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1: Natural Theology in This Century: Concepts and Approaches

I propose to begin with a fairly wide, doubtless somewhat vague, but at any rate comprehensive, notion of natural theology, and one which, I think, follows much accepted tradition of usage.

Traditionally ‘natural theology’ has commonly meant something like this: that ‘by nature’, that is, just by being human beings, men and women have a certain degree of knowledge of God and awareness of him, or at least a capacity for such an awareness; and this knowledge or awareness exists anterior to the special revelation of God made through Jesus Christ, through the Church, through the Bible. Indeed, according to many traditional formulations of the matter, it is this pre-existing natural knowledge of God that makes it possible for humanity to receive the additional ‘special’ revelation. The two fit snugly together. People can understand Christ and his message, can feel themselves sinful and in need of salvation, because they already have this appreciation, dim as it may be, of God and of morality. The ‘natural’ knowledge of God, however dim, is an awareness of the true God, and provides a point of contact without which the special revelation would never be able to penetrate to people. Note that natural theology, thus understood, does not necessarily deny special revelation: it may, rather, make that special revelation correlative with a ‘general’ or ‘natural’ revelation that is available, or has been granted, to all humanity. But it does, in its commoner forms, imply that valid talk about God without any appeal whatever to special revelation is possible and indeed highly significant and important. The avoidance of any such appeal to special revelation was a condition insisted upon by Lord Gifford in his founding of this present series.

There are several reasons for using this wide definition of our subject. We may illuminate these by considering some alternatives. One alternative is to define natural theology as that which may be known of God by pure reason, apart from any other force or influence, and this is also an important traditional understanding. But this definition is of comparatively little use for the discussion of my chosen theme, ‘biblical faith and natural theology’, for it is not probable that we shall find in the Bible much that depends on pure reason in that sense. The Bible may, however, give evidence of an anterior knowledge of God which human beings have in advance of special revelation, and that knowledge of God, however ill defined, may form the basis upon which the pure reason may build; but it is not something known by pure reason alone.

Again, some have found it convenient to describe natural theology as the attempt to prove the existence of God. Thus the eminent philosopher of religion Alvin Plantinga offers us a clear and simple suggestion in one sentence: ‘Suppose we think of Natural Theology as the attempt to prove or demonstrate the existence of God.’1 And unquestionably the project of demonstrating, by reason alone (Plantinga does not specify this, but it is commonly included at this point), the fact of God's existence has been one of the major features and one of the obvious preoccupations of most natural theology. Nevertheless there are important reasons why we should not accept Plantinga's formula as definitive for our purpose. Several of the terms of his sentence may well be questioned. We may question whether all natural theology seeks to ‘prove’: it may, on the contrary, merely indicate, merely register, what people think about God. Secondly, it may work not by reason only, or even primarily: on the contrary, it may work from what is thought to be known, what is accepted in society, what is felt, what is the culturally inherited semantic content of words; and it may do all this without claiming to have the exact and absolute authority of pure reason. And, thirdly, it may be concerned not purely with the existence of God but much more with our picture of what God is like. A natural theology, if we have one, may very well assign limits to our idea of the sort of being God may be. Indeed, this is one of the reasons why natural theology is distrusted by many religious people: by laying down some sort of guidelines for what God may be like, they feel, it may make it more difficult for people to accept him as he in fact is. To sum up this point, then, natural theology as it has traditionally been has included much more than the proof by reason of the existence of God.

And a third reason why we should define natural theology more loosely, as we have done, is that this approach fits with one of the great classic debates of the theology of this century. The disagreement between Karl Barth and Emil Brunner, which set the stage for so much modern theology, and about which we shall have much to say, took this form: is there any human knowledge of God antecedent to his self-revelation in Jesus Christ? We conclude, then, that we are on solid ground in proceeding in this way.

Something more has to be said to define our theme in relation to two concepts, firstly the philosophy of religion, and secondly theism. The philosophy of religion is not necessarily or absolutely linked with natural theology: for example, one might pursue a philosophical approach to religion while denying natural theology altogether. Nevertheless it seems that there is a common tendency in the opposite direction: traditional natural theology has provided much interesting matter for the philosophy of religion, for example the traditional arguments for the existence of God. And conversely the denial of natural theology has commonly gone along with a strong emphasis on revelation, and this in turn has been taken to mean that there are no adequate human resources for a philosophical understanding of God. In extreme cases, the emphasis on revelation has been taken to mean that philosophical discussions of God and of religion have no relevance for Christian faith whatever. The ‘God’ of philosophers, according to this view, is a mere postulate of the human mind, an idolatrous reflection of sinful human self-understanding, a theoretical being quite unrelated to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Theism, on the other hand, we might define as a particular universal religious view which asserts the existence of a personal, active, supramundane, God.2 Theism has qualities of universality and abstraction. Christian theism would then be theism with some of the special characteristics of Christian faith added in, as it were. Theism may not necessarily require natural theology as its support, but natural theology appears often to support a theism to which the special content of Christian faith is added by special revelation. Seen in this way, Christianity is a special case within the general category of theism, which would include other theistic religions also. Those who deny natural theology commonly deny also the belonging of Christianity to any general category of theism, and deny the relevance of theistic arguments to Christianity.3 If theism seems to validate a variety of theistic religions, and if only one of these religions is true, its adherents will obviously be likely to dislike theistic talk, because it associates their religion with others which they consider erroneous or at least defective.

In connection with Christianity, or indeed with any other religion, the function of natural theology can be perceived in two different directions. The first is an apologetic function. Apologetics, traditionally, is the discipline, or portion of a discipline, which maintains and refines the defence of faith against those who doubt and question it. If people say, ‘we can't believe in some of the miracles’, or ‘we can't believe that the world was created by a transcendent God’, apologetics assembles and clarifies the arguments that support or justify faith: in the stronger case they endeavour to show that faith is right, in the weaker case they endeavour, if not to prove that faith is right, at least to show that faith is reasonable, that it makes some sort of sense, that it is not a purely chaotic bundle of irrational and self-contradictory notions. Not all apologetics depends purely on natural theology, in the sense of that which humanity, by pure natural reason, can know about God: in modern times an increasing amount of apologetics has related to the fields of science or of history, seeking to show, let us say, that scientific accounts of the world still leave room for divine creation and providence, or that historical investigation does not make the resurrection incredible. Apologetic argument, in these senses, is a familiar element in religious discussion, and we shall have to say more about it later. But at this moment all we have to register is that, while apologetics of this kind is not identical with natural theology, there is a considerable overlap of interest and of scope. Like natural theology, apologetics presupposes, or is commonly taken to presuppose, that there is some fulcrum outside faith, some ground other than faith itself upon which one may stand in order to argue for truths affirmed by faith.

But, if this is so, there may be a contrary influence: argument of the apologetic type, if it is allowed at all, may not only support faith but may also exercise upon it a critical function: it may say, well, yes, we believe, and faith is justifiable, but it will be more easily justifiable if we keep it within certain bounds. We can demonstrate the reality of God, but only if our faith in God remains fairly close to the sort of God whose reality we can demonstrate. Science may leave room for divine creation, but not if we insist that divine creation took place in one week in 4004 BC and in the exact sequence described by Genesis. Historical study may leave room for divine action in history, but only if that divine action is seen in a less crude and more sophisticated way than a literal understanding of some biblical passages would seem to suggest. Thus the apologetic functions which include natural theology do not only support faith but they also tend to act critically upon faith, to correct it, to guide it into certain channels. Because it works in this double direction, I will later use the term ‘the apologetic axis’ to indicate both directions at once. And it cannot be doubted that it is the critical direction, which is the other end of the apologetic axis, that has caused some theologies to repudiate apologetics altogether, and natural theology along with it. According to this point of view, faith should never stand on any kind of support outside special and direct divine revelation: if it tries to do so, it only distorts the reality of God into the idolatrous image which humanity makes of him.

Another aspect that comes close to natural theology is what we may call interreligiosity or interculturality. Special revelation, as usually understood, belongs to a limited circle: let us say, Judaism and Christianity; maybe Islam counts as part of the same limited area. But once we begin to speak of ideas of God that are more widely spread, that are known to, let us say, ancient Greek thinkers, or Hindu thinkers, or modern philosophers who have no personal religious commitment at all, then we come much closer to talking in terms of natural theology. By this criterion, anything in the Bible that shares conceptuality or attitudes with religions or philosophies outside the accepted circle of revelation will suggest natural theology. We will see that numerous cases of this will be relevant.

One last concept may be mentioned briefly: that of ‘natural religion’. Those who believed in a special revelation, in which God was known within a limited circle, had to admit that religion existed outside that circle, indeed that religion appears to be a ‘natural’ characteristic of humanity or at least of much of it. It is factually there. But is it a good thing? Those who dislike ideas of a special revelation may well think that ‘natural religion’, being somehow intrinsic to humanity, is about the best that religion can be. Those who believe in special revelation, on the other hand, will tend to regard “natural religion” as something rather disgraceful, as a manifestation of the human tendency to elevate its own culture, experience, and ideals to the level of the divine. This problem also will recur occasionally during our discussions.

With the above as a very simple preliminary conceptual map, we may turn to some aspects of the modern discussion of the matter During the twentieth century natural theology has been one of the great crisis points of theological discussion; or at least so it was said and said with some vehemence. The matter was brought vividly to the attention of theologians through the conflict between Emil Brunner and Karl Barth in two pamphlets published in 1934: the English version was called Natural Theology and was edited by the leading Edinburgh theologian John Baillie (1946), with an introduction of his own. Within the English-speaking world these two Swiss theologians had, up to that time, been generally regarded as two birds of the same kind of feathers; and people were surprised by the vehemence of the disagreement that now broke out. Brunner in a short pamphlet entitled ‘Nature and Grace’ had suggested that now was the time to start looking for a new natural theology, and that this was a major task of the moment. Barth's answer was entitled ‘Nein’ and opened with an ‘Angry Introduction’. Brunner, he said, was a man of ‘determined will-power’, an expression which he might well have extended to include himself.4 According to Barth, there was no place at all for any natural theology; it must be totally rejected. There must be no sort of theological system that depended on, or built upon, something that was previous to, or separate from, or supplementary to, the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. There was no ‘point of contact’ on the human side: ‘point of contact’ (Anknüpfungspunkt) was one of the keywords of this mighty conflict. The revelation of God did not fit into a point of contact that was already there: it made its own new contact, quite independently of any such previously existing contact point. Even if there was one revelation did not use it. The ensuing conflict and estrangement between Barth and Brunner was bitter and far-reaching.

Karl Barth's position is a good point of entry for our present discussion, because he was invited, quite early in his career, to deliver the Gifford Lectures, and he did so, at Aberdeen University in 1937 and 1938. The lectures were based on the Scots Confession of 1560 (doubtless in deliberate contrast to the Westminster Confession which later became the dominant doctrinal standard of the Scottish Church) and were published under the title The Knowledge of God and the Service of God.5 It was paradoxical, no doubt, that he was invited to lecture in a series explicitly defined as devoted to natural theology, and doubtless he had some difficulty in making up his mind to accept. From the start his approach to his subject was bound to be a peculiar one, since his central conviction in the whole matter was that no such subject as natural theology existed at all. When he did use the words ‘natural theology’ he put them in quotation marks, as if to indicate that this was a beast like the unicorn: the word existed, but no such thing existed; or, maybe, it was an expression internally contradictory, like ‘hot ice’ or ‘black milk’. Now, you might have thought that Barth could reasonably interpret the invitation as an invitation to talk about natural theology in the sense of developing his arguments against it, showing why it was wrong. By no means: what he did was to refuse to talk about natural theology at all. How could one give a series of lectures about a non-existing subject? What he in fact did was to give a series of lectures on revealed theology, of a Calvinist Reformed kind, a series which largely ignored even the question of natural theology.

Moreover, in doing this Barth developed an unusual piece of casuistry. He did not dispute that Lord Gifford had meant what he said: natural theology, in Barth's words ‘a knowledge of which man as man is the master’, was the topic; but no such subject existed to be discussed. There was nothing to say about it at all. This is what Barth thought. But he did not state this as his own personal opinion. He ascribed it to his being a theologian of the Reformed Church. ‘As a Reformed theologian I am subject to an ordinance which would keep me away from “Natural Theology”, even if my personal opinions inclined me to it.’ To be a Reformed theologian entailed in itself that there was no such thing as natural theology.

Now it is true, said Barth, pursuing this remarkable argument, there have been people who have thought that this strange beast, natural theology, existed, at least as a subject that might be theoretically discussed. In particular, Roman Catholics think so, and, according to Barth, the traditions of ‘Modern Protestantism’ imply the same: both these traditions, he said, are based on compromises with ‘natural theology’. But, he went on, ‘the Reformation and the teaching of the Reformation churches stand in an antithesis to “Natural Theology” which is at once clear and instructive for both’. Reformed theology thus ignores ‘natural theology’, while natural theology exists, in so far as it exists at all, solely by virtue of opposition to Reformed theology—somewhat as, he might have said, darkness exists only through the absence of light. Thus in his Gilford Lectures, after the first page or two, Barth seldom bothers even to mention natural theology at all, and, amazingly, provides no attempt at a critique of it. All he does is to lay down what he considers to be Reformed doctrine, implying at the most that the differences from natural theology will somehow emerge (which in fact they do not).6

But even on the basis of the Reformation Barth had to make some substantial admissions. The major Reformers, he admits, did make use to some extent of that non-existent animal natural theology. Sometimes they made a guarded and conditional use of it, as Calvin did in the first chapter of his Institutes; and occasionally they made an unguarded and unconditional use of it, as did both Luther and Calvin in their teaching on the law. But, he goes on, we today after the developments of the last four centuries can see more clearly than they could then do. In other words, the history of theology and experience of the Church since the Reformation have shown that any concession to supposed ‘natural theology’ is disastrous and is totally opposed to the principles of the Reformation.

In this sense therefore Barth appeals to the principle of the Reformation rather than to its execution, to a theoretical Reformation rather than the one that actually took place, to what the Reformed Churches ought to have done rather than to what they did in fact do. The principle, he says, is that the Church and salvation are founded on the Word of God alone, on God's revelation in Jesus Christ, as it is attested in the scriptures; and this is the clear opposite of any form of teaching that declares that man himself possesses the power and capacity to inform himself about God, about the world, and indeed about humanity itself.

Now Barth's argument in all this, surely, is simply preposterous. It is his opinion, whether well founded or not, that there is no room for natural theology. He then sovereignly declares that his opinion is the opinion of ‘Reformed theology’, although he admits that Reformed theology, even in the persons of both Luther and Calvin themselves, has not shared this opinion. Nor does he even mention, or even hint at, the very large part that natural theology, of one kind or another, has had in the Reformed tradition (previous to ‘Modern Protestantism’) in the centuries after the original Reformers. And, although admitting that Reformed theology even in Luther and Calvin had owed some debt to natural theology, he then says that he cannot even converse with natural theology or talk about it, not because he himself is against it, but because as a Reformed theologian he is forbidden to do so. All this is double talk.

To this another aspect has to be added. Barth noted, and correctly, the important role that natural theology has played within traditional Roman Catholic theology; but when he went on to say that the same applied to ‘Modern Protestantism’ he was slanting the facts in a very tendentious way. He was seeking, of course, to make the impression that much Barthianism at that early stage strove to make: namely the impression that it was equally aligned against Catholicism on the one side, against liberal or modern Protestantism or whatever we call it on the other.7 But this way of putting it concealed the strong position of natural theology within the conservative currents of Protestant theology, for example in Dutch Calvinism or in important currents of Anglo-Saxon evangelicalism.8 In particular, however hardly we may judge ‘Modern Protestantism’, we may question whether it was in fact based upon a ‘compromise with natural theology’, as Barth insinuated, and, since he would not discuss the matter, and gave no examples, he failed to justify it. I mention this at this point only because I shall come back to it later, and will then suggest that the relation of ‘Modern Protestantism’ to these ideas was a very different one.

We have to go further, however, in order to place in context Barth's extreme opposition to natural theology. His earlier work I had not made this so clear or brought it to so sharp a profile. He had indeed emphasized the strangeness of God, his otherness, his distance from the world, and it was for this that his name was then best known; but he had not so expressly singled out natural theology as the danger which must at all costs be avoided. For example, in his I commentary on Romans, which in some ways is Barth's most characteristic work, he had to deal with that famous passage Romans 120 f., about ‘that which may be known of God’ and how his ‘everlasting power and divinity’ can be perceived ‘through the things that are made’; and, while his comments are typically paradoxical and perhaps negative, few readers could have known from that commentary that a total assault on all natural theology was soon to I emerge. Thus it would be understandable if Brunner, who belonged to the same general trend of theology, came to the point of calling for a new natural theology without—apparently—having any expectation of the violent storm that was soon to break over his head.9

The factor that brought the question of natural theology into the centre seems to have been political.10 As we all know, Barth was strongly opposed to the rising Nazi movement in Germany. Reacting to its impact, he diagnosed the disastrous developments in Europe as the natural culmination of a long process of the history of ideas, especially theological ones. Start along the line of natural theology, he thought, and sooner or later you will end up with something like the ‘German Christian’ (DC) movement. The DC ideas that nation or race or culture were in-built structures of humanity and that religion must accommodate itself to them were, as Barth saw it, the logical result of the long compromise with natural theology. And thus from the beginning he taunted Brunner with having given comfort to the DC and having had favourable reviews in the Nazi press. Brunner was playing into the hands of Hitler.

In saying this, we do not necessarily accept that Barth's perception of contemporary political experience was correct. One can look at this in two ways. One can say, and this is perhaps the traditional version, that the perception of Nazi ideology made clear the fateful inheritance of natural theology. One might also take the opposite line, and say that it was the internal theological development in Barth's mind that caused him to perceive the German situation in terms generated by his own theology, and therefore to see it as a final manifestation of natural theology. I believe that the latter may have more truth in it.11

In any case, it was thus the rise of German totalitarianism, whether rightly interpreted or not, that brought the issue of natural theology into an absolutely central position. It was not surprising, therefore, that the Barmen Declaration, which expressed the dissent of the Confessing Church, was framed in terms entirely Barthian: for it the issue, as there expressed, was whether there was, or was not, any form of revelation or authority, other than the revelation of Jesus Christ, that could have authority or influence in the Church.12 To those who thought in this way it seems to have been simply obvious that those who accepted natural theology would be sympathizers with the Nazi movement, while those Christians who seriously opposed Nazism would manifestly deny the legitimacy of all natural theology.

In other words, the conceptuality of Barthian theology was resolutely clamped upon the picture of the political conflict in Germany. There was no attempt to analyse the various possibilities of natural theology in order to see whether some varieties of it might point in a different direction. Not a moment's consideration was given to the idea that natural theology, if properly understood, might itself be a useful force of resistance to Nazism—this even though the Catholic population, whose Church fully accepted natural theology, was arguably stronger than the Protestant population in its reluctance to do what the government wanted.13 Moreover, there was an element of contradiction or embarrassment on the world scene, since foreign Church opinion, outside Germany, was almost total in its opposition to the Church policy of the German government, but actually supported some natural theology of creation and was against the total rejection of the same by the Confessing Church.14 Barth was entirely aware of this aspect, but discounted it. ‘No one outside’, he later argued, ‘really had the right to cast a stone at Germany’, because the only difference was that Germany had carried out with logical thoroughness what had already been implicitly granted or implied by all forms of natural theology.15 There was thus no difference between different forms of natural theology: all of them alike, if properly understood, led directly or indirectly to what was done in Germany. Or, to put it in another way, all theologies which did not completely reject natural theology—i.e. all non-Barthian theologies—shared alike in responsibility for the fearful evils of National Socialism.

Now for the present we shall not follow this line further. Let it suffice that we have done something to describe the position of one who, within the Gifford Lecture series, put forward the most drastic opposition to natural theology that there could be—or at least apparently so. One of the consequences of this was a further split in the dialectical theology. This powerful movement, no doubt the most powerful of all the theological movements of this century, split more than once. One such split was that between Barth and Bultmann, over a whole series of issues; another, between Barth and Brunner, was, as we have said, more striking, in that Barth and Brunner had been seen as so close to one another, and indeed many ‘Barthians’ of the older times were often Brunnerians except where they perceived a conflict between the two great thinkers.16 And in fact they were not exactly parallel to one another in their opposition: Brunner was not so much for natural theology as Barth was against it. And, though many people liked Brunner more, for what was thought to be his moderation and his good presentation of ideas, it was Barth who seemed to win the day in the end: it was he who came to be esteemed as the great theologian of the century, the one who found his way into university syllabuses along with Thomas Aquinas and Schleiermacher, he who was more and more studied.

The sequel, curiously, was that the issue of natural theology became less of an issue, came to be less talked about. One heard less of it, as if it was no more a question—this although a great many people had not been convinced that Barth's absolute opposition to it was right. Many people doubted it, but did not summon up the force for an outright counter-attack against him. And at the end of the day, in fact, the reverse happened: Barthianism itself became more positively interested in natural theology. In the 1960s Barth himself can be found to say: ‘Later I brought natural theology back in by way of Christology. Today my criticism would be: all you have to do is to say it differently, and that means Christologically.’17 Thus people who were very much in the Barthian line of thought began to talk as if some kind of natural theology, or something a little like it, might after all be acceptable and even necessary—but all this without dismantling the earlier basic structures of Barthian theology which had, beyond all doubt, taken the absolute denial of natural theology as a central and non-negotiable position.18 There was no talk of a revision, still less of an abandonment, of the violent earlier attacks on natural theology.19 The new position, one might say, was that only through the death of all sorts of the older natural theology could one come to the resurrection of a new natural theology. Since this is so, we are justified in taking the position of I complete denial of natural theology, Barth's position in his Gifford Lectures, in his controversy with Brunner, and in the earlier volumes of the Church Dogmatics, as the classic Barthian position.

But these more advanced and modern lines of thought must be left I aside for the present. We are still back at the beginnings of the modern discussion. And there were, of course, plenty who thoroughly disagreed with Barth's approach to the matter. As a good example from among the Gifford Lecturers we may take Canon Charles Raven, who was quite well known as a speaker in Scotland and who delivered the lectures here in Edinburgh in 1951, under the title ‘Natural Religion and Christian Theology’. Raven was an enthusiast for natural theology, though for him this meant less the philosophical proofs of God's existence, and more the integration of nature, as known through scientific investigation, and of evolutionary process, with divine purpose and incarnation. Raven had no sympathy or liking for Barth.20 Indeed his degree of understanding of Barth was just as low as Barth's would have been of Raven, if he had ever heard of him, which is unlikely. Following a remark of Dean Sperry of Harvard,21 which, he said, fitted in with his own views, Raven said that Barth's ‘condemnation of nature and the natural man would have been much modified if he had spent the First World War in the trenches instead of in neutral Switzerland’.22 Such a remark, though not untypical of the ethos of the time, was thoroughly misguided as well as being uncharitable. For it is probable that Barth's theology bears more traces of the experience of the trenches than Raven's does. On the whole, that experience did not do much to strengthen natural theology. A whiff of poison gas does little to encourage the belief that God has revealed himself through the goodness and beauty of the created world—a point to which we shall have to return.

According to Raven, the Bible was full of the love of nature. The world is God's world. In the Bible nature is not illusory or unreal, but at the same time it is never treated as perfect nor is it identified with deity. This argument is interesting, for it shows that Raven was aware of, and was guarding himself against, an argument that could very likely have arisen from the Barthian side. It was at just about this time, and in parallel with much of Barth's influence, that the ‘Biblical Theology Movement’ was tending to depict all natural theology as dependent on Greek philosophy and to suggest that it therefore disparaged the natural world through comparison with the eternal and abstract ideas. By contrast, according to this viewpoint, the Jewish idea, which was essentially revelational, had a warm appreciation for nature.

Raven, however, did not fall for this argument, or rather he turned it around the other way. The Jewish background, he thought, only strengthened his case. It was the Jewish heritage that strengthened the argument for natural theology, and it was neglect of that heritage that had brought about the strong and violent contrasts which he so deplored in Barth's position. It was ‘failure [on the part of “Protestant theologians under the influence of the new orthodoxy”] to appreciate his Jewish heritage’, Raven argued, that ‘has been mainly responsible for the perversion of St Paul's teaching and for the assigning of a scriptural authority to doctrines of the total depravity of the world and the radical antithesis of nature and grace’.23
In Raven's view, by contrast, things work together, transitions are gradual, there is development and evolution. The Jewish spirit and the Greek, starting from very different origins, come to work together. The result of the fusion is to maintain and enrich the Old Testament insistence upon the worth of the natural order, both in itself ‘and as the symbol and instrument of the divine.’24 Thus, as Raven sees it, Jesus himself is something of a natural theologian. He ‘breaks away from the general tendency of religion at His time and, instead of concentrating upon the abnormal or clothing His message in the language of the demonic and supernatural, bases His teaching upon the ordinary and commonplace’. He teaches ‘by bidding men consider the lilies and the birds, by setting a child in the midst, by telling stories of sowers and fishermen, of women baking bread and merchants seeking pearls. The background of His discourse is nature not supernature and He aims not at turning our eyes and minds away from the natural order but at enabling us to discover in it and through it the manifestation of deity.’25

And so it goes on. Nature and grace dovetail smoothly into one another. The incarnation of the divine is in keeping with the whole character of the physical world, since God loved it. This fitting together of opposites completes and fulfils something that goes back not only behind the New Testament but behind the Old and into the total world of human religion.

Well, that is a fairly extreme case on the other side. I was about to say that we can hardly expect to reconcile Barth with Raven, not in this world. Yet Raven's spirit may have smiled a sardonic smile on finding that, in the end, Barth admitted that under certain circumstances there might be ‘certain true words alongside the one Word of God’,26 that this was said in connection with the parables of Jesus, and that some offshoots of Barthian tradition ended up depending on natural science and appealing to it just as much as he, Raven, had done. These results were reached, of course, by a different path; indeed so. ‘Of course’, Raven would doubtless have said, ‘they had to say that’.

Nevertheless, as I say, if we look back at the theological currents of our century, now near its end, it looks as if Barth was the successful one.27 For most twentieth-century theologians, at least within Protestantism, natural theology fell into the background.28 Lecturing on the subject up and down, I have met people who have had a full theological education in the latter part of this century and had never heard of natural theology, knew nothing of such a concept, had never even heard the expression. Particularly in biblical studies has this been the case. Dictionaries and encyclopaedias of biblical studies produced in modern times contain no article entitled ‘Natural Theology’.29 Works in biblical theology, for the most part, proceed as if they had never heard of any such thing. Commentaries on individual books of the Bible mostly do not even raise the question whether some affinity with natural theology is to be found in them. In spite of the widespread preference of Brunner over Barth in the English-speaking world, it was Barth who came to be recognized in the end as the greater theologian, and not much was ever heard of the new natural theology for which Brunner had called. The plaintive pleas for some kind of new natural theology that are uttered from time to time by other people seem seldom to lead to anything much. One reason for this, no doubt, is the failure to show how any natural theology, old or new, meshes with the material of the Bible itself.

A revival of interest in natural theology has certainly taken place, let us say in the last twenty years. One might, perhaps, distinguish several distinct streams in which something akin to natural theology has been pursued: (1) works continuing the older idealist natural theology and virtually ignoring Barth and the main theological development of this century, well exemplified by Cleobury; (2) works seeking a new approach through something like Process Theology, well illustrated by John Cobb; (3) works that are distinctly ‘post-Barthian’ and seek to incorporate the basic Barthian insights while re-examining the issues of natural theology: notably Jüngel and Link; (4) the striking revival of interest in philosophical theism; (5) works concerned to build a ‘theology of nature’ in view of the ecological problems of the present day—too many to mention examples here, but note Link's concerns in this area; (6) an approach that seeks to base itself less on absolute philosophical or dogmatic concerns and more on our normal daily or ‘natural’ life (Wisnefske). But this renewed thinking about natural theology has been somewhat quietly pursued by various people in their various corners and has as yet made rather little impact on the theological and religious public.

Yet, paradoxically, the fact is that, if we look at the middle ground, at the large number of people who were considerably influenced by Barth and had at least some sympathy for what he was saying, I think we would have to say: there seem to be few who are convinced that he was right on this particular problem. If he is remembered and revered, it is more for other things than this. Even among those who recognize him as the greatest theologian of the period, few today feel that his rejection of natural theology was his masterstroke, few accept that it was right to make this into the central and pivotal issue. There was something in it, no doubt, people think. Thus some agree that Roman Catholic theology had depended too much on natural theology and that it benefited from the impulse of these discussions, which enabled it to move towards a more biblical type of utterance. But the absoluteness and the rigidity displayed in the conflict with Brunner were ridiculous. Nor was it ever proved by Barth, nor did he even attempt to prove, that all Roman Catholic theology, and all ‘Modern Protestantism’, that is, more or less all theologies other than his own, were compromises of some kind with natural theology. The developments in which later Barthianism, even including Barth himself, came round to some sort of natural theology, even if carefully differentiated from the older natural theology, themselves testified against his classic position. Even if there was something in it, most people felt they could leave the subject shrouded in a mist of mild uncertainty, and that other things could move ahead apart from it.30 It certainly has not remained the storm centre of theology, even in the heritage of the dialectical theology, as it seemed to be some decades ago. Lack of lively interest has been a major reason why the very consciousness of the subject has come to be dimmed.

But the absence of conflict is not always a sign that all things are well. One area upon which the matter touches is the nature of the Bible and the mode of its interpretation. Any negation of natural theology appears to throw more emphasis upon the Bible, the Bible being one of the main accepted channels of special revelation. In Barth's theology the Word of God existed in three forms: Jesus Christ as the living, personal, Word; the Bible as the written Word, which testifies of him; and the preaching of the Church, in so far as it speaks of him and in accordance with the testimony of Holy Scripture. The Bible therefore belongs very definitely and distinctly to the movement of divine revelation from God to humanity. This is a well-known and in some ways a useful and creative mode of stating the situation.

But what if scripture itself sanctions, permits, evidences, or in some other way depends upon natural theology or something like it? In the passage already quoted we saw Barth insisting that ‘church and salvation are founded on the Word of God alone, on God's revelation in Jesus Christ, as it is attested in the Scriptures’, and taking it as obvious that this implied the denial of all natural theology.31 But if the Bible accepted or implied natural theology; this argument falls to pieces: the Word of God, as attested in the scriptures, must then include natural theology as part of revelation or as the background to it, or as an implication of it or mode through which it is communicated. And this is, after all, what had been supposed by the earlier theological trends, including Luther and Calvin: they all supposed that there was in the Bible some authorization for natural theology. Barth, for his part, strongly insisted on the Bible as criterion for his theology. It was not open to him to say that the Bible had simply misunderstood the matter, had just got it wrong at this crucial point. In the building of his theology the Bible was one pillar, and the rejection of natural theology was another. How did he get around this difficulty? The answer is simple he thought he could argue that the biblical passages which have been taken to support natural theology did not support it at all. In other words, he thought that he could exegetically overcome on evade all the arguments that seemed to support natural theology or scriptural grounds. Or else he, or his followers, simply soft-pedalled these passages and gave much more emphasis to others.

But the essential thing is this: the denial of natural theology was the prior decision—logically if not chronologically. Not at the start of his career, but at a certain stage in it, Barth came to diagnose natural theology as the source of theological sickness, on dogmatic grounds and on grounds of the problems of historical theology and contemporary thought; when he came to look again at the biblical evidence he was already committed in his mind to this. His doctrine of scripture was formulated in a way that did not have room for the possibility that it might affirm or include natural theology. His exegesis was similarly predetermined.

With this as introduction, we shall in the next chapter look at one of the most important of the biblical passages concerned, the speech of St Paul on the Areopagus in Acts 17.

  • 1.

    In his The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology’, Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, 54 (1980), 49.

  • 2.

    2 I adapt this from the words of Heinrich Beck, Natürliche Theologie: Grundriß philosophischer Gotteserkenntnis (Munich: Pustet, 1986), 33.

  • 3.

    3 On this aspect, see again below, Ch. 7.

  • 4.
    Natural Theology (London: Bles, 1946), 67.
  • 5.

    The preference of the Scots Confession over the Westminster was of strategic importance, for a study based upon the Westminster would have had to recognize the very substantial part played by natural theology in the latter.

  • 6.

    All this was no passing aberration on Barth's part: he meant it seriously and said it repeatedly in different words. Thus: ‘“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… Really to reject natural theology means to refuse to admit it as a separate problem… If you really reject natural theology you do not stare at the serpent, with the result that it stares back at you, hypnotizes you, and is ultimately certain to bite you, but you hit it and kill it as soon as you see it!’ All this in Natural Theology, 75 f.

  • 7.

    Since Barthianism has often been regarded as an extreme position, it is important to understand that Barthians did not see themselves in this way. As seen from within, Barthianism occupied the middle ground. It arrogated centrality to itself, and supposed that it walked the narrow line of central theological truth, avoiding the chasms of error that lay on both sides.

  • 8.

    On this see further below, Ch. 6.

  • 9.

    This is how it appears from the familiar published works, and hence my word ‘apparently’. I am informed, however, that there had been a considerable debate in correspondence between Barth and Brunner over several preceding years, in which these issues were already canvassed. I have not seen this material.

  • 10.

    I agree with C. Link, Die Welt als Gleichnis (Munich: Kaiser, 1976). 130, that it is wrong to suppose that Barth's polemic against natural theology was conditioned purely by the political controversies. I am sure this is not so. All I suggest is that these political circumstances acted as catalyst for the theological disagreement which soon broke out. In fact, as I indicate below, it seems more likely that it was precisely Barth's own theological requirements that led him to diagnose the German developments as constituting a case of natural theology.

  • 11.

    I return to this question in Ch. 6 below.

  • 12.

    See for example passages like KD ii/1. 194 ff.; CD ii/1. 172 ff.

  • 13.

    As has been shown, at least for certain parts of Germany, by the work of Ian Kershaw, Popular Opinion and Political Dissent in the Third Reich (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), which shows, from internal Nazi documentation itself, how administrators confessed themselves unable to do anything with the Catholic population because of the strength of their religious convictions, while suggesting that the Protestant population was much more favourable to the Nazi movement.

  • 14.

    See the comments of the Swiss ecumenist Adolf Keller as quoted by Klaus Scholder, The Churches and the Third Reich (2 vols., Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988–). ii. 235 and nn. 160 ff. on 349.

  • 15.

    See KD ii/1. 196; CD ii/1. 174.

  • 16.

    On this cf. S. W. Sykes in his Karl Barth: Studies of his Theological Methods (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), 7 ff.

  • 17.

    I quote from A. Szekeres, ‘Karl Barth und die natürliche Theologie’, Ev. Th. 24 (1964). 229–42; citation from 229.

  • 18.

    For an example, see T. F. Torrance, The Problem of Natural Theology in the Thought of Karl Barth’, RS 6 (1970), 121–35.

  • 19.

    In view of later suggestions that Barth might have accepted some kind of natural theology if it had been of a different kind from what Brunner had in mind, one must reiterate the absoluteness of Barth's rejection at that time. Thus in Natural Theology, 71, Barth rejects all ‘true’ natural theology in the same breath as all ‘false’ such theology. The fact is, the debate in these pamphlets is of pretty low intellectual standard. Little was done to get behind the surface disagreement, to define terms, to consider new possibilities, to overcome misunderstandings. Barth sometimes got credit for having analysed the ‘presuppositions’ of natural theology but this was undeserved. He did nothing of the sort. This is easily understandable in view of his refusal to consider natural theology as a subject at all.

  • 20.

    On Raven see F. W. Dillistone, Charles Raven (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1975); also A. R. Peacocke, Creation and the World of Science (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), 14 and elsewhere.

  • 21.

    In his Jesus then and now (New York: Harper, 1949), 207.

  • 22.

    C. E. Raven, Natural Religion and Christian Theology (2 vols., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953), ii. 46 n. Note that Raven describes this as a belief ‘which I have also held’, which suggests that by the time of his Gifford Lectures Raven had somewhat softened his judgement. This would fit in with his Note ix ‘On the recent reaction in theology’, ibid. i. 212–15, described by Peacocke, Creation, 14 n., as a ‘mild version’ of Raven's commonly ‘trenchant’ or even ‘acrid’ opposition. Even so, Raven's statement was sharper and carried a more hostile nuance than Sperry himself may have intended. First, the utterance was not Sperry's own, but was part of a lengthy quotation from the memoir of Harnack by his daughter (Agnes von Zahn-Harnack, Adolf von Harnack (Berlin: Bott, 1936), 529 ff.). Though Sperry clearly sympathized with the passage as a whole, we cannot be sure that he would have uttered this as his own judgement. The voice was really Harnack's. Secondly, the actual statement is more an attempted explanation and less a suggestion of personal blame than Raven's formulation of it. The relevant section read: ‘The war had given the original impetus to this development [the dialectical theology]. It was no mere accident that of the three leaders of the new movement—Barth, Thurneysen and Gogarten—two had spent the war years as neutrals in Switzerland, and so had stood on the side line from which war's horrors, its sinfulness and its rage of destruction were alone evident, but from which they missed the exultation that thrills through a people ready to sacrifice life itself for its brothers.’

  • 23.

    Raven, Natural Religion, i. 21 f.

  • 24.

    Raven, Natural Religion, i. 30.

  • 25.

    Ibid. i. 31 f.

  • 26.
    KD iv/3. 126; CD iv/3. 113.
  • 27.

    Thus—a good instance—Hugo Meynell, no Barthian partisan, begins his book Grace versus Nature (London: Sheed and Ward. 1965) with the sentence ‘Barth is the greatest living Christian theologian’. Whether this success was deserved, of course, is another matter, on which opinions naturally vary. For recent studies of the reception of Barth, especially in the English-speaking world, see S. W. Sykes in Sykes (ed.), Karl Barth: Studies of his Theological Methods, and R. H. Roberts, ‘The Reception of the Theology of Karl Barth in the Anglo-Saxon World’, in S. W. Sykes (ed.), Karl Barth: Centenary Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989). In the Scottish context of the Gifford Lectures it is proper to mention the judgement of the impressive theologian Paul Lehmann. Lehmann thought that in Scotland Barthianism had been disastrous to the life of the Church, and the only place where he thought it had been creative was in Japan (!). He wrote in 1970: ‘In Scotland a virulent “Barthian scholasticism” obstructs the freedom of God in his revelation to be God for man in the world, and enervates the faith and life of the churches. Only in Japan, it seems, does the dynamic and liberating creativity of Barth's thought function as a life option’—so ‘Karl Barth and the Future of Theology’. RS 6 (1970), 105 f. This is all the more striking in that Lehmann was one of the most creative of those under strong Barthian influence; he was described by Roberts, ‘Reception of the Theology of Karl Barth’, 145, as one ‘powerfully influenced by Barth whose fidelity remains steadfast despite the changes and pluralistic diversity of his environment’.

  • 28.

    28 Cf. H. J. Birkner, ‘Natürliche Theologie und Offenbarungstheologie: ein theologiegeschichtlicher Überblick’, NZST 3 (1961), 279, first paragraph. To paraphrase his eloquent statement, the beginner in theology knows nothing about natural theology and the graduate in it knows only one thing about natural theology, namely that there is nothing in it. Modern theology is emphatically revelational theology, and the ignoring of natural theology is the agreed and conventional wisdom.

  • 29.

    Thus there is no such article in familiar works such as The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible or Harper's Bible Dictionary (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), or in the excellent Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation, ed. R. J. Coggins and J. L. Houlden (London: SCM, 1990). The absence of such an article does not necessarily mean that the good editors are hostile to natural theology. They may be quite positively inclined towards it, but they seem to indicate that it is not material for inclusion in a biblical dictionary. The revised Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible, rev. F. C. Grant and H. H. Rowley (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1963) contains (pp. 690 f.) brief articles on ‘natural’ and ‘nature’, but these seem mainly concerned to minimize the role of these terms in biblical thought and neither of them has anything about possible connections with natural theology. The lengthy article on ‘Paul's Theology’ in the same work (G. B. Caird, 731–42) appears to contain no mention whatever of the possibility of natural theology. Examples can be multiplied indefinitely.

  • 30.

    Thus, to give only one example, the two volumes of essays edited by Sykes include no essay on the question of natural theology, and mention the matter very little.

  • 31.

    Barth's assumption that the authority of scripture implies the denial of natural theology is obvious in many places, e.g. Natural Theology, 82, 87, 107, etc. He repeatedly (and absurdly) attacks Brunner for denying the supreme authority of scripture, as well as for upsetting the principles of sola gratia and sola fides. In Natural Theology there is no attempt on Barth's side to consider as a real question whether scripture might sanction or imply natural theology.