The human person as an epistemic agent: the theological contours of creaturely cognition in Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics
McFarlane, Andrew G. G.
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In the main, scholars have assumed that Karl Barth exhibited little theological interest in human knowing as a distinct topic in the Church Dogmatics, and that his pronouncements on it are mere footnotes in his exposition of the doctrine of revelation. However, my thesis is that in that work Barth crafts a vibrant and highly nuanced theological account of cognition as part of his actualistic conception of the human creature and its telos as God’s covenant partner. This study describes the contours of Barth’s account of the creature as an epistemic agent. I discuss how the basic shape of knowing in Barth’s theology is conditioned by the function it is ordained to serve as the creaturely presupposition of the knowledge and service of God. Evidence also suggests that Barth endorses the broad outlines of Kant’s understanding of the architecture of cognition on theological grounds, and so affirms it to be a “spontaneous” act – thus situating the creature as an epistemic agent. However, so construed, human knowing integrates well with Barth’s wider conception of human subjectivity and freedom insofar as ‘epistemic spontaneity’ – the idea that the creature actively determines the object of cognition – is a modulation of the type of freedom the creature is created for. Nevertheless, the question arises as to whether Barth carries his theological commitment to the creature as a spontaneous knower into the environments in which the act of cognition is said to be operational, namely, in the event of the knowledge of God and the knowing of everyday objects. The significance of this thesis to Barth studies is that it establishes how, far from being a peripheral issue, cognition functions as a distinctive and highly significant element of Barth’s conception of human creaturehood. It therefore contributes to efforts made to rescue that conception from the mistaken view that Barth allows divine sovereignty to suppress creaturely reality. Moreover, this thesis makes additional contributions to discussions about the creaturely ground of moral agency, Barth’s relationship to Kant, and the role human cognition receives in the event of the knowledge of God.