Nein or Nature and Grace?

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 4:53 AM

After my most recent post on Neo-Orthodoxy wherein I noted my reasons for leaning toward Neo-Orthodoxy over Fundamentalism (though many would probably still consider me a “fundie”), Eduardo provided a very nice response. He says a lot of good things, and I would say anyone interested in the subject should go read his post. Nevertheless, I wanted to provide a slightly different perspective on the three areas he critiques Karl Barth on, particularly, natural theology, universalism and higher criticism.

I'm going to start off with the easiest in today's entry. Natural theology. Eduardo says,

The strong emphasis on the centrality of the revelation of God in Christ causes Barth to deny all possibility of a natural theology, understood as theological thinking without recourse to a special revelation from God.


I fully concur with Barth when he explicitly denies any possibility of attaining true knowledge of God to that second-type of “natural theology”; but to go from that position to the claim that all natural and rational knowledge of God is impossible is, in my opinion, too much of a leap. Even the Reformers, for all their condemnation to the Scholastic natural theology, gave some place to rational reflection on God; only with the proviso, of course, that this reflection could not be normative for Christian life and doctrine, and totally superseded by special revelation.

I tend to think because Barth so vehemently attacks all of natural theology in Nein! (a book that begins with a chapter entitled “Angry Introduction,” no less), people have come to see Barth as anti-rational. However, he claims in his Dogmatics in Outline that belief is quite rational (23). This point, which I'll dwell on more in a series on Kierkegaard and Barth later this month, is essentially boiled down to this: it is rational for the believer to reflect on God, but that rational reflection ought to take place with regards to God's revealed self, not from something we might reason separately.

This really doesn't hurt the Christian cause because objective proofs of God all fail to prove anything anyway (something I'll deal in another piece I'll probably post next week). The ontological, teleological, axiological and cosmological arguments can all be torn apart, and, indeed, are, by Kant, Hume and Kierkegaard, among others. That doesn't mean they don't work for the believer as a reinforcement of faith, but if they are taken from outside Christianity, they serve — at best — to come up with what Barth terms a “philosopher's god,” not the God who has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ.

Emil Brunner, in Nature and Grace, the text that provoked Barth's ire in Nein!, suggested that the “other” task of theology had to do with understanding natural revelation. I think this is the meat of what Barth objected to. Interestingly enough, Barth defends the ontological argument (I have only skimmed the book in which he does, but have a mental note to check it out and read it some day.) Barth in this respect is very similar to Kierkegaard, I believe, and I think they both make valid points. The objection isn't so much about whether rational calculations about God can and do occur, but instead that they don't lead to a knowledge of the real God, given our fallen state, unless those rational calculations draw on God's revealed self.

I believe I read in a Barth biography in ChristianityToday that he softened up on this somewhat in later life and reconciled (at least personally) with Brunner. But, I tend to think Barth might not be quite as extreme as he seemed to be, even before that. I think the rejection of natural theology had a lot more to do with practical concerns about its usefulness than anything else.

Start the Conversation

Be the first to comment!

Create or Sign In to Your Account

Post as a Visitor

:mrgreen: :neutral: :twisted: :arrow: :shock: :smile: :???: :cool: :evil: :grin: :idea: :oops: :razz: :roll: :wink: :cry: :eek: :lol: :mad: :sad: :!: :?:
Remember my information