Posts tagged with: karl barth

Just over a year ago an article of mine was published, “The Aryan clause, the Confessing Church, and the ecumenical movement: Barth and Bonhoeffer on natural theology, 1933–1935,” Scottish Journal of Theology 59 (2006): 263-280.

In this piece I argue that the basic theological disagreement between Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer has to do with the former’s radical denial of natural theology. One of the three cases I examine is the exchange between the two theologians when the Aryan clause, which excluded ethnic Jews from public service, was imposed on the Christian churches in Germany.

I show that for Bonhoeffer this imposition was a clear violation of the church’s sovereignty and an occasion for declaring a state of confession, in which the fundamental elements of the Christian faith hang in the balance. For Barth, however, the Aryan clause was not so clearly related to his own theological preoccupation with natural theology as to merit immediate ecclesiastical action. Here’s a letter from Barth to Bonhoeffer at the time:

Perhaps the damnable doctrine which now holds sway in the church must first find vent in other, worse deviations and corruptions; in this connection I have gathered a pile of German Christian literature and can only say that on all sides I am most dreadfully portrayed! It could then well be that the encounter might take place at a still more central point.

Bonhoeffer could hardly imagine a “worse deviation” and I argue that this disagreement played a central role in Bonhoeffer’s disillusionment in the ability of the church to resist the Nazis in the so-called “church struggle.” In Eberhard Bethge’s biography of Bonhoeffer, he said this of Barth’s actions at the time: ‘Even like-minded theologians such as Karl Barth and Hermann Sasse decided to wait for even “worse” heresies than the “racial conformity” of the Civil Service Law.’

Later on Barth would acknowledge his mistake. In a letter to Bonhoeffer’s best friend Bethge in 1967, Barth reflects on that time:

New to me…was the fact that Bonhoeffer in 1933 viewed the Jewish question as the first and decisive question, even as the only one, and took it on so energetically. I have long felt guilty myself that I did not make this problem central, in any case not public, for instance in the two Barmen declarations of 1934 which I had composed. Certainly, a text in which I inserted a word to that effect would not have found agreement in 1934—neither in the Reformed Synod of January, 1934; nor in the General Synod of May at Barmen. But there is no excuse that I did not fight properly for this cause, just because I was caught up in my affairs somewhere else.

In his book Bonhoeffer as Martyr (which I’m currently reviewing), Craig J. Slane writes,

Passage of the Arierparagraph left the church a twofold possibility: first, and most obvious, consider its theological response to the matter of Jews in its membership, a consideration that would eventually involve the church in border disputes with the state; and second, to develop a responsible theological and ethical position on the state’s aggression against the Jewish race itself. Of course, anti-Semitism had long been an issue in Western culture. Perhaps it was for that very reason that his [Bonhoeffer’s] colleagues could not seem to muster much concern.

See also, “A Time to Tear, a Time to Speak.”

In this week’s commentary, “Protestants and Natural Law: A Forgotten Legacy,” I ask the question: “So, why don’t Protestants like Natural Law?” The short answer is: There isn’t a short answer. Tracing out the reasons that twentieth-century Protestants have given for why natural law is off limits is complicated and can take a person in many different directions.

In my judgment, the great tragedy in the Protestant rejection of natural law is not merely that Protestants (and particularly evangelicals) have had tremendous difficulty in forming an adequate public language to address moral issues but that the loss of catholicity in Protestant ethics only reinforces the “suspended animation” that many Protestants already experience in relation to the historic Christian church. The sense of being lonely, rootless, and disconnected that some Protestants have bemoaned can be relieved, I would argue, precisely by revisiting key aspects of Protestant and Christian identity from the past.

Thomas Oden can help Protestants to recover a sense of their catholicity with the Church of all ages on the topic of general revelation and natural law. My argument is that Protestants don’t have to look beyond many of their own denominational traditions to discover a once vibrant tradition of natural law. Until fairly recently, some type of natural-law theory was used as a bridge to connect the Christian faith and culture, the church and the world.

Though natural law holds great promise as a bridge to connect the Christian faith and culture, it is also no panacea for the hard work of “translating” moral ideas into a useable public vocabulary. For more on the promises and limitations associated with natural law, and for why twentieth-century Protestants have been so skeptical, read the entire commentary here.

An extended series about “Protestants and Natural Law” can be found on this blog.

To conclude this series, let’s recap what is meant by natural law by parsing the term.

The “nature” referred to in natural law can mean different things, but I mean by it the divinely engrafted knowledge of morality in human reason and conscience, that which all human beings share by virtue of their creation in God’s image. Theologically speaking, I think this understanding of nature points back to our original creation in God’s image, but it also anticipates the fall into sin, where the divine image was corrupted but not destroyed.

“Law,” too, can vary in meaning, but we have used it here as shorthand for the universal moral law written into the human heart by God. Law as a representation of God’s will can be known through a variety of means such as the Ten Commandments, the Torah, the Sermon on the Mount, the pangs of conscience, or the rational intuition of good and evil. When “nature” and “law” are understood in these ways, the claim that natural law is a forgotten legacy of the Reformation is certainly an understatement.

Natural law holds great promise as a bridge to connect the Christian faith to culture, although from the fuller perspective of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, natural law has limited but significant value. Natural law is not merely the quest for order on the part of the state and non-Christians as Karl Barth held, it is also a profound source of truth revealed to every person — according to their capacities — through creation, conscience, and reason. When natural law is understood properly, only so much should be expected from it as a source of revelation. God does not save the world through natural law, nor does he reconcile the world through the pursuit of justice; but he does provide a public record of his eternal power and divinity through the law written on the heart.

This has been cross-posted to my blog on natural law, Common Notions.

The latest issue of the Scottish Journal of Theology is out, and includes my article, “The Aryan clause, the Confessing Church, and the ecumenical movement: Barth and Bonhoeffer on natural theology, 1933–1935.”

Here’s the abstract:

In this article I argue that the essential relationship between Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth stands in need of reassessment. This argument is based on a survey of literature dealing with Bonhoeffer and Barth in three basic areas between the critically important years of 1933 and 1935. These three areas come into sharp relief given the political background of the German Christian victory in the church elections of 1933. Their respective positions, both theological and political, on the Aryan clause differ greatly. For Bonhoeffer, the imposition of the Aryan clause on the German churches represented a clear status confessionis, and Bonhoeffer favoured a very public schism. For Barth, while the Aryan clause was certainly troublesome, it was deemed better to wait for a ‘more central’ point, namely, that of the question of natural theology. Barth’s emphasis on the importance of the question of natural theology carries over in his position regarding the significance and role of both the Confessing Church and the ecumenical movement. We see that Bonhoeffer explicitly questions the validity of Barth’s emphasis on natural theology with respect to the Confessing Church and to the ecumenical movement. While many scholars have argued for the basic agreement between Barth and Bonhoeffer, especially on the question of natural theology, a closer examination of the two in the period 1933–35 calls such conclusions into question.

Full reference: Jordan J. Ballor, “The Aryan clause, the Confessing Church, and the ecumenical movement: Barth and Bonhoeffer on natural theology, 1933–1935,” Scottish Journal of Theology 59, no 3. (August 2006): 263-80.

For more on Bonhoeffer, see also: Jordan J. Ballor, “Christ in Creation: Bonhoeffer’s Orders of Preservation and Natural Theology,” Journal of Religion 86, no. 1 (January 2006): 1-22.

For those of you who are going through World Cup withdrawal after the defeat of the French by the Azzurri have a little comfort. I give you the World Cups of Philosophy and Theology.

‘Nobby’ Hegel leads the Germans onto the pitch.

The first is a two-part video of the Monty Python skit featuring German philosophers against the Greeks (text here). The German side touts Leibniz in goal with strikers Nietzsche and Heidegger. The Greeks have Plato in net, with Aristotle as sweeper and Socrates at forward. The two assistant referees are, by the way, Augustine and Aquinas, while Martin Luther manages the German side.

I find it fitting that theological figures have primacy in this way over the philosophers, since this reflects the proper relationship between the two, with philosophy as the ancilla, or handmaiden, to theology. Karl Marx is a late second-half substition for the Germans.

Heraclitus captains the Ancients to victory.

You’ll need to have Google Video installed to view Part 1 here and Part 2 here (HT: The Sports Economist and Disorganizational Behavior).

Speaking of Augustine, Aquinas, and Luther, they give me a good segue to the Theology World Cup, hosted by Finnish theologian Patrik Hagman, which was searching for the greatest systematic theologian of the 20th century. Amazingly, Karl Barth did not make the field, and Pannenberg, the odds-on favorite, was knocked out rather early, losing to eventual finalist Hans Urs von Balthasar. The final featured Jürgen Moltmann against Hans Urs von Balthasar, with Moltmann being declared the victor. This proves rather convincingly that 20th century theology is much more about style than substance.

Karl Rahner was victorious in the consolation match. You can view the championship bracket here, and see how Karl Barth might have fared in the competition here (Dietrich Bonhoeffer also did not make the finals, while such dark horse candidates as T. F. Torrance did).

In Part 2, we saw that modern Protestant skepticism toward reason is one of the most significant factors in the rejection of natural law. Divine command ethics, particularly of the variety espoused by Karl Barth, quickly came to dominate the field of Protestant theological ethics in the middle decades of the twentieth century.

Karl Barth rejected every form of natural theology and, simultaneously, pulled the rug out from under natural law. But among neoorthodox theologians of the 1930s, only Barth and his close friend Edward Thurneysen remained consistent in their repudiation of natural law. Others, such as Emil Brunner, Friedrich Gogarten, and Rudolf Bultmann, opened the door to some new version of natural theology by incorporating philosophical insights into their dogmatic and exegetical work. Brunner took the lead in calling for a return to natural theology and natural law, but was angrily attacked and shot down in an exchange with Barth, his former friend and cohort.

However, the controversy between Barth and Brunner did not settle anything. Some followed Barth in holding that Christian ethics has no use for natural law, since it is concerned with reason and universal principles inscribed in human nature. Barth’s prefered idea based ethics directly on the command of the living God, which as he said “is always an individual command for the conduct of this man, at this moment and in this situation; a prescription for this case of his; a prescription for the choice of a definite possibility of human intention, decision, and action.” Herein lies the root of Protestant situation ethics, popularized in the 1960s by Joseph Fletcher, and criticized by Paul Ramsey as a “wasteland of utility.”

Although Barth never gave a systematic treatment of natural law, throughout his long career he fought against every appeal to it. A theological ethic that bases itself on the Word of God alone, he said, “will not, then, make the disastrous, traitorous use of ‘natural’ theology, which is the only use that can be made of it.” Barth viewed natural law as the self-assertion of autonomous humanity. For this reason, he felt he had to speak an irreconcilable “no” to every attempt to derive ethical norms from the orders of creation, as Emil Brunner and Dietrich Bonhoeffer did, or from nature, as Roman Catholicism and Protestant Orthodoxy did. “If you really reject natural theology,” he said in response to Brunner, “you don’t stare at the serpent, with the result that it stares back at you, hypnotizes you, and is ultimately certain to bite you, but you hit it and kill it as soon as you see it!”

Of course, Barth recognized that there is such a thing as natural law in the same sense as he recognized that there is human religion. At best, in his view, natural law is the quest for order on the part of the state and of non-Christians, who have no other source of moral knowledge, inasmuch as they do not derive such knowledge from divine revelation in Christ and the Bible. Barth’s refusal to find a point of contact on which Christians and non-Christians could meet would ultimately relegate theology to the backwaters and encourage faith to become the province of the private, individual soul. How, then, can Christians go public with their ethic in a pluralistic world where the majority does not accept the Christian source of revelation? Some contemporary Protestant theologians did actually cross paths with natural law, but as Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten describes, they did so “. . . with something of a bad conscience on account of Barth’s strictures.”

In Part 4, we’ll take up the question of why the natural-law tradition fell on hard times in modern Protestant theology.

This has been cross-posted to my blog on natural law, Common Notions.

In Part 1, we saw that the infrastructure of Protestant social teaching is not nearly as sophisticated as Roman Catholic social teaching and that natural law has often been viewed as a bridge between the church and the world.

Marcus Tullius Cicero

Historically, natural law has been used as a bridge category to appeal to people of all races, classes, cultures, and religions. Its public value stems, in part, from its ability to speak beyond those who share a prior commitment to sacred Scripture or Christian creeds. As Cicero, the renowned Roman orator taught in De republica, natural law

is a true law, a right reason, conformable to nature, universal, unchangeable, eternal, whose commands urge us to duty, and whose prohibitions restrain us from evil. . . . It is not one thing at Rome and another at Athens; one thing today and another tomorrow; but in all times and nations this universal law must for ever reign, eternal and imperishable. It is the sovereign master and emperor of all beings. God himself is its author — its promulgator — its enforcer. He who obeys it not, flies from himself, and does violence to the very nature of man.

Natural law is the one universal law to which all people have access by their natural reason, no matter where or when they happen to live.

In much of modern Protestant theology, there is skepticism about this appeal to reason. Protestants believe the bridge has been shattered and replaced with an ethic of divine command. So what churches and faith communities often say on social issues has no way of reaching the other side, and they end up in dangerous isolation from society and from the history of Christian moral reflection.

While Roman Catholics have held firmly to natural law, Protestants of all stripes from mainline to evangelical Lutherans, Calvinists, Baptists, Methodists, and so forth, have not. They swing between the extremes of blanket dismissal and hesitant acceptance of natural law, but even among the more favorably disposed, natural law is treated as an uninvited intruder.

So, why have Protestants largely rejected natural law? We’ll address this in Part 3.

This has been cross-posted to my blog on natural law, Common Notions.