BARTH’S RESPONSE TO NATURAL THEOLOGY SUMMARIZED
By now it should be fairly obvious to the reader that Barth’s commitment to God’s grace fuels his hostility toward natural theology within the Church. Natural theology bypasses the mediation, the miracle, and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ in God’s act of revelation. It renders human access to God immediate by way of innate spiritual and material capacities, as a general given truth.
In regards to its source and motivation, natural theology has been one way that the Church has chosen to affirm itself self-sufficiently, over against the penetrating revelation of God as Word. George Hunsinger interprets Barth’s view of natural theology in the following way:
It shows the extent to which we would rather bear our own lives, even through the wretchedness of guilt and death, than be carried solely by divine grace. It shows the extent to which we can endure the offer of God’s Word without being thrown off course. It shows the extent to which natural theology is something that has already been lived out before it has been thought and developed as such. Above all, it shows the extent to which we are prepared to affirm in self-sufficiency and self-justification that we ourselves already stand in the truth. “The core of this theology is that for us the truth can be had without the truth itself, because we are the truth itself, or at any rate, we are also the truth itself, in independence of the truth of God. This theology of life only needs to be made explicit as such and the whole of natural theology is in force in its basic idea” (II/1, 135-36 rev.).
For Barth, the question of truth cannot be answered without God’s help, nor even properly asked. Hence, the kind of access we might like to attribute to ourselves, as we do in other fields of knowledge, does not exist due to our sinful nature. All knowledge of God is rooted objectively and subjectively in the Holy God, who is set apart yet completely intimate to humanity.
Natural theology, as an expression of our desire for self-sufficiency, defends us against the miracle of grace, whereby God comes to us in our need to carry us to redemption, through guilt and death on the Cross, but in such a way that involves the subsequent surrender of precisely this self-sufficiency. Natural theology does not wish to allow this surrender. Instead it assumes that we have an independent status from God, standing objectively at the Archimedean point if you will, with no inadequacy. This natural theology is what Barth was schooled in, and what he attempted to break away from profoundly in 1916.
While grace “disrupts” us in order to liberate us, natural theology seeks to give us greater control. Natural theology is especially keen on using the language of grace, entailing grace as a choice that we can meet with utter poise. For we love nothing better than free gifts. Dietrich Bonhoeffer made this point well when wrote against the “cheap grace” of the German-Lutherans of his time, who felt that grace had no restrictions, and their obedience was completely irrelevant.
What Barth has against Brunner is that Brunner is formulating a natural theology that still seeks to explain grace as co-existing with nature, by which nature has its own self-grounded capacity for grace (at least in part). Nature cannot establish external conditions, especially on its own grounds, which grace must conform to. This would have grace cease to be free and sovereign. Instead, grace has the ability to reconstitute nature, as well as humanity itself, in order to have genuine fellowship with it. There is no autonomous capacity to choose revelation. Therefore, “natural theology (for all its good or bad intentions) not only reinforces human nature at its most unfortunate point, but also in the process fails to allow grace to be grace, revelation to be revelation, and God to be God.”
The only solution to the problem of subjectivity is to replace us with Jesus Christ as the respondent to grace. Barth’s theology always brings truth under Jesus Christ, especially as it regards our human existence. He is always “the missing center . . . Yet when he is restored to the center that is rightfully his, everything else falls into place.” Barth’s objectivism always entails subjectivism. And his “one-sidedness” always entails a “two-sidedness.” It is through Jesus Christ that this is accomplished - where God became Man because he was for Man, and responded to God as Man because he was for Man.