Major Book Reviews -- Biblical Faith and Natural Theology by James Barr

By Hiebert, Theodore | Interpretation, July 1995 | Go to article overview

Major Book Reviews -- Biblical Faith and Natural Theology by James Barr


Hiebert, Theodore, Interpretation


THIS ANALYSIS of the relationship between biblical faith and natural theology was prepared by Barr for the Gifford Lectures, a series founded for the express purpose of furthering the understanding of natural theology. Delivered in 1991, Barr's lectures published in this volume are in large part a response to the thought of an earlier Gifford lecturer, Karl Barth, whose contribution to this series was published as The Knowledge of God and the Service of God (1938). Indeed, Barth's position on natural theology is the "point of entry" for Barr's own analysis. The shadow of Barth stands behind this discussion at every turn, and it is with this shade that Barr wages a mighty battle: a battle for the Bible and proper exegetical method, a battle for history and its interpretation, a battle ultimately for natural theology as a legitimate enterprise within biblical thought and contemporary theology alike. This book is, in fact, almost as much about Barth as it is about biblical faith and natural theology. That is the first thing the reader should know.

The second is this: Barr's critique of Barth's views on natural theology at the exegetical, historical, and theological levels is powerful and persuasive, a useful corrective to what may have been the most influential voice on these matters within twentieth-century Protestantism. Barr demonstrates the existence of a kind of natural theology in the Bible itself, and he mounts a solid defense of its presence--nay, inevitability--in any theological discourse, two assertions Barth categorically denied. Any religious claim, in Barr's view, no matter how strongly defended as revealed, includes some element of "anterior knowledge," as he often calls it, that knowledge that arises out of common human experience--the kind of knowledge, that is, which has traditionally been viewed as the basis for natural theology.

Barr develops his argument through detailed exegeses of the classic biblical passages that have customarily been cited as evidences for natural theology. As a Christian scholar who maintains the enduring value of practicing "biblical theology," Barr starts with, and devotes a chapter each, to two New Testament texts: Paul's Areopagus speech in Luke-Acts (Acts 17:16-34) and Paul's opening argument in the letter to the Romans (chaps. 1-2). He then moves backward in time, devoting a chapter to earlier Jewish literature, the Wisdom of Solomon in particular, and concluding the exegetical section of his argument with a chapter on the Hebrew Bible, in which Psalms 104, 19, and 119 are given special treatment, alongside very brief reflections on Israelite Wisdom, Prophecy, and Law. Through these texts, Barr sees a trajectory of thought, with roots in Hebraic conceptions and with later embellishments from Greek philosophy, which reflects a perspective akin to that of natural theology. A passage Barr does not include in this trajectory--and probably rightly so, in spite of its traditional place in discussions of natural theology and in spite of devoting an entire chapter to it--is Genesis 1:26-27, the creation of human beings in God's image.

Barr's exegetical skills and theological insights have always impressed me, as they do again in this instance, and I wish to register only two general concerns about his biblical analysis. One is the brief attention, limited essentially to one chapter (of ten) devoted to the Hebrew Bible's contribution to the topic. It is true that Barr works throughout his lectures to demonstrate that the sources of Christian natural theology lie as solidly in Hebraic concepts as they do in later Greek thought, an argument Barr sees as his distinctive contribution in this book. Yet his actual attention to the Hebrew scriptures is relatively brief. It is a loss, in my judgment, that Barr did not say a little less about Barth and a little more about the Hebrew Bible, where his own specialties lie, that he did not mine more deeply the sources of natural theology in the Hebrew scriptures, particularly their rich veins in wisdom literature.

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