Natural Theology

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Truths about God that can be learned from created things (nature, man, world) by reason alone. The importance of natural theology to Christian thought has varied widely from age to age, depending largely upon the general intellectual climate. It first became a significant part of Christian teaching in the High Middle Ages, and was made a fixed part of Roman Catholic dogma in 1870 at Vatican Council I.

Its Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith made it a matter of faith to believe that God has revealed himself in two ways, naturally and supernaturally, and that "God can certainly be known [certo cognosci] from created things by the natural light of human reason. "The council sought thus to reaffirm, over against nineteenth century secularized skeptics and especially philosophical truths are a legitimate and true form of theology. This teaching was one among several factors which stimulated the growth of Neo-Thomism (Gilson, Maritian, etc.) in the early twentieth century. But quite apart from the original intent and later influence of this teaching, the Catholic Church now stands committed to the belief that there are two theologies.

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Ancient philosophers spoke of a "natural theology," by which they meant philosophical discourse on the essential, "divine" nature of things as distinguished from the accidental and transient, and also philosophical truths about God as distinguished from state cults and religious myths. Scripture, however, spoke of the world as created in time and sustained by its Creator. Creation points still toward its Creator (what Protestants later called general revelation), but that it does so is chiefly taught by Scripture (that is, special revelation) and confirmed in experience rather than deduced by reason alone. Only when the Judeo-Christian notion of "creation" is made equivalent to the Greek philosophical notion of "nature," something never done directly by the Greek and Latin church fathers, is the stage set for the development of a "natural theology."

The first great proponent of a natural theology distinguishable from revealed theology was Thomas Aquinas, the synthesizer of Greek philosophy and the gospel, who also laid the groundwork for notions of "natural law," the ethical equivalent of natural theology. Aquinas defined theology as a "science" in the Aristotelian sense, that is, a definable body of knowledge with its own sources, principles, methods, and content, and he insisted that beyond the truths derived from the study of Scripture there was another body of (compatible) truths based upon the application of reason to the created world. He supported this, as nearly all Catholics have, with reference to Rom. 1:20-21 and to the actual accomplishments of pagan philosophers, especially Aristotle. Such truths included especially the existence of God, which he laid out in five famous proofs near the beginning of his Summa (all of them essentially arguments for an Ultimate Cause) and the attributes (eternity, invisibility, etc.) which described God's nature. These were then complemented and enriched by supernaturally revealed truths such as the trinity of persons in the Godhead and the incarnation of God in Jesus.

Nearly all Catholic scholars of natural theology have built upon, refined, or qualified the position first articulated by Thomas. In doing natural theology, first of all, they do not mean to have reason replace faith or philosophical discourse the grace of God revealed in Christ. Faith and grace remain primary for all believers, but natural theology offers the opportunity to establish certain truths by means common to all persons. Second, those truths are not taken to be "grounds" or "foundations" for additional, revealed truths. Yet if these truths are established, it can be seen as "reasonable" to accept revealed truths as well. And thus Catholics are in fact inclined to see a continuum between natural theology, that which is known of God by the light of natural reason, and revealed theology, that which is known by the light of faith.

The Protestant Reformers objected to the impact of philosophy upon theology and insisted upon a return to Scripture. They assumed that all men had some implicit knowledge of God's existence (Calvin's "sense of divinity"), but they declared it useless apart from the revelation of God's will and grace in Jesus Christ. Several early confessional documents (e.g., the Westminster and the Belgic) do speak of God revealing himself in nature (citing still Rom. 1:20-21), but this is revelation not fully comprehensible apart from Scripture. Orthodox Protestants have generally raised three major objections to natural theology.

First, it lacks scriptural basis. Read in context, Rom. 1 and 2 teach that the pagan's natural knowledge of God is distorted and turned only to his judgment, in no way to the reasonable deduction of theological truths. Second, and perhaps most importantly, natural theology effectively exempts human reason from the fall and the effects of original sin. Man's reason is now as perverse as any of his other faculties and therefore is not capable, apart from God's gracious intervention, of finding its way back to God and truly knowing him. This point, which involves quite different anthropological views, will doubtless continue to divide Protestants and Catholics. Third, conceding the knowledge of God arrived at by pagan philosophers (his being, invisibility, omnipotence, etc.), Protestants object that this is wholly abstract and worthless. This Supreme Being has little to do with the God of judgment and mercy, of righteousness and love, revealed all through Scripture and preeminently in Jesus Christ. When Protestants retain descriptions of God's attributes, as they often have at the beginning of formal theologies, they argue and illustrate them from Scripture, not from philosophical discourse.

In modern times the impact of the Enlightenment drove both Catholic and Protestant thinkers to reduce the supernatural, miraculous elements and to construct a "natural theology" open to reason and common to all men. Kant rejected all proofs for the existence of God and sought to place religion "within the bounds of reason." This more liberal form of natural theology became very common in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: the famous Gifford Lectures, for instance, are supposed to promote "Natural Theology." Scottish commonsense realism may represent a unique effort to blend philosophy with fairly orthodox Christianity, but in general the miraculous grace of God had disappeared from these forms of theology.

In the twentieth century the so-called dialectical theologians vigorously objected against theologies which glossed over the radical intervention of God through Jesus Christ and his Word. Karl Barth in particular saw such natural religion as the great foe of true faith and rejected the Catholic "analogy of being" as an unwarranted jump (rather than deduction) from creation to Creator. Several others in turn, especially Emil Brunner, objected that Barth's exclusive emphasis upon Christ and the Word denied the reality of God's "general revelation" of himself in creation and especially human creatures, his image-bearers, something attested in Scripture.

In recent times natural theology has received comparatively little attention apart from a few Catholic philosophers. One interesting and related development has occured in the field of the history of religions. Certain such historians (especially G. van der Leeuw and M. Eliade) have discovered patterns of religious belief and practice (a High God, a fall from a past Golden Age, various salvation motifs, etc.) which do not make up a natural theology in the traditional sense, but which they believe could yield an instructive prolegomenon to the study of Christian theology.

J Van Engen
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

LTK, VII, 811-17; RGG, IV, 1322-29; NCE, XIV, 61-64; M. Holloway, An Introduction to Natural Theology; G. Berkouwer, General Revelation; R. McInerny and A. Plantinga in the Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, 1981.

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The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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