Emil Brunner’s “Revelation in Nature” and Karl Barth—Reconcilable?

f8562961ffI took up reading some of Emil Brunner’s theology this week. Brunner’s name is often brought up alongside other important thinkers of the 20th century such as Barth, Bultmann, and Tillich, so he is certainly an important figure to know. Though Brunner is perhaps most known within “Barthian” circles for his disagreements with Barth over natural theology in the infamous “Nature and Grace” debate. 1 Barth fiercely rejected Brunner’s acceptance of the revelation of nature, believing that any acceptance of any kind of natural theology ultimately opens the door to natural theology as a whole.

So when I began reading Brunner I was surprised to discover just how close his theology is to Barth’s. I’d wrongly imagined them to be at complete odds with one another, but this is simply not the case. Brunner actually shares many of Barth’s insights, and Barth’s dedication to the revelation of Jesus Christ. But also, as we’ll soon see, Brunner surprisingly shares Barth’s fierce rejection of natural theology, if with some qualifications.

I’ve read elsewhere that some believe Barth’s rejection of Brunner’s theology is misplaced, 2 and that they probably agreed more than Barth liked to imagine. And furthermore, Barth’s later controversial acceptance of “Secular Parables” in CD/3.1 3 shows how Barth eventually sided with Brunner. He also regretted, in the end, in a letter written to Brunner before his death, his No to Brunner, writing, “tell him [Bruner] the time when I thought I should say No to him is long since past, and we all live only by the fact that a great and merciful God speaks his gracious Yes to all of us.”

It’s interesting, therefore, to examine in Brunner’s own words what his doctrine of “Revelation in Nature” actually is and how it relates to natural theology. This comes from his Dogmatics vol. 1, in a series of seven points which I will attempt to summarize here with selected quotes. Enjoy!

Seven Points on “Revelation in Nature”

First, Brunner makes a distinction between two questions, “the question of the revelation in Creation, and the question of man’s natural knowledge of God. … Now some theologians believed (mistakenly) that their denial of a theologia naturalis obliged them also to deny the reality of the revelation in Creation.” 4 He seems to have Barth in mind here, saying further that, “A theology which intends to remain true to the Biblical witness to revelation should never have denied the reality of revelation in Creation.” 5 So this is the distinction, for Brunner, that is essential: between natural theology and revelation in creation. One should be rejected, but one is biblically affirmed.

Second, Brunner points to the sinfulness of human beings as proof of a revelation in nature. Since we are sinners, since we cannot posit a genuine natural theology, but because we try—then there must be a revelation in Creation behind our attempts. Brunner writes, “Thus, on the one hand, the reality of the revelation in Creation is to be admitted, but, on the other hand, the possibility of a correct and valid natural knowledge of God is to be contested.6 We cannot know God through nature, but that we try shows our sin and points to a revelation in creation behind our attempts.

Third, Brunner follows this point stating, “There is, it is true, no valid ‘natural theology’, but there is a Natural Theology which, in fact, exists. … Human beings, even those who know nothing of the historical revelation, are such that they cannot help forming an idea of God and making pictures of God in their minds.7 Brunner points to the history of religions as proof for this. The fact that we are inevitably going to create ideas of God points to our sinfulness.

Fourth, this leads to why Brunner affirms a revelation in creation, by following Romans 1:19. He writes, “The fact that sinful human beings cannot help having thoughts about God is due to the revelation in Creation. The other fact, that human beings are not able rightly to understand the nature and meaning of this revelation in Creation is due to the fact that their vision has been distorted by sin.8 The fact that we will always attempt to create concepts of God through natural means, for Brunner, seems to point to the existence of some kind of original revelation in nature, which, because of our sin, we cannot understand and will always distort.

Fifth, Brunner points out that the Apostles had no interest in explaining theoretically how sinful human beings do natural theology, but wanted to answer the question, “How should we address the man to whom the message of Jesus Christ is to be proclaimed?” 9 For Brunner, it is obvious that the existence of natural theology is inevitable, but that sinful humanity remains responsible even in their inability to properly make sense of revelation in nature. Thus, “The Fall does not mean that man ceases to be responsible, but that he ceases to understand his responsibility aright, and to live according to his responsibility.10 Interestingly, Brunner here seems to think that this is the same conclusion Barth makes in CD III/1, that the image of God is not lost even after the fall of mankind. So it seems that Brunner is interested in pointing us to the responsibility of mankind to God even in their inability to interpret natural revelation. Ultimately, he writes, “It is sin which makes idols out of the revelation in Creation.” 11

Sixth, Brunner again points out that “The history of religions shows that mankind cannot help producing religious ideas, and carrying on religious activities.12 This shows the confusion caused by sin, which leads to philosophical attempts to understand God.

Seventh, and finally, Brunner concludes that philosophy cannot form any true knowledge of God. Writing that, “the God of thought must differ from the God of revelation. The God who is ‘conceived’ by thought is not the one who discloses Himself; from this point of view He is an intellectual idol.13 The gods of philosophy are ultimately “intellectual idols”. This is a clear rejection of philosophical, natural theology.


So here we have seven somewhat difficult points which briefly outline what Brunner understands about the relationship between natural theology and revelation in nature. The most insightful aspect here, for me, is the difference between natural theology and revelation in nature. Brunner seems to point towards the Image of God in human beings as the origin for this revelation in nature. This however, because of sin, is a revelation we cannot rightly understand and will always distort into natural theology. We are still responsible, as creatures created in Image of God, but we fail to live responsibility. Therefore we attempt in our sin to create a natural image of God, but this is only a distortion of the revelation of nature. So there is a revelation in nature, but it is one we cannot understand because of sin. We can only distort this revelation. Accordingly, natural theology is sin, a kind of intellectual idolatry. But this rejection of natural theology itself, for Brunner, seems to be at once the ultimate affirmation of revelation in nature.

This is my first attempt at understanding Brunner, so be aware that I may be misinterpreting him here.  However, there seems to be a point of reconciliation between him and Barth, even in Brunner’s own admission. He points to CD III/1 for this, saying that Barth’s position there is close to what he is arguing here. They both agree that we should reject all natural theology, but Brunner seems to think that we can at once affirm a kind of “revelation in nature” linked with the image of God which remains in our being. This revelation in nature seems to be the cause of our natural theology, even if natural theology itself is sinful. Just as we remain the image of God, in spite of our sin, so there remains revelation in nature, in spite of our sinful and idolatrous attempts at natural theology.

Feel free to read this text yourself (pages 132-136) and make your own assessment. I’m not sure I’m convinced yet by Brunner’s argument, but it seems interesting nonetheless. And certainly it seems that there is more to this debate than the initial “No” of Barth to Brunner! As I keep reading Brunner’s Dogmatics I will pay special attention to how he develops this idea further, if he does at all.

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  1. See this book for the debate.
  2. See this article
  3. My friend over at Postbarthian wrote up a great article on Barth’s acceptance of Secular Parables, click here.
  4. p. 132
  5. p. 133
  6. p. 133
  7. p. 133
  8. p. 134
  9. p. 134
  10. p. 135
  11. p. 135
  12. p. 135
  13. p. 136

One thought on “Emil Brunner’s “Revelation in Nature” and Karl Barth—Reconcilable?

  1. Good presentation, for me anyway. It is always interesting in the confusion of words and the insight into what proceeds from what. Most thinkers will come to quite similar conclusions as they are open to good argument. If someone seems contrarian, they usually have an agenda.
    The more interesting arguments consist around what “needs to be done” to solve human difficulties. It is not difficult to identify the issues i.e. forgiveness or lack thereof but how to develop an intellectual argument when, in the end result it comes from reconciliation with God and therefore a “gift” rather than “work.

Tell me what you think