Natural Theology In The Reformation

This view of the relationship between faith and reason is shared by many of the Reformers. According to Martin Luther scholastic theologians deal 'in mere imaginings derived from human reason' whereas the Bible, as 'the basis and source of faith', is not to be criticized, explained or judged by 'our mere reason' but 'diligently' searched and obeyed under the direction of the Holy Spirit (Luther 1848:2-4). While John Calvin accepts that 'there exists in the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of Deity', he holds that human sinfulness, on the one hand, suppresses the effects and perverts the contents of this implanted knowledge of God and, on the other hand, renders people incapable of recognizing God through the created order. As a result, 'since the human mind, through its weakness, was altogether unable to come to God' by its own powers, 'God has given the assistance of his Word to all whom he has ever been pleased to instruct effectually' (Calvin 1953: I, 43, 66f.; cf. I, 46-63). Even the humanistic Philip Melanchthon holds that although some rational knowledge of God is available through natural understanding, it is subject to doubt and corruption and, in any case, is insufficient for salvation. Consequently 'we are to seek knowledge of God in his revelations and his clearly expressed words' in the 'divine Scripture' (Melanchthon 1965:5-7).

Nevertheless, whatever the views of the Reformers and their opponents, the theological controversies which they provoked in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries led to renewed interest in the question of natural theology. This was because of the need to find some way of resolving disputes when both parties claim that the final court of appeal is to (their own interpretation of) the Scriptures. Some responded to the fact of clashing interpretations by accepting that the principle of sola scriptura needs to be modified by assertions of the authority of Scripture and of the Church as its interpreter. They soon discovered, however, that the problem of identifying true doctrine was not overcome but aggravated by this modification. Disputes about what Scripture means were compounded by differences about who or what may constitute 'the Church' that is properly authorized as its interpreter.

The failure to resolve disputes about what the Bible taught (cf. Anthony Collins, Discourse of Free-Thinking, 1713:45-61) led a few to be sceptical about the authority of the Bible (cf. Pierre Bayle's Historical and Critical Dictionary—e.g., the article on David, and Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary—e.g., the article on Abraham), some to urge toleration for different interpretations (cf. Jeremy Taylor 1647:73), and others to resort to violence to impose their interpretations. A fourth option which gained increasing support appealed to reason as the way to determine belief and settle conflicts.

For some this appeal is limited to finding reasons to justify claims about the identity and meaning of divine revelation, especially as contained in the Bible. Others, however, extended it to include basic beliefs about the reality and will of God. The complex, sometimes lively, and unfinished story of the arguments used in attempts to show that it is possible by rational reflection to determine various fundamental truths about the reality of God is the story of natural theology in modern thought.

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