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Biblical Faith and Natural Theology.

The Gifford Lectures for 1991. By James Barr. PP. xii + 244. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993. ISBN 0 19 826205 1. 30[pounds sterling].

James Barr's Gifford Lectures have a simple central thesis: that there is a considerable amount of natural theology in the Bible Though in earlier centuries this was widely believed, in our own it has been either neglected or--especially under Barthian influence--denied. Anyone who studied theology in the heyday of the `Biblical Theology Movement' in the fifties and sixties, for example, has to work hard to overcome the ingrained belief that `natural theology' and `Bible' should never appear in the same sentence. Barr's work thus calls for the abandonment of long-accepted positions.

Once the reader moves from the essentially simple but startling core idea to the detailed argumentation, the work is more complex than it may seem initially. Two rather different readings are possible; and, though I have no doubt which is correct, it is worth presenting both, since both have something to contribute to current debates.

On a first, and perhaps more obvious, reading, Barr has written a defence of natural theology by showing that it is not only an important part of philosophical theology, but also present in Scripture, and therefore cannot be bypassed by appealing, say, to the principle that only what is in the Bible is important for Christians, or that Christians base their beliefs on revelation rather than on reason. At the heart of the primary document of Christian revelation, Barr shows, the possibility of a `natural' knowledge of God is envisaged. He discusses in detail such texts as Psalms 19 and 104, various prophetic and wisdom texts, and (at greater length) the classic New Testament passages appealed to in the past by proponents of natural theology, Acts 17: 16-34 and Romans 1-2, together with one of Paul's probable sources, the Wisdom of Solomon. In all these cases he demonstrates that alternative explanations which seek to avoid the implication of natural theology rest on shaky exegesis, and are more often the result of a prior conviction that natural theology is either impossible or sub-Christian than of attention to the natural sense of the texts in question.

Since this opposition to natural theology is mostly part of the legacy of Karl Barth, Barth's own position has to be outlined in some detail. Barr shows how Barth's own Gifford Lectures (The Knowledge of God and the Service of God according to the Teaching of the Reformation, London 1938) dismissed natural theology with a vigour not genuinely derived from the Reformers to whom he appealed, and set up rejection of natural theology as a new articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae. Barr provides an illuminating discussion of Barthian attitudes to natural reason, and explores the link between Barth's abhorrence of natural theology and his opposition to the German Christians. Because--wrongly, in Barr's view--Barth regarded adherence to natural theology as predisposing people to National Socialism, it has ever since been both theologically as well as politically suspect. Barth's `Nein!' to Brunner has continued to echo both in Protestant theology and in biblical interpretation, obstructing the way to exegetes who might think they had detected natural theology in the biblical text.

One of the most interesting chapters in Barr's book (chapter 8) is on the image of God in the Bible. In a detailed discussion of Gen. 1:26-27 and related passages, he shows how entirely implausible is Barth's attempt to interpret the `image' and `likeness' of God as located in the relation of the sexes (taking `male and female he created them' as parallel with, and an exposition of, `in the image of God he created him'). Barth is driven by his prior dogmatic conviction that there is no natural Anknupfungspunkt between God and man, and therefore that the `image' cannot be such a point of contact. From this he reasons that the text of Genesis therefore cannot have such an implication, and concocts an alternative exegesis to enshrine his own conviction of what is in fact the case. But in this the text's own right to be heard is wholly obliterated.

All this leads to the conclusion that biblical interpreters should return to recognizing a genuine if limited appeal to natural theology in the Bible. They should refuse to be bullied by Barthians, and stand up for what their own exegetical expertise shows them to be true. Thus Barr's book may be seen as the death-sentence to the opposition to natural theology inherited from the Biblical Theology Movement. It rehabilitates natural theology in the Bible, and hence restores the Bible as a resource which Christian theologians should take into account when developing their own natural theology.

If Biblical Faith and Natural Theology is read in this way, it represents an important milestone in biblical interpretation, showing that the Bible contains--and to a significant degree--a style of theological thought that most of its interpreters have been talked out of looking for in it. There is, however, a second way of reading Barr, which I believe is more accurate. It does not involve unlaying any of what has been outlined so far, but does set it in a significantly different context. We can begin by noticing the shock in store for any reader who thinks that Barr is defending natural theology as such:

Those present at these lectures may...have formed the impression: here is a person who is a believer in natural theology or an adherent to it, and he has therefore gone over the traditional biblical evidences for it, arguing that they really do support natural theology. He is therefore opposed to all that Karl Barth said in denying natural theology, and wants to have it reinstated as a basic feature of modern theology...

This, however, is not my position or my purpose. (p. 102)

As he goes on to make clear, Barr is not particularly interested in natural theology as a subject in its own right, or at least if interested, he is not personally engaged by it or attracted to it. `What really interests me.' he writes, `is the effect that the whole question has upon biblical studies and upon the place of the Bible in theology' (p. 103). If a critical study of the Bible shows that this or that theological idea or set of ideas is important within the text taken as a whole, then that is one of the data with which the student of the Bible has to confront the systematic or dogmatic theologian. It will not do for theologians, even theologians as eminent as Barth, to rewrite the Bible in the light of their own theological system. Barr's concern is thus for the primacy of critical exegesis over dogmatic construction in the study of the Bible. The task of the biblical scholar is not to adjust the facts to fit the theories of theologians, but to insist that the facts are as they are. This seems to me to be the main thrust of Barr's argument, and for it the case of natural theology is simply a particularly interesting and important example in the history of the relations between biblical study and theology, not a centre of concern in itself.

Read in this way, Barr's work has even wider implications than on the supposition that it is simply about natural theology in its own right.

This book is in effect the latest in Barr's sequence of books about biblical theology and interpretation, in which he has challenged the subjugation of biblical study to particular dogmatic positions that has been a feature of so much exegesis in the last fifty years. It is remarkable that scholars writing about the Bible have usually assumed that their work was `purely biblical', i.e. untheological, and have then felt guilty about this and tried by various dubious devices (`biblical theology', canonical criticism) to reconnect exegesis with theology--when all the time religious dogma has mostly been their driving force, and more often than not has conditioned them to misinterpret the actual content of the biblical text. Barr does not want students of the Bible to recognize the presence of natural theology in Scripture because he has a theological programme of his own to which he would like other exegetes to adhere, but because he believes the task of biblical interpretation to be a matter of looking at what is there in the text, rather than looking for what his or anyone else's theology would lead one to expect to be there. Natural theology is simply a particularly strong example of the domination of the Bible by systematic theology which it is the duty of today's exegetes, just as much as it was that of the founders of modern biblical criticism, to resist with all their strength.

The fact that there is a controversial thesis in this book should not obscure the fact that it is an informative guide to all the biblical material relevant to natural theology, and more besides. There is an interesting section on the relation of biblical faith to science and language, and the final chapter (10), `Natural Theology and the Future of Biblical Theology', has comments on the canon and styles of biblical interpretation based on it which continue themes discussed in Barr's Holy Scripture: Canon, Authority, Criticism (Oxford, 1983). Furthermore, the discussion of Barth is valuable in its own right, though it is no doubt unlikely that any Barthian will in practice be persuaded by Barr's arguments. I found myself wondering whether a useful book could have been written on Natural Theology and the Bible without the polemical engagement with Barth which characterizes the whole book, but concluded that if it could, it would have to be written as though the subject had never been discussed in the twentieth century at all. As soon as one contextualizes the subject in modern theology, the figure of Barth is bound to dominate.
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Author:Barton, John
Publication:The Journal of Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1996
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