Emil Brunner and Karl Barth Let’s Get Ready To…You Know…Over Natural Theology

Although Emil Brunner and Karl Barth collaborated in body and spirit for many years and still retained a large measure of agreement on many theological issues, the relationship came to a head amid an intellectual parting of the ways over their differing interpretations on the concept of natural theology. The bifurcation began as a debate in 1934 when Emil Brunner wrote a response to Karl Barth’s resistance to natural theology by suggesting that had gone too far by engaging in outright rejection.

Emil Brunner set pen to paper not to specifically outline a stark contrast in the difference of opinion he had with Barth, but rather to point out that their points of view were for the most little more than a divergence from a common belief. Emil Brunner accomplished this by highlighting six points of divergence between his and Karl Barth’s theoretical assumptions. It can be assumed that Emil Brunner chose this less confrontational approach as a way of defusing the natural rivalry between them and also as a way of perhaps influencing Barth-as well as others-to realize that he was clearly delineating a route toward which a belief in natural theology could be assumed. Karl Barth’s reply, of course, was far less diplomatic, an unrepentant “Nein!”

The difference of opinion is a matter of complex theological disagreements, but one locus of the divisions between Karl Barth and Emil Brunner is quite clear. Karl Barth’s bedrock belief is that it is the revelation of Jesus Christ that exists as the one and only source for all Christian theology. In taking this position so strongly, Barth also presupposes a theological structure in which any intrusion by the conceptual foundation of the rationality of man is denied with all authority. Emil Brunner, on the other hand, interjects into the debate the possibility that man may perhaps possess the capability for a form of revelation dependent upon God’s grace. There is room for debate over whether Brunner meant to suggest that this form of revelation could indeed acts as a foundation for theology or not; regardless, Karl Barth saw in the mere suggestion the potential for a progressive move away from Christ-only revelatory theology.

In his response, Emil Brunner outlined a series of arguments to Barth’s, as well as in identifying what he viewed as fallacious conclusions to Karl Barth’s general theological viewpoint. Brunner argued against Barth’s assertion that there is only one complete revelation of Christ. What Emil Brunner tries to accomplish in his reply is not really necessarily to argue if there may be general or specific revelations, but rather that if there are two distinct types of revelations they are still connected wholly to both the creator God and Christ the Son. This interpretation is, of course, quite distinct from Karl Barth’s concept of revelation as something that could be received only from God, specifically, in fact, only from God’s word as revealed by Jesus Christ through scripture.

Emil Brunner posits that revelation of God can be accomplished by other means. His belief is essentially that there are other levels of types of revelation of God’s grace aside from what may be referred to as the general revelation of Jesus Christ. For instance, revelation may come in the form of God’s agency upon earth; His miraculous wonders or the natural wonders inherent in His creation. The distinction that Emil Brunner allows is that this type or level of revelation would of course be inferior to the general revelation. It would by necessity be a limited revelation, as one could not possibly hope to get to know and understand God fully and completely through this method.

The foundation of Emil Brunner’s theology, then, is of a dual level manner of revelation. On one level is the ability to achieve what is best described, though clearly imperfectly, as knowing God objectively by way of the revelation of Himself through works and his agencies. This forms the basis for the rational understanding. This rational understanding is, in turn, based on the existing similarities that exist between God’s image and His creation in that image. Because man contains elemental aspects of God both in spirit and flesh, there exist the rational possibility of comparison through analogy.

Furthermore, Barth’s theological argument proceeds from the concept of the fall from grace into sin. Equally important was the indisputable fact-for Barth, at least-that any knowledge of God cannot be accomplished rationally, but only through the grace of God. Emil Brunner’s response is that mankind must accept responsibility for this fall from grace. This responsibility is offered in the form of the human conscience. Conscience is the rational acceptance of sinfulness, of realizing that they are sinful, and of both accepting and understanding that that grace is a divine gift. What appears to be at issue in this central point of the debate is an argument over the possibility for revelation in a humanity that has fallen from that grace offered by God upon creation.

Karl Barth’s response to all of Emil Brunner’s arguments was famously simple, of course, though obviously containing many complexities. Central to Barth’s response was his belief Brunner had not fully mandated the extent to which the capacity for revelation was open to. Karl Barth’s response reveals a steadfast refusal to believe that there can be any possibility for rational understanding of God outside the general revelation. The reason for this, it would appear at any rate, is that to do so is to consider the unpleasant possibility that God’s revelation has the taint of suggestion rather than necessity. Karl Barth positions revelation of God in terms of intellectual engagement and decides that God cannot be considered an intellectual subject to be understood rationally.

God’s revelation is through His word and this word is not subject to reason; it is come to as a matter simply of faith. Barth’s theological perspective considers faith more valuable than reason in coming to understand God; to attempt understanding in any other way would be to reduce God to the level of a mere property to be apprehended. Barth rejects Brunner’s contention that humans possess an innate capacity to apprehend God; it can be accomplished only through faith in God’s revelation. Therefore, by definition it is revelation from God that produces knowledge of Him, meaning there can be no knowledge without his revelation. Rational intuition is impossible.

Karl Barth basically viewed the possibility of a natural theology as spiritually bankrupt. He retains a solid conviction that only God’s own words as delivered to the writers of scripture maintains the necessary component of being adequate for full understanding of His knowledge. God’s grace can be delivered only by the language of God.

In the argument between Karl Barth and Emil Brunner, it is very difficult to come down substantially on one side or the other. On the one hand, Karl Barth offers a particularly intriguing notion of revelation, but one that is somewhat hampered by its strict adherence. Although some have argued that Barth is not really as didactic as he has been made out to be, there can be no denying that at least in comparison to Emil Brunner’s view of revelation his far less supple.

On the other hand, the orthodoxy of Karl Barth does stand forward as less secular approach to revelation than Emil Brunner. The fear, of course, is that natural theology does contain inherent risks toward finding God where you will…if you will. The liberal theology of Brunner is not one to be feared as evangelicals might, but it does present certain theological problems. One might well be tempted to term it as a bit of an unshaky foundation.


Ultimately, were one forced to choose between Brunner or Barth, were one given no choice, the temptation probably lies in Brunner. After all, God is revealed in his works and in his majesty and even if that revelation is a second-tier one and incomplete, it is possible that man has an innate rational ability to recognize the general revelation. On the other hand, one certainly doesn’t want to believe that God is nothing more than an object to be apprehended rationally like any other object in the universe.