G C Berkouwer and Karl Barth on “Natural Theology and General Revelation”

Barth proposes three reasons for the persistence of natural theology (Church Dogmatics, Vol. II, 1, pp. 85-126. The three reasons are succinctly stated by G W Bromiley: “(a) It is thought to be possible and practicable … (b) It is thought to be pedagogically useful at least as an introduction to theology … (c) It is thought to have a biblical sanction in that strand of scripture which appeals to man’s confirming witness with creation” (Historical Theology: An Introduction, p. 426).
Finding these reasons inadequate, Barth proceeds to specify man’s pride as the real reason for its persistence. Holding that God can be known only through Christ, he insists that natural theology is “nothing else but the justification of the natural man” (Berkouwer, General Revelation (GR, p. 27). For a short account of Barth’s protest against natural theology in relation to the theology of Emil Brunner, see T H L Parker, Karl Barth, pp. 96-99).
While agreeing with Barth’s opposition to natural theology, Berkouwer criticizes the manner in which he has opposed natural theology. He draws a clear distinction between natural theology and general revelation (GR, p. 15). He asks whether there is an indissoluble unity between general revelation and natural theology.
Following his discussion of Barth’s attack on natural theology (GR, pp. 21-33), Berkouwer discusses the reaction to Barth’s to Barth’s attack on natural theology (GR, pp. 37-57).
Concerning himself chiefly with the views of Emil Brunner and Paul Althaus, he points out where he agrees and disagrees with each them.
If Berkouwer’s critique of Barth is to be properly understood, it requires to be carefully distinguished from the views of Brunner and Althaus. His critique of Barth is based on a clear distinction between general revelation and natural theology (GR, p. 153, following Calvin), He holds that neither Brunner (GR, pp. 44-46) nor Althaus (GR, pp. 50-51) make this distinction sufficiently clear.
Berkouwer does not only speak of the weakness of the protest against Barth’s position issued by Brunner and Althaus. He also points out that “they have nevertheless emphasized some questions which theology may not and cannotneglect” (GR, p. 52). To dismiss these questions with a protest against both natural theology and general revelation is, in Berkouwer’s view, quite unsatisfactory.
Berkouwer observes that “Barth has centered his attack more and more upon natural theology as the great enemy of the faith, and general revelation was always involved in this attack as well” (GR, p. 21, emphasis original).
This interpretation of Barth has been contested by G W Bromiley: “His rejection of natural theology applies strictly to natural theology, not to natural revelation” (Historical Theology: An Introduction, p. 436). It should, however, be pointed out that Bromiley has also spoken of Barth’s “failure to make a clear distinction between natural revelation and natural theology” “Karl Barth” in P E Hughes (ed.), Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology (CT), p. 55).
In the interpretation of these contrasting statements from Bromiley, we should, perhaps, highlight his use of the word “strictly” in the first of these statements. He explains his position thus: “when it is seen that Barth’s reference is to the natural theology of fallen man, and that he does not deny that there may be partial lights and words and truths even outside special revelation, it is hard to maintain that he is not basically right in his understanding, that he does not give a more correct account of, for example, Romans 1-2 (as well as 1 Corinthians 1) than many who try to see here a foundation of knowledge rather than of guilt, and that his examination of natural theology is not among the most acute and helpful in this whole area” (CT, p. 56).
While accepting the general thrust of Bromiley’s evaluation of Barth’s protest against natural theology, it should be pointed out that it is not a matter of choosing between a theology which fails to make a clear distinction between natural theology and natural revelation and a theology which relates Romans 1-2 to knowledge rather than guilt.
Berkouwer presents another option which exposes the falseness of such a dilemma. He proposes an emphatic affirmation of general revelation and an equally emphatic rejection of natural theology.
This distinction between natural theology and general revelation and the critique of the way in which Barth opposes natural theology is based on a further distinction between revelation and the knowledge of revelation (Berkouwer, GR, p. 57. See also Chapter VII, “Revelation and Knowledge” (pp. 137-172).)

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