The Significance of Natural Theology for Brunner
Brunner begins by speaking of a discussion on natural theology that he had with Karl Barth. In it, Barth pointed out the political ramifications of Gogarten’s doctrine of ordinances. He found that within this doctrine lay hidden “a whole political and cultural programme of a distinctly authoritarian stamp” and that “events have proved how right he was.” But Brunner believes his own concept of orders is different in that it is “refracted.”
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF NATURAL THEOLOGY FOR ETHICS
He goes on to show the ramifications of natural theology:
"That much is clear: the theologian’s attitude to theologia naturalis decides the character of his ethics. Historically it may be said that the concept of the ordinances of creation has been regulative for Christian ethics from the beginning to the time of the Enlightenment, in all matters connected with the problem of society as such, i.e. in the doctrines of ministry, secular vocation, matrimony, the State, etc. Christian social ethics throughout the centuries may be defined as the doctrine of love founded in Jesus Christ and of its function in society according to the divine institution of the latter. Social ethics are therefore always determined as much by the concept of divine grace of creation and preservation as by that of the redeeming grace of Christ."
Brunner notes that the question regarding our doctrine of ordinances and preservation is not whether they should determine ethics, but how they should do so. He blames the Enlightenment for marginalizing this how due to its inherent individualism and rationalism. This abandonment further strengthens individualism because “all attempts to operate with the concepts of love or with those of ‘law’ or ‘commandment’ without the help of the concept of the ordinance, lead either to rationalistic social constructions (liberalistic doctrines of the State and matrimony) or to an uncertain attitude towards the ordinances of society as given factors, vacillating between acknowledgment and rejection.”
Brunner’s point is well taken that God’s creation is dynamically connected not just to our lives but to His life as well. The world is not just an external neutral reality but is a revelation of God Himself. We would go too far to say that God is His creation, that He is identical with it. This is the difference between the general revelation and the special revelation in Christ.
He goes on to explain the significance for ethics:
"But we have to acknowledge the fact that God has not simply put us into a “world,” but into his creation, whose laws can be known in spite of sin, by those who know God in Jesus Christ. This means that we have to acknowledge divinely appointed objective limits to our freedom and objective guides to the ordering of our society. That is the only way out of this chaos – the way which gives the Reformers’ ethics on the one hand their assurance, and on the other hand their realism.. . . All those who – quite irrespective of their motives – act in accordance with the laws of these ordinances, do the works of God. They are no thereby justified before God – that can happen only by faith, i.e. by doing these works in the knowledge of divine grace, in obedience to and confidence in God – but they do “right.” "
This objective law, which does not justify the individual human, is still fulfilled. The ordinances (matrimony, the State) “are part of the divine law.” Along with these ordinances, the written law (Scripture?) and the natural law “[are] the form in which the divine will is revealed, which only through the Holy Spirit becomes a concrete divine commandment, governing my existence here and now.”
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF NATURAL THEOLOGY FOR DOGMATICS
The concept of “analogy” is crucial for understanding why Barth opposes natural theology. Brunner explains Barth’s position as theologically nominalist:
"For Barth holds the strange doctrine that there is no creature which has in itself any likeness to God. Rather is it raised to this status by the revelation in Christ and through the Holy Spirit. This is a piece of theological nominalism, in comparison with which that of William of Occam appears harmless. For this would mean that we call God “Father,” “Son,” “Spirit,” that we speak of the “Word” of God, etc. not because God is more like a father than anything else, but simply because God says so in the Scriptures. God does not say it because by his creation and from his creation it is so, but, on the contrary, it only becomes so by the Word of God in Scripture."
Brunner believes this nominalist approach creates tensions in Barth’s theology, since the concept of analogy is his basis in Church Dogmatics, “even though he does not acknowledge this.” He cites evidence of the use of analogy in the following quote from Barth on the Word of God:
"The form in which reason communicates with reason, person with person, is language, so too, when it is God’s language. Of course it is divine reason that communicates with human reason. The divine person with the human person. The complete inconceivability of this event confront us. But reason with reason, person with person, primarily in analogy with what happens in the corporal or natural sphere. The Word of God is a rational and not an irrational event."
Brunner takes Barth to mean the following:
"Human reason is in itself – i.e. by divine creation – a suitable means of establishing relations between two subjects, not only between man and man but also between God and man. The fact that man is a subject is in itself analogous to the fact that God is a subject. Hence we must exclude all other analogies and make the fact that God is a subject the governing thought in our theology – as Barth quite rightly does. But this means that the whole Barthian theology rests de facto upon the doctrine of the formal imago Dei, which he so much dislikes, i.e. upon the doctrine that man as we know him, sinful man, is the only legitimate analogy to God, because he is always a rational being, a subject, a person."
Brunner then asserts his point more strongly. He interprets Barth as saying that “man’s nature as imago Dei determines that he should not speak of God except by human metaphor.” Brunner claims that Barth believes we derive all theological concepts from the parallels in human/divine “personality.” Thus, our concepts are set apart because God has created human being uniquely in His “likeness,” whereby this likeness “is not destroyed by sin.” Thus, against Barth’s wishes, the imago Dei is confirmed in revelation.
Brunner takes this contradiction to be apparent in Barth’s denial of the analogia entis. He believes that all theologians use analogy and should, but that they need to discuss how this should be done. “This determining factor rests upon the doctrine of the imago Dei, which can be adequately understood only in the incarnation of God.”
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF NATURAL THEOLOGY FOR THE CHURCH
Since Brunner agrees that the Church’s mission is to proclaim the Word of God, to do so effectively requires that the Church choose those human words that correspond adequately to the divine Word. This correspondence between human and divine word is grounded in the imago Dei, which has been revealed to us in Christ. Brunner believes that “the incarnation is the criterion of the knowledge of the divine likeness of man . . . But man’s undestroyed formal likeness to God is the objective possibility of the revelation of God in his ‘Word.’”
Here we come to the crux of Brunner’s aim with natural theology, and what drives his eristics. Brunner begins discussing the content of the proclamation. He claims that even true content is “useless” if it is not “comprehensible.” The point-of-contact (human responsibility and capacity for words), which is only a “general possibility,” is not sufficient to make the Church’s proclamation effective. While the Holy Spirit opens the heart of the receiving subject of proclamation, God’s role does not excuse the Church’s indifference toward what comes out of its mouth or pen. Instead, the Church must proclaim the right content, so that it corresponds with the divine Word. Yet, he also claims that it must correspond with man as well, in a way that is “comprehensible.”
Brunner stipulates a pastoral situation to describe why the framing of the content of proclamation is equally vital to consider:
"What I should say to a man upon his death-bed is a holy matter; but it is a matter no less holy how I am to say it to him in such a way that he shall understand and appreciate it. A pastor might – to put it somewhat strongly – go to heaven on account of the What but go to hell on account of the How. To despise the question of the How is a sign, not of theological seriousness but of theological intellectualism. The What is, as it were, guarded by faith, but the How has to be guarded by love. But where the How and therefore love is lacking, there faith must be lacking also."
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF NATURAL THEOLOGY FOR UNBELIEVERS
Brunner believes that just because “there is a false apologetic way of making contact does not mean that there is not a right way.” He believes the wrong way is “to prove the existence of God.” But this does not bar us from talking about evidence for God’s existence in creation. As Brunner himself says:
"But though proof is excluded, this does not exclude the possibility of a discussion pointing towards such evidence of the existence of God as we have. The decisive factor will always be the simple proclamation of the Christian message. But there is such a thing as theological work done upon the message, i.e. intellectual work in the realm of concepts, which can and is intended to serve the proclamation of the message. Similarly there is such a thing as an intellectual and conceptual work of preparation, which clears obstacles out of the way of proclamation. Everyone who carries on pastoral work among intellectuals or has the task of instructing modern youth, knows the significance of this."
Brunner then makes the single claim to which Barth will make his reply “Nein!”: “But the centre on which everything turns is the centre of the theologia naturalis: the doctrine of the imago Dei and especially of responsibility.”
He ends by saying that Barth’s one-sidedness has been used for God’s good purposes, as has Calvin’s more “comprehensive and balanced thought,” with which he is obviously associating himself. He considers the debate between himself and Barth to have arisen from not consulting Calvin earlier on the matter. He believes doing so will lead the Church toward reclaiming the lost theologia naturalis.