Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Karl Barth's Response to Natural Law: Nein!

THERE IS MUCH IN THE PROTESTANT THEOLOGIAN KARL BARTH that may be admired, particularly his courageous stance against Nazism. But from the perspective of an advocate of the natural law, Barth is an enfant terrible. Or perhaps Barth is not such much an enfant terrible as he is like the little boy who revealed that the emperor had no clothes; in this case, the naked truth that Protestantism or at least Calvinism, at least when pressed to its logical extreme, has no doctrine of the natural law, and is pure divine positivism, not unlike Islam (though for different reasons). Barth's vehement, even vicious, rejection of the doctrine of the natural moral law stems from his rejection of the notion of natural revelation, and hence a natural theology. Barth's "categorical rejection of every form of natural theology and natural law" may be found in what has become a classical locus of the natural law debate among Protestants, the debate between Karl Barth and Emil Brunner (translated and published under the title Natural Theology (London: Geoffrey Bless, 1946)). "The task of our theological generation," the Protestant Brunner suggested in his article "Nature and Grace," is "to find the way back to a true theologia naturalis." (quoted in Stephen J. Grabill, Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2006), 21). To which suggestion, Karl Barth acerbically and succinctly responded: "Nein!" To Barth, the burden was to "learn again to understand revelation as grace and grace as revelation." To paraphrase Barth's view in the context of the natural law, Barth suggested that the age did not require Protestants to find their way to a doctrine of natural law, a lex naturalis, but to learn again to understand revelation as law, and law as revelation. Barth rejected the notion that God may be known by both Faith and Reason--he rejected a duplex cognitio Dei. Similarly, he may be said to have rejected a duplex cognitio legis Dei, a two-form way of knowing God's law, that is, a two-form way of knowing the good to which we are called.

As it turned out, Barth's position won out over Brunner's position. Barth's position has therefore been a motif or a "subtext of sorts in mainstream Protestant criticisms of the natural-law tradition." (Grabill, 22) As Grabill points out, Barth's loud rejection of the natural law on the grounds that it was inconsistent with the Reformer's teaching has had the unfortunate effect of blinding Protestant theologians from seeing the vestiges of natural law teaching in the early Reformers, and so there has been inadequate study of what part of the natural law teaching was accepted by the Reformers and what part was rejected or modified. As a consequence, instead of a natural law concept that would allow rapport with Catholics or non-Christians, Protestants to the degree that they have adopted Barth's unequivocal rejection of natural theology and natural law, "have tended to advocate a divine command ethic with the concomitant problems of actualism and occasionalism that are evident in Barth's theology." Grabill, 23.

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