Barth and Natural Theology – A Response to Bobby Grow

What follows is a response to a couple of blog posts by Bobby Grow, a young man (and Torrancian theologian in his own right)  that I greatly respect. The post is found here:

https://growrag.wordpress.com/2019/11/19/if-there-is-no-natural-knowledge-of-god-there-can-be-no-natural-theology/

I think the essential points of contention are fairly summed up here (from his first paragraph):

“Knowledge of God is contingent upon God giving Himself to us and for us. If He simply leaves us awash in a neutered creation, meaning a creation without His Self-givenness, then all the creature has as resource are themselves. This is the status an unbeliever inhabits; a neutered reality that has no possibility for a true knowledge of the true God.”

My response:

Bobby – I tremble as I write this (in fear of aligning myself with anti-christ(!)) – But having read and pondered your previous post and this one as well – I find myself coming to very different (and I hope appreciably nuanced) conclusions…

You are far the better and more studious theologian than I (if I can even qualify for the appellation even in amateurish terms) – but I just see some of this in such a different light…

It seems to me that you (and Barth?) fail to appreciate the all pervasive ‘Cosmic’ (to borrow a dangerous term) reality of Christ and His relationship to all creation – and focus solely on the historic revelation in the person of Jesus the Christ. Colossians 1 (among others passage like Hebrews 1) unequivocally bear witness to this wonderful aspect of reality/creation.

Frankly your reaction seems a bit reactionary – reminding me of Augustine’s and Luther’s (at least you are in good company!) over-correcting responses (in my opinion) to e.g. Pelagius (for the former) and the Jews (for the latter).

Several passages seem (on the face of it) to stand in direct tension to what you propose –
e.g. the elusive allusion to Psalm 19 in Romans 10:18 where Paul seems to be saying that (somehow) even the heavens themselves speak the “word of Christ”.
Or – (not surprisingly) in Romans 1 the strong affirmation of a common knowledge of God’s “eternal power and divine nature”..
Or – most especially – the fact that Paul has apparently NO qualms with recognizing and acknowledging that the pagan Athenians (and at least some of their poet/philosophers) have some kind of valid, real knowledge of God – “in whom we live and move and have our being”!

We SWIM in the divine reality of God’s Being – so how is it that we (even in our sinful state) have NO knowledge of God – or, even more specifically of Christ?

It could be argued that every human being that ever has or ever will live experiences the reality of Christ – and this experience must produce some form of at least tacit knowledge – “For of his fullness we all received, and grace for grace.” John 1:16.

But – of course – the intimate, filial knowledge of God we can never come to apart from embracing the Gospel of Jesus Christ – and the regenerative transformation that the Holy Spirit brings. But – i would contend – all the above is the framework or foundation in which this particular and salvific revelation occurs.

Having said all of this – please know that (as best I understand your contention) I fully agree that mere human philosophical speculation can never lead us to the knowledge of the Truth. But – where I guess I strongly disagree is that neither reality nor creation are ‘neutered’ – that, in fact, they would instantly cease to exist were it not for Christ – the Logos – who holds it all together. And so the whole of it is shot through with the reality, presence and Glory of God such that it should not surprise us that here and there even the pagans in their groping after God stumble upon some truth and knowledge of God that is worthy to be acknowledged and affirmed even by so great an Apostle as Paul!

And this is why one must almost have to adopt a kind of dualistic perspective of reality in order for your reaction to ‘natural theology’ to make sense – and I know how strongly opposed to any form of Cartesian dualism T.F was!

Finally – it seems to me that even with Torrance and Barth – there are (not surprisingly with the dialectical approach) certain ‘inconsistencies’ on the idea of ‘natural theology’ – let alone ‘epistemology’. Obviously Barth is known for his loud ‘Nein!’ – but, as Donald Bloesch suggests,

‘To be sure, Barth denies the validity of a natural knowledge of God. At the same time he insists that all people by virtue of being in Christ have an awareness of the love and gracious presence of God. What Barth denies with the one hand he seems to accept with the other. We cannot on our own come to a true knowledge of God, but when have access to a general knowledge of divine reality give by the universal Christ.” (Jesus the Victor, p.76)z

Well – enough (and probably too much) said. I hope I haven’t missed your point entirely – and, consequently, misrepresented your views here. I do sincerely wish you the very best, Bobby – and genuinely thank you for thinking about and writing even in a provocative way about these critically important issues.

Peace and Blessing in Christ Jesus!

wayne

———————————————————-

And – here’s a follow up to Bobby’s response (see below in comments) to the above:

Bobby – I truly appreciate the time you have taken to respond to my comments on your previous post. I suspect a couple of things are going on that may in the end leave us agreeing to disagree – most especially, what might be a rather theologically technical definition of “natural theology” – that I, on the other hand, do not have in mind. But then what weighs against this being the exact case is your broadside (and I abbreviate my understanding of it here): that no one apart from faith in Christ has ANY knowledge of the true God who is solely revealed in Christ – but only idolatrous speculation since they occupy a “neutered” world (due, I take, because of their depravity and utter alienation from God), devoid of even the possibility of such knowledge.
Perhaps I should have followed Wyatt Houtz (in the post I cite below) in saying something like,”a Theology of Nature…”. Interestingly, he goes on to say, “(notice how I avoided the contentious term ‘Natural Theology’)”
And it must be agreed that Barth’s dogmatics “contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.”! Perhaps, in the end, I may find myself crying, “Mea culpa”!

And so he (Barth) writes, “Natural Theology is the doctrine of a union of humanity with God existing outside God’s revelation in Jesus Christ” – K.B. (CD II/1L168)
But what does “outside God’s revelation in Jesus Christ” mean, precisely? And how does this preclude the troubling proposition that insofar as the heavens declare they glory of God – they declare “the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:18)? I would say such a union does and must exist – for humanity to exist at all… And, ironically – or tellingly, the strongest affirmation of this comes directly from a “non-Christian” source: “in Him we live and move and have our being…”. But there is also the highly suggestive, “in Him all things hold together…” of Colossians 1.
I doubt that Barth has “steel-manned” the positioned that he opposes… I think he is open to the accusation of straw-manning “Natural Theology” – at least in its potential forms (outside of Nazi Theologians)… His own stringent position is understandable as he so vehemently opposed the evil course of Nazified theology and its rationalistic justifications.
But then there is the “later Barth” – where he seems to at least in some small way concede that there can be some kind of (parabolic) knowledge of God given us through the imperfect “mirror” of nature: https://postbarthian.com/2016/07/22/karl-barths-no-natural-theology-secular-parables-kingdom/
But here is our greatest difference: You appeal to Barth – I simply appeal to a more plain and common sense reading of scripture itself. What it seems you must wind up saying (and “I’ve heard it a million times” as well – from Calvinists) is that “you just don’t understand” the deeper more nuanced meaning and implications of scripture. It could be claimed here that (in some fashion) that there is a “God behind” what scripture presses upon us – and a kind of almost gnostic enlightenment and understanding is required to grasp this deeper meaning and “coherence”. That position inevitably falls back (as you do in the latter part of your “reply” post) on the (in my understanding) faulty, one-dimensional doctrine of “Total Depravity”.
Another issue is culpability: is man truly culpable if there is NO natural revelation? “Therefore they are without excuse…” Romans 1:20.

Finally (and I am being a bit repetitive here) – you have not really faced full on the most obvious implications of Acts 17. If Paul had believed what you and Barth believe – he would have NEVER quoted from Greek “theology”!
And, to be clear, I am not trying to PROVE there are legitimate grounds for natural theology by scripture – It is either real or not. I believe it is really “there” – long before any verse was ever written – and countless humans have experienced it through the ages – and intuited the truth and reality thereof. It is “there” because the Christ really is “there” sustaining it by the Word of His Power! The Bible does not make things true – it witnesses TO the Truth! It authoritatively confirms (or otherwise) our beliefs about the world in which we live…
So – there’s my response to your response. I edited this because I had gone off on a somewhat involved response to the Calvinistic doctrine of “Total Depravity” – but that will have to wait for another time and another (very imperfect) post..
Thanks and Blessings, Bobby!

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