Who is God?
by The Rev'd Dane E. Boston
Who is God? The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth tackles that question near the end of his famous address/essay “The Strange New World within the Bible.” The whole piece is a classic, and well worth reading; I wish I could find a complete electronic copy to link to, but I haven’t yet.
Barth begins his talk by addressing two common ways of approaching the Bible: as history, and as a moral text. Both approaches he shows to be inadequate. The Bible does not work either as mere history or mere morality because it is not primarily concerned with the actions, motivations, and movement of people long ago (history), or with the practical considerations of people living today (morality).
What the Bible reveals, instead, is “the strange new world of God.” God and his actions—his in-breaking into this world—are the subject of its history. God and his righteousness—his sovereign capacity to make holy—are the focus of its morality. The new world of God is the Bible’s purview. Showing forth that strange world is its purpose.
And so, with these important points established, in the third and final portion of “The Strange New World within the Bible” Barth addresses the use of the Bible as a religious text. The transcription that follows comes from that final portion of his talk. I have included a fair bit of the material preceding the “Who is God?” paragraphs, in order that they may be understood in their fullness. Except for the break after the first paragraph, emphases and ellipses are in the original, as printed in the 1957 edition of The Word of God and the Word of Man, translated by Douglas Horton and published by Harper Torchbooks, Harper and Brothers Publishers: New York.
It is not the right human thoughts about God which form the content of the Bible, but the right divine thoughts about men. The Bible tells us not how we should talk with God but what he says to us; not how we find the way to him, but how he has sought and found the way to us; not the right relation in which we must place ourselves to him, but the covenant which he has made with all who are Abraham’s spiritual children and which he has sealed once and for all in Jesus Christ. It is this which is within the Bible. The word of God is within the Bible.
But we are not yet quite at an end. We have found in the Bible a new world, God, God’s sovereignty, God’s glory, God’s incomprehensible love. Not the history of man but the history of God! Not the virtues of men but the virtues of him who hath called us out of darkness into his marvelous light! Not human standpoints but the standpoint of God!
Now, however, might not a last series of questions arise: Who then is God? What is his will? What are his thoughts? What is the mysterious “other,” new, greater world which emerges in the Bible beyond all the ways of men, summoning us to a decision to believe or not to believe? In whom did Abraham believe? For whom did the heroes fight and conquer? Whom did the prophets prophesy? In whose power did Christ die and rise again? Whose name did the Apostles proclaim? The contents of the Bible are “God.” But what is the content of the contents? Something “new” breaks forth! But what is the new?
To these questions there is a series of ready answers, serious and well-founded answers taken from the Bible itself, answers to which we must listen: God is the Lord and Redeemer, the Saviour and Comforter of all the souls that turn to him; and the new world is the kingdom of blessedness which is prepared for the little flock who escape destruction. Is not this in the Bible? . . . Again: God is the fountain of life which begins its quiet murmuring when once we turn away from the externalities of the world and bow before him in silence; and the new world is the incomparable peace of such a life hid with Christ in God. Is not this also in the Bible? . . . Again: God is the Lord of the heaven which awaits us, and in which, when our journey through the sorrows and imperfections of this life is done, we are to possess and enjoy our citizenship; and the new world is just this blessed other life, the “still eternity” into which the faithful shall one day enter. This answer also comes directly from the Bible.
These are true enough answers. But are they truth? Are they the whole truth? Can one read or hear read even as much as two chapters from the Bible and still with good conscience say, God’s word went forth to humanity, his mandate guided history from Abraham to Christ, the Holy Spirit descended in tongues of fire upon the apostles at Pentecost, a Saul became a Paul and traveled over land and sea—all in order that here and there specimens of men like you and me might be “converted,” find inner “peace,” and by a redeeming death go some day to “heaven.” Is that all? Is that all of God and his new wold, of the meaning of the Bible, of the content of the contents? The powerful forces which come to expression in the Bible, the movements of peoples, the battles, and the convulsions which take place before us there, the miracles and the revelations which constantly occur there, the immeasurable promises for the future which are unceasingly repeated to us there—do not all these things stand in a rather strange relation to so small a result—if that is really the only result they have? Is not God—greater than that? Even in these answers, earnest and pious as they may be, have we not measured God with our own measure, conceived God with our own conceptions, wished ourselves a God according to our own wishes? When we begin to read the Bible carefully, must we not grow beyond these answers, too?
Must we not also grow beyond the strange question, Who is God? As if we could dream of asking such a question, having willingly and sincerely allowed ourselves to be led to the gates of the new world, to the threshold of the kingdom of God! There one asks no longer. There one sees. There one hears. There one has. There one knows. There one no longer gives his petty, narrow little answers. The question, Who is God? and our inadequate answers to it come only from our having halted somewhere on the way to the open gates of the new world; from our having refused somewhere to let the Bible speak to us candidly; from our having failed somewhere truly to desire to—believe. At the point of halt the truth again becomes unclear, confused, problematical—narrow, stupid, high-church, non-conformist, monotonous, or meaningless. “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father.” That is it: when we allow ourselves to press on to the highest answer, when we find God in the Bible, when we dare with Paul not to be disobedient to the heavenly vision, then God stands before us as he really is. “Believing, ye shall receive!” God is God.
But who may say, I believe?—“Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.” It is because of our unbelief that we are so perplexed by the question, Who is God?—that we feel so small and ashamed before the fullness of the Godhead which the men and women of the Bible saw and proclaimed. It is because of our unbelief that even now I can only stammer, hint at, and make promises about that which would be opened to us if the Bible could speak to us unhindered, in the full fluency of its revelations.
Who is God? The heavenly Father! But the heavenly Father even upon earth, and upon earth really the heavenly Father. He will not allow life to be split into a “here” and “beyond.” He will not leave to death the task of freeing us from sin and sorrow. He will bless us, not with the power of the church but with the power of life and resurrection. In Christ he caused his word to be made flesh. He has caused eternity to dawn in place of time, or rather upon time—for what sort of eternity were it which should begin “afterwards”! He purposes naught but the establishment of a new world.
Who is God? The Son who has become “the mediator for my soul.” But more than that: He has become the mediator for the whole world, the redeeming Word, who was in the beginning of all things and is earnestly expected by all things. He is the redeemer of my brothers and sisters. He is the redeemer of a humanity gone astray and ruled by evil spirits and powers. He is the redeemer of the groaning creation about us. The whole Bible authoritatively announces that God must be all in all; and the events of the Bible are the beginning, the glorious beginning of a new world.
Who is God? The Spirit in his believers, the spirit “…by which we own / The Son who lived and died and rose; / Which crystal clear from God’s pure throne / Through quiet hearts forever flows.” But God is also that spirit (that is to say, that love and good will) which will and must break forth from quiet hearts into the world outside, that it may be manifest, visible, comprehensible: behold the tabernacle of God is with men! The Holy Spirit makes a new heaven and a new earth and, therefore, new men, new families, new relationships, new politics. It has no respect for old traditions simply because they are traditions, for old solemnities simply because they are solemn, for old powers simply because they are powerful. The Holy Spirit has respect only for the truth, for itself. The Holy Spirit establishes the righteousness of heaven in the midst of the unrighteousness of earth and will not stop nor stay until all that is dead has been brought to life and a new world has come into being.
This is within the Bible. It is within the Bible for us. For it we were baptized. Oh, that we dared in faith to take what grace can offer us!
I need not suggest that we all have need of this. We live in a sick old world which cries from its soul, out of deepest need: Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed! In all men, whoever and wherever and whatever and however they may be, there is a longing for exactly this which is here within the Bible. We all know that.
And now hear: “A certain man made a great supper, and bade many; and sent his servant at suppertime to say them that were bidden, Come, for all things are now ready! . . .”