Natural Theology

David A.Pailin

Since the word 'nature' has many connotations and since theologians do not agree about what is meant by 'theology', it is not surprising to find that the expression 'natural theology' is used to refer to a variety of forms of theological understanding. 'Natural theology' may, for example, connote a theology of nature in the sense of a theology that seeks to identify divine purposes and correlative values that apply to the non-human world. Those who develop such a natural theology may seek to challenge the anthropocentric and patriarchal attitudes that have traditionally tended to restrict theology to a study of 'me and my God' that ignores 'our relationship—and God's relationship—with the natural world' (Clatworthy 1992:4) and to replace those attitudes with a theology that appreciates the proper dignity of each component of the natural order, respecting 'every entity for its intrinsic value as well as for its instrumental value to others' (Birch and Cobb 1981:152). Where such a natural theology reaches theistic conclusions, God may be held to have ecological concerns for the well-being of all the members of the commonwealth of the natural order throughout the cosmos (McFague 1993).

A different use of 'natural theology' is to refer to attempts to discern the basic character of reality through examining the natural order, with the intention of prescribing therefrom principles of conduct whereby human beings will be able to worship, think and act in satisfying harmony with the ultimate and all-embracing character of what is. Such a theology may properly be deemed theistic if it holds that the basic character of reality is most adequately conceived as grounded in a personal mode of being. An example of this form of 'natural theology' may be seen in the basic understanding of that 'natural religion' which, according to William Wollaston, seeks to conform to the will of 'the Author' of humankind through 'the pursuit of happiness by the practice of reason and truth' (Wollaston 1726:52; see 40).

Another use of 'natural theology' is to identify attempts to justify claims about the reality and will of the God by reference to the natural order alone. Such a form of natural theology may, for example, cite instances of what are held to be evidences of design and purpose in the natural order to warrant the conclusion that 'there must be something in the world more than what we see,...an intelligent mind concerned in its production, order, and support' which is properly to be venerated (Paley 1837: IV, 356).

A fourth use of 'natural theology' is to denominate theological understanding that is allegedly common (and in this sense 'natural') to all humankind or at least to all those who are held to apprehend 'correctly' their human situation. Some hold that this theology is 'natural' because it expresses a recognition of truths that God, in creating human beings, implanted in them (Herbert of Cherbury 1937:118, 121). Others maintain that these truths have their origin in divine revelation but that the universal availability of this revelation in principle means that they are 'natural' to all humankind (Ellis 1747:39f.; 1757:5). A third variety of this view of 'natural theology' claims that the universality of the acknowledgement of its contents arises from the fact that they are the product of rational reflection on evidence where both the logic and the evidence are available to and accepted by all people.

A fifth view of natural theology identifies itself more by its rejection of revealed insights than by any particular affirmations. Here natural theology is seen as that theological understanding which is independent of any reference to supposed acts of divine self-revelation. William Temple thus points out that while the doctrines of a natural theology and the doctrines of a theology which derives its insights from revelation may be the same, the grounds for holding those beliefs are radically distinct: 'so far as any doctrine is accepted on authority only, such acceptance lies beyond the frontier of Natural Theology, and all conclusions drawn from the belief so accepted must be excluded from its sphere' (Temple 1934:6f.). A more positive expression of this view of natural theology presents it as theological understanding which results from the attempt to determine truths about the reality and will of God by means of rational reflection upon the character of the world, human experience and the intrinsic demands of reason itself (Campbell 1957:5). Thus Terence Penelhum summarizes what is meant by 'the concept of natural theology' as 'an attempt to fuse the metaphysical search for a comprehensive explanation of the world with the religious search for an adequate object of worship' in which 'the object of each search is identified with that of the other' (Penelhum 1971:4). Theologians who promote such natural theology but also see themselves as expounding a particular confession of faith generally maintain that natural theology on its own is unable to discern all the truths essential to that confession. Natural theology is hence seen as limited to certain important but propaedeutic tasks which, as John Macquarrie puts it, allow 'theological discourse to get started' (Macquarrie 1966:41).

This fifth use of the phrase 'natural theology' is the most common way of understanding the expression and provides the prime object of consideration in this chapter. As so understood, however, natural theology has provoked, as Emil Brunner experienced in debate with Karl Barth, 'varied and passionate controversies' (Brunner 1949:132; see Brunner and Barth 1946). Some theologians deny even its possibility as an authentic way of theological understanding. For example, while Barth describes 'natural theology' as 'a science of God, of the relations in which the world stands to Him and of the human ethics and morality resulting from the knowledge of Him' that 'is to be constructed independently of all historical religions and religious bodies as a strict natural science.. .apart from any special and supernatural revelation', he is 'convinced that so far as it [i.e. natural theology] has existed and still exists, it owes its existence to a radical error' (Barth 1938:3-5). Authentic knowledge of God, the world and humanity is 'founded on the Word of God alone, on God's revelation in Jesus Christ, as it is attested in the Scripture, and on faith in that Word' (Barth 1938:8f; for a sustained criticism of Barth's attack on natural theology in relation to the Bible, see Barr 1993).

Nevertheless, while some object to the principle of natural theology, and while others who accept that natural theology may be legitimate in principle challenge the rational justifiability of conclusions that are claimed to be reached therein, there is a long tradition of natural theology within theological understanding. We shall illustrate how it has been understood in practice by critically reviewing some of its more famous examples from the Middle Ages to the present day.

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