Natural Theology is Untheology, And my Confession

erichprzywara

Erich Przywara – natural theologian par excellence

To inhabit an evangelical world that lives and breathes from evidentiary and analytical modes for knowing God, and developing theological methodology, it is rather hard to function as a theologian who believes that the faith of Christ ought to serve as the basis from whence God is cognized and understood. This is often my experience, and maybe yours, as you sit at the feet of Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, and learn so many rich things only to be summarily dismissed by evangelicals and Reformed types who, yes, work from very foundationalist and apologetic modes of thinking about God; i.e. from natural theology as special theology’s ground floor as it were. They might look at you as if you are from outer-space speaking another language, when you simply remind them that in fact you are really speaking from confessional Christian norms that actually have precedent from the Chalcedonian past; a past, ironically that many evangelicals and Reformed types have abandoned for more ‘modern’ modes of knowing God. This is the irony, isn’t it? That Barth and Torrance are doing genuine Christian Confessional theology whilst evangelicals and Reformed types engage in a methodology of theologizing that starts with an abstract conception of God (i.e. from natural theology and the general revelation that ostensibly funds it), and only later works its way “progressively” or “linearly” to Christ.

Paul Molnar sketches for us the role that the Holy Spirit plays in knowledge of God within the theologies of Barth and Torrance. This is the correction that so many evangelical and Reformed types need to hear, and then once heard they need to repent of their errant theological ways and come to the light. This is what Molnar writes in summary of Barth’s and Torrance’s view of the Holy Spirit and knowledge of God:

What I hope can be seen from this presentation of the function of the Spirit in knowledge of the triune God in the thought of Barth and Torrance is that all genuine knowledge of the Christian God always begins in acknowledgement in the sense that it can only begin in faith in Christ and not at all in itself. And this beginning is not under anyone’s power because it is itself a miracle enabled by the present action of the Holy Spirit uniting us to Christ and thus to the Father. It involves the very power of the resurrection. When knowledge of God is understood in this way, natural theology is simply marginalized as a way to understand God in truth. And as long as theologians recognize and maintain the importance of the Holy Spirit in knowing God, they will to that extent never attempt to know God outside faith in his Word and Spirit, and so their knowledge will never be grounded in reason or experience but only in grace as it meets us and heals our reason and enables our experience. What I have tried to illustrate here is that any apologetic attempt, outside of faith, to explain who God is, who Christ is or even who the Holy Spirit is must inevitably mean that such an attempt is untheological. Such an approach is self-grounded and does not think from a center in the risen and ascended Lord, as it must if it intends to speak about the truth of the triune God acting and enabling the church to be what it is in its union with Christ through his Spirit. Our focus thus must always be n the God experienced and known in faith and not in our experience and knowledge per se.[1]

This impassions me! This impassions me because it is correct. I continue to see young theologians (and old) dismissively rush right past this reality; as if they ignore it it will go away, and won’t be true. I continue to see evangelical and Reformed types repudiate the idea, that Molnar so eloquently articulates, that if we don’t methodologically start with Christ and from his faith for us, that our knowledge of God will end up being just that: our knowledge of God. The error of natural theology is that it abstracts the person of Christ from the works of Christ; it abstracts the person of Christ from the person of the Father by not seeing Christ as alpha and omega, the first and the last over creation. Natural theology places ‘nature’ before Christ, objectifies creation apart from Christ thus annexing Christ as an ‘aspect’ of nature, as a moment of ‘creation’ (as he entered it in the incarnation); resulting in a diminution of Christ, a marginalization of Jesus as the center of all things creational and historical.

But of course this is a serious problem, since just the opposite is true! As Colossians 1 so elegantly communicates, Jesus is the ‘firstborn of creation,’ he is numero uno, prime over all of creational reality. As such if we are going to have true knowledge of God, and ourselves (as Calvin even understands, just not as radically as Barth and Torrance) we can only think from a center in God, in Jesus Christ. He is the beginning and the end, the very origin of God’s creation (Revelation 4); he is Lord over visible and invisible reality. Natural theology can only come to this conclusion after it has reasoned God from nature rather than from Christ, but this is backwards.

I was just at the Church and Science conference at Multnomah Seminary (my alma mater). One of the issues that someone brought up that hindered discussion between scientists and Christians was the issue of origins. I wanted to pike up and say: ‘that’s because someone is either for Christ, or against him.’ There is no way to find common ground between unbelief and belief, between the faith of Christ and the rebellion of the Serpent. We can talk, we can be humble towards each other, but the only bridge between rebellious humanity and God is the faith of Christ. It is here where the origins of all things can start to be known in truth. And I would submit this is the better way. But I digress.

A Personal Note

I want to give some warning. I have somewhat muzzled myself because of others; this is a confession. I am quite the passionate guy, but over the last few years I have started to worry too much about what others think of me; as a result I have toned down my passion for things. But that’s just not me. Either I am going to be for Christ, or I am not; either I am going to fear God, or fear man. If I am going to be a follower of Christ I am going to be all out, and this will implicate how I communicate, among other things. The Lord grabbed my heart in a deep and trying way back in 1995 (even though I was a Christian for years before that … I had grown lukewarm), and at that point (through much hardship i.e. depression, heavy doubt, anxiety, etc.) I decided I was all in. Well, I have sensed a softening in that resolve; I have lost the vision that I battle ‘not against flesh and blood,’ which has caused me to let me guard down (and this has affected my con-versation among other things). I am just letting you all know that I plan on toning things back up, and that you might see that reflected in my posts and the way I communicate things forthcoming. My heart though is not to be arbitrarily militant, or passionate, but to genuinely be a hard charger after and from Christ. I have recently lost “friends” who I’ve had for years because they think my style is “reactionary” in some ways (although I came to find out they really just don’t like my politics, or their perception of whatever that is; I’m not even sure what my “politics” are). That somewhat hurt my feelings (to be honest), but I realized that has become the problem; i.e. caring too much about what others think (particularly caring about what guys and gals in the academy and guilds think of me, or my perception of that). Indeed, I am pretty sure I have lost quite a few “friends” because of my “passion” in the past. But I have decided that I can’t live a toned down life for Christ. That means hopefully lots of passion, humility, and love demonstrated in what I do. So I’m just warning you. The problem with living from a spot of wanting to be “accepted” is that it keeps me from saying things that I think need to be said, and it unnecessarily de-boldens things where boldness and confidence in Christ needs to be the hallmark. I won’t live like that anymore (not here on the blog, or in real life). pax

PS. I get that Barth’s and Torrance’s (and my) gripe against natural theology is radical, but so is Jesus 🙂 !

[1] Paul D. Molnar, Faith, Freedom and the Spirit: The Economic Trinity in Barth, Torrance and Contemporary Theology (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2015), 127-28.

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11 Responses to Natural Theology is Untheology, And my Confession

  1. cal says:

    I appreciate the candor and zeal. Personally, I understand where you’re coming from. I’ve been working through some of my own approaches to theology and life out of a similar place of disquiet with the kind of conversations I’ve had. It’s all a work in progress.

    I don’t know you, nor will I pretend to know you, but losing friends over “style” ought to be a warning. It’s more than being a charger for Christ. I don’t want a response to this, this is just a stupid blog comment open to misinterpretation and misconstrual, I just honestly hope you don’t self-destruct in a kind of intellectual rage and insecurity. How easily love for Christ becomes love for the idea of Christ. I won’t bother you will stupid comments like this again.

    I write this as someone glaringly aware of my own iniquities. May God have mercy on us both. Be well my friend and blessings for your family.

    cal

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  2. Bobby Grow says:

    Cal,

    I placed “friends” in scare quotes in my post for a reason. They are two guys I’ve “known” through blogging, that’s it. So the language of “friends” is an overstatement. I’ve never had any of my real life friends who read my stuff walk away from me, or even chastise me for my “style.” I’m not really sure what you mean about ‘self-destruct in a kind of intellectual rage and insecurity,’ my point is that I am going to live before an audience of One, which should order all other relationships well. If you knew who the two guys I’m referring to (the ones who de-friended me), that might have kept you from making the comment you did. Apparently you see something in my “style” that resonates with these two guys’ views. Actually “losing” these two guys has served as an impetus to amp things up rather than mellow out further. I.e. They are just as “bodacious” and passionate about the things that they believe; the reason they separated from me was because they simply believe I’m too conservative.

    I am leery of being as open about stuff as I was in this post here at the blog. I’m not all that interested in getting feedback on such stuff from folks who don’t know me, and from folks who I don’t really know. Be that as it may, I felt compelled to be open like I have been in this post. And I meant what I said. I hoped that I had conveyed clearly enough in the post that this does not mean I’m going to go on an arbitrary rage, or attack. I was simply noting something personal, and how the Lord is working in my heart and life. As far as receiving accountability from anybody online, I’m not really looking for that; particularly these two guys I’ve had in mind. Basically, Cal, my point was this: I’m not interested in seeking the glory or praise of man, but in the glory of God (see the Gospel of John).

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  3. Nathanael says:

    Might I ask what theological circles you run in? I ask because you often write, as you do here, about Evangelical dismissiveness toward Barth and the Barthian project of Christocentric theology. However, in my experience in conservative and moderate Presbyterian circles people are anything but dismissive of Barth. While there are few, perhaps, in conservative Presbyterian circles who would fully embrace Barth, most seem to think he is a very important theologian worth grappling with (see, for instance, the work of Michael Allen and Scott Swain). I know that positive appropriation of Barth is pretty standard in conservative Anglican circles in the U.S. and moderate Reformed theologians are pretty much all Barthian or semi-Barthian. You write as though you are a lone Barthian voice in the wilderness but as I look at academic publications I can hardly walk without tripping over a new dissertation, monograph, or paper about some aspect of Barth’s thought or the relation of Barth to some topic. The LA Theology Conference, put on by Fuller and Biola, has featured a Barthian in each of its four years and even Gospel Coalition recently had an article by D. A. Carson to the effect that although he disagreed with Barth on the doctrine of scripture Barth was a great theologian who said many good things and is well worth reading. Perhaps the circles of evangelicalism I run in are not representative. But perhaps not.

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  4. Bobby Grow says:

    Nathanael,

    Yeah, your circles are way way different than mine! I’m referring to my alma mater, Multnomah Seminar and Bible College. I’ve attended the regional ETS meeting there a couple months ago, and another conference this last Saturday. I was reminded by hanging out with faculty there, and the general ethos that Barth is not acceptable or even worth spending time with. There is one faculty member there, Paul Metzger, who did his dissertation on Barth, and he is someone who turned me onto Barth years ago. But Barth IS absolutely dismissed by millions and millions of evangelicals in the Free church tradition. Your reference is mainline; which yes, is much different than the Free church. I’ve had a good friend who is working on his PhD under John Webster tell me recently that he thinks Barth is pretty much irrelevant. And in the Free church tradition and scholarship in those circles he’s absolutely right. The problem is, Nathanael, is that I’m not a mainline guy (I’ve tried), and so I guess I’ll have to navigate the waters that I have to navigate. Sure I have many connections online that let me know that Barth is very acceptable in many large sectors of Christianity, and for that I’m thankful. But the reality of my ecclesial life is much different. My degrees are from an evangelical institution that is conservative evangelical in orientation and its faculty reflect that in the main. That’s not to say that there aren’t students at that institution who wouldn’t be open to Barth, but I am referring to the scholars and theologians in those types of institutions.

    I read DA Carson’s critique of Barth. Yes, he appreciates Barth in a certain evangelical way, but in reality that little article only reinforces an attitude of dismissal for evangelicals in my view. It was not helpful, nor did it in reality endorse Barth. All that article does for evangelicals when they read it is to reinforce that Barth rejects inerrancy, so Barth is bad (in the conservative evangelical view).

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  5. Nathanael says:

    Ah, that makes sense. I’m in the PCA myself and while it is conservative and would probably call itself evangelical it really is closer to the mainline churches in some ways. It is ironic that Barth has been more warmly received by Presbyterians and Anglicans than by Baptists, given his theology of baptism.

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  6. Bobby Grow says:

    I agree, Nathanael! I think Barth fits very well with many Baptistic theological themes. In fact I would attribute my openness to him to my Free church upbringing and even education ironically. Even though once I got to my formal education season it was much more informed by post reformed orthodox theology than I ever realized until more recently (i.e. the last 10 years that reality hit me). We’ve been attending a PC USA church over the last couple of years, and they are conservative (for PC USA) and the pastors are students of both Barth and Torrance. But at the end of the day I’m just not Presbyterian. 🙂 But I like some of you Lol!

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  7. Jim says:

    I like your passion, however, I am not an academic. I am an amateur theologian as anyone would know from the comments I rarely make here. I found out long ago there is know place for me but someone to look to, Christ. Union with us, Jesus of Nazareth is Christ the lord!

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  8. Rod Lampard says:

    B. That last part, although different, resounds with me. I’ve lost “friends” over similar issues. No matter where I begin and end on a socio-political position, or a developing theological spiral, when dealing with others I’m always drawn back to Ephesians on the whole, but in particular where Paul says to masters and slaves,

    ”serve others with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man.” (Eph. 6)

    I almost stopped blogging/writing the other day, because I had the realization that, I was being driven away from my original goal. Driven towards entertaining people with gifts and ideas, rather than really wrestling with them and proclaiming Jesus Christ through them.

    In a way, God pulled the reigns and the wagon came to a holt, it woke me up enough for me to look around and acknowledge this. So, back to basics. Away from people-pleasing to speaking truth in love.

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  9. Bobby Grow says:

    Amen, Jim! And there is always place for all of us in the Body, we just have to struggle to find it some times; and at the same time not be defined by that struggle.

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  10. Bobby Grow says:

    That’s it, Rod!

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  11. Bobby Grow says:

    Didn’t realize you had a blog, Rod. Just added you to the blogroll! I also see you’ve had contact with Jason Goroncy. He’s a great brother who I’ve known through blogging for years and years. He’s also a contributor to our EC book[s].

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