A ‘Saving Interruption’

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A ‘Saving Interruption’: Moral Knowledge and Participation in Christ 

The heavens are telling the glory of God;       and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.       [Ps 19:1]

Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made…          [Rom. 1:20]


Lake Louse, Alberta

Lake Louse, Alberta

What can we learn about the moral order through the power of natural reason?  Is there moral content in nature?  These questions have perennially challenged the doctrine of theological ethics.  The challenge lies in the inescapable tension between the school of lex naturae, and the school of prayer.  I might express this same tension in other words, as tension between an ostensibly ontological concept of moral order, and the experiential reality of participation in Christ. 

  I presented a paper on this topic this week at the Scottish Universities Theology Conference here in St Andrews.  If you would like to read the paper (7 pages) you can download it from this link: saving-interruption paper

 Synopsis: Toward a “more natural” theology

 As an entrée to creative wrestling with this tension, I should like to explore briefly Eberhard Jüngel’s notion of a “more natural” theology.  In his commentary on the Barmen Declaration Jüngel recognizes the need for the Church in every age to:

 …outline a more natural theology than so-called natural theology: a natural theology which knows Jesus Christ as the one who has reconciled both human beings and the world (2 Cor 5:19).[1]

 I shall explore briefly the epistemic significance of Jüngel’s approach, drawing particular attention to ‘participation in Christ’ as the epistemic event in which moral knowledge occurs, and then to interpret Jüngel’s statement that truth is to be understood christologically as an event of a “saving interruption.”[2]  Following Jüngel’s lead then, the task I am assigning for these next few pages is to look at natural theology through a christological lens, and consider what implications may ensue for the doctrine of moral knowledge.

 The first question that comes to mind is: Can there really be a “christological natural theology”?  Does this not seem a contradiction in terms?  Are “christological” and “natural” mutually exclusive modifiers for theology?  Not necessarily.  In view of Christ as the one in whom, through whom, and for whom all natural things are created [Col. 1:15ff], we might find these to be eminently compatible adjectives. Even the great opponent of natural theology, Karl Barth admits that

  …we are certainly not always wrong, if we believe we hear a song of praise to God in the existence also of Sirius and the rock crystal, of the violet and the boa-constrictor.[3]

 Thus, while Barth may reject the premise of traditional natural theology, he does not reject the questions it asks regarding what can and cannot be discerned and known through natural capacities of human comprehension.[4]  Indeed, he even goes so far as to consider what a “Christian” natural theology might entail, though he does not develop this concept in depth, preferring instead to apply his energy to polemics against the pseudo-theology that he saw lurking in the motivations of traditional natural theology.[5]

 Eberhard Jüngel has blazed a helpful path in this direction of seeking a christological natural theology.  Picking up where Barth seems to have left off, Jüngel presses on in pursuit of “a new approach to solving the old problem of natural theology.”[6] Jüngel rightly frames the problem in christological terms, asking how the doctrine extra Christum nulla salus (outside Christ there is no salvation)[7] can be reconciled with natural theology.  In other words, how can it be that “this exclusive truth claim becomes an inclusive granting of a truth that concerns every human being as such”?[8]

 Jüngel sets the cornerstone for construction of his christocentric natural theology upon Luther’s statement that “justification by faith is the theological definition of the human person”.[9]  In this paper I show how this christocentric basis for natural theology leads to the understanding of truth as a ‘saving interruptoin’ (in Jungel’s phrase). 

 Here is the significance for theological ethics–      Moral knowledge is saving knowledge.  It interrupts.  Something happens.  It is not merely an interruption of our attempt to explain morality in ontological categories; but rather, it is a participation in the event which brings understanding to morality.  It is thus a “saving interruption”, not only in the sense that “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” [Rom. 10:13]; but also in the sense that it saves our understanding by interrupting the premises by which we might otherwise explain things. 

 [1] Jüngel, Barmen; Kirche Zwishen Versuchung und Gnade, E.T. Christ, Justice and Peace: Toward a Theology of the State in Dialogue with the Barmen Declaration, trans. by D. Bruce Hamill and Alan J. Torrance (Edinburgh, T&T Clark, 1992), p. 26.

[2] Jüngel, God’s Being Is in Becoming: the Trinitarian Being of God in the Theology of Karl Barth. A Paraphrase, trans. by John Webster (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001), p. 138.

[3] Barth, Knowledge of God, 41.

[4] “But the problem [of natural theology] itself we cannot reject. If God is knowable, then it is necessary also to ask how far He is knowable to man”, CD II/1, 129.  Cf. Barth’s remarks on the Barmen Declaration, CD II/1, 178.

[5] CD II/1, 94.  Barth goes on to diagnose the concept of a “Christian” natural theology as problematic due to the dilemma of desiring to “really represent and affirm the standpoint of faith” and at the same time to arrive at knowability of God through the “unbelief” which he attributes to traditional statements of natural theology.

[6] E. Jüngel, “Extra Christum Nulla Salus-a Principle of Natural Theology?” (1989) p. 174. Jüngel takes his cue from “the problem which [Karl] Rahner indicates by speaking of anonymous Christians”, 173-4.   We need not analyze Jüngel’s interpretation of Rahner’s statements here; the essential point for our study is that Jüngel’s response to Rahner addresses precisely the same issue of the epistemic role of faith which concerns our thesis.

[7] Cf. Acts 4:12; John 14:6.

[8] Jüngel, Extra Christum., 175-6.  The easy answer of course is to insist that there are two distinctly types of knowledge-salvific vs. non-salvific-and that the Gospel belongs to the former, while ethics and natural knowledge of the moral order belong to the latter category.  This is, of course, a non-solution, in light of the inseparability of ethics and dogmatics, which is a point we need not rehearse here.

[9] M. Luther, The Disputation Concerning Man, thesis 32, LW 34, p. 139, quoted by Jüngel, Extra Christum, 180.

Mirror Neurons & the imago Dei

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Natural Theology & Ethics

rembrandt-the-return-of-the-prodigal-son-the-hermitage-st-petersburg-prodig26   The age-old argument goes like this-“Just look around… The glory of god is there for all to see… Nature is speaking… So just pay attention… Reason things out and you can discern what is right and good and true…”  This is the conventional wisdom about nature, right and wrong. The case for natural reason as the source of ethics is gaining support these days from advances in the biological sciences and derivative ideas such as “evolutionary psychology”.  Brain researcher V. S. Ramachandran has predicted that, “mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology.”[1]  The evidence of mirror neurons suggests that certain neurons contribute the property which enables higher primates to say “I feel your pain”, because the mirror neurons are “fired” by observing another person suffer.  This could theoretically provide evidence of an evolutionary link to traits like compassion-and hence, ethical behaviors such as altruism.  This new line of inquiry is called “evolutionary psychology.”   

 Is this what it means to be ethical?  Do ethics reduce to deterministic responses to brain wiring?  These are really just new variants of the same old questions regarding “natural theology” that have been around forever (well, at least since persons had enough brain wiring to ask them).  But do we really discover the source of morality in nature? 

The most commonly cited Bible passage with respect to this question is Paul’s meditation in the opening section of Romans-

 …since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.  For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities-his eternal power and divine nature-have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. [Rom. 1:19-20 (NIV)]

 Some interpreters take this as support for “natural theology”, because it might suggest that natural reason is capable of acquiring knowledge of God.  And a few paragraphs later, we find this-

 (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.) [Rom. 2:14-15 (NIV)]

 This can also be used to argue for “natural theology”, because the “Gentiles” are not the God-knowers (those are the Jews), yet they still have the law written on their hearts.

 What are we to make of this?  Is Paul the first Natural Theologian?  No, I don’t think so.  First of all, Paul is saying that nature shines by God’s eternal power and his glorious being.  These things are even self-evident, and plain to anyone who looks for them.  Thus there’s no denying that nature gives evidence of this divine power.  But this is not the same thing as knowing God.  Obviously so, or else there would be no point to Paul’s entire argument. These words immediately precede this passage and thus set the context:

 I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”  The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness  [Rom. 1:16-18]

 Paul states it plainly-God is known by faith, and he is revealed by the Gospel, and this applies to both Jews and Gentiles.  Knowing God is obviously not the same thing as observing his power at work in nature.  As further evidence of the difference between natural theology and faith, Paul explains that one of the natural consequences of not glorifying God  is the following:

 their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. [Rom. 1:21b-23]

This is the peril of natural theology-it leads not to God, but to any and every possible conception of God that human beings have ever been able to conceive.  It leads not then to the God who is known through his self-revelation in Jesus, but rather to the many and various gods who may be argued as reasonable theories based on the human powers of observation, applied to nature.

 Eberhard Jüngel writes insightfully on the effort of natural theology to discern God.  He considers the possibility of knowing God without benefit of the revelation of the Gospel, and comes to this conclusion that while it might be possible to know a lot about God’s creation from natural theology, it is not possible to know God, or what it means to be in relationship with God, through natural theology.  What happens in the attempt to know these things through natural theology, is that

 every such statement thereby changes from a statement of the gospel to a statement of the law, from an unequivocally beneficial statement to one which is ambivalent.[2]

 In other words, whatever knowledge is derived from natural theology fails to convey the significance of the gospel, and thus becomes inevitably a law unto itself.  This would seem to be the same conclusion Paul came to.  We may by nature do the things the law requires, but will amount to nothing more than to make up a law for ourselves.  There’s no grace in it if we do not know and glorify God [cf. Rom. 2:14-15].

 This is the ultimate problem with all natural theology, whether based on mirror neurons or any other naturalistic theory.  Mirror neurons may reflect the glory of the God, and shine by the power of the Gospel, but they are incapable of reflecting the imago Dei as revealed in Christ.


[1] Malcolm Jeeves quotes Ramachandran as an example of the “current excitement [over] the discovery of so-called mirror neurons, since they form a natural link between neuroscience and an aspect of evolutionary biology-namely, evolutionary psychology.” Jeeves, “Mind Reading and Soul Searching in the Twenty-first Century”, in What About the Soul? Neuroscience and Christian Anthropology, ed. by Joel Green (Abingdon, 2004), p. 24.

[2] Eberhard Jüngel, “Extra Christum Nulla Salus-a principle of natural theology?”, in Jüngel, Theological Essays, translated by J. B. Webster, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989), p. 186.