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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Nature and Grace

A year of silence follows, when Brunner sends a note to Barth explaining his monograph, Nature and Grace: A Conversation with Karl Barth, and his motives for writing it:

"I ask you to accept this booklet as graciously as possible. I have tried as far as I am able to understand what unites and divides us, and I express our opposition as falling within a Reformation-Biblical co-partnership. And thus my wish for fellowship is as clear as my wish for theological specificity. For that reason, I maintain that your teaching on natural theology is not entirely biblical and is not entirely Reformed. But I know that, despite this, you are united with me that it is important to struggle in our Church and in the world for the value of the biblical message in its Reformation interpretation until the end. I believe in this co-partnership."


Brunner introduces his essay Nature and Grace by speaking of their theological alliance, and the degree to which Brunner respects even the things that Barth has to say against him. He clarifies the point that Barth is the chief theologian to be credited with changing the Protestant conversation from “religion” to “the Word of God,” thus regaining a theology that is compatible with the message of Scripture and the Reformation, and breaking through the front of theological modernism. Brunner forgives him for friendly-fire, as it were, since Barth was only serving his duty as a night watchman of the Church. Even in shooting, however, Brunner believes that Barth (thankfully) missed, and feels it is important to resolve the conflict by finding common ground. It is primarily Barth’s “lone-ranger” attitude that bothers Brunner, implying that Barth sees himself as doing theology better on his own. He continues to maintain (against Barth) that the difference between them is “purely objective and theological and can only be removed if we test anew by that standard which we both acknowledge.” Brunner truly seeks to put the ball in Barth’s court regarding the status of alliance and is intent on forcing Barth to dissolve the relationship publicly. This, among other reasons, is why Barth wrote a quick review on the back of the pamphlet to Brunner that included this statement: “It would have been better if [Brunner] had not written this article.”
Brunner further explains that he uses the term “natural theology” in an objective sense, whereby the human individual, who has already received divine revelation, comes to know God through His creation. This sense of the term is distinguished from the subjective sense, whereby knowledge of God is accessible to “the heathen or to independent rational argumentation.” To clarify some terminology, the “objective sense” is theological rhetoric for emphasizing God’s agency, whereas the “subjective sense” emphasizes human agency. This rhetorical use of “objectivity” by Brunner is necessary for him to stay close to Barth in the argument, since it is a (but not the) primary motif of his theology. It is easy to confuse this usage of “objectivity” and “subjectivity” in the philosophical sense, where often the distinction lies in whether we are talking about our mere representation of an object (subjectivity) or the object as it is in itself (objectivity). We might be tempted to supplement “God” into the logical space of “object” in this distinction. But to do so would be, for Barth, to cross into philosophical territory. God must not occupy the space of “object” as philosophically defined, for the God of Christianity and the God of philosophy are incommensurable for Barth. Instead, God must define objectivity and subjectivity for us.
Brunner even says that if the term “natural theology” is a stumbling block to dialogue, it can be scrapped in favor of “the Christian doctrine of general revelation or of revelation in nature.”


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