A famous debate took place in the 20th century between two theological powerhouses: Karl Barth and Emil Brunner. The subject matter concerned natural revelation — i.e. whether or not God reveals himself in and through nature, or if we can know about God via facts about creation.

Brunner’s position can be summarized as an “insistence that God has also provided a general revelation discernible in nature. In other words, something about God can be known in and through God’s creation. Revelation in nature was necessary in order to provide God with a means of assessing humanity’s culpability. God could judge humanity guilty only if there was some standard to which it either responded or failed to respond. Brunner appears to follow the maxim of the Apostle Paul, ‘where there is no law, there also is no violation’ (Rom 4:15, NASB).” (Source)

Barth strongly disagreed. He maintained that revelation comes exclusively through the person of Christ. Any concept of God that is not based a priori on Christ, but rather based upon human faculties/endeavors, amounts to idolatry and is not knowledge of God.

The debate created a chasm between Barth and Brunner. However, I think there is a possibility of reconciling these positions by appealing to a common emphasis in Barth and Brunner’s work.

Barth famously rejected a propositional concept of revelation (i.e. that God reveals himself in propositional truths) and instead favored revelation centered on the person of Jesus. Jesus is the true Word of God. Thus scripture is not revelation as such and is not the Word of God as such. Scripture’s role is rather as a witness or testimony that points us to Jesus. It is a vessel or tool God uses and works through in order to direct us to His Son.

Brunner agreed with this model of revelation and emphasized it in his own work. Concerning the prologue of John’s Gospel, Brunner wrote:

“Certainly this does not mean that the idea of the ‘Word of God,’ has disappeared from the witness of revelation. There is still an excellent relation between the revelation and the spoken word; but with the Incarnation of the Word the meaning of the formula, the ‘Word of God’, has been drastically altered. The spoken word is now no longer the revelation itself, or, to put it more exactly, it is no longer directly ‘revelation’, but only indirectly. The spoken word is an indirect revelation when it bears witness to the real revelation: Jesus Christ, the personal self-manifestation of God, Emmanuel. The spoken word, the ‘word’ in the actual sense of speech, ‘saying something in words’, has thus been relegated to a secondary position because the first place is now occupied by Him to whom the Old Testament prophetic Word pointed as the Coming One.” (Excerpt taken from Brunner’s first volume of his Church Dogmatics). 

My proposal is that, following Barth and Brunner’s emphasis on the witnessing/testimony nature of scripture, we should likewise maintain that “natural revelation” is not revelation but another means of witness/testimony. Thus, theologians and philosophers may continue their work in natural theology, but they must understand that this is not revelation in-itself but may only be a tool/vessel God uses to direct us to his Son.

Rene Girard’s anthropology is an example of how this natural witnessing might work. A summary of his work can be read here. Following Girard’s schema, we may trace anthropological facts of how religion, scapegoating, and violence evolved from our earliest Homo sapien ancestors (or perhaps a bit earlier). If we take Girard’s positions seriously, we will be led to Jesus, who fully reveals and condemns our scapegoating and declares the true nature of God’s character and will. (Girard himself moved from agnosticism to Christianity after discovering this phenomena).

Following my proposal, we can understand these natural, anthropological facts as witnesses or testimony to the person of Christ. The facts are not revelation in-themselves. Rather, if they are taken seriously, they point us to Jesus. Thus, we can make use of natural theology or evolutionary theology, but we must understand that they are witnesses to the ultimate revelation of Jesus.