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Thursday, May 31, 2007


The reply given by Barth has the intention of undermining Brunner’s nature/grace dialectic. Barth does this by undermining Brunner’s distinction between the “formal” and “material” aspects of the imago Dei. He does this by pointing out Brunner’s dialectical usage of the distinction. He first concedes to Brunner that sinful man retains the personal structure of existence as subjectivity, responsibility, and decision. This is not a problem for Barth, since asserting a remnant of the “formal” image within the set of purely formal possibilities is like saying “Even as a sinner man is man and not a tortoise.”
Second, he concedes that we can consider the “formal” aspect as “the point of contact” for divine grace. But he stipulates that this concession should be allowed only if it does not make favorable humanity’s capacity for reception of divine revelation over against non-humanity’s capacity for reception. To make such a prejudgment would lead to the exclusion of non-human beings. It is here that Barth believes Brunner exceeds this stipulated use of the “formal” aspect, for he makes it the precondition for grace. For the “formal” aspect to occupy one side of the nature/grace dialectic, it has to be filled out with “material” content. This content is disguised in Brunner’s “formal” image from the beginning, according to Barth. This content is the natural knowledge of God. As Brunner has pointed out, this knowledge is available to sinful humanity in the contingent order of nature, in the historical experience of communities, and in the dictates and indictments of the conscience.
Barth argues that imperfect and incomplete knowledge of God is, nevertheless, real knowledge of God, and so is “not without relevance to salvation.” As Barth puts it:

"And if we really do know the true God from his creation without Christ and without the Holy Spirit – if this is so, how can it be said that the imago is materially “entirely lost,” that in matters of the proclamation of the Church Scripture is the only norm, and that man can do nothing towards his salvation? Shall we not have to ascribe to him the ability to prepare himself for the knowledge of God in Christ at least negatively? Shall we not ascribe to him the ability to prepare himself for the knowledge of God in Christ at least negatively?"

Barth is implying that this negative self-preparation is natural knowledge of humanity in failing to obey the created (and obvious) ordinances installed by God. Barth does not deny a natural knowledge of God’s will that preconditions one to receive divine grace, but instead objects that such knowledge comes through the created ordinances. He also points out that if man’s natural knowledge of God is the precondition of divine grace, what is the point of redemption? It seems that this apparently “formal” aspect actually exercises real limitation on grace by making grace potentially apprehensible to human reason.
In the case of preserving grace, Barth is willing to allow Brunner’s claim that human activity is used by the creator to carry out the work of grace, as long as Brunner is talking about the one grace in Jesus Christ. If this were the case, “human activity” would fall under the scope of the divine grace. But Brunner wants to separate “preserving grace” from the scope of Jesus Christ, according to Barth, and that Brunner’s limitation of grace by nature in this way betrays the most fundamental theological intention of the Reformation, by admitting “an entire sphere (one which is, as it were, preparatory to revelation in the proper sense) in which the Reformers’ principle of sola gratia cannot possibily be taken seriously.”

Barth believes that Brunner’s concept of “formal” has no anthropological significance without this material limitation. In other words, this “form” would not constitute essential human being and unique dignity unless it sheltered a material “capacity for revelation.” Barth puts a few challenging questions to Brunner:

"Is the revelation of God some kind of “matter’” to which man stands in some original relation because as man he has or even is the “form” which enables him to take responsibility and make decisions in relation to various kinds of “matter”? Surely all his rationality, responsibility and ability to make decisions might yet go hand in hand with complete impotency as regards this “matter”! And this impotency might be the tribulation and affliction of those who, as far as human reason can see, possess neither reason, responsibility nor ability to make decisions: new-born children and idiots. Are they not children of Adam? Has Christ not died for them?"

Here Barth is asking whether Brunner’s formal possibilities of sinful human nature are not actual capacities that express humanity’s original relation to the “matter” of revelation, and thus prove necessary to divine grace. If this is the case, Barth asks about those who apparently lack these specific capacities. Barth is rejecting any formal understanding of the image of God that fails to be universally inclusive, thus excluding some “children of Adam” due to their apparent lack of the defined capacities for revelation. In order to avoid this implication of rejection (which the so called “German Christians” did not). [Footnote:See Robert McAfee Brown, Kairos: Three Prophetic Challenges to the Church, (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1990). “Almost immediately after Hitler's seizure of power in 1933, Protestant Christians faced pressure to "aryanize" the Church, expel Jewish Christians from the ordained ministry and adopt the Nazi "Führer Principle" as the organizing principle of church government. In general, the churches succumbed to these pressures, and some Christians embraced them willingly. The pro-Nazi "German Christian" movement became a force in the church. They glorified Adolf Hitler as a "German prophet" and preached that racial consciousness was a source of revelation alongside the Bible. But many Christians in Germany—including Lutheran and Reformed, liberal and neo-orthodox—opposed the encroachment of Nazi ideology on the Church's proclamation. At Barmen, this emerging "Confessing Church" adopted a declaration drafted by Reformed theologian Karl Barth and Lutheran theologian Hans Asmussen, which expressly repudiated the claim that other powers apart from Christ could be sources of God's revelation. Not all Christians courageously resisted the regime, but many who did—like the Protestant pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Roman Catholic priest Bernhard Lichtenberg—were arrested and executed in concentration camps.”]

Brunner must “stick to [his] statement that man is (‘materially’) ‘a sinner through and through,’ with the consequence that the ‘formal factor’ cannot be anything like a remainder of some original righteousness, an openness and readiness for God.” O’Donovan summarizes the point nicely:

"Only by surrendering its hidden revelational content can Brunner’s ‘formal factor’ perform its modest but legitimate service of indicating the universal being of sinful mankind. But in thus limiting itself, the concept forfeits its anthropological weight as an expression of man’s unique, inalienable dignity. The functional deflation of the ‘formal factor’ signals the collapse of the nature/grace dialectic in its epistemological and ontological aspects. No longer can the persisting structure of sinful human subjectivity, conceived as responsibility, constitute the necessary condition or ‘point of contact’ for God’s gracious self-revelation to man."

“If,” Barth says, “nevertheless there is an encounter and communion between God and man, then God himself must have created for it conditions which are not in the least supplied (not even ‘somehow,’ not even ‘to some extent’!) by the existence of the formal factor.” Only the material aspect of the imago Dei can occupy the human side of the “point of contact” between God and humanity. Here Barth shows us that this side, which sin has effectively barred us from occupying, is where Jesus Christ now stands in our place. Barth argues against Brunner’s anthropologically immanent understanding of the “point of contact” in the opening volume of Church Dogmatics:

"No matter how it may be with his humanity and personality, man has completely lost the capacity for God. Hence we fail to see how there comes into view here any common basis of discussion for philosophical and theological anthropology, any occasion for the common exhibition of at least the possibility of enquiring about God. The image of God in man which we must speak here and which forms the real point of contact for God’s Word is the rectitude which through Christ is raised up from real death and thus restored or created anew, and which is real as man’s possibility for the Word of God. The reconciliation of man with God in Christ also includes, or already begins with, the restitution of the lost point of contact. Hence this point of contact is not real outside faith; it is real only in faith. In faith man is created by the Word of God for the Word of God, existing in the Word of God and not in himself, not in virtue of his humanity and personality, not even on the basis of creation, for that which by creation was possible for man in relation to God has been lost by the fall. Hence one can only speak theologically and not both theologically and also philosophically of this point of contact, as of all else that is real in faith, i.e., through the grace of reconciliation" (Church Dogmatics, I/1, pp. 238-239).

For Barth, divine grace is not content with having a degree of priority over nature. Instead, it has total priority. Divine grace acts in the humanly impossible, in a redemptive miracle of faith. Barth does not differ with Brunner in this respect, when Brunner says: “Through faith the new person is constituted [in such a way that] the subject, . . . the fact of self-consciousness, is not destroyed.” Barth believes in the continuing identity of the person before and after faith, as Brunner also intends. Yet this continuing identity is not the functional “point of contact” for human apprehension of divine revelation as Brunner believes. Brunner may appeal to Gal. 2:20 (“Nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me.”) as evidence for the continuity of personal identity in faith. However, Barth objects that this appeal stubbornly ignores St. Paul’s primary emphasis on discontinuity, “or rather [with] the divine miracle of the continuity of his existence without and with Christ.”

"Moreover the text does not go on to say something that would have to say if Brunner could fitting quote it in his support. It does not say that though St. Paul is crucified with Christ, but that nevertheless, together with his “formal personality,” some general knowledge of God derived from his conscience or from the ordinances of creation, recognizable in the world, accompanied or even led him into that new life which he can but try to explain by the inexplicable expression: “Christ liveth in me.” Does he live the life which he lives “in the flesh,” the first life, crucified with Christ, in any way but “the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me”? Is the change in the human situation through the revelation of God, of which I Corinthians ii and Galatians ii speak, really a reparatio, a restoration in the sense in which Brunner employs it: “It is not possible to repair what no longer exists. But it is possible to repair a new thing in such a way that one has to say this has become quite new”? . . . I must confess that I am quite flabbergasted by this sentence. Had one not better at this point break off the discussion as hopeless? Or should one hope for an angel from heaven who would call to Brunner through a silver trumpet of enormous dimensions that 2 Corinthians v, 17, is not a mere phrase, which might just as well be applied to a motor-car that has come to grief and been successfully “repaired”?"

While Barth’s opposition to Brunner’s concept of the imago Dei successfully shows the problems with Brunner’s anthropology, it does not positively resolve the problem of theologically conceptualizing human being. However, we notice that his insistence on faith as the “point of contact” for divine revelation suggests a relational and Christological concept of human being. Furthermore, his concession of giving the formal aspect a legitimate role in representing the continual being in sin and faith leaves room for the possibility of a concept of human being as “subjectivity,” “personality,” and “responsibility.”

[Footnote: O’Donovan, Joan E. “Man in the Image of God: The Disagreement Between Barth and Brunner Reconsidered,” The Scottish Journal of Theology, 39 (1986). O’Donovan is concerned with the Imago Dei for its ethical implications. She is correct, I believe, in seeing the Imago Dei as the foundation on which Brunner’s other counter-theses rest. Barth treats this as the jugular of the argument which he strategically attacks first.]

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)?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

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.”

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 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.”

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."

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.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Brunner's Six Counter-Theses Against Barth

I have posted my summaries of the Counter-Theses that Brunner wrote in "Nature and Grace," which I will index here (I will hopefully add page references later, since they are all in footnotes in the Word .doc currently). I will add the next section after finals are over on May 14th on Brunner's views of the Significance of Natural Theology.

First Counter-Thesis: The Imago Dei

Second Counter-Thesis: The Creator Recognized Through Creation

Third Counter-Thesis: Two Kinds of Revelation and Their Point of Contact

Fourth Counter-Thesis: God's Preservation of Grace

Fifth Counter-Thesis: The Divine Ordinances

Six Counter-Thesis: The Reformers' Doctrine and Its Antithesis

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Brunner's Sixth Counter-Thesis

Brunner devotes a long section of his pamphlet Nature and Grace to explaining how his theology, especially the doctrine of the imago dei, is not only biblically sound but also within the Reformed tradition of Calvin. I do not wish to attend to who is right in this aspect of the debate, since this would require reading and interpreting Calvin’s theology. At the end of the section Brunner goes on to repeat the charge of one-sidedness against Barth as an explanation for why Barth denies natural theology. Brunner writes:

"Barth refuses to recognize that where revelation and faith are concerned, there can be anything permanent, fixed, and, as it were, natural. He acknowledges only the act, the event of revelation, but never anything revealed, or, as he says, the fact of revelation. The whole strength of Barthian theology lies in the assertion of the actual. It is here that revelation in the ultimate, fullest sense can only be an act, God speaking to me here and now. But that is only one side of the biblical concept of revelation."

He goes on to explain his theology of the Word as related to Scripture:

"The other side is its very opposite. It is the fact that God speaks to me here and now because he has spoken. Above all, that he speaks to me through the Holy Spirit because he has spoken in Jesus Christ. This “has” is maintained in the concept of the Canon. The Bible is the “fact of revelation” of God. It is true that the Scriptures become the Word of God for me and they become it because they already are it. They become it through that, which is written, the solid body of words, sentences and books, something objective and available for every one. If I may use this trivial comparison, the relation of the Bible to the actual revelation of God is like that of the gramophone record to the sounding music, which has been engraved upon it and taken out of it. It is a “record,” an action become substance. It is fixed and unalterable. It is a piece of world at anyone’s disposal, even though the fact of its being a revelation is not at anyone’s disposal. That which is at anyone’s disposal, this Book of books with its fixed text, is what God uses in order to speak his personal Word to me to-day. That is his will. Only through that which is fixed and given does he will to give me his direct personal Word."

From this Brunner makes the jump to God speaking to us in nature. Brunner claims that the “whole arrangement of the world, with its fixity and the permanency of its being, is a manifestation of God.” But he cautions that the world “does not bear this function ‘in itself’ – anymore than the Scriptures – but only because to this Word is added an ear that hears it, to this manifestation an eye that sees it.”

Finally Brunner discusses how God’s Word must be indirect communication:
God does not speak to us except by signs and pictures. By the picture-language of the order of the world and by that of the prophetic and apostolic word. Even Jesus Christ is a piece of picture-language or, as Kierkegaard puts it, an “indirect communication.” For direct communication is paganism. Direct communication cannot communicate the message of God, but only that of an idol. That is the reason why it is not possible to deny the “fact of revelation” of God in the order of the world or of the nature for the reasons which Barth gives, e.g. in the context of his rejection of the analogia entis. For if one did so, one would also have to abandon the fact of the revelation of God in Scripture, and would thus lapse into an enthusiastic idea of revelation. But this parallel with Scripture does not exhaustively show the signficance of natural revelation and therefore of theologia naturalis for the Church and for theology.

Brunner's Fifth Counter-Thesis

Under the rubric of preserving grace, Brunner links the ordinances of matrimony as well as government, “without which no communal life is conceivable, that could in any way be termed human. These ordinances vary in dignity.” He explains that monogamous marriage as an institution is more dignified than the State because it is untouched by sin. For Brunner, marriage is necessarily natural because all men practice it, which is important to understand for embracing natural theology:

"The Christian, who recognizes the creator only in Jesus Christ, also recognizes the ordinance of matrimony to have been instituted by the creator. The distinction between this “ordinance of creation” from a mere “ordinance of preservation” relative to sin, such as the State, is made for sound theological reasons. It is necessary for a Christian theologia naturalis, i.e. for Christian theological thinking which tries to account for the phenomena of natural life. Matrimony is a “natural” ordinance of the creator because the possibility of and the desire for its realization lies within human nature and because it is realized to some extent by men who are ignorant of the God revealed in Christ."

This natural ordinance of marriage argument is not very effective, since marriage is only “realized to some extent” and sociologically is somewhat dubious in its definition. But Brunner’s claim that matrimony is unlike the State in the sense that it is untouched by sin leaves room for the possibility that Brunner was open to questioning the government, though he is only speaking generally here.
Brunner emphasizes that these ordinances are only fully realized by a person of faith, but that they are still ordinances of nature, just like the arts, and are “created and maintained by reason or instinct.” This link between nature and reason is important to notice:

"Even the believer, who by reason of his faith understands their ultimate sense better than the unbeliever, cannot but allow his instinct and his reason to function with regard to these ordinances, just as in the arts. And finally it is true that only by means of faith, i.e. through Christ, their relation to the loving will of God can be rightly understood. Nevertheless through the preserving grace of God they are known also to “natural man” as ordinances that are necessary and somehow holy and are by him respected as such. For it is peculiar to the preserving grace of God that he does his preserving work both by nature acting unconsciously and by the reason of man."

There is something about reason and instinct that allows a kind of a priori knowledge of God. I think these faculties are somehow related to the formal aspect of the imago Dei, and are the capacities for knowing God. Having God reveal himself through creation allows God’s grace to penetrate our sinfulness come what may. What is lacking in the revelation in Christ for Brunner that motivates him to look outside it in creation? And is he looking in a way that is proper to the walk of faith?

Brunner's Fourth Counter-thesis

According to Brunner, “the manner in which God is present to his fallen creature is his preserving grace. Preserving grace does not abolish sin but abolishes the worst consequences of sin [i.e. death].” Brunner then proposes that God reveals Himself in creation by using it as a way of preserving the health and life of humanity. In a sense, it is the converse of the general religious claim that if it is raining, God looks favorably on us. Instead, what is revealed is that God looks favorably upon us, therefore it is raining. Here, the indicatives of grace are prior to the imperatives of law, as James Torrance has often emphasized in line with John Calvin. Of course, one must also take into consideration the problem that the elements also bring terrible disasters, which are often the impetus for questioning why it is raining so much! Therefore, creation seems to be a tool for God, not only for His grace but also for His wrath.
Brunner claims, rightly I think, that the Bible states clearly that God does not withdraw Himself entirely from creation, even in spite of the reality of human sinfulness. What is most interesting is what Brunner says next: “In part, however, in that, agreeably to the state of sin, he provides new means for checking the worst consequences of sin, e.g. the State.” Here we must take into consideration the political resistance against Hitler that Barth and (supposedly) Brunner are engaged in. The question is clearly applicable to their context, as it always seems to be: What happens if the State fails to act according to its office as intended by God, and becomes a tyrannical and idolatrous State? Or, to put the question to Brunner: What happens when the State becomes the medium by which we are tormented by “the worst consequences of sin?” While nature is a bit more simple to deal with, given that we cannot control the elements, our doctrine of the State here affects our understanding of the people that comprise the State. Does the State, as an institution, have any less of the residue of blinding sinfulness than we as human individuals have? Should we not implement some form of control and resistance against such a State, even that State to which we belong?
[Footnote: For a helpful discussion of these questions, see the essay by George Hunsinger entitled “Barth, Barmen, and the Confessing Church Today” in Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 2000), pp. 60-88. Hunsinger points out that there were two competing historical views on the doctrine of the State: One view held by Luther and Augustine and another held by Aquinas and Calvin: “The difference between the two views is clear: [Augustine and Luther hold] that to obey the state, even the radically unjust state, is to render obedience to God; [Aquinas and Calvin hold] that times may come when obedience to God requires political disobedience and resistance to the state” (p.81). Barth obviously felt inclined towards the latter view.]

Brunner points to the significance of the “historical life” as a way of God’s preserving grace:

"The benefits which form the historical inheritance of the whole of mankind, are seen to be given by the preserving grace of God. Consequently human activity comes within the purview of divine grace – not of redeeming but of preserving grace. All activity of man which the creator himself uses to preserve his creation amid the corruptions of sin belongs to this type of activity within preserving grace. It is from this that the doctrine of civil and secular functions and offices is derived."

Brunner's Third Counter-Thesis

Brunner believes that Scripture unanimously attests to the existence of two revelations: the general revelation of God in creation and the special revelation of God in Jesus Christ. The problem is not whether there are two revelations or one but how these two revelations fit together. He clarifies the problem by pointing out that the general revelation in creation cannot give us the knowledge of God that we need for salvation. It is not because this revelation is lacking anything, but, because of humanity’s sinfulness, we distort this revelation and make idols as a response to it. He then makes an interesting claim: “In any case he is unable to know God, who in Jesus Christ reveals himself to him anew according to his true nature, which even in creation is partially hidden.”
So far general revelation has been put forth by Brunner as biblical, Reformed, partially hidden. Is it partially hidden because of our sinfulness? Or is it just a partial revelation prior to our understanding (or lack thereof), to later be fulfilled by Christ?
Brunner believes that the “natural revelation” is only known in all its glory when Christ opens the knower’s eyes in the second revelation. The second revelation “far surpasses” the first, but Brunner does not give us a clear answer for why this is, and leaves the reader to fill in the gap. He further obscures his views when he attempts to summarize how “nature” applies in various events and capacities without giving any explicit connections between them:

"This means that in the phrase “natural revelation” the word “natural” is to be understood in a double sense, one objective-divine and one subjective-human-sinful. The term “nature” can be applied to such permanent capacity for revelation as God has bestowed upon his works, to the traces of his own nature which he has expressed and shown in them. But the term “nature” can also be applied to what sinful man makes of this in his ignorant knowledge, just as it can be applied to that which God has implanted in human nature as an image of himself, indestructible, yet always obscured by sin. Or it can be applied to what man himself makes of himself through sin. Therefore one can say in conclusion: Only the Christian, i.e. the man who stand within the revelation in Christ, has the true natural knowledge of God."

The big question that one leaves with is: how does one “stand” in this revelation in Christ? Brunner lets go of the project, perhaps admitting that he needs more time and space to help us understand what he has in mind. All he wants is our ascent so far:

"All these concepts need further theological consideration. But such consideration cannot alter these fundamental outlines without contradicting the testimony of Scripture. Even the most perfect theology will in the main be unable to get beyond the double statement that as concerns the heathen, God did not leave himself without witness, but that nevertheless they did not know him in such a way that he became their salvation."
[Footnote: Here Brunner cites Acts 14:17, my italics below. For context, Paul and Barnabas are preaching in Lystra, when Paul heals a cripple. The crowd responds by saying “The god’s have come down to us.” Barnabas they call “Zeus,” and Paul they call “Hermes.” As the crowd begins to sacrifice to them, Paul and Barnabas shout: “Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. In the past, he let all nations go their own way. Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons: he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy” (adapted from NIV Translation of Acts 14:1-17). This passage works favorably for what Brunner has said earlier regarding our attempts to use the general revelation as a platform for idolatry. Notice also that from this text the general revelation seems to be the message of Paul and Barnabas, while there is no mention of Christ. Finally, it is also Scriptural evidence of what Brunner will later say regarding God’s preserving grace of all humanity- in this case - through the regulation of weather elements.]

This “double-statement” harkens back to Brunner’s desire to secure responsibility in the hands of “the heathen” for their lack of knowledge, and thus their lack of salvation.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Brunner's Second Counter-Thesis


The second of Brunner’s counter-theses concerns the ability of humanity to see God the Creator in nature (His Creation). To further maintain the co-existing tension between nature and grace on the basis of the formal/material aspects of the imago Dei, Brunner decides to specify the formal aspect in terms of our spiritual abilities, such as the ability to recognize God in both the content of external nature as well as its activities in history; the moral abilities in conduct and judgment; and finally, the ability for self-knowledge of guilt.
Brunner believes that nature has the “imprint of God,” and that this acts a type of revelation:

"Wherever God does anything, he leaves the imprint of his nature upon what he does. Therefore the creation of the world is at the same time a revelation, a self-communication of God. This statement is not pagan but fundamentally Christian. But nowhere does the Bible give any justification for the view that through the sin of man this perceptibility of God in his works is destroyed, although it is adversely affected. Rather does it say this, that surprisingly enough sin makes man blind for what is visibly set before our eyes. The reason why men are without excuse is that they will not know the God who so clearly manifest himself to them."

Here, Brunner allows that this general revelation in nature is damaged, not destroyed, by sin. The question is to what degree this happens; whether the sinful consequence of blindness amounts to our epistemic destruction of God (Barth), or whether it leaves an epistemic residue of God (Brunner). The biblical exegesis that drives this aspect of the debate derives primarily from St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans, particularly 1:18-20:

"The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

[Footnote: See Douglas A. Campbell, “Natural Theology in Paul? Reading Romans 1.19-20,” in The International Journal of Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 Issue 3, (November, 1999) pp. 231-53. Campbell offers a new way of reading this passage that undermines the traditional view of the passage that Brunner is working from. He begins his introduction: “Romans 1.19-20 has functioned within that sphere in turn as a locus classicus for the endorsement of general revelation and natural theology. And although made problematical by the criticisms of the traditional philosophical proofs for the existence of God, criticisms especially widely accepted since Kant, atheism has not completely overthrown the confidence of all scholars in these verses' possible philosophical defensibility. Neither, perhaps more importantly, has that scepticism blunted their apparent sense; only, for some, their apparent truth (although it is also arguable whether the verses imply full-fledged philosophical proofs). In addition, the apparent commitments of 1.19-20 are well known to those Protestant dogmaticians who may not endorse their basal dogmatic function because of their role in the famous spat between Brunner and Barth in 1934. Concerning this last debate, my own view was that Barth had the best of the theological argument and Brunner the best of the exegesis, leaving the somewhat unpalatable conclusion that Paul had demonstrated rather poor theological judgment in Romans 1.19-20 and its surrounding discussion. However, the difficulty of squaring that position with the apostle's incontestable theological brilliance elsewhere has always left me open to alternative construals of this text and its implications” (p. 231).]

For Brunner, the moral ability is chief among the qualities that make up the formal aspect, especially in its ability to know guilt. This moral ability is critical for Brunner as a response to God’s precepts given to humanity in the law. It is seen in his discussion of “conscience,” which he defines as “consciousness of responsibility.”

Men have not only responsibility but also a consciousness of it – which could be shown by a more detailed phenomenological analysis to be necessarily interconnected. Only because men somehow know the will of God are they able to sin . . . Responsibility of the sinner and knowledge of the will of God as the source of law (the knowledge also being derived from the law) are one and the same thing.

For Brunner, conscience depends on the address by God’s Word. It is only as humanity is addressed that it receives the capacity of knowing its sin, and so is capable of receiving the later address of God’s grace. Later on he adds:

"It will not do to kill the dialectic of this knowledge of sin by saying that knowledge of sin comes only by the grace of God. This statement is as true as the other, that the grace of God is comprehensible only to him who already knows about sin. . . . A man without conscience cannot be struck by the call “Repent ye and believe the Gospel."

Therefore, the necessity for human understanding of the divine grace is our dual knowledge of law as divine command and of our sin as its violation. To deny this dialectical presupposition is to deny human responsibility. The law/Gospel dialectic requires a distinction in degree of knowledge between “partial” and “real” knowledge of God’s law and of sin. Regarding both law and sin, Brunner says:

"Natural man knows them and yet does not know them. If he did not know them, he would not be human: if he really knew them, he would not be a sinner. This dichotomy is itself the essence of the state of sin. Without knowledge of God there can be no sin: sin is always “in the sight of God.” In sin there can be no knowledge of God, for the true knowledge of God is the abolition of sin. This dialectic must not be one-sidedly abolished. On the contrary it must be strongly insisted upon. For only in this dialectic does the responsibility of faith become clear. He who does not believe is himself guilty. He who believes knows that it is pure grace."

Thus, “in the epistemological dialectic grace is both the completion and negation of nature.”

When Brunner returns to the ontological dialectic of nature and grace, he reintroduces his structural understanding of the formal aspect without the qualities of recognition, morality, and conscience previously mentioned in the epistemological dialectic. The human being, in the repentance and faith influenced by the Holy Spirit, receives the original righteousness that was lost, and undergoes a recreation in the material image of God. Brunner notes that “the subject as such, the fact of self-consciousness, is not destroyed by the act of faith . . . and upon this depends the possibility of an imperative of faith . . .”