1. Purposes and Intentions
Before we go more deeply into a statement of the position within the Bible, I have to go back to the background of the modern understanding and the principles that have been involved in it. As will be apparent from what I have said, I consider that there is substantial basis within the Bible for the acceptance of natural theology as a reality. Those present at these lectures may therefore have formed the impression: here is a person who is a believer in natural theology or an adherent to it, and he has therefore gone over the traditional biblical evidences for it, arguing that they really do support natural-theology. He is therefore opposed to all that Karl Barth said in denying natural theology, and wants to have it reinstated as a basic feature of modern theology, as it has scarcely been in recent times.
This, however, is not my position or my purpose. I do not have any starting-point within the tradition of natural theology. In principle, my starting-point is rather against it. To me the arguments of natural theology are not a congenial field. Even if natural theology should be a valid mode of procedure, I doubt if I would find it easy to practise it. In this respect, I share many of the doubts and objections that modern theologians have voiced against the whole idea of it. I have thus a certain underlying sympathy with what Barth was trying to do in his rejection of it. I am not at all sure that the new ways in which theologians—even of the Barthian tradition, and even including Barth himself—have come round to a revived natural theology are wholesome. I incline rather to the belief that they well deserve the same angry blast which the Barth of fifty years ago delivered against Brunner. I am unmoved by the idea of proofs of God's existence, I dislike apologetics, I start out on the whole subject as one who is distrustful of the entire box of tricks that makes up traditional natural theology, and ultra-modern natural theology as well. It may be, indeed, that through the effect of my own arguments I will be forced to become something of a natural theologian, but that was not the intention with which I started out. What really interests me is the effect that the whole question has upon biblical studies and upon the place of the Bible in theology. What I do find, after a long period of struggling with the problems, is that the Bible does imply something like natural theology and makes it impossible for us to avoid the issues that it involves.
As I indicated in Chapter 1, Barth's rejection of natural theology was never really based on biblical exegesis, nor, as he himself, at least partially, admitted, was it really representative of Protestant tradition as it had in fact been, even in the great Reformers themselves. Its real foundation lay in trends and developments in modern theology, philosophy, and society. Of course strenuous efforts were made to show that the Bible agreed with it, but the actual basis lay elsewhere. From beginning to end Barthianism was above all an intellectual, philosophical-dogmatic, system. But it was one that to an unusually high degree claimed to be based upon the Bible, and by its own logic had to claim to do so.
If it is true therefore that natural theology in some way underlies the Bible, if it is used and therefore supported by some significant parts of the Bible, the effect upon Barth's total theological position must be devastating. And this not so much because it means that his position about natural theology is wrong. That may or may not be the case, but is not the point I wish to pursue. What it means is that his doctrine of scripture is wrong. His assessment of the Bible as the Word of God and as the arbiter of theological truth cannot tolerate the perception that natural theology is sanctioned by its presence there. Certainly Barth's doctrine of scripture was such as to admit limited human imperfections—historical inaccuracies and that sort of thing, such as biblical criticism had amply revealed. But it could not tolerate the gigantic theological error of natural theology within key portions of the scripture—for no portions were more key portions than the Law of Moses, the Psalms, and the writings and speeches of Paul—not at a time when it was being asserted that the rejection of natural theology was the pivotal matter of discrimination between one theology and another.1 This was not a matter of minor historical errors or discrepancies between one book and another. It was a matter of the deepest, profoundest, theological principle. It lay at the central conceptual basis of biblical thought. It meant that, at the very point which was now being said to be the central issue of theology, the Bible was at fault and was a mistaken guide. Thus when Barth in his first Gifford Lecture enunciated the principle of the Reformation (as it ought to have been rather than as it had actually been), 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 the capacity to inform himself about God, the world, and man.
he would have had to rewrite the passage somewhat as follows:
The Church and salvation are founded on the word of God alone, on God's revelation in Jesus Christ; 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, the world, and man, even though such a teaching can be found to underlie certain central biblical passages or indeed is definitely expressed by them.
This, of course, he did not do and obviously could not do. The fact remains irrefutable: if you thoroughly reject natural theology, and if natural theology underlies the Bible in any significant degree, then you must judge that the Bible is inadequate as a theological guide. A theology that took account of this might, of course, be constructed on the basis of Barth's principles, but if so it would be a different theology from that which he in fact constructed.
2. Barth and Protestant Tradition
And this would have made a big difference. For one thing, it would have severely qualified Barth's claim that his theology was in positive continuity with the Reformation. He did, indeed, as I have mentioned, note the use of natural theology by both Luther and Calvin, but he could do this without strain because he appeared in other regards to be completely loyal to that movement, and could interpret his own shift of position concerning natural theology as an element of even greater loyalty to it. But to have made this shift of position, and accompanied it with an admission that the shift not only was a move away from the Reformers’ own practice, but meant that Holy Scripture itself was mistaken about this key issue, this would have been too much for most of those who heard Barth's lectures with sympathy and appreciation. For of course Luther and Calvin, in so far as they did use natural theology, did so under the impression, which they shared with most traditional Christians, that scripture itself gave sanction to this.
Actually Barth's rejection of natural theology was based, as he himself more or less admitted, not on the Reformation but on his own reading of the intellectual history of the world over the last four centuries. After that more recent development, he said, we can see more clearly than Luther or Calvin could. But what he said, in his Gifford Lectures, about this intellectual history was highly tendentious and misleading. We have here to take account of the fact that Barthianism moulded past intellectual history in its own image, and its efficiency in doing this was one of the reasons for its own great influence. No one perceived this better than Richard Niebuhr, who in 1964 wrote:2
Something very nearly approaching a Barthian captivity of the history of modern Christian thought reigns in theology outside of ultra-orthodox circles. It manifests itself in the efforts, sometimes rather strained, to interpret the theology of the Reformation in conformity with the canons of Barth's Church Dogmatics, and it also appears in the evident preconceptions with which the nineteenth century and Schleiermacher are interpreted by those who have fallen under the sway of this captivity.
In identifying Roman Catholicism as involving ‘a compromise with’ natural theology, indeed, Barth had an arguable case, and that opposition to the Roman tradition gave the appearance of validating the claim of his own theological position to be a truly Reformational one. But in saying that ‘Modern Protestantism’ was likewise based on a compromise with natural theology he was somewhat misleading his hearers. For one of the main features of Modern Protestantism—let us say, since the mid-eighteenth century—was its departure from the tradition of natural theology which had, in fact, been highly influential in Protestantism. Schleiermacher, for instance, had already emphasized the futility of natural theology. Ritschl had polemicized furiously against ‘metaphysics’ as an element within theology. The Barthians disliked Ritschl and hated to see any suggestion of a continuity between Ritschl and Barth, but the continuity is not to be denied.3 Barth's own major teacher, Herrmann, was one of the Ritschlian group. And Harnack had made familiar the idea of a ‘Hellenization’ of the original substance of Christianity,4 and in most people's minds there was much in common between Hellenization and natural theology. Thus, contrary to the impression that was deliberately made, the denial of natural theology was one of the aspects in which Barthianism was continuing the line which Modern Protestantism had initiated,5 and was alienating itself from the older religious world in which the Reformers and the Fathers had lived. The attraction of the Barthian position lay precisely in the fact that it seemed to fit with the experience of a generation in which science on the one hand and war on the other had seemed to make the world empty of God.
Equally ignored by Barth, in the statements in his Gifford Lectures, was the heavy debt owed to natural theology in conservative Protestant theology, as already mentioned above. Now conservative Protestantism is considerably divided in this regard. As one illustration we may mention the nineteenth-century neo-Calvinism of the Princeton theology of the Hodges.6 Charles Hodge was quite clear about the importance of reason in the knowledge of God, and he used all sorts of rational, scientific, and historical apologetics, of just the kind which the Barthianism of the next century was to subject to ridicule. It was not unnatural that those of this tradition were to resent the way in which Barth and his followers not only undercut their arguments, but claimed in so doing to be representing the genuinely Reformational point of view.
Thus some evangelicals, annoyed by Barth's arguments (which the main body of evangelicals reject), point out—in my opinion rightly—that scripture itself contains or at least by implication sanctions natural theology. A good example of evangelical thought that supports natural theology is the work of T. C. Hammond, Reasoning Faith: An Introduction to Christian Apologetics (London: Inter-Varsity Fellowship, 1943), which was, I think one could say, the nearest there was to a theological textbook in British student evangelicalism of the 1940s and early 1950s. As the title correctly states, the entire approach is an apologetic one. Although the book says rather little directly or positively about natural theology, a positive valuation of it is clearly implied, and thus its chapter 9, pp. 80 ff., reacts against ‘Two serious objections to natural theology’, in particular, of course, the Barthian one. Hammond has some sympathy with Barth's emphasis on sin and revelation, but cannot accept his anti-apologetic position, which would make vain the entire approach of his own book. On the other hand, though he does not do much to argue that scripture positively supports natural theology, he does imply it, using a verse from Proverbs which may indeed be quite relevant. He writes that ‘If “the spirit of man is the candle of the Lord” (Prov. 2027), there can be no discredit in employing it to illumine the greater things of life’ (p. 88). Recognizing with Calvin the weakness (‘imbecility’) of this light, and continuing with gloom about human nature, Hammond goes on, in purple prose, to tell us that
yet we can still direct the thoughts of our fellows to those ruins of our former greatness which still bear imposing witness to the great temple which God erected when He made man in His image. Nor does it seem evident to us that, if God designs to restore man to the dignity from which he has fallen, then the relics of greatness which he still possesses must be wholly ignored in the process. It is one thing to say that a man cannot by searching find out God, and quite another to say that the Holy Spirit will never employ his earnest gropings to direct him to still better modes of finding that which his soul desires.
Hammond, and many of his readers, were doubtless quite unconscious how near this ‘conservative evangelical’ position came to the traditional liberal-idealist use of natural theology.
Other evangelicals, however, impressed by the power of sin over the ‘unregenerate’ human heart, are against natural theology and deny that it has any biblical basis.7 Part of this can be explained as follows. Much evangelical argumentation and apologetic uses what, if seen from a Barthian point of view, counts as natural theology, and hence it is understandable that this viewpoint should support a rational natural-theology approach and accept the existence of traces of it within scripture. But on the other hand much evangelicalism does not know what to do, positively, with natural theology. Its emphasis lies more on the contrast of sin and grace; its evangelism stresses the complete darkness of the unconverted heart; and it is terrified by the critical effects which the presence of natural theology might exercise upon the biblical picture of God as evangelicals see it. It is willing to allow reason or natural theology to be a support to revelation, as evangelicals see it, but not that they should have any power to modify revelation as thus seen. Thus it tends to stress in practice the ideal of entire dependence on revelation, and at the same time to leave unobserved or unrealized the heavy dependence on natural theology which, as any Barthian would see it, underlies the main theological tradition of evangelicalism.
And similarly, yet again, that modern style of philosophically refined Calvinism, which appears to me to be a philosophical theism uneasily combined with a naïve biblicism, would also surely have counted for Barth as being a form of natural theology, even when its practitioners themselves deny the validity of the latter. But in any case, admitting these complications and possible exceptions, the point I am arguing must remain true, and natural theology had a strong tradition of support within conservative and evangelical Protestantism also.
Barth's dependence on intellectual history can and must be pursued further, both back and forward. Looking further back, we have to ask about his views of the Reformers, and especially of Calvin himself. Here, as Richard Niebuhr saw, the effects of the ‘Barthian captivity’ are particularly intense. Very different pictures of Calvin's thought in the relevant areas can be seen in the writings, for instance, of E. A. Dowey, T. F. Torrance, and John Leith, and I would not presume to comment on these works, except in so far as concerns my own areas of Old Testament, exegesis generally, and relations with natural theology. For a general picture of Calvin's thought I am impressed by the work of Bouwsma, and inclined to believe it the more because he is a true historian and not a theologian, and therefore less likely to be grinding a theological axe. Work written from a pro-Barthian standpoint must be judged likely to be biased, as Niebuhr implied: not because Barthians are necessarily less able in history, but because the Barthian tradition did more than any other theological current to attack the ideal of historical objectivity—especially in biblical exegesis, but also in other historical regards—and failed to concede that even the attempt to achieve a limited objectivity was a desirable goal. Applying the same principle to their own historical work, which had an important apologetic function, we have to expect it to be biased.8 In this they are hoist with their own petard. Barthians asked questions of the older traditions, but they asked them in Barthian form and so they obtained Barthian answers. They cannot complain if others discount their historical work accordingly.
Actually Calvin's debt to natural theology was, I believe, much greater than is suggested by Barth's very grudging admissions.9 ‘Given his intellectualistic anthropology, his respect for valid method and argument, and his conviction that religious truths are accessible to human beings in nature, it is hardly surprising that Calvin was attracted to natural theology.’ Much of his use of it was unoriginal: ‘he repeated commonplaces long available, especially those of Cicero.’ Note particularly Calvin's emphasis on the immutability of God, highly fateful for the idea of predestination and other central doctrines; and similarly the importance of the heavenly bodies and their regularity, so that ‘astronomy may justly be called the alphabet of theology’, thoughts very relevant in relation to Psalm 19, as we have already seen. The limited role that Calvin, in some of his doctrinal statements, may have assigned to natural theology has to be complemented with a recognition of the influence that it had on his exegetical perceptions, which may well have been much greater. And, in doctrinal statements like the first chapter of the Institutes, where Barth admits a ‘guarded’ use of natural theology by Calvin, I believe that the arguments there deployed by Calvin are much more essential and thus deserve much stronger emphasis than Barth here suggests, because Calvin uses natural theology to prove the impossibility of atheism, a point which is not marginal but of central importance.10 Human beings had an innate religious instinct, which on Barthian terms might not amount to much, but for Calvin himself was a powerful basis of argument. Religion was for him, as it was not for Barth, a significant positive symbol. It was not by chance that his best-known work was called the Institutes ‘of the Christian Religion’.
Respect for the religious instincts of the natural man, even after the Fall, is also implicit in Calvin's belief in the superiority of Greek religion to other expressions of ancient paganism. The Greeks, who represented the gods with human figures, were less deluded than the Egyptians, who worshipped dogs, oxen, and even cats and herbs. Degrees of natural insight imply, in principle, the validity of natural theology.11
The strong classical and humanist interests of Calvin point in the same direction. Early on he had written a commentary on Seneca's De clementia, and the atmosphere of Stoicism was familiar to him. Naturally, he deplored the many failings of classical civilization, as all Christian theologians did: but the idea, familiar in modern times, that the classical mentality was intrinsically inimical to biblical revelation was lacking. Reformational exegesis had little perception of the cultural, logical structures especially of Semitic people, which structures have been so strong a subject of attention among modern scholars. What it knew of the thought-forms of ancient humanity was drawn much more from the classical than from the Semitic world. In spite of the total acceptance of the Old Testament by a man like Calvin, and his full enthusiasm for it, there is little sign in his work of that appreciation for the distinctive mind and logic of the Hebrews which has so interested the twentieth century. The contrary is the case: in spite of Calvin's strongly pro-Old Testament standpoint, he may be understood rather as one who in considerable measure Hellenized the understanding of it.12
All in all, then, there may be good reason to question the links that have been claimed to exist between Barth's theology and that of Calvin in respect of the question of natural theology. Even Barth himself, as has been mentioned, admitted that he had gone beyond Calvin in this respect. He was aware that, in completely rejecting natural theology, he was entering new territory. And the same applies in other theological areas: how much common ground is there between Barth's doctrine of ‘election’ and Calvin's predestination, other than the use of the same words? I suspect that there is as much truth both in the conservative Calvinistic understanding of Calvin and in the moderate, more humanistic interpretation of him, as there is in the Barthian understanding of him. Not that it matters for us in the long run anyway: our interest here is not in Calvin, but in the Bible, and Calvin's opinion one way or the other cannot decide anything for us. All we are doing is to test and question the supposed foundations of the Barthian position in the past history of ideas, and especially of theological thought.
3. Barth and National Socialism
This being so, it is appropriate to direct a similar questioning at the way in which Barth associated natural theology with the pro-Nazi position of the ‘German Christian’ movement.13 It is not clear that there is any essential or necessary link between German National Socialism and natural theology. Why should there be? To attach the label of ‘natural theology’ to the hoarse and inchoate utterances of the DC—who were in any case a limited element within the German Protestant population, had no unitary theological views, and in the long run were not very important historically—is a quite disgraceful smear on the careful, rational, and philosophical discussions which have generally been intended when the term is used. The motives of those who believed in an affinity between Christianity and Nazism were probably a variegated mixture of confused national ideals, hopes of personal profit, and the vague belief that Hitler's coming to power heralded an important moral revival, a belief which was certainly an important part of the atmosphere of the time and was shared by many Christians who did not therefore become DC members.14 In so far as there was any central theme in it, it lay in what was seen as a ‘miraculous’ turn in historical events, an ‘hour’ of a sort of ‘salvation’ initiated by Hitler's rise to power. Whatever one may think of this, it is not obviously to be identified as ‘natural theology’—or if it is, it is something very different from what has commonly been understood to be natural theology. In fact, natural theology may well have been only a small part of it.
Indeed, it may be more correct to say that the average theology of those who supported National Socialism was a revelational theology, in which the 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. Two aspects of natural theology were markedly absent from these currents: first, its rationality, and secondly and more important, its tendency to the universal. Nothing was more marked in the arguments of Nazi supporters than their hostility to any kind of universality or internationalism. This indeed could be a reason why an affinity between Protestantism and National Socialism was perceived: for Catholicism had an air of being ‘international’ and ‘universal’, while it might be thought that there was some reason for the claim that Protestantism was essentially German. To Nazi supporters the particularity of German historical experience was an essential idea. In this respect they were closer to the patterns of revelational theology, with its background in the particularity of Israel as people of God. The völkisch, ‘folk’, dimension was essential. If the völkisch dimension could be stated as a structure or ‘order’ built into creation, which looked rather like natural theology, it could also be understood as a revelational principle valid, as in the Bible, for a particular people with its history. Thus the understanding of pro-Nazi theology as basically a kind of natural theology was probably a vast misdiagnosis. And if this diagnosis was mistaken, the consequences were grave: for the insistence that natural theology was the ultimate and decisive factor led to the decision that Church dissent should not be directed in the first place against the racial politics of the government, its persecution of the Jews, or its deification of the state. Attention to these evils must wait, it was implied, until the prime matter of natural theology had been dealt with.
And even Barth himself could use revelational terms to describe the DC theology which he opposed. Its essential dogmatic premiss was that ‘German Volkstum, its history, and its political present were to be evaluated as a second source of revelation’.15 Why then did he so insist that it was natural theology that was the source of evil? Several reasons may be suggested. First, the dialectical theology from the beginning had emphasized the Word of God and divine revelation, and had been remote from the sort of mental activity that characterized traditional natural theology. Though in the end the tradition of the dialectical theology might find its way towards some sort of natural theology—as might be said to some extent of Bultmann and even, as we have seen, of Barth—the whole character of traditional natural theology was obviously distasteful to the movement in its earlier stages. Thus it was an easy critical tactic to associate the various pro-Nazi theologies with natural theology, but it may well have missed the mark.
Secondly, natural theology was seen as essentially a Roman Catholic interest, and the dialectical theology was strongly Protestant in its orientation. Thus Bultmann, opening his discussion of the matter, explained what ‘natural theology’ was in the Catholic tradition, but instantly went on to rule it out as ‘impossible’ for Protestant theology, firstly because it is impossible to provide proofs of God, but ‘especially’ because ‘the only access to God is faith’.16 Later on, Barth's thought may have become more ‘catholic’, and Roman Catholic appreciation of him became greater; but there is little sign of this in the earlier debates, for example in his Gifford Lectures, which are narrowly and exclusively Calvinist. The concentration on revelation in Christ and the consequent denial of all natural theology were seen by him at the time as the ‘long overdue fundamental settling of accounts with the Roman Catholic method of thought in theology’.17 There was no worse judgement to be made of the aspects of the DC movement, judged by Barth as natural theology, than that it ‘must and will make the Protestant Church romreif, ripe for Rome’.18
A third reason may well lie in Barth's own style in the use of language. To him a term like revelation could mean only one thing, that is, the true revelation, or in other words what he himself meant by the term. It was not proper to use a central theological term of this kind as if it could equally comprehend sharply contrasting human opinions. He might occasionally, therefore, speak of the opposing view as implying a sort of ‘revelation’, but this would be an improper usage, employed to indicate how scandalous a thought it was. ‘Revelation’ could properly mean only one thing, and any deviation from that one meaning would be a departure from revelation: as such, it was therefore a resort to natural theology.
For my present purpose, I do not have to prove this point. Nevertheless, it seems to be supported by a consideration of some of the more prominent theological figures. Thus Paul Althaus, another who belonged like Barth to the general trends of the dialectical theology, seems to have supported the Nazi movement but, it is said of him, he ‘specifically denies that he means a natural theology; natural revelation cannot be sufficient by itself, for it will not lead to Christianity. Althaus is also unwilling to espouse a natural theology because of its ties to Roman Catholicism. However, the compromise which he develops does accept a revelation in nature.’19 Likewise Emanuel Hirsch, a strong opponent of Barth and supporter of the National Socialist movement, seems to have based himself above all on a kind of strongly Lutheran theology, in which the doctrine of the two kingdoms was combined with a rejection of all the principles of modernity supposed to be associated with the German defeat of 1918 and the revolution that followed it. If I understand it rightly, it was less a natural theology and more like a theology of revelation which included a renewal and broadening out of revelation in a modern ‘miracle’. This is what one would have expected. There was perhaps some connection, but no direct and necessary correlation, between natural theology and support for the National Socialist movement. Equally, there was no necessary correlation between rejection of natural theology and opposition to that movement. For the question lay rather within the field of revelatory theology: if God revealed himself to a particular people and within their history and experience, why should this not be true also of a more modern people and its history and experience?—a question that even today remains difficult to answer.
We have shown, then, that Barth may have been quite wrong in his belief that the events of the Nazi period demonstrated the fatal long-term effects of natural theology. This is not essential for the rest of our argument, but it certainly makes a difference to the atmosphere in which it is likely to be received. More important for our purpose, perhaps, is this other point: that this very example shows the difficulty in making an ultimate distinction between natural and revealed theology. If one believes that God has revealed himself in his creation and continues to do so, why is that ‘natural’ theology and not ‘revealed’? If one believed that God was revealing himself in the German political experiences of a certain era, why was that ‘natural’ theology and not ‘revealed’? If one believes that God was revealing himself in ancient Israel, why is this not ‘natural’? Perhaps all theology is both ‘natural’ and ‘revealed’?
There is a further aspect concerning the argument about Nazism. It was used, as we have seen, by Barth himself, within that period and context. In the English-speaking world, however, it achieved a significance that was probably much greater than Barth himself could have known. To associate a theological trend with the misdeeds of Germans and German governments has been a well-tried and generally successful rhetorical technique, fuelled by the experiences of two world wars. Barthian propaganda in Britain and North America used the same, and did so from the very start. From the beginning, when Barth was first spoken of, we were told how shocked he had been when distinguished liberal theologians had been among those who signed the ‘Aufruf der 93’ which supported the German case over the outbreak of war in 1914. It was often the first thing to be told, when Barth's name was discussed, and was infinitely repeated. One war later, the same thing happened again, and the supposed affinity between natural theology and National Socialism became a foremost element in the Barthian bid for theological power, and again with very considerable effect. In calling it propaganda, I am not saying that the allegations were without truth. Good propaganda has to have some truth in it. But it was propaganda because people used it for its power to persuade. They had not examined the facts: few, probably none, had read the German documents of 1914–15 or knew what they said (they are, in fact, rather inaccessible); they did not consider that there might be contrary evidence—for example, conservative theologians and churchmen supported their German national cause with just as much enthusiasm as liberal ones did, but no one said anything about that side of it; few made a critical investigation to discover how far natural theology was really involved in the DC movement; few bothered to mention the enthusiasm with which Hitler was greeted by groups that in the English-speaking world would have counted as ‘evangelical’ and ‘pentecostal’. The arguments were not based on real knowledge: they were used because they seemed to have power and to bring power.
Barth's opposition to Nazi ideology was fully genuine: but it is not easy, in the atmosphere of such a time, for even the most sincere opposition to avoid taking on certain characteristics of that which is opposed.20 Barthianism took shape within that same world. Features of aggressiveness and totalitarianism are manifest in the Barthian tradition, and its own rejection of natural theology, which carried with it an inability to use open-minded and reasoned forms of discussion, easily led on to a dependence on rhetorical and propagandist means of persuasion.21 And, finally, if Christians in Germany then held, along with their Christian faith, a mixture of national and cultural values and ideological inclinations, just as most Christians at all times have done, there is no reason to believe that the rejection of natural theology in itself does anything to remove these values and inclinations: on the contrary, as all experience has shown, they continue to coexist equally well with that rejection.
Thus the foundations of Barthian theology in the history of ideas, both when used positively, as in its claim to be the true outcome of Calvinist theology, and when used negatively, as in its claim to offer the one decisive antidote to cultural poisons of modern times, should be treated sceptically and critically. There may be truth in them at certain points, but seldom is it such truth as to validate the claims in full; and in any case all of it is a matter of modern historical judgement, none of it is a product of revelation. And it is the judgement of people who see the entire world and its history very much through the glass of their own particular theology. All this is fallible. The result is that, for the evaluation of these particular theological claims, much more weight must fall on our evaluation of the biblical material itself.
As I see it, Barthianism was an ingenious interweaving of elements that were older, whether biblical or Reformational, with elements that were entirely modern, novel, and innovational.22 Conceptions entirely modern, related to existentialism, to atheism, to Hegelianism, were cleverly compounded with biblical exegesis and Reformational formulae. If some positions were justified by the assertion that they were held in the Reformation, others were supported by the quite opposite argumentation, namely that they belonged to the most modern trends of thought and that any who did not agree were out of date, were relics of nineteenth-century thought and out of touch with modernity. Barthianism managed to combine the dreariest conservative traditionalism with the same unseemly boastfulness about its conformity with recent trends that it had castigated in the liberals. It is thus not surprising that the outcome of Barthianism should manifest itself, as it has done, in numerous extremely different and mutually contradictory expressions.
4. Barth and Modern Biblical Studies
How did all this relate to the specific question of biblical study? Much attention has been drawn in recent discussion to the considerable friction that developed between Barth and the tradition of modern biblical scholarship. At times Barth seemed to treat biblical scholarship with mere contempt, and brushed it aside: he could do better himself. And this aspect certainly existed. But, typically of the paradoxes of our theme, there are also aspects in which Barth was very much in debt to the tendencies of biblical scholarship of his time. He depended on certain positions which were the result of historical-critical scholarship. One of these was the matter of the historical Jesus: the belief that the Gospels were not biographies, that nothing much definite could be known about Jesus through purely historical analysis—of this aspect we shall say no more.23 But another such aspect was the alienation from natural theolog.
For at least the last century biblical scholars had ceased to work seriously with natural theology. It was no longer part of their work or their interests. They were interested to work with the minds of the biblical people, and they no longer cared whether these minds conformed to the ideas of modern reason, logic, or psychology. They no longer thought that it was part of their work to ‘validate’ the thoughts of biblical writers by showing that they fitted with modern requirements, or even by showing that they fitted with modern Christian beliefs. On the whole, they chose the opposite path: if the thoughts of biblical people were entirely different from what modern rationality might demand, then so much the better for biblical people. The discovery of the mentality of ancient people might uncover a mode of thinking that, while different from modern modes, was valuable and constructive when taken in its own right. Again, unlike the biblical scholars of an earlier period, modern biblical scholars were no longer interested in apologetic arguments, in proving, for instance, from scientific discoveries that it was possible for the earth to be covered with water as in the time of the Flood, or that Jonah might quite probably have been swallowed up by a whale, or in showing from historical sources that the plagues of Egypt had really happened as described in the Bible.24 Such matters now lay for the most part outside the realm of serious biblical study. All this was a setting, already existing before Barth, into which the Barthian approach to theology fitted very well.
Barth was in this very much a man of modern times. He perceived and followed their trend. The rejection of natural theology, apologetics, and the like suited very well the way in which biblical scholarship had long been going. This is why, in spite of the strangeness of Barthian theology to most biblical scholars, and in spite of the contemptuous attitude Barth displayed towards their work, there was never any great outcry from biblical scholarship against that rejection. It suited them very well. Added to this is the professional concentration of biblical scholars on the Bible, their ‘biblicism’ in the sense of their occupational unwillingness to see anything decided by factors without the Bible and beyond the range of their competence or expertise. Contrary to general opinion of recent times, the obvious weakness of the average biblical scholar lay not in his or her bias toward historical approaches, but in his or her lack of philosophical insight or ability. Their professional expertise encouraged this. Most were not sorry to see natural theology forgotten about. Their own natural sympathy with the idea of the Bible as the supremely revelational document made them all the less willing to discern traces of natural theology within it, all the more willing to do like Barth and use exegetical means to obscure these traces.
Much, though not all, of biblical theology was thus the provision of a parallel, set within biblical scholarship and working on its plane and with its methods, to the general trends and objectives of the dialectical theology in dogmatics. Natural theology, it was felt, had its chief expression in Greek thought, and Greek thought thus became the enemy. Unfortunately, the New Testament had been written in Greek, and this, by the ideas of the time, might have made it more likely that the New Testament was infected with aspects of Greek philosophy, of the mystery religions, and so on. It was Hebrew thought that came to the rescue. Hebrew thought, it was supposed, was more or less exclusively revelational. New Testament writers who had written in Greek were nevertheless imbued with Hebrew thought, so that their words were Greek but the meanings were Hebrew. Volumes of apparently scientific evidence were produced to show how this was so. Thus biblical theology, in this aspect of it, functioned as a kind of apologetic for the Barthian tendency in dogmatic theology. It provided evidence, allegedly demonstrable on the linguistic and cultural plane, that appeared to validate that tendency. Its function in this regard, incidentally, demonstrated that Barthianism, great as was its disdain for traditional rational or philosophical apologetics, was very ready to accept the aid of an apologetic of this different kind—and also of yet others, as we shall see. It refused any apologetic through which the non-Christian might be persuaded to become a Christian; but, within Christianity, it desperately needed an apologetic by which it would be able to claim that the Barthian way, and no other, was the right one. Such an apologetic was swiftly manufactured.
Moreover, here again the Barthian theology, far from moving against the stream of modern historical scholarship, was depending entirely on it. Without the historical orientation of scholarship none of this perception of the way of thinking of biblical man would ever have come to light. The matter is well put by Krister Stendahl in a memorable passage, which refers in particular to the religionsgeschichtliche Schule but goes on to the general characteristics of scholarship after that period:25
What emerged out of the studies of the religionsgeschichtliche Schule was a new picture of the men, the ideas, and the institutions of biblical history. Those elements and traits, which did strike modern man as crude, primitive, cultic and even magical, were now given equal and often greater emphasis than those which happened to appeal to enlightened Western man… J. Pedersen applied V. Gronbech's studies of human self-understanding in old Nordic religion to an extensive study of OT anthropology, where cherished distinctions between soul and body, magic and religion, cult and ethics, individual and collective, were thoroughly intermingled and lost much of their meaning. It became a scholarly ideal to creep out of one's Western and twentieth-century skin and identify oneself with the feelings and thought-patterns of the past.
That whole emphasis on the different categories and thought-forms of ancient people—especially of ancient people lying outside the philosophical currents supposed to be typical of the Greek world—was a product of the historical orientation of scholarship just as important as its historical analysis, datings, source theories, and the like. It was a distinctively modern achievement, though first steps in this direction might go back as far as Herder and romanticism. Something of that idea of the mind of biblical humanity was assumed by the dialectical theology and formed part of its strength and attractiveness. Existentialism, it was thought in the earlier stages, provided a modern world-view which retained some of the aspects of it. And the biblical theology movement, again running parallel with the dialectical theology, made enormous play out of this particular heritage which had come out of modern scholarship.
Thus of St Paul, who is in many ways the central figure in this matter, though he certainly used many expressions that seemed at home in the Hellenistic culture of his time, it seemed to people very important to argue that, though these expressions were in the Greek language, the thought behind them was Hebraic—and that fact, if true, it was thought, made it clear that the ideas derived from revelation and were expressions of it. That St Paul of all people sympathized with, used, and actually depended on arguments or concepts of natural theology has been more or less unbelievable to many, and especially those trained in the traditions deriving from the dialectical theology.
But even in that tradition the assurance of these positions has been breaking down. My own criticisms of earlier years showed that many of the arguments used to demonstrate Hebrew meanings in Greek words were linguistically invalid. I have already quoted26 the judgement of Christian Link, writing in the latest stage of Barthian tradition, to the effect that Paul uses not only the words and terms, but the full coherent idea-framework of Greek thought.
Exegetically, therefore, we have to be entirely open to the presence of Greek thought and to the possibility of natural theology within the New Testament. The zealotic opposition to Greek ideas is something that can now be forgotten. But even so that formulation of the questions points towards a further, and less obvious, move that we ought now to make. As I have begun to hint, the bases of natural theology within the biblical tradition were Hebraic anyway. If Greek thought-forms could be the vehicle of a familiar natural theology, Hebrew thought-forms were only the vehicle of another, perhaps somewhat different, natural theology. That is what made it all the easier for them to find expression in Greek. And this, if at all true, must mean that it becomes all the more probable that natural theology had a significant part to play within the New Testament. A Hebrew background for natural theology reverses the direction of the arguments that have so long been familiar, and considerably strengthens the argument for natural theology in the New Testament, and thus for a continuous tradition of it running from Hebrew Bible times down into the post-New Testament Church.
We may remind ourselves that one of the main arguments against natural theology was based on the centrality of communication through Jesus Christ. I have already quoted the principle asserted by Barth, 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 the capacity to inform himself about God, the world, and man.
Such an argument was certain to carry much weight with convinced Christians: only through Jesus Christ is God known. But how does it fit with the Old Testament, where also God was known?
By pressing upon the discussion his own categories of question: is God known or not?, Barth was intruding his own conceptions into an Old Testament situation where they did not fit. As I wrote some time ago, in the Old Testament ‘apart from some quite limited concessions, there is no stage at which God is not known’.27 Adam and Eve after their disobedience had a less good relationship with God, they were fearful and guilty, but it makes no sense to say that they did not ‘know’ God: they communicated with him throughout. Cain likewise, though excluded from the near presence of God, in no sense was without ‘knowledge’ of God. The Old Testament question is not so much whether God was ‘known’, but when and how he was worshipped. From a very early stage we are told, quite unceremoniously, and without any suggestion that there was a problem of ‘knowing’ God, that ‘then it was begun to call upon the name of the Lord’ (Gen. 426). The idea that there was a problem because God was not ‘known’ is an intrusion of a quite alien set of ideas, and an intrusion which by its nature favoured the Barthian construction of theology.
To say that even in the Old Testament God was known solely through Jesus Christ might be a possible dogmatic construction, but exegetically it simply does not work at all. Any accounts of the knowledge of God that work from the actual textual material of the Old Testament must necessarily approach the matter, and answer it, in a quite different way. Barth's dogmatic approach to our question, in spite of his full veneration for the Old Testament, took its departure entirely from the setting within Christianity. He handled the Old Testament as if it was a portion of Jesus Christ, not just something that looked forward to him, prepared the way for him, or that provided the most important of the categories in which he would be understood, but as if it was an actual piece of him, in a sense which might be meaningful for the New Testament but was contrary to the actualities of the Old. For the question, by his formulation, was: is there any knowledge of God anterior to the self-revelation of God in Christ? Well, the only answer, by orthodox Christian principles and even by Barth's own, if they are properly considered, is: yes, the Old Testament provides such anterior knowledge. But, if there is any anterior knowledge at all, that breaks the force of Barth's argument. If there is knowledge anterior to Christ, in the Old Testament, it may as well include natural knowledge within it. To put it in another way, the idea of a ‘Christological’ exegesis of the Old Testament may have been a fatal obstacle to any perception of the reality of natural theology in the Hebrew and Jewish background to Christian faith.
Barth took what appeared to him to be the Christian situation and imposed it upon the whole, just as conversely he and/or his followers imposed the patterns of supposed Hebrew thought upon St Paul in order to keep him away from any suggestion of natural theology. But Paul interpreted certain key passages, and especially, as we have seen, the story of Adam and Eve, in the way he did only because he followed the understanding which had become conventional in the Hellenistic world and in a context which willingly developed natural theology. Correspondingly, Barth's imposition of what to him seemed to be a Christian/Calvinistic/Reformed understanding depended on a Pauline stance which had itself come into being through acceptance of that which Barth denied.
In other words, it was taken to be obvious that either Jesus Christ was sole Lord or there was other or anterior knowledge of God. Either alternative absolutely negated the other. Time was not wasted on such alternatives as that Jesus Christ was sole Lord but the way in which the scripture both led up to that and stated it took up anterior knowledge within itself. No one considered such possibilities as that, while Jesus Christ was sole Lord, there were structures akin to natural theology which were involved in seeing him as Lord, especially when we specify ‘on the basis of the scriptures’. It is this alternative that we now propose, and which we see to have very substantial scriptural evidence in its favour.
Another argument used was that against the ‘and’ of so much contemporary religion: ‘Christ and culture’, ‘Christ and history’, ‘Christ and nature’, ‘Christ and reason’.28 All such cases of and or also were to be got rid of. As an expression of disgust with all sorts of compromise, such an argument is understandable. But on the other hand it is a clear admission of weakness, in that it provides no reason why specifically natural theology was to be identified as the thing to be rejected. Even if it was a valid protest against the opinions of the DC, and even if we accept that their ideas really included a kind of natural theology, this still is no reason why all and every kind of natural theology should be singled out as the essential element to be opposed. And if Barth and the framers of the Barmen Declaration thought that they were opting for a position in which Christ only was criterion and there was no and at all, they were either deceiving themselves or misrepresenting themselves. They did not have any such option nor did they take any such option. For they certainly implied: Christ and certain accompanying features without which ‘Christ alone’ would not have been acceptable; thus Christ and a clearly Reformational theological approach, and, for our present purposes most important, Christ and the Old Testament. But this meant: Christ and the Old Testament history. And it made sense only because the Old Testament furnished its own separate fund of knowledge which could not be subsumed within the entity ‘Christ alone’. It was genuine anterior knowledge: in Israel God was known. To affirm ‘Christ only’ and couple this with ‘according to the scriptures’ was very possibly, as we have seen, to contradict the scriptures. And if the statement that revelation was only in Christ was meant by Barth and the framers of the Barmen Declaration to deny that creation was a revelation of God,29 there may be some doubt where Genesis 1 stands on this but there can be no doubt that such a view is in contradiction of Romans 1. Therefore the argument condemning all these ‘ands’ was a mistaken one. The problem was that of sorting out the differences between various kinds of natural theology, as also between different kinds of revelational theology.
The condemnation of all natural theology meant that these tasks were not attempted.
5. Various Arguments against Natural Theology
Certain other customary arguments against natural theology may be mentioned here. One of them was that natural theology was ‘the theology of the natural man’.30 Seen in this way, natural theology is part of the ‘natural man's’ hostility and revolt against God.31 The argument is a sort of linguistic trick, in which the ‘natural’ of the customary expression ‘natural theology’, implying a theology that can be attained without the use of special revelation, is infected with the suggestions of the Pauline phrase ‘the natural man’, meaning man unredeemed, deeply sinful, and so on. Nevertheless, there could be something in the argument. But modern experience has made clear the fallacy in it. Thoughts that may be derived from revelation become the possession of the thinker in just the same way as thoughts that originate through human initiatives: they are his own thoughts, they become his ‘property’, the basis for his self-interest and self-aggrandizement in exactly the same way; indeed, if anything, the confidence that one's thoughts are based in revelation, and are therefore not one's own human product but are given to one by a divine source outside of one, only makes more serious the hubris of the ‘natural man’. One of the things that Barthianism has abundantly shown is that revelational theology is just as much the theology of the ‘natural man’ and plays just as much into the demands of his will and passions as any natural theology ever did. The harsh words of St Paul about the natural man in Romans 1 have many echoes in the impression that the Barthian movement left within modern theology. ‘Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools… whisperers, backbiters…’—such expressions are all too reminiscent of modern realities. And with this argument we touch upon a theme which will occupy us more extensively as we continue: the possibility that there is, ultimately, no important difference between natural and revealed theology after all. The thought is by no means an original one of mine; let me quote again an Edinburgh theologian:
The methods of natural and revealed theology are therefore the same in form and manner… There is no special, privileged theological method or epistemology.
Theological order is achieved like any other, and knowledge within it is like knowledge elsewhere, so it has to conform to requirements for truth and justification if it is to gain credibility.32
Original or not, the thought is one that certainly makes a difference to our theme. For the moment, however, we shall not pursue this.
Turning in another direction, it has also been argued against natural theology that it was a conservative and obscurantist force that acted against progress and discovery. Natural theology, it has been claimed, has been the means by which ideas from the heritage of the Greco-Roman world have come to be canonized as the true view of ‘nature’ and given the blessing of Christianity as final and unalterable truth. The Church's persistent support of outdated pre-scientific and cosmological views is too well known to require attestation. Many of the controversial opinions in modern social/political/medical areas, for example, go back to natural theology. Thus religiously motivated opposition to contraception and population control, though often bolstered by appeals to the Bible and divine revelation, commonly has its real basis in a view of ‘nature’ as something willed by God to be static and unchanging and therefore as something that should be left to take its own course and not be interfered with by human actions, initiatives, schemes, and planning. In this respect the rejection of natural theology appeared to open a way through which modern theology could ally itself with more progressive and dynamic scientific approaches of today.
There may indeed be something in this as an argument against natural theology, although it has doubtless been overplayed in our time. But it contains one obvious mistake: for, in its bias against natural theology, it has omitted to register the enormous degree to which the same conservative and obscurantist effects have been exercised by revelatory theology and the revelatory materials of the Bible. Perhaps not so much in science, but certainly in matters of social organization and relationships, materials treated in the Bible as revelatory, and understood as such by theology, have worked in the same way. Indeed, in so far as these obscurantist effects were exercised, they were probably seldom exercised through natural theology alone, but rather through the combination of natural and revelatory theology.
Another of the arguments against natural theology has surely been this: that, as a means of persuasion toward faith, it just did not work. Andrew Louth, for instance, sympathizing with Barth against his critics, makes this point.33 ‘Is apologetics so successful that we simply cannot ignore it?’ he asks, and implies the answer, no, it is not very successful. And this may indeed be quite true: few people are persuaded by the arguments from natural theology, few become active believers as a result of them. Indeed, it can be argued that natural theology acts against belief: by persuading people that they are already, by their human nature, aware of the true God, it makes it seem less necessary that they should embrace faith itself. Against natural theology, against apologetics, it is quite a good argument. But, unfortunately, it cuts both ways. It equally provides a good reason for exactly what happened, a good reason why natural theology came to be dumped. For, one could easily say, however effective arguments from natural theology had been or at least seemed in an earlier age, by 1930 or so it was visible that they no longer worked, and precisely that explains why Barth's influence as so effective. Natural theology had had its place in the older world of Christendom, where God (i.e. a recognizably Christian God) could be largely presumed in any case. But by this time changes in philosophy, in scientific knowledge, in biblical criticism, at the entire mental climate meant that the older apologetic arguments had ceased to convince the minds of many people. Abandonments of natural theology was thus an easy and obvious course. Thus is not surprising that suggestions should be made that the real natural theology of Barth was atheism.34 Here again he ran with the current and not against it. The hoarse, and often unsophisticated, conservative charges that Barth was a modernist, a new liberal, however ill argued, were not without some kind of foundation.35
6. Was Barth Himself Dependent on Natural Theology?
Moreover, as seen from the viewpoint of the biblical scholar, it was never so clear that Barth was really against natural theology, even at the stage at which he most expressly rejected it. Great as was his emphasis on revealed theology, it always seemed that there was some kind of non-revealed intellectual structure that provided the necessary assumptions. Such a structure might not be a natural theology, but it seemed it was some kind of substitute that performed the same function as a natural theology had done for other theological systems. As we have just seen, some have thought that his true natural theology was atheism. Again, it is clear that his theology depended in large degree on an analysis of the history of ideas, especially of theological ideas. This again was not revelation. He might be right or he might be wrong but in either case he had not got his ideas out of revelation. Yet, again, in the area of biblical theology, Hebrew thought was used as if it provided the necessary logical basis on which positive theology should rest. Hebrew thought might be represented as if it was revelational, but in actual function it did for the New Testament what natural theology had normally been expected to do, that is, to provide a framework of logic and connections of ideas upon which the coherence of revelational ideas might depend. In later Barthian times the dependence on some particular philosophical position became even more clear. Again, in literary approaches to exegesis, some have argued that modern ideas of ‘realistic narrative’ support Barth's understanding. ‘Barth is one of the readers who see in the Bible what Auerbach, Dame Helen [Gardner], and Frei see’, writes David Ford, and therefore ‘the sort of literary criticism the latter explicitly engage in might illuminate Barth's implicit principles’.36 Maybe yes, maybe no. But why should we believe that Auerbach and these other critics are right in their opinions? Did their literary judgements depend on revelation? Of course they did not. If they are used to show the coherence of Barth's exegesis, they work as a form of ‘natural’ knowledge which is adduced because it supports, or appears to support, a theological position. In fact, all attempts to argue for Barth's theology on the grounds that it is supported by modern intellectual trends, philosophical, literary, or whatever they may be, necessarily show that it is not what it pretended to be, an independent and purely theological position deriving exclusively from revelation.
And, most strikingly, only a few years before he delivered his Gifford Lectures Barth had written his book on Anselm (German original 1931, ET only in 1960); and there are some who think that his Anselm study is the really dominating element in his entire work, more so even than the commentary on Romans. But the Anselm book, at least as the biblical scholar sees it, comes very close to the operations of natural theology. It was always said, of course: it is all within the context of faith, and Barthians were always ready to quote the slogan fides quaerens intellectum, which was also the title of Barth's book. It was faith seeking understanding.37 Anselm believed in God anyway, and would continue to believe in God even if his argument failed. Yes, but, even if this is true, and I do not wish to argue the point, the appeal is entirely to a public logic, and, if that public logic failed, then it meant that the believer derived no understanding from the argument.38 And this is exactly why the ontological argument has continued to be a matter of philosophical discussion between those who believe and those who do not believe. Even allowing the utmost to the Barthian sort of interpretation, if the argument failed to work by the publicly available logic that it uses, then it would mean that the believer seeking understanding would not have gained any more understanding than he had at the beginning.
And in any case Barth's presentation of Anselm may well be quite wrong. Barth's view that ‘the knowledge which Anselm's proof seeks to impound and impart is the knowledge that is peculiar to faith, knowledge of what is believed from what is believed’, has ‘overwhelming textual evidence against it’.39 Anselm wanted to make his proof ‘by necessary reasons’, ‘without the authority of scripture’, and even Christo remoto, that is to say, leaving out of consideration the facts of Christ's being and the interpretation of these facts. Non-Barthians who had wanted to do the same thing would have been savaged by Barthians for their ignoring of revelation. To talk of anything ‘with Christ left out’, even to use the expression, would have been the worst of offences.
In other words, Barth's work on Anselm, and that entire side of his thinking, stood entirely opposed to the biblical, revelational, aspect of his work which had so much influence on biblical scholars. If the existence of this work by Barth did not cause disillusionment among biblical scholars, this was because most of them, being (unlike him) truly remote from natural theology, uninterested in its values, and unaccustomed to its ways, neither read the book nor paid any attention to it. Its very existence should have been a warning: Barth's apparent biblical emphasis and rejection of natural theology was in part a matter of appearance rather than of reality. His theology was at bottom a dogmatic-philosophical system, in which the biblical exegetical foundation, however many pages it occupied, was logically incidental.
Moreover, the Anselm book undercut much of the same stimulus which Barth had given both to biblical theology and to Reformational ideals. What was the point of the highly exclusive Reformational appeal of his Gifford Lectures, and of the declaration that Roman Catholic theology was based on a compromise with natural theology, when this loyal Roman Catholic monk had managed to enunciate so much that was basic to Barthianism? What was the point of the appeals to biblical mentality and to Hebrew thought when so much could be learned from this medieval theologian who was so totally devoid of insight into either?
In fact most people thought that Barthianism retained a concealed natural theology. All that was uncertain was what that natural theology was. Some, as I have said, thought that it was something like atheism. At earlier stages it was more like existentialism, later it came to be more like Hegel's thought. Some thought that Platonism entered into it—again a contradiction with the furiously anti-Greek spirit of the biblical theology movement which did so much to support the Barthian initiative. The fact that external apologetics were rejected, the abandonment of all use of natural theology to convince the unbeliever, left Barthianism with the problem of internal apologetics, of means, within Christianity, by which Christians could be persuaded that the Barthian version of their faith was the right one. This was where the loss of natural theology created a difficulty—not perhaps for Barth himself, who on the whole paid little attention to other people's opinions, but for his followers, who had the task of talking within the larger Christian community. The loss of natural theology meant that they could not really argue with other people on equal terms. There was no common ground upon which to stand. The domineering aggressiveness and militancy of Barthian discourse was familiar in the theological experience of the entire mid-century. Revelation was central and must be accepted, but there were no real arguments to be offered why any particular claims to revelation should be believed.40 This situation continued all along the line. Certainly there is an epistemological structure in Barth upon which his development of doctrinal ideas depends.
But the most powerful Barthian apologetic was historical. This may seem surprising at first, since Barth is often visualized, at least among biblical scholars, as one who disputed the (supposed) domination of historical methods in biblical and theological matters. But in fact Barthianism showed itself heavily dependent on historical constructs. It generated, and depended upon, a mass of historical arguments about how things had gone wrong in the history of thought.41 The great ultimate disappointment about Barthianism is that, when it claimed to be able to tell us, richly and fully, about God, as a matter of Christian faith, we found that we learned nothing about God from it, but only a mass of historical assertions, or sometimes plain myths, which were intended to convince us that Barthianism as an intellectual system was right. We cannot pursue this further, but the existence and power of a Barthian apologetic is obvious, and is likely to be a sign that a hidden natural theology was there all along. And a natural theology is perhaps not in itself so bad a thing, but a hidden natural theology accompanied by violent attacks on natural theology is a clear sign that something is wrong.
7. Concluding Aspects
Another important point of principle in this area is as follows: natural theology itself, in all probability, depends on religion. This point might well have been made by Barth or made more strongly, for it is in line with his own approach, which emphasized revelation as against religion; but I do not know that he or his followers made as much of it as they might have done. What I mean is the following. Natural theology rested supposedly on human resources, on rational arguments, and on perceptible, observable relations like the beauty and order of creation. But these supports seemed valid to people for the most part because of the religious faith that they already had or at least admired and partly shared. Far from natural theology being the basis or groundwork of religious faith, it is religion that forms the basis and ground upon which natural theology is formed. Thus, for example, as we shall argue, the idea, basic to the Wisdom of Solomon and to St Paul, that the harmony and beauty of the created world should have led to the recognition of the creator God, that idea existed and exists because people had already a religion in which there was one creator God, and therefore they saw the phenomena of nature in that light. Similarly, one might suppose, a person like Barth denied natural theology because his religion, at that stage in time and history, was one for which it was supremely important that people should not be able to know anything about anything except through Jesus Christ. This observation, as we shall see, has many ramifications running through our discussion.
Barthianism in its earlier stages treated religion as the negative pole to which revelation was the positive one. But at the end of the day it seemed to go back to religion. Barth himself in the good old days was very interested in the secular, in atheism, in socialism, and the like, and seemed to value these as honest reactions to reality, unlike the reactions of religious people which were dishonest and unreal. But in its latter stages Barthianism forgot most of this. It came to favour piety, religiosity, and the like more than the lively Stimulus of critical thought. Its tendency ended up with privilege for pious people.
Several other aspects have to be added. First, we should not allow ourselves to forget the absoluteness of the classic Barthian rejection of natural theology.42 Later, as has been said, there was some kind of turn back towards natural theology, and people began to state a modified Barthian position: it all depended on what kind of natural theology, if it had been this kind or that kind Barth would have gone along with it. These are myths created in order to conceal what were actual changes of opinion. In his controversy with Brunner Barth made it clear that his rejection was absolute. There was little or no attempt at achieving fine distinctions between one conception of natural theology and another. In fact the intellectual standard of that controversy, seen from afterwards, was low. ‘True’ natural theologies were to be rejected as thoroughly as ‘false’ ones. Barth left no room for the possibility that there might be any kind of natural theology, Christological, ontological, or anything else, that might even be considered as a possibility.
Again, it later on came to be asserted that it was not natural theology as such, and only the independence of natural theology, its existence as a total autonomous system, its completeness and its separateness from revelation in Christ, that was wrong. This would suggest that a minor, complementary, or ancillary presence of natural theology would not be objectionable. And all this, taken in itself, may indeed be true. But it is not true of the classic Barthian position. For, as I have shown, Barth fought doggedly, determinedly, and uncompromisingly against the very slightest hints of the presence of natural theology within the Bible, and in doing so he deployed critical wiles which in their recalcitrance were worthy of the most extreme negativities of critical scholarship. In his exegesis he showed no signs of room for this minor, complementary, or ancillary role for natural theology. In this respect he contradicted the styles and features which were characteristic of his exegesis in other regards. As already pointed out, Barth's exegesis in general was theologically expansive. I mean as follows.43
With any biblical passage it is always a question whether it states ‘a theology’ or not. Critical scholars often find this hard to handle: their approaches do not provide instruments with which to answer such questions. Asked, for instance, whether according to Genesis 1 God ‘reveals himself’ in the creation of the world, they will commonly feel unable to answer: the question depends on definitions of ‘reveal’ which have their context in theology and not in biblical studies. If forced to answer, they may well prefer the negative: no, the text does not say that creation is a revelation. There is, shall we say, a more narrow and critical way, and a more expansive and imaginative way, of dealing with that question. Of almost any biblical passage, even of the most ‘theological’—seeming, one can say, with the critical scholar's meticulousness, with his unwillingness to read too much developed doctrine into a text: this does not formulate a theology. Taking it this way, one can say: John does not express a ‘theology’ of incarnation, Paul does not formulate a ‘doctrine’ of justification by faith, Deuteronomy does not have a ‘theology’ of election, and so on. If one goes by the more expansive and imaginative way, one can say: well, John may not state a doctrine of incarnation expressis verbis, he is not an academic theologian, but what he says leads in that direction: it points forward to, and gives suggestions that must lead to, such a theology.
Now Barthian exegesis was in this regard solidly in favour of the expansive and imaginative: the scripture opened out into the wide field of theological formulation. Part of the Barthian irritation with biblical scholars lay in their petty-minded doubts about such theological expansiveness, their fact-grubbing unwillingness to go beyond what the text itself actually said. But in anything that seemed close to natural theology Barth went the other way, and turned to the most dogged critical and sceptical negativism. Upon any question in this area he deserted his theological expansiveness and adopted the timid pettifogging and defensive tactics which he in other matters so deplored in biblical critics. Let us then put it in this way: a passage like the Areopagus speech, treated imaginatively as a theological point of departure, comes far closer to pointing towards a natural theology than it does to pointing towards a Barthian-style theology of special revelation. If there is a theology of incarnation in John, if there is one of justification in Paul, if there is a doctrine of the Trinity in the New Testament (and even more if there is one in Genesis, as Barth maintained!), then there is natural theology in the Areopagus speech.
One illustration will make this clear. Conzelmann, discussing the Areopagus speech in his Hermeneia commentary, tells us that the sense of the passage ‘cannot be restated in the form of a thesis like “Luke advocates a natural theology”, because it will not do to evaluate these statements in an unhistorical manner, whether to accept them or reject them’.44 Exactly so: a careful critical scholar, Conzelmann wants to hold back from saying whether or not this material favours a ‘natural theology’, for on exact historical grounds the term itself is anachronistic and introduces ideas which belong to later ages. On the level on which Barth is speaking, however, this is no argument for the rejection of natural theology: on the contrary, as we have seen, on that level Conzelmann's comments translate very clearly into an affirmation of natural theology. By contrast, Barth, who was normally expansive in the drawing of doctrinal conclusions, adopted the utmost of sceptical critical outlooks wherever natural theology was in question. His exegesis, however we may evaluate it in general, was thus selectively and tendentiously applied, magnifying the elements which fitted with the needs of his theology, and minimizing those which his theology opposed. If we were to adopt Barth's own usual expansiveness as a universal principle, then we would have to say: the Bible is full of natural theology, it runs through it everywhere and underlies everything.
And this leads on to two other implications. First, Barth's position throughout was that Reformed theology had no reason to bother about natural theology. It did not have to argue against it, or take notice of it at all. It simply ignored it. Reformed theology had no need to make adjustments to its own programme because of the existence of natural theology. On the purely dogmatic level this might have been true, but on the exegetical level it was not so. Here Barth broke his own principles: his whole approach to exegesis was designed, I believe, in order to obviate the possibility that scripture might contain evidence for natural theology. The central point is perhaps this: if you ask the question, from where did these ideas come?, you are pretty sure to find traces of natural theology in the Bible. The way to obscure these traces is to damp down, as far as possible, all questions of from where biblical persons got their thoughts. The Barthian approach is to ask, not from where the ideas come, but: what are the theological realities to which the words refer? And since realities other than revelation are not theologically significant, the chances of recognizing the presence of natural theology are slim. Far from serenely ignoring the question of natural theology, Barth directed and biased exegetical approaches precisely in order to evade the exegetical posing of that question. One particularly relevant example will be discussed in Chapter 8. On these grounds alone, and on others as well, we may conclude: it is not possible for Barthianism to move towards a greater recognition and a more positive valuation of natural theology without a substantial element of revision, that is, without a dismantling of some of the claims that were made at an earlier time. This is the very least of the demands that one must make of it.
Secondly, concerning the independence of natural theology as a totally autonomous system. I have not thus far said anything that supports the idea of such an autonomy. Any natural theology we have seen within the Bible is scarcely independent in that sense. What its presence suggests is the converse: that revelational theology is not a totally autonomous system either. Within the Bible it is mixed up with elements of natural theology. Once again, therefore, we come up against the question whether the distinction between the two is really of ultimate importance at all.
Or, to put it in another way, the rejection of natural theology might be validly maintained if it was explicitly based on a principle of selection within scripture—a selection which would simply discount the theological authority of the Areopagus speech, the first chapters of Romans, and various other passages. Such a selection is probably implied by a number of scholars, as we have seen, and with reasonable consistency. What cannot be done is to imply, with Barth, that all scripture is agreed in such a rejection.
R. R. Niebuhr. Schleiermacher on Christ and Religion (New York: Scribners, 1964). 11
On this see the remarks of James Richmond, Ritschl: A Reappraisal (London: Collins, 1978), 32 ff., who there quotes Richard R. Niebuhr's expression cited above.
Cf. ibid. 69.
Cf. Berkhof's words: ‘Karl Barth's battle against natural theology was in respect of content a conflict with the theology of the 19th century; formally and programmatically, however, it was an inheritance from that century.’ H. Berkhof and H.-J. Kraus, Karl Barths Lichterlehre (Theologische Studien 123; Zurich: Theologischer Verlag, 1978), 39.
For an earlier simple statement, see my Fundamentalism (2nd edn.. London: SCM, 1981). 272 ff. Hodge insisted that reason was ‘necessary for the reception of a revelation’, that it ‘must judge of the credibility of a revelation’, and ‘must judge of the evidences of a revelation’.
e.g. S. R. Spencer, ‘Is Natural Theology Biblical?’, Grace Theological Journal, 9 (1988), 59–72.
One example: Barth in Natural Theology (London: Bles, 1946), 100, indicated that he wished to leave it to his brother, Peter Barth, as a Calvin specialist to inform readers about the problem of natural theology in Calvin. Among English-speaking readers of Natural Theology probably few ever looked up the article that was produced: Peter Barth, ‘Das Problem der natürlichen Theologie bei Calvin’, Th. Ex. H. 18 (1935). 1–60. But a glance at it leaves so extreme an impression of partisanship and personal hostility to Brunner as to make dubious the quality of it as a historical work. Cf. Christof Gestrich, Neuzeitliches Denken und die Spaltung der dialeklischen Theologie (Beiträge zur historischen Theologie, 52; Tübingen: Mohr, 1977), 184, and the valuable appendix 111 on the Barth—Brunner controversy in E. A. Dowey, The Knowledge of God in Calvin's Theology (New York: Columbia University Press), 247 ff., as well as other remarks passim in the same work.
See lately W. J. Bouwsma, John Calvin (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), esp. 102–8. Quotations in this paragraph are from these pages.
On the later use of this, cf. the apophthegm of Christian Wolff, ‘per theologiam naturalem optime refutantur athei’; cf. E. Jüngel, Entsprechungen (Munich: Kaiser, 1980), 195.
Bouwsma, John Calvin, 103.
Cf. my similar remarks in my ‘Biblical Scholarship and the Unity of the Church’ (R. T Orr Lecture, Huron College, 1989), 16.
Cf. above, Ch. 1.
See the careful and detailed discussion by Gestrich, Neuzeitliches Denken, 145 ff.; also the brief account of K. Nowak in Evangelisches Kirchenlexicon, 1 (1986), cols. 825–7. A striking and vivid account in English is given by my Oxford colleague Jonathan R. C. Wright, ‘The German Protestant Church and the Nazi Party in the Period of the Seizure of Power 1932–3’, Studies in Church History, 14 (Oxford, 1977), 393–418.
Gestrich, Neuzeitliches Denken, 145.
R. Bultmann, The Problem of “Natural Theology’”, in his Faith and Understanding, ed. R. W. Funk (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), 313. This essay is stated to be ‘unpublished’ and I have not been able to discover when the German original was written.
Gestrich, Neuzeitliches Denken, 147.
Ibid. 146. One should remember, in addition, that, on the one hand, the DC thought themselves to constitute a ‘moderate’ element in comparison with more extreme pro-Nazi movements, and, on the other, Barth's own displeasure fell particularly on that ‘mediating’ theological group who combated the DC but at the same time disagreed with the line taken by the Confessing Church and the Barmen Declaration. In this group he included his former travelling companions in the dialectical theology, Brunner and Gogarten. See ibid. 149.
Quoted from Robert P. Ericksen, Theologians under Hitler (New Haven, Conn.: Yale, 1985), 99
For one comment in this sense, cf. Stephen Webb. Re-figuring Theology: The Rhetoric of Karl Barth (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1991), 168: ‘The rhetoric of his dogmatic period… can only be understood and appreciated, in the last analysis, in this context of the rise of fascism. Barth confronts the unlimited power of fascism with the jealous power of God, playing off one exclusive rhetoric against another; this explains, in part… his condemnation of natural theology.’
On the aspect of rhetoric see again below, Ch. 10.
Jülicher made the point that ‘Barth is a man of two worlds, in whose breast two souls wrestle with each other’: see H. Räisänen, Beyond New Testament Theology (London: SCM, 1990), 37 and note.
The subject will, however, reappear briefly below, see Ch. 9. On the general question, see my ‘Exegesis as a Theological Discipline Reconsidered: And the Shadow of the Jesus of History’, in D. G. Miller (ed.), The Hermeneutical Quest: Essays in Honor of James Luther Mays (Allison Park: Pickwick, 1986), 11–45.
Pusey, it is said, went to seaports and interviewed ships’ captains, asking them what knowledge they had of incidents in which seamen had been swallowed by whales and remained alive. Doubtless he received many assurances that this really happened. Köhler (KBRS 41 (8 July 1926), 105) reminds us that Konrad von Orelli (1846–1912), in writing his commentary on Genesis, still felt it profitable to discuss the question whether snakes had at some primitive stage had legs to walk with.
Article ‘Biblical Theology, Contemporary’, in IDB i. 418.
See above, Ch. 3.
Old and New in Interpretation (London: SCM, 1966), 89.
Gestrich, Neuzeitliches Denken, 146 f.; KD ii/1. 194 f.; CD ii/1. 173 f.
As is maintained by Gestrich. Neuzeitliches Denken, 146.
So for example T. F. Torrance in ‘The Problem of Natural Theology in the Thought of Karl Barth’, RS 6 (1970), 125.
According to Gestrich, Neuzeitliches Denken, 179 f., Barth understood Brunner's proposals about natural theology in this way, and this was a major part of their misunderstanding.
Ruth Page, Ambiguity and the Presence of God (London: SCM, 1985), 102: see Page's whole section, 101 ff. Cf. also B. L. Hebblethwaite, The Problems of Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 79: ‘The old distinction between natural and revealed theology, between what reason can achieve and what requires revelation, breaks down… Reason and revelation cannot be treated as different sources of knowledge… Revelation-claims… are part of the data upon which reason has to operate.’
‘Barth and the Problem of Natural Theology’, Downside Review, 87 (1969), 269.
See W. Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ (London: SCM, 1984), 76: ‘paradoxically, atheism has here [in Barth] become a form of natural theology’, and see his entire discussion, 58 ff. Cf. also Gestrich, Neuzeitliches Denken, 47.
And cf., from a sophisticated, non-conservative viewpoint, the judgement of J. C. O'Neill, The Bible's Authority (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1991): ‘Barth's system is a pure humanism…’.
In ‘Barth's Interpretation of the Bible’, in S. W. Sykes (ed.), Karl Barth: Studies of His Theological Methods (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), 77. For a questioning of the idea that ‘realistic narrative’ or ‘realistic fiction’ might provide an answer to the problem of biblical narrative, see Stephen Prickett, Words and the Word (Cambridge-Cambridge University Press, 1986), 203 and passim. If the salvation of biblical narrative is to depend on its being categorized along with George Eliot's Scenes from Clerical Life, how are the mighty fallen! (Cf. Prickett, Words and the Word, 77, 186, 208.)
The expression crede ut intellegas, as used by Augustine, may well have been remote from natural theology: see E. TeSelle, in Cornelius Mayer (ed.), Augustinus-Lexikon (Basle: Schwabe, 1986–), s.v. But the argument entered by Anselm under the same terms seems to be clearly close to, or certainly part of, natural theology.
I say this with hesitation, because I find theologians whom I respect insist, along with Barth, that this is not so. But I find I cannot believe them. I am much more inclined to believe philosophers, who normally—if not universally—count Anselm's proof as an obvious element of natural theology. Thus J. L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), 49: ‘Contrary to what is sometimes said, Anselm's argument was put forward explicitly as a proof of the existence of a god. Anselm's own belief, did not, of course, depend on the proof, but preceded it; equally his first critic, the monk Gaunilo, presumably believed in God though he rejected the proof. None the less, the argument is not at home only in the thoughts of those who believe on other grounds, but is designed to convince someone who is initially uncertain or who does not believe that there is a god, by showing that such disbelief cannot be coherently maintained.’ This statement seems to me to be correct.
Jonathan Barnes, The Ontological Argument (London: Macmillan, 1972), 6, and on Barth's faults in philosophical analysis see his p. 68.
On this see the clear and attractive discusssion of W. J. Abraham, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985), 77 ff. In another paper he writes, ‘Despite its extraordinary impact, neo-orthodoxy did not have the intellectual resources to argue a case for divine revelation, not least because it rejected in principle that arguments could be given for divine revelation’: this from ‘Revelation Revisited’ (forthcoming).
Thus, among countless examples, Torrance, ‘The Problem of Natural Theology’, 125: ‘Barth reached this judgement through extensive examination of the history of German Protestantism which it is extremely difficult if not impossible to refute.’ It was always difficult to refute for those who wanted to agree with the conclusions reached by Barth.
Cf. already Ch. 1 n. 18.
Following what is already briefly stated in Ch. 3.
H. Conzelmann, Acts (Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), 148.