Revelation Positivism: Reasoning with Faith in #KBCDIII

In the last post, I insisted to you that Barth blows away the assumed conflict between faith and reason as modes of knowing, replacing it with a surer ground in the difference between the two objects of theological and natural sciences: God, and the non-God world. But the next thing I'm going to tell you, as he goes on in CD III.1, is that we only know about creation as an article of faith. That we cannot reason our way to knowledge of creation. Is this a contradiction? Not really. The important question is, on what basis can we reason about creation?

Faith in, and Reason from, Revelation

Reason should never be alien to theology, or to faith. Reason, as Barth insists after Anselm, follows faith. Faith informs reason. But faith is not an alternative to reason. Faith is trust in the object about which we therefore reason. Faith is that result of the encounter with God in which we accept and acknowledge this particular God. Faith is the position from which we proceed in our attempts to understand.

Faith does not replace reason, which is our capacity for analysis. "Faith" is absolutely not assent rather than analysis. Revelation, likewise, is not a kind of special pleading for the supernatural in the face of the natural, something that can save the utterly irrational. But we must not confuse "rational" with "knowable from nature." If revelation is anything at all, it is the object's own revelation of itself. We know nature as the natural world reveals itself. We conceive of "nature" as an abstraction from the particulars of the world's self-revelation. We know God, likewise, according to God's self-revelation. But over nature we have a bit of leverage. We don't have to sit back and wait for nature to come to us; we can force the matter. Not so with God.

To claim that revelation is unnecessary (particularly, to claim that "special" revelation is a bonus over and above some kind of "general" or natural revelation of God) is to claim that we can know God from the study of something that is not God. And, moreover, that we can force the matter of knowledge of God in exactly the same ways as with the knowledge of nature. Such a claim involves far more untenable assumptions than the claim that we can only know God through revelation! Apart from pious platitudes, I have seen no proof that the world is deterministically ordered by God, much less that it is directed toward recognizably good ends and away from the other sort. Even if it were, a determined world is no proxy for the living God who determines it. For that, we would have to suggest that the world was in fact like God, a reflection of God in creaturely form.

Barth grants none of this. For Barth, in a spot of critical agreement with Augustine, nature essentially shrugs when you ask it about God:
I put my question to the earth, and it replied, "I am not he"; I questioned everything it held, and they confessed the same. I questioned the sea and the great deep, and the teeming live creatures that crawl, and they replied, "We are not God; seek higher." I questioned the gusty winds, and every breeze with all its flying creatures told me, "Anaximenes was wrong: I am not God." To the sky I put my question, to sun, moon, stars, but they denied me: "We are not the God you seek." And to all things which stood around the portals of my flesh I said, "Tell me of my God. You are not he, but tell me something of him." They lifted up their mighty voices and cried, "He made us." (Confessions 10.6.9, Maria Boulding)
This is kind of a Potter Stewart problem: perhaps we may never succeed in intelligibly defining what we mean by "God," but we know it when we see it, and no creature is it! Only when immediately confronted by God does the creature recognize its Creator, and by extension the fact that it is God's creature. "If the universe is not actually silent, it is still silent to those who are not participators in the truth, i.e., in the direct self-revelation of God." (III.1, 10)

Of course, for Barth the most basic form of revelation is that direct revelation of the Word of God to particular people, God's immediate self-revelation in encounter with creatures. That we know God at all is entirely due to this form of revelation, by which people have had (and we may expect to have) direct experience of the object we seek to understand. But participation in this truth does not require of us that we have immediate recognizable experience of God. Subordinate to this direct revelation by God, we have scripture, which is a collection of witnesses to the Word of God. Scripture is itself the Word of God only in a subordinate sense, and not unquestionably a form of God's speech. At best, it is a mediation of the immediate Word of God, but the words of scripture are only true as God confirms them.

Beyond scripture, and still more subordinate and questionable, stands our proclamation, which encompasses every bit of non-scriptural human witness, every bit of theology and exegesis. Our proclamation may also be the Word of God; we may expect of our proclamation that it attempts to be true as the Word of God is true. It is in fact our job to speak faithfully of God, however impossible that job may be in practice. Dogmatics, for Barth, is the work of questioning our proclamation in order to conform it to the Word of God. While we have no choice but to rely on scripture as our readily available source and norm, scripture is not in any sense the final word. We are ultimately dependent upon the living God to whom the Bible gives witness, and only proximately and critically dependent upon the text of that witness.

Revelation Positivism

This three-tiered approach exists to facilitate a critical approach to both scripture and tradition. Tradition is unreliable because we stand behind our theology, in ways more definite than we can say that the authors of scripture stand behind their writings. Augustine can be interrogated in ways Paul can never be, and Paul is the most accessible author of scripture to us! In the genuine epistles, Paul appears to us as a man of history, writing to audiences that lived and died within their own times. He qualifies both his life and theirs. That information can be fleshed out historically. But we have no such grasp on Peter, James, or John as presumed authors, much less upon the true and uncredited authors and communities behind the overwhelming majority of our scriptures in both testaments.

Seek behind the gospels, and what will you find? Scripture, especially narrative scripture, stands in a more unquestionable relationship to us. However we may pick it apart to discern different elements within a given narrative, there is no "truth" at the bottom. Barth flatly denies that scripture can be purified either of "myth" or of history, because saga and history are so thoroughly intertwined in our texts that it is a mistake to suggest that their truth lies in either one or the other. New Testament or Old, there is no historical truth to be reached by bracketing out elements we do not accept as sensible and natural, any more than there is timeless truth to be reached by bracketing out elements of contingent and historical reality.

For this reason, Barth is quite willing to accept the stories scripture tells, as he finds them, and seek to understand their truth in a holistic sense. He is not uncritical of scripture, but he insists on a more thorough criticism, one as critical of us as of the text. The Bultmannians will prefer to demythologize, but Barth refuses to set some elements of the text over others as though we had any basis for decision about which were more true. For being so incautious a reader of scripture, Barth gets accused of demanding unquestioning assent to doctrines like the virgin birth (which have unquestionably scriptural basis). He refuses to see them as mere apologetics, or corruptions of the historical truth with myths that were acceptable to an ancient audience, but which we do not today believe. Bonhoeffer calls it "positivism of revelation," Offenbarungspositivismus, and accuses Barth of uncritically lumping interpretation in with revelation.

Criteria for Truth

The problem with the accusation of "revelatory positivism" in this form is that it doesn't actually match what Barth is doing. He is seen as a kind of dogmatic literalist, an opponent of good critical analysis. Of course, none of today's true dogmatic literalists would accept him as such, if they actually read him, but Barth's approach manages nonetheless to alienate followers of higher criticism by refusing to grant them authority over what is and is not the text, what we should and should not believe out of it.

Barth does indeed insist that scripture must be read literally, all the more so when its text is clearly figurative. There is no access to what such passages figure, unless we go through the text exactly as we have it. Barth is not interested in editing the texts of scripture in order to conform them to outside preconceptions. But this is a far older kind of "literalism" than today's inerrantists practice. Barth is not asking us to see Genesis as an objective description of a series of world-historical events, which must be unquestionably affirmed to have happened in history exactly as they are told, and from which we can extrapolate scientific conclusions about natural history. As a purported example of "literalism," that's insane. It is, even moreso than Bultmann's demythologizing, an insistence on historical truth as the only proper truth, and a plain refusal to take seriously the literal text of Genesis in all of its depth as revelation. Genesis is not a revelation of natural history, any more than it is a revelation of supernatural realities. Barth tells us instead that Genesis reveals theological truth in the form of saga, a visionary and poetic narrative with no basis in natural history. Genesis bears witness to God, and it does it by telling a story.

That might seem to stretch credibility. Why should we believe such a thing? We might prefer to demythologize the text in pursuit of its credible components, bracketing "myth" and seeking behind it in pursuit of genuine history. The problem with such an approach is that what we find credible can never be a criterion for truth, any more than what is generally possible in the world can be a criterion for what God may do. If we accept that the world, as creation, is a sphere separate from and subordinate to God, and further, that its separation from God is not to be understood as though God and the world were mutually exclusive, then we must accept that God may do things that cannot be limited by the possibilities of the creature. We must accept that the miraculous and exceptional is possible, though not for us. When, therefore, we are told that God has done the miraculous and the exceptional, that God has done what is otherwise impossible in the world, we cannot question it in our own terms. Nor can we question the miraculous and exceptional in terms of any other text, as though Israel's borrowing and betrayal of the mythology of neighboring cultures to tell God's story could be dismissed as mere imitation. We can only question it in God's terms, and ask whether it is consistent with God that God has done such a thing.

If "revelation positivism" has a meaning for Barth, other than as a derogatory accusation, it is this: that acts of God which we cannot otherwise validate must be accepted as they are revealed to us. We have no other way to accept them than by faith. This fits Bonhoeffer's sense that "revelation positivism" involves the mere ungrounded givenness of these realities. It is not Barth who posits them, but scripture. Barth merely seeks to understand them. Reasoning about and analysis of these events, and the texts in which they appear, must be predicated on faith in the God who has done them. And yet Barth's usage will also fit with Seeberg's analysis of Luther, in which he uses the phrase to assert that revelation is not abstractly ideal, but historically concrete, taking place in definite events.

That doesn't mean, for example, that the stories that across the entire canon speak of the creation do so as accounts of natural history. But it does mean, as Barth will insist, that creation is history, rather than some timeless pure ideal state. God's eternity, the time proper to God, takes place in our creaturely time as events of grace in the God-normed history from creation to redemption. God's time, happening in our time, gives us the proper frame of reference to judge the other events that happen in our own times and places. Far be it from us, as faithful people, to judge God's actions and God's time as though they had to conform to a creaturely standard. The whole point of acknowledging creation as pre-history, proto-history, is that we acknowledge that our time after the Fall, and the worlds we have arranged for ourselves within creation, are only true to the extent that they conform to the standard of God's authority over them.

We may not be able to validate the stories scripture tells us. (Or, at least, not without direct recourse to God ... which goes as well for invalidating them.) We may certainly be skeptical of them! But it says nothing against the stories in scripture to say that things like this do not generally happen in history. If we demand that these stories are witnesses to natural history, then certainly scripture will show itself false to our conceptions of it all along the line. Scripture is not, first and foremost, a witness to creaturely possibilities, a catalog of things that may simply happen at any time, things that must be understood to arise from the internal energies of the total creature itself. Scripture is, or fails to be, the Word of God, witness to God's own self-revelation taking place within history. We must accept it by this standard in order to be justly critical of it.


  1. thank you so much for your reflections. My reading of Barth would is the same in terms of faith and reason. In particular, his treatment of scripture and tradition is theological.

    I have some interest in the following:

    Revelation, likewise, is not a kind of special pleading for the supernatural in the face of the natural, something that can save the utterly irrational.
    Apart from pious platitudes, I have seen no proof that the world is deterministically ordered by God, much less that it is directed toward recognizably good ends and away from the other sort.

    It seems to me that one can reasonably interpret Barth as saying that revelation is a separate sphere of knowledge that one has a result of placing faith in it, as drawn by the Spirit. If so, it would appear that to the "outsider," the one who does not participate in the truth, it will appear as special pleading.

    I would also note that Pannenberg would also say that science will give us either the uniqueness and dignity of humanity nor the goal or purpose of creation toward a good end. Such conclusions are ultimately theological statements and therefore based on revelation and in particular the Incarnation yields such knowledge. In other words, Pannenberg in Chapter 7 section 4 of Part I, appears to end up in a similar place as Barth. However, in the process, he will criticize Barth. For Pannenberg, theology must not become prey to the comfortable escape of the idea of creation on a special or exclusively theological level that is inaccessible to any critique by the natural sciences, which is why, I think, one can legitimately accuse Barth of engaging in some special pleading.


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