Torrance on Barth’s non-Kantian critique of natural theology

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.

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13 comments

  1. I think this issue is more complex than Torrance makes it out to be. It seems as if he’s adopting a kind of apologetics towards Barth’s more conservative detractors that I personally find unhelpful in actually understanding Barth himself (I think it better and more expedient to say, “yes, Barth sounds liberal-modernist-revisionist to you and that’s fine, as he *was* liberal-modernist-revisionist in some ways”).

    First of all, criticism of natural theology did not begin with Barth, but has a long history reaching back to Luther (or so I would argue) and even further back into certain pre-Reformation groups questioning the reach of natural knowledge of God. This history means that Barth is building upon a long conversation (which inclues Schleiermacher, Ritschl, and Herrmann) that has a variety of things happening in it. Is Kant apart of this history? Undeniably so, but so is Luther and Schleiermacher.

    Second, in Barth’s earliest discussions of say, the cosmological argument or ontological argument from the late 1900’s and early 1910’s, Kant plays a role in questioning their validity, but so do pastoral concerns as well as issues about how faith is being construed (as faith cannot be assent to propositional knowledge, a position the early Barth picked up from Herrmann and the young Schleiermacher).

    Barth, then, had and always did have a constellation of reasons as to why natural theology is useless at best (why worry about it when we have Jesus?), and demonic at worst (as expressing the “vitality of humanity” as such), and I don´t see why we should deny that Kant plays a small, albeit genuine part. It is, however, always important to note that Kant was never an unquestioned authority for Barth, as Barth was fine speaking about knowledge of God, being, and other matters with which Kant would have been uncomfortable.

    If followers of van Til don’t want to like Barth, then they’ll find one issue or another to quibble with to justify their disllike (which I’m fine with).

    • Ken,
      “Building on a long conversation” seems to be different than “sharing a similarity with other people.”

    • Thanks a lot, Ken. Torrance does mention Herrmann in a couple places, in connection with both Luther and Kant, as influences on Barth’s critique of natural theology. Though, Torrance believes that Barth transcended their “dualistic” existentialism by grounding his critique in an “interactionist” model of the Word (Torrance then cites the Blumhardts). He considers the Luther-Kant-Herrmann line of influence to be too dualistic and, thereby, unsatisfactory for an evangelical dogmatics. Of course, all of this (the dualism critique) is peculiar to Torrance and his reading of history.

      I like your point about the personal-pastoral role in Barth’s thinking. I recently finished reading Berkouwer’s Triumph of Grace, and he also highlights the pastoral significance for Barth.

  2. @Mike,

    Your response is a bit too cryptic for me to follow, care to say more? I will, however, in the light of Barth’s earlier pieces, defend the view that Barth was furthering and developing aspects of Kant, Luther, Schleiermacher, and Herrmann, particularly as regards natural theology and the natural knowledge of God (one need only to look at his citations and quotations to see this relatively undeniable point). I mean, then, “furthering” in a historical, textually-identifiable sense, not in the sense of “hey, wait a minute, he’s just like these other guys!”

    @Kevin,

    I’m glad to hear that Torrance picks up on the Herrmann-Luther aspects of Barth’s thought, as I think these are typically underdeveloped. Your account of Torrance also shows the brashness of my simplistic accusation (I find moderation difficult in the face of van Til et al). As for the pastoral, Barth was a pastor in Safenwil for a good long 10 years before ever entering academia (and for 2 years before that in Geneva).

    • Sorry for the crypticness. I was questioning the legitimacy of making a description of a person’s thought with the tags development, furtherance, building on, unless the person explicitly states this is what they are doing. Perhaps this is what the texts you are referring to do in fact do.

      Barth eventually does say that his convictions come from the Bible, the gospel, the revelation of Jesus Christ, etc. We might want to take his word for it.

      Nevertheless to show my hand, I’m much more comfortable with showing similarity with other thinkers (unless the person states they are in fact furthering) in order to bring out the particularities of a person’s thought. Development, furtherance and reception I often find too speculative.

      • That is, I like the descriptor “hey, wait a minute, he’s (just) like these other guys!”

  3. Mike,

    Thanks for the clarification. I also worry about speculative associations in one’s historiography, but I still think we can see identifiable lines on this point.

    As for Barth’s sources, he would also often remark that one’s understanding of the Gospel, Scripture, and theoloy is never “pure” but always already mixed with culture, philosophy, one’s everyday assumptions, and, of course, with a bit of “natural theology.” And I think we should take him at his word here too. Theology and exegesis are, for Barth, never “pure” or detached from one’s historical context.

    • I agree that Barth was honest about his “impure” theology.

      The question is whether we have a manageable, respectful way of identifying what these additives are, when the person doesn’t offer their sources.

      But maybe we should continue this discussion in some other context.

  4. Ken,

    I never realized how long he was a pastor. 12 years is quite significant.

    By the way, I’ve enjoyed the exchange with Mike…several good points of clarification.

  5. I think I’m with Brunner. At some level, however small, we’re able to get to truths about the true god via nature. Sure, it’s short of the gospel, and insofar as it remains aloof of the gospel it will twist into something anthropocentric. But I’m not sure I can concede that it’s an “impossibility.”

    • I’m with Brunner too. It’s easy to get more excited by Barth than with Brunner, but on several crucial points Brunner is following the biblical data more faithfully and with far less exegetical strain.

  6. I have always favored Brunner over Barth and I agree too, that while knowledge of God in the world is marred or “exchanged” as St. Paul states in Romans 1, Paul also states that pagans are “groping around for him” in Acts 17. Barth’s demolition of the imago via original sin (and hence a destruction of the possibility of natural theology) doesn’t square with these texts (I must admit though, I am a lapsed Van Tillian, so it is hard to remember Barth…).

    For Brunner’s part there remains in fallen man (eg “Man in Revolt”) the light of nature, however tainted or marred, but not annihilated. This of course puts Brunner on Schleiermacher’s shoulders regarding the view of Christianity as the summit of the history of religions, hence giving validity to the pagan’s search for the “Truth.”

    • Good thoughts, Joseph. I’m sure that, with more time and the grace of God, you’ll fully recover from your Van Tillianism.

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