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The Knowledge of God and the Service of God according to the Teaching of the Reformation

1937 to 1938
University of Aberdeen

Part I consists of ten lectures on ‘The Knowledge of God’. In the first of these lectures, Barth notes the necessary antagonism between the enterprise of ‘natural theology’ and Reformed teaching. As a Reformed theologian, he is consequently unable to directly fulfil Lord Gifford’s requirements of the ‘specific advancement and diffusion’ of natural theology. His indirect fulfilment thus consists in allowing the natural theologian to make his own position clear in its antithesis to Reformed teaching, and to impart an understanding of the Scottish Confession of 1560 to, as Lord Gifford intends for the lectures, ‘the whole population of Scotland’.

Lecture II focuses on Article 1a of the Confession and is concerned with ‘the one God’. Central to Reformed teaching is the claim that knowledge of God is knowledge of the one and only God. Thus, all human ideologies, mythologies, philosophies and religions are not understood as gods. Man cannot gain knowledge of God through his own efforts because God himself reveals himself. Only through an event in faith of Jesus Christ comes the knowledge of the one God.

Lecture III stems from Article 1b, expounding Reformed teaching on the majestic personal God. According to Reformed teaching, the question of who God is cannot be answered by the thought of man but can only be answered on the basis of God’s own revelation. Man has been told by God through the person of Jesus Christ and must render an account of this to back to God, to himself, and to other men. God is incomprehensibly personal and majestic; God remains hidden yet has made himself known as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Lecture IV discusses the glory of God and the glory of man, based on Articles 1c–2b. Our knowledge of God, the world and man, Barth supposes, is not established through abstract conjecture and reflection on concepts, but is revealed through the person of Jesus Christ. That God exists, and does so independently from the world which is distinct from him, is revealed according to Reformed teaching.

Lecture V, from Articles 2c–3, contrasts the way of man with the way of God. Barth construes the way of man as man’s path through history in the attempt to seize the glory of God for himself, resulting in man’s loss of glory. Through God’s revelation of himself in Jesus Christ, man’s unfaithfulness is demonstrated, yet, at the same time, man is presented with a way to the restoration of glory through the grace and power of God.

Through Articles 4–6, Lecture VI explores this notion of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. In the Old Testament, the revelation of God is seen as the history of the church living in the promise of Christ. The New Testament is the history of Jesus Christ himself. The question of the divine content of Scripture stands apart from the historical and critical study of the Bible as a collection of human documents.

Lecture VII has Articles 7–8 as its foundation, with God’s decision and man’s election as its focus. Closely related is the subject of God’s work and man’s salvation, which is examined in the next lecture, based on Articles 9–10. What Barth attempts to show in the former is the way in which Jesus Christ is God’s decision for man, in that God freely decides on mercy for man through his human life. The latter of these two lectures takes up the notion of man’s salvation through God’s humiliation through the crucifixion of Christ, and how it is so that the salvation of man can only be received through faith.

Lectures IX and X, the final two lectures of Part I, cover Articles 11 and 12 respectively. In discussing the kingdom of God in the future and the present life of man, Barth relates the nature of a life lived in the expectation of faith to the salvation brought about in the crucifixion and Christ’s future judgement. The last lecture in this part explores the Reformed teachings on faith, and suggests that to know God is to become a new person. In believing in Christ, one recognises one’s own unfaithfulness and God’s faithfulness, and ceases to believe in one’s own power and believes only in the power of God.

Lectures XI–XX comprise Part II, entitled ‘The Service of God’. From Article 13, Lecture XI sets out the essence of the real Christian life. The good of Christian life consists in a renewal of man through the Holy Spirit, and this renewal must occur continuously, since it must be acknowledged that every man is a sinner and stands in constant need of God’s grace. The next lecture elaborates on the ordinance governing the Christian life in the form of God’s claim upon man and the requirement for total obedience to divine law that can only come about through faith in Jesus Christ. True obedience, so Barth asserts in Lecture XIII, is thankfulness and repentance in the true Christian life.

In Lecture XIV, Barth expounds the mystery of the Church as proclaimed in Articles 16–17 and in 25a. The Church consists in the life of the people who gather through Jesus Christ to be one with him and reconciled to God, and thus may proclaim the glory of God. Through the life of the Church in the work of the Holy Spirit, what is hidden in God becomes manifest. And so there is no Christian life and no reconciliation with God outside the Church. The next lecture sketches an account of the form of the Church according to reformed teaching. The true Church, manifested in the numerous individual churches, is one, having Christ as its founder and sustainer, and is distinct from the many false churches set up by and for the authority of men. Lecture XVI accounts for the government of the Church, given that the only authority can be the Word of God as revealed through Holy Scripture. The Church’s authority is only legitimate insofar as the congregation is bears responsibility toward the Word of God.

Lectures XVII and XVIII, spanning Articles 21–23, presents the Reformed understanding of the church service as divine and human action. The primary content of the church service is the work of the Holy Spirit, whereas the primary form of the service is the human means by which the proclamation of the revelation of God in Christ is made. The secondary content is the action on the part of the congregation to achieve a more loyal and efficacious hearing of the revelation of God in Christ.

Lecture XIX presents the reformed concept of the relation of state to church. No claim by any political power can hold over the claim of God.

Barth’s final lecture, from Article 25b, focuses on the gift of comfort and hope in an unredeemed world of sinful men. The power of the church and the confidence in which it serves God cannot be founded on what men feel and think. In closing, Barth again confronts natural theology, reiterating his claim that the confession begins and ends with prayer and that Reformed theology puts faith in this, demanding prayer as the foundation for all theology. It is this that the natural theologian denies, and holds that there can be knowledge of God, the world and man in the absence of prayer.

Contributor(s)
  • Sam Addison, University of Aberdeen