Natural and Revealed Theology

One recent development, highly pertinent to the theme ofthis whole book, is the challenge that has been made to the traditional distinction between natural theology and revealed theology. This distinction, clearly exemplified by the approach of St Thomas Aquinas, is the distinction between what can be known or rendered plausible by the use of human reason at any place and at any time, simply through reflection on the universally available data of our experience of the world, and what can be known on the basis of God's special acts of revelation at particular times and places, whether through some particular deeds done, or through some particular words spoken or written, or whatever. I say God's special acts ofrevelation, because it is quite in order to correlate natural theology with general revelation, and to suppose that there is a sense in which God reveals himself through just those universal data of experience available to unaided human reason everywhere.

Admittedly, Alvin Plantinga makes a strong case for taking general revelation, exemplified by the Psalmist's assertion that 'the heavens declare the glory of God',2 to be a matter of immediate awareness rather than rational inference;3 but the fact remains that such universally available data can be made the starting point for natural theology of the traditional kind all the same.

The distinction between natural and revealed theology, then, is the distinction between reflection on what is generally revealed and reflection on what is specially revealed. Of course, in using the shorthand phrase 'revealed theology', we do not mean that such theology is itself revealed. That would be a very extravagant claim. This shorthand phrase is used for human reflection, in the first place by Church theologians, on what has allegedly been specially revealed at particular times and in particular places in the course of history.

The distinction between what is held to be universally available and what is held to have been communicated through particular strands or individuals in history must surely be sustained. That distinction is undeniable. And, I suppose, it is not surprising that philosophers have tended in the past to disparage religious appeals to special revelation precisely because the alleged data are not universally available to human reason everywhere. For human reason is quite rightly held to be the sole proper tool for doing philosophy. But it does not take much reflection to make one realize that this restriction is itself philosophically untenable. For reason can surely be put to work on any data, whether universally available or not. After all, the contemporary natural scientist is working on data that have only recently become available. And the alleged data of special divine revelation — say, the events to which the Christian scriptures bear witness — have, for a much longer time, been available for philosophical as well as theological reflection. And it is interesting to note that a number of philosophers of religion and theologians have recently been arguing that, if revelation claims, as well as 'the starry heavens above', are equally available for rational scrutiny, then the distinction between natural and revealed theology, at least to that extent, breaks down.

An earlier proponent of this view was Herbert Farmer, who in his Gifford Lectures, Revelation and Religion, suggested that a specifically Christian worldview, including both a theology of religion worldwide and a theology of incarnation and reconciliation, could be offered as an all-embracing hypothesis to be explored for its rationality and comprehensiveness and tested for its ability to make sense of things. It is no longer a matter simply of accepting revelation on authority. In this sense, revelation claims are being brought within the scope of natural theology.

I endorsed this approach in The Problems of Theology:

[R]eason and revelation cannot be treated as different sources of knowledge. On the contrary revelation claims, despite being channelled through particular historical traditions, are part of the data upon which reason has to operate. The fact that the philosopher pays less attention to the religious data than does the theologian is just unfortunate. It can no longer be a matter of principle.7

That book was published in 1980. Happily, as the present book will show, the last two decades of the twentieth century largely remedied the 'unfortunate' fact referred to. Philosophers are indeed paying attention now to specific revelation claims.

Further endorsement for the view that 'there is, ultimately, no important difference between natural and revealed theology after all' comes from the biblical theologian James Barr, in his Gifford Lectures, Biblical Faith and Natural Theology. And Wolfhart Pannenberg's theology of revelation through history — that is, of universal history, including the history of religions, culminating in the story ofJesus Christ and its effects — constitutes another example of the way in which a revelation-based worldview can be made available for discussion 'without reservation in the context of critical rationality'.

Of course, this assimilation of revealed theology to natural theology is in respect of its openness to rational scrutiny by anyone, not in respect of its particularity. The distinction between general data and special data remains. But it should be clear from this discussion that the philosopher's difficulties are, or should be, much more with appeals to authority and attempts to bypass reason than with any notion of special revelation. Particularity as such is no scandal. Philosophers have no right to dictate to God how and where he should act or speak. But they do have the right to examine the logic and the rationale of any such purported special acts of revelation. As Bishop Butler observed; 'reason... is, indeed the only faculty we have wherewith to judge concerning anything, even revelation itself'.10

I should stress at the end of this section on natural and revealed theology that the argument advanced here is controversial, even amongst philosophical theologians. We shall see plenty of examples in what follows of philosophers prepared to defend the rationality of appeals to authority. Nothing said here should blind us to the possibility of taking seriously the role of testimony in a rationally defensible worldview.

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  • generoso sagese
    What is the difference between natural and revealed theology?
    1 year ago

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