Henry Sloane Coffin is one of the most delightful writers that I have ever read, similar to George Buttrick. There is something about that generation. In the excerpt below, Coffin offers an illustration for our knowledge of God, using “great authors” as an analogy for God’s self-disclosure. In Coffin’s day, personalism was a favorite means to articulate the Christian faith. Emil Brunner was perhaps its greatest exponent in systematic theology.


To know God — what a presumptuous statement! In what sense is it possible? Knowledge of anything depends upon some fitness in us to the object to be known. The same vibrations of ether are to the skin heat, and to the eye light. The same vibrations of the air are to the body an imperceptible tremor and to the ear sound. We have to develop the organ which equips us to interpret anything and to understand it. And this is emphatically so of our knowledge of persons. An English critic some years ago said: “To understand some writers we must change our planet and wait patiently till we are acclimatized.” Great authors as a rule have to educate a public to appreciate them, and often they wait years, perhaps until they themselves are dead, to be prized and understood. We can all think of books that meant nothing to us once. We wondered why anyone praised them. But we have since grown up to them, and have come back to them with eagerness. Life’s experiences have developed in us the capacities to interpret what was once lost upon us. It is often said that no hero is a hero to his valet. That is not because the hero is no hero, but because the valet is a valet.

[Joy in Believing, ed. Walter Russell Bowie, pp. 58-59.]

As with any analogy, it can be criticized. God is not just a very eloquent novelist, waiting for our maturation. There is a necessary dialectical otherness that is missing, but that is the risk of all analogies.

As some of you may remember, I blogged an excerpt from Coffin previously: “Faith Without Apologetics.”


Image: Reformation Bible College

An androgynous Adam?

September 3, 2014


It is sometimes heard, within feminist and liberationist circles, that the original creation of אָדָם‎ (Adam) was androgynous, not differentiated into the gender binary of male and female. אָדָם‎ only becomes male and female in Gen 2:21-23, which is interpreted as the splitting of the original אָדָם‎ into two distinct and gendered beings (with צְלָעֹת translated as “side” and understood conceptually as “half”). Phyllis Trible is best known for popularizing this view.

This androgynous reading of Adam as merely a neuter “earthling” has come under criticism and not just from the usual suspects (evangelicals like me). Jerome Gellman, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, has a hard-hitting article in Theology & Sexuality 12:3 (2006), “Gender and Sexuality in the Garden of Eden,” which takes this feminist reading to task for trying, in his opinion, to smooth over the obvious misogyny of the text. So, basically, he argues that Trible’s reading is not only bad exegesis, but it is also a disservice to feminism. And Robert Kawashima, NYU and now University of Florida, has an article in Vetus Testamentum 56:1 (2006), “A Revisionist Reading Revisited: On the Creation of Adam and then Eve,” wherein he takes the feminists to task for their faulty reader-oriented epistemology.

What might a dogmatician have to say? As someone who is concerned about the gnosticism that underwrites our current gender theorizing, I highly appreciate Emil Brunner’s rejection of this androgynous reading of אָדָם‎ in the second volume of his Dogmatics. Brunner is discussing the imago Dei, using the familiar Brunnerian lense of relationality within differentiation. He notes a “special satisfaction” that Barth uses an analogia relationis in CD III.1 (citing p. 219 in the German KD).

Below is the relevant excerpt, namely the second paragraph and following. This is among my favorite material in Brunner’s works:

Hence from the outset man has not been created as an isolated being, but as a “twofold” being; and not simply as two human beings, but as two beings who necessarily belong to one another, who have been created for this purpose, and whose whole nature is ordered in this direction, that is, as two beings who cannot be, apart from each other. In the older version of the Creation story (J) this is explicitly stated: “It is not good for man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). The Creation of Man is not finished until the partner is there. In the later version (Gen. 1) the twofold Creation is presupposed from the outset, and follows immediately on the definition of man as made in the Image of God. Because God is Love, because in God’s very Nature there is community, man must be able to love: thus “man” has to be created as a pair of human beings. He cannot realize his nature without the “Other”; his destiny is fellowship in love.

This twofold character of man in the Creation Story is in contrast to the world-wide myth of androgyny. The latter is necessarily connected with rational thinking, for which the ultimate and supreme truth is Unity, just as the fact of the two sexes is necessarily connected with the God who wills community. Either community or unity is the final supreme truth. The God of the Biblical revelation is the God of community; the God of rational philosophy is the God of unity. It is no accident that Plato’s Symposium accepts the myth of androgyny. Androgyny belongs to the thought of Platonism, and sexual polarity to Christian thought. [fn., It is therefore no accident that the gnostic thinker, Berdyaev, accepts the androgynous principle, and conceives the fact of the two sexes as the result of the Fall. Die Philosophie der Freiheit des Geistes, p. 238]

Androgyny is the ontological basis of narcisissm. Within the sphere of speculative thought love is always, in the last resort, self-love, because the final end sought is unity. Within the sphere of Biblical thought love is never narcissism or self-love, because love is always self-communication, the will to community. Agape presupposes the “I” and the “Thou” over against each other; narcissism, androgyny, presupposes thought which aims at unity; it presupposes the elimination of anything opposite; it presupposes the identity of object and subject. …

Sexual polarity, however, as such, is not itself the “I” and the “Thou.” It is only a picture of the purpose of Creation, and the natural basis of the true “I” and “Thou.” Sexual polarity is therefore not intended for eternity [Matt. 22:30] whereas the “I” and the “Thou,” the communion and the fellowship of the Kingdom of God, is certainly intended for eternity. Hence sexual polarity is not itself the Imago Dei; it is, as it were, a secondary Imago, a reflection of the Divine purpose, and at the same time the natural basis of true community. …

[The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption, trans. Olive Wyon, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1952, pp. 64-65]

The point about narcissism is especially astute.


Image: “Eve” by Irina from Romania

Hans Martensen with Dannebrog Grand Cross, awarded in 1867 for 30 years as bishop of the diocese of Zealand


De omnibus dubitandum est.

Everything must be doubted.

Hans Martensen popularized this Latin expression in his lectures on philosophy, and it carried over into the debates of the day within Hegelian circles. According to Jon Stewart, Martensen developed a genealogy of modern philosophy that began with Descartes’ radical doubt (see p. 238ff.). De omnibus dubitandum est. This inauguration of modern philosophy received its final maturation and systematization in Hegel’s philosophy. So, Hegel agreed in substance with this principle of skepticism as the foundation for modern knowing. But…

That doesn’t strike me as really what Hegel was doing, however indebted he was to Descartes’ subjectivism, leading toward the internalizing of metaphysical realities. (Thus, for Hegel, dogmas are symbols, not realities.) Anyway, back to Stewart’s fascinating study. Stewart disagrees with Martensen’s reading of Hegel on this point, and he is probably right. But it is Martensen’s interpretation of Hegel that has been the dominant reading of Kierkegaard’s work, Johannes Climacus Or, De Omnibus Dubitandum Est. Yet, if Stewart is right, then that reading of this text, now published with Philosophical Fragments, is wrong.

Kierkegaard’s character, Johannes Climacus, is an eager young man, attending university lectures on philosophy, hearing about the modern principle of De omnibus dubitandum est. He then applies it throughout his life — doubting everything. The work is a satire. Climacus’ project of radical doubt is reduced to absurdity. Most interpreters have assumed that Kierkegaard is satirizing Hegel, but Stewart makes a strong case that it is Martensen in fact that Kierkegaard is satirizing. Kierkegaard was attacking the Hegelianism of Martensen and not Hegel himself, which is demonstrated by the striking similarities between Martensen’s lectures and Kierkegaard’s satire.

But, and here is the really interesting bit, Martensen rejects the principle of De omnibus dubitandum est, in the clearest of terms, in his systematic theology, Christian Dogmatics. I will provide the excerpt below. Martensen is arguing that the Christian principle of Credo ut intelligam is fundamentally at odds with De omnibus dubitandum est. He is developing some of his earlier thoughts in the volume, which I have previously provided: “Theology begins with certainty.” And for those who have read T. F. Torrance, you will detect some close similarities.

Earlier in his study, Stewart discusses how Martensen was “never a full-fledged devotee of Hegelianism” and that he repudiates ever being a Hegelian in his autobiography (Kierkegaard’s Relations to Hegel Reconsidered, p. 63). Stewart then provides a brief analysis of how Martensen departed from Hegel, such as belief in a personal God. Yet, in Stewart’s analysis of Kierkegaard’s Johannes Climacus, Martensen is portrayed as a rather thorough Hegelian, in agreement with Hegel’s skeptical starting point, albeit not a wholly accurate representation of Hegel. So, that is where I am left confused. If Martensen’s lectures are so Hegelian, then why is his Christian Dogmatics so critical of Hegel at key points, which (once again) Stewart himself recognizes earlier in his study.

The solution may simply be that Martensen changed his evaluation of Hegel throughout his career. Indeed, Stewart states that “the issue of how Hegelian he was after the entire course of his intellectual development remains open” (ibid.). It does seem clear that Martensen admired Hegel for his repudiation of Schleiermacher’s attack on speculative reason, and this criticism of Schleiermacher remains in Martensen’s dogmatics. Yet, even while Martensen is anxious to maintain the objectivity and integrity of the Christian faith, he repeatedly repudiates the pantheism he detects in Hegel and the wider trends in the theology of his day.

In opposition to this pantheism and metaphysical anti-realism, Martensen proposes a speculative personalism, which I can only characterize as a combination of Hegel and Emil Brunner! Seriously. To my mind, that is awesome! And that is why I am enjoying Martensen so much, even when I hesitate on certain details.

The excerpt from Martensen is below, where he distinguishes between doubt as a metaphysical a priori and doubt as a dialectical tool. He repudiates the former and affirms the latter, which is (as stated above) similar to Torrance, who basically got it from Barth.


For human knowledge, all independence is conditioned by dependence; all self-activity, all intellectus activus, is conditioned on susceptibility, on intellectus passivus. The false gnosis which will not believe in order to know, denies not only the creatureship of man, but also his sinfulness and need of redemption. For it is only through regeneration that the human mind, darkened by sin, can be lifted up to that stage of life and existence, at which it can have a correct view of divine and human things. But regeneration expresses itself in faith. The assertion of Christians, that faith is the mother of knowledge, is substantially confirmed by the analogy of all other spheres of human knowledge; for all human knowledge has its root in an immediate perception of the object. And, as it is useless for one who lacks hearing to talk about music; as it is useless for one who has no sense for colours to develop a theory of colour, the same holds true respecting the cognition of sacred things. “The Strasburg minster,” says Steftens, “and the Cologne cathedral, tower up high into the air, and yet, like Herculaneum and Pompeii, they have been to whole generations buried, and men have not seen them, because they lacked the faculty.” And so, we may add, there are whole generations who have not seen, and do not see, the Christian Church in history, although it is like a city on a hill. They have no eye for it because they have no faith.


By its “credo ut intelligam” Christian dogmatics is distinguished from that form of knowledge which starts with the proposition, “de omnibus dubitantum est,” so far, namely, as this proposition means that thought must cut itself loose from all presuppositions and start oft’ on a voyage of discovery, in order to find truth, be the truth what it may. In Christian knowledge the motive power is not doubt, but faith. Yet we may allow the existence of a sceptical element in Christian theology, if we use the expression to denote the critical and dialectic impulse contained in faith. Since faith finds itself in a world of sinfulness, of falsehood, and error; and since the church has the world not only out of itself, but in itself, faith must have a tendency to criticise, to try the spirits whether they are of God, to test whether the church and Christianity coincide, to test itself in order to assure itself of its own genuineness. And, since faith is also a cognition (§ 8), it must have a dialectical impulse to make clear to itself the antitheses involved in its own trains of thought. Christian faith is very different from artless credulity; and what has been said in recommendation of childlike and simple faith must be understood cum grano salis; for true simplicity of faith requires one to try the spirits and to try one’s self. Accordingly, Luther had doubts respecting ecclesiastical traditions and respecting the genuineness of his own monastic Christianity; and the different periods of the history of the church show that church teachers who were distinguished alike for the simplicity and the heroic strength of their faith, felt an impulse to make their faith clear to themselves by means of the sharpest dialectics. From the earliest ages of the Church this critical tendency has manifested itself in the sharp line of separation drawn between the proper doctrines of Christianity and heretical elements. This procedure necessarily, in every case, gave occasion to a dialectic examination of the particular points in question; for to draw a distinction between orthodoxy and heresy must surely be impossible, unless we test each individual doctrine by our view of the essence of Christianity; and test our view of the essence of Christianity by its harmonious conformity with the entire chain of Christian conceptions. In this sense, taking it as critical and dialectic, we may concede the presence of an element of scepticism in dogmatic theology; to a certain extent we must doubt, not merely in order to know aright, but also to believe aright. But if we break loose from the foundation of faith, if we become regardless of the vital interest we have in Christianity, if we cast aside its fundamental idea instead of seeking to correct our view of it, and to understand it more completely, and set up our scepticism as an independent source of truth, we shall fall, as the history of Protestantism plainly illustrates, into Rationalism with its all-dissolving criticism and empty dialectics.

Observations. — It frequently occurs that thorough-going doubt relative to the foundations of Christianity becomes the means of leading the soul to a living conviction of its truth; important, however, as may be the influence of such doubt, not only in a religious and moral, but even in a scientific respect, it has nothing whatever to do with dogmatic theology as such. One who entertains doubt as to the very basis of Christianity cannot feel an interest in dogmatic theology; for his sole enquiry is δος μοι που στω [give me the place to stand]; a demand which must be substantially satisfied ere strictly dogmatic investigations can begin.

§ 32.

The proposition — credo ut intelligam — to which we have just given prominence in opposition to every form of autonomic Rationalism, is not to be taken either in the scholastic sense or in that of the theology now commonly designated the “Theology of Feeling.” The scholastic divines fell very soon into a mechanical view thereof; for they drew the substance of their faith without any sort of critical examination from the creeds prevailing in the church, and started with preliminary principles which totally lacked an inner reality answering to their outward form. The mystics, and more recently Schleiermacher, struck into a path directly opposite to that pursued by the scholastics :—they viewed faith as an inner vital principle, and constituted religious feeling the guide and pioneer of religious knowledge. In consequence, however, of the mystics misapprehending the nature of revelation, and Schleiermacher’s defining dogmatic theology as a description of religious states and experiences, both of them fell into a new error, relatively to the “credo ut intelligam.” Dogmatic theology became in their hands a mere doctrine concerning the nature of a religious man, or of piety, instead of being a doctrine of the nature of God and His revelation; it treated rather of man’s need of Christianity and his experience of its workings in his soul, than of Christianity itself, in its eternal truth and its claim to be accepted as such by men. Thus defined, it relates simply to the subjective ordo salutis; whilst the facts of revelation, the pillars and foundations of the truth, are left to be accepted and moulded, agreeably to the particular ideas and needs of individual believers. If the full significance of faith as an inner vital principle is to be recognized, it must be considered not merely as the experience of the practical workings of Christianity, but also as the intellectual organ, or the contemplative eye, for the domain of revelation. This latter aspect is recognized by speculative mystics and theosophists (like Joseph Böhme), who teach that faith itself involves a vision. And although they, in their turn, fell into an error, the error of attaching too slight importance to the historical, attention was called in a profound manner to the objective religious relation of faith. Taking for granted therefore the relation to an objective historical revelation, we define dogmatic theology, not primarily as the science of ” the believer” (the proper and only place for treating fully of the ” Christian Believer,” his character, life, and the roots thereof, is Christian Ethics); but as the science or doctrine of faith (fides quce creditur), not primarily as a system of pious emotions, but as the science of the truths of the Christian Faith; not primarily as a description of the states of pious souls, but as a development of the believing view of revelation. We are aware, indeed,—and many illustrations of the fact might be adduced from the history of speculation, both in former and modem times,—that the demand for such an objective mode of consideration has frequently led to revelation being treated in a purely theoretical spirit by men totally destitute of religious experience; has given rise to an intellectualism which paid no regard to the practical aspects of Christianity: but this is by no means necessarily involved in the idea of a knowledge which, besides being the knowledge of religion, is itself religious. Whilst we cannot regard feeling as a principle of knowledge :—for the proper and only principle of knowledge is the idea, the thought of the divine wisdom ;—we must maintain it to be a condition. The idea, which is the true principle of knowledge in matters of faith, can never arise save in a man that is actually religious; and our intellectual eye grows dim the moment it ceases to draw nourishment from the heart; it becomes like the lamp of the foolish virgins which went out for lack of oil. On this ground the profoundest thinkers of the middle ages justly demanded that Scholasticism should be united with mysticism, that the intellectus should not be without affectus.

[Christian Dogmatics, pp. 59-62]


Image: Hans Martensen with the Dannebrog Grand Cross, awarded in 1867 for 30 years of service as bishop of the diocese of Zealand, Denmark.

Emil Brunner revisited

January 27, 2014


In a previous post, we looked at D. Stephen Long’s new study of Balthasar. Now, I am also excited to announce Alister McGrath’s latest, Emil Brunner: A Reappraisal. I assume that McGrath’s interest in Brunner is an extension of his recent work in natural theology. This includes The Open Secret: A New Vision for Natural Theology, as well as his 2009 Gifford Lectures at Aberdeen (published here) and his 2009-10 Hulsean Lectures at Cambridge (published here).

Emil Brunner was one of the most creative theologians working within the expansive movement of “mediating theology,” though with a decisively Kantian orientation that stressed the Creator’s transcendence (not “becoming” through creation). Barth saw that he was basically a mediating theologian, regardless of Brunner’s severe criticisms of Schleiermacher and the whole prior century of theology. They were both Swiss Reformed pastors in the 1910’s, professors of dogmatic theology by the 1920’s, and collaborators in the fledgling movement of Reformation retrieval in the service of dialectical criticism of the liberal hegemony in church and academy. As Barth’s rejection of natural theology became more comprehensive and clear, he broke ranks with Brunner, receiving notorious attention with the publication of No!, in response to Brunner’s Nature and GraceThis is not Barth at his conciliatory best, and he would later express some regret for his treatment of Brunner. For an insider’s account of their relationship, see this interview with I. John Hesselink.

As I look at my bookshelves, I own thirteen volumes of Brunner’s translated works. My own focus and stimulus has been provided more by Barth, who Brunner recognized as obviously the most important theologian of their day, but Brunner is stimulating and challenging in his own way. He was, after all, one of the first theologians to accurately gauge the significance of Barth’s project, including the radical reversal of nature-grace and law-gospel (to grace-nature and gospel-law), which Brunner thought was a rather presumptuous thing to do! John W. Hart has a fascinating account of the Barth-Brunner correspondence in For the Sake of the World.

A good place to begin with Brunner is his important work in christology, The Mediator (1927), which is available free online. His books are still published by Lutterworth Press in the UK, but you can easily find used copies for a reasonable price. His other works include Reason and Revelation (prolegomena), Man in Revolt (anthropology), The Divine Imperative (ethics), and his Gifford Lectures at St. Andrews in 1948, Christianity and Civilization, in 2 volumes. There are also a few collections of sermons and a three-volume Dogmatics.

David Gilland (Leuphana Universität Lüneburg) has recently published a fine study, Law and Gospel in Emil Brunner’s Earlier Dialectical Theology. He has also translated the Barth-Brunner letters, which should be published in the near future.

For a certain type of evangelical who is hyper-sensitive to “biblical authority” issues, you will not like Brunner. I have my own criticisms. But please, it is time to expand your horizons and start reading outside of the Crossway orbit. In fact, Brunner is actually the finest exponent of Free Church ecclesiology that I have ever read, as expressed in the third volume of his Dogmatics and elsewhere. He was a pietist at heart. See “Billy Graham among the theologians.”

Brunner on prayer

August 19, 2011

The prayer of the Christian is made possible by Jesus Christ. Apart from Christ — or the covenant, more generally speaking — prayer can only be a speculation (a hope without certitude) that something or someone will care for us. In Christ, prayer is a knowledge and certainty that Someone has cared for us and will care for us.

As I’ve said in the past, the best theologians have the best things to say on prayer: Forsyth, Baillie, Barth, and von Balthasar. Here is a nice short presentation from Emil Brunner, with his characteristic focus on the prior necessity of a particular revelation (the God who saved/saves) in order to even pray:

The world often seems like a monstrously sinister machine, blind, insensible, destroying everything that man builds, fosters, loves, hopes. Why should the world concern itself about your wishes, little stupid man? What does your sigh mean in the midst of a universe where suns grow and age in billions of years? Such a thought makes prayer die upon the lips. Is there any sense in praying the roaring avalanche to spare the babe yonder in the path of its downward rush? O fate, blind, awful, senseless fate!

When we look beyond ourselves out into the world, prayer fades away. Man’s tragic lot robs one of the courage to pray. Everything appears to be senseless, disorder, chance, confusion. Who then has a mind to pray? The world can at most permit us dimly to perceive a mysterious Power; but to make us trust ourselves to this Power, calling upon it as children do their father: “Help us!” the world is unable. How then can we pray? What gives us the courage, the confidence, the assurance?

As children lost in a woods, are fearful of the sinister darkness — and then, suddenly, hearing a sound from the sombre blackness, a familiar voice, a loving, seeking, helping voice, their mother’s voice — so prayer is our reply to the voice from the Word of God in Jesus Christ which suddenly cries out to us in the mysterious, dark universe. It is the Father calling us out of the world’s darkness. He calls us, seeks us, wants to bring us to Himself. “Where are you, my child?” Our prayers mean “Here I am, Father. I was afraid until you called. Since you have spoken, I am afraid no longer. Come, I am waiting for you, take me, lead me by the hand through the dark terrifying world.”

Because they do not know this God and this revelation so many men of our time no longer pray. True prayer is possible only as an answer to God’s real revelation. True prayer, that is, prayer in which a man really believes he will be heard, is possible only when one believes in the living God. What is meant by the “living God”? The God to Whom you can pray trustfully, because He has previously revealed to you His trustworthiness. That is the living God.

(Emil Brunner, Our Faith, trans. John W. Rilling, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954 [1936], pp. 110-113.)

I recently came across the Plough Publishing House, the publisher of Johann and Christoph Blumhardt’s few translated works. Their website generously offers these works for free to download, many in both pdf and Kindle format (and epub).

For those with an interest in 20th century dialectical theology, both Emil Brunner and Karl Barth cite the Blumhardts as major influences on their own thinking, especially their critique of institutional religion and the centrality of the personal event of the Word which extends into a protest against political forms of oppression. Here is Emil Brunner in his “Intellectual Autobiography” (The Theology of Emil Brunner, ed. Charles Kegley, 1962):

[My father] was a schoolteacher who understood his work as a calling and a service to God. From my mother, who stood at his side in this service, I learned to pray. Using an old picture Bible, she introduced me to biblical history and thereby laid the foundation on which my theology was later to be built. Through her influence, my father, descended from a family of nonbelievers, came into contact with Christoph Blumhardt. Through Blumhardt and his two important pupils, Hermann Kutter and Leonhard Ragaz, our family was drawn into the Religious Socialist Movement. [p. 4]

There was a time when the currently reigning agnostic humanism and the materialism, which was identified with Darwinism, occasioned doubts in me. The critical idealism of F. A. Lange, Geschichte des Materialismus (History of Materialism) strengthened me against these temptations, but in a very different way the biblical realism and prophetism of my teachers Kutter and the one even greater than he who stood in back of him, Christoph Blumhardt, kept my faith alive. [p. 6]

His Römerbrief (Epistle to the Romans), written in 1918, I hailed as a forceful confirmation of my own thoughts. If I am not mistaken, I was the first one, who in reviewing this book (in the Kirchenblatt für die Reformierte Schweiz), emphatically pointed to its epoch-making character. My enthusiasm was all the more understandable because Barth, as well as our mutual friend Eduard Thurneysen, came from that circle in the center of which Hermann Kutter and Christoph Blumhardt had been. [p. 8]

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.

Where Barth went wrong

December 15, 2010

Emil Brunner has a provocative section in Truth as Encounter (2nd ed.) where he lays out precisely where Barth went wrong in the development of his dogmatic thinking. I don’t agree with Brunner here, but his assessment is highly stimulating for deeper reflection on the nature of authority in the matter of faith. Enjoy.

It was an event of the greatest significance when Karl Barth, soon after the end of the First World War, when the faith of the Reformers seemed about to be extinguished, had the courage in his Letter to the Romans once more to take the Biblical message seriously. In so doing he linked up with the Biblicism of the “Swabian fathers,” especially the two Blumhardts, Johann Christoph the father, and Christoph the Son, and in accomplishing this the Christian existentialism of Soren Kierkegaard, in its opposition to the idealism of Hegel, did him invaluable service.

These were the beginnings of his theology. At that time Karl Barth, adopting a word of Kierkegaard, used to speak of theology as “the little pinch of cinnamon,” and would have energetically repudiated all thought of a theological system. But soon there came a turning point in his thinking. This time, too, as in the age of Protestant orthodoxy, the thing happened quite imperceptibly through a change of emphasis in the understanding of faith. It began with the adoption of the ancient Catholic doctrine natus ex Maria Virgine. This myth plays an insignificant part in the New Testament witness to Christ. Neither Paul nor John nor any other of the apostolic writings proclaim the Son of God as one begotten in a supernatural manner. This substantialist understanding of the truth of God that encounters us in Jesus Christ is alien to them, and still more so the belief that in this “miracle” we apprehend the thing of decisive importance for faith in Jesus Christ. The truth of God that encounters us in Jesus the Christ has no relation to this, nor do the oldest Confessions of the Christian fellowship make any mention of the virgin birth. The truth that authenticates itself in our conscience has been replaced by a supernatural fact, which “must be believed” on the strength of authority. This was the point from which long ago the transformation of the confession of the ancient church took its departure. It was in the direction of this “faith” that the dogma of the church developed as the doctrine of the Triune God and of the two natures in Christ. It was this doctrine, summarized in the Creed, which Karl Barth from 1924 onward expounded in his Dogmatics as the subject of belief. The change showed itself in three symptoms.

a. His adherence to the orthodox teachers of the seventeenth century became continually more marked. Heppe’s Dogmatics of the Reformed Church, the well-known collection of quotations from the orthodox Reformed theology of that time, was made an integral part of his own system.

b. Like the old Scholastics, he found it necessary to draw ever finer distinctions to satisfy the requirements of the intellect, so that the volumes of his Church Dogmatics continually swelled in bulk, and became a gigantic work comparable in size to one of the medieval Summae.

c. He traveled ever farther from his starting point, the “Swabian fathers” of whom I have spoken, especially the two Blumhardts. The thing common to them was the fact that their faith did not rest upon doctrine, but upon the Word of God understood in its unity with Biblical history, and, secondly, that they saw in the God of the Bible the transforming power of life, and that because this transformation had come to a halt since apostolic times, they hoped above everything for a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and the promised consummation of the rule of God. There is hardly a trace of this hope left in Karl Barth. Just as significant is his increasing alienation from Kierkegaard’s existential and dynamic view of apostolic faith, and from his searing criticism of “Christianity.” For the Karl Barth of the Church Dogmatics, all this was pietism, a declension from pure doctrine.

[Emil Brunner, Truth as Encounter, 2nd edition, The Westminster Press, 1964, pp. 41-43.]

This particular section of Truth as Encounter was entirely new to the second edition of Wahrheit als Begegnung, published in 1963 by Zwingli-Verlag in Zurich. So, these reflections on Barth’s development were written at the end of both Barth and Brunner’s careers.

Here is some great insight into Emil Brunner’s free church spirit, which finds its greatest expression in the third volume of his dogmatics. This is from a sermon on Col. 3:16, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom: teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts unto God.”

We have our own hymn books and anthem-books. But again we must ask why this singing should be confined to Sunday morning. That was certainly not the apostle’s view. Perhaps some of you have been members of a good church choir and have experienced how the singing of inspired Reformation hymns has filled you with new life and power. There is some mysterious quality about these hymns and psalms which welled up from the heart, and are informed with the power of the Spirit of God. Something of this divine creative spirituality passes into us without our perceiving it when we sing with all our hearts and not merely with our lips. And since we are now on the eve of holiday time, let me say from my own experience what a tonic it is to heart and faith to sing such psalms and spiritual songs of the right sort, whether alone or in company with others. Truly, one can sing oneself thus into spiritual and mental health, one can sing oneself into communion with God. The apostle is thinking specifically not only of formal worship but also of individuals in their spontaneity: Sing to God in your hearts. We ought to practice this a little. Perhaps at first it will be necessary to overcome certain inhibitions, since the idea will strike us as somewhat singular. I can only say: conquer your inhibitions. Take with you on your holidays the new hymn-book with all those grand hymns which it has restored to us. Take it with you in your lonely walks and sing joyfully to the Lord in your hearts. You will see how the soul is enlivened and faith strengthened, indeed, what a heavenly blessing lightens the whole day by means of such singing.

“The Notes of Christian Living,” in The Great Invitation and Other Sermons, trans. Harold Knight (Westminster Press, 1955), pp. 101-102.

Brunner and his family

Brunner with his wife and their first son

In The Mediator (1927), Emil Brunner has an excellent discussion on the similarities and differences between the Greek concept of Logos and the Christian/Johannine usage of Logos. He faults Ritschl for going too far in his criticism of Greek metaphysical intrusion into the pure moral positivism of the Gospel. Against Ritschl and his followers, Brunner recognizes a valid aspect of the Greek conception, namely the necessity for an “unconditional” from which our reason has its bearings and from which our language has meaning (“the principle of all meaning of intelligible speech” and “the principle through which alone we are able to distinguish invention from truth,” p. 207). But, as a principle of logic, the Logos is a mere Law standing outside ourselves — an impersonal Idea, unable to elicit or demand obedience. Invariably, this lack of “moral depth” avails the prejudices and laxity of each individual, who forms, rather than is formed by, the Logos. The Christian usage of Logos, however, includes a personal address by Christ, the Logos. There is a call and a response. The Word stands over-against us as the true form, for our understanding of God and of ourselves, received in faith (obedience). This is Brunner’s characteristic “I-Thou” emphasis, similar to Martin Buber’s Ich und Du and Friedrich Gogarten’s Von Glauben und Offenbarung, both published in 1923.

Here is Brunner’s contrast of the Greek-philosophical Logos (including Moral Law) with the Christian Logos of personal address and assent:

In the very nature of the “Law” or of abstract thought lies the impossibility of its ever becoming actual and personal. The speculative character of thought is opposed to the concrete character of personal volition. This shows its connection with objective thought. Even the moral idea of the Good is a mere idea; it is no real imperative. The Moral Law conceived as an a priori, as a principle of immanence, does not create a real sense of responsibility. I am still alone with myself. I am still engaged in a monologue. Conversation has not yet begun. For in true conversation — in real responsibility — it is essential that I should receive something from without: a real word, the Logos as a Logos which is altogether apart from my own thought, something over which I have no control. This means, however, that the Logos comes to me in an irrational way, along the path of actuality, as a word that is given. Otherwise even morality is only intercourse with oneself, Icheinsamkeit (solitude of the self), as Ferdinand Ebner so aptly puts it; it is self-love, self-regard. Nothing save a real relation to a real “Thou” can dispel this solitude of the soul; only a real conversation, in which we are actually addressed by another person, can make us responsible; this alone would be absolutely timely, personal, and therefore wholly serious. (pp. 208-209)

And there is this gem:

The abstract, a priori Moral Law addresses us as though our minds were still unsullied by experience of any kind. Hence, although it speaks of duty, it fills us at the same time with an inspiring sense of freedom and autonomy. Thus it deceives us, and we do not perceive that our minds are no longer like blank pages in a book; we do not realize that we are not free. The moral superficiality of the Moral Law from the point of view of Immanence is this: that it does not permit us to realize that we are real human beings, but that it regards us as hypothetical “subjects,” or as individuals who are still free to deal with the claims of the Good as they please. This assumes that we possess a dignity which in reality we lost long ago…. (pp. 209-210)

I think this serves as a compelling argument against the validity of a non-theistic moral realism, such as found in Iris Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good (an otherwise excellent little book) and, of course, in Kant’s deontological basis for a universal imperative.

[Quotations are taken from the translation of Olive Wyon, first published in 1934 by Lutterworth Press in England and later published in the United States by Westminster Press in 1947.]