The Confessing Church’s “Nein” & Natural Theology

This past week I’ve posted two brief reflections on Eberhard Busch’s lectures featured in ‘The Barmen Theses: Then and Now’.  The first reflection discussed Prayer and Christian Ethics. The second, was about the Church, the State and the claim of Jesus Christ as Lord over both.

The subject of Natural Theology will form the third.

In the light of the renowned forcefulness of Barth’s “Nein” to Emil Brunner, there may be some irony in suggesting that any discussion about Natural Theology requires a certain amount of sensitivity and decorum.

This is especially so, given the serious word limitations of a blog post about it.ID-100165049

Developing an understanding here by reading a meme or two point outline could mean missing key contextual information that is essential in arriving at a well-informed theological conviction. Take as an example, the plethora of tangents, verbose material drawn out and drenched in heavy theological jargon about the subject.

In sum, Natural theology ‘acknowledges something other as God.’[i]

This takes belief beyond the author in and of authority – God, and asserts humanity as the ultimate authority, outside Jesus the Christ.

As Busch states:

‘In such a Natural theology humanity has so much divine Spirit within it that it can comprehend God by means of its own capacity to do so. Humanity therefore has no need of God’s coming to meet it. To speak of one Word repudiates precisely the claim that there is a second word of another god that purports to be authoritative for the Christian witness and is thus not subject to the standard of the one Word. The term “Word of God” designates a particular story as it is attested for us in “holy scripture.” In this story God distinguishes himself from all other gods. By electing particular people to be his people, he differentiates himself from the gods that people choose for themselves.’[ii]

Within the pages of  ‘The Barmen Theses: Then and Now’ Busch addresses Barth’s rejection of Natural theology, constantly keeping in mind the all important historical context of the German Churches in the 1930’s.

Article one: (8:12)We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.
‘”No” to Natural theology, in this context, is first of all a word of repentance in which the confessors must ‘beat their own breasts.’ There was very real cause for that repentance, for up until then, the confessors had, to be sure they made a distinction between themselves and the German Christians at some points. They were thinking in the same patterns. This pattern made room, on the one hand, for faith-centred preaching for the heart, or within churchly spaces, while on the other hand, it endorsed the church’s “joyful yes’’ to the racial nationalistic ideology. This “yes” was even theologically grounded, but with reference to another god, from the One who is ‘’attested for us in Holy Scripture”.[iii]

Avoiding Barth’s and the ‘Confessors “No” to natural theology, could mean walking away from any reading of this “No” with little other than the rough idea that natural theology = bad theology, because badass Barth thundered it forth as such.

Sadly, in the theological climate of today it is too easy to leave this ”no” to natural theology at that, writing it off as intolerant, anachronistic or bigoted.

It might be sufficient here to say that Natural theology leads humanity into taking its point of reference about who God is from itself rather than The Word of God.

Causing humanity to abandon God as we reach for God outside the Revelation of The Word of God.

When this happens the reconciled relationship enacted by ‘God’s free decision in revelation’ (Karl Barth) is abandoned. Subsequently, the voice of the Church is silenced by its irresponsible acquiescence to ‘something other as God’ (Busch), slowly allowing itself to be concealed behind a veil of what can be posited as either practical atheism or deified existentialism.

In other words, we miss the point of the Gospel that states in Jesus Christ, God comes to us. To be God with us, for us and, ‘not God without us’ (Karl Barth).

I am in agreement with Eberhard Busch as he strongly advocates the necessity of not just visiting this issue on the surface, but sticking with it until one can see clear through it. The imperatives laid out for us in the Barmen Declaration have way too much relevance to us in our contemporary context to ignore.

 “If anyone tries to flag you down, calling out, ‘Here’s the Messiah!’ or points, ‘There he is!’ don’t fall for it. Fake Messiahs and lying preachers are going to pop up everywhere. Their impressive credentials and dazzling performances will pull the wool over the eyes of even those who ought to know better. But I’ve given you fair warning.”
(Jesus, Mt.24:23-24, The Message)

[i] Busch, E. 2010: The Barmen Theses: Then and Now, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, p.28
[ii] Ibid, pp.27-28
[iii] Ibid, p.28-29

The Theological Declaration of Barmen:
Image: courtesy of Sira Anamwong, “Church of The Light” /

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