No Such Thing as Christian Natural Theology

So there you were, cultivating a rich missiological approach to your own cultural context. You were studying the environment in which you found yourself, looking for glimmers of the transcendent, unconscious acknowledgements that there was a God worthy of worship just beyond the recognition of your neighbors.

You were looking at Acts 17, and pondering what statues to an unknown God there might be in your workplace or civic life.

You were studying Romans 1 and imagining that a knowledge of God persists among those who do not, as yet, know God in Christ.

And then brother Karl comes along and opens up his can of Christological grace in the presence of totally depraved sinners.

Next thing you know, natural theology of every time is being denied. Points of contact are shown up as little more than ways to get people to see quickly that they do not, in fact, know God (and won’t likely be willing to). And you are sent to your room in tears.

The main line of biblical witness, Barth maintains, is that God is known, and can only be known, through His revelation of Himself in Christ. This consistently Christological frame of reference radically discounts claims that God is known otherwise than as God is revealed in what is often called “special revelation.”

Barth explores the “secondary line” of biblical witness that may seem to require us to acknowledge that God can be known, in some sense, in creation. But again and again he comes back to the point that what the text such as Ps 8 or Ps 19 or Rom 1 or Acts 17 depend upon is a prior conviction that God is truly known as the God of Israel.

And that’s at the heart of Barth’s point: God of Israel.

In order for God to be known, God must be known as God has bound himself to a particular people and a particular act of salvation. There is no idea of “God in general,” no abstracted knowledge of what a god is like that is simply true of our God because it’s true of some hypothetical being. God is known as God truly is, and that is tied to a particular revelation.

The God whom the Psalmists know is the God of Israel, the Lord of the Exodus and of the wandering in the wilderness, the Giver of the Law, the Hope of David, His wisdom , His power, His goodness, His righteousness, originally and conclusively this God alone. (Dogmatics ยง26.1, p. 109)

To me, the most interesting moments in this section were Barth’s wrestling matches with the apparent biblical counter-evidence.

Why does Acts 17 not establish the viability and significance of the “point of contact” for reaching new people? Because it is when he brings in the identity of the unknown God as the one who has raised Jesus and will judge the world–i.e., what is revealed of God in Christ–that Paul is mocked and rejected. Is this really an invitation to hold onto “in roads” for the gospel where people are ignorant in their so-called “knowledge”?

There are unanswered exegetical questions, but in this section we see the genius and consistency of Barth as he demands that the revelation of God always be a true disclosing of the true God–something unavailable to fallen human beings unless it come to us by grace.

Natural theology? No. Only theology of the revelation of God in Christ.

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