What Impact Does Personal Holiness Have Upon Our Knowledge of God?

In light of the Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum posts I have really been contemplating what might have motivated my strong reaction to finding out about, in detail, the nature of their relationship. But it now goes beyond just that situation, more generally I have been thinking about how personal holiness impacts knowledge of God; does it? The following are some sample passages that indeed have been present in my life, and might help explain why I did have the response I had (to Barth/CvK); but more importantly these passages get into how sanctification, or being ‘set apart’ unto God, in participation with his holiness, might serve as the basis through which we, as God’s children, might experience the same type of koinonial knowledge of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that they do in their interpenetrative relationship (ours of course will always be a knowledge of God contingent upon the grace of God grounded in the mediatorial humanity of Jesus Christ).

14 Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. Hebrews 12:14

15 But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 16 for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” I Peter 1:15-16

22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness! Matthew 6:22-23

If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. I Corinthians 1:13

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. I John 1:5-10

John Calvin helps us to contemplate further upon what it means to have knowledge of a Holy God; and what that holiness does to humanity as we attempt to stand before Him in all our frailty and wantonness:

. . . As long as we do not look beyond the earth, being quite content with our own righteousness, wisdom, and virtue, we flatter ourselves most sweetly, and fancy ourselves all but demigods. Suppose we but once begin to raise our thoughts to God, and to ponder his nature, and how completely perfect are his righteousness, wisdom, and power—the straightedge to which we must be shaped. Then, what masquerading earlier as righteousness was pleasing in us will soon grow filthy in its consummate wickedness. What wonderfully impressed us under the name of wisdom will stink in its very foolishness. What wore the face of power will prove itself the most miserable weakness. That is, what in us seems perfection itself corresponds ill to the purity of God.[1]

I think all orthodox Christians will confess the holiness of God, and our station before such holiness as weak and frail. And Calvin helps drive this reality home for us; he wants to get us past any type of projection-God; a god we extrapolate from ourselves bedded in and from a purely horizontal plane.

But my question still remains: what does personal participatory fellowshipping holiness have to do with our knowledge of God; does it? In the Barth scenario I concluded, with many, it seems, that there is an ex opera operato nature to human witness to God. In other words, the objective reality of the Gospel itself is not contingent upon anything else but its own reality; i.e. it can be borne witness to by imperfect vessels (which is why God must accommodate himself to us, for example). But my question pushes deeper than this, really. If God is holy, and we are not, then how can we have any hope for knowledge of God; and more significantly, does our true (even if analogical) knowledge of God depend, at some level, upon our own personal holiness—meaning, as the Hebrews passage intimates “without holiness no one will see the Lord.” What my question is asking is: if we are living disobedient lives to God, if we secretly or openly are living in sin before God without repentance, is it possible to peer into the holy of holies and see the face of God in Christ? Or is our humanity so overshadowed by God’s objective humanity in Jesus Christ that our personal holiness has nothing to do with it?

Some, in response to the Barth scenario, have lifted up (and rather snidely in some cases): King David, Balaam’s Ass, Jonah, King Solomon et al. But this completely misses the point of the question I have in regard to personal holiness. Yes, these examples, in varying degrees (given the fact that none of their stories are the same, exactly) illustrate how God’s message is not ultimately contingent upon the messenger; or their “personal holiness.” But what I’m thinking about, instead, is what impact someone’s attitude towards God has upon their ability to genuinely know God. The Calvin quote gets into this: there seems to be a necessity for humility and repentance, in an ongoing mode, before God in order for us to have a growing and flourishing knowledge of God. In other words, knowledge of God isn’t simply an objective thing, it is a subjective reality. This is where some would find fault in Barth’s theological-anthropology; i.e. that he so objectivizes humanity in the humanity of Christ that there is no space left to think about issues like personal holiness. That all of reality is so taken up within and oriented by the objective/subjective humanity of Jesus Christ that all that is required for knowledge of God is to, crudely put, annex ourselves to Jesus’s life as a kind of cipher. The critique of Barth is that he so metaphysizes humanity, that physical humanity, even if understood from within the elect humanity of Christ, has no real ground or room for our corresponding humanity to his; that personal holiness has no bearing on whether we can have a genuine knowledge of God.

Even without appealing to the medieval tripartite faculty psychology (i.e. heart/affection, mind, will), in regard to a theological anthropology, I believe this is where a concept of biblical affections has something to say. As II Corinthians 3 notes: “You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” The Apostle Paul believed that the orientation of our hearts has much to do with our response to God; with our ability to actually see God, such that the veils over our mind’s eye is removed through the new heart of God in Christ that we are given in the recreation/resurrection. If we live in contradiction to this by living in constant unrepentant disobedience, it would seem that we are attempting to know God through our old hearts of stone rather than the new heart of soft flesh towards God.

These are the questions and issues I have floating throw my mind and heart; and this is why my response to the Barth and von Kirschbaum relationship was what it was. I had these convictions, and have been developing them for a long time, much before I read the Christiane Tietz essay on Barth. But I don’t think these types of questions are moralistic or legalistic; they are questions that naturally arise from the text of Scripture as it bears witness to the Holy Living God revealed in Jesus Christ. I don’t think we get to decide how the nature of that relationship works, nor what is required; He does. I realize that indeed does sound moralistic, but if it is then; well I’ll let you decide.


[1] John Calvin, Institutes 1.II.2, ed. McNeil, 38-9.


4 thoughts on “What Impact Does Personal Holiness Have Upon Our Knowledge of God?

  1. Pingback: What Impact Does Personal Holiness Have Upon Our Knowledge of God? — The Evangelical Calvinist | Talmidimblogging

  2. Bobby Grow Post author

    Hi Garry,

    There are other folks who have done that; I have lots of posts on Barth’s theology that if you glean through them the basics of his theology ought to be accessible enough (well maybe 😉 ). I think you should check out David Guretzki’s book: An Explorer’s Guide to Karl Barth. This book has just recently been published, and Guretzki is more qualified than myself to do this type of work for you (I haven’t read the book yet, myself, but I know David, and I know it will suit you just fine).


  3. Bobby Grow Post author


    I’d also recommend, as a good reader and an exposure to the whole of Barth’s Church Dogmatics Michael Allen’s: Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics: An Introduction and Reader. I have read this, and Allen’s commentary along the way is also insightful.


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