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Can God Speak A Word To Men and Women?

July 7, 2011

Giotto di Bondone

In the earliest pages of the Church Dogmatics Karl Barth wrestles over the question of the possibility of God’s revelation, that God can speak to creatures and that we can hear Him.  There is an infinite qualitative divide between the being of God, the Creator of all, and the being of human creatures.  Even what we think of as “being” is not a thing shared in common. From our standing point, there is nothing to enable us to begin to speak theologically.  God must make Himself known.

But how is this gap between the Creator and creatures to be overcome?  How is fellowship to be established?

Barth’s doctrine of revelation, of course, centers not on nature or on a given text, but first and most fundamentally upon the incarnation.  It is in Jesus that this fellowship is established, that communication is made possible, and so here that we are able to come to know God.  Jesus alone is the place of the triune God’s Self-disclosure.

But this, too, involves the taking on of creatureliness — a human nature which is other than God.  But can that which is finite contain the Infinite?  It is a mystery that in the incarnation

the principle ‘finitum non capax infiniti’ is abrogated. Naturally this is true too. But the abrogation of this principle is not the real mystery of the revelation of the Son of God. The real mystery is the abrogation of the other and much more incisive principle: ‘homo peccator non capax verbi divini.’

God’s power to establish intercourse with us is also called in question of course, but in the long run not decisively, by the fact that He is infinite and we are finite, that He is Lord of life and death and we live as those who are limited by death, that He is the Creator and we are those who have been called out of nothing into being and existence. God’s ability is decisively called in question, however, by the fact that we are God’s enemies. (Church Dogmatics I/1, 407)

Barth says that the greatest obstacle in the possibility of God’s communicating with creatures is not that they are finite, creaturely, i.e. that their being is utterly unlike the divine being.  The greater mystery is that humankind is sinful — homo peccator, enemies of God.  This is what God overcomes in the incarnation of Jesus Christ — not just that creaturely existence is ontologically disparate from the life which God enjoys in Himself from all eternity, but that we live these lives in active opposition to the will and the love of the Creator.

Think with me, then, through the history of salvation: the promises to Abraham and Israel, the hopeful words of the prophets, the annunciation to Mary, the birth of a child in Bethlehem, the voice of one crying out in the desert, the way to Jerusalem, the hours hanging on the cross … In becoming human God overcomes the distance that accompanies our creatureliness, our finitude.  But the greater mystery of the incarnation, of God’s coming to us and revealing Himself to us, of His making theological speech possible, is that God overcomes our opposition to Him.

25 Comments leave one →
  1. Justin permalink
    July 7, 2011 1:15 pm

    So does the incarnation overcome sin, or does the incarnation occasion the overcoming of sin? Qu’est-ce que c’est “incarnation”?

  2. July 7, 2011 2:30 pm


    Christ’s person and His work are, dogmatically speaking, mutually dependent. The incarnation itself is an overcoming of sin, because it is God’s interruption of human disobedience with the Son’s perfect (and human!) obedience. But I don’t buy the claim (or maybe just intimation) of some of the Fathers that the incarnation itself reconciles us to God, as if the cross were an afterthought or performing some other function. At the same time, I also don’t agree with the rather common view that reconciliation occurs strictly on the cross, and that the incarnation and life of the Son of God was merely prologue.

    If that’s what you mean.

  3. Justin permalink
    July 7, 2011 2:40 pm

    Kinda figured you might say something like that – just thought I’d probe to be sure. So for you, incarnation comprises everything from the pactum salutis (or election or whatever) to the consummation then, huh?

  4. Justin permalink
    July 7, 2011 2:42 pm

    in other words – is that what the term implies in all instances?

  5. July 7, 2011 3:04 pm

    No, not at all. “Incarnation” as a term can be used in a variety of ways — from the moment of the baby’s birth in Bethlehem (or conception, if you like), to his entire life on this planet from advent to ascension, even to his character as having a human nature or existence (which extends beyond the ascension to eternity).

    It wouldn’t comprise everything from primal election to exchatological consummation, at least not as that is traditionally laid out. The incarnation is a moment in salvation history — but it is an all-consuming moment.

  6. Justin permalink
    July 7, 2011 3:42 pm

    all-consuming moment – d’oh! yeah, that’s right. I totally forgot, I just read that in I/1. There’s a passage where Barth describes this myth from an apocryphal gospel where time literally stands still at Christmas – awesome image. Thanks for the clarification.

  7. July 8, 2011 3:03 pm

    Thanks Darren, great stuff. Really succinctly put, with lots of impetus for further thought. In that vein I want to jump off your last line and ask if it follows that, as far as it concerns God’s self-revelation, the climactic and integral point in the “all-consuming moment” of the incarnation is the resurrection? After all, there the overcoming of all creaturely opposition is complete (and as Barth says the verdict of the Father on humanity is declared).

    Seems like there is some pretty big pay-out for Barth on this point, and I guess without stereotyping too much if there isn’t enough weight put on the “Easter end” of the incarnation event then you end up putting too much weight on the “Christmas end” (or the “Good-Friday/Holy Saturday end”) and get different pay-out for your views of revelation. Thoughts?

  8. July 8, 2011 3:21 pm

    Great point, Jon, and I think you are right that placing one’s emphasis upon the Christmas event or upon the Easter event could have different results with respect to revelation (as well as other doctrines, no doubt). Pannenberg, for example, takes the resurrection as his starting point, and for all that Barth did with the resurrection, Pannenberg’s Christology ends up looking rather different. (I’m working on a post on this for sometime in the next few weeks.)

    One’s theological “starting point,” however, isn’t necessarily the same as a theological control (which is what I read in your “climactic and integral point”).

    In keeping with my comments to Justin above, I’d look for a holistic account of the person and work of Christ (that’s why I like catch-all terms like “the Christ event,” or a broader use of “incarnation”) that attends to the unique place of each moment without prioritizing one over the others. So resurrection, for example, deserves serious attention as a locus of Christology and soteriology (and anthropology!), and a biblical theology can’t properly render these doctrines without the resurrection. But it is not more integral than Jesus’ birth or crucifixion. (We might add other “moments” to that list, though I imagine something like the Transfiguration or the healing of the paralytic man might necessary be of a second order.) Reconciliation is wrought not in a man coming back from the dead, but in this man coming back from the dead — the Word who has been made flesh, who was put to death for sin.

    The house requires each of its walls to stand and provide shelter.

  9. July 8, 2011 9:20 pm


    How would you parse the way TFT articulates the same points, de jure, as you are communicating through Barth? In other words, would you say that Barth’s and TFT’s ideas on ontological atonement are corollary? The way you’ve described it, from Barth, sounds nothing different than TFT. I’m thinking of how TFT says that in the incarnation Jesus immediately sanctifies the sinful nature he has assumed (by the Spirit); in order to save it through his obedience reflected in the incarnation as atonement (but not collapsing this into a physical theory of salvation). Anyway, I know there is a difference between Barth and TFT on this; I’m just not totally sure how that “fleshes” out. Any help?

  10. July 9, 2011 12:19 am

    Bobby – I’ll defer to you on TFT, since my knowledge of him is mostly second-hand, for the time being. My understanding is that Torrance had a higher regard than Barth did for the patristic idea that the incarnation is itself atoning. Barth conceived of the atonement, and the atoning nature of the incarnation, rather differently — in terms of the simultaneity of divine humiliation and human exaltation that take place in Jesus Christ. His obedience to the Father is certainly key in Barth, but probably not in the same way (I associate TF with Irenaeus and recapitulation here, which isn’t at all what Barth is on about).

    I don’t know that the two views of atonement are at odds at all (though Barth clearly didn’t share Torrance’s sympathy with theosis) — just different ways of looking at the topic and placing emphasis. My guess would be that Torrance’s doctrine of atonement is more in keeping with the Reformed scholastics, with heavy doses of patristics. The incarnation provides the grounds by which the atonement can take place (a la Athanasius and Anselm), and is itself an inauguration of that atoning work. For Barth, though he’d say much of the same things as Torrance, his actualist ontology offers resources for drawing together incarnation and atonement in a less “chronological” way.

  11. July 9, 2011 12:26 am


    Appreciated. I agree with your assessment of TFT; although, I think TFT is careful to not fall into the trap of a physical theory of the atonement. Nevertheless, I do find that TFT is ironically more scholastic than my initial inklings with Torrance led me to believe; it seems that TFT;’s project was all about ‘personalising’ the ‘Classic’ categories — Barth helped him do that, no doubt! Yes, I see your point with Barth; more “apocalyptic”, eh … which is the thread in Barth that Nate Kerr & co. pick up on in their own Anabaptist (constructed Yoderian) ways. Thanks.

    By the way, I should say, I am glad you guys are doing this blog; it helps someone like myself get the kind of critical push-back and leads that someone punching keys all by himself in Vancouver, WA needs to continue to grow and stretch. So keep it up!

  12. July 9, 2011 12:33 am

    Thanks! I think the blog is off to a good start — the quality of (the other guys’) posts and conversation has been on par with any conference I’ve attended. (All downhill from here!) It’s amazing what happens when people actually talk openly and earnestly with one another on the Internet. Conversation — even mutual learning — really can take place.

    Unless I’m gainfully employed my family and I will be relocating to Washington late next summer, so let’s tentatively plan for lunch or coffee!

  13. July 9, 2011 2:14 am


    That would be great, look forward to it! When it gets closer to that time we’ll have to get more particular; cool!

    Yeah, I think the blog is off to a great start; glad you guys thought of doing this!

  14. Justin permalink
    July 11, 2011 4:17 pm

    By the way, Barth says earlier in I/1: “The saying ‘finitum non capax infiniti’ cannot really prove what has to be proved at this point [i.e., that humanity really does experience the WoG]. If the real experience of the man addressed by God’s Word is against this saying, then the saying must go, as every philosophical statement in theology that is in contradiction with this experience must go. As a philosophical saying it does not interest us in the slightest. We do not say ‘finitum’ but ‘homo peccator non capax,’ and we do not continue ‘infiniti’ but ‘verbi Domini.'” (p. 220-21)

    I find this interesting, though, because it’s all very contextual. Later on, Barth appears perfectly content to employ ‘finitum non capax infiniti’ as a dogmatically justifiable formula from a certain perspective (e.g., p. 238, where he says it “must be accepted,” even if not as a principle in its own right) – just not here, where it doesn’t match the subject matter (the nature of Christian experience). Therefore, I wonder if it’s not very illuminating to arrange the two concepts hierarchically – implying, for instance that it’s a bigger deal (a “greater mystery”, as you say) to overcome sin than it is to overcome the Creator/creature divide. Rather, everything in its right place, I think. The danger, in both cases, though, is in improperly employing the formulae as general schemata.

  15. July 11, 2011 8:10 pm

    I think that’s right, Justin, and Barth does seem to be of two minds when it comes to philosophical maxims like finitum non capax infinit. When it suits the doctrine or the point, he’s happy to commend it. In the case of the incarnation, however, it seems a fundamental truth of God-becoming-human that the ordinarily reliable maxim is transcended — or blown apart — by the divine act.

  16. Justin permalink
    July 11, 2011 8:17 pm

    yes – “transcended” I think is the precise word he uses. I’d love to learn about the history of the phrase sometime – I don’t think Calvin actually says it. Maybe Beza? Who knows? (Denlinger I guess)

  17. July 11, 2011 9:01 pm

    So the reality then, is that there are multiple Barth’s, multiple Calvin’s, multiple Augustine’s et alia; the principle being: to work constructively from all the available theologumena with scripture as the norma normans and principium theologiae relative to its intended focus, which is to signify its reality in Christ. Right? 😉

  18. July 11, 2011 9:06 pm

    I think that’s right about Calvin. More than those who followed after him and engaged more directly in the polemical debates with Lutheranism over Christ’s presence in the elements of the Lord’s supper, Calvin was guided not by logical maxims but by beliefs about what “divine nature” is by necessity. He believed that Chalcedon requires we say that the Word is not fully contained in the flesh of the incarnation because his divinity is neither reduced nor abrogated.

    It enters the discussion pretty early on after the Institutes, however. I’ve found the phrase in Peter Martyr Vermigli’s polemic against Brenz in the 1560s. (I smell a new post topic!)

  19. July 11, 2011 9:13 pm


    Since you guys are going down this rabbit-trail I suppose its okay to follow you a little (relative to the topic of the post). So what do you think about the extra Calvinisticum, then? This is somewhat central to your thesis, right? I know Myk Habets holds to the ‘extra’ (he has an essay on that in one of the journals, forget which one now); do you follow this Reformed principle? And I notice that you’re making a distinction between Calvin and the Calvinists in your response to Justin on this (e.g. I think that’s right about Calvin. More than those who followed after him . . .); which your distinction resonates with me, because it notices what most Reformed don’t, that there is a methodological and thus–insofar as it impinges upon–a conceptual variance between the “post-Reformed” and Calvin on this.

  20. July 11, 2011 9:36 pm

    Bobby, I think it’s right (and necessary) to distinguish between Calvin and “the Calvinists” on many points of doctrine, and the use of finitum non capax infiniti is certainly one of them if it does, in fact, pan out that Calvin didn’t invoke this maxim himself. On the other hand, the reason for which his followers would invoke it — namely, as a logical defense of the extra Calvinisticum doctrine — is consistent between Calvin and Calvinism. He simply argues the point in a different way, in part because of his epistemological commitments (or so I would guess — Calvin was, after all, first an expositor of Scripture and was remarkably cautious about such extrabiblical statements). But he still gets to the same destination.

    The extra is another great topic in Christology for a full blog post. In short: I follow Barth (surprise!) in neither rejecting the doctrine nor in allowing it any dogmatic weight whatsoever. It is, as Barth puts it in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (1947), simply a bad answer on the Reformed side to a badly-put question on the Lutheran side. In its place Barth puts the simultaneity of the Word’s twofold state (not asarkos and ensarkos, but the status exinanitio and status exaltatio), and this gets a whole lot more traction in my view.

    I have read Myk’s 2009 SJT essay many, many times. We should discuss it some time.

  21. July 11, 2011 9:50 pm

    I’d like to discuss Myk’s essay with you. I too have read it multiple times, in fact I think it’s about that time for me to review it again 🙂 . What’s your general impression of Myk’s development on the ‘extra’?

    Yeah, I see what you’re saying with the “continuity” with Calvin and the Calvinists, conceptually. And Charles Partee amongst others does a fine job developing Calvin’s “confessional” methodology vs. “philosophical;” which of course is why I have always been attracted to Calvin, even if I can’t follow him in every direction. And yeah, no surprises that you follow Barth on the ‘extra’. I recall reading an essay from McCormack on Calvin’s and Barth’s usage of the ‘extra’; as I recall, what you just said was the gist of what McCormack said in that essay on Barth–so you seem to be in good company. I’ll have to research Barth’s usage of the status exinanitio and status exaltatio further; do you have any essays, in theological jrnls, you could point me to on that?

  22. July 11, 2011 9:51 pm

    Darren, I meant do you know of any essays in theological jrnls (not do you have any essays yourself personally in jrnls on this . . . if you do, that would be stellar too). 😉

  23. July 11, 2011 10:02 pm

    I haven’t come across anything specifically on the twofold state, though that’s a big piece of my next chapter so I’ll be looking for any between now and September. (I have a submission in on Barth and the extra that expounds on this … we’ll see if it makes it to print.) My guess is that most readers of Barth look at the outline to volume IV and take the status duplex on a sort of formal level; I’m going to argue that it is material to Barth’s Christology.

    I don’t think that Myk “develops” the extra so much as invokes it for a particular aim. Let’s go to e-mail on that topic, though.

  24. July 12, 2011 12:02 am

    Darren, I agree with you on the way that Myk works with the ‘extra’ in his essay. I’d like to hear your thoughts on this, I’ll shoot you an email.

    I’ll look forward to reading your essay on Barth. Maybe you could send it to me for a be-lated proof-read or something 😉 .

  25. July 12, 2011 2:25 am


    I as well would love to see a post on the extra. I think you’re right about Habets. He merely attempts to use the extra rather than provide a constructive account of it. Perhaps someone else can take up that task.

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