Barth Before Barth
One of the things I love about Karl Barth is his temporal presence. He looms over the day like a giant. In the shadow of Kantian Philosophy Barth affirmed a God who is distant from us an unknowable. In a stroke of evangelical genius, Barth reintroduced God-for-us historically in the person of Jesus Christ. He became the barrier breaking God.
There are fascinating theological, hermeneutical, and epistemological benefits to Barth's theology. A Reformed man through and through, he is more influenced by John Calvin than conservative Presbyterians would like to admit. As a conservative Barthian, I have a tendency to speak in Barth-language without thinking. Something like this happened last weekend.
We are in the middle of hunting for a house. Discussions of God's sovereignty have been on the docket regularly. In speaking to the knowability of God, I am sometimes more Barthian than I know. I was stopped in my pontificating tracks when one individual said "You speak of God as if He was an distant object and not a person."
I looked up from the baby I was changing and replied "Man cannot speak of God. The Scriptures merely give us a manner of speaking of God." As I stood up to throw the diaper outside I stopped add, "except in Christ. The Scriptures and God can be spoken of in Christ." The response I got was a completed conversation and a rather obvious glazed expression.
But there was a Barth before Barth. His name was John Calvin. I was enjoying his commentary on 2 Corinthians 5 when I came across this gem,
"Paul has made use of this expression with this view — that we may learn to be satisfied with Christ alone, because in him we find also God the Father, as he truly communicates himself to us by him. Hence the expression is equivalent to this — 'Whereas God had withdrawn to a distance from us, he has drawn near to us in Christ, and thus Christ has become to us the true Emmanuel, and his coming is God’s drawing near to men.'" (Emphasis added)
I was basically smiling like an idiot as I read these lines. As an elder, I have often addressed "the God of the OT is angry and mean. The God of the NT is love and forgiveness." The reduction is bad of course. But there is more than a hint of truth to it. And that truth is wrapped up in this concept of the hidden God. It is even present in Calvin's own words,
"For when we contemplate God without a Mediator, we cannot conceive of Him otherwise than as angry with us: a Mediator interposed between us, makes us feel, that He is pacified towards us. As, however, this also is necessary to be known by us — that Christ came forth to us from the fountain of God’s free mercy, the Scripture explicitly teaches both — that the anger of the Father has been appeased by the sacrifice of the Son, and that the Son has been offered up for the expiation of the sins of men on this ground — because God, exercising compassion towards them, receives them, on the ground of such a pledge, into favor.
The whole may be summed up thus: 'Where sin is, there the anger of God is, and therefore God is not propitious to us without, or before, his blotting out our sins, by not imputing them.'"
For Calvin, God truly is only ever but angry with us apart from Jesus Christ. He is ever distant. Where Calvin and Barth differ is on who Christ was in reconciling the world. I do not have the time to dig into this except to say the following — Jesus Christ is the God-man who is God-for-us. At the Jordan River and the Cross, Jesus Christ is the movement up from man and the movement down from God. Salvation is only ever in the "revealed-God" — Jesus Christ.