The Word as the Fulness of Divine and Human Personhood: The Implication of Lacan and Žižek in Barth’s Theology

Karl Barth concludes that the Trinity, or who God is in his essence, is who he is in the three-sided aspect of revelation. “God’s Word is God Himself in his revelation.” The revelation of God is not something added to who God is, but this revealing is who he is and what is revealed in the revelation is God’s self. “For God reveals Himself as the Lord and according to Scripture this signifies for the concept of revelation that God Himself in unimpaired unity yet also in unimpaired distinction is Revealer, Revelation, and Revealedness.”[1] God is the one who reveals, and he is the content of this revelation, and is the means of this revelation being received. The work of the Father as revealer, the Son as what is revealed, and the Spirit in the reception and participation in this revelation is the center of the Christian faith.

Tied up in Barth’s doctrine of revelation and doctrine of God is his approach to epistemology and his stance toward modernism and foundationalism. Revelation is the foundation of the Christian faith (and not self-certainty); it is the objective reality and the subjective appropriation of this reality which constitutes the true. To limit revelation to a proposition, a fact, or reason (another foundation) may miss that what is being communicated is not separate from the means of communication. The revelation or Word is means, content, and appropriation. This is the sui generis point of departure. This does not stand under any other condition or criteria “but is itself the condition.” This is not a possibility to be realized by other means but is the “basis of all possible self-realizations.” “Above this act there is nothing other or higher on which it might be based or from which it might be derived unless it was from the transcendence of the eternal Word of God that came forth in revelation.”[2] Here is Subject, Object, and Predicate. Revelation is not a minus or plus: “it is not another over against God. It is the same – the repetition of God. Revelation is indeed God’s predicate, but in such a way that this predicate is in every way identical with God Himself.”[3]

Barth references and dismisses Cartesian certainty: “One might ask whether this Cartesianism is really as impregnable as it usually purports to be even on the philosophical plane.”[4] His point is to begin only with the certainty of the Word of God. This Word “does not receive its dignity and validity in any respect or even to the slightest degree from a presupposition that we bring to it. Its truth for us, like its truth in itself, is grounded absolutely in itself.” There is a sense in which this might describe the Cartesian or the modern project, but as Barth indicates the modern quest for certainty does not succeed. The procedure in theology, then, is to establish self-certainty in the certainty of God, “to measure it by the certainty of God without waiting for the validating of this beginning by self-certainty.”[5] Only subsequent to this beginning is there the possibility of self-certainty. But even to speak of a beginning, as if it is to be had apart from revelation, is mistaken. It is only in the knowledge of God’s Word that a beginning can be made.

As Barth explains, the movement is not apart from the revealing work of God, though there may be the continual drive to go beyond or below or above. “The position is not that we have to seek the true God beyond these three moments in a higher being in which He is not Father, Son and Spirit.” This would amount to a denial of – an objectifying of the one who is subject. “Here, too there is no Thou, no Lord. Here, too, man clearly wants to get behind God, namely, behind God as He really shows and gives Himself, and therefore behind what He is, for the two are one and the same.” This objectifying of God, making him something other than the subject he is would reduce God to a misconstrued human subjectivity. “Here, too, the divine subjectivity is sucked up into the human subjectivity which enquires about a God that does not exist.”

Barth does not spell out or relate how it may be a failed human subjectivity that tends to objectify and reduce the divine subject, but this is implied. It is only in a healthy human subjectivity that the fulness of the divine subject can be apprehended. “For man community with God means strictly and exclusively communion with the One who reveals Himself and who is subject, and indeed indissolubly subject, in His revelation.” Something less than Trinity would fall short of the divine subject, but would fall short of any form of what it means to be subject. “The indissolubility of His being as subject is guaranteed by the knowledge of the ultimate reality of the three modes of being in the essence of God above and behind which there is nothing higher.” God is relational as part of who he is, and this relationality is synonymous with his revelation and relation to us. Who he is as Father, Son and Spirit is inclusive of revelation and there is nothing beyond or nothing further than this Threeness. This is what it means to be a subject. “Our God and only our God, namely, the God who makes Himself ours in His revelation, is God.”[6]

This capacity for relationship, for self-giving, and for inter-mutual participation names not only the divine subject, but explains what a subject or person is (including what the human subject consists of) and was made for. The relational or personal core of revelation is inclusive of the rational or propositional but these are part of what it means to be personal. The experience of the Word involves a person-to-person relation, but the human side of this exchange is established in the process. “The determination of man’s existence by the Word of God is created thus; it is determination by God’s person.”[7] God with us is God for us in the full sense, in that this is the meaning of human personhood. “God’s Word is not a thing to be described nor a term to be defined. It is neither a matter nor an idea. It is not ‘a truth,’ not even the highest truth. It is the truth as it is God’s speaking person. It is not an objective reality, in that it is also subjective, the subjective that is God.”[8] God is present in what he says and this presence is the only form of self-presence we have.

This self-presence of the Spirit of God, God’s revealedness, is “not so much the reality in which God makes us sure of Him as the reality in which He makes Himself sure of us, in which He establishes and executes His claim to lordship over us by His immediate presence.” Apart from this presence there is only a striving for self-presence and a striving for a real word. Only through the Holy Spirit can man “become a real speaker and proclaimer of real witness.”[9] Though Barth is not here drawing out the contrast between futile striving for and fruitful reception of personhood, the alternative is posed. “The Spirit guarantees man what he cannot guarantee himself, his personal participation in revelation.” Beyond this, this personal participation is a realization or fulfilment of the personal. This “Yes” to God’s revelation “is the Yes to God’s Word which is spoken by God Himself for us, yet not just to us, but also in us.” The fulness of faith, knowledge and obedience as they are realized in the Holy Spirit are nothing less than the realization of personhood. The implication is that apart from this Yes to God and revelation there is negation of the person.

As far as I know, Barth never develops a complete theory of language, or a fuller theory of the subject, beyond what he presents in this exposition of Trinity and revelation. Here is the word properly functioning, and the fulness of what it means to be a subject. However, entailed in his exposition is the implication of the dynamics of the subject apart from God. His sui generis notion of the Word points toward a similar sui generis structuring or attempt at structuring around the human word. His picture of the self-justifying and self-authenticating disclosure of God indicates the inward direction of human failure, in continual attempts at self-justification as means of having or being the self. The drive is not simply to do the right thing but to establish one’s existence. His depiction of God’s revelation as a repetition of God, indicates the prime human neurosis. The attempt to repeat the self or to have the self in repetition describes a key Freudian discovery. The compulsion to repeat is the drive to have life through a death-dealing process.  In his three-part picture of the Revealer, Revelation, and Revealedness, he indicates that the attempt to go beyond this is to arrive at nothing and this circulation of nothingness or absence amounts to a three-fold displacement of the Trinity.

In short, Barth sums up the reception of the Word with prolonged appeal to Romans 8, among other Scriptures. If one would reverse engineer Romans 8 or reverse engineer Barth’s depiction of revelation, and take out Christ, the Holy Spirit and Abba-Father, what is left is the dynamic described in Romans 7 (7:7ff). There is law, the split I, and the dynamic of death and the individual caught up in this dynamic which has lost control of the body and will (being ineffective against desire), and there is an overall incapacity resulting from the compulsion to be interpolated into the law. This dynamic of death (in Paul’s summary statement), in the estimate of Slavoj Žižek, sums up the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan.

In Lacan’s summation of his theory, he claims to be doing nothing more than following the working of language as the structuring principle of the human psyche. The dynamic interplay stemming from the fact that humans speak (as opposed to God speaking in Barth) produces the three-fold interplay making up the two sides of consciousness (the symbolic and the imaginary) and the unconscious self (the real). In Lacan’s depiction, language becomes the structuring dynamic of the subject through something akin to Barth’s subject, object, and predicate. The order of language marks the interplay of the three parts of the human subject in its orientation to the word. The one who speaks is the superego, the law, or something like the conscience (in place of the Father or the Revealer). The object of this speech is the ego or I (in place of Christ), who would establish itself in regard to the law. This dynamic between the superego and ego is the taking up of death (the displacement of the Spirit). In other words, the Barthian project indicates something like the futility of the project of Lacan and Žižek. In turn, the disease, suffering, and despair of Freud from which they are extrapolating, point to the Barthian depiction of the resolution. The word as the displacement of the Word describes the human dilemma, and the Word lifting up and filling the place of the word describes the cure.


[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of the Word of God, pt. 1, eds. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, trans. G. W. Bromiley, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1975), 295.

[2] Ibid. 118.

[3] Ibid. 299.

[4] Ibid. 195.

[5] Ibid. 196.

[6] Ibid. 382.

[7] Ibid. 205.

[8] Ibid. 136.

[9] Ibid. 454.


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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