Karl Barth, Romans 1:18-21. No Genuine Knowledge of God Apart from Radical Grace Conditioned by the Life of God in Christ With Us

As we read Romans 1:18-21 it would appear that there is some possibility for, at least, an inchoate ‘natural’ knowledge of God; that God’s invisible attributes which can be clearly seen should be opaque to the point that ‘whosoever wills’ could have some semblance of the true and the living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; some people, some Christians seem to think that this is the case. But before we get further let’s read this passage both in the Koine (New Testament) Greek, and in the English:

18Ἀποκαλύπτεται γὰρ ὀργὴ θεοῦ ἀπ’οὐρανοῦ ἐπὶ πᾶσαν ἀσέβειαν καὶ ἀδικίαν ἀνθρώπων τῶν τὴν ἀλήθειαν ἐν ἀδικίᾳ κατεχόντων, 19διότι τὸ γνωστὸν τοῦ θεοῦ φανερόν ἐστιν ἐν αὐτοῖς: θεὸς γὰρ αὐτοῖς ἐφανέρωσεν. 20τὰ γὰρ ἀόρατα αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ κτίσεως κόσμουτοῖς ποιήμασιν νοούμενα καθορᾶται, τε ἀΐδιος αὐτοῦ δύναμις καὶ θειότης, εἰς τὸ εἶναι αὐτοὺς ἀναπολογήτους: 21διότι γνόντες τὸν θεὸν οὐχ ὡς θεὸν ἐδόξασαν ηὐχαρίστησαν, ἀλλ’ ἐματαιώθησαν ἐν τοῖς διαλογισμοῖς αὐτῶν καὶἐσκοτίσθη ἀσύνετος αὐτῶν καρδία.

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; 19 Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. 20 For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: 21 Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.

So we have this to contend with, especially those of us who reject the idea of a ‘natural theology’ or ‘natural’ knowledge of God. But what those who argue for natural theology have to contend with is the reality of ‘sin’ and the impact that that has had upon our noetic capacity to apprehend these invisible attributes of God in nature; i.e. ‘his eternal power and Godhead’ (as the KJV translates it). Karl Barth, known famously for his rejection of natural theology must also engage with this passage of Scripture, which of course he does in his infamous der Romerbrief or commentary on Romans (the commentary that originally put him on the map so to speak). In commentary on this passage he writes:


Karl Barth, *The Epistle To The Romans* (London/New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), 48.

These are his closing words with particular focus on vs. 21. His conclusion is that even though, theoretically, God can be known or ‘clearly seen’ in nature, as Romans 1 asserts, that they have chosen the No-God, and as such have cut themselves off in any real sense from genuinely seeing what is right in front of them in nature. It isn’t that God is not actively and persistently present upholding the contingent verities of created reality, it is that humanity, cut off from this real God, do not have capacity in themselves to even apprehend let alone know God as Creator (so to speak). If we are cut-off from objective reality, and the One who sustains it by the word of His power, then all we are left with is a non-realist (versus realist) and idealist mode for conceiving of things, including God. All humanity can do is start from a center within themselves, and project our a conception of what Barth calls ‘No-God’, a negation of the negation; i.e. in other words, even humanity’s projection outward of godness, which is really a projection of themselves, is based upon an inaccurate perception of themselves, since as Barth notes, (in the spirit of Calvin I would say) there cannot even be an accurate knowledge of the self without a real and genuine knowledge of God. This paints a very dark and bleak picture for ‘lost humanity.’


If the Apostle Paul was attempting to paint a picture of the hopelessness of lost humanity in Romans 1–3, then as we read Barth, it becomes quickly evident that Paul has done a great job!

Within the Reformed tradition (from which I think along with Barth and TF Torrance, et al) there is an affirmation of ‘natural theology.’ But when we dig into what is meant by that I do not think that the language itself i.e. “natural theology” is wholly accurate to the intention of many of its Post-Reformed scholastic adherents. Most of these Post-Reformed proponents of ‘natural theology’ could fit in with Barth’s approach rather than what we might think of as a natural theology simpliciter. In other words, these Reformed proponents did not believe that natural theology was antecedent to nor a preamble of the Faith; instead, they like Barth believed that knowledge of God as Redeemer had to precede knowledge of God as Creator, that there isn’t a latent natural capacity within humanity post-lapsum ‘after the fall’ to genuinely know the real God. I think it would be better to avoid the language of natural theology and replace it with the language of theology of nature. Now, were these Post-Reformed orthodox thinkers fully in line with Barth then? No, Barth would be even more radical than many of them and restrict knowledge of God in nature to an absolute relation of faith in God grounded in the vicarious humanity of Christ for us. Barth believes that a genuine knowledge of God must fully be based upon the in-breaking reality of God’s grace, and that there is nothing present in nature whatsoever that allows for knowledge of God. In other words Barth would reject the prominent Post-Reformed orthodox Thomist conception of ‘grace perfecting nature;’ instead Barth would hold that grace recreates a new nature from the ground up in the resurrection of Christ.

Anyway, just some thoughts … I continue to find this intriguing and probably always will.

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