What is Natural Theology? and Why It Should be Abhorred.

Often I reference Natural Theology on my forum/blog, but I do not often give an explanation for what it is in a basic sense. So with this post I hope to quickly remedy that by providing a basic definition of what natural hitler1theology entails, and who was one of its most famous and early proponents. Millard Erickson in his systematic theology Introducing Christian Doctrine has written this in description and definition of what natural theology is at a basic level:

The core of natural theology is the idea that it is possible, without prior commitment of faith to the beliefs of Christianity, and without relying upon any special authority, such as an institution (the church) or a document (the Bible), to come to a genuine knowledge of God on the basis of reason alone. Reason here refers to the human capacity to discover, understand, interpret, and evaluate the truth.

Perhaps the outstanding example of natural theology in the history of the church is the massive effort of Thomas Aquinas. According to Thomas, all truth belongs to one of two realms. The lower realm is the realm of nature, the higher the realm of grace. While the claims pertaining to the upper realm must be accepted on authority, those pertaining to the lower realm may be known by reason.[1]

This seems probably pretty vanilla for most evangelical Christians to digest, and something most are pretty familiar with; in fact it seems intuitive, does it not? But I reject this; I reject the idea, along with Karl Barth and against Thomas Aquinas that people in general can come to a genuine knowledge of God apart from God’s particular Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, most of the Western tradition of Christianity (of which almost all of my readers are participants of, i.e. the Western trad) affirms natural theology. It affirms conceiving of God, categorically by way of employing philosophical reflection as determinative for how we supply ourselves with a grammar that articulates God. I reject this though. So does Karl Barth, and here is why[2] (and this is a full length quote, so hang on),

“The content of revelation is wholly God.” The point here is simply that God is not just half revealed, so that another part of his being or attributes or acts will have to remain hidden or will have to be imparted in some other way than by revelation. As regards the second possibility, we have to think especially of the increasing role played in Protestant theology from the end of the 16th century by what is variously called natural theology or revelation or religion (as distinct from the supernatural or Christian revelation). Natural revelation includes not only the voice of God in nature, as the name indicates, but also such things as conscience, the moral light of nature, religious feelings or dispositions or tendencies in us, mathematical and philosophical axioms, what better pagans know about the existence and unity of God, and the creation and overruling of the world by him, and non-Christian analogies even to such central Christian mysteries as the Trinity and the incarnation. Theologians usually regarded and employed this natural revelation as a good and useful narthex or first stage on the way to the true Christian revelation. The older Reformed theology in particular attached high importance to this preliminary structure. According to A. Schweizer one might even see in it one of the most valuable features of Reformed theology. It was given a place of honor in the 19th century both in the first part of Schleiermacher’s Christian Faith and in Schweizer’s own Glaubenslehre. Vestigia terrent! For my part, although I am Reformed, I want no part of it. You will not be surprised at this in view of what I have said earlier. Either God speaks, or he does not. But he does not speak more or less, or partially, or in pieces, here a bit and there a bit. This is a contradiction in terms, an anthropomorphism, a basic naturalizing of revelation which fits Schleiermacher very well, but which ought not to have found any place among the older Reformed. Calvin at the end of the discussion in the first chapters of the Institutes was perspicacious enough to raise the whole question again, to oppose the Christian knowledge of God dialectically to natural knowledge, and to proceed as though there were only the former. And even in Thomas Aquinas the insights one can gain into God’s nature apart from revelation have the significance only of a possible and necessary ancillary construction that pays secondary honor to the truth of revelation. If God speaks, then God speaks, and we have to do with the one Logos that the prophets and apostles received, the one revelation in the incarnation which the people of the Bible know and attest as either promised or manifested. Nothing prevents us, and much urgently inclines us to suppose that others, too, might have had a share, and might still have a share, in the same divine answer. We do well at this point to confess the free and broad outlook of Aquinas when he said that all truth, no matter who speaks it, is of the Holy Spirit, or of Zwingli when he said that whoever speaks truth speaks of God. But the truth must then be understood as the one totality of truth, and the words “Holy Spirit” and “God” must be taken in a pregnant sense. Truth that really goes back to God cannot be a particle of truth. It is either the whole truth or it does not go back to God and is not revelation at all.[3]

Interesting how Barth constructively engages with Aquinas, while at the same time ardently rejecting what Thomas became largely known for: natural theology.

What is the practical implication if we follow natural theology? Does it affect the way we think of God if we seek God and his ways, his perfections from nature before we encounter and meet him in Jesus Christ? What of the Old Testament, someone might ask, don’t we see older people of God engaging in natural theology? Isn’t God ‘progressively’ unfolded for us in the Old Testament before we ever meet him in Christ, and don’t we infer things about God in the Old Testament that are a result of reflecting upon him in his activity in nature (like creation, etc.)?

The above might represent challenges to Barth’s position against natural theology, and in fact, there are even more nuanced Greek ones that appeal to the Logos and His place in the taxis or order of nature itself (the Eastern Orthodox are fond of going this way).

I think you “non-specialist” Christian out there, you would be very surprised if you dug deeper how entrenched your understanding of God is by natural theology. I think natural theology ends up in idolatry, and it elevates humanity’s capacity to know God that in the end supplants a need for God by a continual need for us and our intellects in order to create space and grammar for God without allowing God’s own life to determine the shape of the grammar he would have us use in order to understand him under the force and compelling reality of his own life.[4]

 

 

 

[1] Millard J. Erickson, Introducing Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1996), 35.

[2] I have used the picture of Adolf Hitler in this post because it was the context within which Barth wrote and wrote against. Hitler and the Reich would have represented a socio-cultural expression and logical/theological conclusion to where natural theology when consistently held to could potentially lead. In other words, natural theology is an ‘under the sun’ theology such that what ‘is’ (for the natural theologian) is what ‘ought’ to be. If we start any other place other than God in Jesus Christ as the ‘is’ and thus the ‘ought’, if we start from below, like Hitler did, if we start from our own thinking and reflection upon nature, consistent with this, in an extreme but logical form, might result in something like the Holocaust, or even the Apartheid of South Africa. So I appeal to Hitler not to shut any further arguments down, but to illustrate Barth’s context, and why he with such fervor abhorred natural theology as the following quote from him will demonstrate.

[3] Karl Barth, The Gottingen Dogmatics: Instruction in the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 91-2.

[4] Also see my chapter, “Analogia Fidei or Analogia Entis: Either Through Christ or Through Nature,” in Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church, eds. Myk Habets and Bobby Grow (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 94-113. Also I should note, that I am not suggesting that we are not part of the equation, and that we do not or should not engage with every ounce of capacity the Lord has given us; instead with my point here, I am suggesting that we need to, by way of order, allow God’s crystalline voice spoken most evidently and clearly in his dearly beloved Son, Jesus Christ by the breath of the Holy Spirit, to be the voice we seek first. There is no voice in nature, apart from the One who first gave nature by fiat in and for Jesus Christ (Col. 1.15ff; Rev. 21–22; etc.). He alone exegetes, explains the Father, the God-head for us. If domain of the Word, of Jesus Christ, is inclusive of nature, then it behooves us to start with her King, and think from there. This whole post, this whole consideration comes back to a matter of theological methodology–and yet I cannot stress how important this at a most basic level, that is, knowing God.

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A Christian Statement of Scripture V. An un-Christian Statement

Here is a very dynamic statement on Scripture and its placement within the life of God’s people; finding its continuity in ongoing witness for those people in the ‘point and purpose’ of their existence, Jesus Christ.

[T]he source of all our knowledge of God is his active revelation of himself. We do not know God against his will, or behind his back, as it were, but in accordance with the way in which he has elected to disclose himself and communicate his truth in the historical-theological context of the worshipping people of God, the Church of the Old and New Covenants. This is the immediate empirical fact with which the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are bound up. They were composed under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and in the providence of God have been handed on to us as the written form of the Word of God. They are the Scriptures of the people of Israel, for Israel was the selected medium of God’s revelation in which his Word operated prophetically in the life and understanding of a particular historical community in order to provide within mankind a place where divine revelation might be translated appropriately into human speech and where it might be assimilated and understood in a communicable form by all humanity. And they are the Scriptures of the Christian Church, for the Church was the appointed sphere in which the historical self-revelation of God through Israel, gathered up and transcended and fulfilled in Jesus Christ the Word made flesh, is given an evangelical form in the apostolic witness and tradition, kerygma and didache, through which the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ himself continues to meet men and women as the living Word of God and to impart himself to them as the Way, the Truth, and the Life, apart from whom, as our Lord claimed, no one has access to the Father. [Thomas F. Torrance, Divine Meaning: Studies in Patristic Hermeneutics, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995), 5]

I would suggest that this is a properly articulated and understood ontology and/or doctrine of Scripture and its placement within the grasp (so to speak) of God’s people; Christians. This is in contrast to the classical understanding of Scripture, here given voice by Evangelical Systematic Theologian, Millard Erickson:

[T]he epistemological question is simply, How do we know? Since our basis for knowing and holding to the truth of any theological proposition is that the Bible teaches it, it is of utmost importance that the Bible be found truthful in all of its assertions. If we should conclude that certain propositions (historical or scientific) taught by the Bible are not true, the implications for theological propositions are far-reaching. To the extent that evangelicals abandon the position that everything taught or affirmed by Scripture is true, other bases for doctrine will be sought. This might well be either through the resurgence of philosophy of religion or, what is more likely given the current “relational” orientation, through basing theology upon behavioral sciences, such as psychology of religion. But whatever the form that such an alternative grounding takes, there will probably be a shrinking of the list of tenets, for it is difficult to establish the Trinity or the virgin birth of Christ upon either a philosophical argument or the dynamics of interpersonal relationships. [Millard J. Erickson, Introducing Christian Doctrine, 62]

The nuance between the two statements is quite subtle to the naked eye, but there is one. The primary distinction between these two articulations is that the former does not make the veracity of Scripture contingent upon creation, or proving it to be so. Instead Torrance’s statement places Scripture within the divine speech which actually is life giving and formative to his people’s existence, as his people, indeed. The latter thesis statement, from Erickson, places humanity (in general) prior to God’s Word in Scripture; such that its veracity can only said to be so through the apologetic works of God’s people making it so. In other words, for Erickson, and the Evangelical sphere in general, Scripture is annexed to the realm of philosophical (epistemological) materiality in a way that leaves it out in the open until Christians can prove its reliability. But this is exactly backwards!

The question is who comes first? 1) God, 2) creation, 3) Scripture (Torrance); or, 1) Creation, 2) Scripture, 3) God (Erickson)? The latter set of questions see Scripture placed in the secular realm of philosophy; the former set of questions see Scripture located in the sacred sphere of salvation. Which means that Erickson’s approach cannot, theologically, be said to endorse a particularly Christian doctrine of Scripture—only Torrance’s can, because his does not make Scripture’s prophetic witness dependent upon humanity but upon God’s free voice of ‘Lordness’—since Erickson’s approach moves from a view of creation that ultimately sees creation as a mode of existence that determines its own fate and reality (this is a very modern move, but not a very Christian one).