‘We Willingly Spoil Ourselves’: or, the Impact of Justification by Faith Alone on Man’s Natural Knowledge of God

Perhaps no more familiar conflict exists in the wide world of theology than Barth’s conflict with natural theology. Summarized by the title of his (in)famous reply to Emil Brunner, this has often been taken as a conversation-stopper. And yet, as is so often the case with familiar stories, there is, in fact, more to the story. While Barth never swayed from his negative instincts towards natural theology, it is exceedingly important to pinpoint exactly what he felt and exactly what he felt that about. Torrance went a long way towards clarifying what Barth mean in his rejection of natural theology though himself was somewhat inconsistent in his own positive articulation of the doctrine; however, both give pride of place to the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Torrance fleshes out a good deal of all this in his essay on the Scots Confession, and makes a few key moves that are absolutely crucial to both his and Barth’s thinking on this subject.

Part of Barth’s concern with natural theology is that (as Torrance saw it) natural theology became its own, independent way of arriving at knowledge of God, bracketed away from God and his revelation (this independence will be revisited later):

Natural theology thereby presupposes what Barth takes to be an impossible understanding of nature and grace. It presupposes that grace exists alongside nature, in the sense that nature is understood to have its own independent, autonomous, and self-grounded capacity for grace. It presupposes (and Barth finds this to be completely inadmissible) that nature in itself and as such establishes certain external conditions to which even grace is bound to conform and which thereby pose a limit to grace in its sovereignty and freedom. It presupposes that nature has its own quotient of sovereignty and freedom apart from that established and sustained by grace itself (i.e. in Jesus Christ).  (George Hunsinger, How to Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology, pp. 97-98)

This sort of thinking, of nature and natural theology as independent entities, Torrance pegs as a kind of dualism between the being and the act of God. Natural theology of this kind Barth is keen to avoid because he sees it as positing a divide between the being and act of God, abstracting from God’s activity in the world. God’s being, argues Torrance, cannot be so abstracted from God’s act because God is who he is in his act. This has consequences for the knowledge of God, because the Word, God’s communication with man, is grounded in God’s being and thus in unity with God’s act as well. What this means is that in the Word, God communicates his own being: ‘Thus any natural theology would have to establish itself on the ground of a dualism between God’s being and his active word…’ (T.F. Torrance, Natural Theology in the Thought of Karl Barth). The danger here which is noted by Hunsinger above is that if this ground is given, then nature and natural theology become conditions for the possibility of any theology and any revelation, and hence any knowledge of God. Interestingly enough, Torrance doesn’t argue against a natural knowledge of God had by man. There is a parallel here with Torrance’s account of man’s natural goodness: both are quite real, but both are called into question by justification by faith. Both natural goodness and natural knowledge are conceived of here as independent, and by this Torrance means that both are grounds on which we justify ourselves: natural goodness is the means by which we justify ourselves morally, natural knowledge the means by which we justify ourselves epistemologically. Justification by faith alone calls both of these into question:

Justification by the Grace of Christ alone does not mean that there is no natural knowledge—what natural man is there who does not know something of God even if he holds it down in unrighteousness or turns the truth into a lie? But it does mean that the whole of that natural knowledge is called in question by Christ, who when He comes to us says: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.”

Justification has an epistemological as well as an ethical reference—epistemologically it insists that the only legitimate demonstration of Christian truth is that which is in accordance with its nature, which is Grace, and that to seek justification of it on any other ground is not only fundamentally false in itself but to falsify the Gospel at its very basis. (Torrance, The Radical Consequences of Justification)

Any independent grounds for either moral or epistemological justification are thus called into question; there is no way for natural man to justify either his knowledge of God by means of natural theology or his goodness before God by means of natural goodness. Justification by faith alone means that knowledge of God is grounded not in an independent nature apart from grace by is grounded in Christ alone. The way to God from nature has been closed off in this sense: ‘Justification by Grace alone tells us that verification of our faith or knowledge on any other grounds or out of any other source, than Jesus Christ, is to be set aside.’ (Torrance). This is something Barth never stopped insisting on, and in his development of his theological epistemology took Galatians 4 as axiomatic. In this passage Paul reverses the typical order of knowledge: rather than making human knowledge of God a starting point, Paul makes God’s knowledge of man the starting point for human knowledge of God – the characterization of Christians is revised from ‘people knowing God’ to ‘people Known by God in verses 8-9. This passage formed the heart of theological epistemology for both Torrance and Barth: human knowledge of God always begins with a grasping of man by God and not a grasping of God by man.


2 thoughts on “‘We Willingly Spoil Ourselves’: or, the Impact of Justification by Faith Alone on Man’s Natural Knowledge of God

  1. Steve Wykstra June 13, 2017 / 5:12 pm

    “The heart of theological epistemology for both Torrance and Barth: human knowledge of God always begins with a grasping of man by God and not a grasping of God by man.”
    In your next installment, it would be helpful (to me anyway) if you could try out for us a rope bridge or two going from this “begins with” to what the resultant “theological epistemology” might involve. Granting that human knowledge of God always begins with, ontically, with God’s gracious ‘grasping of man’, this is nevertheless said to lead to a “human knowledge of God,” as you put it. So is that knowledge in some spell-outable way analogous to human knowledge in other areas? If so, what are some of the the relevant analogies (or identities)? (If not, why use the same word “knowledge”? Why not call it, say, “gnowlege”?)
    Epistemology, theological or not, is I take it still going to be the enterprise of trying to reflectively clarify the nature of knowledge in some area.


  2. Joshua June 13, 2017 / 5:50 pm

    Steve, thanks for the comment – you’re picking up on a very important part of theological epistemology, namely, granting the ‘grasping by god’ bit, it is still *we* who know. The subjective bit is quite important, and I think Barth and Torrance point towards helpful ways forward. This will for sure be revisited in the near future by me.


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