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Barth vs. Brunner on "Natural Theology"

I recently wrote a paper analyzing Karl Barth's arguments against Emil Brunner's theses laid out in an essay called "Nature and Grace." Barth was deeply concerned about the consequences of a so-called "true natural theology" which ascribes a "point of contact" for divine revelation apart from God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ, witnessed by the Scripture. Here is how Barth defines "natural theology":

"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 of Jesus Christ and whose method therefore differs equally from the exposition of Holy Scripture."

We see an extreme example of this here. Sarah has indeed formulated a system (albeit a completely arbitrary and chaotic one which would have been way out of bounds even for "natural theologians" anywhere on the spectrum from Aquinas to Brunner) which claims to be theological, interpreting what she calls divine revelation, but whose subject differs fundamentally from the revelation of Jesus Christ, and whose method differs from the exposition of the Scripture.

Here is the paper, for anyone interested. It merely scratches the surface of this topic and probably raises more questions than it answers, but it did turn me into an unapologetic Barth fan! :)


Karl Barth's Answer to Emil Brunner's "Nature and Grace"
by Tami Jelinek



In 1934 Swiss theologian Emil Brunner (1889-1966) wrote an essay entitled “Nature and Grace” which he calls a contribution to the discussion with his fellow Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968), and in which he states “it is the task of our theological generation to find the way back to a true theologia naturalis.” Barth responded forcefully that same year with his own essay entitled “No!” Barth’s answer is a “no” first of all to the premise that there is such a thing as “a true theologia naturalis,” and furthermore to the “theology of compromise” toward which he sees Brunner’s theses concluding. Barth saw the natural theology of Brunner to be a “false movement of thought by which the church was being threatened.” This paper will summarize and evaluate Barth’s main arguments against Brunner from their common soteriological perspective of sola scriptura and sola gratia, and also with a focus on the nature and subject of divine revelation. Specifically, we will show that Brunner’s assumption of a “point of contact” and a “capacity for revelation” possessed inherently by natural, unregenerate human beings is indeed incompatible with the doctrines of grace he affirms, and represents a departure from the supremacy of the person and work of Christ as the subject of God’s self-revelation to us human beings for the purpose of our redemption. Finally we will confront some of the theological ramifications and consequences of Brunner’s error toward the way the Gospel is perceived and presented by the Church even in America today.

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Comment by Doug on June 10, 2012 at 8:20pm


I am not sure I completely understand your thesis, but allow me to ask a few questions...

First, are you saying that you don't believe that nature can LEAD us toward Jesus?
 If I am mistaken on that, then please clarify.

Secondly, certainly you recognize that nature is a teacher of Godly things, right? I can think of many examples that Paul used. For example, he said in 1 Cor. 7 that nature teaches us about hair. He also recognized that although man is a "responsible' creature, it isn't always a clear cut rejection by man of God, so much as it is an ignorant one. When Paul preached on Mars hill, he clearly told the audience that they worshipped the 'unknown god', and then he went fro a place where they understood to a place where they COULD understand better. In other words, he met them where they were.

Nature itself does have this capacity to lead towards God, in that which is unseen can be known by the attributes contained within the creation. I would not understand the resurrection as well without understanding how a butterfly metamorphoses from a caterpillar. And I do believe God put it there as an object lesson.

Nevertheless, if what you are saying is that nature is often used as a SUBSTITUTE for coming into the true, then I agree fully. It often is, and it corrupts the message of who and what Jesus is when we allow nature to trump the true and the divine and that which is revealed clearly in Jesus.

So, I THINK we are in agreement. Nevertheless, there are those people who need regular contact with nature so they can renew their own wonder at what the hands of God made. Sometimes we are inundated with that which is man made, and we have to get away and meditate on what can be seen, heard, and felt so that we can remind ourselves about the TRUE which is in heaven. I tend to give people like Sarah a break on these matters, because not everyone is able to approach God "sola scriptura' These people are, in my mind, like the children of Israel who were "kept" by the law of Moses, waiting for a future time for the fullness of the revelation in Jesus. Could it be that Sarah is in such a place?

Of course, you rightly point out the danger of SUBSTITUTING this so-called "revelation of the Holy Spirit" as a suitable substitute for the clear revelation that is only in Jesus. But I am not overly worried, unless of course she thinks that this discussion she is having with the Holy Spirit is really the end of the journey and the true goal of christians. If she thinks that, then I am afraid she will be stuck for a long time in an infantile state of grace. I said "grace'' because I really do think God sustains people who are in this state of mind until they can come to a better place.

You certainly got me thinking, and you are an excellent writer. Thanks.

Comment by davo on June 10, 2012 at 10:34pm

Doug: These people are, in my mind, like the children of Israel who were "kept" by the law of Moses, waiting for a future time for the fullness of the revelation in Jesus. Could it be that Sarah is in such a place?


Doug... I know you don’t mean to sound condescending, arrogant or even paternalistic, but that is exactly how this type of talk can come across. Whatever Sarah’s M/O, this in my opinion is the problem with evangelicalism... whenever there comes a perceived threat the troupes rally to quell the apparent error with all many of proof-text sloganeering, e.g., “no one comes to the Father but by me” etc – nowhere did it appear to me that Sarah was suggesting anything contrary to this.


But more, much more than that... when Jesus actually stated this above he WAS NOT laying out some pet formula for faith which then having had a given conditional interpretation imposed on it mean something else. Jesus was stating the FACT and TRUTH that via him and him alone mankind NOW comes to the Father, period.


Ignorance is no barrier to God, it is only an obstacle to the fuller or greater appreciation of God – both Cornelius [Acts 10:1-4; 31; 34-35] and Paul [1Tim 1:13] came to know this truth.

Comment by Tami on June 11, 2012 at 2:39pm

Hi Doug,

Thanks for the comments. You asked me to clarify:

"First, are you saying that you don't believe that nature can LEAD us toward Jesus?"

Yes, that is exactly what I am saying. Nature does not reveal God (who has revealed himself in his Son) to anyone who does not already know something of God by that revelation. To suggest otherwise, is to suggest, as Brunner did, that nature contains revelation of God which can be accessed apart from faith, grace, or the Holy Spirit--and apart from Christ, who is revealed to us only through Scripture. (Unless we believe he physically is still visiting people today, as some here have suggested.)

You brought up Mars Hill. Exactly, they worshiped an *unknown* god. They didn't worship God. They could not worship God, until he revealed himself to them. (And in that case it was by Paul preaching the Gospel to them.) Nature in that case served as a "point of contact" along the lines of Brunner's argument, but only in the sense that man is rational, and has a "capacity for words." Barth's argument, with which I agree, is not to dispute this capacity for words and reason, but to deny that it amounts to a capacity to receive revelation. As I point out in my paper, even the Bible is not in and of itself revelation. It only becomes revelation when the Spirit of God speaks through it, to reveal Jesus Christ to the reader/hearer.

To your other point, we can learn things from nature (ie, through scientific exploration). But we cannot learn who God is. Any atheist will agree with me. And if the atheist is a scientist, he will agree with me even more. :)

You mention "attributes" of creation. I deal with the idea of "creation ordinances" in my paper. Not sure if that is what you are referring to specifically, but I do deal with your general argument.

Now, it is also true in a sense (and your butterfly example is getting to this, I think) that revelation and nature/creation are inseparable, when we consider that God's self-revelation in Christ was accomplished by the incarnation, which occurred within nature/creation, and couldn't have occurred without it. In fact there are those who suggest (and I think this is along the lines of the Eastern Orthodox view) that the incarnation was the point of creation from the very beginning. I definitely find that idea intriguing, especially since coming to see Genesis 1 as covenantal rather than cosmological. So in that sense without nature/creation, there could be no revelation--again, because there could have been no incarnation.

Thanks for reading, and for the nice compliment!


Comment by Doug on June 11, 2012 at 5:05pm


Well, you certainly set me back in my thinking! I will chew on your thesis for a while. I am not saying I disagree, but I must mull it over first.

Allow me then to add some followup questions please...

First, I can think of many implications that would rock orthodox theology if they accepted your (Barth's) ideas. The main one, of course, is that everyone would have to become a Calvinist (just kidding) :) But actually, a Calvinist mindset is needed to embrace this idea that God's soveregnty is so complete that it means that the creation itself cannot inform one about God. Naturally (no pun intended) indigenous people groups such as, say, the American Indians, are infamous for their worship of nature. The skeptic would say that although perhaps the native American didn't know the TRUE God, he knew enough to know that there were spirit forces at work in creation, and that there were good and bad forces. I would agree with that, wouldn't you?

Well, if that be the case, then isn't nature, in this sense, "informing" people about God? At least it is laying the groundwork for a knowledge of something bigger and greater than mankind. And if that is happening, it is much easier to take people to the next step and introduce them to the true God than if they had no prior beliefs about the nature of a spirit world at all!

And, its common to see people-groups throughout history as possessing some kind of "spirit knowledge". Pagan history is replete with it.

Of course, that is your point, isn't it? That without direct revelation, mankind, no matter how hard he tries, cannot "find" God. I completely agree with that premise. In fact, that is a direct statement by Jesus in John 6:44

So, maybe I am not disagreeing with you so much as I am trying to establish how far you take this. I would not deny that mankind, without revelation, CANNOT see God. Yet, has God left mankind without ANY way to see Him? I just can't wrap my mind around the idea that blindness is complete without revelation. I mean, a pagan with an appreciation of the natural world, and the wonder contained therein, seems to be a "better pagan" than one who rejects all he sees and is actually ANTI-God. Wouldn't you much rather approach someone who isn't openly hostile to the prospect of a good God who created the good nature in which we live than one who is irrational and who rejects even common sense arguments based on a commonality we all share (namely, nature)?

Finally, I do see how even ancient history supports your idea, especially as seen through the lens of covenant creation. After all, a covenant creation full preterist will affirm that God separated Adam and Eve APART FROM the pagans of their day. And, considering that the earth and homo sapiens has existed much longer than the usual Christian dating (e.g. Usher, c. 4,000 B.C), then mankind, in all his pagan glory, has had a lot of time to live within nature. Surely, prior to Adam, if it was possible to approach the true God within nature, then someone would have found it prior to Adam, right? So then, there would have been no need for a Garden of Eden revelation, right?

OK. Enough of my thoughts. Your turn! :)

Comment by Allyn Morton on June 11, 2012 at 10:00pm

Nature is of course a relevator of there being a Creator. Some have multiplied the number of creators to accommodate the idea that since the universe is so diverse there then must have been more gods. So I agree what nature reveals. But nature does not reveal the moral purity of the Creator and His holiness. Only one like Him who became one of us can and did do that.

Comment by davo on June 12, 2012 at 2:22am

Acts 14:17 Nevertheless He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good, gave us rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.” Cf. Psa 19:1; Rom 1:19-20

Comment by Tami on June 12, 2012 at 5:56am


Thank you for your very thought-provoking comments--these are all things I continue to contemplate. I especially appreciate you bringing the garden story into this. If Adam was the first human being to whom God revealed himself, and even that initial revelation ultimately pointed to Christ, and was only completed in Christ, this goes hand in hand with the idea that the incarnation was the purpose of creation all along.

I am still not on board with the idea though, that pagan nature worship is evidence of divine revelation, or is even (as Brunner suggested) evidence of a point of contact for it. Acts 14 may be a convenient prooftext, but the weight of Scripture doesn't seem to support that interpretation, as I argue in the paper. And the other two passages that Davo brought in, Psalm 19 and Romans 1, are not speaking of the physical cosmos at all, so they don't have relevance to this argument.

But your point is well-taken that the implications of my view toward the heathen, especially those completely ignorant of the gospel and presumably without access to the witness of Scripture, are troubling, and unsettling. As are the implications of "covenant creation" toward all those who lived historically prior to Adam.

As I continue to work this out a challenge will be to articulate the distinction between an objective or theoretical possibility of "evidence of a Creator" in nature and the fact that this so-called evidence is not recognizable in any salvific sense--ie, this potential evidence is without even the possibility of leading to a knowledge of the true God. So how can we *really* say it evidences him at all--as Barth would qualify, anterior to revelation? But posterior to revelation, we may say that the potential becomes realized as a tangible confirmation of the revelation we have received in Christ.

I articulated this reasoning in the paper this way:

Regarding Brunner’s assertion that there is a revelation of God in nature which can be known “in all its magnitude” only by him “whose eyes have been opened by Christ”: While I, with Barth, reject the notion that there is any revelation of God in nature (partial, veiled, distorted, minus-its-full magnitude or otherwise) available to unbelievers, I do affirm Brunner’s idea of a revelation of God in nature—but only to believers. The natural, cosmological creation has no spiritual significance, and contains no knowledge of the one true God for unbelievers whatsoever. Barth doesn’t address this, but I would suggest that much like the way the witness of Scripture, which is not in and of itself revelation, becomes revelation when God speaks through it to reveal himself in the person of Christ, the same may be said of the witness of creation, and the covenantal and kingdom realities it metaphorically represents to God’s people.

Still much to think about....

Comment by Doug on June 12, 2012 at 10:44am


If I may add just a few more thing sto think about (as if you didn't have enough!) :)

It is important to ask a leading question about "revelation". The question becomes

"How much revelation about Christ is enough to be considered "enough", or to be considered a true revelation"?


We live in a world of Christian denominations. Each denomination builds its structure based on their own particular "revelation" about what they think the bible really says. And on it goes...


So, to start a thesis asking if God can be revealed BY nature still begs the question of "What do you mean by 'revelation'"?

Its my opinion that there is a bare minimum requirement for a person to understand God. This is typically called "the essentials". But even saying that, arguments are started about what an essential really  is. So, if you don't understand an essential, has Christ really been revealed to you?


Yet, if I maintain that there is a bare minimum, then am I not setting myself up as an arbiter of the grace of God? Am I not making myself a judge of men's hearts?


So we must be careful even ASKING the question about whether God can be revealed in nature. Obviously God is the final judge in these matters, and putting ourselves in the seat of deciding whether or not God can be revealed in nature or ONLY in scripture, or ONLY in personal revelation, or ONLY in the Holy Spirit talking to our "hearts", is a slippery slope.


I have not experienced personally a revelation of God outside of scripture. But I have heard plenty of stories where God has, in the absence of any possibility of access to scripture, spoken directly to His children. Sometimes, the impetus to seek God was "revealed" to these people by something within their own natural surroundings. So can we exclude nature completely as a tool God can use to reveal Himself? I don't think so. All things He has created serve a purpose, and nothing He does is in vain. The heavens declare the glory of God. They are there as a witness. But just like a human witness, no matter how loud or sincere the witness, unless God opens the mind to supernatural revelation, the witness speaks in vain.


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