Saturday, May 28, 2011

Knowing God?

I feel like the question of how we come to know God occupies a lot of my time.  It's a funny question.  For me, it doesn't spring from any anxiety about my own knowledge of God.  Perhaps there is some angst over the fact that other people don't see what I think I see.  Mainly, though, the question is not an existential but a theological one for me.  Given that we know God, how are we to understand that knowing?  Given that it is the case, how can it be the case?  The question is important because at all stages of the theological development of the church the different answers that have been given have represented fundamentally different views of what it means to be a Christian, and by implication what it means to be a human being.  More importantly, different views of how we come to know God lead to different views of the God we come to know.

Consider the first few centuries of the church.  The initial strong consensus that one comes to know God through Jesus Christ - the visible Son of the invisible Father, the precise image of God in the flesh - is challenged by a culturally much stronger and more acceptable form of mystery religion.  Yes, Jesus, but also some sort of mystery - a kind of top-up knowledge.  To really know God, you need Jesus+spiritual experience, or Jesus+secret knowledge.  And of course, because knowing God is caught up with salvation, it turns out that your ascent to salvation is also through secret knowledge.  And given this secret knowledge, one is able to 'see' that of course Jesus was not God in the flesh, but something else, something more refined and more worthy of the dignity of the deity revealed in the mystery.

Or consider the reformation period.  Here there is a more promising starting point, for all are agreed that one comes to know God through Jesus.  The question at issue between Protestant and Catholic is actually 'which Jesus?'  Is it the historical, once-for-all Jesus, to whom the Scriptures bear witness with a finality that cannot be gainsaid?  Or is it the Jesus who is present in the church, to the extent that the church's tradition and teaching reveal him?  That cannot be unrelated to the main difference between the two sides when it comes to salvation: is it by the once-for-all achievement of Christ on the cross, or is it by the repeated sacrifice of Christ on the altar?

Or think about the 'enlightenment'.  The early church period is in some ways reversed.  The prevalent view is that common sense and experience can lead all people to know God.  Jesus helps to clarify that knowledge, and sharpen it, and give shape to the relationship with God that all people everywhere have by virtue of creation.  This view was opposed by versions of the Protestant and Catholic dogmas of the reformation era, both to some extent hardened and weakened, but both demanding (rightly) that Jesus comes in some sense first - although this was sadly muddied on the Catholic side by a strong commitment to the Aristotelian thought of Aquinas.

What is the point?

The point is simply this: whenever you see something co-ordinated with Jesus Christ as a source of knowledge about God, you know you are in trouble.  Doesn't matter whether it's spiritual experience, natural theology, church tradition or anything else.  It's trouble.

On which, more shortly...

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Lead me all the journey through

"Holy Scripture may be compared to the fiery cloud and pillar which in every age precedes the community and all its members as an invariably authentic direction to the knowledge of its Lord, to the gift which he gives and the accompanying task which he sets.  It can and should be confessed always and everywhere and by all.  It raises the claim to be heard, to be heard obediently and to be recognised as authoritative always and everywhere and by all.  The biblical word is thus the concrete vinculum pacis of the church in every age and place.  The community is always and everywhere summoned to regard its claim, to gather around its message, to pursue its investigation, exposition and application.  We never do injury to a Christian or the community, nor are we in danger of leading a Christian astray, nor is it arbitrary but always and everywhere salutary and good, if we set ourselves and the community on the way which leads backwards or rather forwards to Holy Scripture.  For since in Holy Scripture true words are always to be heard, this way is always the way backwards or rather forwards to Jesus Christ, to the one Word, to the reconciliation accomplished in him, to the one covenant between him and man, to the salvation effected and to be found in this covenant.  However well or badly it may be followed, this way is always the good way, and to tread it is always and in all places commanded of the community and individual Christians, and is full of promise for them."

-CD IV/3, p130

Saturday, May 14, 2011


My reading in the Church Dogmatics has recently brought me to the end of volume III/3, meaning I have now read nine out of thirteen volumes (yes, I have skipped ahead).  Towards the end of this volume, Barth conducts an intriguing discussion of angels and demons, a topic I've read very little about, and even less that came from the pen of one of the 'big hitters' in the theological world.  So I was very interested to hear what he had to say.

Turned out I didn't like it much.

But one of the things that struck me, and pleased me, was Barth's matter of fact insistence on the reality of angels (and, in a sense, demons) and their work in the created world.  He notes that angels often accompany and witness to God's revelation - the absence of angels during most of the incarnation being an obvious and important counter-point, showing that something unique is happening here, where God reveals himself and witnesses to himself, making the angelic witness doubly superfluous.  But, as Barth points out, in some senses the angelic witness is always utterly superfluous.  When we read in the Bible that an angel did something, we surely must understand the Scripture as saying that God did something through an angel - and if this is correct, is it not the case that God could have worked without an angel to the same effect?

So, why angels?  Barth argues that their presence reminds us that God is not imminently within us, or easily within our grasp, but actually transcends our being and our understanding.  Angels, coming from heaven, remind us that God always comes to us from elsewhere.  Angels, turning up out of the blue, remind us that God does not come at our will but at his.  Perhaps most importantly, angels keep us from an almost deist conception of God that binds him to the normal course of events, preventing him from surprising us with his presence and his grace.

I read somewhere that Francis Schaeffer used to open university missions by talking about angels.  I don't know if that's true.  If it is, I imagine his aim was to show what a very different, and in many ways very surprising, world we live in if Christianity is true.

I certainly wouldn't want to be without the ministry of angels.