Barth and Brunner on Natural Theology: Part 3
During his tenure at Göttingen, Barth begins developing a systematic theology based on the self-grounded axiom of God’s actual revelation of Himself to humanity, such that his dialectical theology finds its roots in the doctrine of the Trinity. Brunner, on the other hand, moves in a different direction, publishing an essay on the relationship between philosophy and theology entitled “Law and Revelation: A Theological Foundation.” The Law, for Brunner, is essentially the epistemic border for humanity. Hart summarizes Brunner as follows:
Brunner writes that in the relationship between theology and philosophy, “there is a border where both touch each other, thus where they . . . touch like two army spearheads over-against each other. This common point, which is precisely the point where there is a collision, is the Law.” Thus, for Brunner, there is a double significance for the Law. In the positive sense the Law is the way in which God encounters humanity as humanity proceeds on its own way to God. Negatively the Law, as that which uncovers humanity’s sin, separates God and humanity. The Law is the “stage prior to the ‘face of God’ . . . : It is God and yet not God, God as he wants to be for us but as he maintains himself against us.” Therefore the Law brings a crisis: it brings knowledge of sin and judgment, which points to the need for revelation of grace. Revelation alone makes possible the “full” knowledge of sin; nevertheless, since the Law is the touching point between revelation and philosophy, philosophy knows “something of the Law.”
Barth writes to Brunner in response to this essay with deep concern:
"Now that I see more clearly where you’re headed, I have nothing against you. Except that a demon (whose voice I still cannot translate into a scientific formula) prevents me from following you, (1) in your undertaking as such, which seems to me (as you usually conduct your undertakings) to be “somehow” too grandly designed (I still don’t know clearly enough what theology is, so I can hardly venture to think about its relationship to philosophy . . .); and (2) in the execution of your undertaking, which appears to me to be “somehow” too simple, too unambiguous. (It’s the same here as with your other works. . . . I see you giving answers where I am really first stirred up at discovering questions.) . . . I have absolutely no desire whatever to get involved in the hand-to-hand combat of philosophers with one another (1) because I don’t have what it takes, (2) because it’s not my office, and (3) because nothing would be more unpleasant for me than the realization that my theology stands or falls with a particular philosophy. You must understand how strange it makes me feel to look at you with your “foundation” – where one must first be converted from being an Aristotelian into a Kantian, and then from a Kantian into a Christian, and also that as a Christian one must necessarily be a Kantian (which I will concede is the most desirable and helpful position)."
For Barth, this polarity depicting law and gospel as opposites is a result of Brunner’s Kantian philosophical commitment. He asks Brunner:
“Is not the Law also revelation, [or is it] only punishment and opposition? Or does the praise of the Law in Psalm 119 count only as a ‘limit . . .’? . . . philosophy as such can ‘sense’ something of the ‘Law’ in the theological sense, it can say nothing, and that is a matter of importance. For then one must consider whether philosophy can ‘sense’ the ‘Gospel’ just as much as the ‘Law.’” Barth asks why Brunner calls his article a “theological foundation” if he builds upon an understanding of the Law which is common to Kantian philosophy. Barth concludes by remarking on the fact that people are reading Barth’s and Brunner’s works side by side: “While I am grateful that by the means of your clearer formulations many people better understand my ‘abracadabras,’ you must certainly take account of the fact that in my work there remains an ‘X’ of which you have not laid hold.”
Brunner apologizes to Barth for sounding too certain, but refuses to give up his undertaking:
“It was not my intention . . . to lay a theological foundation. . . . Nothing was intended other than a preliminary attempt to define the borders of philosophy and theology. But now, I think, it sits there, condemned: ‘foundation.’” . . . “We cannot avoid this task” of engaging with philosophy, because poor theological conclusions often result from the appropriation of bad philosophy . . . Brunner argues that he is simply reformulating what Paul and Calvin teach: the law is the tutor for the gospel. “This point of connection (Beziehungspunkt) [between revelation and reason cannot be] surrendered . . . I am not capable of speaking of revelation in the Christian sense without marking out the border of revelation against that which is not revelation, i.e., reason. Perhaps this comes in my genes, being the son of a teacher; but clarity as such appears to you to be somewhat pedantic and dangerously certain. But how do you answer your students when they ask about your doctrine of revelation: “Yes revelation is necessary – one does not know Christ through reason. But doesn’t the person who knows nothing of Christ know the Law just as well as the person who does?” With a dig at Barth’s dogmatic lectures, Brunner concludes by arguing that Barth cannot escape the question of revelation and reason in the long run: “It is more important that we clarify the relationship of reason and revelation – which is identical to saying that we must clarify the concept of revelation – than that we be instructed in all the subtleties of the doctrine of the Trinity.”
For Barth our theology is a posteriori (for our purposes, this term means “after the experience of revelation”) or Nachdenken (“reflection”) in relation to the revealed Word of God in Jesus Christ, through which we come to an understanding of God. Brunner is a more philosophical theologian in the sense that he is concerned first with the point of contact between our doctrine of God as revealed [Barth’s starting point] and our doctrine of humanity as receiver of this Word, and the proper conditions that help the former reach the latter. Brunner’s premier construct for this condition will be the image of God in man, which we will discuss later.