BRUNNER THEN AND NOW: THE EARLIER FORM OF THEOLOGIA NATURALIS
"But the question concerning Brunner’s “true” theologia naturalis, of which we have already spoken, is the following: Does he really mean a “theologia naturalis” consisting of propositions and instruction directly obtained from natural evidence, of the kind that was introduced into Protestant theology two hundred years ago? Nature and Grace would have led one to suppose so. But again there is Brunner’s last authoritative pronouncement but one on the subject, which seems (at least at the first glance) to point in a somewhat different directions."
Barth then describes Brunner’s earlier form, which looks very familiar to Barth’s own earlier dialectical project:
"It seemed then, that Brunner was not speaking, as he is now, of a directly observable continuity between nature and grace, reason and revelation, but of a continuity which at the same time was discontinuity, which provided both a contact and a contrast. The latter was said to be so great that the continuity was subordinate to the discontinuity, the contact to the contrast. “The Gospel cannot be preached unless this continuity is completely disrupted. The content of the Gospel is of such a kind that by it this previous understanding (i.e. of God through reason) is not merely corrected but decidedly negatived. The natural knowledge of God is neither a true knowledge of God nor a true knowledge of God” (p. 510 f.). All natural knowledge of God is – so Brunner then said – essentially a knowledge of the wrath of God. And being subject to the wrath of God meant the same thing objectively as a bad conscience or despair subjectively. The different degrees of the subjective consciousness point to the objective side. The “contact” made in the natural knowledge of God consists in the fact that it involves a “loss of certainty.” The contact is made, not with something positive or neutral but with something negative."
Brunner, as Barth points out, believes that we apply this negation of human existence as the point of contact for evangelism:
"As regards the contents of the relations of God and man there is a discontinuity. Only as regards the formal fact of the relation is there continuity (p. 523 f.). Hence the proclamation of the God revealed in Christ must always be at the same time an attempt “to show the unbeliever the true character of his existence without faith, to show that despair is the ‘fundamental condition’ of existence.” “Humanly speaking, the success of the preaching of the Gospel is as dependent upon the contact that is made as upon true doctrine. And this contact consists of leading man to the place where he will know the desperate character of his existence, not merely theoretically but in his conscience.” For “bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. X, 5) means “that man recognizes himself in what is said to him by Christ concerning his natural existence, so that he can identify himself with it.” Similarly, theology has to make contact with the natural self-knowledge of man by elucidating and underlining its negative result from the point of view of faith. “Eristic theology means ‘laying bare’ the true character of existence by destroying the fictions of every Weltanschauung. But this ‘laying bare’ cannot be performed except by using what man can of himself know about himself” (p. 529 f.)."
While this all used to be Brunner’s opinion, much of it is “absent” in his Nature and Grace, though it has “faint echos” in his doctrine of the imago Dei. Barth is unsure why Brunner gave up on this direction, which he likens to that of Kierkegaard and Heidegger. Apparently Barth has decided that while he once found this small capacity for revelation interesting “around 1920, and perhaps even later,” he has turned away from it himself: “for in spite of its restrained formulation, it raised the problem of a peculiar aptitude of man for divine revelation in a much more acute, tempting and dangerous form.”
Thus, the earlier form of Brunner’s theologia naturalis explained the human capacity for revelation as consisting
"only in the fact that in the rational existence of man there is a diacritical point where this existence can be discontinuous, where it can issue in a “negative point,” where its most essential truth, its “fundamental condition,” i.e. despair, can come to light, where this despair can be theoretically described as true and felt to be so by the conscience, and where the knowledge of God, which is bound up with it from the start, can “become uncertain.”"
Barth notices that here at least Brunner sharply distinguished the formal and material aspects as being completely “incompatible,” while reason consists purely in its ability to be negated by sin, which leaves humanity with one response: despair. He adds: “Nor did Brunner fail to add that the transition from the ability to despair to real despair is dependent on grace.”
Barth defines this earlier form of natural theology this way:
"Accordingly the independent functions of natural theology would be the following: theology and proclamation of the Gospel must not confine themselves to putting forward “true doctrine.” In, with and under the preaching of revelation, natural theology would have to use what man can of himself know concerning himself. It would have to tell him about himself, i.e. about his deepest despair of himself. Lastly, it would have to use the demonstration of this negative point to destroy all the fictions of Weltanschauungen."
Barth then applies his “No!” with the same force towards this lesser version, for it still seeks to find within humanity a “capacity for revelation.” This earlier form is even more threatening because of its proximity to “Evangelical truth.” According to Barth, Brunner was “stating a real theological problem” in describing this negative, “uncertain” natural knowledge of the wrath of God and existential desperation. This theological truth is present in Scripture, and is the concept of revelation that I wish to highlight later on:
"that man is of himself unable to find access to the revelation of God. Just because Christ is born, we have to regard the world as lost in the sight of God. The Word of God declares man to be unfree in his relations with God. The fact that we become hearers and doers of the Word of God signifies the realization of a divine possibility, not of one that is inherent in human nature. Freedom to know the true God is a miracle, a freedom of God, not one of our freedoms. Faith in the revelation of God makes this negation inevitable. To contradict it would amount to unbelief."
But Barth notices that as early as 1932 Brunner shows us that he did not hold onto this concept for long. For if he had, he would not further preceded to explicate a “natural” knowledge of God. Barth speaks against anthropocentrism, and regards that being “one-sided” is our necessary point of contact:
"Nor could he possibly have said that the state of affairs to which this knowledge relates could be seen only by “utilizing that which man can of himself know about himself.” How can man ever in any sense know “of himself” what has to be known here? He may know it himself, yes! But “of himself,” never! How could he possibly convince himself of this negation of his freedom? He could only do it if he thought that he could, in advance, overlook and grasp both the Word of God and himself, if he thought not only that he knew the condition of his hearing of the Word – i.e. the negation of his freedom to do so – but also that he could create it himself. If we base ourselves upon what is possible to us, we shall always believe in them.. . . All the comfort, all the power, all the truth of the revelation of God dependso n the fact that it is God who is revealed to us. And all understanding of this fact depends on its identity with God being understood, on all possibilities except that of God being excluded. This applies also, or even specially, to the “loss of certainty” ! Also the wrath of God is the wrath of God. Hence it is by no means identical with any fundamental condition or “negative point” of our existence."
Hence, Barth rids of himself of previous contradiction regarding his own a priori use of natural theology, particularly through this amendment to his (and Brunner’s) earlier notion of the negative natural self-knowledge. He provides further Scriptural evidence and historical-theological scholarship that any self-knowledge, even negative knowledge, is never prior to the work of the Spirit. I find Barth’s use of Luther most illuminating, since it counters most of what Protestant theology today teaches in the pulpit:
"According to Luther, man is not a “sinner” by nature. He has to become one, and it is “a rare thing and a hard one” to become a sinner (Comm. On Romans 1515/16, Ficker II, lxxi, I f.). “As the righteousness of God lives in us through faith, so it is also with sin; that is, we must believe that we are sinners” (lxix, 10). “We have to give way to his revelation, that is to his Words, to justify and confirm them, and thus on the basis of what they say to us to confess to ourselves what we did not know before, namely that we are sinner” (lvii, 31). Humilitas can exist only as spiritualitas (cxlv, 23). Hence only the spiritual man can speak of himself as St. Paul does in Romans vii (cxlvii, 32)."
Finally, Barth gives a quote from Calvin: “According to Calvin, true knowledge of self in real humility cannot precede the knowledge of God, it must follow the latter. We perceive how little our eyes are able to bear the light, not when we direct them on to the ground, but when we try to look at the sun (Instit., I, 1).”
Barth turns his attack to the concept of despair as a negative “point of contact.” This concept, which was historically utilized by Kierkegaard , was an important part of the edifice for the dialectical movement, and so his rejection of the concept of despair further isolates him from this movement. For we find that Barth’s dialectics is formed out of his Reformed commitment of objectivism, and that “despair,” as a subjective reality, cannot be real for human knowledge prior to divine revelation. He says:
"It does not matter whether the despair we experience and know as our own is, according to one philosophy, the “fundamental condition” of our existence or, according to another, something else. At any rate that despair is not a factor which co-operates with the judgment of God and which, therefore, is indispensable for its execution. Nor is it, as Brunner evidently thought and still thinks, indirectly identical with the judgment of God, as being its subjective manifestation. That sorrow which really is possible to us is always that sorrow of which it is said in 2 Cor. Vii, 10, that it “worketh death.” It may be “shown up.” But what can here be shown up and appear can never be the sorrow “after a godly manner” which works “repentance not to be repented of,” which leads to salvation. Not even when it is in the sphere of grace! On the contrary, even when it enters into the sphere of grace I have to realize that in that sorrow which I experience, undergo and know as my own, I am still, and even all the more, my own lord and master."
Barth concludes this section by remarking that our proclamation, if it rests on this “point of contact” of “despair,” thus rests on a false doctrine. It also proves severely impractical. Barth points out once again that Brunner is trying to fill the “purely formal” imago with actual material, which is “the capacity for a sinless knowledge of sin . . .to sit in judgment on human existence, to inform oneself concerning oneself, to known oneself to be punished with despair . . . If that isn’t capacity for revelation . . .!” For Barth, the Holy Spirit is not in need of a point of contact in humanity, but instead creates its own “point of contact.”