The Emerging Church, Karl Barth, and the Doctrine of Revelation 4

A 4 week series based on a paper called “DIGGING UP THE PAST: KARL BARTH AS FOE TO THE EMERGING CHURCH ON THE DOCTRINE OF REVELATION.” Non-identified citations relate to Rollin’s It’s Really All About God CD equals Barth’s Church Dogmatics.

Series Posts
2—“God Speaks”
3—“God’s Revelation is Jesus Christ”


Thanks to these emerging leaders, there is now growing confusion within the Church over both the extent to which we may know God and the manner in which He has revealed Himself. It is clear that Rollins understands God as hyper-transcendent and Wholly Other, believing He is far more hidden and concealed than Christianity acknowledges. For Rollins we can neither truly name God nor actually describe Him, because He is not really, genuinely revealed. Practically, this cashes out as what Rollins calls an “a/theistic Christianity.”

An a/theistic Christian can be said to operate with a discourse that makes claims about God while simultaneously acknowledging that these claims are provisional, uncertain, and insufficient; our questioning of God isn’t really questioning of God Himself but only a means of questioning our understanding of God. (98) By implication this would mean the revelation we have of God is not complete or real enough to understand, question, and know Him. This is why Rollins ultimately insists that speaking of God is really only speaking about our understanding of God, not God himself. (32)

Selmanovic, while acknowledging a real revelation of God that can be experienced by humans, believes that revelation is neither exclusively tied to Jesus Christ nor contained within Christianity. For Him, it’s really all about “God.” God is a vapid, generalized World-Spirit (This is the same language Fredrick Schleiermacher uses in his book, On Religion.) that is encased in all religions, rather than exclusively revealed through Jesus Christ, on the one hand, and the Church, on the other. He is unsatisfied with the assertion that Christianity testifies to God’s Story of Rescue and that rescue is exclusively found in Jesus Christ. In fact, the grace of God to which the Holy Scriptures and Church has testified to for generations isn’t even unique to the Christ Event or Christianity. Instead, it is independent from both and common in the world’s histories, stories, and religions. God is present everywhere and in every person and the Christian faith cannot insist on an exclusive revelation in Jesus Christ or the Church. In the end, it is the kingdom of God that reveals God to the world, a thing that is trans-religious and separate from even Jesus Christ Himself. It is a revelation in-and-of-itself which is the gospel, a thing uncontrolled by Christianity and Jesus.

Upon surveying the writings of both Rollins and Selmanovic, one wonders why they are self-described Christians and committed to Christianity at all. If God doesn’t really speak, why posture one’s self as a listener? If God is not wholly and exclusively revealed in Jesus Christ, why commit one’s self to Him and His Story? In response to both religious thinkers, Barth asserts God does speak and He is revealed in Jesus Christ. For Barth, there is real, genuine knowledge of God because God has chosen to reveal Himself to humanity. This divine self-disclosure is in such away that humans can really, genuinely know Him. Barth declares that there is a readiness of God to be known, a knowledge that is “clear and certain.” While the knowledge that humans have is not through their own ingenuity and gumption, but through grace, God is so made up that He can be known by us.

Though apprehending revelation does not happen through our own power and command, it does happen and has happened. Barth makes clear that ultimately Jesus Christ is the point at which the world truly knows God. While others may suggest God is best defined by Jesus Christ, Barth insists He is only defined by Jesus. God is utterly and wholly revealed in Jesus Christ; to know Jesus is to know God. In fact, the only way to know God in intimate relationship is through the grace found in and through Jesus Christ. Barth maintains that God’s grace is only and intimately connected to Christ, rather than other sources and other religious faiths. Finally, Barth warns of the danger of selecting competing centers of revelation apart from Jesus Christ, like the kingdom of God.

In His Church Dogmatics volume on The Doctrine of God, Barth makes clear, “Theology guides the language of the Church, so far as it concretely reminds her that in all circumstances it is fallible human work, which in the matter of relevance or irrelevance lies in the balance, and must obedience to grace, if it is to be well done.” (CD I,1:2) Here Barth acknowledges the difficult task of “theologizing,” of speaking of God and His acts. While that speech is fallible and vacillates between relevance or irrelevance, requiring a healthy dose of grace along the way, it needs to happen nonetheless. Every generation needs to cherish, protect, and contend for the Rule of Faith given by our Lord once to the Church. If not, there is a real danger of precipitating into darkness and confusion. It is clear from the writings of these two theologians and thinkers that a shift is occurring within the Church regarding an important piece of that Rule, revelation.

Though historic Christian orthodoxy has consistently held to the real, genuine knowability of God and that knowledge being fully and exclusively revealed (outside of creation) in Jesus Christ, there are some who insist otherwise. There is a growing number who shove God so far into the clouds that nothing can be concretely said of Him. Others still, and perhaps more dangerously so, find God outside Jesus Christ, insisting God is in every person, every community, every religion. God and His grace is no longer exclusively revealed in Jesus Christ, but possessed by other faiths, too. It is worth ending with Barth’s warning as a reminder for these and other theologians: “Any deviation, any attempt to evade Jesus Christ in favour of another supposed revelation of God, or any denial of the fulness of God’s presence in Him, will precipitate us into darkness and confusion.” (CD II,1:319) May this not be the end of these or others who claim Jesus Christ as Lord.

Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics, vol I, 1: The Doctrine of the Word of God. Translated by G.T. Thomson. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1955.

________. Church Dogmatics, vol II, 1: The Doctrine of God. Edited by G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance. Translated by T.H.L Parker, W.B. Johnson, Harold Knight, and J.L.M. Haire. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957.

Erdman, Chris. “Digging Up the Past: Karl Barth (the Reformed Giant) as Friend to the Emerging Church,” Pages 236-243 in An Emergent Manifesto of Hope. Edited by Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007.

Jones, Tony. “Introduction: Friendship, Faith, and Going Somewhere Together.” Pages 11-15 in An Emergent Manifesto of Hope. Edited by Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007.

Rollins, Pete. How (Not) To Speak of God. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2006.

Selmanovic, Samir. “The Sweet Problem of Inclusivism.” Pages 11-15 in An Emergent Manifesto of Hope. Edited by Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007.

________. It’s Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009.

  • Corey

    Thanks so much for posting these, Jeremy. It is clear you have invested much time and effort into this subject. For that I am grateful!

    A couple questions:

    1. I actually came to a very different conclusion in reading Rollins' book. It seemed to me that he was presenting the paradox that Christ is MORE knowable when we are aware of how concealed he actually is. Practically speaking, religious types have consistently used what they "know" as a means of excluding dialogue.
    QUESTION: Wasn't Rollins actually arguing for a more knowable God – a God less limited by our ecclesial definitions?

    2. Rollins claims that God is knowable in his unknowability. Such (un)knowing should humble us to accept others experiences. Barth says God is knowable by personal revelation. Yet, according to Barth, only I can know that the revelation of Jesus to me is actually God. I think Barth used some term like a "self-authenticating" experience.
    QUESTION: aren't they saying the same thing when their perspectives are applied to two people having different encounters with God?

  • brock

    "Upon surveying the writings of both Rollins and Selmanovic, one wonders why they are self-described Christians and committed to Christianity at all."

    I think this is an extremely harsh conclusion to arrive at, given you have only compared the two with Barth (as if Barth now fully represents all Christian theologians!). Selmanovic, for his part, sounds basically like a Hegelian (to whom Schleiermacher owes a huge debt), so I'm not going to go there except to say that there have been many Christian theologians who have followed the Hegelian path (and hold to a kind of panENtheistic position). Rollins, according to your review of his position, offers nothing but an apophatic theology, and it should be well-noted that he stands with good company along the via negativa: including Augustine (esp. his early essays, like "The Teacher," but it also comes through in Confessions), Pseudo-Dionysius, Meister Eckhart (who famously prayed that "God would rid me of God"), the Medieval Mystics, and even Aquinas. So, if you are going to condemn Rollins for his negative theology, you might as well get ride of most of the Christian tradition.

    On another note, given the title of his book, I imagine that Rollins' book (I must admit, I have not read it), is informed by Derrida's deconstructive critique of apophatic theology, namely his seminal essay, "How to Avoid Speaking: Denials." John Caputo's, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida also has a fine piece on apophatic theology. Personally, I think his point about our conceptions of God being idolatrous is spot on and are one of the key ways Jewish Philosophy (Elie Wiesel, Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas) has informed my Christian faith (and which was Eckhart's basic point).