Barth & Brunner
by Herman Dooyeweerd
This new theological movement arose in Switzerland shortly after the First World War. Its adherents forsook the modern humanism that had penetrated German and Swiss theology, having experienced the shocking inner decay of this humanism between the two wars. In harmony with the sixteenth-century reformers, dialectical theology seeks to press the incommensurable claim of God's Word against the arrogance of humanism. It is anti-humanistic in the full sense of the word.
Nevertheless, dialectical theology sustains itself on the dialectical, unscriptural ground-motive of nature and grace. Moreover, the spiritual force of the humanistic ground-motive is clearly at work in the view of nature defended by Barth and his immediate followers. They understand nature not in the scholastic-Aristotelian sense but in the modern humanistic sense.
Prior to 1933, when national socialism came to power in Germany, Barth and his school advocated a radical dualism between nature and grace. Like Luther, they identified nature (conceived humanistically) with sin. They separated nature absolutely from the Word of God, which they understood as the "wholly Other" (ganz Andere). Their fundamental depreciation of nature testified to the antihumanistic tendency of this theology. Casting the Scriptural creation motive aside, they could not even hint at "points of contact" between nature and grace. However, they left the inner dialectic of this dualistic ground motive unchecked, and deep divisions soon arose within the circle of dialectical theology.
Briefly, let us consider the historical context behind the development of dialectical theology. In the preceding chapters we have discussed at some length three of the four religious ground-motives that have dominated the development of western culture: the Greek motive of form and matter; the Christian motive of creation, fall, and redemption through Jesus Christ; and finally the Roman Catholic motive of nature and grace. We saw that these ground-motives are the hidden, central forces that have lent a sustained direction to the historical development of the West up to this day. As genuinely religious community motives, they have controlled the life and thought of Westerners in all areas of life, including those of state and society.
We saw that the Roman Catholic motive of nature and grace had apparently bridged the radical antithesis and the irreconcilable contrast between the pagan ground-motive of Greek culture and the ground-motive of the Christian religion. Roman Catholicism conceived of nature in the Greek sense; nature was a cosmos composed of formless, changing matter and of a form that determined the immutable essence of things. Human nature also was viewed as a composition of form and matter; a person's "matter" was the mortal, material body (subject to the stream of becoming and decay), and a person's "form" was the imperishable, immortal, rational soul, which was characterized by the activity of thought. For Roman Catholicism a supranatural sphere of grace, which was centred in the institutional church, stood above this sphere of nature. Nature formed the independent basis and prelude to grace. Catholicism "adapted" the church's teaching on creation to the Greek view of nature, which itself was shaped in terms of the pagan religious ground-motive of form and matter. When we exposed the true religious meaning of the Greek ground-motive we demonstrated that this "adaptation" and "reconciliation" were only apparent.
We began by establishing that the form-matter motive originated in an irreconcilable conflict within Greek religious consciousness between the older religions of life and the newer culture religion of the Olympian world. The former rested on a deification of the "stream of life," the stream that arose from "mother earth." Although the life stream was without shape or form, whatever possessed individual form and figure arose from it and was subject to decay. Death was the consequence of fate, the blind and cruel Anangkē or Moira. The life stream itself was eternal. Unceasingly it created new forms from the dead, forms that in turn had to make room for others.
By contrast, the later religion of culture was based on a deification of Greek cultural forms. The new Olympian gods were not formless; they took on personal form and figure. Leaving mother earth, they were enthroned on Mount Olympus, the home of the gods. They stood far removed from the eternally flowing stream of becoming and decay. They were immortal; their form and shape stood above this earth and, although they were invisible to the eye of sense, they were full of light and glory. But the Olympian gods were only deified cultural forces. They had no power over Anangkē, the blind fate of death. Anangkē remained the self-determining antagonist of the deities of culture. The culture religion, therefore, was able to gain official status only in the Greek city-state; in private life the Greeks remained faithful to the old religion of life with its focus on the problems of life and death.
Harbouring the profound conflict between these two religions, the religious ground-motive of form and matter was thoroughly dualistic. It was utterly incompatible with the creation motive of the Word of God, in which God reveals himself as the absolute origin and creator of all things.
The Roman Catholic attempt to bridge the Greek and Christian ground-motives created a new religious dualism. The Greek conception of nature and the Christian teaching of grace were placed over against each other in dialectical tension. Only papal authority could preserve the artificial synthesis between these inherently antagonistic ground-motives. The Reformation limited this papal authority. Thus, to the extent that the ground-motive of nature and grace permeated the Reformation movement, its inner dialectic could unfold itself freely. Hence in the debates concerning the relation between nature and grace within Protestantism, we note the rise of theological trends which denied any point of contact between "natural life" and divine grace in Jesus Christ.
In recent years [prior to 1945-48] this tension has grown more extreme in the dialectical theology of Karl Barth who, in his debates with his former ally Emil Brunner [1889-1966], explicitly rejected every point of contact between the Christian faith and natural life. It is said that Barth repudiated theidea of Christian culture. Many feel that Barth, having absolutely separated nature and grace, mortally wounded the Roman Catholic synthesis. In truth, however, dialectical theology in its religious ground-motive remained closely related to Roman Catholicism. Historically speaking, one might say that the Roman Catholic Church had taken revenge on the Reformation by way of the continued impact of its dialectical ground-motive within Protestantism. For this motive had a "unifying" effect only as long as the Roman Catholic idea of the church, with its central papal authority, was accepted. With the rejection of the papacy, the artificial synthesis could not remain intact because of the tension within the ground-motive. The Reformation split apart into a disconnected diversity of directions, each identifiable by its particular view of the relation of "nature" and "grace." It was not the scriptural ground motive of creation, fall, and redemption that led to this division within the Reformation but the continual influence of the dialectical ground-motive of Roman Catholicism.
Dialectical theology had of course severed itself from the Greek and scholastic conception of nature. Having undergone humanism, it incorporated the new humanistic view of nature in its dialectical tension with the humanistic view of freedom. Here the difference also becomes apparent. Whereas the Roman Catholic Church accepted the Greek view of nature in a positive sense by attempting a reconciliation with the Christian creation motive, Barth allowed the creation motive to recede from sight, sacrificing it to the motives of fall and redemption in Jesus Christ.
The great master of dialectical theology had no use at all for creation ordinances that might serve as guidelines in our "natural life." According to Barth the fall corrupted "nature" so thoroughly that the knowledge of the creation ordinances was completely lost.
Brunner was of a different mind on this point. He believed that the creation ordinances were valid as expressions of "common grace." At the same time, however, he depreciated these ordinances by placing them in a dialectical polarity with the divine love commandment which he understood as the "demand of the hour" [Gebot der Stunde]. Because of their general character, the creation ordinances are cold and loveless. They form the realm of the law which stands in dialectical opposition to the freedom of the gospel in Jesus Christ who was free from the law. In Brunner too one clearly sees the continuation of the Lutheran contrast between law and gospel. This contrast is merely a different expression of the dialectical opposition between nature and grace which in this form— gospel vs. law — had made its first appearance already in late-medieval scholasticism.
For Brunner the law, the cold and rigid framework in which God confines sinful "nature," must really be broken through by the evangelical commandment of love. This commandment knows no general rule and is valid only in and for the moment. For example, marriage — a creation ordinance — cannot be dissolved; but the command of love can break through this rigid, general structure as the "demand of the hour" [Gebot der Stunde]. Brunner held that God is indeed the author of the creation order, but as "law" the creation order is not the authentic will of God, which manifests itself only in the evangelical love commandment.
Thus it is still the same ground-motive of nature and grace which brought division even within the camp of dialectical theology. In Barthianism it led to such a rigorous dualism that the scriptural ground-motive, the dynamic power of the Christian life in this world, was cut off at its root. Christian scholarship, Christian political life, Christian art, Christian social action — Barth, and to a lesser degree Brunner, considered them impossible. In their eyes, such efforts compromise the very name of Christ and express the synthesis scheme of Rome which proceeds from a hierarchic continuity between nature and grace.
In its religious root dialectical theology persistently demonstrates the inherent dialectic of the Roman Catholic ground-motive in a modern way. The nature motive of dialectical theology embraces the humanist view of reality which immediately is brought into "crisis" because it expresses a person's "sinful nature." The "Word of God," wholly unilaterally, lashes into this "self-determining nature" like a lightning flash, bringing all of life, including so-called "Christian culture," into a crisis under the divine judgment. Barth acknowledged absolutely no connection between natural life as one knows it and creation. For him natural life must be viewed exclusively in terms of the fall. Although Brunner admitted that a connection exists between them, he too depreciated creation. Without a doubt, an unmistakable Gnostic tendency asserted itself in dialectical theology. Dialectical theology drove a wedge into the ground-motive of Scripture, dividing creation and redemption and separating God's will as the Creator from God's will as the Redeemer.
Since dialectical theology incorporated both the Roman Catholic and the modern humanistic ground-motives (the second within the framework of the first), it is necessary that we explore in detail the humanistic ground-motive of nature and freedom. We will trace the dialectical development of the modern ground-motive from its inception to the present day. In this way we hope to provide a thorough picture of the great spiritual movement of humanism.
(Extract from "Roots of Western Culture: Pagan, Secular, and Christian Options" pp 143-147, by Herman Dooyeweerd).
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