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?