I am reading James Barr’s Gifford Lectures, Biblical Faith and Natural Theology.
Barr noted that Karl Barth’s “Nein” to natural theology was based on the assumption that revelation and the Bible as the word of God represented a completely different channel of divine communication. But what if the Bible itself hangs on an implicit natural theology?
Barr discussed the passage in Acts 17:16 ff. where there is a speech by Paul (actually this is part of Luke’s characterization of Paul) in Athens. The text says that Paul was preaching “Jesus and the resurrection”. In doing so, however, Paul doesn’t build on the Hebrew scriptures or his own tradition as a Pharisee. He makes a more universal appeal. He talks about how God gives breath to all people and how we live and “have our being” in God. In fact, the Greeks already worshipped this God as an “unknown God.” Before Paul’s proclamation of Jesus and the resurrection, they had lived in a time of ignorance about the nature of God. But Paul’s preaching builds on something they already knew.
This is a problem for the Barthian view of an antithesis between natural theology and revelation. So some dismiss the speech as Luke misrepresenting Paul. Others point out that Paul converted few at Athens. Therefore, they say this speech represented a failed experiment. Paul then reverted back to preaching the foolishness of the cross (1 Corinthians 1:21 ff.).
Barr thought that maybe Luke did misrepresent Paul and that historically maybe Paul did change tactics. But the Book of Acts is still part of the canon and Luke did not see Paul’s speech as a failure. He used the speech to exemplify what actually became a big part of the Christian approach to Gentiles.
And, Barr noted that, although Paul’s speech at Athens does not cite the Hebrew scriptures, it makes use of traditional Jewish criticism of idolatry. It makes use of the great difference between an idol of wood or stone and a living, transcendent, creator Deity. The stoics had a similar criticism of idolatry. So the speech draws on a point of contact between Greek and Hebrew thought. This approach became very important in early Christian thinking.
Barr pointed out that the Acts 17 speech is not an isolated theme in the New Testament. The theme of creation as a universally known reality occurs elsewhere. It occurs in Romans as authentically Pauline. It looks like Barr got into Romans in his next lecture.
So Barr saw Barth’s attack on natural theology as putting Barth in the awkward position of speaking against rather than with the New Testament and early Christian tradition.
I believe Barr is right and that Barth overreacted in totally rejecting natural theology.
However, one should give Barth some credit. Let us be charitable. Barth’s argument with natural theology was part of his anti-Nazism. He thought it was dangerous to draw on affinities between Christ and culture, because German-speaking people had horribly misused this approach in Barth’s time.