Brunner and Calvin: Concerning Natural Knowledge
Again, as stated above, there is not enough space to direct attention towards a proper interpretation of Calvin’s theology out of Brunner and Barth’s disagreements. However, in conjunction with the interpretation of Romans I:18-20, Barth offers his own views on what the role of natural knowledge is by way of appealing to Calvin.
According to Barth, Calvin did not regard natural knowledge of God in creation as a separate capacity that is retained (formally) and is then “reconstituted” by Christ to be the “point of contact” for revelation. Furthermore, Scripture did not drive him “to search in reason, history and nature for another source of nature beside that of Scripture, for one that would supplement Scripture. While the possibility of natural knowledge in creation was a true possibility for Calvin “in principle, but . . . not a possibility to be realized by us.” Barth distinguishes the former as an “objective possibility, created by God” from the latter as a “subjective possibility, open to man.” This renders any natural knowledge as purely “hypothetical.” Thus, any talk of degree of human limitation regarding this knowledge is useless, because we simply do not have knowledge in the first place. Barth quotes Calvin, and makes an even stronger point:
“We are blind, not because revelation is obscure, but because we are mad (mente alienati): we lack no only the will but also the ability for this matter (Comm. In 1 Cor. I, 21; C.R. xlix, 326). That is true also of those “whose eyes have been opened by Christ”! Thus, even after any revelation we still find that the sinful nature impedes any prospect of Christ “reconstituting” us to see God in the world. Yet notice what Barth says regarding worship following this statement:
"Over against the philosophers [Calvin] sets the teaching of Scripture and nothing else. Scripture tells him that man is created by God and for God, that the wisdom and paternal providence of God rule over his life and that of the whole world, that there are ordinances of God and what those ordinances are, in which he has to honour the will of God. Scripture moves and inspires him to praise through the creation the God who is so completely hidden from man. That is what man, who is reconciled in Christ, can and must do. He cannot and must not, however, embark upon independent speculations concerning these things, made apart from and without Holy Scripture or arbitrarily deduced from it."
Thus we are still called to worship through creation. But how can Barth hold that we lack natural knowledge even after Christ opens of our eyes (revelation), and yet are called by Scripture to worship through creation after we are “reconciled in Christ” (revelation)? There is a tension here, for it appears we are supposed to worship that which we do not and cannot know. The tension could be better understood given Barth’s emphasis on worship being something that we participate in, and that Christ makes possible for us in Himself and through Himself. He makes it clear that even the hypothetical natural knowledge is not realized in Christ. But where even hypothetical knowledge is excluded from the possibility of participating in true worship, Barth may have something in his concept of revelation, one that allows humanity to worship God through creation. At this point it is quite unclear what he means.
Barth goes on to express Calvin’s claim that natural knowledge, when actualized, results in, and is always the source of, idolatry. Barth quotes Calvin as saying: “‘The knowledge of God which now remains to man is nothing other than the terrible source of all idolatry and superstition’ (Comm. in John iii, 6; C.R. xlvii, 57).” Barth is confused how Brunner can allow this possibility as a “point of contact. Between it and the possibility of divine revelation there is no relation, nothing common, and hence no inner connection.” Barth goes on to say that the only result of attempting to put divine revelation and this idolatrous natural knowledge together is “repulsion.”
Calvin’s hypothetical natural knowledge came from his conviction (based on Romans 1:20, for example) that God is revealed in all creation. Barth then elicits his clearest positive definition of the function of “natural knowledge:”
"It serves to demonstrate the fact that man is without excuse. The fact that God is revealed in all his works is God’s scriptural testimony to us against the ignorance of man. It justifies the wrath of God and his judgment upon man. It points out that man’s inability to know him is his guilt. But it does not serve “to praise our perverted nature” (Comm. In John I, 5, loc. cit.). We cannot make anything of it. It is a fact that our ability to distinguish good and evil convicts us of our guilt. But Calvin did not, any more than St. Paul in his Epistle to the Romans, draw from this the systematic conclusion that a “natural” knowledge of the law of God is to be ascribed to us and that this knowledge has to be put to a positive use in theology either antecedently or subsequently (“in faith”). On the contrary, he plainly denied that knowledge of the ethical good is gained by means of an ability (facultas) of man."
[Footnote: See Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans: 6th Edition, trans. Edwyn C.Hoskyns (London: Oxford University Press, 1965), pp. 42-48. Here Barth provides further commentary on his interpretation of Romans 1:18-21. He describes the “negative” natural knowledge in this way: “That which may be known of God is manifest unto them . . . We know that God is He whom we do not know, and that our ignorance is precisely the problem and the source of our knowledge. We know that God is the Personality which we are not, and that this lack of Personality is precisely what dissolves and establishes our personality. The recognition of the absolute heteronomy under which we stand is itself an autonomous recognition; and this is precisely that which may be known of God” (pp. 45-46).]
Finally, Barth emphasizes the point that knowledge of God revealed in Christ includes a real knowledge of God in creation. Thus, it does not allow natural knowledge as a separate entity through which we engage in disciplines such as “eristics.” Barth believes that there is evidence that Brunner actually conceived of natural knowledge as negativity at an earlier point, and that he should have stayed this course with Calvin, and subsequently Barth himself. This is probably due to the impact of Barth’s Romans commentary, which Brunner had previously (and at least briefly) been converted to.