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.

22 thoughts on “No Such Thing as Christian Natural Theology”

  1. I’m personally not sure if God is completely unknowable outside of Jesus, but I do think that without knowing Jesus it is possible to at least get a general idea of who/what God is. Maybe not the full picture, but at least a few pieces of the puzzle, y’know?

    1. Travis since Christ completes Gods plan of reconciliation with humanity, if you are missing that critical piece you really do not know God at all. Much like the popular worldy parable of the blind men and the elephant, just knowing a few prices of the puzzle of who God is only serves to give someone an inaccurate, incomplete and dangerous picture of a god of their own making.

      1. Do you think that because you know that Christ completes God’s plan of reconciliation, you therefore have an accurate, complete, and safe picture of God as He really is?

        In the healing at the pool of Bethesda, the invalid didn’t know who healed him until he met Jesus in the temple later, yet he saw God revealed and was healed.

        1. I would say that it’s impossible to have any accurate picture of God without Christ. Not sure what you mean by safe.

          The healing of the invalid had one purpose only… to reveal Christ. The man who was healed did not have an accurate view of God until he knew that Jesus was the one who healed him.

          1. I’m not sure what you meant by ‘dangerous’. I would say that it’s impossible for a human to have any “accurate” knowledge of the Father, except what is revealed in/by His works. … Job 38. Proverbs 16:1-5. etc.

            It seems to me that one purpose of the healing of the invalid at Bethesda was to heal the invalid. The point (one point) is that for the invalid, healing came not from what he knew about Jesus, but directly from who Jesus is, unmediated. It was not necessary for him to have an accurate view of God.

            1. Marshall its dangerous because it can lead to making your own god and following that god.

              To be healed that invalid may not haven needed to have an accurate picture of God completed through Christ but we do,

  2. Donald Bloesch tries to nuance this a bit in his systematic theology. While he leans toward Barth, he suggests that there can be a “general awareness” of God through nature, but hesitates to use the term “general revelation”.

  3. I think as long as the question is just “knowledge of God,” we end up nowhere – the question is, knowledge of God as Creator, or God as Savior? There’s a bridge to God the creator, but without Christ, God the creator is also God the judge.

  4. So here’s my question: Near Emmaus links to this post saying “Daniel Kirk says there is no such thing as natural theology.” Are you (Daniel) agreeing with Barth that there can be no revelation of God other than His revelation of Himself in Christ? Or are you just describing Barth’s view as presented in Dogmatics?

    I have an opinion on this, but it would help if I knew who I was talking to? :)

  5. My understanding is that part of Barth’s passion on this issue was that he believed “natural theology” opened the door to the Nazi’s co-opting of the German Church in the pre-WW II era. Had the Church remained faithful to God as revealed in Jesus Christ, Barth believed, it would not have been complicit in the sin of the Third Reich. The Barmen Declaration (largely drafted by Barth) is a very forceful statement of this principle: “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust, in life and in death” — with the correlative denial of other words, other lords (German “fuerher”) that can make any legitimate claim on us.

    While we may not feel the same urgency today, I do appreciate Barth’s strong insistence that we can never pretend the God invoked in Psalms 19, 104; Rom. 1-2; Acts 17 and the other texts he treats are anyone but the God of Israel, whose fullest self-disclosure is in Jesus.

    I do wonder how this compares to Calvin’s position, which, if I remember, is that “natural man” (Barth’s term) can reach some knowledge of God through general revelation, but needs special revelation (the spectacles of Scripture, right?) to understand God rightly. I think Barth’s position may take more seriously the ambiguity of any witness from nature: e.g., “Can it be overlooked here that what we see and know of this happening [i.e., God's provision for the natural world, Ps. 104]… involves the cruel struggle for existence of all against all?”

    I confess I’m not quite clear on what Barth is doing with Rom. 1 on p. 120, when he says, “The world whcih always surrounded [natural men] was always His [i.e., the specific God's] creation and spoke of His great works and therefore of Himself” – how is this not, then, natural theology? But I very much like the insistence that nothing we can “know” about God is “timeless, general, abstract truth” (p. 121). And I am personally very convicted by his reading of Acts 17, because I used that a lot in the past to justify all kinds of “points of contact.” Now, I find any reading but Barth’s hard to give credence to.

    Thanks again for this blog series. I am finding the discipline of the scheduled readings and your responses to them very helpful.

  6. On page 102, I cannot understand his explanation of why Roman 1: 19-20 is compatible of his refutation of natural theology. His argument is very vague. In NICNT Douglas Moo’s commentary, he stated:” that Paul teaches the reality of a revelation of God in nature to all people, this text is quite clear.” (Moo. NICNT Romans commentary. p. 106).

    1. Just to take a stab at that, I think it has to do with Barth’s stress that Paul’s starting point cannot be any revelation apart from the revelation in Christ. And (I don’t know if Barth does exactly this) you could, in fact, read these verses in immediate context to refer back to v. 16: “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel…” In the Gospel, and not outside of it, both the righteousness and the wrath of God are revealed. Also, as Barth has defined “what can be known about God” (v. 19) – namely, what God reveals in Christ – the idea that God could be known apart from that revelation is an impossibility.

      I admit, though, v. 20 is harder to make sense of within Barth’s framework. Especially when later on, on p. 120, Barth says: “God was revealed to [the heathen] from the very first. The world which always surrounded them was always His creation and spoke of His great works and therefore of Himself.” That seems by and large what you quote Moo as saying. It seems the one weak link in Barth’s case against Christian natural theology, because I thought he did a fairy strong job of showing why the other oft-cited “proof texts” don’t, in the end, support a general revelation.

      1. From reading Barth’s Romans commentary it would seem that he is stating that what can be known about God is the fact that we cannot know the unknowable God. It is the realization of the anthropological “no.” He does balance this unknowability back to the knowability of the revelation of Christ in the gospel (v.16).

  7. I’m a NT scholar and have not read Barth as thoroughly as I would like. Does he interact with John 1 at all? It seems to me there could be a case that “Natural Theology” is indeed a form of special revelation – given Christ’s role/presence in creation as the Word. While Bultmann doesn’t work in these exact terms, he does discuss that Jesus as Word in John is the revealing act of God. Jesus’ words in John often harken back to chapter one, linking the idea of special revelation through signs and words to the role of the Logos in creation. Augustine may point to this link as well. Worth some more digging… Inspired to dig. Thanks JDK

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