How Apologetics Died in the Twentieth Century

A Critique of Karl Barth’s Reply to Emil Brunner

By Adam Lloyd Johnson, Ph.D.

There are several reasons that apologetics largely died out in the 1900s. Many of these reasons have to do with how postmodern thinking influenced how Christians thought about the role of human reason. In general, postmodern movements in the 1800s and 1900s, which viewed human reason too negatively, were overreactions to the modernism of the 1700s which viewed human reason too positively.

An example of how postmodern thinking influenced how Christians thought about human reason can be seen in the work of the most influential theologian of the twentieth century—Karl Barth. Barth’s influence on Christianity, even evangelical Christianity and especially among Reformed thinkers, has been enormous. In this paper I will argue that Barth was mistaken in his rejection of biblical natural theology. Natural theology is a term that’s often used to describe what humans can know about God from what He has revealed about Himself through nature (general revelation). In other words, it’s the information we can know about God apart from Scripture (special revelation). Barth’s mistake stems from, first, his failure to distinguish between pre-modern natural theology and modern natural theology and, second, his own postmodern dialectical philosophy of truth.

Trying to be Faithful to God’s Word

Emil Brunner seems to be someone who has wrestled through the Scriptures, trying to bring together verses that on the surface seem contradictory. For instance, Rom. 3:12 says, “…there is no one who does good, there is not even one.” But Rom. 2:14 says unbelievers “do instinctively the things of the Law.” 1 Cor. 2:14 says that to fallen man, the “things of the Spirit of God” are “foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them.” But then Rom. 1:19-21 says “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…” and hence “they knew God.” It seems to me that Brunner tried to develop a systematic theology which attempted to be faithful to what Scripture says by explaining how these types of seemingly contradictory statements can both be true.

In reply, Barth threw back at him verses from 1 Cor. 2 which are often used to argue against natural theology.1 This proof-texting is not helpful in our pursuit of truth. It would have been more helpful for Barth to work through the verses in Romans 1 and 2 which Brunner used to support natural theology. He did briefly explain that he believes the knowledge of God mentioned in Rom. 1 is only a hypothetical possibility, not an actual one.2 He agreed that knowledge of God can be found in creation, but since the fall no one has ever been able to discover it because we are blinded by sin. Therefore, this knowledge does not aid fallen man nor provide a point of contact where Christians can begin in talking with them about God; rather, it is only there to condemn fallen man for not recognizing it.3 But that is not what we see in Paul’s explanation of natural theology nor in his own use of it.

First, Rom. 1:19-21 says information about God has been “seen” and “understood through what has been made…” and hence “they knew God.” Second, Rom. 2:14-15 says that because “the work of the Law” is “written in their hearts,” fallen men “do instinctively the things of the Law.” Third, this natural moral knowledge explains how governments led by fallen men can be “minister[s] of God to you [Christians] for good,” how they are able to recognize what is good in order to “praise” Christians when they do good, and how they can recognize evil in order to “bring wrath on the one who practices evil” (Rom. 13:3-4). These instances seem like actualities more than mere possibilities. In addition, Paul did use natural theology as a point of contact with unbelievers while interacting with Greek philosophers. He noted that they correctly understood “in Him we live and move and exist” (Acts 17:28) by quoting this from a line in Cretica, a famous Greek hymn by Epimenides. (Paul also quotes him in Titus 1:12.) Paul also noted that they correctly understood all people were “His children” by quoting a line from Phaenomena, a famous Greek poem by Aratus (Acts 17:28). It’s interesting to note these authors were speaking of Zeus, and yet Paul used them as a way to affirm that some of the things he was saying about God were already known by the Greeks to some extent through natural theology.

Barth accused Brunner of reading his own theological bias into the verses which seem to support natural theology.4 Everyone is guilty of this to some extent, of course, including Barth, so it’s not helpful for him to use this as a way to dismiss Brunner’s attempt to build a systematic biblical theology of natural theology. It seems that Barth himself extrapolated from his view of total depravity to conclusions which go beyond the text, even to conclusions which flat out contradict certain verses from Romans 1, 2, and 13 as I quoted above. We should guard against elevating the reason of fallen humans too highly, of course, but we don’t want to go to the other extreme either and denigrate the reason of fallen humans more than Scripture does.

Why Brunner Is Passionate for Natural Theology

Since everyone agrees that special revelation is vastly superior, why, Barth asks, does Brunner want to waste time on general revelation?5 Why would Brunner go so far as to insist that natural theology is the key issue for our generation?6 Brunner’s focus on natural theology flows from his passion to direct non-Christians to faith in Christ; he believes that understanding the Bible’s teaching on natural theology correctly will help us know how to find points of contact with non-Christians, much like Paul did in Acts 17.7 He doesn’t want to see Christians run away from, or ignore, culture, as the fundamentalists did, such that the church becomes completely cut off and isolated from the culture.8

In this regard, Francis Schaeffer is very similar to Brunner. Schaeffer and Brunner both tried to reach non-Christian culture, intellectuals, and modern youth by finding a point of contact with them, namely, the one reality we all must live in—creation.9 Schaeffer, and presumably Brunner, were very against the strategy of telling people they shouldn’t ask questions but just believe! If faith is disconnected from reason, history, and verification, then ultimately it becomes disconnected from reality, the only shared point of contact we have with non-Christians. When faith is separated from rationality, the result is blind faith, i.e., fideism. For Barth, faith isn’t trusting in something based on good evidence and reason, as the Bible teaches (Ex. 4:1-9, Deut. 13:1-5, Deut. 18:15-22, 1 Kings 13:1-34, Is. 41:21-29, Matt. 11:6, 11, Luke 1:1-4, Acts 1:1-3, 2 Pet. 1:16-21, 1 John 4:1-3), but only an existential leap where the Scripture becomes the Word of God as you subjectively experience it. While this protects faith from being refuted by historical evidence or rationality, it also eliminates the possibility of any type of objective verification. Anyone can, in turn, use this strategy to justify any subjective belief they want because there’s no way to objectively prove them wrong, thus leading to, at least practically, relative truth.

Why Barth Is Passionate against Natural Theology

Barth strongly opposed what’s been referred to as modern Protestantism, sometimes known as Neo-Protestantism. This classical liberalism, epitomized by 19th century theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, tried to wed Enlightenment rationalism with Christianity. The result was a naturalistic and humanistic religion, naturalistic because it rejected the supernatural and humanistic because it elevated man and his ability to know truth by his own reason alone. Barth was educated under modern Protestantism but revolted against it and helped bring about its demise. One of the reasons he was so angry with Brunner was because he viewed Brunner’s emphasis on rationality as harkening back to the rationalism of classical liberal Christianity.10 Barth associated Brunner’s focus on rationality with modernism and its emphasis on rationalism.11 His mistake here was that he failed to distinguish between pre-modern natural theology and modern natural theology. Pre-modern natural theology (epitomized by Thomas Aquinas) acknowledged that there was a proper role for human reason in discovering what’s true, whereas modern natural theology elevated reason to such an extent that it became the authority for deciding what’s true. This distinction is vitally important, and Barth seems to ignore it. Brunner’s position is more reflective of a pre-modern natural theology, but instead Barth associated him with a modern version.12 For example, Barth claims that Brunner sees man as deciding what is moral or immoral,13 but this is not what Brunner was arguing for at all.

The natural theology which Brunner promoted was not the modern natural theology of 1700s Enlightenment thinking; rather, it was more reflective of a pre-modern natural theology. Barth does not seem to care for pre-modern natural theology either, at least for two reasons. First, he associates it with Catholicism.14 It should be noted that Barth was correct to criticize Brunner’s description of Catholic theology. Brunner, mistakenly, felt the need to distance his position from a Catholic natural theology and thus made the Catholic position sound much more Pelagian than it really is. Barth called him out on that, showing how, in fact, Brunner’s position is very similar to Catholic natural theology, at least the type expounded by Thomas Aquinas.15 Brunner should have simply acknowledged this and then explained that a position isn’t mistaken just because it’s also held by Catholics. If we rejected positions simply because Catholics held them, then we’d have to give up the virgin birth, the Trinity, and Jesus’ resurrection.

The second reason Barth dislikes pre-modern natural theology is because he believes pre-modern natural theology is what led to modern natural theology.16 Thus, even if Brunner’s position was more akin to a pre-modern natural theology, Barth was convinced it would eventually lead back to the theological liberalism of the 1800s all over again.17 Barth took this very seriously because he felt such a movement would cause the church to sicken and die.18 Unfortunately, Barth doesn’t make a good argument that pre-modern natural theology led to modern natural theology; instead, he mostly just claims this as fact. He does mention how the idea of finding truth in nature, when taken to an extreme, can result in the modernist obsession for finding certainty in physical nature, and how this is associated with such things as physical reductionism.19 He also discussed the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century pietistic movement, which he felt helped bring rationalism into Protestant theology.20 Through these brief snapshots of history, Barth unsuccessfully tried to draw a straight line from Aquinas, through the Enlightenment, to theological liberalism, even claiming that secular Thomism grew into its mature form in Schleiermacher’s thought.21

I agree with Barth that extreme modern natural theology (man through reason can decide what’s true) is terribly wrong, the very height of sinful pride. But I disagree that the blame for this sort of modern natural theology can be traced back to pre-modern natural theology, as seen in Aquinas, which held that humans can discover truth, to some degree, through reason only because God gave us this ability and because of God’s general revelation. I do not believe pre-modern natural theology inexorably led to the exaltation of human reason as seen in modern natural theology. In my opinion, the key breakdown occurred when modernism broke nature away from its theistic roots. In other words, the only reason that pre-moderns thought that man could discover truth in nature was because they believed God created our minds to discover truth and created the world around us. We could discover some truth about meaning, purpose, morality, and even God by observing His creation. This is a reasonable assumption and, I believe, what the Bible actually teaches.

One of the reasons modernism took off so powerfully was because people really did discover some truth in nature, as the Bible indicated they should. The mistake of modernism, which came to full fruition in the Enlightenment, was to think that we could still discover ultimate truth in nature even if God had not created our minds nor nature, as would be the case, of course, if God did not exist. Viewing nature this way, as autonomous from God, was the root beginning of the problem. By cutting off nature from God, eventually they lost the reason for thinking there was meaning to be found in nature. They continued looking for truth in nature and enjoyed some areas of success, such as in science, but eventually, the weight of losing the metaphysical explanation for why meaning could be found in nature became too much to bear. The straw that broke the camel’s back came when modernism placed upon nature and reason the burden of achieving absolutely certain truth. It simply could not live up to this demand. In the end, modernism collapsed in on itself for several reasons, one of them being that eventually people realized it provided no justification for why we should trust our human reason in the first place. If human beings are the result of a random accidental process of evolution, where nature selected for survival and reproduction, not truth, then why think that we can know the truth of reality correctly? Western civilization went from thinking we could know the truth of external reality with absolute certainty (extreme modernism) to concluding that we couldn’t know anything at all except our own internal experience of external reality (extreme postmodernism).

Interpreting John Calvin

Barth was not impressed by Brunner’s appeal to multiple quotes from Calvin where the esteemed reformer seemed to support natural theology. Barth, in turn, responded with his own quotes from Calvin in which he seemed to be strongly against natural theology. Does this back and forth volleying imply that Calvin was contradictory? Possibly. But it’s important to keep in mind that authors can often be pitted against themselves when they write about natural theology because most are trying to avoid extremes at both ends. On one side, they want to avoid elevating human reason too highly, which often is associated with minimizing the importance of special revelation. On the other side, they want to avoid denigrating human reason more than Scripture does. Barth quoted Calvin where he was trying to avoid the former extreme, and Brunner quoted him when he was trying to avoid the latter. It’s common to accuse an author of sounding contradictory when all they’re doing is trying to avoid extremes at either end. For example, Barth pitted Brunner against himself and belittled his position for being contradictory.22 The same could be done with Barth if only selected portions of his article are quoted. For instance, in one section he said that attributing any ability to fallen man to know good and evil makes him the decider of what is good and evil.23 But in another section he wrote that fallen man does have the “ability to distinguish good and evil.”24

Barth also tried to brush off Brunner’s quotes from Calvin by claiming Calvin didn’t appropriately deal with the issue of natural theology anyway. He believes Calvin didn’t reject natural theology as strongly as he should have for two reasons. First, Calvin misunderstood Augustine because he failed to recognize how utterly Catholic he was.25 Second, since Aquinas was not popular during the sixteenth century, Calvin didn’t adequately set his theology in opposition to him on this point. Barth thought Brunner based his whole appeal on the fact that Calvin never pointedly contrasted his position with Aquinas’, thus accusing Brunner of an argument from silence.26 Even if it’s true that Calvin did not directly interact with Aquinas’ view of natural theology, it’s also an argument from silence on Barth’s part to claim Calvin would have been against Aquinas on this issue if he had actually written about it.

Lastly, Barth discounted Brunner’s appeal to Calvin by claiming that the Reformers were so focused on fighting against Catholic soteriology that they didn’t give enough attention to Catholic natural theology. In addition, he believed that the Reformers failed to see the important connection between the Catholic mistake in soteriology and the Catholic mistake in natural theology. He thought both mistakes stemmed from the same root, a much more egregious error—elevating fallen man’s abilities too highly.27 He argued that because the Reformers didn’t see this connection, and thus didn’t purify early Protestantism of its Catholic natural theology, later Protestantism paid the price for this by being sent down a wayward path which led to modern liberalism.28

In contrast to Barth, I give the Reformers more credit for being able to see the important distinction between soteriology and natural theology. In addition, I believe Barth unnecessarily meshes soteriology with natural theology by conflating any type of revelation with the grace of salvation.29 Time and time again, he condemns Brunner’s notion of “fallen man’s capacity for revelation” by equating it with “fallen man’s ability to merit salvation.” Brunner, though, like the Reformers, categorically denied that there’s enough information in natural theology to inform fallen humans how to be saved. And yet Barth claims that any real knowledge of God, even imperfect as it may be, is equivalent with salvation.30 Barth’s position is mistaken to a large degree because of his refusal to make this important distinction.

I disagree that the Reformers’ thinking led to modern liberalism. I believe the Reformers didn’t pointedly argue against Catholic natural theology because they didn’t disagree with it, at least not substantially. Modern liberalism arose not because of a mistake by the Reformers but because of the external secular influence of the Enlightenment. If modern liberalism was caused by a mistake of the Reformers, you would expect it to have arisen closer to the time of the Reformation. Instead, just from looking at the timeline alone, it’s more likely that the Enlightenment was the primary instigator of liberalism since, if for no other reason, it more closely coincided in time with this movement. Liberalism was the result of the church trying to respond and incorporate Enlightenment rationalism into its theology. This extreme rationalism of Modernism elevated human reason much too highly, and then postmodern movements came along afterwards and went too far in the other direction. These postmodern movements, which were an influence in Barth’s development of his dialectical philosophy, were overreactions to the Enlightenment which swung them to a mistaken extreme on the opposite side.

Dialectical Philosophy of Truth

I fear that some conservative Reformed evangelicals may rally behind Barth because they see him as a kindred spirit, one who championed faith and deplored natural theology. Some may even see Barth as a hero who denounced his former liberalism but just didn’t quite make it all the way over to conservative evangelicalism. Instead, he innovatively established a new middle ground position between those two. I would encourage my Reformed friends to consider what Reformed thinkers Cornelius Van Til and Francis Schaeffer said about Barth. They argued that Barth’s theology is better understood not as a middle ground but as an extension of classical liberalism which simply shot off in a new direction. Classical liberalism was born in the 1800s when theologians tried to protect our knowledge of God from Kant’s destructive postmodern epistemology—we can only know the phenomena (how things subjectively seem to us), not the noumena (what things really are objectively)—by teaching that our knowledge of God comes not from objective propositional truth in Scripture but from a subjective experience of the heart. Continuing along a similar strategy, Barth taught that knowledge of God comes only from a subjective experience of the Holy Spirit as He reveals the Word of God, that is, Christ, to a person through the Scripture, which only becomes the Word of God but is not itself the Word of God. While this may not seem dangerous at first glance, it’s important to note that with Barth, as with the classical liberals, the center of meaning and truth is still subjective.

This is opposed to conservative evangelicals who, along with the Reformers, believe that Scripture is objective, propositional truth. This is why, for Barth, something could be objectively false, that is, historically or scientifically false, but still subjectively, or spiritually, true. Thus, classical liberalism and Barth’s liberalism had the advantage, or so they thought, of being immune from historical or scientific refutation, such as higher criticism. Unfortunately, if your beliefs are immune from objective refutation, they are also disconnected from any hope of objective verification. There is a sense in which Barth’s position is in the middle, but not in a good way. He stood firmly opposed to objective refutation on one side, that is, the higher criticism of classical liberalism, and objective verification on the other, that is, natural theology in creation and historical evidences. Barth didn’t disagree with the conclusions of liberal higher criticism; he just thought objective historical facts weren’t relevant in his methodology and view of truth.

Barth’s actual beliefs about the objective historicity of important events such as the physical resurrection have been endlessly debated, and I don’t mean to settle that here. My concern is not so much about what he himself actually believed to be historically true but about his methodology when it comes to defining what truth is. Whether or not Barth believed in the literal, historical resurrection of Christ himself is incidental; the fact which should concern us is that his methodology leads to the conclusion that it simply doesn’t matter. This method of separating subjective truth from objective truth has been used by many theologians since to reject specific objective truth in Scripture in favor of what they thought the Spirit was telling them subjectively. And if there’s no way to objectively refute their subjective experience, who can say they’re wrong?

Though Brunner was part of this new dialectic theology movement as well, evidently he wanted to maintain a closer connection between faith and rationality, between subjective experience and objective reality. That is one of my primary concerns here too. Like Schaeffer, I’m strongly opposed to breaking apart faith and reason, thereby turning faith into an existential leap or a blind fideism. I understand the Bible to teach that faith is not a mystical experience or a bolt of lightning but simply a decision to trust in Christ based on good reasons and evidence. Barth accused Brunner’s position, connecting faith with objective reality, of being unspiritual, as though reason and rationality are unspiritual.31 I find it telling that Barth praised Kierkegaard and Heidegger, both of whom spearheaded this postmodern approach to truth.32 With Barth’s method, faith becomes so disconnected from objective reality, including natural theology, that even the historical resurrection of Christ becomes incidental. I want to encourage people not to see faith as just a subjective personal decision that’s separated from objective reality, as though faith was just a spiritual thing. Such a view leads to the separation of historical and scientific truth (which is seen as objectively true for everyone) from religious truth (which is seen as subjective and thus can be true for you but not for me). This view of religious truth as relative is now rampant throughout society because this dichotomy of truth is so insidious.

I would warn conservative Reformed evangelicals not to be lured in by Barth’s approach because his appeal to “just focus on the biblical text” sounds more spiritual.33 Though presuppositional apologetics and Reformed Epistemology (though it can be argued both are also overreactions to Enlightenment rationality) emphasize subjective experience (presuppositions, worldviews, work of the Holy Spirit, the sensus divinitatis, properly basic beliefs, etc.), Barth’s emphasis on the subjective is radically different because it substantially alters the definition of what truth is. Even though Aquinas proposed two paths to the truth, general revelation and special revelation, at least he maintained the unity of what truth is, that is, that truth is what corresponds to reality. Barth did something far worse; he redefined what truth is by separating subjective religious ‘truth’ from truth that corresponds to objective reality.

Discussion Questions

1. In what sense is Paul talking about fallen humans “doing good” in Rom. 3:12 that’s different from the sense in which he talks about fallen humans “doing good” (the Law) in Rom. 2:14?

2. Did Paul come to think he made a mistake in his approach in Acts 17 and, as a result, later change his approach as seen in 1 Cor. 2?

3. How do you strike the right balance between total depravity and making fallen man a zero?

4. Where have you heard or seen people use the line “that’s true for you but not for me”?

5. What are the similarities between Presuppositional Apologetics, Reformed Epistemology, and Barth’s dialectical theology? What are the differences?


[1] Emil Brunner and Karl Barth, Natural Theology: Comprising Nature and Grace by Professor Dr. Emil Brunner and the Reply No! By Dr. Karl Barth, trans. Peter Fraenkel (Eugene, Or.: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2002), 92.

[2] Ibid., 106.

[3] Ibid., 108.

[4] Ibid., 105.

[5] Ibid., 126.

[6] Ibid., 110.

[7] Ibid., 71, 110.

[8] Ibid., 124.

[9] Ibid., 122.

[10] Ibid., 121.

[11] Ibid., 68, 72.

[12] Ibid., 110.

[13] Ibid., 86. See other examples on 109, 118, 120, and 121.

[14] Ibid., 82, 87–90.

[15] Ibid., 95–96.

[16] Ibid., 69, 94.

[17] Ibid., 112.

[18] Ibid., 128.

[19] Ibid., 86.

[20] Ibid., 110–112. On page 110 Barth mentioned that Brunner seemed to be a resurrected spokesman for this movement.

[21] Ibid., 101, 104.

[22] Ibid., 78, 113.

[23] Ibid., 86.

[24] Ibid., 108.

[25] Ibid., 101.

[26] Ibid., 102–105.

[27] Ibid., 101.

[28] Ibid., 102.

[29] Ibid., 79–82, 87–89.

[30] Ibid., 82.

[31] Ibid., 128.

[32] Ibid., 114.

[33] Ibid., 127.

Convincing Proof