James Barr, in his sixth lecture of Biblical Faith and Natural Theology, returned from his argument that the Hebrew Scriptures support a kind of natural theology to his debate with Barth. He said that he was close to Barth in his dislike of proofs of the existence of God and apologetics in general. Barr was not trying to bring about a Protestant form of the very elaborate Roman Catholic use of natural theology, although he seemed surprised that his case might lead him a bit in that direction.
He said that his real interest was in what natural theology implied for the interpretation of the Bible. He came a little reluctantly to the conclusion that biblical exegesis did not justify the rejection of natural theology. So Barth’s whole contention that man has no capacity apart from the word of God in scripture to gain information about God and man’s situation in the world proves empty. This is devastating for the Barthian theological project.
Barr then spent a little time showing that Barth, although generally true to historic Protestantism, departed from the reformers on this issue. He showed that Luther and, especially, Calvin made use of natural theology.
I earlier proposed giving a more charitable interpretation to Barth because his position was informed by his involvement in the anti-Nazi struggle.Barr looked at this. He said that it was a mistake to see the pro-Nazi German Christians as supporters of natural theology. Their position lacked two major components of natural theology: rationality and universalism. They saw the German historical experience as a kind of revelation from God. So the pro-Nazi theology was a kind of revelational theology, not a natural theology.
Part of Barth’s misdiagnosis of the German Christian’s position, according to Barr, was his refusal or inability to see that revelation could mean anything other than what he meant by it. So he ascribed everything else to natural theology. But Barr seems to me to have been correct that the German Christians clashed not only with the Bible but also with most understandings of natural theology.
Barr may have gone too far when he suggested that Barth’s opposition to the Nazis, although sincere, took on some aspects of totalitarianism itself. Part of what Barr meant by this was that by disqualifying natural theology, Barth called into question the open and reasoned debate that could have used common sense and universally accepted truths to counter propaganda.
I admit that I do not understand the political part of Barth’s thought. After the war Barth took the position that although it had been a Christian obligation to oppose the Hitler regime, it was not a Christian obligation to oppose the East German communist regime. So the problem with the Nazis for Barth was not something that you could extend to other totalitarian regimes or police states. As I said, I have never really understood this.
Barr pulls no punches in his evaluation of Barthianism:
Barthianism managed to combine the dreariest conservative traditionalism with the same unseemly boastfulness about its conformity with recent trends that it had castigated in the liberals. It is thus not surprising that the outcome of Barthianism should manifest itself as it has done in numerous extremely different and mutually contradictory expressions.
Barr knew that the modern philosophical opposition between Hegel and Kierkegaard, idealism and existentialism lay behind Barth’s thinking. So he knew that Barth brought some of his own non-biblical philosophical assumptions to the table. Barr wondered if Barth did not have his own version of natural theology hidden behind the structure of his thought.
All this is sort of interesting. But I am reading Barr because Kenton Sparks suggested that his use of natural theology might be useful in developing a positive approach to interpretation. I am anxious to get on to Barr’s more positive proposals.