I’m attempting to make my way through Thomas Torrance’s Transformation and Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge, a ridiculously complex account of the history of science and philosophy. I’m exhausted after each three page burst of reading. Of course, I eventually skipped toward the end, to his essay on Barth. Torrance provides a very lucid telling of why Barth considered any natural knowledge of God as “invalid,” “illegitimate,” and proper to sinful and rebellious man. As I understand it, the benign spirits at Westminster Philly believe that Barth constructed his critique on the philosophical impossibility, a la Kant, of natural theology, instead of on a properly dogmatic impossibility. Thus, philosophy determines the limits in which theology can operate. These same benign spirits claim that Bruce McCormack has validated this thesis, but I’ll let the current generation of Princetonians debate that one.
Here is a snippet from Torrance’s essay:
Whatever may have been his earlier views, when he was doubtless affected by the Kantian critique of the possibility of the knowledge of God within the limits of the natural reason, Barth quickly left them behind to take up a very different position on the ground of actual knowledge of God based on his Word. Here as he looked out from within the perspective of Christian theology upon natural theology he did not reject the existence of natural knowledge or commit himself to any metaphysical refutation of it, but found himself trying to understand it as something that is ‘impossible’ and that nevertheless ‘exists’, i.e. something that exists in opposition to the actual knowledge of God mediated through his Word, and which must therefore be called in question by it as illegitimate and invalid in so far as it claims to be knowledge of God as he really is. Natural theology is not a phenomenon that can simply be brushed aside, for it has a strange vitality in virtue of which it persists in the history of human thought. Barth explains this vitality as that of the natural man, for natural theology as such arises out of man’s natural existence and is part of the whole movement in which he develops his own autonomy and seeks a naturalistic explanation for himself within the universe. It must therefore be taken seriously and be respected as the natural man’s ‘only hope and consolation in life and death’ which it would be unkind to take away from him in his natural state. Nor is it something that can or should be combated on its own ground, for as soon as one attempts to do that one has thereby conceded the ground on which it rests, namely the autonomous existence of estranged and sinful man. That is to say, the claim to a natural knowledge of God, as Barth understands it, cannot be separated out from a whole movement of man in which he seeks to justify himself over against the grace of God, and which can only develop into a natural theology that is antithetical to knowledge of God as he really is in his acts of revelation and grace.
“Natural Theology in the Thought of Karl Barth,” Transformation and Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge (Wipf & Stock 1998), pp. 289-290. Originally published in Religious Studies, vol. 6, 1970.
So, assuming that Torrance is right and Van Til is wrong, and putting that debate aside, the really interesting question becomes whether the Christian can discern any true content in this rebellious natural knowledge of God, or is it all necessarily compromised by the estrangement of the natural mind? Barth, it seems, takes an “all or nothing” position, whereas a sympathetic detractor like Brunner agrees yet while affirming a residual moral component. This moral component needs to be redeemed with true content, but the form remains and acts as a bridge between natural and redeemed man.