Natural theology, as defined by Thomas Aquinas, is the study of God and His attributes purely apart from divine revelation; that is to say, a study of God based on reason alone. The things learned by this method Aquinas calls, “preambles,” to faith:
“The existence of God and other like truths about God, which can be known by natural reason, are not articles of faith, but are preambles to the articles; for faith presupposes natural knowledge, even as grace presupposes nature and perfection the perfectible.” (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Article 2, Reply to objection 1.)
That statement is an overview of Natural Theology, which must not be mistakenly seen as the only kind of theology or the only kind Aquinas believes is necessary. On the contrary, Aquinas defined “Sacred Doctrine” as the attributes and knowledge which God Himself can give. Sacred Doctrine consists of things of God which no human reasoning can begin to understand, and Natural theology consists of the things of God which human reason can begin to understand.
Having established both of these doctrines, the question becomes: which is more important, and in what order should they be pursued? This point is a little more difficult; the ultimate goal of natural theology is to prove the existence of God by pure human reason, while Christianity is based in faith in that which cannot ultimately be proven, and so the two appear to be mutually exclusive.
“…when natural theology is successful it does not provide any grounds for faith in any strict sense of grounds. That is, if natural theology succeeds in its initial task, to prove the existence of God, no de fide truth follows from this as a consequence. If it did, the de fide truth would be transformed into a known truth … (Ralph McInerny, “On Behalf of Natural Theology,” in Being and Predication (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1986), p. 251)
It appears, then, that the question becomes as much of a definition of “faith” as an explanation of how two apparently opposing doctrines can exist with each other. The concept of “faith,” as a blind leap in the dark appears to be where Aquinas is leaning here; a simple belief in that which cannot be seen or proven, for if it is proven then faith is not needed. However, since the definition of a “leap in the dark,” does not fit with Biblical definitions of faith, an examination of the definition of “faith,” is necessary:
“Faith in the biblical sense is substantive, based on the knowledge that the One in whom that faith is placed has proven that He is worthy of that trust. In its essence, faith is a confidence in the person of Jesus Christ and in His power, so that even when His power does not serve my end, my confidence in Him remains because of who He is.” (RaviZacharias, “Jesus Among Other Gods: The Absolute Claims of the Christian Message,” Thomas Nelson Inc, 2002)
“Though He slay me yet will I trust Him…” (Job 13:15, “Holy Bible,”)
We can see that Biblical faith is not a mere belief, will to believe or blind belief in a lack of evidence; contrary to that it is trust by experience and through proof. Aquinas’s definition seems to err more on the side of pure belief, and this is the cause for his concern. Thus, natural theology would appear to be at odds with a belief system in which faith is defined as just belief in that which cannot be proven.
The weakness of Aquinas’s system, therefore, was the thought that if God could be proven, faith would no longer be needed; this view, when examined in light of a Biblical understanding of faith, is false.
Having a proper understanding of both Sacred Doctrine and faith is key to refuting the Thomistic belief that a doctrine which can be known cannot be believed; it is clear that with a Biblical understanding of faith the opposite is true. However, the medieval mode of theology, with faith before understanding clearly colored Aquinas’s view of theology:
“Nor do I seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand. For this too I believe, that unless I first believe, I shall not understand.” (Anselm ofCanterbury, “The Devotions of Saint Anselm ofCanterbury,”)
However, as stated above, knowing and believing are only exclusive to each other if the definition of faith takes on clearly un-Biblical connotations. Neither can be seen to be superior to the other; without a personal trust, Christianity is mere intellectual belief, and without reasonable knowledge there are little grounds for faith.
God can, then, be both known and believed in a purely Biblical sense. There are attributes of God that can be known through natural theology and there are attributes that can be known through Divine Revelation only; but neither need be exclusive to the other, indeed, the two are meant to work in tandem:
“…Love the Lord your God all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength….” (Mark 12:30, “Holy Bible”)
From a Biblical standpoint no faculty is exclusive to the other, and the above statement is confirmed that faith and reason are to work together. Aquinas certainly didn’t dismiss faith as unreasonable or reason as incompatible with faith, but his limited definition of faith forced him reduce faith a more blind belief , which practical and defendable to Aquinas is not an entirely Biblical model.
The conclusion reached is therefore twofold: natural theology and Sacred Doctrine are to work in tandem and not merely picking up where one leaves off; and that a proper understanding of faith is necessary to reconcile the seeming differences and limitations of faith, natural theology, and reason.
Aquinas, Thomas, Summa Theologica. B&R Samizdat Express. 2009. E-book.
McInerny, Ralph “On Behalf of Natural Theology,” in Being and Predication. Washington,DC: TheCatholicUniversityofAmericaPress. 1986. Print.
Zacharias, Ravi. Jesus Among Other Gods: The Absolute Claims of the Christian Message. Thomas Nelson Inc, 2002. Print.
Anselm of Canterbury. The Devotions of Saint Anselm of Canterbury. New Century Books. 2010. E-book.
Quest Study Bible. NIV.Michigan. Zondervan. 2003. Print.