discussion is circular. As Barth sets this up, I could not help but think of Alisdair MacIntyre. Barth states that knowledge of God cannot be discussed in the abstract. That is, knowledge of God cannot be found from some standpoint outside of the particular way that God has revealed himself in his word. Barth’s point is a Christian affirmation of MacIntyre’s critique of the “Encyclopedist” version of Moral Inquiry. There is no clean slate sort of background that is not itself informed by a particular narrative of the world. The God in the abstract that Barth was concerned about was the god who was “the world soul” or the “Supreme Value.” Barth knew that these were conceptions of God that were supposedly informed by some universal natural knowledge or pure rational thought. Rather these conceptions of God fit within particular ways of viewing the world. The technical name Barth gives these conception of God is “idol.” Barth is confirmed on this point because god developed from the abstract very well could be a god that upholds National Socialism.
But, Barth is quick to point out that knowledge of God, in that it is indirect, is not necessarily always guaranteed to be reality with God’s people at all times. I thought his discussion on the continual need for renewal during the history of Israel was interesting. The scriptural narrative bears witness to both God’s continual patience with his people and God’s people’s propensity to get God wrong. That continual need for renewal is now fulfilled with the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. For Barth, God has provided access to Himself by revealing Himself to man. The need for renewal is transformed because God is continually reconciling himself to his people. Barth closes this section with the phrase, “God Never Ceases to make continual new beginnings with man.” (25)
So, what does this mean in the section titled “Man Before God.” It means that because Christ is our knowledge of God, it is not something we can arrive at ourselves. Confidence in knowing God is something that can be arrived at only by seeing the truth in our dependence on God’s self revelation. This dependence on God is made concrete in the act of Prayer. It is necessary for the Christian to pray for the fulfillment of the knowledge of God, “that God will give himself to be known.”