What is Natural Theology, and Its Persistence in the Christian Church

If ‘what’ natural theology is, is still escaping you, then let me try to explain it again; well, let me have George Hunsinger explain it for you, at least in the way that Karl Barth understood what natural theology was, and for what reason it continues to persist, especially and primarily in the Christian church. Here is Hunsinger on Barth and an explication of what natural theology entails:

bartwithglasses

[I]t is this conception of human existence as in itself hostile to grace, even and especially when confronted by God’s Word, that underlies Barth’s analysis of the persistence of natural theology in the church. Natural theology, it might be said, is presented as a theology that violates the essential precepts of objectivism, actualism, and particularism [all three identified as regulatory and organizing principles for Barth’s theological methodology]. Not mediated, not miraculous, and not unique in kind is the way our access to God appears, from the standpoint of natural theology. According to natural theology, as Barth understands it, our access to God is not something mediated exclusively in and through Jesus Christ; rather it is, at least in part, immediately open to us (and we to it). Again, it is not something miraculously enacted and bestowed (in and by Jesus Christ) by virtue of special and self-renewing event, but is rather, at least in part, at the disposal of or own innate capacities. Again, it is not something uniquely grounded in itself both ontically and noetically, but is rather, at least in part, independently and generally given to us apart from the particular history of divine self-revelation as centered in Christ. Natural theology is thus conceived as a theology according to which our access to God is not mediated but immediate, not miraculous but natural, and not unique in kind but generally given. [brackets mine] [George Hunsinger, How To Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology, 99-100 nook.]

So take notice, the rejection of Barth’s alternative to natural theology, the analogy of faith/relation, for knowledge of God is based upon an anthropology that is not needy, but full of self-glory. What is built upon this exaltation of a self-glorious human existence is what, well, is ‘natural’! We would rather build our knowledge of God up on a verification process whereby we get to dictate the verification parameters, instead of allowing the object/subject under consideration to dictate those for us in ever opening and increasing ways as we engage with, well, God in Christ, in ever refreshing and more intimate ways. Natural theology is built on an human existence still clinging to the hubris that the cross left an aspect (our intellects) of our existence alive and well, and it is thereupon which we have the capacity in ourselves to provide the controls through which we engage with God in Christ. Natural theology, then, operates from a mode of fear, and the lie, wherein the human is enclosed and conquered by a posture of fear; fear that he or she might be duped by something, or someone that he or she does not have control over.

There are other things to be said, and other implications to be noticed. But hopefully you have a better feel for what a Barthian notion of ‘against natural theology’ is, because you now have a better conception of what Karl Barth was against [as what he notoriously called, ‘anti-Christ’, and you can now see why].

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13 comments

  1. And of course, in Barth’s context, by way of application at least, as in the Barmen declaration, he would be referring to the Nazi “church” in contrast to the Confessing church in Nazi Germany. But I think the ground that makes his critique is more universal than the occasion that may have given rise to Barth’s kind of contextual thinking.

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  2. I ask because you are making a sweeping charge. I’ve never been to a church that didn’t advocate that our knowledge of God is completely dependent on the finished work of God in Christ and our union with Him. I have a fairly decent theological library, that has many voices and covers most centuries, and they would all say the same thing. I’m not saying you or Barth are wrong, but for this article to be effective it needs specificity.

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  3. Steve,

    I am not suggesting, nor is Barth (as I already and just alluded), that Christians, in general, do not assert what you just asserted about their belief; but that, for my money, is not really what is at stake–i.e. mere assertion. What Barth is after, and what I am after, is methodological consistency not just pietistic posture–which is where I would place your generalized assertion about how most Christian folk think of knowledge of God. To me, what you are asserting is too general, and needs specificity, and in fact that is what Barth is intending to provide; i.e. a specificity about the kind of taxis that is present in regard to how said knowledge of God happens. Surely, as you note, all Christians de jure can affirm your general claims about knowledge of God, but what are the de facto mechanics and reality that funds this? That is what Barth is after and articulating. So I find it ironic that you would claim that Barth (the way Hunsinger construes Barth) needs specificity, and that you make this claim through a general theory of knowledge of God, that it itself has no real specificity, or any kind of at least sense of what that means in actual fact, and with specification; Barth is providing that kind of specification by countering the usual and classical way that many and most Christians in the history, and in the present approach (by way of prolegomena) knowledge of God.

    So to me your point kind of rings ironically hollow.

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  4. So I think the specificity, Steve, is general, general to the human condition. And as I understand that, the human condition is alive and well in the Christian church.

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  5. No, we don’t know each other yet. How in the world did you know I’m in Woodland – or am I that internet naive also? “Pietistic posture” hmm. For me that’s a backhanded compliment. I’ve read a little Francke and some other early Pietists and I liked much of what they wrote (though, that was sometime ago – I might change if I reread). I could get specific as to how I think we are given the knowledge of God but I wonder if there isn’t some confusion of categories. If a church affirms words that are biblical, theological, historic, and orthodox and that have life changing results because of the faith and the Spirit’s work in the hearers but has succumbed to a modern, worldly approach to ministry, aren’t those two different things? The former will generally hold true but the latter will change with the times. I’ve been to Crossroads, and it’s not for me, but I can’t judge whether other things are happening in the church through which the true knowledge of God is being delivered. After 2000 years of a theologically wide ranging approach to truth, there simply has to be more than one way to skin the proverbial cat – I can’t understand church history or historical theology any other way.

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  6. Steve,

    My tracker built into wordpress gives me your IP address, I just looked it up to see if you might be another Steve M. who is a trained theologian who writes in the area of science and theology.

    So I am unclear about your distinction; are you suggesting maybe something like there being an “orthodox kernel” and then various expressions (or husks) of this kernel given various expression dependent upon the epochal and cultural situation said orthodoxy finds itself (so contextualization)?

    Where do you attend church, we are looking for one (AGAIN)? And what is your background (bible college/seminary? denominational?), and how did you find my blog?

    I actually do think there are better ways to get at the reality of orthodox Christian reality, and that things aren’t so relative, or just a matter of cultural expression. I think that the theo-logic attendant with some of the ecumenical councils (like Constantinople-Nicaea, Chalcedon) is discernible, and constructively available and resourceful.

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  7. Yes to your second paragraph. However, over “contextualization” and a yielding to worldly methodologies can lead to a deteriorization of that orthodox kernal or so bury it that it becomes ineffective – sadly, I’ve seen it happen. BTW, I read a review of the The Oxford Handbook of Natural Theology in JETS (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society) and, according the reviewer, each of the 38 authors of the essays in the Handbook had their own definition of “natural theology” – tough to get a handle on something like that!

    I’m probably 30 years older than you and have a CB background like you, but in an unususal CB church (I became a Christian when I was 27). They believed in training from within and, when I felt that God was leading me to serve His people, began to give me a mini-seminary education (we had enough Ph D’s, DD’s, M Div’s, and seminary students, from Western, to do it). It didn’t work out, but I continued self-training on my own and had the help of educated friends (my best friend and spiritual father is a professor at BIOLA). So I have a decent little background, but lack the formal training to complete the package. Sorry, no church recommendation – I’m in between also.

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  8. Forgot. I found you by reading a positive review of EC in, I think, JETS. I bought the book because the reviewer seemed to indicate that the authors would be inteacting with Torrance (I read Atonement, Incarnation, and Scotish Theology in 2012 and had many questions). I then googled EC and you came up. Your blog has been profitable.

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  9. I’m 39 years old, are you still 30 years older?

    There are various types or expressions of natural theology, but I would say that their basic premise in an analogy of being is common.

    Who is this professor at Biola? I grew up right next to Biola, and in fact was about to go to Talbot for an MA in Philosophy and/or NT when those doors were shut (finances), and we came back to Multnomah where I got my MA instead. I know many many people who are grads from Biola/Talbot.

    Cool, glad you were able to come across the blog. A small world. If you ever want to get together to talk more about this stuff, we are close, and maybe could hook up and have coffee or something.

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