Why did theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) oppose the idea of trying to lead skeptics to Christ by first convincing them, apart from Scripture, of the existence of God? Whether you agree with Barth or not (and I find myself doing some of both), it’s hard to completely dismiss all of his point on this question.
As much as he wrote--literally thousands and thousands of pages—it’s certain that Barth’s thoughts on this subject can be found in more than one place. Here, I’ll be working from his Church Dogmatics, II/1, beginning at page 88.
One more thing. In what follows, I’ll be using the phrase “natural theology” a lot. Quite literally, “theology” means “words about God.” So what does “natural theology” mean?
In Millard J. Erickson’s terrific little book, Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology, the phrase “natural theology” is defined as “Theology developed apart from the special revelation in Scripture; it is constructed through observation and experimentation.” When it comes to the existence of God, the phrase “natural theology” assumes that people, even skeptics, can come to know about God through observation and reason. On to Karl Barth.
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Before getting into Barth’s analysis of natural theology, the reader is immediately made aware of his opinion. He begins by asking whether the church should “try to find a readiness of God other than that which is present in the grace of His Word and Spirit” (88). With that sarcastic beginning, he launches an all-out assault. The entirely negative assessment here almost eliminates the distinction between analysis and critique. For Barth, to know natural theology is to hate it.
His analysis goes like this: To borrow a phrase from Paul (my analogy here), much as the law served as a schoolmaster who brought us to Christ, so natural theology can bring a natural person to Theology. That is, by first meeting God by means of natural theology—say, by participating in a fair debate about His existence—the natural person can sometime later come to know God as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
As Barth describes this ideal journey, the establishing of the God’s “knowability in the natural sphere” can function as “a preparation for the establishing of His knowability in His revelation” (89). Further, since leading people to the knowledge of God and thus to salvation is the “highest and most comprehensive work of love”(92), natural theology, which can serve as the way by which the unbeliever comes to faith, is not only legitimate. It is, according to this view, “necessary” (90). Not just a good idea, it is an obligation.
But, says Barth, the path known as natural theology invariably sets up a “double dilemma” (94). What does he mean by that? From the standpoint of the believer, to lead someone to the knowledge of God by means of natural theology is, again, something he is compelled to do. How could he be a person of true faith and love and do anything else?
And yet, ironically, this act of love requires the believer to speak falsely in behalf of the true God! That’s because the believer must use “the well-known artifice of dialectic” (93)—intellectual investigation through dialogue-- in order to bring the unbeliever to the decision of faith. This intrigue necessarily turns the believer into a hypocrite, because he must pretend that he doesn’t know what he certainly does know. That is, to proceed in his work of love, the believer must approach the unbeliever with a faith that is “masked as unbelief” (93). The believer pretends to occupy a position where “faith and unbelief have equal rights” (92).
Not only is this hypocritical, it also means that the believer assumes that he has a set of arguments that, at least in this case, is a necessary supplement to the truth of the gospel. But, says Barth, since the gospel is the unique and true self-revelation of God, such could never be the case. Why? Because: “When a man stands in the decision of faith or unbelief, he has not arrived at this position from any of the pre-decisions which are possible to him apart from God’s revelation” (91).
Furthermore, such a ploy entangles the believer in the sort of condescension that befits only God. Believers who use the tack of natural theology necessarily act as though they are superior to unbelievers. In practice, they deny that they are “poor sinners alongside other poor sinners” (96).
Okay, let’s stop here. We’ll take the second part of the “double dilemma” next time. At this point, do you agree or disagree with Barth? Specifically, is it Christian for a believer to enter into a debate about the existence of God when he has no real intention of giving up his beliefs if proven wrong? On the other hand, since the believer is certain that the true God cannot rightly be disproved, is it hypocritical for the believer to enter a discussion where the other side thinks that that is exactly what can happen?
Between the lines of this discussion, Barth seems to be asking, How could it ever be right and faithful for Christians to act as though they trust in human arguments before they trust in the gospel? Isn’t that an act of human pride? Doesn’t it involve the believer in thinking that he knows a better approach, forgetting that God has already drawn us to Himself by His Son and the Word of the cross? If the believer thinks, with Paul, that the gospel is “the power of God unto salvation” then why would he concoct or borrow something else and preach it instead?