Barth’s Thought on Natural Theology:

A Studies of the Debate between Barth and Brunner


Christocentric revelation is emphasized in Karl Barth’s theology. His theology left us an impression that he rejects all natural theology. However, it can be found that he uses the Mozart’s music as a media pointing to God. It seems that there is a conflict between his thoughts. Therefore, it is very important to understand Barth’s thought of natural theology in order to solve the ‘conflict’. Moreover, it helps us to have a deeper understanding of Barth’s methodology of theology.

The Historical Background and Key Concepts

In the age of Barth, rationality adopting the tradition of enlightenment dominated the sphere of academy. As a result, religion and Christianity were studied according the agenda of such academic discipline of humanization and desupernaturalization seeking the neutral, abstract and general truth. Therefore, the rational mental activities processed the data obtained through other ‘academic’ discipline liked psychology, philosophy and history; etc. was accepted as an appropriate method for the studying the subject matter of theology. This method was regarded as natural theology.

The meaning of natural theology was quite close to general revelation, mediating through nature, conscience, providential ordering of history and tradition for a universal witness to the God’s existence and character. The difference is that the former one is a theological method while the later one is a witness. However, the usage of the terms are sometimes mixed. The term ‘natural theology’ is sometimes signifying the ‘general revelation’. Such ambiguous usage of the terms are found in the debate between Barth and Brunner on natural theology.

Identifying the Issue:

The basic thesis I hold in this essay is that Barth rejected the natural theology through and through based on his foundation of theology methodology, but he preserved the value of general revelation.

Under the historical background described above, Barth adopted other method of theology that the special revelation of Christ found the only source of theology. Meanwhile, other sources including the natural theology were objected.

Barth’s consistent theological holding will be demonstrated through his writing and debate with Brunner. In the Barman Declaration, Barth showed his theological holding on the rejection of natural theology. However, Emil Brunner objected to Barth’s objection and raised counter-thesis. Later, Barth replied ‘NO!’ to Brunner’s challenge. After the discussion of the main ideas of these important essays in the debate, the focus on the debating issue will be mentioned.

Then, the underlying theological issue of the debate will be further discussed to see if Barth’s suggested methodology is justified.

Finally, the contribution and contemporary meaning of this doctrine will be shared.

The Debate

The writing of Barth gives us the foundation for studying his thought. His important writing related to his theology methodology and natural theology will be summarized in this part.

Barman Declaration

Historical Background

It is mentioned that the rationality of enlightenment was considered as the ultimate methodology of different academy discipline in the age of Barth. Christianity was studied through natural theology as well. It was used to support the Hitler’s National Socialist propagandist. The (liberal/natural) theologians postulated ‘the primacy of conscience and the flow of history as the chief modalities of revelation, provided theoretical justification for the Nazi ideology.’ The so-called ‘God-sent’ Hitler was considered as a ‘new’ revelation that demanded obedience and trust. The theologians even declared that the Christianity could be represented by the Nazi Party. It indicated that natural theology was dominant in the studies of theology.

Barth criticized such foundation of theology. Moreover, he might criticize the misuse of theology for meeting people’s selfish interest. Under this context, he drafted the Barman declaration that he stated the new direction of theology and a confession on the political issue.

The Barman Declaration

In this section, the main ideas of the six articles of Barman Declaration will be summarized. The main theological implication of the declaration will be discussed in the next section.

 Begun with Jn.14.6 and 10.1&9, they confessed that Jesus Christ who was attested to us in Bible, implying that the revelation in the Word was the only source of proclamation, was the one we must trust and obey to. Thus, they rejected any events, powers, historic figures and truth as the source of proclamation beside the Bible. (this article may be considered as the most important article.)

Begun with I Cor. 1.30, they confessed that our whole life needed the justification and sanctification through the savior and the only LORD, Jesus. Thus, they rejected that there could be other lords of our life (e.g. the ‘God-sent’ Hitler).

ƒ Begun with Eph. 4.15~16, they confessed that Jesus had the only LORDSHIP in the Church. Therefore, the order and form of the message should be under the direction of Jesus. Thus, they rejected that the order and form of the message could be placed under any ideology and authority.

Begun with Mt. 20.25~26, they confessed that no offices in a Church had the right to exercise authority over others. Thus, they rejected that the church could be authorized under any ruling authority. (this article might be derived from previous articles as there were no other authority except the only Jesus Christ)

Begun with I Pet. 2.17, they confessed that Church should obey the appointed authority as such authority had their value in the world. However, they rejected that State can took place of the role of a Church to give guidance of daily lives. Moreover, Church should not involve in the issue of state as well. (once again, this article might be derived from previous articles as there were no other authority except the only Jesus Christ)

Begun with 2 Tim. 2.9, they confessed that the mission of Church should be the service of preaching of the free grace of God. Thus, they rejected any services for self-chosen desires.

The Emphasis of the Barman Declaration

It is not difficulty to identify that all six articles are focusing on the alternative theology methodology. Barth’s fundamental framework of the methodology could be summarized in the article one. The revelation of Jesus attested in the Bible was regarded as the ‘only’ source of theology. Then, the rest of other articles emphasized the ‘sola’ source of theology repeatedly while political authority should have no place in the theology.

The Commentary of the Barman Declaration

The Barman Declaration did not only laid the foundation of Barth’s theology but also implied the rejection of natural theology. Barth’s thought on natural theology was further illustrated in his CD II/1 that could serve as a commentary of Barman Declaration. It showed why natural theology was not compatible with his theological framework.

Firstly, he insisted the uniqueness of the revelation of Jesus. Jesus should be confessed as the ‘unique validity of Jesus Christ as the Word of God spoken to us for life and death’.

Secondly, he stated the definition of natural theology in his historical context. He suggested that the ideology of Humanism, Idealism, Romanticism and Nationalism were presented as ‘a more timely form, a new historical hinterland’ ,which was considered as the ‘point of contact’ between God and man, was the form of natural theology.

Finally, one might ask if there any conflict between the co-existence of the revelation of Jesus and natural theology. Barth’s answer could be found in his stating of the character of the natural theology. It had the characteristics of ‘and’ that tended to get the same status of the revelation of Jesus. However, it would ‘upgrade’ its status to ‘only’ and replace the position of the revelation of Jesus. He considered the natural theology just liked the presence of Trojan horse. Accepting the natural theology liked inviting the enemy to his own place. That was why Barth suggested that no room should be reserved for the natural theology:

"…even if we only lend our little finger to natural theology, there necessarily follows the denial of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. A natural theology which does not strive to be the only master is no a natural theology."

On the other hand, it should be pointed out that he accepted the existence of the event, power, forms and truth revealed alongside the proclamation of God’s word. In other words, Barth accepted the existence of natural theology if it was not independent from God’s Word.

The Emphasis of the Commentary of Barman Declaration

It can be summarized that Barth’s key concern was the ‘uniqueness’ of the revelation of Christ. All natural theology starting with human rationality should be either rejected or judged under the revelation of Christ. He claimed that the ‘uniqueness’ of the source of theology methodology would be threatened if there was any room left for the natural theology.

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Nature and Grace

In the Barman period, Emil Brunner prepared this essay to object Barth’s thought of natural theology will be discussed. One should bear in mind that the usage of ‘natural theology’ in Brunner’s context may share both of the meaning (natural theology and general revelation) discussed at the beginning of this paper. In fact, the meaning of the word ‘natural theology’ used by Brunner has the meaning closer to ‘general revelation’. In other words, Brunner might not make the counter-thesis to Barth’s thought relevantly. Nevertheless, it helps us to further clarify Barth’s thought on natural theology.

Basically, Brunner agreed with Barth in many places. For example, he did agree with Barth’s on the Luther’s concern of ‘Grace only’. It implied that Christ was the only salvation of the world. Moreover, Brunner also agreed that that there were no two source or norms in the Church. However, Brunner’s objected to Barth’s thought of natural theology.

Barth’s False Conclusions suggested by Brunner

Brunner suggested five false conclusions of Barth’s thought on natural theology. Here are some to them:

  1. There was only one complete revelation of Christ. There was no general or special revelation.
  2. (Men were incapable to know God through the general revelation because) there were no trace or remnants of God’s image in men as they had lost their image of God completely due to the fall.
  3. There was only the grace of salvation of Christ. There was no grace of creation or preservation.

Brunner’s Counter Thesis

  1. First of all, the ‘nature’ of man was introduced. The image of God should be understood in two aspects, the formal one and the material one. The formal one was the ability of one who distinguishes oneself from animals. Although one was a sinner, one still bears such image. As a result, one was able to understand the word and took his responsibility (of the decision). On the other hand, the material one was lost due to sin. To summarize, Brunner thought that man had ‘certain extent capability’ to response to God’s general revelation.
  2. Brunner employed the examples in Old Testament and New Testament to show that God had left his imprint in the created work. In other words, there was also general revelation besides the complete revelation of Jesus. One can learn God’s marvelous work. However, ‘sin makes man blind for what is visibly set before our eyes’. As a result, one could not know God completely. This was the limitation of general revelation. Fortunately, there was a special revelation of Jesus that opened one’s eyes to perceive the former completely.
  3. Brunner suggested that there were ‘also’ the grace of creation, preservation, etc. in additional to the grace of salvation.

The Emphasize of ‘Nature and Grace’

The theme of Brunner was that there was a connection between the Nature and the Grace. In other words, he wanted to claim that there were grace in the human nature and the creation. Thus, Brunner emphasized the ‘capability for revelation’ repeatedly. To conclude, Barth emphasized on the revelation of Jesus in the grace and rejected the method of knowing God through human rationality; however, Brunner argued that man should still bear the abilities to certain sense to know God through the natural revelation.

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In Barth’s response to Brunner, He insisted the only complete revelation in Jesus Christ in grace. Therefore, he rejected the counter-thesis by Brunner.

Answer to Emil Brunner

  1. Barth responded that the Brunner thesis signify nothing. The extent of the ‘capability for revelation’ of the sinner was not clarified. Moreover, it had the risk that the saved one might be pride of their rationality. It was because one may said that his salvation was catalyzed by his ‘little’ ability of doing something rationally. Barth gave an illustration that one who was drowning but saved by a competent swimmer, the former could not said that he was saved through his own help of few strokes. Barth concluded that man was completely fall and helpless to do nothing but waiting for the Grace of salvation.
  2. Barth commented Brunner second thesis suggesting the stage of the revelation. The general revelation was not perfect until the special revelation in Christ. It leaded to the problem of how one could know that his knowledge was perfect. Moreover, it implied that one could help to use one’s rationality to know God before the revelation of Christ. Thus, it was rejected.
  3. Barth argued if there was the grace of preservation, it was preserved for the God’s judgement only.

Finally, Barth gave a summary of what Brunner had taught. Brunner tried to teach the ‘capability for revelation’ and ‘point of contact’. He tried to argue that man still had certain system to know God although it might be corrupted. Without such system, one could not be saved as one would lose their ability of knowing God that was used as the initiative of seeking the salvation. However, Barth argued that God’s grace might even grant the sinner a ‘new’ system for responding to God. Therefore, man can bow nothing before God.

The Emphasize of NO!

In Barth’s writing of NO, he rejected the Brunner’s ‘mutate’ form of natural theology suggesting man’s capability for general revelation and responsibility in ‘assisting’ the grace of salvation. Barth insisted that man could do or help nothing in God’s grace. Using the terminology used in the commentary of the Barman Declaration, ‘the human capability and responsibility’ (it might be considered as other form of ‘human rationality’) took the state of ‘and’ that would be replacing the role of Jesus’ revelation later on. That was why Barth did not lay a little finger to Brunner’s theology.

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Focus of the Debate

Before moving on to the next part, the focus of the debate will be summarized.

Barth laid the revelation of Jesus as the only foundation of theology. Moreover, natural theology starting with man’s rationality was rejected in the framework. However, Brunner suggested that man still bear the capability and responsibility of general revelation for ‘assisting’ God’s grace. Brunner might not intended to suggest that such innate abilities could be used as the beginning of theology, the natural theology. However, Barth identified the risk of Brunner’s suggestion. In Brunner’s suggestion, the role of ‘man capability and responsibility’ might become ‘human rationality’ and replace the role of Jesus’ revelation progressively. In other words, the Brunner’s theology might be considered as a mutate form of ‘natural theology’.

It should be reminded that Barth had shown that he accepted the general revelation as well. However, the role of general revelation should be handled very carefully. It will be further discussed in next part.

Theological Discussion

After a quick sketch of the debate between Barth and Brunner, we should have understood the basic emphasize Barth’s thought on natural theology. The Barth’s thought on natural theology will be further illustrated in this part. However, Brunner’s natural theology is introduced first in order to show the contrast between the Barth’s thought.

Brunner’s Natural Theology

If Barth theology was illustrated as the pendulum on one extreme (revelation of Christ in grace) swing back from the other extreme (rationality), Brunner’s one may be in the middle. He tried to compromise the ‘rationality/ nature’ and the ‘grace’. The problem of the debate was that Brunner tries to reserve a little place of rationality for the responding to the general revelation.

The basic structure of Brunner’s theology on the nature was the two-fold revelation. There was an objective knowability of God through his works (the general revelation) that might be developed from the reformed tradition of Calvin. Meanwhile, the natural man had the subjective innate ability to know god through the general revelation. In my opinion, if Brunner’s natural theology was stopped at this point, it might be accepted by Barth. It was because man just used their rationality to response to God only. However, it was identified that Brunner further provide the base for the development of natural theology.

The basic assumption behind such Brunner’s theology was that there was ‘similar’ likeness between God and man. Therefore, man could understand God through the method of ‘analogy’. However, this idea had the risk of allowing the ‘human capability and responsibility’ changing to ‘natural theology’.

The objection by Barth will be discussed in next section.

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Barth’s Thought on Natural Theology

Unlike Brunner’s ‘nature and grace’, it was quite clear that Barth’s holding was the complete discontinuity between the nature and grace. He thought that the uniting between the nature and grace just like the uniting of Yahweh and Baal.

One may ask why he rejected such union. It can be explained through his theology methodology that emphasize the ‘sola’ revelation of Christ in the grace. It will be shown that natural theology is incompatible with his framework.

Revelation in Barth’s Theology

Revelation was regarded as the basic source of the theology in Barth’s theology. He stated that the sole source of the knowledge of God could be obtained from God himself only. In other word, one could know God through his revelation only. Moreover, the revelation was limited to the God’s Word, the special revelation in Jesus Christ attested by Holy Scripture and Church proclamation only. The emphasize of this holding had the implications of Barth’s understanding of human nature and the grace.

Complete Fall of Man

In Barth’s theology, man had fallen entity due to his sin. Moreover, there was infinitive distinct qualitative differences between God and man. Therefore, man could not know God through his innate abilities except God revealed himself in the history actively. Man was unable and ready to accept the grace and salvation of God. In other words, man failed to use their rationality of to know God. In spite of the difference, the two extremes were not ‘distant’ as there was the bridging through the actuality of Jesus in the history. Thus, the ‘grace’ of God was demanded for the knowledge of God. As the God’s revelation through Jesus was not an obligation, it was a grace. Moreover, man needed the grace of reconciliation through Christ to ‘renew’ his ability to know God. Meanwhile, the natural theology based on human rationality was ‘incapable’ to know God in such understanding of human nature.

Grace but not Nature

In Brunner’s theology, there were grace in human’s nature and God’s creation. However, in Barth theology, the concept of grace and nature were understood in two extremes that could not be placed together.

Man was reconciled with God with Christ in the grace only. In man’s nature, one had done nothing that might considered as synergism in the grace. In my opinion, Barth followed the traditional reformed understanding of grace. If any work was done, the reward was only the paid but not the grace. Moreover, if any work was allowed, the role of the work would be considered more and more important and the role of revelation might even be ignored later on.

Moreover, the risk of the natural theology, that employed the nature as the mean of knowing God, was that it included many pre-knowledge of God. Therefore, the theologian might consider such knowledge was adequate and did not expect the revelation of God in the Grace. Thus, the natural theology rejected the grace.

"Christian natural theology very respectfully and in all humility re-casts revelation into a new form of its own devising… making revelation into non-revelation."

Furthermore, if ‘nature’ was requested in knowing God, did it imply that God’s revelation in grace was incomplete?

In order to ensure there the ‘sola’ grace of revelation, no room should be reserved for the natural theology.

Rational Methodology?

In the atmosphere of the rationality of enlightenment, one might ask if Barth’s suggested methodology is rational as the subject matter was not judged through the ‘rational’, neutral and general reasoning. Moreover, some might even criticize that Barth is non-rationality. However, one should aware that different methodology should be used according to the different and special nature of the subject matter. In Barth’s suggestion, he had suggested a ‘rationality of religion’ that could studies the abundant Christianity. In fact, Barth’s suggested methodology of theology helped to highlight the distinct feature of Christian theology rather than the hallow, neutral truth studied through the natural or liberal theology.

It was justified to use the revelation as the sole source as the subject matter was unique. If the theology was developed though the method of speculation of human, the God described would be limited to the human nature. As a result, the theology would be too ‘natural’ and have no difference between the anthropology. Barth emphasized on the revelation especially the revelation of Jesus instead:

"In the face of the Cross of Christ it is monstrous to describe the uniqueness of God as an object of natural theology. In the face of the Cross of Christ we are bound to say that knowledge of the one and only God is gained…"

Without the revelation of Jesus for showing us the being and acting of God in the history, the god they believed was only their projection and may even considered as an idol.

We cannot but dream of God, and indeed not to dream of God would be sink below humanity; but precisely because our gods are indeed our dreams, they are idols.

Making the situation worse, the theology ‘produced’ in this natural way might only be used to support one’s own interest. For example, natural theology was adept for supporting the Nazi Party.

Without the revelation of God in grace, the ‘humanized’ theology will be nothing special than the anthropology. It seems that it was impossible for man to produce the idea of trinity, incarnation and the amazing saving story, etc. without the revelation of Christ.

On the other hand, objectivity was needed in a ‘scientific’ studies. It was not hard to find that the method used in the natural theology was ‘subjective’ in certain sense. It was because their subject matter was ‘their own speculation of God’ only. On the other hand, Barth suggested that the object for the theological studies was ‘the Christ who revealed and actualized himself in the history’. Thus, there was an object that one can study objectively. Therefore, studying the revealed object was an ‘objective’ method.

To conclude, Barth’s theology methodology is a ‘rational’ one. However, the rationality should not be independent from the God’s revelation. In other words, there is no ‘independent’ rationality.

The Value of the Nature

Someone may argue what the value of the nature is. If it is useless, why did God created it? One should aware what has been introduced above, Barth also accept ‘natural theology’ if it was criticized under the revelation of God. To make it clear, the term ‘natural theology’ signified the ‘general revelation’ in that context of Barth’s writing. Barth did not deny the existence of the ‘general revelation’ but it was sub-ordinate to the special revelation. Therefore, the ‘human nature’ was only the instrument or channel for the God’s operation of God’s grace and sovereignty. The human nature could only be the ‘object’ which accepted the grace but should not be understood as the subject which took the initiative to know God or ‘assisting’ God’s grace in natural theology. It could be concluded that he might accept the general revelation (natural theology) but it could not be independent from the revelation of Christ. Thus, there was no conflict between the rejection of natural theology and the acceptance of general revelation.

In fact, it should be aware that Barth accepted the revelatory work of God (general revelation) and used it as a pointer to the God. The things created by God were good, it was inappropriate to reject the goodness of God. But the role of the object should be noted. The role of the object should be the ‘pointer’ only. For example, the work of Mozart was considered as the revelatory work pointing and praising to the God.


It is shown that Barth did not leave any room for the natural theology in his framework of theology methodology. Reserving any room for them means allowing their threaten to the revelation of God in grace. However, it was very easy for people to mis-interpret Barth that he rejected both natural theology and general revelation. The teaching of Emil Brunner was one of the example. In fact, Barth only rejected the natural theology under his theology methodology. General revelation was still accepted as the channel of the God’s grace. The human rationality was valid only in the revelation of Christ.

Comment on Barth’s Methodology

Although some people may consider that Barth is too radical to object the possibility of knowing God through human rationality, I do understand Barth’s holding sympathetically. As he was in the age that the human rationality was accepted as the theological method, it might be necessary for him to ‘swing’ the pendulum to the other side in order to make the revolutionary changes. Basically, I accept the theological method of Barth. However, it is necessary for us to consider how to put it into the practice. The preaching of Christianity to different culture is used as an example of the discussion.

Barth did not deny that man still accept the general revelation; thus, the Chinese may has some understanding of God but it must be judged by the revelation of God later. However, what is a better means of preaching the ‘reformed’ tradition to the Chinese?

The Chinese may have more difficulties in the understanding of God in a judge and theoretical sense, but they can understand the ‘Tian’ through the ‘practice’ easier. How can we preach such the ‘reformed’ concept to the Chinese? If we preach the concept in a more creative way, is it violate from the revelation of the God? It is suggested that the message should be preached in a creative way that the receiver can understand it well, but it should not be violated from the revelation of Jesus.

Nevertheless, Barth have found the foundation for our starting of doing theology. What should we do is advance it in a creative way in different context.

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