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[A paper presented at the 1997 Evangelical Theological Society Meeting in San Francisco]


Gregg Strawbridge, Ph.D.

All Saints' Presbyterian Church, Lancaster, PA, Pastor


As an examination of Karl Barth's rejection of the historic Christian doctrine of general revelation and his correlative denial of natural theology, in this paper the writer exposits Barth's position as indicated in his prominent theological writings, drawing upon distinguished interpreters of Barth. Philosophical, socio-political, theological, and biblical reasons are presented for Barth's position. The concluding evaluation of Barth's position is an internal critique of the coherency of Barth's view of biblical authority and a brief exegesis of the locus classicus biblical passage at odds with his position on general revelation and natural theology. Attention is given to the relationship of Sola Scriptura to general revelation.


Karl Barth (1886-1968) is the Twentieth Century father of Neo-orthodoxy in Christian theology. Not only has Barth spawned a dialectical theological movement which has traversed Protestant, Catholic, conservative, liberal, and the myriad of denominational lines, but he has the distinct privilege of scribing the longest theology in the history of the church (over 9000 pp.). "Future generations will not hesitate to speak of him with Augustine and Aquinas, Luther and Calvin, and with Schleirermacher and Ritschl."(1) Barth has formidably redirected the stream of Protestant theology; the question which must be pondered is, to what does this tributary lead--the great gulf or inland bayou? The answer will, of course, depend upon ones theological vantage point.

The stream of Protestant theology made a monumental new tributary when Barth, along with Emil Bruner, reacted against 19th Century theological liberalism, with its prevailing immanentism, higher critical view of the Scripture, and rather optimistic evolutionary view of man and history.

Barth was raised in the Swiss Reformed churches and to the reformation heritage he returned. After studying with some of the most prominent theologians of the late 19th Century, such as Wilhelm Herrmann and Von Harnack, Barth embraced (or created) a neo-reformed theology. Essentially, his theology emphasized the transcendence of God, the primacy of revelation (in Christ), and the existential condition of man.(2)


Though the above synopsis is meager, the scope of this paper does not allow for the comprehensive evaluation of Barth's thought. Rather, the intent is to examine the philosophical background and exegetical justification of one famous position espoused by Barth, his rejection of natural theology.

By the natural knowledge of God (natural theology or general revelation) there has always been understood in Christian theology the knowledge of God which man has thought he could receive apart from the concrete divine act of revelation and on the basis of general human utterance concerning the gods and the divine. Barth thinks that the linking of Christian thought about God with this supposed general knowledge is a fateful error, because important characteristics are imparted by what man thinks he knows of himself."(3)

It was Barth's commentary (1919) on the book of Romans which marked the new era of Protestant theology, specifically the second edition (1922) of which Barth "left no stone unturned." The second edition was influenced by several factors: (1) A deeper reading of Paul and the epistle itself; (2) Franz Overbeck's influence in repudiation of cultural Christianity. Overbeck was a colleague and friend of Nietzche; (3) Barth's brother, Heinrich, a professional philosopher, helped Barth understand Plato and Kant; (4) Dostoevsky's writings helped Barth to understand the human predicament better; (5) Kierkegaard's writings influence Barth in the concepts of "paradox," "decision," "crisis," and the general dialectical method.(4) Concerning the latter influence, Barth (1933) acknowledges his debt to Kierkegaard,

...if I have a system, it is limited to a recognition of what Kiekegaard called the "infinite qualitative distinction" between time and eternity, and to my regarding this as possessing negative as well as positive significance: "God is in heaven, and thou art on earth." The relation between such a man and such a God, is for me the theme of the Bible and the essence of philosophy.(5)

In the commentary, Barth develops an entirely original position on the locus classicus of natural theology, Romans 1:18-20,

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.

Barth says, a "natural union with God or knowledge of God on the part of man in himself as such" is not possible from the above passage.(6) His basic interpretation is that one finds God in the cosmos only because He is projected onto nature from the central revelation in Christ. Berkouwer says of Barth here, "There is no original revelation of God through the work of his hands: the text of the cosmos is itself dumb, but the light of revelation in Christ shines into the cosmos and only then does the Scripture speak of a subsidiary line."(7) Thus, He not only rejects natural theology, normally understood as a knowledge of God deduced from general revelation, but its foundation, the revelation of God in the natural order. To Barth, any revelation which is not "in Christ" becomes an idol by making competitive claims for the knowledge of God. And any revelation of God which is not redemptive is not a revelation at all.

With significant influence from Kierkegaard, it is not hard to imagine that Barth was not altogether pleasantly disposed in favor of a natural knowledge of God. Especially so, since this has been the basis for a rational demonstration of the existence of God. Kierkegaard, although a defender of Christian theism, indicates in many passages the inadequacy of a rational approach to the divine.

Barth's theological framework implied that fallen man is incapable of knowing a transcendent, holy God. If God is "wholly other," then there is no ontological nor epistemological basis for natural theology. If God's revelation is exclusively "in Christ," then there is no theological basis for general revelation. All attempts to reason one's way to God are futile. However, what man cannot do "from the bottom up" by reason, God has done "from the top down" by revelation. This revelation takes place through the Bible, which is the witness to God's Word. This neo-reformed view of the Bible, does not assert that the Scripture is propositional revelation, but only a propositional witness to the personal revelation of God to His people. The Bible is the existential instrument to point to the Word of God.

Barth's position, then, is fundamentally fideistic (faith without reason); there are no proofs to provide a rational foundation for faith. There is no evidence or reason leading to faith. Belief is antithetical to reason. Nein, nein, nein. No amount of philosophical and theological speculation can move a person to embrace the wholly transcendent God. Rather, it is all God's self-revelation and equally so to all. Barth says, for example,

Faith is rather a freedom, a permission. It is permitted to be so--that the believer in God's Word may hold on to this Word in everything, in spite of all that contradicts it. It is so: we never believe "on account of," never "because of"; we awake to faith in spite of everything. Think of the men in the Bible. They did not come to faith by reason of any kind of proofs, but one day they were so placed that they might believe and then had to believe in spite of everything. God is hidden from us outside His Word. But He is manifest to us in Jesus Christ.(8)

Barth is emphatic that the human mind has no ability to know God. Human reason has neither the active nor passive capacity for divine revelation. God must supernaturally give the ability to understand His revelation as He gives the revelation itself. What the human mind achieves and acquires is never the knowledge of God or truth of any kind about God. It is fiction.(9) Barth, therefore, vehemently denounces the traditional role of philosophy as the handmaiden of theology.

In the Gifford Lectures in 1937-38, Barth referred to himself as an avowed opponent of all natural theology.(10) By rejecting a knowledge of God on the basis of the being common to both God and man (analogia entis), no room for an "anthropological theology" was left. Barth says, "Natural theology is the doctrine of a union of man with God existing outside God's revelation in Jesus Christ. It works out the knowledge of God that is possible and real on the basis of this independent union with God, and its consequences for the whole relationship of God, world and man."(11)

The famous expression of this rejection was written in his answer to Emil Brunner in the 1934 work Nein ["No!"]. Barth acutely saw the social implications of the acceptance of revelation from another source other than Christ, as possibly no one else in the history of Christian theology. He staunchly opposed the German Christian's synthesis of German National Socialism as a second source of revelation with the gospel. In the famous "Barmen Declaration," the rejection of natural theology is stated in creedal form. This statement was largely penned by Barth.

Jesus Christ, as He is attested to us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God, whom we have to hear and whom we have to trust and obey in life and in death...We condemn the false doctrine that the Church can and must recognise as God's revelation other events and powers, forms and truths, apart from and alongside this one Word of God.(12)

Further, in the Dogmatics, Barth spells out some of the historico-political context from which his rejection of natural theology emerged. He writes,

The question became a burning one at the moment when the Evangelical Church in Germany was unambiguously and consistently confronted by a definite and new form of natural theology, namely, by the demand to recognise in the political events of the year 1933, and especially in the form of the God-sent Adolf Hitler, a source of specific new revelation of God, which, demanding obedience and trust, took its place beside the revelation attested in Holy Scripture, claiming that it should be acknowledged by Christian proclamation and theology as equally binding and obligatory.(13)

It is this context and the theological primacy of revelation in Christ which fundamentally contributed to the repudiation of natural theology. Barthian interpreter T. F. Torrence says, "This is the great watershed of modern theology: either we take the one way or the other--there is no third must go either in the direction taken by Barth or in the direction taken by Bultmann."(14) The cardinal doctrine which is central to the dilemma is the doctrine of the Incarnation--the belief in God's revelation of himself in Jesus Christ his Son.

At the same time Barth contends for the necessity of biblical revelation and indicating a relatively high place for Scripture itself. The point of the dilemma is stated well by Mueller.

One of the major points at which Barth has come under attack relates to his refusal to admit that God's universal revelation of himself to all men in creation in human nature itself may issue in some true knowledge of God. Ever since his debate with Emil Brunner in 1934 over general revelation and natural theology, Barth has been interpreted as an implacable foe of both...With respect to all of this, the critics ask: does not Barth's position conflict with the scriptural teaching affirming God's universal revelation?(15)


The fundamental conflict is an internal one. If Barth holds to the authority of Scripture and Scripture teaches that there is a general revelation of God in the cosmos, from which a minimal natural theology may be derived, then Barth's theology is at this point incoherent.(16) Thus, the task remaining for this analysis is to exegete the biblical material at issue.

A Brief Exegesis of Romans 1:19-20

The overall context is the apostle's concern for God's universal judgment of Jew and Gentile to be justified, thereby making the gospel of salvation from this judgment relevant. In 1:16-17, the theme of the epistle is stated, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, 'But the righteous man shall live by faith.'" It is, therefore, the righteousness of God which is at stake in the themes of faith, gospel, wrath and justification.

The language of 1:18-20 is forceful and unambiguous. Such expressions as "that which is known about God" (to gnwston tou qeou/) and "is evident within them; for God made it evident to them" (faneron estin en autoiV 'o qeoV gar autoiV efanerwsen) indicate in the clearest terms a possession of a natural knowledge of God. The reason it is "evident within them" is because revelation presupposes perception and thus, mind. "Revelation is always to those possessed of intelligent consciousness," says exegete John Murray.(17) This knowledge comes through the mediation of creation. "For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes...have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made...(1:20) (the dative, toiV poihmasin). "Ever since the beginning of God's creation God's self-revelation has continued without interruption--objectively--in what He has created," says Cranfield.(18)

Though many issues surround this subject Dunn is certainly on the strongest exegetical ground in saying, "We still have to speak of a 'natural theology'--that is here, of a revelation of God through the cosmos, to humankind as a whole, and operative since the creation of the cosmos."(19) The phrase "nooumena kaqoratai" in vs. 20 can be rendered "clearly perceived" (RSV), "clearly seen" (KJV, NASB, NIV), J.B. Phillips says, "plainly discernable" and the NEB is in keeping with many early apologists in saying it is "visible to the eye of reason." Jaroslav Pelikan points out that Basil of Ceasarea declared "the sight of visible and empirical realities" leads "the mind as by a hand, to the contemplation of invisible realities."(20) Whatever the precise translation, however, "it is scarcely possible that Paul did not intend his readers to think in terms of some kind of rational perception of the fuller reality in and behind the created cosmos (cf. Bauer, Arndt & Gindrich, noeo la; Kittel 5:380)."(21) Hence, the revelation which comes through the cosmos is mentally apprehended. Contrary to Kant, then, the phenomena disclose the noumena. Therefore, a real revelation of what is knowable about God is evident.(22)

The result of this knowledge is to render humanity inexcusable (vs. 20, eiV to einai autouV anapologhtouV), or quite literally "without an apologetic." The term "anapologetos," (a plural accusative masculine adjective) rendered "without excuse" in verse 20 indicates the complete negation of a judicial epistemic account for unbelief. Louw and Nida explain that this term pertains "to not being able to defend oneself or to justify one's actions - 'to be without excuse, to have no excuse.'" The root word of "excuse" is the familiar term apologia.

The word was often used of the argument for the defense in a court of law and though the word may have the idea of a judicial interrogation in which one is called to answer for the manner in which he has exercised his responsibility (Beare), the word can also mean an informal explanation or defense of one's position (s. 1 Cor. 9:3;2 Cor. 7:11) and the word would aptly describe giving an answer to the skeptical, abusive, or derisive inquiries of ill-disposed neighbors (Kelly).(23)

Hence, general revelation mediated through nature and immediately suppressed in man, the imago De, renders the unbeliever without a defense for unbelief.

A Coherent Theology

What does Barth say to such an exegetical understanding of Romans 1:19-20? He says such things as "We know that God is he whom we do not know, and that our ignorance is precisely the problem and the source of our knowledge."(24) In his classic statement on the issue in Nein, he raises a philosophical and not an exegetical objection to general revelation. "Moreover, how can Brunner maintain that a real knowledge of the true God, however imperfect it may be (and what knowledge of God is not imperfect?) does not bring salvation? And if we really do know the true God from his creation without Christ and without the Holy Spirit--if this is so, how can it be said matters of the proclamation of the Church Scripture is the only norm, and that man can do nothing towards his salvation?"(25)

Barth's argument is connected to the Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura. It is an implicit charge of incoherence. His terse argument in its logical structure is that of the reductio ad absurdum (If P, then not P). If there is another revelation other than Scripture, then there is not another revelation other than Scripture. This is so, since Sola Scriptura means there can be only one norm--only one revelational Word of God.

Even though a clear understanding of Romans 1:19-20, leads one to the virtually indisputable conclusion that Scripture teaches a general revelation, Scripture and natural revelation must be connected in some coherent fashion. Barth's charge is that such a task is impossible. However, it seems that he simply refused to accept the theology which most consistently conjoins the two in a mutually supportive relationship, namely the theology of the Protestant scholastics. Barth held in high esteem the first generation reformers (like Luther and Calvin), but repudiated the subsequent systemizations. However, they answer this issue with a clear voice, doing no harm to Scripture nor its teaching of general revelation. As B. B. Warfield said,

Without general revelation, special revelation would lack that basis in the fundamental knowledge of God as the mighty and wise, righteous and good, maker and ruler of all things, apart from which the further revelation of this great God's interventions in the world for the salvation of sinners could not be intelligible, credible or operative.(26)

Francis Turretin (the locus classicus Protestant scholastic) said,

It is not repugnant that one and the same thing in a different relation should both be known by the light of nature and believed by the light of faith; as what is gathered from the one only obscurely, may be held more certainly from the other. Thus we know that God is, both from nature and from faith (Heb 11:6); from the former obscurely, but from the latter more surely. The special knowledge of true faith (by which believers please God and have access to him, of which Paul speaks) does not exclude, but supposes the general knowledge from nature.(27)

Consider, for example how Paul and Barnabas appealed to this in Lystra, "...Turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that is in them. And in the generations gone by He permitted all the nations to go their own ways; and yet He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness" (Acts 14:15-17). A similar thought is expressed on the Areopogas in Athens in which Paul again says, "The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; neither is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all life and breath and all things...that they should seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we also are His offspring'" (Acts 17:24-28).(28)

Therefore, a biblically coherent position on this matter pours a foundation with the revelation of God in nature available to all and completes the structure with special revelation fulfilled in Christ. Sola Scriptura does not mean that God only reveals Himself through one means. Rather, there is only one propositional, authoritative arbiter of truth. Any theological deduction from general revelation, must therefore be consistent with the authoritative propositional revelation, of which we are instructed is pasa grafh qeopneustoV.

(2Tim 3:16). Further, the natural corruption of fallen man necessitates an authoritative, propositional interpretation of general revelation.

At this point, the charge sometimes made by Barthians and other Protestants alike is that such a position entails Thomism (Van Til, 1968). Here, however, I would suggest that at least in minimalist natural theology, Thomas follows Augustine than in his theory of divine illumination. Augustine maintained the way people know truth of any sort is because God himself illumines them. In the same way that the light of the sun is independent, but the light of the moon is dependent, the reception of truth in the human mind is dependent on God. It not natural rationalization, it is natural revelation. This makes a minimal natural knowledge of God not only possible, but according to Romans 1:19-20ff, necessary. Why then cannot some rational explanation of this natural revelation be argued?


Barth exegetically eluded general revelation, theologically suppressed natural theology, and philosophically rejected both. But in the argument of the epistle to the Romans, general revelation forms the basis for the very righteousness of God in the condemnation of all humanity. Due to this, the grace of God is intelligible and the gospel is grounded. The themes of general revelation, special revelation, righteousness, wrath and grace are coherent in the biblical account, though not in Barth. Hence, the title of this paper is arranged in logical form, the premises of a disjunctive syllogism (P or Q, not P, therefore Q). This paper concludes with the negation of the disjunct "Karl Barth's Rejection of Natural Theology." Consequently, the other disjunct remains, "An Exegesis of Romans 1:19-20." The result is a coherent and supportive relationship between reason and revelation.


Barth, K. (1933). The Epistle to the Romans. (Tr.) E. C. Hoskyns. Oxford Press: London.

Barth, K. (1957). Church Dogmatics, (Vol 2, part 1). Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.

Barth, K. (1961). Church Dogmatics: A Selection. (Tr./Ed.) G. W. Bromiley. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.

Barth, K. (1963). Dogmatics in Outline. (Tr.) G. T. Thompson. New York: Harper & Row.

Barth, K. (1973). No! In M. J. Erickson (Ed.), Readings in Christian Theology: The Living God (Vol. 1). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

Berkouwer, G.C. (1955). General Revelation. Grand Rapids: Eerdmens.

Cranfield, C. E. B. (1985). Romans: A Shorter Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmens.

Curtis, C. J. (1970). Contemporary Protestant Thought. New York: Bruce.

Dunn, J. D. G. (1988). Word Biblical Commentary: Romans 1-8. Dallas: Word.

Louw, J. P. & Nida, A. E. (1988) . Louw-nida Greek-english Lexicon Based on Semantic Domains, (2nd edition), Edited by by the United Bible Societies, (New York, NY 10023). Part of the BibleWorks for Windows, version 3.5 from Hermeneutika.

Mueller, D. L. (1972). Makers of the Modern Theological Mind: Karl Barth. Peabody, Ma: hendricksen.

Murray, J. (1968). The Epistle to the Romans. Grand Rapids: Eerdmens.

Reineck, F. R. (1984). Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament. Grand Rapids: Academie Books.

Robinson, N. H. G. (1978). Barth or Bultmann? Religious Studies 14, 275-290.

Turretin, F. (1992). Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. G. M. Giger, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed.

Van Til (1962). Christianity and Barthianism. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed.

Warfield, B. B. (1948). The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed.

1. Mueller, 1972, p. 13.

2. For a nice overview of Barth's theology and an actual audio clip of Barth speaking on the Web refer to

3. In Barth, 1961, p. 49-40, (Bromiley)

4. Mueller, 1972, p. 24-25.

5. Cited in Mueller, p. 24.

6. Barth, 1957, pp 57-58.

7. 1955, p. 30.

8. Barth, 1963, p. 19-20.

9. Curtis, 1970, p. 99.

10. See Berkouwer for an interesting historical anecdote on this, pp. 21ff.

11. Cited in Mueller, 1972, p. 88.

12. 1961, p. 54, Barmen, (5/31/34).

13. 1961, p. 55.

14. Cited in Robinson, p. 275.

15. P. 150.

16. By "minimal natural theology" I mean that by some argument from created reality, whether transcendental, cosmological, teleological, ontological, epistemological, ethical, etc., there is an objective demonstration of God's existence.

17. Murray, 1965, p. 38.

18. 1985, p. 32.

19. Dunn, 1988, p. 57.

20. 1993, p. 107.

21. Dunn, 1988, p. 58.

22. Cranfield, 1985.

23. This summary is from the Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament.

24. 1933, p. 45 in loco.

25. Barth, 1973, p. 132.

26. 1948, p. 75.

27. Institutes of Elenctic Theology, p. 8.

28. For a summary of Barth's excursions from the "general revelation" passages, see Millard Erickson's, Christian Theology, (Baker, 1885), pp.163-171.

© Gregg Strawbridge. All Rights Reserved.