Berkouwer and Barth on Divine Revelation

The Question of “Christomonism”
An important question in the assessment of Barth’s theology revolves around his view of the relationship between natural theology and general revelation,
Discussing “Karl Barth’s Offensive Against Natural Theology” (General Revelation (GR), Chapter II, pp. 21-33), Berkouwer notes that “Barth’s conception of revelation … is frequently called ‘Christomonism’ ” (GR,p. 25). Here, we have the central issue in the interpretation of Barth’s Christocentric theology. Should it be described as Christomonism? Is there an unnecessary wresting of doctrines out of their Biblical context in order to fit a particular Christology? In discussing this matter we should proceed with caution. Concerning the suggestion that Barth’s theology should be described as Christomonism, G. W. Bromiley writes, “this falls rather wide of the mark in view of the ultimate Trinitarianism of the Dogmatics” (“Karl Barth” in P. E. Hughes (ed.), Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology). Despite this caution, Bromiley holds that there is a sense in which Barth’s theology can be described as “Christomonism”.
Asking “whether a Christian theologian may do anything but think of ‘Christ only'”, Berkouwer observes that Barth’s “only motive has been to hold fast at all costs to the Christological thread throughout” (GR, p. 25).
Berkouwer maintains that “it does appear that this ‘Christ only’ of Barth is given so special a form that it can rightly be called a Christomonism” (GR, p. 25). A similar conclusion is reached by Colin Brown (Karl Barth and the Christian Message, pp. 12, 149-150).
In seeking to understand Berkouwer’s critique of Barth’s theology, we should note that he does not disagree with Barth’s emphasis on the absolute importance of Christology for Christian theology. Like Barth, he upholds the ideal of a Christ-centred theology. He does, however, disagree with Barth’s particular use of Christology. It is Barth’s particular interpretation of a Christ-centred theology with which Berkouwer takes issue.Natural Theology and General Revelation

Barth proposes three reasons for the persistence of natural theology (Church Dogmatics, Vol. II, 1, pp. 85-126. The three reasons are succinctly stated by G W Bromiley: “(a) It is thought to be possible and practicable … (b) It is thought to be pedagogically useful at least as an introduction to theology … (c) It is thought to have a biblical sanction in that strand of scripture which appeals to man’s confirming witness with creation” (Historical Theology: An Introduction, p. 426).
Finding these reasons inadequate, Barth proceeds to specify man’s pride as the real reason for its persistence. Holding that God can be known only through Christ, he insists that natural theology is “nothing else but the justification of the natural man” (Berkouwer, General Revelation (GR, p. 27). For a short account of Barth’s protest against natural theology in relation to the theology of Emil Brunner, see T H L Parker, Karl Barth, pp. 96-99).
While agreeing with Barth’s opposition to natural theology, Berkouwer criticizes the manner in which he has opposed natural theology. He draws a clear distinction between natural theology and general revelation (GR, p. 15). He asks whether there is an indissoluble unity between general revelation and natural theology.
Following his discussion of Barth’s attack on natural theology (GR, pp. 21-33), Berkouwer discusses the reaction to Barth’s to Barth’s attack on natural theology (GR, pp. 37-57).
Concerning himself chiefly with with the views of Emil Brunner and Paul Althaus, he points out where he agrees and disagrees with each them.
If Berkouwer’s critique of Barth is to be properly understood, it requires to be carefully distinguished from the views of Brunner and Althaus. His critique of Barth is based on a clear distinction between general revelation and natural theology (GR, p. 153, following Calvin), He holds that neither Brunner (GR, pp. 44-46) nor Althaus (GR, pp. 50-51) make this distinction sufficiently clear.
Berkouwer does not only speak of the weakness of the protest against Barth’s position issued by Brunner and Althaus. He also points out that “they have nevertheless emphasized some questions which theology may not and cannot neglect” (GR, p. 52). To dismiss these questions with a protest against both natural theology and general revelation is, in Berkouwer’s view, quite unsatisfactory.
Berkouwer observes that “Barth has centered his attack more and more upon natural theology as the great enemy of the faith, and general revelation was always involved in this attack as well” (GR, p. 21, emphasis original).
This interpretation of Barth has been contested by G W Bromiley: “His rejection of natural theology applies strictly to natural theology, not to natural revelation” (Historical Theology: An Introduction, p. 436). It should, however, be pointed out that Bromiley has also spoken of Barth’s “failure to make a clear distinction between natural revelation and natural theology” “Karl Barth” in P E Hughes (ed.), Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology (CT), p. 55).
In the interpretation of these contrasting statements from Bromiley, we should, perhaps, highlight his use of the word “strictly” in the first of these statements. He explains his position thus: “when it is seen that Barth’s reference is to the natural theology of fallen man, and that he does not deny that there may be partial lights and words and truths even outside special revelation, it is hard to maintain that he is not basically right in his understanding, that he does not give a more correct account of, for example, Romans 1-2 (as well as 1 Corinthians 1) than many who try to see here a foundation of knowledge rather than of guilt, and that his examination of natural theology is not among the most acute and helpful in this whole area” (CT, p. 56).
While accepting the general thrust of Bromiley’s evaluation of Barth’s protest against natural theology, it should be pointed out that it is not a matter of choosing between a theology which fails to make a clear distinction between natural theology and natural revelation and a theology which relates Romans 1-2 to knowledge rather than guilt.
Berkouwer presents another option which exposes the falseness of such a dilemma. He proposes an emphatic affirmation of general revelation and an equally emphatic rejection of natural theology.
This distinction between natural theology and general revelation and the critique of the way in which Barth opposes natural theology is based on a further distinction between revelation and the knowledge of revelation (Berkouwer, GR, p. 57. See also Chapter VII, “Revelation and Knowledge” (pp. 137-172).

The Knowledge of Revelation

Knowledge of revelation is, according to Berkouwer, arrived at not through natural theology but through experience of the salvation of God “that opens doors and windows towards God’s handiwork” (General Revelation (GR), p. 131).

With this emphasis on the salvation of |God as the way of understanding general revelation, Berkouwer opposes natural theology no less emphatically than Barth. He contends that man is unable to escape the revelation of God in creation (GR, pp. 147-148), which is a real revelation and is not read into the created world by the believer (GR, p. 132).

The objective reality of God’s revelation in creation renders man guilty (GR, pp. 150-151). It does not provide a way of salvation. The removal of guilt comes through Christ’s salvation.

In Berkouwer’s view, general revelation does not give man “a disposition to believe” (GR, p. 169), Thus, Berkouwer’s “No!” to natural theology is no less pronounced than Barth’s since both hold that “man in all his endeavors stands under the condemnation of the radical No of the true and living God, the No of his holy judgment in the presence of which man cannot live, but only die” (The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of G C Berkouwer, p. 27. For a discussion of Barth’s response to this book, see my post, “The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth” – follow link to Barth on the list of topics).

In his exclusion of natural theology, Berkouwer emphasizes “the radicality of sin” (Man: The Image of God, p. 142), stressing that “being a sinner is not a peripheral and relative thing” (Man … , p. 143) and that “There is no way for man to escape this condition of being lost … The lost can only be sought and found” (Man … , p. 143, emphasis original).

He insists that man has no power to begin by himself any change in spiritual things (Man … , pp. 131-132, emphasis original). The radicality of man’s sin is broken down “only when the Holy Spirit convinces the individual of sin and righteousness and judgment” (Man … , p. 146). Man’s sin and guilt are overcome only through the saving grace of God in Christ.

Since both Berkouwer and Barth affirm God’s No to man in his sin, it is clear that their disagreement regarding general revelation is not essentially anthropological. Holding that man cannot save himself and that Christ alone is man’s Saviour, both reject natural theology. Both are undoubtedly Christocentric in their theology. The difference arises from Barth’s particular development of Christocentric theology in relation to the doctrine of God and His revelation.


Barth holds that “revelation itself” is to be identified with “Jesus Christ Himself” (Church Dogmatics (CD), Vol. I, 2, p. 72). The Scriptures are regarded as “the witness to revelation” (CD, Vol. I. 2, pp.80, 116).

When we understand this distinction between Christ and the Scriptures, we are able to see why Barth rejects both natural theology and general revelation.

(a) Stressing the close connection between Scripture and revelation, Barth opposes natural theology. God is known in Jesus Christ to whom Scripture points and not through a natural theology which operates independently of Christ and the Scriptures. Concerning the Biblical writings, he writes, “their conception of what is possible with God is guided absolutely by their conception of what God has really willed and done, and not vice versa” (CD, Vol. I, 2, p.7, emphasis original). Following this method, Barth rejects the way of philosophical speculation about religion (CD, Vol. I, 2, p. 7). Insisting that “(t)he incarnation of which Holy Scripture speaks can be understood only from the standpoint of Holy Scripture” (CD, Vol. I, 2, p. 14), he refuses to adopt a formal conception of God which excludes Christ, or which, at best, regards Him as an appendix to a view of God which is basically deistic (CD, Vol. I, 2, p. 1).

(b) Barth’s rejection of the idea of general revelation is closely related to his clear distinction between Christ and the Scriptures.

He holds that Scripture attests the revelation of God which is the incarnation of the eternal Word, Jesus Christ – “we distinguish the Bible as such from revelation. A witness is not absolutely identical with that to which it witnesses … but it sets it before us” (CD, Vol. I, 2, p. 463). He distinguishes between revelation – “Jesus Christ Himself” (CD, Vol. I, 2, p. 72) – and the witness to revelation – “The Old Testament is the witness to the genuine expectation of revelation” (CD, Vol. I, 2, p. 70, emphasis mine), “The New Testament is really the witness to recollection of revelation” (CD, Vol. I, 2, emphasis mine).

Barth holds that Christian dogmatics must be built on a Christological foundation: “The incarnation of the eternal Word, Jesus Christ, is God’s revelation” (CD, Vol. I, 2, p. 1), “A church dogmatics must … be christologically determined. If dogmatics cannot regard itself … as fundamentally Christology, it has assuredly succumbed to some alien sway” (CD, Vol. I, 2, p. 123), “the statement, ‘Jesus Christ is very God and very Man,’ is the assumption upon which all further reflection must proceed” (CD, Vol. I, 2, p. 131).

He argues that the idea of general revelation is excluded by the idea that “revelation itself” is to be identified with “Jesus Christ Himself” (CD, Vol. I, 2, p. 72): “If God’s revelation is the way from veiling of the eternal Word to His unveiling … how can it possibly be anything else than God’s becoming man, His becoming flesh? … To be revelation it had to be an incarnation” (CD, Vol. I, 2, p. 43).

The difference between Berkouwer and Barth may be seen as a matter of definition – how ‘revelation’ is defined. It is, however, misleading to say that “ … the theologians who speak of a variety of revelations do not take the concept in the strict sense that Barth does” (W Pannenberg, Revelation as Hhistory, p. 6. Pannenberg co-wrote this book with others. This statement appears in his own Introduction). The plural – revelations – is misleading since Berkouwer does not think of general revelation as independent of God’s revelation in Christ. General revelation is seen as an integral part of the one, single and undivided revelation which finds its culmination in redemption through Christ. The suggestion that Berkouwer’s use of the concept of revelation is looser than that of the more precise Barth is also misleading. Berkouwer’s defence of general revelation doe not rest on loose theological terminology.

On the contrary, his position has certain advantages over Barth’s. His distinctions between (i) natural theology and general revelation (General Revelation (GR), p. 153) and (ii) revelation and the knowledge of revelation (GR, p. 57) offer a valuable contribution to areas where the relation between Barth’s Christocentric view of revelation and his view that God “has made himself known in the works of creation as God” (CD, Vol. I, 2, p. 306) demonstrates a distinct tension.

In his discussion of Barth’s view of the relation between revelation and creation, Berkouwer accepts his emphasis that “The biblical message concerning creation does not present us with cosmological or ontological truths of which everyone who is not wholly blind can take note (through the natural light of reason)” (The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth (TG)), pp. 53-54). Berkouwer accepts Barth’s view that “It is not possible first to come to a knowledge of creation in itself, and then advance to a knowledge of redemption in Christ” (TG, p. 54). Thus, Berkouwer accepts Barth’s rejection of natural theology. He does, however, emphasize that the rejection of natural theology and the insistence that “knowledge of creation is possible only in terms of the revelation in Christ” (TG, p. 54, emphasis original) need not entail the rejection of the expression ‘creational revelation’. It does mean, however, that creational revelation should be understood in terms of the unity of divine revelation which finds its central focus in Christ.

Despite his considerable agreement with Barth, Berkouwer still raises a significant point regarding what is to be called ‘revelation’. While this may, to some extent, be a matter of semantics, there is a question worth raising. Berkouwer opposes the idea that ‘revelation’ has reference only to the incarnation as a “dogmatic reflection” (GR, p. 101). He insists that “Scripture does not state such a thing at all” (GR, p. 101), emphasizing that “It must be noted how entirely different this dogmatic reflection speaks of God’s revelation than does Scripture” (GR, p. 103).

While certain Biblical passages (John 1:3ff; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2ff) suggest that the revelation of God in nature may be regarded as a revelation of the Son, it is questionable whether Barth’s conception of revelation provides the most apt description of the unity of God’s gracious work of creation and redemption.

Barth’s conception of revelation may be related to the idea of revelation, summed up in the words, “Only God can reveal God”. The expression, “Only God can reveal God” may be interpreted to mean that only the incarnation can be called revelation. This interpretation is, however, based on a restrictive notion of the revealing activity of God. The created world may not be identified with God. God can, however, be regarded as actively revealing Himself through creation.

When Barth writes, “To be revelation it had to be incarnation” (CD, Vol. I, 2, p. 43), he seeks to emphasize the completeness of incarnational revelation: “Incarnation was needed in order that God might become manifest to us” (CD, Vol. I, 2, p. 43).

The emphasis on the completeness of incarnational revelation need not, however, require the restriction of the term ‘revelation’ to the incarnation. When creational revelation is affirmed, it is acknowledged that such revelation lacks the completeness of incarnational revelation. Creational revelation is only properly understood in the light of the incarnation. This need not mean that the idea of creational revelation demands the positing of a second ‘revelation’ over against the incarnation and that the term ‘revelation’ must, therefore, be restricted to the incarnation.

Barth’s concern may be to emphasize the unity of divine revelation. It is questionable, however, whether he has given adequate expression to this unity. The concept of creational revelation, properly understood in the light of the unity of divine revelation, proclaims the sovereignty of God in His revelation, while emphasizing the historical character of divine revelation with greater clarity than Barth’s conception of revelation which reflects a “revised supralapsarianism” which “blocks the way to ascribing decisive significance to history” (TG, p. 256, emphasis original. For fuller discussion, see pp. 255 ff. In my next few posts, I will be discussing matters relating to Barth’s doctrine of election and the question of universalism).

Barth’s conception of revelation is not fully understood without reference to his rejection of natural theology.

It should, however, be observed that the affirmation of creational revelation contains no suggestion that there is, in fallen man, “an affinity and aptitude for God’s revelation” (CD, Vol. I, 2, p. 37) or that there is, in created reality, “a special capacity for revealing God” (CD, Vol. I, 2, p. 43).

Barth’s offensive against natural theology is motivated by a desire to reject the idea that man contributes to God’s salvation. It does not, however, follow that the confession of God’s creational revelation gives man any encouragement to take pride in the contribution he supposes himself to have made to God’s salvation.

A proper understanding of creational revelation in relation to divine redemption leads to a clear emphasis on the sovereignty of God in His redemption.

Berkouwer has stated that, in any discussion of Barth’s theology, “The pivotal question is, whether we have the right to conclude from the exclusive salvation in Christ to the exclusive revelation in Christ” (GR, p. 104).

Barth protests against the idea of God as “power in itself” (Dogmatics in Outline(DO), p. 46. For more on this, see pp. 46-49). He emphasizes God’s freedom (DO, p. 47) by which He has revealed His power in His free, gracious condescension in Christ (DO, p.101ff). He insists that creation is grace (DO, pp. 54, 57).

This rejection of the God of natural theology is to be welcomed. The question remains, however, whether the God of natural theology has not, despite Barth’s commitment to the authority of Scripture, been replaced by the God of Barth’s own peculiar form of Christomonism.

This is not to suggest that we can make a direct and unambiguous identification of Barth’s theology with Christomonism. Nevertheless, the connection between the two should be explored, leaving the reader to decide for himself to what extent the term ‘Christomonism’ can be applied to Barth’s theology.

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