On Natural Theology

The following are compiled from material I developed a few years back at Jed Paschall’s Blog, which I am closing down. These posts, which I will present in long form as a complete series deal with Natural Law and James Barr’s critique of 20th Century Dialectical theologians. They also delve into intra-Reformed debates on the role of the Church in culture and politics, my perspective here is decidedly Augustinian (following The City of God) and is particularly influenced by the contemporary work of Dr. David Van Drunen (Professor of Theology, Westminster Seminary California). I cannot say that I still hold tightly to these old arguments but I do think they are relevant for discussion.



James Barr on Natural Theology – Part I

I have been reading through James Barr’s Concept of Biblical Theology. The book has been on my shelf for a few years now, and I am finally getting around to reading it. In the book Barr gives analysis and critique of a wide body of 20th century Old Testament theology. His analysis of the dialectic theologians that dominated the biblical theology in the past century (Eichrodt, Von Rad, and Childs) is penetrating, relentless, and often scathing. One might be tempted to view him as an odd ally of conservative, or even traditionally Reformed theology. However, Barr seems to bemoan anyone who attempts to use biblical theology to make normative claims. For Barr the discipline ought to be purely descriptive. Any attempts to derive a justification for Reformed thought from biblical theology would be inappropriate in his estimation. In this respect Barr is no ally of conservative Reformed theology, however this doesn’t detract from the value and force of some of his analysis.

As I have been digesting Barr, the most compelling analysis he has offered is with respect to the place of Natural Theology within the field of biblical interpretation. He devotes two chapters to this discussion (Chs. 10 & 27). Chapter 10, is titled “Difference in the Way of Thinking: Philosophy and Natural Theology”; chapter 27, “Natural Theology Within Biblical Theology”. The focus of this series of posts will be on these two chapters.

While Barr has no stake in the 2k wars in contemporary conservative Reformed circles, his analysis has compelling applicability to the discussion. He would be broadly critical those on both sides of the discussion. For instance, there is a tendency among those of us who hold to some form of 2k theology (especially of the sort being taught at Westminster,  California) to disparage the importance of philosophy in the ongoing debate. To Barr, this isn’t a problem restricted to any one theological camp, but an issue which is endemic among biblical scholarship in particular. To Barr, philosophy needs to be a robust part of the biblical theology discussion, and those of us who hold to 2k might need to deal better with the philosophical implications of our position. However, Barr’s adamant defense of the presence of Natural Theology as a valid subject for theology in general and biblical theology specifically offers an interesting critique for those in the 2k/NL debates who seek to debunk natural theology’s place in Reformed thought and praxis. Those in the Reformed camp who deny Natural Theology/NL strangely find themselves in the company of the 20th century dialectical theologians such as Barth, Von Rad, and Eichrodt to name a few, who denied the validity of natural theology in order to defend their own dialectical views of revelation. While dialectical theology’s brand of biblicism is at odds with conservative iterations of the same, the fact is that both share a palpable disdain for general revelation, natural theology, and natural law.

Barr’s analysis is ironically applicable outside the domain of biblical theology with those of us who have a committed approach to theology. This series will focus on Barr’s arguments, and discuss their applicability to biblical theology, and contemporary Reformed debates. My first love has always been Old Testament theology and I am very comfortable interacting in this domain, and I am excited to interact with Barr at this level. I’ll give my best effort given my own limitations with philosophy and Reformed apologetics, so I won’t be able to speak to these categories as well as I would like. I am sure readers of these posts will be far more adept at these issues than I. However, my own limitations notwithstanding, I firmly believe Barr has a lot to say to some of the debates I follow and engage in. Hopefully this can shed some fresh light on the discussion, especially why we 2k-ers might be philosophically deficient in some areas, and why NL detractors might want to pay attention to some of their strange bedfellows who also reject natural theology. More to come soon…

Addendum: In researching for the next post I came across an interesting discussion by blogger, Matthew Dowling on the subject – http://desposyni.blogspot.com/2010/04/karl-barth-and-problem-of-natural.html


James Barr on Natural Theology – Part II

This conversation will begin to deal with Barr’s arguments in Chapter 27:  “Natural Theology within Biblical Theology”. So far, in my own estimation, this is one of the most interesting portions in the book. Barr essentially argues that natural theology is present in the bible, and that “if it turns out that natural theology is actually present within the Bible, or is at least supported by it or even only possibly implied by it, the effect is to overturn a large portion of the assumptions and value which have underlain modern biblical theology” (p.468). We will focus on the introductory portion of the chapter moving on to the meat of the chapter where Barr analyzes natural-theological paradigms in creation, legal, prophetic and wisdom texts in the OT, and some additional NT texts as well.

As a corollary to this, Barr asserts that a clearer definition and understanding of the nature of revelation in Scripture. In other words, how did the biblical authors have access to the material they wrote upon? Was it directly revealed? Common knowledge? Theological and existential reflection? The answer to these question wholly depends upon which corpora of biblical texts is in question. In the historical narratives, it isn’t unreasonable to assert as Barr does “that Josiah was eight years old when he began to reign in Jerusalem and his mother’s name was Jedidah (II Kings 22.1) is there because everyone knew this to be the case. How is that revelation? The same is true, by extension, of many other cases, including human persons ‘revealing’. Thus when ‘revelation’ becomes, as it has for many persons, an indispensable sign-word for faith, it leads to serious misunderstandings.” (p.485). In other words if natural theology was present in Scripture, it called into question the theological paradigm of the dialectic theologians notions of revelation. Theologians such as Barth denied the validity of natural theology as a valid subject of inquiry at all. It isn’t surprising he had such a vaunted view of the special nature “revelation” as ultimately being subsumed in the disclosure of Jesus Christ. Even the truthfulness, or inerrancy of Scripture, was unnecessary to support the existential force and truth of this view of revelation. His kerygmatic views support this, that the Scriptures become the authoritative, revealed Word testifying to Christ only when preached.

If, however, natural theology, or something similar to it is present in the text, then this would alter not only one’s understanding of the validity of natural theology as a subject of serious inquiry, but also one’s understanding of the nature of divine revelation and disclosure in the Scriptural record. Barr opens the chapter with two examples from Paul, both in the Lukan account of Paul’s address at the Aeropagus in Acts 17:22-34, and Paul’s opening arguments in Romans 1-2 as examples of natural theological-type paradigms in the Biblical record. In the Aeropagus adddress, Paul doesn’t utilize arguments from the OT, rather his theological discourse is grounded along the following natural or innate categories: 1) the reality of God as Creator; 2) the fact that God has no needs; 3) God has allotted humans dwelling places throughout history; 4) that man should, on the basis of Providence seek after this God; 5) that idolatrous notions of God are inappropriate; 6) that God demands repentance from men because of the reality of final judgment; and finally 7) that God’s judgment will be carried out through one man, and that this man’s authority is vindicated by the fact that God raised the man from the dead. Barr notes, “Judgment and resurrection were customary themes of ‘special’ revelation, but the way in which Paul presented his argument is a typical natural-theology approach” (p. 469). Barr utilizes a similar argument with respect to Paul’s natural theological approach in Romans, concluding his analysis with this, ” of course the passages in question are not natural theology in the fully developed and philosophical sense… But they do appear to imply that there is something validly known of God, revealed through his created works, which is accessible to all human beings through their being human, and which through the law ‘written on the heart’ forms a resource for moral decision. And even if that is not natural theology in the developed sense, it is closer to the basis of natural theology than it is to the revelation-centered, kerygmatic, theology that has bee dominant in most of the twentieth century” (p. 470).

Briefly, if natural theology, even in a rudimentary and undeveloped sense is present in the biblical text, it not only undermines the dialectical theologians’ rejection of natural theology, it undermines the radical overemphasis  on special revelational categories in modern Reformed circles (which is a departure from classic Reformed theology, which historically advocated a robust natural theology). This isn’t to diminish the value of revelation, or to militate the confessional testimony of Scripture as a divine document. However, we need to have a better sense of revelation as an internal scriptural category, and a better developed theological understanding of the nature of revelation to understand where revelation, even in Scripture is of a special or extraordinary character where it is of a more natural character. The fact is both of these modes are present in Scripture, and testify to the diverse modes of Divine self-disclosure even in our most authoritative text.

If Barr is right, the Reformed debate regarding the use and authority of Scripture outside ecclesial matters needs to change. If natural theology is not only a valid subject of philosophical inquiry, but it is upheld, and to a degree taught in Scripture, it needs to shape our understanding of the validity of natural theology, natural law, and general revelation. Are restrictions against murder or theft any less revelatory if they occur in pagan or secular laws? Or must Scripture be privileged in order to norm and clarify these matters of law? In other words, in spite of some of the protests  of theonomic and transformational types, if Scripture validates natural theology, there needs to be some compelling evidence as to why arguments against NL (especially 2k ones) are biblical themselves.


James Barr – Natural Theology, Barthianism, and the Anti-Philosophical Tendency Within Biblical Theology – Part III

This third entry picks back up on my ongoing series on James Barr’s defense of natural theology as a legitimate field of inquiry in biblical theology (See Part 1 and Part 2). I am simply going to let Barr speak for himself on how modern biblical studies, following Barth has neglected natural theology, and has taken an anti-philosophical tenor. This extended quote comes from Barr’s book Biblical Faith and Natural Theology, which was derived from his invitation to The Gifford Lectures in 1991, which are sponsored annually at the University of Edinburgh:

For at least the last century scholars have ceased to work seriously with natural theology. It was no longer part of their work or their interests. They were interested to work with the minds of biblical people, and they no longer cared whether these minds conformed to the ideas of modern reason, logic, or psychology. They no longer thought that it was part of their work to ‘validate’ the thoughts of biblical writers by showing that they fitted with modern requirements, or even by showing that they fitted with modern Christian beliefs. On the whole they chose the opposite path: if the thoughts of biblical people were entirely different from what modern rationality might demand, then so much the better for biblical people. The discovery of the mentality of ancient people might uncover a thinking that, while different from modern modes, was valuable and constructive when taken in its own right. Again, unlike biblical scholars of an earlier period, modern biblical scholars were no longer interested in apologetic arguments, in proving for instance, from scientific discoveries that it was possible for the earth to be flooded with water in the time of the Flood, or that Jonah might quite probably have been swallowed up by a whale, or in showing that the plagues of Egypt had really happened as described in the Bible. Such matters now lay for the most part outside the realm of serious biblical study. All this was a setting already existing before Barth, into which the Barthian approach to theology fitted very well.

Barth was in this [way,] very much a man of modern times. He perceived and followed their trend. The rejection of natural theology, apologetics, and the like suited very well the way in which biblical scholarship had long been going. This is why, in spite of the strangeness of Barthian theology to most biblical scholars, and in spite of the contemptuous attitude Barth showed toward their work, there was never any great outcry from biblical scholarship against that rejection. It suited them very well. Added to this is the concentration of biblical scholars on the Bible, their ‘biblicism’ in the sense of their occupational unwillingness to see anything decided by factors without the Bible and beyond their range of competence or expertise. Contrary to general opinion of recent times, the obvious weakness of the average biblical scholar lay not in  his or her bias toward historical approaches, but in his or her lack of philosophical insight or ability. Their professional expertise encouraged this. Most were not very sorry that natural theology was forgotten about. Their own natural sympathy with the idea of the Bible as the supremely revelational document made them all the less willing to discern the traces of natural theology within it, all the more willing to do like Barth, and use exegetical means to obscure these traces. — (pp.118-119)

Barr pulls no punches, in his typically lucid style here, as he seeks to redirect biblical studies to a mode of theological reflection long neglected. What strikes me, is that concurrent with the almost total abdication of Scripture to ‘revelational’ categories, dialectic theologians like Barth, and too many conservative Reformed Christians today, have squared neatly with the ecological policy of neglect embodied by so many modern institutions. While there may have been an admirable effort mustered to shore up the effects of revelation on mental and spiritual categories, Christian theological reflection in the 20th and on into the 21st centuries have neglected one of the fundamental concepts in scripture, that being the land, the very ground beneath our feet. Setting aside the NL/2k debates for a moment, this lack of a collective creational conscience among Christians who occupy the common realm with so many others has, in my opinion, damaged the Christian’s testimony of the goodness of the coming creation. The fact of a good creation, that is a useful vehicle not only for human prospering, but for Divine self-disclosure should not be lost on us.

Posted by

I live in Southern California, am married with three kids. I am a member of a Presbyterian church an author, educator, and freelance business consultant.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s