Thoughts on Natural Theology

Natural theology is what we can determine about God apart from any revelation. Historically there has been some intense debate over the place of natural theology in the Christian tradition – does it even make sense to try and come to any conclusion about God without revelation, by our reason alone? Is it even possible?

Thomas Aquinas, typically regarded as the high point of natural theology, would affirm that it is possible to come to conclusions about God via reason alone apart from revelation. Aquinas’s reasoning, broadly, falls under the ‘analogis entis’, or analogy of being, which roughly means using our own existence as an analogy to understand God’s being. From our own existence, we work towards an understanding of God’s existence.:

‘In 1934, the Swiss theologian Emil Brunner published a work entitled ‘Nature and Grace’. In this work, he argued that “the task of our theological generation is to find a way back to a legitimate natural theology.” Brunner located this approach in the doctrine of creation, specifically in imago Dei, the “image of God”. Human nature is constituted in such a way that there is an analogy with the being of God. Despite the sinfulness of human nature, the ability to discern God in nature remains. Sinful human beings remain able to recognize God in nature and in the events of history, and to be aware of their guilt before God. There is thus a “point of contact” for divine revelation within human nature.”

In effect, Brunner is arguing that human nature is constituted in such a way that there is a ready-made point of contact for divine revelation. Revelation addresses a human nature which already has some idea of what revelation is about. (Alister McGrath, ‘Christian Theology: An Introduction’, p. 191-192)

Karl Barth violently opposed this idea – and historically, the Reformed tradition in general has rejected natural theology of this kind, though not as angrily as Barth did. For Barth, the ravages of sin destroy any ‘point of contact’ present in humanity. ‘The Holy Spirit needs no point of contact other than that which that same Spirit establishes’, was Barth’s reply. In a word: Nein!

Brunner presents a fairly powerful argument here, though, which demands an equally powerful rebuttal. Thomas Torrance argued along Barthian lines against such a natural theology:

‘…all rational explanation must presuppose a basic continuity here between man and God, but that is just what the atonement reveals to be our wanting by the very fact that God Himself had to descend into our bottomless pit of evil and guilt in order to construct continuity between us and God.’ (T.F. Torrance, ‘Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ,’ p. 4)

The contention here, to simplify, is this: can God be known from nature by human reason, or, to argue from a more Barthian-Torrancean (and I would say orthodox) perspective, can God absolutely not be known from nature?

As a side-note, Fr. Stanley Jaki, who is quoted enough here that hopefully the few readers I have are somewhat familiar with his thoughts, brings an interesting perspective on natural theology and science that I’ll also take a look at in the near future.

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4 thoughts on “Thoughts on Natural Theology

  1. Brother James August 15, 2012 / 3:33 pm

    And that, in a rough sense, is why I’m a Thomist rather than a Barthian….

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    • whitefrozen August 17, 2012 / 10:46 am

      I wouldn’t classify myself as a pure Barthian – though I think his arguments carry a lot of weight. So far I seem to fluctuate between the two extremes on an almost daily basis.

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  2. David Titsworth August 15, 2012 / 5:25 pm

    Douglas Groothuis, from Denver Seminary just published a large books on apologetics from a Natural Theology perspective. It’s fairly comprehensive and incorporates some of Anselm’s and Aquinas’ arguments nicely. Great post, love seeing the different interactions among scholars on this topic.

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    • whitefrozen August 26, 2012 / 5:21 pm

      Alister McGrath also somewhat recently published a new book on natural theology – that’s one I’m *very* eager to read.

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