Berkouwer and Barth: The Character of Certainty

Certainty is concerned with knowing and is, therefore, closely related to truth. One can only know when the truth has been made known to one.
For Barth, God’s “Yes” is the all-important decision (Berkouwer, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth (TG), pp. 30. 33). God’s gracious affirmation of sinful man is precisely the content of the doctrine of election. This understanding of election leads him to adopt the highly speculative concept of the ontological impossibility of unbelief (Berkouwer, TG, p. 266, citing Kirchliche Dogmatik (KD), Vol. IV, 1, p. 835).
Thus, he teaches that the unbeliever is one who does not yet know that he has been redeemed by Christ. The believer knows he has been redeemed and the unbeliever does not (Berkouwer, TG, pp. 264-265. See also C Brown, Karl Barth and the Christian Message (KB), p. 137, n. 8).
This antithesis between believers and unbelievers as those who know and those who do not yet know fails to do justice to the Biblical emphasis on the absolute necessity of faith if men are to pass from death to life (In TG, p. 257, commenting on Ephesians 2, Berkouwer makes some helpful observations concerning the importance of the change which takes place in man’s relationship to God at the point of his conversion).
Barth’s view of certainty – despite his emphasis on the work of the Spirit – tends to confuse knowledge and faith. A lack of knowledge is different from a lack of faith. The unbeliever’s problem is not that he does not know that his eternal destiny has already been established according to the “Yes” of God’s grace. Rather, it is that he has not believed in Christ, through whom eternal salvation is received by faith.
This distinction between knowledge and faith does not mean that knowledge and faith are unrelated. Certainty must be related to the facts made known in the Gospel, the making-known of the salvation of God (Berkouwer, TG, p. 276). This making-known is not, however, the proclamation of a decision which has already been taken by God for every man. Rather, it is the making-known of God’s salvation which is to be received by faith. Thus making-known is “full of exhortation to faith” (Berkouwer, TG, p. 276, emphasis original). The idea that some know while others do not know about an a priori and identical decision taken with respect to both tends to reduce the proclamation of the Gospel to “a giving of ‘information’ about a given state of affairs” (Berkouwer, TG, p. 275, emphasis original. Taking note of Barth’s conception of the ‘open situation’ of preaching (TG, pp. 275-276), Berkouwer contends that this conception is an inadequate attempt to lessen the tensions inherent within Barth’s theology (TG, p. 296).
Barth acknowledges that the certainty into which the Gospel invites men to come is the assurance of faith and that the knowledge which the believer possesses is the experiential knowledge of the God of our salvation.
The problem arises when these emphases are placed within the ontic structure of his theology. The noetic aspect – man’s knowledge of God is grounded in the ontic aspect – God’s determination of man’s nature as “an essence unchanged and unchangeable by sin” (Barth, KD, Vol. III, 2, pp. 43-50, 54-55, cited in Berkouwer, Man: The Image of God, p. 91, reference given in n. 54) – is understood in such a way that the Biblical call for conversion appears to be reduced to a call to man to recognize what he already is.
This critique of the ontic structure of Barth’s view of certainty should not, because of its emphasis on human responsibility, be construed as suggesting that faith itself provides the basis for Christian assurance. The believer’s assurance finds its true foundation in Christ alone.
Barth correctly observes this when he writes, “On principle, we literally cannot assign any other definition of content to the new existence of men convinced by God Himself than that they know, and that they cannot and do not want to know, anything else except that they are in Christ, by Christ” (CD, Vol. I, 2, p. 240).
The point at issue is not here. It is agreed that the believer’s experience of assurance, produced by God Himself, is precisely the knowledge that he is in Christ. The point at issue arises when Barth objectifies and universalizes the term “in Christ” in his explanation of the above passage: “’In Christ’ means that in Him we are reconciled to God, in Him we are elect from eternity, in Him we are called, in Him we are justified and sanctified, in Him our sin is carried to the grave, in His resurrection our death is overcome, with Him our life is hid in God” (CD, Vol. I, 2, p. 240).
Barth’s emphasis on “in Him” is entirely correct. His position becomes more complicated when he continues, “in Him everything that has to be done for us, to us, and by us, has already been done” (CD, Vol. I, 2, p. 240). The complication increases as Barth progresses from “for us” to “in us” and then on to “by us”. His Christ-centredness is admirable yet one wonders whether Barth’s particular interpretation of the centrality of Christ has not led to a devaluing of historical experience and human responsibility. The complexity of Barth’s view is increased when he identifies “us” as the whole of mankind (CD, Vol. I, 2, p. 238).
In his understanding of the “subjective aspect” of Christian assurance, Barth rightly places the emphasis on “men convinced by God” (CD, Vol. I, 2, p. 240). This noetic aspect of being convinced by God is rightly described as the subjective aspect since Christian assurance is objectively grounded in Christ rather than man’s experience, understood apart from Christ. The ontic structure of Barth’s theology is such that it might be inferred that certainty can be deduced from what “has already been done” for us, to us and by us (CD, Vol. I, 2, p. 240. Despite Barth’s intention to point to Christ and to honour the Spirit, these emphases could lead to “a false and dangerous optimism” (C Brown, KB, p. 137) which fails to place adequate emphasis on what must be done for us – forgiveness, to us – regeneration, and by us – faith.
When we speak of personal salvation, we speak of both God’s action in Christ and our faith. The two belong together, They are not to be set over against each other. Our salvation has its foundation in Christ alone without diminishing the absolute necessity of faith for the reception of salvation.
The character of certainty must be understood in connection with this salvation. It is a salvation which comes from God. This is the foundation of our assurance. It is a salvation which is received by faith. This is the way in which we come to enjoy this assurance.

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