On Natural Theology

A very brief intro to a major topic:

Like most issues in theology and philosophy, this can be a quite complex topic. I do not claim to be an expert in this particular area, but since I am asked now and then for my thoughts on it, I decided it would be worthwhile to present a very brief, introductory piece on this – little more than an outline really.

The term itself can have different connotations and be used in different ways. Some of it is used in Christian apologetics, seeking to show evidences from the natural world for God’s existence. How much about God can be known from the natural world?

Related to this, sometimes natural theology is brought up in terms of what fallen man can know about God. Here theological debates emerge as to just how much or how little natural man unaided by divine revelation can in fact know. How far can human rationality alone take us in knowing about God?

Various figures are commonly mentioned in this discussion. A key figure is Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274). Although he does not use the actual phrase, his work Summa contra Gentiles certainly touches on this issue, among other works. His interest in applying Aristotelian logic to the Christian faith lies behind much of this.

Some Christians believe he did not go far enough in showing how the mind was radically impacted by the Fall. Evangelicals like Francis Schaeffer for example often sought to make this case. Others argue that he was more nuanced on this issue, and that he believed the revelation of God was primary, and human reason secondary. What we can learn from nature was a “preamble” to doctrinal truths. His “Five Ways” were part of his argument for demonstrating the reasonableness of belief in the existence of God.

The Scottish philosopher and sceptic David Hume (1711-1776) criticised natural theology, especially in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779). Another key figure in this discussion is William Paley (1783-1805). The English clergyman released his famous Natural Theology or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity in 1802. In it he made use of the well-known analogy of God as a watchmaker.

Obviously many others could be mentioned here, but I just want to look at a few of the issues that arise here, and then close by offering some suggested reading for much more detail on this matter. As I have often made clear, I am an evangelical Protestant. Thus my view can differ from some Catholics on this matter, or from those of the neo-orthodox persuasion (think here of the debates between Emil Brunner and Karl Barth on this issue).

A few further general and preliminary thoughts. Various longstanding schools of Christian apologetics of course are connected with all this. For example, the cosmological argument for God’s existence uses the issues of creation or causation: the created order must be created by some cause – based on the law of causality (every limited thing is caused by something other than itself). Aquinas of course comes to mind here.

And the teleological argument uses design and purpose (telos = purpose) to make the case. The presence of order and design in the universe points to an adequate source of that order. Design points to a designer, a mind. Paley of course fits in here.

Scriptural texts one can appeal to here would include Psalm 19:1; Romans 1; Acts 14:17 and so on. And the Intelligent Design movement has taken all this much further, with many important works being produced over recent decades. See just one piece of mine from earlier on: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2005/08/14/darwinism-on-the-defensive-the-rise-and-rise-of-intelligent-design/   

But it is not just taking on philosophical naturalism that concerns us here. There are many biblical and theological matters that arise. Placing a high view on the authority and necessity of Scripture, I like many evangelicals question just how far the non-Christian mind can go in terms of knowing about God.

Many evangelicals, and most of those in the Reformed camp, appeal to the doctrine of total depravity, rightly understood. This teaches, not, that we are all as bad as we can possibly be, but that the Fall has radically impacted every area of humanity, including the mind.

Our feelings, choices and thoughts are all deeply scarred and skewed because of sin. Given that reality, how far can we go in finding God – and finding out about God – without him first making a move in our direction – in revealing himself to us in more detail?

In this light the biblical Christian will take something like natural theology only so far. It brings up the important differences between general revelation and special revelation. The former especially entails creation and conscience. And it is the argument the apostle Paul makes in Romans 1 and 2.

As to the created order, he could say this in Rom. 1:20: “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”

As for our innate moral sense, he could say this in Rom. 2:1: “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.”

What passages like this seem to show is that creation and conscience give fallen mankind enough knowledge and understanding to condemn us. They show us our need and our guilt, but they do not show us enough to save us. For that we need divine revelation, specifically Christ and Scripture. So in that sense we can go only so far with natural theology.

But the theological, philosophical and apologetics issues raised by this phrase are quite complex indeed, and they have long been debated by believers. Those matters cannot here be fully and finally resolved. All I wanted to do was offer a very quick overview of some of the issues that arise here.

Image of The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology
The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology by Craig, William Lane (Editor), Moreland, J. P. (Editor) Amazon logo

For further reading

Craig, William Lane and J. P. Moreland, eds., The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology. Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

Dew, James and Ronnie Campbell, eds., Natural Theology: Five Views. Baker, 2024.

Haines, David, Natural Theology: A Biblical and Historical Introduction and Defense, 2nd ed. Davenant Press, 2021, 2024.

Ruloff, Colin and Peter Horban, eds., Contemporary Arguments in Natural Theology: God and Rational Belief. Bloomsbury Academic, 2023.

Sennett, James and Douglas Groothuis, eds., In Defense of Natural Theology: A Post-Humean Assessment. IVP, 2005.

Vos, Geerhardus, Natural Theology. Reformation Heritage Books, 2022.

Williams, Peter, The Universe From Someone: Essays on Natural Theology. Wipf and Stock, 2022.

Wright, N. T., History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology. Baylor University Press, 2019.

While I do not have all of these volumes, I can speak to most of them here. Those wanting much more discussion and detail on natural theology are advised to look to some of these volumes. And I first should say that most of them will not always be easy reading. The reader who has at least some prior knowledge of philosophy and theology will find them a bit easier to wade through.

This is certainly true of the first volume. At some 700 pages, it is one of the most thorough and detailed and academic volumes, featuring excellent essays by some of the key heavyweight minds of today. The second volume on five points of view is actually not yet out – it will appear in about three months. I suspect that this might be the ‘easiest’ volume for the beginner to get a good overall picture of the debates and positions held to.

The Sennett and Groothuis collection of essays primarily centres on Hume and his arguments. The writings by Vos, the Dutch Calvinist (1862-1949) are actually some old lecture notes of his that have recently been put together and released in book form. The volume by Wright is much more than about natural theology, but his thoughts are often stimulating and incisive, nonetheless.

Those wanting to go further should consider getting hold of some of these key books. Happy reading.

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2 Replies to “On Natural Theology”

  1. So, what about God’s grace and mercy in this context? I do not doubt the existence of original sin and the need for the Atonement that the Crucifixion and Resurrection offered to fallen humanity. But for me, as a practising Catholic and retired nurse, there was always the necessity to guide my moral conduct and duties as a professional person of faith. If our Lord and Saviour is indeed omnipotent yet sufficiently cared for humanity to give us the infinitely preciously gift of His Only Begotten Son, might not that omnipotence and grace also manifest itself in providing scientific insights that save lives and demonstrate His grace, compassion and mercy to us?

    Going through the ordeal of losing one’s preordained soulmate is a grievous loss that I would not wish on anyone. But at the same time, it taught me much about being grateful to our Lord about the small mercies and signs of His grace toward us. If anything, it strengthened my faith, especially insofar as seeking consolation in prayer and scriptural reflection went. Thinking about how the manifestations of God’s grace might be reflected through the unfolding of insight into His creation was part of that.

  2. Sure, God shows mercy and grace to all people in various ways – that is known as common grace. But this post is about natural theology, which as I tried to explain simply entails two main things: offering arguments for God’s existence, apart from direct appeals to divine revelation; and how creation and conscience point us to our need for God and his saving grace, which must be found in Christ and scripture.

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