Thursday, February 11, 2010

Trinitarian Metaphors: Barth vs. Luther.

I'm presently reading Paul Hinlicky's book Paths Not Taken.

When reviewing Barth's descriptions of the Trinity and Luther's, it occurred to me that the two theologians use very different metaphors to describe the Trinitarian life.  Barth's description is "unveiled, unveiler, unveiling."  Luther's is "speaker, word spoken, hearing."

Barth's metaphors have to do with seeing, Luther's with hearing.  This makes sense in light of how they understand divine revelation.  Barth views divine revelation as the unfolding of a single subject (God) in an act of revealing himself in time.  He does this by echoing his eternal decision to be "one who loves in freedom" in the temporal narrative of Jesus.  This temporal narrative is "unveiling" is further echoed in "Jesus, Bible and proclaimed Word" which echoes the Father, Son and Spirit, as "revealed, revealer, revealing."  Barth's view of revelation is essentially analogical.  Analogy has to do with a kind of visible similitude between things and therefore envisions human knowledge (following Aristotle) as a kind of intellectual vision.

Luther's theology works on the basis of hearing.  In other words, God's agency manifests itself through the law which is present and visible through all creation.  Human can observe how the world works and see what God's legal will is.  They can also see this in the horrific act of judgment that God causes to take place in salvation history.  Nevertheless, God promises his grace and enacts under his act of judgment and under act of weakness.  The supreme one is the cross.  We are told that Jesus is God and that the cross is an act of grace.  Nevertheless, all we see is weakness (a weak, beaten and dying Christ) and condemnation (i.e. a symbol of Israel's sin and continuing exile).  Contrary to this, we hear "surely he was the Son of God" and "today you will be with me in paradise."  Consequently, revelation's hiddenness is transcended only by hearing the Word.  Proper knowledge of God is set against analogical and visible knowledge of God, and placed in the realm of hearing. 

 It therefore makes sense that Luther views God primarily in terms of hearing rather than vision or unveiling.


  1. In some of the recorded lectures I've heard, Kenneth Korby made this observation ("audio-oral" was how he described it). He took it, though, in the direction of preaching, the word of Absolution, and the question of whether the visible church - invisible church distinction is really the right one to make. I think he pointed to the 19th century philosophers as the origin of the focus on the visible and the invisible.

  2. When the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took its fruit and ate... Then the eyes of both were opened and they knew that they were naked.

    Pretty much shows what eyes are good for. On the other hand, they ignored what God "really said." Oh, and Jesus was shown the kingdoms of the world, etc. but relied on God's word.

    anyway, just a little comment.

    Rev. George Kirkup

  3. George- Excellent point! I've made the same exegetical argument in my dissertation.

  4. I think the best points are those of which one has already thought, and preferably used. :)

    I know this is presumptuous, but I suspect that if we ever met, we'd find we agreed to a great extent. Which would make us both feel good (see above), but at least benefit me. Oh well.


  5. This discussion reminds me of John 1:18- No one has ever seen God the only begotten God who is at the Father's side, he has made Him known. Your post has set me thinking about this passage.I have always read this as saying we can't see God but can see Him in the only begotten God but now I wonder if the making known is not a seeing but a speaking. The uttered Word utters words (promises) which through trusting we can know God in a way does not involve intellectual sight. God's incprehensibility is preserved. We know God as the one who has promised to save us in Jesus Christ.

  6. Greg- I think you're correct. John has a tendency of using seeing metaphors. Notice though that by this he means a kind of spiritual vision which involves hearing. For example, doubting Thomas does not believe because he sees Jesus, but because Jesus addresses him. When he is addressed, without touching the risen Christ he breaks into the doxological confession: "My Lord and My God!"