The Heavens Declare: Natural Theology & the Legacy of Karl Barth

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Natural theology is what we can discover about God outside of ‘special revelation’ (which for Christians is mainly the Bible and the person of Jesus Christ). If you are itching to add to or clarify this one-liner you’re not alone, because so many scholars have addressed natural theology that one could easily convene a very large international conference to address the issue of definitions alone. The influential Swiss protestant theologian Karl Barth famously rejected natural theology because it was a human-led enterprise that distracted from God’s revelation of himself, and many others have followed suit. But was Barth throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Faraday Course Director Revd Dr Rodney Holder has recently written about the work of Barth and a number of other theologians who were either influenced by or responded to him. Rodney Holder is a cosmologist who swapped science for theology and church ministry, and soon found himself writing on science and faith.  His personal interest is in the evidence for God from cosmology, and his critique of Barth and later theologians is fascinating. In his book ‘The Heavens Declare: Natural Theology & the Legacy of Karl Barth’ (published this month), Holder looks at five theologians and their approach to natural theology. They are: Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Thomas Torrance and Alister McGrath. Barth was passionate about returning theology to its roots. He focused on God’s revelation of himself in Christ, and rejected any other source of knowledge. The problem was that Barth failed to recognise the need for external verification of beliefs and left himself open to accusations, by Bonhoeffer and others, of isolating theology from rational debate. Bonhoeffer interacted more with science in his theology, and recognised the importance of engaging with the world.  Pannenberg took this further, and held that a dialogue with the sciences was essential for theology, and vice-versa.

If the God of the Bible is the creator of the universe, then it is not possible to understand fully or even appropriately the processes of nature without any reference to that God.

Wolfhart Pannenberg, Towards a Theology of Nature, 1993

Thomas Torrance, the Scottish theologian responsible for bringing Barth’s work to the English speaking world, takes a position somewhere between Barth and Pannenberg. He suggested that a ‘theology of science’ might be more appropriate, and preferred to explore scientific ideas within a theological framework. Finally, McGrath has endeavoured to rescue natural theology and redefine it in a way that satisfies both evangelical scholars and serious scientists. One of the points that Holder stresses in his book is that Christians should be able to defend their faith without recourse to Christian texts or traditions, and that scientific evidence is an important part of that defence. I agree. There’s no point believing in something that can’t be verified in any way by external sources. I do think, though, that there’s a very important place for the thought experiment approach that McGrath puts forward in many of his writings. If God exists, and if he really did reveal himself in the person of Jesus Christ, then what we see in the world should make the most sense in the light of Christian theology.  I think it’s important to move as quickly as possible from examining evidence for the existence of God to imagination (or thought experiment) and real-world experience. It’s only then that we find out what’s actually out there, and can have the most useful dialogue.

15 thoughts on “The Heavens Declare: Natural Theology & the Legacy of Karl Barth

  1. forallwaysliving May 3, 2012 / 10:54 am

    “One of the points that Holder stresses in his book is that Christians should be able to defend their faith without recourse to Christian texts or traditions, and that scientific evidence is an important part of that defence. I agree.”

    I happen to disagree. Why? It is because we walk (and work) by faith in God, not by sight (or any other of the four senses). Our faith in God however is vindicated by His miracles, His very creation all around us, the testimonies He gives us and the fact that the tomb of Yeshua is empty. If Abraham, Noah, Queen Esther, Mary and countless missionaries down the ages had waited or collated scientific evidence prior to acting or even believing in what God was telling them, then Christianity would have collapsed a long time ago. Let us not be drawn in by this tired assertion that Christians need to produce scientific evidence before atheist scientists believe. The evidence for Christian assertion – the Living God – is available all around us, for those disposed to look and understand.


    • Ruth Bancewicz May 3, 2012 / 11:37 am

      Ah – I cut out one sentence for lack of space ‘He distances himself, however, from the language of ‘proof for God’ that marked earlier natural theology.’ I agree that faith is obviously necessary, as it is to commit to any relationship – but as you say, evidence is important. My point was I think very close to the one you were making. Evidence is important, including scientific evidence but will never amount to complete proof, certainly not scientific proof – just as you will never find complete proof that someone loves you. It just doesn’t come into that category – though scientific evidence that they’re alive and breathing is useful! We need to be open-minded enough to act on the evidence we see, and as you say, act in faith based on evidence.


      • Joseph Jimmy Hardcastle May 9, 2012 / 11:49 am

        Open mindedness is important, but honesty is key. But would you say you are open minded enough to consider the possibility that gods are entirely man made inventions? It seems to me that this is the most parsimonious viewpoint, from within it all the problems that have dogged Christianity and theism (predestination, evil, the vast inhospitable universe, the mythological nature of the stories, mankind’s demonstrated ability to concoct religion) make perfect sense. While from the other side these problems have caused centuries of evasive and specious waffle from theologians.

        Surely the more honest position would be the one that appears to be true, rather than the position that one wants to believe? Certainly a scientist must accept the former, or they can surely no longer be said to be doing science.


        • Ruth Bancewicz May 10, 2012 / 9:41 am

          Hi Jimmy, Yes I hope I’m open minded enough to abandon my beliefs if there’s no evidence for them. In a country with religious freedom and no cultural pressure to conform to any particular set of religious beliefs, I have absolutely nothing to lose. But I haven’t seen anything yet that has made me think Christianity is wrong. If it’s right, however, there is a massive amount to gain…



  2. discovering vashti May 3, 2012 / 11:03 am

    Ruth, is there any specific book or brief online summary article on McGrath’s ‘imagination (or thought experiment) and real-world experience’?


    • Ruth Bancewicz May 3, 2012 / 2:24 pm

      That’s really my interpretation of McGrath’s book ‘The Open Secret’. He writes about how you have to look at nature through a Christian theological worldview for it to make sense. Which, for someone who isn’t a Christian would be a thought experiment, but he never uses that phrase…


  3. discovering vashti May 3, 2012 / 11:08 am

    I also wished to ask if McGrath’s ‘imagination and real world experience’ has any relationship to Ignatius’ spiritual exercises.


    • Ruth Bancewicz May 3, 2012 / 2:27 pm

      Again, I used the words ‘imagination’ and ‘real world experience’ myself – that’s my own thinking after reading both McGrath and Holder’s books. I was thinking really about the though experiment of ‘If God existed what would you expect?’ and then either looking at the lives of people of faith, or trying it out for yourself…


  4. Richard Hosking May 8, 2012 / 10:23 am

    Hi Ruth, Thanks very much for that – always good to explore the interface between human reason and God’s creation (Isaiah 1:18, Jeremiah 33:25-26, Isaiah 55:9).

    Actually, Barth did recognize the need for ‘external verification of beliefs’ – it’s just that his data were demographic (i.e. population-based), not cosmological. In a brave German sermon given the year Hitler came to power, he included an anecdote of how the Jewish people were evidence for God’s existence and stated that ‘[they are] living proof that God is free to choose whom He will.’*

    Thomas Torrance related this theme to science and theology: “Again and again in the development of modern science the real ‘break-through’ in our knowledge of the created universe, which has affected the fundamental structure of scientific thought, has been due to Jews” (p.97)**. He further describes how a Biblical Hebraic world-view both aids modern science and contrasts sharply with Western deism and Eastern pantheism (p.102).**

    In fact, Jeremiah 33:25-26 seems to place God’s covenant with the ‘fixed laws of heaven and earth’ in some form of conditional equilibrium with the ‘descendants of Jacob’. Subjecting the latter to a brief modern statistical analysis yields 20% of Nobel Prizes, 10% of deaths in World War II, 0.2% of the world’s population. Such ‘real world’ numbers are difficult to ignore.

    350 years ago, Pascal’s Christian faith was built upon the Bible and Jewish demographics (Pensee 618 @ Project Gutenberg). Even Richard Dawkins has remarked wistfully about the organizational skills of American Jewry in proportion to their numbers***. Perhaps he would find Romans 11 interesting, particularly verses 1-2a?! If God existed, what would post-Biblical Jewish history look like? What might the Jewish contribution to science be?

    * (Page 5)
    ** ‘The divine vocation and destiny of Israel in world history’ in David Torrance (Ed) ‘The Witness of the Jews to God’ (Handsel Press, 1982) (Just noticed my WIPF 2011 reprint was published in Eugene, Oregon, where George Streisinger – a Jewish refugee from Fascist Hungary – developed the zebrafish).
    (Also reproduced at


      • Richard Hosking May 9, 2012 / 8:45 am

        Thanks for the link – loved the book title ‘From Moses to Einstein: They all are Jews’! Have no problem with culture, talent and hard work contributing to individual success, but presumably these factors are ‘normally distributed’ in most populations. However, as US sociographer Milton Himmelfarb pointed out, although the world’s Jewish population is numerically less than a small statistical error in a modern Chinese census, the Jewish contribution to Western civilization is out of all proportion.

        Furthermore, one has to contrast such achievements with the events which took place in ‘Enlightenment’ Europe during the middle of the 20th century. Take George Streisinger for example – the first ever scientist to clone a vertebrate – who left Hungary for the USA to escape Nazi persecution*. Many of the Jewish Hungarians who remained perished in the Holocaust (approximately 500,000 people). One to survive was Imre Kertesz, whose experiences as a teenager in Auschwitz and Buchenwald were relayed in the beautiful and deeply moving film Fateless (2005). Imre won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002 ‘for writing that upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history.’**

        I believe the Jewish people’s capacity to transcend history’s ‘barbaric arbitrariness’ is evidence for the God of Jacob, who we as Christians worship.

        (Isaiah 43-44 – 43:10,12;44:8).

        * Lotte Streisinger ‘From the Sidelines’ University of Oregon Press (2004) p.52


  5. HELBERT January 24, 2014 / 3:15 am



    • Ruth Bancewicz January 27, 2014 / 10:44 am

      Hi Helbert, I’m not sure what you’re referring to – is this part of Barth’s wider work on theology?


    • Ruth Bancewicz January 27, 2014 / 10:50 am

      Ok I think we had a hitch in the commenting system, Helbert’s reply to mine is not showing, but he highlighted this part of the blog:

      ‘Natural theology is what we can discover about God outside of ‘special revelation’ (which for Christians is mainly the Bible and the person of Jesus Christ). If you are itching to add to or clarify this one-liner you’re not alone, because so many scholars have addressed natural theology that one could easily convene a very […]’

      I’m still not sure where you’re coming from Helbert, you’ll need to explain a bit more. Barth rejected the idea of learning anything about God outside of the Bible and the person of Jesus. If you’re interested in find out why, you could try these posts.


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