So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: "Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, 'To the unknown god.' What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. (Acts 17:22-23, ESV)In the Apostle Paul's address to the Areopagites on Mars' Hill, he declared his knowledge of God to them in no uncertain terms. He preached on creation, the sovereignty of God, and the resurrection of the dead. Paul did not entertain their assumption that God is unknown or unknowable. (1) He made known that which is unknown to the Areopagites, namely, the knowledge of the living and true God. But there are some today who would believe that God is unknowable and inconceivable even through Scripture. What therefore they worship as unknown, this I proclaim unto you.
In this post, I shall discuss the erroneous epistemology or the theory of knowledge underlining the theology of men like Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Rudolf Bultmann. Although I do recognize the invaluable contributions by these scholars to contemporary theological thought, I repudiate their epistemological presuppositions as being incompatible with scriptural revelation and human reason. I must, however, be careful to include a caveat: I am by no means a rationalist, a rationalist at least in the following sense - one who believes that God can be salvifically known through human reason and logic alone. But logic and reason are indispensable for man to comprehend God, a God who can be comprehended by the mind of man through Scripture.
Kant’s distinction between phenomena and noumena
According to Immanuel Kant’s epistemology, God cannot be known or conceived by the minds of mere mortals. Kant believes that the mind processes raw data which belongs to the noumena, and such data once processed by the human mind is perceived or conceived as that which belongs to the phenomena. Therefore, what the mind grasps is not the noumenon, but the phenomenon. We humans can never know anything concerning the noumena, because we cannot know anything apart from our mind, and that which is processed by the mind belongs to the phenomena.
One of Kant's salient points seems to be the commendable restraining of our carnal pride when it comes to knowledge. His epistemology would reasonably lead one to remain humble about what we know, and especially what we can never know i.e. knowledge concerning the noumena. What we can conceive and perceive is within the phenomenal realm. The following statement is perhaps a needful, albeit tautologous, reminder: that it is quite impossible to conceive that which cannot be conceived, or to know that which cannot be known.
Kant's epistemology becomes problematic and even self-contradictory when applied to matters of theology (see below). Theologians who adopt a Kantian understanding of the theory of knowledge seem to talk as if we can have beliefs about the noumena, such as beliefs pertaining to the noumenal God and the human soul. If knowledge is justified true belief, and if the mind cannot conceive things belonging to the noumena, we humans cannot have any true beliefs concerning the noumena which is processed by the mind. That which is conceived or conceivable by the mind belongs to the phenomena, and by default excludes the noumena.
Herein lies the crux of the matter: are our epistemic presuppositions leading us to the worship of an "Unknown God?" If God is ontologically unknowable, then He must remain unknown to mere man, and such a God is in essence an "Unknown God" who must remain unknowable.
Kantianism in Barth's Writings
Karl Barth was one such theologian who was influenced by a Kantian epistemology. Although some might argue that this is an unfair caricaturing of Barth’s theology, Barth was adamant that God is, and that He must remain, hidden, unknowable and indescribable to us. God ultimately belongs to the noumenal realm, and whatever knowledge we claim that we have is really of an incomprehensible reality. Such beliefs cannot be knowledge. For Barth, God is a personal God, “but personal in an incomprehensible way, in so far as the conception of his personality surpasses all our views of personality.” (2)
As man cannot know the noumenal God, God must give faith to the believer in order to believe in Him. As Barth had lamented, “There is no way from us to God - not even via negativa not even a via dialectica nor paradoxa. The god who stood at the end of some human way - even of this way - would not be God.” (3) Such a believer then makes a “leap of faith” in order to believe that which is noumenal. But even so, no knowledge is possessed by the mind concerning God. When God reveals Himself to the believer or to whom He gives faith - the “man of faith” - the man “will confess God as the God of majesty and therefore as the God unknown to us.” (4) Whatever little we claim we know of God, more of God we do not and cannot know. He remains hidden; as our mind can only know that which is phenomenal, Man can never know the noumenal God. (5)
Concerning the inconceivability of the “Unknown God,” Barth writes:
1) Even though God reveals Himself to Man, God remains unknown to Man.
“We know that God is He whom we do not know, and that our ignorance is precisely the problem and the source of our knowledge. The Epistle to the Romans is a revelation of the unknown God; God chooses to come to man, not man to God. Even after the revelation man cannot know God, for he is ever the unknown God. In manifesting himself to man he is farther away than before.” (6)2) The more we think we know God, the more he is unknown to us. God is inconceivable and unknowable.
"The revelation in Jesus, just because it is the revelation of the righteousness of God is at the same time the strongest conceivable veiling and unknowableness of God. In Jesus, God really becomes a mystery, makes himself known as the unknown, speaks as the eternally Silent One." (7)
"When attempts were later made to speak systematically about God and to describe His nature, men became more talkative. They spoke of God's aseity, His being grounded in Himself; they spoke of God's infinity in space and time, and therefore of God's eternity. And men spoke on the other hand of God's holiness and righteousness, mercifulness and patience. We must be clear that whatever we say of God in such human concepts can never be more than an indication of Him; no such concept can really conceive the nature of God. God is inconceivable." (8)Therefore, even as God reveals Himself to the man of faith, his revelation remains hidden and God remains unknowable. This conclusion is partly due to his dialectical thinking in theology, also known as the "theology of paradox." His method is more accurately that of Kierkegaardian dialectics than Hegelian synthesis, although some of his approaches seem Hegelian in his presentation of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. (9)
Milbank has rightly observed that, “In the case of Karl Barth, a broad acceptance of a post-Kantian understanding of philosophy is turned to neo-orthodox advantage, in that he can insist that natural reason discloses nothing of God and yet that this opens the way to a renewed and, indeed, now more radical recognition that only God discloses God in the contingency of events as acknowledged not by reason but by faith.” (10)
According to Barth, God will always be “known as the unknown.” The mind of man can never know that which is noumenal, and God will remain unknown to Man. Man cannot have knowledge concerning the noumenal God. This God is therefore an “Unknown God.”
The truth is, although the finite mind cannot have a comprehensive knowledge of Him, we can nevertheless have a limited knowledge of God through His perspicuous and propositional revelation in the scriptures. As R. C Sproul has written, “Because God is infinite in his being and eternal, and we are finite and bound by both space and time, our knowledge of him is never comprehensive. We enjoy an apprehensive knowledge of God, but not a comprehensive knowledge.” (11)
Conclusion: A Self-Contradictory Epistemology
It seems clear to us that the statement, "God is unknowable," is inherently contradictory. (12) If God is indeed unknowable to man, how can Barth know that God exists? For a God who is unknowable cannot be known to exist, for his existence cannot be known. It is perhaps apparent that Barth knows for sure that God is a personal being, unknowable and transcendental in nature. For certain, Barth knows that God is unknowable, and a perusal of his Church Dogmatics reveals how much he does know, or claim to know, concerning the noumenal God who is allegedly unknowable.
Concluding this brief overview of Barthian epistemology, I would like to state that every theologian (e.g. Tillich, Niebuhr, Bultmann) who claims that God is unknowable contradicts himself in logic. God is a personal being who has revealed Himself specially in Scripture. He can be known through the writings of the Apostles and the Prophets who were inspired by the Holy Ghost. (2 Tim. 3:16) Furthermore, if Scripture is as authoritative as Barth often says that it is, shouldn't our epistemological presuppositions be derived from Scripture itself?
Although Man's knowledge of God will never be comprehensive and complete in this life, we can use the mental faculties (e.g. logic) that God has endowed upon us to study the Scripture, to know Him, and to love Him.
1. A distinction must be made here concerning the "Unknown God" and the "Unknowable God." A God who is unknown may be knowable, but a God that is unknowable must remain unknown.
2. Karl Barth, The Knowledge of God and the Service of God according to the Teaching of the Reformation, Tr. J. L. M. Haire and Ian Henderson (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1939), 31.
3. Idem., The Word of God and The Word Of Man, Tr. Douglas Horton (Boston: Pilgrim Press, 1928), 177.
4. Idem., The Knowledge of God, 28.
5. See Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, Tr. Hoskyns (London: Oxford Press, 1933), 91.
6. Ibid., 48.
7. Ibid., 73.
8. Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, Tr. G. T. Thomson (New York: Philosophical Library, 1949), 46.
9. See Peter S. Oh, "Complementary Dialectics of Kierkegaard and Barth: Barth's Use of Kierkegaardian Diastasis Reassessed," Neue Zeitschrift für Systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie 48 (2007): 497-512. In contrast to Hegelian synthesis, the article contends that the dynamics of the dialectics of Kierkegaard and Barth should be understood in the manner of a complementary synthesis of two opposites (abstract).
10. John Milbank, “Knowledge: The Theological Critique of philosophy in Hamann and Jacobi,” in Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology, eds. John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock and Graham Ward (USA, NY: Routledge), 21.
11. See R. C. Sproul, Grace Unknown: The Heart of Reformed Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: 1997).
12. See Ronald Nash, The Word of God and the Mind of Man (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1992).
PS: To my friends who are Barthians: this is just my point of view which I am free to express, just as you are free to express your own views. Our conscience is not bound by Man, but by the Word of God (which is the Scripture according to my convictions).
I really like this post by Phil Johnson. Furthermore, it was posted only about two days after I've written this one. Isn't the Holy Ghost trying to tell us something?
Concerning Paul's experience on Mars' Hill, Johnson wrote, "It was as if someone [i.e. the apostle Paul] got in the midst of a bunch of academic postmodernists today and declared that the Bible is true. Just imagine an auditorium full of 21st-century university professors wringing their hands about epistemological humility and the dangers of overconfidence and the uncertainty of human knowledge and the subjectivity of all our opinions—and the whole dose of postmodern angst about being sure about anything. And suppose you stood up in front of that group with a Bible and declared, "Here's something you can be rock-solid certain about, because God Himself revealed it as absolute truth."