Welcome to The Karl Barth Society of Amherst, Massachusetts - a local chapter of the The Karl Barth Society of North America. This site is maintained by Chris TerryNelson. Please let me know how I can make this page a better resource for you. Email me, view my profile. You can also visit my new personal website, Disruptive Grace.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Brunner's Counter Theses and Their Proof: The First Counter-Thesis


Brunner wants to reconstruct natural theology biblically and on the grounds of the Reformation. He claims this new way of doing natural theology is able to maintain the dialectic of nature and grace that can preserve the priority of grace over nature, both ontologically and epistemologically. The “lynchpin of this dialectic,” as Joan O’Donovan has observed, is the dual concept of the imago Dei, which can function as both nature and grace.
According to Brunner, man’s creation in the image of God has two aspects: the formal aspect and the material aspect. The formal aspect acts as the structure and function of human being, a characteristic that makes it inherently superior to the rest of the contingent order of created beings. The structural-functional superiority of human being manifests itself in human “responsibility” and “capacity for words.” As Brunner puts it:

Man has an immeasurable advantage over all other creatures, even as a sinner, and this he has in common with God: he is a subject, a rational creature. The difference is only that God is the original, man a derived subject. Not even as a sinner does he cease to be one with whom one can speak, with whom therefore also God can speak. And this is the very nature of man: to be responsible.

Thus, the formal aspect cannot be destroyed by sin, thereby rendering humanity responsible and inexcusable for the cosmological chasm (which is both ontological and epistemic) between God and His subjects.
In contrast with the continuing integrity of the formal aspect, sin has successfully destroyed the material aspect of the image of God in humanity. Brunner agrees with Barth that humanity’s original righteousness “has been lost and with it the possibility of doing or even of willing to do that which is good in the sight of God . . . [such that] the free will has been lost.”
The destruction of this material aspect leads to the total perversion of created human being that renders the once “personal” human being as “anti-personal.” The sinful human remains “a person” insofar as he/she remains a responsible subject (retaining the formal aspect). Yet, Brunner notes:

he is not a personal person but an anti-personal person; for the truly personal is existence in love, the submission of the self to the will of God and therefore an entering into communion with one’s fellow creature because one enjoys communion with God. This quid of personality is [negativized] through sin, whereas the quod of personality constitutes the humanum of everyman, also that of the sinner.

This Year's Karl Barth Prize Goes to . . .

Meehyun Chung! Thanks to Ben Myers at Faith and Theology for giving us the good news.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Scott Jackson's Ph.D. Dissertation Abstract

I'm excited to finally have received Scott Jackson's dissertation, entitled,


I hope to give it a good read before the semester commences. Again, my congrats to Scott for finishing such a monumental piece of work. Now he can rest easy, and look for high-paying theology jobs. :-)

Thursday, September 07, 2006


In reference to Paul’s letter to the Romans, Brunner unfolds the foundation of a Christian doctrine of “natural man” and of heathen religion. He believes that Paul begins with a two-fold occurrence of “trust” and “repentance,” whereby saying No to oneself is how one says Yes to the saving grace of God. Therefore, when Paul speaks of the “inexcusable,” he is speaking of the responsibility of the ungodly for their ungodliness. Brunner makes the doctrine of natural revelation to be the ground of this judgment, for how else could the ungodly be judged? It is precisely the fact that God is with humanity today in His creation witnessing to Him, that makes it impossible to fault God for man’s sinful state. Indeed, humanity is at fault, for they have perverted what they know of God (Romans 1:23) and turned away from Him who declares Himself. Thus, the revelation from creation is used to give reverence to humanity rather than God. As for the heathen, they “do not stand outside the revelation of God, or out of relation to him; they stand rather in that alienatio originis which from the human side must be called sin and from the divine side the wrath of God.”
Here what lies behind Brunner’s attempt at saving natural theology is his attempt to ground the responsibility of the sinner. He sees this responsibility as relevant to the missionary who proclaims the Gospel to the heathen. The knowledge of one’s own sinful state is not only practically effective in the contact between the proclamation of Christ and the revelation of God in the works of creation and in the law written in the heart, it is “indispensable.”

He goes on:

"He who thinks as a missionary, understands without further ado the central significance of this contact, normative and productive of repentance, with the two-fold revelation in creation; and he knows also that far from prejudicing the sola gratia, it alone makes possible the preaching of justification. Everything depends on the establishment of this responsibility, which makes men guilty; and the responsibility itself depends on the reality of a general revelation in creation which precedes the revelation of reconciliation in Jesus Christ, and indeed precedes all historical life."


According to Brunner, it is the doctrine of sola gratia and the position of the Bible as the sole ultimate standard of truth from which Barth draws the following conclusions:

(1) Since man is a sinner who can be saved only by grace, the image of God in which he was created is obliterated entirely, i.e., without remnant. Man’s rational nature, his capacity for culture and his humanity, none of which can be denied, contain no traces or remnants whatever of that lost image of God.
(2) Since we acknowledge scriptural revelation as the sole norm of our knowledge of God and the sole source of our salvation, every attempt to assert a “general revelation” of God in nature, in the conscience and in history, is to be rejected outright. There is no sense in acknowledging two kinds of revelation, one general and one special. There is only one kind, namely the one complete revelation in Christ.
(3) Accordingly we have to draw the following conclusion from the acknowledgment of Christ as the sole saving grace of God: there is no grace of creation and preservation active from the creation of the world and apparent to us in God’s preservation of the world. For otherwise we would have to acknowledge two or even three kinds of grace, and this would contradict the oneness of the grace of Christ.
(4) Accordingly there is no such thing as God’s ordinances of preservation, which we could know to be such and in which we could recognize the will of God which is normative of our own action. A lex naturae of this kind which is derived from creation can be introduced into Christian theology only per nefas, as a pagan thought.
(5) For the same reason, it is not permissible to speak of the “point of contact” for the saving action of God. For this would contradict the sole activity of the saving grace of Christ, which is the centre of the theology of the Bible and the Reformation.
(6) Similarly the new creation is in no wise a perfection of the old, but comes into being exclusively through destruction of the old and is a replacement of the old man by the new. The sentence, gratia non tollit naturam sed perficit, is in no sense correct, but is altogether an arch heresy.

Visiting the Barth Center

This afternoon, as I went to bother David Congdon, I had the chance to meet the Curator of Special Collections, Clifford Blake Anderson. When I had emailed Anderson a few months ago about this Barth site, I had accidently mispelled the URL as http://barthamherst.blogpsot.com.
Anderson replied that he was a little concerned about my theology at first, and when I visited the wrong link, I found out why.
As a side note, if you can read Anderson's latest essay in Cultural Encounters on Kuyper and Barth on Worldviews, you'll get a very fresh understanding of why they can't see eye to eye (most assume the difference is their Doctrine of Scripture). As someone who has attended L'Abri lectures many times (founded by Francis Schaeffer), I can attest to the evangelical/reformed popularity of "cultivating a Christian worldview." Barth has pretty much knocked that philosophy out of me now, although many fragments of truth are embedded in its system.

David was kind enough to introduce me. When he said "Amherst," they already knew who I was (does that count as being a Barthian celebrity?). I was asked if the Barth Society of Amherst was large, and had to admit that five people was a "good day" for us, which received a good chuckle. Kenneth Henke offered to take me on a tour of the Barth Center on his lunch break, which was a real treat. It was amazing to see Markus Barth's own chicken-scratch from when he took his father's class in the '40s (which ended up being published as CD I/2). There were canes, pipes, pictures, ash-pots, and of course a whole collection of first editions (again, largely provided by Markus). On top of that, they have collected all of the secondary literature available on Barth, including recently completed doctoral dissertations (send yours in, Scott!).

Perhaps I should consider this a culminating experience into the world of Barth (yes, there is a culture of it). What would be even more grand would be to work in special collections with David. I'll let you know how that goes.

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.”

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

New Blogs

Hello friends.
I've started my own personal blog, called Disruptive Grace.

Halden and others in East Portland are starting their own Barth Society. And what would a Barth Society be without a blog? My non-existent hat goes off to them. Where shall the next group pop up? It could be in YOUR hometown!