Modernity and the dilemma of natural theology: The Barth-Brunner debate, 1934

J. Bruce McCallum, Marquette University

Abstract

Ever since the 1934 debate between Karl Barth and Emil Brunner, the possibility and status of natural theology has come to represent the dilemma of modern theology. This dissertation argues that their debate marks a shift from the metaphysical or modern traditions of natural theology to a wisdom tradition in light of the Protestant doctrine of salvation by grace alone. The problem of natural theology arises for anyone who reflects on the relationship between the unique truth of Jesus Christ and the general search for truth, but for Brunner and Barth the problem was focused on the relationship between the authority of divine grace and the freedom of human beings. This way of focusing the problem shifts the discussion to the catechetical context of natural theology. The reasons for this shift were partly historical. Brunner and Barth were both critical of the way Schleiermacher handled the problem of natural theology within his philosophical theology, which had the human consciousness of God as its object. Their criticisms and counter-proposals are discussed in chapter two. However, the dogmatic reason involves the relationship of divine grace and human freedom. Many factors go together to make up the modern outlook on life, but one common assumption is that individuals are free to decide for themselves what to believe based on experience, inner intuition or rational investigation. Herein lies the problem of modern freedom. It is impossible to determine what an individual may believe without determining the actual conditions for belief beforehand. The implications of modern freedom were only too obvious in 1934 with a totalitarian regime in power claiming to represent the latest revelation of God and the will of the German people. Both theologians offered new proposals for handling the problem of natural theology. Brunner provided an anthropology of sinful human existence analogous to the brokenness of modern culture. It was a natural theology of the law leading to the acceptance of divine grace. Barth supplied a doctrine of the being of God who exists in such a way that he comes to be at a point of time what he was not before. It was a natural theology of divine grace which provides the actual conditions in God for the possibility of belief. New evidence from the personal correspondence between Barth and Brunner is presented which supports the contention that their debate was a longstanding theological disagreement and not a response to political pressures under the Third Reich. A final chapter reflects on the connection between the rhetorical strategies used in the debate and the content of their natural theologies.

Recommended Citation

McCallum, J. Bruce, "Modernity and the dilemma of natural theology: The Barth-Brunner debate, 1934" (1994). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9433783.
https://epublications.marquette.edu/dissertations/AAI9433783

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