Common Ground

Nein! That was the essence and title of Karl Barth’s reply in 1934 to an essay by Emil Brunner entitled Natural Theology. Barth and Brunner broke a long-standing friendship over the issue of whether there is any “natural” knowledge of God apart from the biblical revelation in Jesus Christ. Brunner maintained that there is a natural, created capacity in human beings to perceive something of who and what God is, apart from supernatural revelation. It is a “contact point” between the message of the Gospel and natural human knowledge.

Barth’s emphatic Nein! (“No!”) to Brunner’s case for natural theology arose partly out of Barth’s observation of how the church in Germany was becoming complicit with rising National Socialism (the Nazi party). German Christians were accepting that political movement and its social manifestations as a source of revelation alongside Scripture. In other words, much of the German church saw God at work in the ascendant political powers of their day and, in contemporary Christian terms, heard God speaking to them in the Nazi party. That episode in both church and world history should resound with a dire warning for Americans today.

Yet the necessity of Karl Barth’s resounding “No!” to German Christianity’s subversion by the Nazi’s and our own present need to say a resounding “No!” to similar forces of hate and political subversion of Christianity in America, should not drive us to Barth’s total rejection of a contact point between sinful humanity and the Gospel. Our text for this Sunday, Acts 17:16-34, shows clearly that Scripture itself allows for and values a presentation of the Gospel which makes contact with whatever knowledge, no matter how sparse, humans have of God prior to experiencing His direct revelation in Jesus.

In the heart of Greek culture and intellectual life in the city of Athens, Paul joined in the philosophical discussions happening in the market place. He was brought to the Areopagus (“Mars Hill”) to offer further explanation of the view he was teaching. His speech, which begins in verse 22 and which today adorns a bronze plaque on the side of the hill, begins by establishing a point of contact with existing pagan religious practice in Athens, suggesting that their acknowledgement of “an unknown god,” was actually a seminal recognition of the one true God, creator of heaven and earth.

From that contact point, Paul went on to declare that God is the God of all nations (verse 26) and that they have a common ancestry as human beings. He then quotes approvingly in verse 28 two Greek poets to the effect that all people have their being from God and are His children. He then explains in verses 29-31 that the significance of that common origin in God’s creative work implies a common moral accountability before the Creator. He finally points to hope in spite of a coming judgment because of a man God raised from the dead. The close of the text in verse 34 shows us some of Paul’s listeners becoming believers.

Thus there is definitely room for a natural theology supported by Scripture itself (see also Psalm 19 and Romans 1 and 2). And Paul’s speech shows us that natural revelation itself has at least some answer to Karl Barth’s worries about a perverse natural theology which sets itself up as equal and contrary to the Word of God. Those Greek poets’ understanding of all people as children of God is enough to allow a vehement and unqualified “No!” to Nazis, white supremacists, the alt-right and racism of all sorts. Natural theology and biblical theology are totally in harmony on that point.

Which means that we Christians may have an opportunity now to accept a point of contact with non-believers who are decrying and protesting the new rise and visibility of hate groups in our time. We can show them that their abhorrence of racism, prejudice and terror is in perfect harmony with the Christian revelation which has always taught that all people are loved by God. There’s never been a better time to proclaim Jesus our Lord who died and rose again to demonstrate God’s love for the whole world.

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