A Monumental Conflict Between Friends
The question that is at the forefront of Natural Theology is, "Do humans have the capacity or ability to receive revelation from God, through nature, apart from Christ and/or the biblical text?" Emil Brunner and Karl Barth were not only contemporaries, but friends, that is, until Brunner’s pamphlet on natural theology hit the press and openly attacked the stance of his friend Barth. In this post I will provide an overview of both Brunner and Barth’s positions on the topic of natural theology followed by a critique of their arguments. The aim of this essay is to provide the reader with a concise understanding of Natural Theology and encourage personal reflection on the topic of natural theology both inside and outside of the Church.
Brunner’s main focus in his pamphlet is on the imago Dei and the capacity to which humans still posses that image of God after the fall and corruption as a result of the fall. He contends that humanity has not lost the “function or calling” as image bearers, but it has been tainted by sin and continues to exist within the sinful human being. The relationship of God and man is the key component of his thesis. Brunner goes on to argue that Scripture itself “upbraids man for not acknowledging” the revelation that is seen through the creation. The capacity of humans to be addressed, to know, and to have responsibility are three essential characteristics of a human being that must be present by definition and in that as image bearers. In addition, the effects of the fall are not just felt within humanity, but nature as a whole has been affected both objectively and subjectively. “But it is not affected so much as to render the will of God, the “rule” of nature invisible.”
Since God has given us two forms of revelation, natural revelation and the revelation in Christ, according to Brunner, the focus must shift away from whether or not natural theology (revelation) is possible and towards the relationship between the revelation in Christ and that in nature. For Brunner, Christ is the only avenue through which one is able to access the true “theologia naturalis.” The objective natural knowledge of God that can be obtained through nature is capable of leading one to Christ and providing further understanding of who God is once abiding in the grace of Christ. He points to the Reformers, in contrast to Roman Catholic doctrine, to lean on their belief that “no statement concerning nature can be quite correct unless Christ be taken into account.”  Christ is always the culmination of natural revelation and the giver of divine revelation, but Brunner does not seek to extinguish any value of natural theology in the lives of humans and the life of the Church.
In addition, he seeks to make it clear there has been significant damage done by misguided natural theology; however he believed that the distortion and corruption of natural theology should not cause the Church to all together abolish it. He in fact applauds Barth for his vehement defense of the faith from perversions that have arisen out of natural theology. When speaking on the misguided natural theologies of the past and present he said, “The fact that there is a false apologetic way of making contact does not mean that there is not a right way.” The overall belief of Brunner is that God does reveal himself through nature, but one is not able to attain a salvific knowledge of God outside of Christ and nature will never be able to provide humanity with a “true” knowledge of God.
The area of natural theology was dramatically changed when Karl Barth entered the discussion. Barth had a particular disdain for natural theology and the title of his response to Brunner was simply, NO! He believed that natural theology risked the “ultimate truth” of the Church and must be stood against on all sides. “Every attempt to assert a general revelation has to be rejected.” For Barth, all of theology centered on Christ and the cross, and to seek to understand anything apart from Christ was futile and heretical.
The main argument of Barth against Brunner is that of the ability of corrupt humanity. He takes particular contention with Brunner’s idea of “preserving grace.” Barth sees “preserving grace” in direct contradiction with the Reformers concept of sola gratia. The reason why he has such a difficult time with a preserving grace is because of the value it gives to the “natural ordinances,” as defined by Brunner, and their necessary role in God’s overall plan for humanity and creation. He goes on to argue that Brunner contradicts himself when speaking of the capacity of humans to do good being lost, yet the capacity for revelation remaining. The illustration that he uses is of a person drowning and in need of a lifeguard to save them from death. If the drowning victim is able to provide any assistance for the lifeguard, then the saving act by the lifeguard is diminished. In the same way, if humans are capable of assisting in their own salvation even by “making a few good strokes” the magnitude of God’s saving act is decreased and sola gratia is no longer true. Again, Barth balks at any possibility of humanity to know God and his desires for us apart from divine revelation; then we should have been able to save ourselves, like the drowning swimmer.
In an attempt to strengthen his argument, Barth appeals to some key Pauline scriptures about his life in Christ and his life in the flesh. He contends that Paul’s description in I Corinthians 2 and Galatians 2 speaks of a transformation that only comes through a faith in Christ, and not from any worldly or fleshly discernment. Paul’s flesh has been “crucified with Christ.” This means, for Barth, that there is nothing good that existed in his flesh prior to his faith in Christ. Brunner has missed the mark in exegeting Paul, according to Barth, and is in need of “an angel from heaven who would call to him through a silver trumpet of enormous dimensions.”
I resonate with Brunner’s belief that, “The experiential = knowledge of God is not made superfluous by faith in the Word of God, but on the contrary remains an important complement of the knowledge of God derived from Scripture.” I cannot agree with Brunner in his assertion that one is “in relation with the divine truth” when they are doing anything scientific or artistic. On the other hand, I do not agree with Barth in his outright rejection of natural theology and natural revelation. I think he is wrong when he says, “For ‘natural theology’ does not exist as an entity capable of becoming a separate subject within what I consider to be real theology – not even for the sake of being rejected.” I do agree that the Church is at risk when they allow natural theology to move too far outside of the bounds of the revelation in Christ and Scripture. I think that Barth allowed his emotions to drive much of his argument and in the end affect the overall tone of hit essay.
My hope is that this brief synopsis of Natural Theology will either begin stirring or continue to stir your heart and mind about the significance and controversy that is undeniably a part of natural theology. This is by no means an exhaustive review of Brunner and Barth’s arguments; however it does highlight some of the key areas that separate the one time friends. The debate over natural theology rages on today and has been directly impacted by both these men, both positively and negatively. The impact of Karl Barth on natural theology is still being felt today and the dialogue surrounding the topic is far from over.