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Monday, May 21, 2007

Introduction to Barth's Nein!

Barth's Response in Nein!

There is no question that Barth’s mind that it is his duty to respond to Brunner, for “at the decisive point he takes part in the false movement of thought by which the Church to-day is threatened.” He believes that Brunner’s writing is dangerous because he appears so close to Barth himself.

Is it not true that the danger is greatest where it appears to be least, where error combines with the presentation – a very thorough and skilful presentation – of so many “truths” that at the first, and even at the second and third, glance it looks like the truth itself?

Barth explains that his opposition to Brunner is one to prevent the sort of compromise that occurred in the Church during the 18th and 19th centuries. He ends the letter with with this:

"The reason I must resist Brunner so decidedly is that I am thinking of the future theology of compromise, that I regard him as its classical precursor, and that I have heard the applause with which all who are of a like mind have greeted his essay, Nature and Grace. His essay is an alarm signal. I wish it had not been written. I wish that this new and greater danger were not approaching or that it had not been Emil Brunner who had crossed my path as an exponent of that danger, in a way which made me feel that for better or for worse I had been challenged. But all this has now happened, and seen in some greater context it probably has its sense. But I hope that since it has happened I shall not be misunderstood if I act according to the use of our times and treat his doctrine of “Nature and Grace” without much ceremony as something which endangers the ultimate truth that must be guarded and defended in the Evangelical Church."


Barth’s “Angry Introduction” is a somewhat misleading title, because one might suppose that the anger is purely due to Barth’s substantive disagreement with Brunner. However far and wide that disagreement may be, what truly angers Barth is the personal backstabbing attitude that he discerns in Brunner’s method of debate. For Barth, the spirit of Brunner’s debate is just as wrong and insidious as the natural theology which flows in it:

"I am 'angry' with Brunner because on top of all this he did not refrain from showering me with love and praise and from maintaining that the matters in which I differ from him are mere 'false conclusions.' Now I have to reply with a 'No!' to Brunner and the whole chorus of his friends and disciples and those who share his opinions. And what a wicked man I appear to be, lacking all communal spirit and stubbornly refusing to allow even the least correction! Brunner might have known how necessary this 'No' was and how thorough it had to be. If he considered a debate between himself and myself necessary and promising, he might have lent it the dignity and status by addressing me from that distance which does as a matter of fact exist between us – however great 'a pity one may consider this."

He begins his introduction by quoting Brunner’s task for theology, in order to show the main component responsible for the distance between their two points of view:

“It is the task of our theological generation to find the way back to a true theologia naturalis.” . . . If this is Brunner’s opinion – and how can I, how can anyone, doubt any longer that this is indeed the case? – then I fail to understand among many other things the following: how can he think that, in spite of this opinion, he has a right to be mentioned “in one breath” with – of all people – me, to be my “ally,” my “good friend,” and that I have merely failed to understand him and therefore have in error shot at him by night?” For we ought at least to be at one in defining “the task of our theological generation” if we intended and desired the same thing in a way in which Brunner seems to assume this.

Barth further shows that it is not natural theology, per se, that he despises, as much any theology that makes it the primary task:

"How could I deny that I, too, have, as a matter of fact, repeatedly practiced “true theologia naturalis” in his sense . . .? It may be possible to convict me of many atavisms and relapses in this matter, and I am certain that it is not easy to get rid of the demon here in question. But my soul is innocent of ever even having dreamt of the idea that it was a task of our theological generation to find the way back to a 'true theologia naturalis'!"

The point at which his division with Brunner began is difficult for Barth to explain, since they received teaching from “Kutter and Blumhardt” (the Christian Socialists in Switzerland during Barth’s formative years). In contrast to Brunner, Barth offers his own theological task:
Ever since about 1916, when I began to recover noticeably from the effects of my theological studies and the influences of the liberal-political pre-war theology, my opinion concerning the task of our theological generation has been this: we must learn again to understand revelation as grace and grace as revelation and therefore turn away from all “true” or “false” theologia naturalis . . .

Barth decides he has no choice but to be the lone ranger that Brunner portrayed him as:

"Brunner does not understand . . . that the issue between himself and myself is such that to-day it can only be decided openly and consciously. Since he has thus joined the crowd and has therefore actually become so far removed from me, he might in the name of his Christian profession do me the favour of leaving me in my “isolation” and refrain from informing the world about me in the attitude and tone of a “good friend.” It is this obscuring of the situation which makes it so difficult for me to reply to Brunner that I should like it best to save both my readers and myself the trouble of replying at all . . . But it should not be held against me if in these pages I appear in a thoroughly exclusive and unfriendly attitude; if the reader now sees an unedifying disruption where before he thought to see unity; and if my answer lacks that “elegance” for which Brunner’s essay is praised. At the moment I am not worried about elegance. I have quite different worries. I must become clear and explicit."

Barth begins by reviewing his “false conclusions” that Brunner displayed earlier. Barth interprets them back to us as follows:

"The image of God in man is totally destroyed by sin. Every attempt to assert a general revelation has to be rejected. There is no grace of creation and preservation. There are no recognizable ordinances of preservation. There is no point of contact for the redeeming action of God. The new creation is in no sense the perfection of the old but rather the replacement of the old man by the new."

In this chapter of his response, Barth throws off these conclusions that Brunner has attributed to him. This move is powerful since Barth has only just begun his argument, and we had expected some sort of defense against Brunner’s counter-theses. Barth’s dismissal of his own self has the effect of breaking down the “Barth” we had just begun to know (and perhaps even respected) as Brunner portrayed him so elegantly. It appears as though Brunner has only created a straw man named “Barth.” Unfortunately, due to the fact that Brunner calls “Nature and Grace” a “contribution to the discussion with Karl Barth,” his straw man now has to talk. The question remains whether Barth can adequately differentiate himself from the straw man; for he admits: “their wording may here and there recall my thoughts and my writings. But this does not mean that I am prepared to accept paternity and responsibility.”
One of the main problems for Barth is the method of organizing such “false conclusions.” Barth explains himself further:

"By ascribing these theses to me, Brunner imputes to me, apart from all discussion of the pros and cons, a fundamental attitude and position with regard to the whole problem which may be his but is not mine. For I can see no sense in giving to the denial of “natural theology” such systematic attention as appears in these theses. By “natural theology” I mean every (positive or negative) formulation of a system which claims to be theological, i.e. to interpret divine revelation, whose subject, however, differs fundamentally from the revelation in Jesus Christ and whose method therefore differs equally from the exposition of Holy Scripture. Such a system is contained not only in Brunner’s counter-theses but also in the theses ascribed to me."

Thus, the problem with such a method is that it is essentially “an abstract speculation concerning a something that is not identical with the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.” This leads one to question whether Barth is troubled by the “abstract” nature of speculation, the “speculation,” or the “something that is not identical with . . . Christ,” or all three.
It is this mischaracterization and ill-defined position that Barth blames for the difficulty in the debate, as he not only contends with Brunner’s own positive “natural theology” but with Brunner’s negative “Barth.” Thus, in some sense Brunner is right that the clarification of words and definitions is important - but it is only the tip of the iceberg in this debate.
He then explains that the only way to approach “natural theology” is to not approach it at all, but to walk away from it and even kill it if it continues to follow you:

"For “natural theology” does not exist as an entity capable of becoming a separate subject within what I consider to be real theology – not even for the sake of being rejected . . . Really to reject natural theology means to refuse to admit it as a separate problem. Hence the rejection . . . can only be a side issue, arising when serious questions of real theology are being discussed. Real rejection . . . does not form part of the creed. Nor does it wish to be an exposition of the creed and of revelation. It is merely a hermeneutical rule, forced upon the exegete by the creed (e.g. by the clause natus ex virgine) and by revelation. It is not possible to expand and compound it into a system of special tents explicating and defending it. Rather does it appear necessarily, but with the same dependence as that of shade upon light, at the edge of theology as its necessary limit. IF you really reject natural theology you do not stare at the serpent, with the result that it stares back at you, hypnotises you, and is ultimately certain to bite you, but you hit it and kill it as soon as you see it!"

We can begin to question Barth’s dismissal of natural theology as a separate issue for the sake of doing real theology. For instance, what does Barth mean by treating natural theology as a “separate” issue? Is this what Brunner is attempting to do, or to differentiate himself from? Furthermore, is there any natural theology worth positing in real theology (once we define what real is)?


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