The Uncontrollable Lion God of Dialectical Theology Rather than the Deus Ex Machina: Disdaining Natural Theology Because of Jesus

Natural theology continues to be a pariah for me, and I’d imagine always will be! I don’t think I can emphasize how much I disdain natural theology; although this hasn’t always been the case. Before I could disdain it I first had to realize what it was, and how most of my theological predilections were contingent upon it. Natural theology, at base, objectifies God; it seeks to possess God by its identification of him as that is grounded in a stable (or so it is perceived) rendition of him as that is abstracted from some form of ideology or previously formed human construct outwith a first love encounter with him (an encounter with him that is ever afresh and anew spirated by the Holy Spirit upon the breath of God’s Word who is the Christ). Natural theology attempts to objectify God or circumscribe God by epistemic centers that are first arrived at by human machinations rather than after God has spoken (Deus Dixit); after God speaks and confronts us with who he is in the risen Christ mediated to us by the Holy Spirit’s ‘paracletic’ work as we participate in that work through being united to Christ’s vicarious humanity. The problem is, at least according to Scripture, is that God is non-objectifiable. In other words, God cannot be grasped or handled; not by the church, the world, or the angels. If this is so, if we cannot sublimate God by our lowly handles we’ve attached to him; if we cannot handle God by correlating him to the discoverable categories of the philosophers; then what is left? This seems to place God out of reach. Indeed.

John McDowell, to refer to a quote I’ve used in another post with a different focus, helps to illustrate how natural theology produces this sort of abstract voluntaristically driven God who might be conceived of—in a God-world relation—apart from rather than concretely grounded in Jesus Christ. McDowell is discussing Barth’s relationship to his French friend Pierre Maury; Maury had played an important role in setting the trajectory for Barth’s reformulation of a classical doctrine of election and reprobation. I think this helps illustrate a reason why I disdain natural theology:

Consequently, Maury and Barth force the Reformed tradition to ask substantively what is meant by claiming that “God was in Christ” if Revelation is separated from the very Word of God eternally articulated, and God’s being (as will) is hidden behind Christ so that the gracefulness of God expressed in Christ is particularized in the decretum absolutum and is therefore not essential to what is meant by God. Can this two-stage deity make sense of the development of Christian Trinitarianism and therefore the Christological doctrine of the homoousion? Reasoning strongly that it cannot, Maury and Barth locate here the regulation of philosophical abstraction in much of the tradition. Criticizing both the Calvinist and Lutheran versions of the doctrine of predestination, Barth detects in them “traces of a natural theology . . . traces, that is, of a general view of the freedom of God, based on one philosophical system or another.” The appeal to “natural theology” and “one philosophical system or another” is rather imprecise, but the import of the shorthand criticism is nonetheless clear enough. The Gospel has to do with what Barth suggestively delineates in his seventh Gifford Lecture through the phrase “the Revelation of God, the God who deals with man.” This he would articulate as the irreducible “concreteness, the contingency, the historical singularity of the eternal, absolute, divine Word” of God (and, of course, as CD III/2 impresses, of humanity as well). Accordingly, Maury appeals in “Election et Foi” to election as being “about God.”[1]

Natural theology separates God from his Word, and in the Reformed context this separation requires that another mechanism be constructed in order for God to enact relationship with the world; i.e. through the decretum absolutum, or through a determining decretal system that inter-links God’s power and being to the rest of the world all along keeping God untouched by the world or the creatures who inhabit it (all in an attempt to sustain the philosophically developed loci known as simplicity, immutability, impassibility, infinity, etc.). The problem, if not recognizable, is that in this ‘classical’ system of theology proper God is taken captive by a set of conditions and categories that have nothing to do with God encountering us in his Word, Jesus Christ. How could it?! If the God produced by natural theology is necessarily uncoupled from his Word for us, the Son, Jesus Christ then how can we ever really say that we have encountered the living God? This is a serious dilemma. Why would I entrust my eternal well-being to a God that history or tradition has produced; wouldn’t this mean that I am really entrusting myself to the producers of the history and the tradition instead?

Natural theology presumes upon an idea of ‘pure nature,’ but this itself is another presumption about a God-world relation; a presumption, just as the absolute decree that ruptures God from his Word. If we posit that God has constructed a world wherein latent within this world (nature) there are vestiges of who God is waiting to be discovered by even unregenerate minds, isn’t this positing effort itself just more presumption? How am I supposed to know that the God-world relation you are positing is the true God? And if you point me to apologetic efforts, aren’t these efforts themselves grounded in more presumption about history, physical reality, and epistemic centers? Ultimately, even if a natural theology can be devised (and there are some) that assert a non-reliance upon a naturum purum (pure nature) no matter what, what ends up happening is more presumption as a foundation for knowledge of God.

What if instead knowledge of God is purely relationally and personalistically based? What if knowledge of God is solely based upon the risen Christ confronting and encountering us through his written and preached Word as those in derivatively given senses break away and towards, in stratified ways, their reality found in the eternal Logos of God, Jesus Christ? This way forward, as it engages with God’s dealing with his church and the interpretation that has ensued as a result, results in a very complicated and interesting discussion in and of itself. But I want to suggest to you (forcefully) that I think this is the best way for thinking God. Not based upon structures that help us to negotiate a way with God, but instead upon a more concrete and ever present and pressing reality that we are confronted with (ec-statically so) moment by moment as the everlasting God in Christ relentlessly pursues us from his vicarious humanity as that is seated at the right hand of the Father. This approach to God, at least for my marbles, comes to recognize that God is more like a Lion rather than a machine (Deus ex machina); that God is more uncontrollable and ineffable even as we dialectically come to only know him exhaustively as he Self-unveils himself for us in the risen Christ; in the re-conciliatory encounter of the power of God, also known as the Gospel (cf. Rom. 1.16).


[1] John C. McDowell, “Afterword,” in Simon Hattrell, ed., Election, Barth, and the French Connection: How Pierre Maury Gave a “Decisive Impetus” to Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2016), loc 3769, 3778.