Saturday, August 05, 2006


The Brunner-Barth Debate

In discussing the Brunner-Barh debate, I will in this post refer to the book "Natural Theology", comprising "Nature and Grace" by Emil Brunner and "No!" by Karl Barth, Wipf and Stock, 2002.

The heart of the debate is whether one can attain knowledge of God "naturaliter" or whether, on the other hand, the grace of God is strictly required for that.

Barth is very clear in stating that there is no way to knowledge of God by way of human reason - in other words, there is absolutely no source of authority aside from the Word of God.

For Brunner instead, natural theology is the result of the theoretical (formal) possibility for man of "being addressed" by God (his ability to hear the Word of God). The actual (material) realization of this depends on Grace - hence, Brunner maintains, the traditional doctrine of sola gratia is not endangered by this conception of natural theology.

Behind this, there are other important points lurking in the background of the discussion:
  • the Lutheran concept of "ordinances". In order to not let the world fall into chaos, God originally established some "ordinances", in the form of types of organization. Among them, State and matrimony. But holding this means in a way legitimizing these ordinances as "God-appointed". Now, Brunner and Barth have their debate in 1934, the year when Hitler went to power in Germany. There is then also Barth's fear that this type of "natural theology" could pave the way to a sort of divine recognition of Hitlerian forms of organization. (including "natural ordinances" like those of German race and nation.)
  • On the other hand, these ordinances are a core part of the ethical system of especially Reformed theology. For Brunner, this has been so "from the beginning to the time of the Enlightenment". In particular,
    All attempts to operate with the concepts of love or with those of "law" or "commandment" without the help of the concept of ordinances, lead either to rationalistic social constructions (liberalistic doctrines of the State and matrimony) or to an uncertain attitude toward the ordinances of society as given factors, vacillating between acknowledgment and rejection. (Nature and Grace, V)
    This is what prompts Brunner to write that "the theologian's attitude to theologia naturalis decides the character of his ethics." But Barth founds his ethics directly on the hearing of God's commandments. (something that can be summarized in the slogan "let the Church be the Church".) What this brings about from the ethical standpoint, or rather does not completely solve, is obviously the need of criteria to determine whether the Church is really being herself, and not a reflection of our own conceptions.
  • Key theological concepts like "Father", "Son", "Word", "Spirit", are, according to Brunner, all derived from the formal concept of imago Dei. God is a subject, man is a subject, and the two enter into relation through analogical concepts like those above. Denying this would be tantamount to resort to theological nominalism. (we would call the Father as "Father" not because analogically we see him as like a father, but because the Scripture calls him that way.) Barth redefines this concept of analogy by replacing the analogia entis with the analogia fidei (see below).
  • The "manner" of the proclamation of God's message is influenced by how one sees the concept of imago Dei. As Brunner has it,
    the possibility of speaking of God and of proclaiming his Word at all, is the fact that God has made us in his image. [...] [M]an's undestroyed formal likeness to God is the objective possibility of the revelation of God in his "Word". (ib.)
    This has practical implications both within and without the community of believers. It determines how the Church announces her message (the theoretical foundation of communicating the message at all, to all), and also, more in general, the attitude toward the "unbelievers". Natural theology is seen by Brunner as "the possibility of a discussion pointing toward such evidence of the existence of God as we have". Here we find a key difference in tone with Roman Catholicism (see below).
Having briefly reviewed how the two Reformed theologians deal with the issue of natural theology, I'll have a quick look at some related views, but in the context of Roman Catholicism. One key accusation of Barth's toward Brunner is that he gives up with the Reformation and moves toward the adoption of Roman Catholic ideas.

Vatican Council I is very explicit in stating that God can be known by man with certitude (cf. Brunner's position instead), through reason, starting from creation. The same concept is repeated verbatim by Vatican Council II and by the Cathechism of the Catholic Church.
[S]ancta mater ecclesia tenet et docet, Deum, rerum omnium principium et finem, naturali humanae rationis lumine e rebus creatis certo cognosci posse (Vaticanum I, De Fide Catholica, II.7-9 - emphasis mine)
On the other hand, revelation, a free gift of God, is given to man so that he might know what cannot be known through reason only:
Non hac tamen de causa revelatio absolute necessaria dicenda est, sed quia Deus ex infinita bonitate sua ordinavit hominem ad finem supernaturalem, ad participanda scilicet bona divina, quae humanae mentis intelligentiam omnino superant. (Vaticanum I, De Fide Catholica, II.18-21 - emphasis mine)
Brunner then keeps being a reformed theologian here, as he clearly rejects what he calls the Catholic unrefracted thelogia naturalis, detachable from a theologia revelata. (Barth deems these definitions as not representative of the Catholic viewpoint, but in the light of e.g. the quotations above, taken from Catholic magisterium, I think they make it rather clear what Brunner is referring to.)

Having said this, there is nevertheless a clear point of contact between Catholicism and Brunner in the "practical implications" part mentioned above, or what Brunner calls "the significance of theologia naturalis for theology and the Church." The Cathechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) states that
In defending the ability of human reason to know God, the Church is expressing her confidence in the possibility of speaking about him to all men and with all men, and therefore of dialogue with other religions, with philosophy and science, as well as with unbelievers and atheists. (CCC, 39)
That is, the existence of a still significant ("still", i.e. sin and error notwithstanding) imago Dei is seen as a pre-requisite for the missionary task of the Church. If man had not been given a way to detect God outside formal revelation (that is, through creation), if, to use Brunner's words, such a point of contact would not exist, missionary duties would be, at least theoretically, irrelevant or useless (which is not very biblical): a path that could easily lead to individualism and discharge of human responsibility. This is, I think, an important point. I find Barth's discussion of the issue passionate, and there is much to be commended in his statements that (emphasis original)
I have the impression that my sermons reach and "interest" my audience most when I least rely on anything to "correspond" to the Word of God already "being there," when I least rely on the "possibility" of proclaiming this Word, when I least rely on my ability to "reach" people by my rethoric, when on the contrary I allow my language to be formed and shaped and adapted as much as possible by what the text seems to be saying. (No!, VI)
and this may well be even also one of my (direct or indirect) experiences. But the point that seems to be debated here is not so much the personal attitude or capacity of the man/preacher, but rather the fact that the reason why there may be after all a penetration of the gospel into the hearts of the "audience" through my limited creatural words is that man has (and certainly not through a merit of his!) the capacity to relate to God "naturali humanae rationis lumine e rebus creatis".

On the other hand, leaving aside his repeated misquotation of Brunner, as he constantly replaces Brunner's Wortmächtigkeit ("capacity for words", or more generally speech) with the fairly different Offenbarungsmächtigkeit ("capacity for revelation"), Barth seems to hit the point when he perceives an inconsistency in Brunner's position of strictly holding to the Reformed ideas of sola scriptura - sola gratia, and at the same time to a natural knowledge of God, without being able or willing to clearly state the quality or [at least] potential truth of this knowledge - differently from Roman Catholiticism, and most likely just to avoid to fall into Roman Catholicism.

For what regards the concept of analogy as treated by Brunner, compare it with the Thomistic insight that divine names
cannot be purely equivocal, for we could not then make intelligible claims about God. Nor can they be purely univocal, for God's manner of existence and his relationship to his properties are sufficiently different from ours that the words must be used in somewhat different senses. Hence, the words we use of God must be analogical, used in different but related senses. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Medieval Theories of Analogy, 6-Aquinas)
Ultimately, the legitimate use of analogical terms has its roots in the fact that the imago Dei, for Aquinas, is really sharing of God's existence by participation.

On the other side we have Barth, where the Thomistic analogia entis is substituted by the analogia fidei (divine revelation is the only source for knowledge of God): in his case, the difference in meaning of words applied to both man and God is not metaphysical, but defined by their role in the narrative context. This is an idea that will eventually be taken later to its extremes in writers such as Derrida, who will blur any definite and fixed meaning, thus completely destroying - among other things - the whole concept of analogy.

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