Gerhard Sauter “Argue Theologically with One Another: Karl Barth‘s Argument with Emil Brunner” in Theology as Conversation: The Significance Of Dialogue In Historical And Contemporary Theology: A Festschrift For Daniel L. Migliore, Bruce McCormack and Kimlym J. Bender eds., Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009, pp. 30-47
Emil Brunner’s desire was to recover a proper understanding of natural theology, which in modern liberal theology has been derailed into “an unnatural appeal to human nearness to God”.
For Brunner, our [formal] image of God persists even after the fall (though the material image of God has to be restored through union in Christ alone). Therefore, responsible proclamation of the free grace of God must encounter creaturely existence and stand in a critical dialectical relationship with the [relative] ordered-ness of created life. Comprehending this relationship is another important task of theology and must be pursued as complementary to its primary commission.
Barth thought the distinction between the formal and the material image is completely wrong-headed, worrying if the neo-Protestantism polluted by the Enlightenment agenda and the ghost of Thomism is haunting the hall of theology again. Already in CD I/1, Barth issues extremely hard words concerning Brunner’s effort lavished in opinions related to “areas of culture”, which is, deviating from “the area of the church” (CD I/1, p.26).
Additionally, it has to be pointed out that Barth defines his view of natural theology in an ad hoc manner: natural theology is every [positive or negative] formulation of a system that claims to be theological, that seeks to interpret divine revelation whose subject is NOT Jesus Christ and whose method differs equally from the exposition of the Bible.
He believes the task of natural theology is “to bolster the divine revelation anthropologically or by cultural history”, which is categorically wrong and impossible.
Along with this line of debate, there are two issues to be traced in the following:
1) Barth didn’t get Aquinas right. Eugene Roger in Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth: Sacred doctrine and the natural knowledge of God (1995) has argued this.
First Rogers is showing that Thomas is concerned actually with God’s faithfulness and grace for our theological enterprise: since all true knowledge of God can only be obtained from God, will not God change and transform what we have incorrectly begun (namely, the human quest for God from below)? Thomas is convinced to say yes to this question by proposing the concept of judgment and purification (of our knowledge and intention). God’s grace guides incorrect will of humans, but does not destroy their autonomous will where he desires that the humans should concur with God’s saving grace (Rom 8:28). He is really dealing with the question of the direction of will (intentionality) rather than the question of knowledge.
Thomas was not interested in a generally valid [anthropological] foundation for the knowledge of God outside of Revelation. For Brunner, in the same vein, the human reason needs grace in order to be liberated from sin. Incorrect human reason receives back a sense of direction which God had intended for it when he had created human beings in his image— a precondition by which human beings are able to look responsibly toward God, at the world, and at themselves. (This ideal had been carried out by students of Brunner who formed the conference centers of the Swiss Reformed Church until some deviations in recent years.)
No doubt that early Barth rejected the validity of such inquiry.
2) However, in the English-speaking world, and particularly Anglicanism, Brunner had been received in a much warmer manner than Barth had, understandably. (The support from the Americas makes Barth’s accusation of Brunner’s ideological bent toward of German nationalism a weaker one.) Carrying on the frontline battle today, Stanley Hauerwas in 2001, at the Gifford Lectures— which were established for the promotion of a natural theology of English origin— regarded Barth’s [Christological] sublimation of natural theology as the decisive theological turn of 20th century (cf. Stanley Hauerwas , With the Grain of the Universe: The Church’s Witness and Natural Theology).
According to Hauerwas, later Barth is willing to reserve the phrase “real human” for an anthropology grounded on Christology (cf. also CD III/2 §44.1-3).
Therefore, to deal with the conflict between theology and anthropology, we had only have to confess how a theological anthropology is possible to us. Not only do we have to resist making theology possible by means of an antecedent anthropology, but also have to demonstrate how and to what extent one can speak about the human [existential] standing before God, being derived from God and pointing to God.
For Hauerwas, this Christologically-grounded in natural theology needs not prove itself to be universally susceptible. God himself accomplishes his truth. This does not exclude “naturally”, but it demands that we speak intelligibly for those who disagree with our testifying to the truth.