As I have been arguing, it seems that the Bible does imply and contain a considerable input from the side of natural theology, and that the basis for that natural theology lies not in ‘reason’ alone, as the more modern tradition represents it, but in religion and the history of conflicts and developments in religion. In this chapter we shall go on to consider four areas of general implication to which the question of natural theology may be related. These are: (1) the idea that it has something to do with the relations between theology and science; (2) the connections between natural theology and the linguistic medium of the Bible; (3) the use of parables by Jesus in his teaching; (4) the implications of our discussion for the general idea of ‘Holy Scripture’.
Here we have to give some thought to a view that has been propounded, namely that the relations between theology and natural science provide something like a kind of natural theology. The development of such a view has been a feature of certain later phases of the Barthian tradition in which some kind of natural theology has come to be tentatively reaffirmed.
How far, however, can any such view claim to have biblical support? On the face of it, only to a very slight degree. Within the pages of scripture, scientific questioning and scientific investigation are very thinly spread. We do know, indeed, that King Solomon, by convention the patron saint of biblical wisdom, composed proverbs and songs, several thousands of them, in which he ‘spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall; he spoke also of beasts, and of birds, and of reptiles, and of fish’ (1 Kgs. 432 f.; MT 512 f.). And it is probable that this work, whether it really existed or is merely legendary, had some affinity with the so-called ‘list science’ of ancient Mesopotamia and had in it some very elementary attempt at the classification of realities of our earthly environment.1 But the actual books of Hebrew Wisdom contain no serious trace of such material. The Book of Proverbs does include a number of simple analogical statements:
Like snow in summer or rain in harvest,
so honour is not fitting for a fool.
Like a sparrow in its flitting, like a swallow in its flying,
a curse that is causeless does not alight.
A whip for the horse, a bridle for the ass,
and a rod for the back of fools. (Prov. 261 ff., RSV)
Four things on earth are small,
but they are exceedingly wise:
the ants are a people not strong,
yet they provide their food in the summer;
the badgers are a people not mighty,
but they make their homes in the rocks;
the locusts have no king,
yet all of them march in rank;
the lizard you can take in your hands,
yet it is in kings’ palaces. (Prov. 3024 ff., RSV)
These involve simple, pre-scientific, observations of nature, but no more than this. They are illustrations which comment on human customs and mores, and this is their purpose and interest. They are no more science than La Fontaine's fables are science.
We should note however that something closer to the interests and the language of science appears in the ‘intertestamental’ documents, in much greater measure than in the canonical Hebrew scriptures. It is highly likely that contact with Greek culture was the catalyst of this interest. And here once again the Wisdom of Solomon, in a passage already cited, provides one of the best examples:
For it is he [God] who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists (tw/n o;ntwn).
to know the structure of the world (su,stasin ko,smou) and the activity of the elements (eve,rgeian stoicei,wn);
the beginning and end and middle of times,
the alternations of the solstices and the changes of the seasons,
the cycles of the year and the positions (qe,seij) of the stars,
the natures of animals and the tempers of wild beasts,
the powers of spirits [winds?] and the reasonings (logismou,j) of men,
the varieties of plants and the virtues of roots;
I learned both what is secret and what is manifest;
for Wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me.
(7 17 ff., RSV modified)
Similarly the Book of Enoch, from a comparable period, shows a much greater interest in astronomy, chronology, and the origins of technology than the books of the Hebrew canon do.
Equally central is the matter of sickness and medicine. It is interesting that the older traditions about creation in the Hebrew Bible have little to say about disease. If all that God created was good, what about the organisms that transmitted plague and the like? Well, of course, they had not thought about that. The things that were created good were (supposedly) tangible and visible realities like sea and sky, trees and plants, sheep and cows. Disease was not an existent thing, it was a condition rather than an element in the created world. On the one hand, it could produce ritual problems; on the other hand, it could form the means of divine intervention or punishment. But it was not a created reality like a horse or cow. Thus in the Old Testament there is little fundamental wrestling with the problem of disease in relation to the place of God as creator. Occasional miraculous healings, as narrated in the Elijah-Elisha cycle, do not contradict this. The New Testament, by contrast, is far more replete with stories of sickness and healing, which matters are seen as a contest between God and the demons, and as a means whereby God's healing of the sickness of the cosmos is depicted.
It is interesting therefore that the first biblical passages that really concern themselves with the fundamental position of medicine in relation to the God of Israel come in Ben Sira. He produced some original thoughts which showed an awareness that ill health might put in question one's confidence in the goodness of the created order; thus:
Better is a poor man who is healthy and in strong condition
than a rich man who is tortured in body;
health and good condition are better than all gold
and a strong body is better than measureless wealth…
Death is better than a life made bitter
and eternal rest than continuing illness. (Sir. 3014, 15, 17)
Given these thoughts, it was natural to go on to the consideration of medicine, and I quote from his discussion of doctors in chapter 38:
Honour the doctor with the honour due to him, according to your need of him; for the Lord created him. For healing comes from the Most High… The Lord created medicines from the earth, and a sensible man will not despise them. Was not water made sweet with a tree, in order that his power might be made known?… My son, when you are sick do not be negligent; but pray to the Lord and he will heal you. Give up your faults and direct your hands aright, and cleanse your heart from all sin. Offer a sweet-smelling sacrifice and pour oil on your offering… and give the physician his place, for the Lord created him… There is a time when success lies in the hands of doctors, for they too will pray to the Lord that he should grant them success in diagnosis, and in healing for the sake of preserving life. (Sir. 381 ff., selections, based on RSV)
It is, visibly, in the Greek period that the place of medicine is perceived as a problem for traditional Israelite religion. Greek medicine presented one of the most tangible advantages of Greek culture, an advantage that might be utilized even by those who would in other respects be opposed to the ideas and principles of that culture. But how did the use of that medicine fit with the older religion? Ben Sira offers a solution which brings the two together. Doctors and medicine come from God, they are an instrument of divine healing; God himself had used a tree as an instrument of healing (the reference is probably to the incident at Marah, Exodus 1525, though strictly that is a case of bitter water rather than of actual disease). In any case, it is clear that the reality of medicine in Ben Sira's time stimulates new developments in Hebrew thought akin to natural theology. These same steps may also lead forward to the increased emphasis on disease and miraculous healing in the New Testament.
In saying this, I do not dispute the value of the conception of the goodness of God's creation, and it may be that it must remain an ultimate essential in religion. But it is not something so clear and obvious that it can be simply evoked, without some critical discussion, as a foundational principle. The biblical evidence for it has to be considered afresh. The natural theology of the Bible, as I have said, attached itself too easily to the goodness of the creation as evidence for the creator, and therefore tended to fail to give sufficient thought to other ways in which God might be supposed to be known. In any case, and this is our main point at the moment, in so far as this particular line of natural theology is to be continued, it must take within itself the total realities of the universe as science has made them known, including, in particular, the extreme age of the world, the reality of evolution, and the high degree of ambiguity of so many features in nature, an ambiguity which the natural theology of the Bible, in many of its formulations, tended to pass over too lightly. It must take within itself the fact that ‘nature’ itself may be in the course of change, and that human agency through scientific and technological skill has the power, and also the duty, of moulding to some extent what ‘nature’ is to become. Questions of human action in ecology, in medicine, and consequently in matters of social and political ethics are necessarily involved. The goodness of the creation is not only a datum from the past, it is also a reality still in process and in potentiality.
To sum up this point, then, there is a certain biblical interest in the development of science and technology, though undoubtedly in a very primitive mode. Accounts of the world which were mythological or legendary came to be adjusted to make room for the results of experience and observation in a limited degree. But it cannot be said that this represents a central interest within the biblical tradition. The story of the children of Cain and their technological advances is a sideline which leads nowhere much in the canonical scriptures, and the Book of Enoch certainly did not achieve centrality in the long run either; indeed the detail, verbosity, and obscurity of its ‘scientific’ speculations may have militated against the acceptance of this otherwise important work. Within the biblical tradition, for the most part, people's view of the universe was determined much more by religion than by anything like science.
This is not to say that the relations of theology with science are not extremely important. I am sure that they are. But, if there is reason to suppose that the place of natural theology in Christianity has something to do with its relation to science, then we must be clear that this position rests upon modern philosophical and dogmatic foundations and is not one that can claim biblical support, nor should it seek it. In so far as there is a sort of natural theology in the Bible, it comes into the stream of biblical faith in a quite different way. On the other hand, in so far as the tradition of natural theology has linked itself so closely to the idea of the world as a reality that somehow speaks of God and makes him known to us, if that tradition is to be continued into the modern world then that task cannot be performed except in so far as the vast new information about the natural world attained by science is taken into consideration by theology.
This does not mean, however, that theology in itself is modelled on the world of science. I do not think that theology has or should have much of the character of science, or of a science. Theologians who argue for its scientific character are usually not arguing for the scientific character of theology, but for the scientific character of their own theology; in other words, it is an assertion of their own superiority, a typical phenomenon of the intratheological power struggle.6 To me theology seems to have more the character of an art than that of a science. It belongs with the human disciplines, not those of natural science. It belongs with literary appreciation, with the history of ideas, with history in general, with philosophy, and with language and linguistic studies. It has to handle human speech and human texts. Where it has claimed affinity with ‘science’, it seems to me too often to have achieved affinity rather with politics and propagandist rhetoric. Lectures on ‘scientific rigour’, supposedly based on the analogy of physics, come badly from those who have published some of the worst and most ludicrous misuses of biblical language in this century.7 But we shall say no more about this aspect of the subject, and we turn to our second topic of this chapter, the relation of biblical language to natural theology.
Central to the question of natural theology within the Bible is the position of the languages of the Bible. First, the linguistic terms even of revealed religion are terms that function outside the sphere of what is accepted as revelation. Secondly, the languages in which biblical faith is expressed are languages which are also used to express other religious (or philosophical) positions. Thirdly, these languages are languages inherited by the biblical people from other cultures and earlier stages of their own culture, and these previous stages involve the attachment of meanings to the linguistic symbols, meanings that are by no means univocally identical with the specific meanings found within the circle of ‘biblical revelation’.
In other words, the phenomenon of the biblical languages in itself suggests something akin to the insights of natural theology. Or, to use the rabbinic expression so rightly cherished in these matters, ~da ygd; $wwlk hrwx hrbd, ‘the Torah spoke as [or: in] the language of the sons of men’ (B. Berachot 62, and elsewhere).8 There is no holy and separate language for revelation. Or there may be, theoretically, such a ‘language’, a soundless, wordless means of communication by which God makes himself known to persons; doubtless something of the kind is what people have in mind when they think of God ‘speaking’ to human beings. But such a superlinguistic communication is something other than the matter of the Bible. Everything in the Bible is in words of Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek, and has meaning only through the linguistic systems and the lexical stocks of these languages. But meanings are socially preserved and psychologically stored and our knowledge of meanings is socially inherited from the immediate past. The reason why we call a dog ‘dog’ is that that—or strictly speaking an ancestor form of it—was the usage of the previous generation. Of course language continually changes but the changes are intelligible and usable only because they take place in a mode that retains some adequate continuity with what was there before. Thus when the Hebrews called their own God Elohim, meaning by that the one and only existent god, they were able to do this because that usage, however new it might seem, had recognizability and sense through continuity with a usage where it might have meant ‘gods’, ‘totality of gods’, ‘transcendent, superhuman beings’, and the like. And some of these usages continue in use in the Hebrew Bible alongside the more distinctive Israelite usage under (which Elohim is the one true God and incomparably above and beyond all other beings: thus the same term is still used for ‘other gods’, very likely for intermediate beings surrounding the primal deity, and also for ancestral spirits like Samuel when the Witch of Endor brought him out out of the earth. And the same goes for the special divine name Yahweh. This is a different type of designation but the convention of the use of such designations was widespread if not universal in the relevant cultures. That a god should have his or her proper name was normal: in Mesopotamia Marduk or Ninurta, in Greece Poseidon or Hephaestus, in Egypt Thoth or Anubis, and in the Bible itself ‘Kemosh the god of the Moabites’ (1 Kgs. n33) and the like.
Take another example: the idea of covenant, a concept that has been much in favour in modern biblical and theological discussion. God made a covenant with Abraham, one of the basic events of the whole Bible. But how did people in ancient Israel know what this meant, what a ‘covenant’ was? Because covenants were something that was already familiar to them, a part of the way in which they organized their conceptual world. Moreover, the emphasis on the covenant as a key concept of the Bible in modern scholarship was greatly increased through studies in the Hittite treaties: God's covenant with Israel followed a pattern, with historical preamble, stipulations, oaths, and the like, which was already widely used in vassal treaties. It may indeed be that the importance of these analogies has been exaggerated; I myself have always been reserved about this side of the matter. But even if the recourse to non-Israelite materials like the treaties is not decisive, within Israel itself, within the biblical text, the normality of covenants as a form of social arrangement is well established, and there is no suggestion that the covenant is something unique to Israel. Abraham made a covenant with Abimelech king of Gerar in a dispute over ownership of a well (Gen. 2127, 32); Solomon made one with Hiram king of Tyre (1 Kgs. 512, MT 526); the Gibeonites, fearful for their fate under Israelite occupation of Canaan, came by subterfuge to try to do the obvious thing, to make a covenant with them (Josh. 96 f., 15). Thus the covenant itself, one of the key ideas, is something that was ‘natural’: it was inherited from social experience, probably held in common over a wide area with peoples of a different religious organization. Now of course covenant becomes in the Old Testament a central feature of what we could call ‘revelatory’ type, a theme of revelatory theology. This is done because of the collocations and contexts in which it is used, the persons of whom it is used, the situations in which it is used, and so on. But in all these revelatory aspects it is intelligible because of meanings that were already, i.e. previously, known. Anterior knowledge is everywhere present, and definitive.
Similar arguments can be deployed over a wide area. The situation with Hebrew language is thus ironical. As I have mentioned several times, the heritage of Barthian theology sought to deploy Hebrew language and Hebrew concepts as a guard for revelation, as an antidote for the Greek of the New Testament which might have suggested Greek ideas including natural theology. This approach proved disastrous in two different ways: first because the linguistic arguments deployed were massively incompetent,9 and secondly because, if the evidence of language is relevant for the question at all, and if Hebrew language in particular is to be brought into the discussion in this way at all, it strongly favours the affirmation of natural theology. Even if the ideas of the Hebrew Bible count as revelatory, the building blocks which are used for their expression are very definitely ‘natural’. It was truly ironic that Hebrew language, invoked in order to support the revelatory character of the New Testament, actually functioned as a sort of hidden natural theology which served to support the overt rejection of natural theology: seen rightly, it would have been a substantial support for the direct acceptance of natural theology.
The idea that the Hebrew language had concealed within it a sort of hidden revelational conceptuality really rested on a superstitious veneration for the language of ancient scripture plus a lack of serious analysis of that same language. Purely accidentally, ancient Hebrew existed almost only in a corpus that spoke for Hebrew religion. Such limited materials as existed outside this range were generally unknown to theologians or inaccessible to them. Barthian theology, with its vast over-confidence in the dogmatic approach, served only to convince them that they knew better than biblical scholars.
It [Hebrew] was the first non-Indo-European language that I ever studied, and I too was struck by its strangeness at many points. But now when I turn back to Hebrew after a variety of African, Asian, and American languages, I find myself in familiar territory. Hebrew is by no means extremely divergent from a European point of view.
And the same sort of thought can be produced in other realms: for instance, the nominal sentence, whereby in Hebrew to say that X is Y no verb ‘to be’ is used, is of course common in Greek though not as universal as in Hebrew (and even in Hebrew the verb is used whenever a carrier of tense or mood is required), and common in some other Indo-European languages, such as Russian. Numerous parallels in semantic ranges can also be adduced, for example the presence of different words for ‘man’ in the sense of ‘human being’ and ‘man’ in the sense of ‘male person’. The fact is that, on the scale of world languages, Hebrew and Greek do not stand at opposite ends of the spectrum, but in a position of some proximity and contiguity. This fact made it easier to translate biblical ideas from Hebrew into Greek, within the (very rough) stylistic limits within which the translators worked, and to express Jewish thoughts in Greek.
Discussion of language in relation to the problem of natural theology has often concentrated on metaphor. And it is true that metaphors can be said to depend on anterior knowledge: to understand that God is a mighty rock, one has to know what a rock is, what characteristics it has, why it might be advantageous that God would share some characteristics of such a thing. This seems to me to be obvious. But it seems to me equally that, for ancient Hebrew, this is not the most important thing. Terms for God were in many cases not metaphorical.14 When Adam and Eve heard the sound of God walking in the garden in the daily (evening) breeze, God was really walking in the garden. This is the sort of thing that gods did. It is part of the anthropomorphic picture of the God of Israel. It is often said that all terms for deity are metaphorical, or almost all, but I cannot see that this was true in the ancient Semitic world.15 The language contained numerous important terms which were primarily, basically, terms for divinity and relations with the divine. ‘God’ itself, or the ancient terms which it translates, like ~yhla in Hebrew or, say, ilani in Akkadian, were direct terms for God, nothing else. In Greek it was not different: qeo,j, did not mean anything other than ‘god’.
In general, nevertheless, there are plenty of metaphors in the Old Testament. Some of them may be neutral to our question of natural theology: when we speak of God as a ‘rock’, one would hardly say that it was natural theology to know what a rock is. But many biblical metaphors definitely support the idea of natural theology. ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ was a highly traditional metaphor, for the idea of the shepherd-king was extremely familiar in the ancient Near East: it suggests transreligiosity, and thereby natural theology. Such terms involve anterior knowledge, or at least anterior opinions, about God, about the cosmos, about religiously controlled norms of life.
Thus Janet Soskice writes: ‘even the abstractions of natural theology are based, in the long run, on experience—although of a diffuse kind.’ Again, ‘experience, customarily regarded as the foundation of natural theology, is also the touchstone of the revealed’.16 Or perhaps, not wishing to make experience alone so ultimate, we might say: the terms are part of the organization of a world of ideas, concepts, narratives, and experience, in the meaning of which experience always has a part. In any case, it works in the same way, as Soskice says, for natural and for revealed theology alike.
The mention of metaphor leads on to the question of parables, but only a short discussion of this complicated matter can be fitted in here. Raven, you will remember, cited Jesus’ teaching in parables as a sort of natural theology.17 Moreover, it was in connection with parables that Barth himself in his later work came as near as he ever came to an eventual recognition of natural theology.18 He wrote:
[These parables] are to be witnesses of something new to all men, and to be newly apprehended by them all… recounted by Jesus, these everyday happenings become what they were not before, and what they cannot be in and of themselves… the New Testament parables are as it were the prototype of the order in which there can be other true words alongside the one Word of God, created and determined by it, exactly corresponding to it, fully serving it and therefore enjoying its power and authority, (my italics)
This may be, as Webster puts it, a ‘somewhat meagre source in the search for a natural theology’;19 but, even if meagre, it may perhaps be something. But ‘other true words’, other than, and alongside, the one Word of God: how can this have been intended? The larger context is Barth's attempt to state a doctrine of ‘Lights’, a theme which derives from Calvin.20 According to Calvin, every human person has a ‘seed of the fear of God’, so that the world can speak eloquently to everyone of God and his virtues. The knowledge of God shines in the creation of the world and in its continual government. Though the actual world is filled with darkness, at least sparks (scintillae) of God's glory remain lit. There are ‘burning lights’ in the world, accensae lampades, even though these remain partial and fragmentary in this life.
Now Barth seeks to follow in Calvin's track, but, as Berkhof sees it, and I think rightly, his picture of the world is more negative. ‘For Calvin the world is self-testimony of God, for Barth it is not.’21 ‘The lack of light in the world is for Barth not the result of an evil blindness of humanity, but the result of a fundamental speechlessness of the good creation of God.… For Barth the “lights” are the self-testimony of the creation, for Calvin they are the self-testimony of God in the creation.’22 For Barth the world in itself is speechless, it is only from Christ that it receives the power of speech.23 From this. Berkhof continues, ‘we see why for Barth religion… is not among the lights of the world, while for Calvin religion is the direct subjective converse side of the light-giving of the creation’. But, if Calvin is in the right as against Barth in this respect, it is hardly to be doubted that this is because the influence of natural theology—both biblical natural theology and Stoic and other Hellenic—upon him was considerable, and greater than his own dogmatic remarks on the subject may suggest.
Anyway, into this context Barth introduces the case of the parables of Jesus; it is not quite clear why.24 It seems strange that, when these are the parables of Jesus himself, they should conjure up thoughts of ‘other true words’ at all. However, on this basis Link (and others, but principally he) seeks to build a new formulation which will take care of the valid reality and interests of natural theology but will do so as a continuation of the lines which Barth has already set out. ‘The World as Parable’ is the, very deliberate, title of Link's book. And he seeks to sum up Barth's thought succinctly when he writes that ‘The world is not a parable of the Kingdom of Heaven, it can only become one.’25 It is easy to see why this path is an attractive one. It seeks to find an affirmative value for the biblical material that may point toward natural theology, but to place the realization of this in the future. Thus natural theology has a reality not as anterior knowledge but as future potentiality. Elaborate arguments are deployed in order to show that natural theology, in its traditional sense, looks at a static world, without history, and that the parables make sense only for a world in process of becoming, a world with a history (and this is where von Rad's arguments about Wisdom play a part).
But one cannot help seeing the matter in another way, and saying: is not all this a mass of difficulty which the Barthian tradition has loaded upon itself?26 For all its rejection of natural theology, in the last resort its Calvinism forced it to talk about these ‘Lights’, and its biblical material forced it to say something about the parables; but it was its own original negativism towards natural theology that made this all so difficult to solve. Barthianism has not only to be continued, refined, and extended: it has also to be clearly admitted that, if any such creative process is to take place, much in the original Barthian structure was misconceived and will have to be dismantled. The biblical evidence does point towards natural theology as anterior knowledge, and Barth in rejecting this was simply wrong. He was forcing the biblical material into his own dogmatic mould, he was using every possible means to deny what the texts appeared to say. The parables may or may not point towards future potentiality, but, even if they do so, there is no good reason why this in itself must be made the base for any new understanding of the problems of natural theology, when so much biblical evidence points in the opposite direction.
[The parables] work on a pattern of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation: the parable begins in the ordinary world with its conventional standards and expectations, but in the course of the story a radically different perspective is introduced, often by means of a surrealistic extravagance, that disorients the listener, and, finally, through the interaction of the two competing viewpoints tension is created that results in a reorientation, a redescription of life in the world.
At least for a number of the parables this states the matter well.
In this respect Raven, in his attempt to bring the parabolic teaching close to his own ideas of science and its gradual disclosure of a world close to incarnation and ready for it, seems to me to have been on uncertain ground. I am not sure that we can ascribe to Jesus the total appreciation of nature and grace as ‘sacramentally related as outward to inward’, so that ‘an incarnation of the divine is in keeping with the whole character of the physical world, since “God so loved it’”.29 For it seems to me that Jesus took examples, some from nature, like the lilies and the birds, more from human life, masters with servants, sons with fathers, but what he did not do was to attempt grandiose generalizations, either about ‘the natural order’ or about human life. Raven writes as if the parables used individual items, like the lilies of the field, to point attention to the totality of ‘the natural order’; he thinks that Jesus’ emphasis is ‘upon the elemental and universal, the colour and texture of the flowers, the germination and vicissitudes of the seed-corn, the natural fertility of the soil, the secret working of the leaven in the dough’—in other words, the underlying processes that science understands. But can this be meant? The lilies of the field belong to the world of botany; but mention of them does not imply that a systematic, scientific study of botany will provide an equally good parable, still less a better one. Jesus’ teaching has no interest in the comprehensive collection of data about the world and nature that would bring it near to science, or in the level of logical cohesion that would bring it near to traditional, philosophical natural theology either. Some of the things said, after all, are in the strict sense untrue, even if suggestive; they are powerful and effective as communication: a seed does not really have to ‘die’ in order to grow. As Jerome saw, it is an embarrassment if God has, or is, a gigantic computer registering at every moment the number and whereabouts of all fleas in the world. Rather, Jesus was continuing that line of biblical thoughts about the world which had seen and isolated important structures but had by no means pressed towards comprehensiveness. What he sees are examples, to be seen here and there, if one has the perception; and only if one has the perception will one see what it means, a point which Jesus himself makes explicit. Humanity has the resources to understand, shall we say, but it remains a question whether it will in fact understand. The parables may not point towards a total scientific understanding of the world which will inform us of God, nor do they point towards the rational and philosophical discussion of him; but they do have a clear grounding in publicly available knowledge, and in that sense they do come close to natural theology.
On the other hand Raven was right in emphasizing the fact of the parables as the characteristic form of Jesus’ teaching, and one that was quite different from the interpretation of the traditional sources of revelation. This, very obviously, was a main reason why the parables were an embarrassment to the Barthian tradition. Interpreting a parable is very different from interpreting St Paul. The Pauline model is of one who speaks explicitly about Christ, explaining and interpreting him. This is the ‘Christological’ model for revelation. If Jesus himself had spoken only about himself, explaining and interpreting himself expressly, his teaching would have fitted into this model very well. But he chose, so often, to speak in parables, which, at least on the surface, taken expressly, were not about himself, rather were about things or events, commonplace or somewhat fantastic, set in the world around. The teaching by parables is important because it is a clear choice to appeal to a source different from the revelatory chain communicated through preexisting authoritative scripture.30 Jesus’ teaching was visibly his own, and differed in this respect from that of the scribes, who depended on previously given authorities. This is not accidental but is an important clue to the basis and approach of his ministry. And this fits in with another fact: in spite of all the light that may be thrown on his parables by the study of the Old Testament background, by metaphors, similes, parables, and so on,31 the outstanding fact seems to me still to be that the parables, in spite of their clearly Jewish ambience and atmosphere, seem very different from anything within the Old Testament that might even be thought of as comparable—nor do the rabbinic parables come very close either. The primary impression that one gains is of the originality of this aspect of Jesus’ teaching.
Interesting also is another point: in view of the argument emphasized in Jewish natural theology, and followed by Paul, namely that from the perception of the created things the knowledge of the creator should follow, it is striking that Jesus hardly uses this argument. There is no question, for him, about the knowledge of the creator God. The questions, like those about the lilies or the birds, are not a means of advancing to belief in the creator. Or, we may say, they enable us to know a little more about the creator who is already known. They support a confidence in the careful provision God will have made for the smallest details, which is not exactly the same thing as gaining the knowledge that a creator God exists in the first place. It is more a question of continuing trust in the midst of other preoccupations, rather than a question of coming to know the creator through the created. On the other hand, there is absent from Jesus’ teaching that continual worry about idolatry which, as we have seen, underlies so much of the biblical development of natural theology. Are idols or idolatry mentioned in the Gospels at all? The Jesus of the Gospels seems here to be treading near the risky fringe of Jewish religion, just as he did with statements about his own relation to God and with his associations with the wrong people. Surely the continual linkage of so much express natural theology with the polemics against idolatry constituted a weakness in the theological exploitation of natural realities, a weakness which Jesus was daringly able to defy?
The parables of Jesus seem, then, to support our argument that the distinction between natural and revealed theology breaks down within the biblical material. If something is said by Jesus, that may constitute it as revelation. But if one asks what he said and where he got it from, some of it looks more like observation of things in the world, and that is rather more like natural theology.
The ultimate problem about relating the teaching of Jesus to the question of revelation versus natural theology seems to lie in the modern approach to the understanding of Jesus in general. The failure, as it was supposed to be, of the quest for the historical Jesus left the impression that Jesus could not be accounted for as a historical person. A biography of him could not be written, no entry into his inner life or psychology could be attempted. He was of course human, as orthodox doctrine required. In spite of the enormous concentration on Christology, so-called, everything seemed to be a statement about him, from outside, as it were. Utterances like parables are seen as interpretations, doubtless authoritative, of this figure, this ‘Christ-event’ as people said. Theology was about him but it did not come from him. He did not think, he seemed to have no mental processes, one could not ask from where he had got his ideas. Was he perhaps only a mouthpiece for divine revelation passing through him? Or was the teaching attributed to him simply an indirect statement about him, made by others? ‘Christology’, really a term for a sphere of operation by theologians and much favoured as a term among them, fails to bring us near to any answer, or even to the posing of a proper question. Given these uncertainties, it may have seemed unrealistic even to attempt to discuss whether his teaching inclined to the realms of revelatory or of natural theology. That Jesus even says a thing may seem to many to mean that that thing is divine revelation. Yet what if what he says is a calling to attention of something that is public knowledge available to anyone? Does that not make it closer to natural theology?
The dilemma seems to support our conclusion that there is no absolute distinction between revelation and natural theology. In particular, revelation is not a completely separate body of information or channel of material, totally different in substance from what is publicly known or publicly accessible knowledge. Revelation, if we must still use the word,32 is not a completely separate entity but is a mode in which things already known are seen in a quite new way, and also a mode in which things previously unknown are added to things already known, making a different pattern but including many elements that were the object of anterior knowledge.
From the beginning we have indicated that, if the presence of natural theology within the Bible is recognized, it may mean that common ideas of the doctrine of scripture have to be revised, and some suggestions in this regard will now be offered.
As I remarked above (Ch. 1), in Barth's theology the Bible was subsumed as one of the three forms of revelation, three forms of the Word of God which comes to humanity: (1) in Jesus Christ, the living, personal Word, (2) in the scriptures, the written Word, which testifies of him, and (3) in the preaching of the Church, in so far as it speaks of him and speaks in accordance with the testimony of scripture. Coupled with the opposition between revelation and natural theology, this doctrine is bound to break down if natural theology is to be found within the Bible. This indeed is not the only reason why it is defective, but it is the one that most concerns us here.
In essence, the Bible does not belong to this pleasant-looking triadic structure; it is a different sort of thing altogether, and the way in which Barth strung them together, partly because the term ‘Word’ is used of all three, depends on similarities that are theologically accidental. To call the Bible ‘the Word of God’ is one of these traditionalisms of the dialectical theology: it is in fact a metaphorical expression, and one which can be perfectly well used so long as it is not taken too literally or taken as an absolute principle. For, as I have argued in various connections, and as is quite obvious if one thinks about it, there is much that is in the Bible that is not there because it is a word spoken by God, something uniquely revealed by him which would otherwise have been unknown, but is there because it was already public knowledge. This is obvious in historical matters. When we read in 1 Kings 2251 that ‘Ahaziah the son of Ahab began to reign over Israel in Samaria in the seventeenth year of Jehoshaphat king of Judah, and he reigned two years over Israel’, this is not there because God revealed it to the writer or to anyone else, but because it was public knowledge incorporated by the writer. Considerable elements of such material exist. What we are now saying is that this is not true only of historical data: the same applies also to some moral principles, some cosmological conceptions, and above all some ideas of God and of human nature. One easy way we might go, therefore, would be to say that the Bible is a mosaic, a mixture of revelatory elements with elements that were, in our phrase, anterior knowledge—of God, of the world, of humanity, of anything. If one asks the next question—namely, how do you distinguish between them?—the answer is, of course, you do not have to. For the elements that are anterior knowledge are taken up into the totality: revelation takes up into itself the anterior knowledge, and the Bible, as a witness to revelation, does the same. The canonical principle can thus help us, ironically, to understand natural theology as included within the final totality of scripture. But it should not be used as a principle to deny or overrule the generative sequence, under which material has really come from knowledge anterior to special revelation.
For those who like to have a ‘Christological analogy’, one may point out that such an analogy works for this view of scripture too.33 Jesus ‘after the flesh’ takes up into incarnation not only the physical matter of Jewish humanity but also the inheritance of ideas, not all of which derive directly from canonical scripture, since they include all sorts of contemporary ideas, as well as ideas that are ancient but came into Israel from external contacts. All this matter is nevertheless united with divine being and passes through death into resurrection and new life. All this works just as well if natural theology is part of the matter involved, as if it is excluded. I do not urge this as a proof, since I think, with Markus Barth, that it is an illusion to suppose that a Christological analogy for scripture is necessary or even advantageous. But, for those who value it, I indicate that it can work this way as well.
More certainly, we can say, the dogmatic locus of the doctrine of scripture is that it should be part of the doctrine of the Church. It belongs there, along with the other resources that the Church uses and upon which it depends, like the doctrines of the nature of the Church, the ministry, the creeds, the sacraments and so on. This is so because, if we are to ask what the Bible ‘properly’ is, as distinct from ‘transferred’ terms like ‘the Word of God’, we would have to say, as I wrote long ago,34 not revelation coming from God to humanity but the Church's (properly: Israel's and, later, the Church's) response to and interpretation of that revelation. That is what it directly and univocally is, and it is on these terms that we can approach it and enter into it exegetically. But its response and interpretation contain structures which derive from, and depend on, natural theology and other kinds of ‘natural’ knowledge.
The expression ‘the Word of God’ can certainly continue to be used, and rightly, of the Bible within the Church. In respect of its origins, its essence, its content, it must be seen as a metaphorical expression for the reasons I have given. Since we have seen that natural theology forms an element within scripture and provides important organizing structures within it, it is mistaken and confusing to insist on pinning the term ‘revelation’ upon the entirety of the Bible. The term ‘Word of God’ is used analogically of the operation of scripture within the community: that is, whatever its origin, whether in ‘natural’ theology or in revelatory events or otherwise, the material of the Bible operates in a mode which deserves to be described analogically as ‘Word of God’.
On list science, see A. Leo Oppenheim, ‘Man and Nature in Mesopotamian Civilization’, in Dictionary of Scientific Biographies, vol. xv (New York: Scribners, 1970–80), 634–66, and W. von Soden, ‘Leistung und Grenze sumerischer und babylonischer Wissenschaft’, published together with Landsberger's ‘Die Eigenbegrifflichkeit der babylonischen Welt’ (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1965). I am grateful to Dr Erica Reiner of the Oriental Institute, Chicago, for help in connection with these materials.
Chronology in one sense is the essential scientific framework for history. But for the schematic, mythological, or legendary character of biblical chronology, see J. Barr, ‘Biblical Chronology: Legend or Science?’ (Ethel M. Wood Lecture; University of London, 1987), and Jeremy Hughes, Secrets of the Times: Myth and History in Biblical Chronology (JSOT Supplement Series 66; Sheffield: Academic Press, 1990).
See my discussion of the ideas of M. B. Foster, and others who have seen a sort of inner unity between natural science and Jewish-Christian faith, in ‘Man and Nature: The Ecological Controversy and the Old Testament’, BJRL 55 (1972–3), 13 ff.
According to W. M. O'Neil, Early Astronomy from Babylonia to Copernicus (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1986), ‘Early Babylonian astronomy, as we know it in the second millennium and the first half of the first millennium BC, was prescientific or at best proto-scientific. By about 500 BC it was approaching a genuinely scientific status’ (p. 35). He lists two factors. The first is ‘the accumulation of observational records’, the second ‘the early search for regularities’, in which ‘say from about 300 BC onwards, quite sophisticated mathematical techniques were used to generate from a modicum of observational data very precise and usually very accurate ephemerides, tables like the modern almanacs giving accurate positions at specified times, for the Sun, the Moon and the five star-like planets’ (pp. 35, 37).
See his interesting discussion of these problems in Jon D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988); quotation from p. 50.
See the discussion of T. F. Torrance's position by Ronald F. Thiemann, Revelation and Theology (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985), 32 ff.
As indicated in the writer's The Semantics of Biblical Language (London: Oxford University Press, 1961). For a review of the subsequent discussion, see Richard J. Erickson, James Barr and the Beginnings of Biblical Semantics (Notre Dame, Ind.: Anthroscience Minigraph Series, Foundations Press, 1984).
I am grateful to my colleague Dr Peter Haas for information on this.
It is probable that the devastation of these arguments from Hebrew and Greek by my book on semantics was a reason why this same current turned, soon afterwards, increasingly to theories of science as a source of intellectual support for Barthian theology.
‘Some Contributions of Linguistics to Biblical Studies’, Hartford Quarterly, 4/1 (1963–4), 52. Cf. Erickson, James Barr and the Beginnings of Biblical Semantics, 53.
By A. H. Basson and D. J. O'Connor, ‘Language and Philosophy: Some Suggestions for an Empirical Approach’, Philosophy, 22 (1947), 49–65; see my Semantics of Biblical Language, 26.
These sentences are taken almost verbatim from my article ‘“Determination” and the Definite Article in Biblical Hebrew’, JSS 34 (1989), 307–35, and in particular from the conclusion, 334. On the relative article, see 322 ff.
See recently S. E. Porter, ‘Two Myths: Corporate Personality and Language/Mentality Determinism’, in SJT 43 (1991), 289–307.
I agree here, if I understand him rightly, with Westermann in his remarks about Jüngel's views of metaphor: C. Westermann, The Parables of Jesus in the Light of the Old Testament (“Minneapolis.” Fortress, 1990), 175.
‘All, or almost all, of the language used by the Bible to refer to God is metaphor (the one possible exception is the word “holy”)’: G. B. Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible (London: Duckworth. 1980), 18.
J. M. Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), 150, 160.
Above, Ch. 1.
KD iv/3. 126; CD iv/3. 113; and cf. the preceding argument, e.g. CD iv/3. 97; KD iv/3. 107 f.
Words of J. B. Webster, Eberhard Jüngel: An Introduction to His Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 119, in his quotation of this passage.
I follow Berkhof's excellent presentation, H. Berkhof and H.-J. Kraus, Karl Barths Lichterlehre (Theologische Studien 123; Zurich: Theologischer Verlag, 1978), 30 f.
Ibid. 32, thesis 2.
Notice the connection of this with our discussion of Ps. 19, above, Ch. 5.
Berkhof says (Karl Barths Lichterlehre, 33): ‘There is something enigmatic to me in this. I can understand it only as an indication that Barth really wanted to say more than he actually said.’
Quoted already, in slightly different words, by Webster, Jüngel, 119.
For the sake of simplicity I devote only a footnote to the mention of another, and related, approach, that of Jüngel. His approach, if I understand it, seems among other things to perceive more validity in traditional natural theology than Barth has done but to classify it in Lutheran terms as law. The approach gives more freedom for the recognition of natural theology within the Bible, in the same way as the (Mosaic) Law is within the Bible, while denying it positivity for salvation. As I see it, however, the natural theology of the Bible is built into the revelational and salvific material. See Webster, Jüngel, 118 ff.
C. E. Raven notices this: ‘Jesus does not lecture about nature or mankind or the deity: He conveys an immediate experience of our relationship to the world and to one another and to God, using the method of the poet rather than that of the mathematician, the sociologist or the philosopher’ (Natural Religion and Christian Theology (2 vols., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953), i. 31): but he might have added that he did not use the method of the scientist either.
S. McFague, Models of God (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), 50.
Raven, Natural Religion, i. 38. I am not sure that, in the familiar phrase of John 316, God's ‘so loving’ the ‘world’ was directed primarily towards the physical world in Raven's sense. The latter is certainly involved, but I suspect God was more concerned with the people and with the ‘world’ (the ko,smoj) as a sinful environment. Raven takes the implied background sense and applies it as if it was the primary sense.
I have used this argument already in my Escaping from Fundamentalism (London: SCM, 1984 = Beyond Fundamentalism (US title; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984)), 11 f.
Recently especially Westermann, Parables.
I continue willing to use this term, although I think it lacking in biblical sanction, as I argued long ago (Old and New in Interpretation (London: SCM, 1966)), 65 ff. and passim. I welcome the criticisms of W. Pannenberg (‘Revelation in Early Christianity’, in G. R. Evans (ed.), Christian Authority (Henry Chadwick FS; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), 76–85) but think they can be overcome, though I shall not undertake this here.
For a good critique of the longing to establish a Christological analogy for views of scripture, see Markus Barth, Conversation with the Bible (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1964), ch. 5, pp. 143–71. This work, which deserves to be better known, contains some strikingly fresh thoughts emerging from a position of a pretty extreme (Karl) Barthian type. M. Barth concludes (p. 170): ‘It is therefore unlikely that the use of Christological analogy will solve the problem of scriptural authority. This analogy is but another yoke fabricated by those who want to impose the Bible upon its readers.’
In my review of J. K. S. Reid, The Authority of Scripture, in SJT 11 (1958), 86–93: this review, which attracted some attention at the time, was one of my first attempts to evaluate the Barthian tradition about Bible and Christology in print.
This point was well drawn to my attention in the reading of K. R. Trembath, Evangelical Theories of Biblical Inspiration (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), which I reviewed for JTS 41 (1990), 322–4. According to him, the Bible belongs to ‘the base’, the foundational structure for belief, but the Church does not have the same character (his p. 117). To quote: ‘the concept of church does not include the criterion of foundationality as does the concept of inspired Bible… the Bible is norma normans, while the church is norma normata.’ Perhaps this is the foundational mistake of evangelicalism?
It is perhaps a weakness of W. J. Abraham's treatment of the subject in his The Divine Inspiration of Holy Scripture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981) that he takes as basic analogue for his proposal the (more secular) pattern of the inspiring teacher rather than the (on my terms more realistic and germane) pattern of the inspired and inspiring Church.