Tuesday, September 07, 2004


In 1934 a Protestant theologian by the name of Karl Barth wrote a famous response to a Protestant colleague who was flirting with something called "natural theology," and its twin "natural law." The response was simply entitled "Nein!" ("No" in German - glad to translate for you, clearly I'm fluent). Little did Barth know that seventy years later a website named millinerd would take him on. Good thing too... he would surely have been terrified...


As you may guess from the title of this post, (which means "Yes" in German, glad to translate again), I'm beginning to think that Karl Barth's early career rejection of natural theology and law may not be the best paradigm for Protestants today. After all, even Barth himself mellowed out on his position later in life.

Because it's impossible to think your way to the Trinity, I would certainly follow Barth in his rejection of natural theology (as I've mentioned before). But regarding the possibility of a cross-cultural, hard-wired instinct towards discerning (not deciding) what is right and wrong... I'm find myself much more optimistic. Whether one obeys that voice of conscience is another matter altogether, but that humans, Christian or not, at least know instinctually what is right in their dealings with other humans seems clear. Consequently, there can be a lot for a Christian to recover in non-Christian moral thinkers such as Aristotle, Seneca, and Cicero. Or, so as not to sound too occidental, Confucius and Ghandi.

Looking back, of course Barth was heroic to reject what was passing for theology in Germany, 1934. But the unfortunate situation is that Barth's rightful rejection of natural theology in that context has been so influential that Protestants influenced by him seem now to have no understanding of the tradition of natural law. This is despite the fact that natural law talk is all over the classic Reformers, and despite the fact that one Martin Luther King Jr. recently summoned the tradition quite persuasively. In other words, natural law's is the baby, natural theologies the bathwater - and we've lost them both.

The sad result is that when dealing with matters outside specifically church-related issues for which the natural law tradition would provide a helpful framework (like this Presidential campaign), the conversation rapidly devolves into knee-jerk emotivism, making actual debate impossible.

Rather than carry on, may I simply recommend this fine article for those interested in more, and for those with $35 to spare, this course.