Knowledge in Romans 1, per Barth


My contribution to the Barth Blog Conference was posted a couple days ago on Travis’ blog (click here). The topic is Barth’s rejection of natural theology in his Shorter Commentary on Romans. Shannon’s argument is that (1) Barth is doing exegesis, intending to let Paul speak for himself, and (2) Barth’s exegesis is correct, i.e., Paul and Barth are in agreement. In my response, I affirm the former and dispute the latter. Here is an excerpt, my argument in nuce:


And now we come to my criticism. Given this wholly foreign knowledge of God, hidden until the work of Christ, Barth declares that “it would be very strange indeed, if Paul suddenly regarded the Gentiles as being in full participation and possession of a genuine knowledge of God” (p.15). The difficulty I have with such a statement is that Barth is filling-in the idea of “knowledge” with such terms as “full participation” and “possession” of a “genuine knowledge” of God and contrasting this with the idea of knowledge in the first chapter of Romans, in particular, knowledge of God by the Gentiles “ever since the creation of the world.” This language of “full participation,” etc., heavily tilts the argument in Barth’s favor, but I believe Paul is working with a more limited understanding of knowledge: a genuine knowledge of God but without the soteriological value and definitional content. Thus, famously, Paul is able to say that God’s “eternal power and divine nature” is known through “the things he has made” (1:20), yet “though they knew God, they did not honor him as God (1:21). Also, more critically, Paul ends the section with, “They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die…” (1:32). A certain knowledge of God is made available to the Gentiles outside of Christ, though it is knowledge that only leaves them in condemnation. It lacks the object of saving faith.



  1. Kevin,

    I probably lean more your way, than not. But, isn’t Barth’s point to say that knowledge of God — even by the Gentiles outside of Christ — still grounded in the objective side of deus incarnantus . . . so that any and all knowledge of God must be said to terminate in God’s life?

    If we don’t say this, isn’t it to create a separate ontology of knowledge that is “outside of Christ;” which is to assume more of a dualist metaphysic which would allow for such things.

    I have a hard time separating salvation knowledge of God, from general knowledge of God; since I cannot conceive of another kind of knowledge of God (i.e. salvation, since God’s life is salvation). These are some of the assumptions I am wrestling with.

  2. I think we have to come at this problem by first considering why creation was not annihilated or abandoned after the Fall. God did not reject man after the Fall. While evil, suffering, and chaos were introduced into human life, there still remained an order in creation and an abidance of beauty and goodness. The “natural knowledge” of the Gentile is knowledge of both the former (chaos, evil, absurdity) and the latter (order, goodness, reason). The latter reveals attributes of God, while the former reveals our condemnation. The Gentile revolts against the condemnation and seeks to make reparations (=paganism) in order to escape evil. Or, in the case of Buddhism and Stoicism, he tries to transcend the whole damn thing. All of this religious and philosophical activity is only truly comprehended in the light of Christ, and this is what Paul is doing in Romans 1.

    The telos of creation is the Incarnation because Christ alone secures the victory of good over evil. The Gentile knowledge of God is knowledge of God’s righteousness, which only through Christ can be sustained in creation and ultimately victorious over all evil threatening creation. The Gentile does not yet know of this Christ, but he (partly) knows the goodness, order, righteousness, and perfection for which Christ comes. Since the Gentile is not always an agent of goodness, etc., he stands in condemnation and is “without excuse” because of this natural knowledge of God. That is the logic Paul is using.

    All natural knowledge of God has Christ as its end, even if this end is not known. Thus, there are not two ontologies of knowledge, objectively considered. Whether knowledge of God is through nature or special revelation, it has its ratio and telos in Christ. Subjectively considered, however, the natural mind is not capable of deducing the Incarnation. This revelation of an object (Christ) and the interior renewal by the Holy Spirit are both necessary for knowledge that includes salvation and not just condemnation. As such, there are two ontologies of knowledge — a natural knowledge that condemns and a spiritual knowledge that saves.

    I think Barth is saying a lot of this when he talks about how “objectively-speaking” the Gentile knows God, but then I have to question why Barth insists that this knowledge of God is wholly polluted subjectively. If this were so, then there could not be any genuine apprehension of beauty, goodness, and truth outside of Christian experience. Barth feared that admitting this (as Brunner did) would create too many “points of contact” between Christian revelation and secular beliefs, with the latter contaminating the former (given the latter’s non-Christian or anti-Christian contextual scheme). This is a justified worry, but it appears (to me) as compromising our need, as Christians, to better comprehend the “natural” values and language that we must bring into our theological beliefs and discourse.

      • That’s alright. It is a rather dense comment and not wholly intelligible 🙂

        I’m trying to explain the statement, as I put it: “All natural knowledge of God has Christ as its end, even if this end is not known.” My use of “end” here includes ideas of “purposeful” and “eternal,” and should be contrasted with “absurd” and “nothingness.” I’m working with an axiology, thus revealing the continuing influence of my early collegiate foray into existentialism.

  3. Actually, it’s not that its not intelligible; I’m still up in the air on this issue. I find myself leaning more Barth and less Brunner . . . but let me finish reading Balthasar’s “Theology of Karl Barth,” first (it’s quite excellent thus far).

    • Oh, I did catch the sense of what you were getting at relative to “purposeful” and “eternal;” I’m just trying to figure out what that might mean per an “analogy of being” and/or a “natural theology.”

    • It really is good, so far; I have a feeling it’s going to take me some time, as well, to process . . . but I will get back to you (do you have any posts on Balthasar, and this book in particular?).

      • If you click on the “Hans Urs von Balthasar” category on my sidebar (scroll down), you’ll see some posts I did last year on von B.

  4. Kevin, help me if I am way off in left field on all this.
    Not that I have read a ton of Barth yet, but I always thought his rejection of natural theology had to do with his rejection of two things: 1) apologetics and 2) aligning God’s action in human affairs (as the statement of German intellectuals shows how this goes wrong).
    It would have seemed hard then (and still does now) to argue for natural theology and not use it for apologetics or some other purpose.
    As Updike noted of Barth:
    Karl Barth’s insistence upon the otherness of God seemed to free him to be exceptionally (for a theologian) appreciative and indulgent of this world, the world at hand. His humor and love of combat, his capacity for friendship even with his ideological opponents, his fondness for his tobacco and other physical comforts, his tastes in art and entertainment were heartily worldly, worldly not in the fashion of those who accept this life as a way-station and testing-ground but of those who embrace it as a piece of God’s Creation.

    I would guess he saw God in all sorts of parts of reality (natural and Mozart) but thought to define or explain it at all would lose the nature of who God is. As unfair to a good reading of him this might sound, I think his argument is to deny natural theology is to let the natural of the world testify for its self. If God speaks through a dead dog than amazing, but its still a dead dog. But it is God who speaks not how we explain or align ourselves with the dog.

  5. ms,

    Both 1 and 2 are right, and I agree that natural theology invariably includes some apologetic value. For example, Pope Benedict XVI told the youth at WYD (in Cologne, I think) that following Christ does not mean rejecting joy, beauty, etc., but rather to come to a fuller apprehension of these things. This is a good point. There has never been a convert to the truth of the Gospel who did not bring with them pre-conversion understandings of beauty and goodness, which are then integral for the joy of receiving His mercy and life. The “new creation” is not wholly alien.

    As for Barth, I think the Updike quote captures him well, especially after reading his Evangelical Theology lectures and his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism. God’s freedom plays a big role here for Barth. It is a freedom over our creaturely forms that are threatened by evil; or, more precisely, it is a freedom that allows the good in creation to speak because of the definitive “No” to evil. I’m not sure how the dead dog analogy works since the good, not the evil, is freed by God’s freedom. Thus, it is the good in humanity that is freed. Once again, salvation is not wholly alien.

    • Kevin, you said:

      . . . Once again, salvation is not wholly alien.

      Isn’t this only then to appeal to the Thomist dictum of “grace perfecting or completing nature?” If salvation is not wholly alien, does this not wrest salvation away from its trinitarian (ontological) shape; and reduce it to a “quality” or an instrument for getting us from A to B? And once we get from A to B what’s the use for the “bridge” that got us there?

      • Salvation’s “trinitarian shape” includes the Son’s homoousian with man, and his resurrection was as a man. If we take the “fully man” definition, in the creed, seriously, then Jesus Christ enjoys the human perception of beauty, goodness, and reason. If Christ is the intimation of our future blessedness, then the Holy Spirit’s work of conversion is a restoration of these human faculties, which are fundamentally formed by love. That’s fully trinitarian. I’m not too scared of the “grace perfects nature” dictum. Even the most “Lutheran” of Protestants believe that our nature is perfected in heaven, and I doubt that we’ll have any cause to forget the “bridge” (the trinitarian economy of salvation) that got us there.

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