Karl Barth’s position is a good point of entry for our present discussion because he was invited, quite early in his career, to deliver the Gifford Lectures, and he did so, at Aberdeen University, in 1937 and 1938. The lectures were based on the Scots Confession of 1560 (doubtless in deliberate contrast to the Westminster Confession which, later, became the dominant doctrinal standard of the Scottish Church) and were published under the title “The Knowledge of God and the Service of God.” It was paradoxical, no doubt, that he was invited to lecture in a series explicitly defined as devoted to natural theology and, doubtless, he had some difficulty in making up his mind to accept. From the start, his approach to his subject was bound to be a peculiar one, since his central conviction in the whole matter was that no such subject as natural theology existed at all. When he did use the words “natural theology,” he put them in quotation marks, as if to indicate that this was a beast like the unicorn: the word existed, but no such thing existed; or, maybe, it was an expression internally contradictory, like “hot ice” or “black milk.” Now, you might have thought that Barth could reasonably interpret the invitation as an invitation to talk about natural theology in the sense of developing his arguments against it, showing why it was wrong. By no means: what he did was to refuse to talk about natural theology at all. How could one give a series of lectures about a non-existing subject? What he, in fact, did was to give a series of lectures on revealed theology, of a Calvinist Reformed kind, a series which largely ignored even the question of natural theology.
Moreover, in doing this, Barth developed an unusual piece of casuistry. He did not dispute that Lord Gifford had meant what he said: natural theology – in Barth’s words “a knowledge of which man, as man, is the master” – was the topic, but no such subject existed to be discussed. There was nothing to be said about it at all. This is what Barth thought. But, he did not state this as his own personal opinion. He ascribed it to his being a theologian of the Reformed church. ”As a Reformed theologian, I am subject to an ordinance which would keep me away from ‘Natural Theology,’ even if my personal opinions inclined me to it.” To be a Reformed theologian entailed, in itself, that there was no such thing as natural theology.
From: Biblical Faith and Natural Theology: The Gifford Lectures for 1991 Delivered in the University of Edinburgh by James Barr (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), pp. 6-7.
James Barr (1924-2006) was a Scottish Old Testament scholar and author. His most influential book (among several), The Semantics of Biblical Language, was published in 1961.