Much of modern evangelism could learn something from the following quote: “The God of the Christian Confession is, in distinction from all gods, not a found or invented God or one at last and at the end discovered by man; he is not a fulfillment, perhaps the last, supreme and best fulfillment, of what man was in course of seeking and finding.” Sometimes it seems we wish to offer a Christianity that is really just the best of what they already have.
Karl Barth, whose Dogmatics in Outline I recently finished reading, if anything had the opposite problem. It is surely impossible for a book of merely 155 pages to do any sort of justice to the thought of this prolific theologian, often argued to be the most significant of the 20th century. Based on a lecture series ordered around the tenets of the Apostle’s creed, the book does not leave room for the development of some of his signature thoughts, such as on the nature of Scripture or on the doctrine of election. His almost existential tone did come through in places and led to some bold and intriguing statements (such as, “He alone understands what sin is, who knows that his sin is forgiven him,” from p119, Harper Torchbooks edition); on the other hand, though renowned for his work on the Trinity, I didn’t notice it in particular, though perhaps this is because what was revolutionary once has become, by his influence, common understanding.
The trend in his thought that kept raising questions for me, however, was that of his view of general revelation. The tension seemed to arise from his desire to keep the Christian God entirely other from all idols, as the above quote (p36) displays. This leads him to dance around the revelatory nature of creation. On the one hand, “God wills to be visible in the world….[The] goodness [of the world] incontestably consists in the fact that it may be the theatre of His glory, and man the witness to this glory” (p58) is like something straight out of Calvin. On the other hand, he also says “What the meaning of God the Creator is and what is involved in the work of creation, is in itself not less hidden from us men than everything else that is contained in the Confession,” and later “the world ...gives us no information about God as the Creator….By becoming man in Jesus Christ, the fact has also become plain and credible that God is the Creator of the world” (p50,52).
Scripture is at the same time both more optimistic and more pessimistic about the state of the unbeliever than Barth is. On the one hand, Paul Himself seemed to take the God of Israel to be in some way continuous with the Greek gods: “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23, ESV). This can be the case because “The heavens declare the glories of God, the skies proclaim the work of His hands” (Ps 19:1). On the other hand, Paul views the unbeliever not only as ignorant but as in rebellion against God as revealed in nature in Romans 1:18ff. This revelation strips man of any claim to neutrality in the matter of religion.
Indeed, it is the inherent authority of natural revelation as binding on men’s consciences that keeps the God of Israel from appearing as one in a series of gods. God has spoken first, and all man’s attempts at religion, far from starting from some blank state of ignorance, are either (or perhaps sometimes both) by grace responding in repentance and worship to the revelation given or in rebellion turning away. All other religions, while some contain various levels of truth, ultimately turn aside from the God revealed in nature (or, in the case of Judaism, the God revealed in their own Scriptures), and therefore cannot amount to some sequence that eventually converges on the God of the Scriptures. This turning aside is exactly why Christianity cannot be naively presented as the end of the unbeliever’s search; indeed, for this to be the case we must posit not mere ignorance, due to the inadequacy of God’s revelation in nature, with Barth, but a real turning away.
The combination of seeking and turning away, the cognitive dissonance in the face of revelation, that we thus understand to be the state of the unbeliever is exactly what gives rise to the tension in evangelism referred to above. This tension must ultimately be kept as such, rather than resolved in favor of one side or the other; and the key to maintaining balance rests in a strong understanding of general revelation.