Home > Karl Barth, Natural Theology > Must Theology Be Unnatural?

Must Theology Be Unnatural?

Karl Barth’s resounding Nein! in response to Emil Brunner’s Nature and Grace somehow got etched into my brain and I can’t seem to kick it. Barth’s Nein! was a reaction to the anthropocentrism of nineteenth century and early twentieth century liberal Protestant theology. For Barth, when talk about God simply becomes talk about our religious “feelings” or “intuition” we inevitably capitulate Christian convictions to the ideological whims of our age. Indeed, Barth’s reaction was, in no small part, a response to liberal Christianity’s support for Nazism. In fact, I think Barth’s Nein! can legitimately be seen as a war protest.


Barth insisted that knowledge of God must be grounded in God’s self-revelation in Christ, not in some innate or natural knowledge that humans have of God. For Barth, because of original sin there humans do not know God apart from God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. It is only by the grace of Christ that humans come to know anything about God who is wholly Other. Of course, Barth saw himself as simply reiterating the reformers’ insistence that a sinner is “a sinner through and through.” As a result of the fall, the human natural capacity to know God had been destroyed. Brunner had insisted that human natural capacity to know God wasn’t completely destroyed, for there must be something within humans which operates as a point of contact to receive God’s grace in Jesus Christ. In his own words,”The word of God could not reach a man who had lost his consciousness of God entirely.” In a recent article entitled “Why Should Theology Be Unnatural” Colin Grant points out that the natural theology Barth exposes is a “peculiarly modern phenomenon. It entails the theological inversion involved in modern secularism; we rather than God, become central and assumed, with the result that God can only make sense, if at all, on our terms.” In his discussion of the controversy between Barth and Brunner Grant raises a highly insightful question to Barth: “Does humanity really have the capacity to displace God completely? Can humanity really obliterate all sense of divine claim and reality?” In this perspective, there is no “danger of interpreting the divine image as a human possession that could characterize humanity in independence of God.”

Colin Grant goes on to argue that Barth’s intensified rejection of natural theology was fueled by Christian support of National Socialism. Although there is certainly something to be said about the inevitable outcomes of an anthropocentric natural theology and the power of Barth’s critique, James Barr in his Biblical Faith and Natural Theology insightfully asks whether support for National Socialism wasn’t rather grounded in a sort of revelational theology. He asserts,”Indeed, it may be more correct to say that the average theology of those who supported National Socialism was a revelational theology, in which new ‘events’ and the ‘crisis’ of modern experience formed an extension – or even in effect a replacement – of ancient revelation, than to see it as a form of natural theology.”

Colin Grant suggests that Barth’s stark dichotomy between “natural” and “revealed” is rooted in “the requirements of modern epistemology, especially as these have been formulated by Immanuel Kant.” Grant argues that Barth’s appeal to revelation buys into the false modern dichotomy between the natural and the supernatural. In Grants opinion, “This suggests that Barth is not just concerned to avoid modern naturalism; he is taking modern naturalism for granted as the way the world is. There is a level of reality that we deal with in our own terms, albeit the indirect ones prescribed by Kant, and a beyond that remains inaccessible except on its terms. To see the world in such ‘natural’ terms surely amounts to a very powerful natural theology, all the more powerful because of its assumed nature” (Italics mine). Thus, at least according to Grant, “Barth himself is implicated in that modern natural theology through an indirect endorsement of its vision of the human condition and what is understood to be natural.”

Now, regardless of whether you agree with Grant’s assessment of Barth or not, it is certainly true that theology has surrendered the natural world to modern natural science. And this ought to raise some questions. Am I simply raising the nature versus grace problem? Does this simply raise the question about the proper relationship between faith and reason? Surely it does, but contemporary theology is in need of a fresh appraisal of these problems. What would a revived natural theology look like? Grant suggests that it would require “the recognition that the redeemer God is present in Creation, that Christ is not so much a privileged Christian possession as an indication of what is happening in all sorts of ways that elude our recognition.”

So, what do you think? Is there any future for natural theology? Is Barthian theology unnatural?

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  1. WTM
    February 14, 2008 at 8:01 pm

    I do not think that Colin Grant’s analysis is correct. He fails to make a consistent distinction between the knowledge of God and revelation. Our knowledge of God, for Barth, is always natural: that is, it is we human beings who – as human beings – know God in a way of knowing that is consistent with all our other ways of knowing. The difference is that the object of knowledge in this case is categorically different from all other things which we know, and this is the impetus for Barth’s emphasis of revelation as something that comes from outside the created order. However, when it comes it comes veiled in aspects of the created order – Scripture, the spoken word, the sacraments, and fundamentally in Jesus Christ’s human nature.

    On the question of the future of natural theology in a broadly Barthian paradigm, I think that TF Torrance provides great promise here. More than that I will not say here.

  2. roflyer
    February 14, 2008 at 10:20 pm

    Thanks for commenting WTM, I appreciate your insight on this as I’m no Barth scholar. I’m interested to know what works by TF Torrance you’d recommend to give me a taste of Barthian natural theology. I guess the real question for me comes down to how we engage theologically with modern natural science. It is easy (at least for me) to think of modern science as a discipline on another “sphere” from theology. I am quite reluctant to engage in apologetics, trying to prove miracles through scientific methods, etc. I am not interested in taking on modern science on its own naturalistic terms.

    I think your correction of Grant is fair, but I do wonder about the relationship between how we talk about God and how we engage with sciences today.

  3. WTM
    February 15, 2008 at 8:03 am

    TF Torrance’s position is that the reality of the Incarnation means that theology cannot merely be concerned with the God-human relation, but must consider the God-human-natural world creation. This is because, obviously, Christ’s human nature is not something disconnected from the rest of the created order but is composed of molecules, electrons, etc.

    Read Torrance’s Divine and Contingent Order and Ground and Grammar of Theology.

  4. February 15, 2008 at 1:04 pm

    Good thoughts Ry et all. I always tend to react to Barth’s (or perhaps more accurately, other people’s take on Barth) as being an oversimplification of an unknowable. Put very simply, “how does he know?”

    To say that a human can know definitively how they recieve knowledge of God is a bit much as is cutting out all the possible nuances inbetween. It’s hard to relate to Barth’s historical context (or is it?) so it seems extreme to say that all knowledge of God is revelational but then again, perhaps he was hedging against a flow of his time that was needed and now a more nuanced approach is applicable, less based on the modern project.

    I don’t see this as a bad thing, the innability of humans to understand the depths of the mysteries, but just as a thing, one that flanks and frames our faith proclomation appropriately.

  5. February 15, 2008 at 2:23 pm

    I think in many respects Barth was reacting to the agnosticism inherent in the modern project. The Enlightenment had made it difficult for theologians to talk about revelatory knowledge of God and so this resulted in a turn to the subject. Barth was attempting to reclaim that knowledge of God is actually knowledge of God, not simply a reflection of us. Thus, Barth was emphatic about reclaiming the concept of God as Wholly Other, that is, Other than created beings. Barth correctly took the center of theology off us (as if we can know God by studying anthropology) and pointed us back to God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ.

    I think you’re suggesting that we ought to approach knowledge of God with a bit of humility and I would totally agree with you on that. But I think we must maintain that God has made himself known in Jesus though we cannot always see him well because of our sin.

  6. John
    February 20, 2008 at 5:59 am

    At the time when Barth was writing the mind of Western man had become completely embedded in an anti-Spiritual secular “world”-view/paradigm.
    This is/was the significance of Nietzsche’s famous “god is Dead” statement.

    Any talk of “christ” was at best just a sorrowful nostalgia for the loss of the child-hood parental deity.

  1. July 25, 2008 at 1:22 pm

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