Natural Theology: An Evangelical Faux Pas?

As I am busying myself recording and editing about 60 lectures on “Eschatology” and on “The Canon” I thought I would re-post this article about one of my bete noirs – Natural Theology.  I have kept the old comments up too.

Any discussion of the doctrine of Divine revelation or of apologetic method has to incorporate the matter of natural theology. Is natural theology a legitimate exercise when its foundational tenets are viewed in the light of Scripture? In the opinion of the majority of Protestant theologians and apologists the question is answered in the affirmative. Many authoritative names, representing Arminian, Reformed, and Dispensational schools of thought have bought into some kind of natural theology.[1] Such luminaries as Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield, Robert L. Dabney, Lewis Sperry Chafer, J. Oliver Buswell, and Henry C. Thiessen all found a place for a natural theology in their works. Among distinguished contemporaries the list would include Charles C. Ryrie, Robert L. Lightner, James Leo Garrett, Bruce Demarest, Gordon Lewis, Alister McGrath, Donald Bloesch, Wayne Grudem, John S. Feinberg, and R. C. Sproul Sr.

In the realm of Christian apologetics the list is almost endless. In addition to a few of the names above, one might name (among past and present), C. S. Lewis, John Warwick Montgomery, Norman L. Geisler, J. P. Moreland, Ronald Nash, William Lane Craig, Winfried Corduan, Douglas Groothuis, Ravi Zacharias, Paul Copan, Richard Swinburne, and Gary Habermas. The head-count is impressive. So why ask the question? What is the problem?

To answer these questions we must put to ourselves some more specific ones: First, what is natural theology? Second, what are its difficulties? Third, does the doctrine of general revelation lead us to recognize some form of natural theology?

What is Natural Theology?

The best definition of natural theology that I have encountered is this one from Douglas Groothuis and James Sennett:

[T]he attempt to provide rational justification for theism using only those sources of information accessible to all inquirers, namely, the data of empirical experience and the dictates of human reason. In other words, it is defense of theism without recourse to purported special revelation.[2]

The above definition makes it clear that natural theology does not turn to Scripture for its findings (though it does profess to find its rationale there). It depends upon the unaided use of human reason and induction. The mind of the sinner, must, then, be neutral in its use of “right reason.” This, of course, means that the mind of the unbeliever is able to arrive at certain truths about God. Van Engen adds that Thomas Aquinas, in his synthesis of Holy Scripture and Aristotelian philosophy, held that “beyond the truths derived from the study of Scripture there was another body of (compatible) truths based on the application of reason to the created world.”[3] In fact, it is only when “the Judeo-Christian notion of “creation” is made equivalent to the Greek philosophical notion of “nature”… [that] the stage is set for the development of a “natural theology.’”[4]

Advocates of natural theology often make the claim that without it there could be no apologetic witness to the natural man, for there would be no common ground between the believer and the unbeliever. Classical apologists tell us that it is the necessary ground of apologetics since the theistic arguments depend upon it.[5] From this it follows that any theologian who employs the theistic “proofs” for God’s existence borrows from natural theology. They presuppose a quality in all men that enables them to arrive at certain true propositions about God. These are not, to be sure, salvific truths, or doctrinal truths like the Trinity, the Incarnation, or the substitutionary atonement of Christ[6], but are propositions about the existence of God and, “in some respects, what he is like, or at any rate, what he is not like.”[7]

Problems with Natural Theology

Despite its popularity with many theologians and apologists, there are many serious difficulties with the whole concept of a natural theology independent of special revelation. These problems can be found at many levels; exegetical, theological and philosophical. At the exegetical level the issue may be seen as a problem of eisegesis. The main supports are found in the New Testament, namely Romans 1:18ff.; Acts 14:15-17; and 17:22ff. These passages are interpreted as teaching that the unregenerate can reason to God, not that they have an innate knowledge of God which Paul appeals to.

In Romans 1 we read the following assertions:

v. 18: ’Apokaluptetai gar orgh qeou ap’ ouranou

For the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven…

v. 19: dioti gnonte” tou qeou faneron estin en autoi”

for that which is known of the God is evident to them…

v. 21: dioti gnonte” tonv qeon

for though they knew God [or, “knowing the God”]…

v. 28: kai kaqw” ouk edokimasan ton qeon ecein en epignwsei

And just as they did not like to test the knowledge of God (which they had)…

The entire argument of the Apostle is that in consciously hindering (kateconvtwn) the revealed truth all mankind is without excuse (anapologhto).[8] “The inexcusableness resides in the fact that being in possession of this knowledge they did not render to God the glory and the thanks which the knowledge they possessed ought to have constrained.”[9] Thus, sinners are not under present condemnation (Rom. 1:18; cf. Jn. 3:36) simply because of some Divine fiat, they are condemned, “for suppressing and ignoring the knowledge of God they do have available to them.”[10]

Theologically speaking, there is a sufficient and authoritative revelation. As Adolf Schlatter put it, “Nothing can be known to us about God, except what God shows us, and everything God shows us is known by us.”[11] The revelation of God in creation is not sufficient for salvation (because as it was built into the Edenic environment from creation-week it was never designed to address man’s plight) but sufficient now to render man without an apologetic. God’s revelation in nature is known a priori by virtue of the imago dei, not from deduction and reasoning to God. So Murray can observe: “Revelation is always to those possessed of intelligent consciousness. If it is revelation to us it must also be in us because that which makes it to us is that which is in us, namely, mind and heart.”[12] The sinner’s willful turning from this revelation within is his damning preference. A person who rejects this knowledge effectually misuses the created world. Such behavior is well described in a recent study: “One is, in effect, seizing the goods of the created order on one’s own terms, without the attendant commitment and responsibilities.”[13] But this is nothing more than idolatry! The tenets of Natural Theology completely disregard the nature of unregenerate reason. This allows the unregenerate just what he wickedly desires, that is, to place the Sovereign of the universe before the bar of human reason. But further, natural theology does not comprehend reason in its only right relation – which is in relation to the perfect rationality of God.[14]

We see then that there is neither exegetical nor theological support for natural theology. But what about philosophy? It is, after all, from philosophy that the conception of natural theology derives its credentials. Thomas Aquinas stated, “Meditation on [God’s] works enables us, at least to some extent, to admire and reflect on God’s wisdom…We are thus able to infer God’s wisdom from reflection upon God’s work.”[15] (Emphasis added).

These inferences are to proceed by our use of reason alone. It is an epistemological question. We see this well put in the quotation below.

Following Aristotle, Thomas held that one could discover God by examining God’s effects in the sensible world. Thomas believed that the unaided human reason could know the things of this world…the reason could know a few basic things about God. These truths, which all people could know apart from faith or illumination, were known through natural revelation…One could take God’s existence on faith. But it was possible for this truth to be known by the reason alone apart from faith.[16]

Notice the deliberate demarcation between the role of reason and the role of faith. In natural theology faith is only needed where scriptural revelation enters in. And Scripture is only thought to enter in where the deliverances of reason cannot penetrate – for example, the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. Notice how this is done in a recent work on apologetics.

By human reason alone and without any relation to divine revelation, we can apprehend what a star is. This is not something that is revealed in Scripture but is apprehended by the mind…That the universe is well ordered is something we can discover and judge to be true by rational investigation. However, this is also something that is revealed in Scripture, and we can accept it by faith. By divine revelation we can apprehend what God’s plan is for our salvation. This is not something that we can apprehend by observing the world, but only by hearing the Word of God (Rom. 10:17).[17]

The authors of the above quotation use the term “divine revelation” as a designation for Scripture. This betrays their belief that the world can be interpreted aright by neutral reason minus faith. Thus, faith and reason work together only when reason calls upon faith. But this is, as we shall see in the next chapter, a fatal blow to systematic theology as a worldview, because it leaves a world of knowledge open to unaided reason, which theology can never pronounce upon independently of non-theological and non-biblical propositions.[18]

The “god” whose existence is argued for by natural theologians is not and can never be the Triune God of Scripture. The reason for this conclusion is stated by Carl Henry.

For the Protestant Reformers the “natural theology” elaborated from the universe by the scholastics was a pagan distortion of the revelation in the creation. God’s revelation in created reality results not in theological truth but rather in the unregenerate man’s misconception of God and, in view of the sinner’s revolt against light, inevitably in a pagan notion of God.[19]

But then the “god” of natural theology is a false god.[20] It is here where natural theology shows its true colors. It is not natural “theology” it is natural idolatry. As has been well said of Paul in his defense before the Areopagus, “He did not seek to add further truths to a pagan foundation of elementary truth. Paul rather challenged the foundations of pagan philosophy and called the philosophers to full repentance.”[21]

When faith is disconnected from reason in the Aristotlean/Thomistic fashion it follows that the notion of truth is independent of the reality of God. In consequence, what truth is becomes contingent upon the deliverances of unaided reason. Thus, the reality of God becomes contingent upon the progress of the same deliverances of man’s reason. Truth is not Christian truth, it is human truth! The only way out of the situation is to follow the revelation of Scripture, where alone one discovers the God of truth in general revelation.[22]

Does General Revelation Lead to Natural Theology?

Finally, then, we have to ask whether a commitment to the biblical model of general or natural revelation ends up in an affirmation of natural theology. According to many evangelicals it does. But this is because they have not done their biblical exegesis before their theologizing and their philosophizing. General revelation is a Bible doctrine. The Bible must be listened to first! Only then are we in a position to discuss what can and what cannot be known by human reason, and, just as importantly, why it can be known. The Bible gives us one answer; and natural theology gives us another. We, along with Calvin, can choose to see the world through the spectacles of Scripture (cf. 2 Cor. 10:5; Rom. 12:2; Col. 2:8), or we can relegate the voice of Scripture (and the principle of Sola Scriptura) to a small sector of knowledge accessed by “faith.” The arguments of natural theologians do not prove anything like the biblical God. For example, why must the Cosmological argument prove a transcendent God? The philosopher Immanuel Kant asked long ago, “How can one argue for a Cause beyond the experienced world when all the premises in the argument come from within the experienced world?” An epistemology founded upon natural human reason cannot provide an adequate response. We must have a Supernatural perspective. We must stand on Scripture.

[1] Natural Theology has been a standard doctrine within Roman Catholic theology since 1870.

[2] James F. Sennett and Douglas Groothuis, eds., In Defense of Natural Theology: A Post-Humean Assessment, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2005), 10.

[3] Jan Van Engen, “Natural Theology,” in Walter A. Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Second edition, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 816.

[4] Ibid, 815.

[5] Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 670.

[6] Ibid, 521.

[7] T. H. L. Parker, “Natural Theology,” in Everett F. Harrison, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Carl F. H. Henry, eds., Wycliffe Dictionary of Theology, (Peabody, MA: Hendriksen Publishers, 1960, 1999), 372.

[8] Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 97-98. Moo, along with most evangelicals, takes verses 18-32 as being aimed primarily at Gentiles, but sees Paul as still having one eye on the Jews. They were meant to get the point.

[9] John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), 41.

[10] Ben Witherington III, Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 65.

[11] Quoted in Schreiner, Romans, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 86 n.7.

[12] Murray, 38. Emphasis in original.

[13] Stephen Westerholm, Understanding Paul: The Early Christian Worldview of the Letter to the Romans, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 50.

[14] See the excellent article by Greg Bahnsen entitled “On Worshiping The Creature Rather Than The Creator,” available online from the Covenant Media Foundation.

[15] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, II.ii.3-4, as quoted by Alister E. McGrath, The Science of God, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 71-72. McGrath’s interpretation of this seems strained: “Note that Aquinas is not grounding this approach to a ‘natural theology’ on human reason’s capacity to uncover God, but upon God’s creation of the natural order – itself a revealed truth.” (Ibid, 72). But even in this scenario (with which we disagree) there would be no point in God “revealing” anything unless human reason could “infer” Him from His works.

[16] Jack B. Rogers and Forrest Baird, Introduction To Philosophy: A Case Study Approach, (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1981), 56.

[17] Thomas A. Howe and Richard G. Howe, “Knowing Christianity Is True: The Relationship Between Faith and Reason,” in, Francis J. Beckwith, William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland, To Everyone An Answer, (Downers Grove: IVP, 2004), 27.

[18] This is supremely ironic since the very thing the authors are seeking to support is “A Case For The Christian Worldview.”

[19] Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1999), 2.88.

[20] If we were asked to give one proof of this assertion it would be that natural theologians speak of God’s existence as being “probable.” E.g., “Thomas Aquinas answer for pluralism [that beings differ analogously, not equivocably, which would destroy their relations] makes theism possible, but only sound arguments for God’s existence make theism viable.” – Geisler, Systematic Theology, (Bethany House, 2002), 1.27. The God of the Bible does not give us that deliberative option.

[21] Bahnsen, Always Ready, (Nacodoches, TX: Covenant Media Foundation, 2002), 267.

[22] Henry, Ibid.

11 thoughts on “Natural Theology: An Evangelical Faux Pas?”

  1. Michael Sudduth has been working for several years now on the older Reformed tradition of natural theology. He regards recent objections as a neo-Dutch-Reformed development.

  2. Yes, I like a lot of what Sudduth has written (though, of course, as a dispensationalist I don’t align fully with his theology).

    I see the same thing in Oliphint’s excellent book “Reasons for Faith.”

    BTW, what do you think of Sean Choi’s chapter on Transcendental arguments in the Geisler/Meister volume of the same title? Does Collett remove the ground from under him?

  3. Natural Theology is a sham. This apologetic does not deal with certainty, only probability. By the way, there is no noun reason in Scripture. Many times we find a verb, but not a noun. The apologists running around talking about man’s Reason, are reading into the text the Enlightenment view of man’s abstracted and absolutized Reason. The authors of Scripture knew of no such thing. Good post. Morey’s book refuting natural theology will be completed, God willing, in January.

  4. Sure, but as long as one doesn’t make it more than a tool, “Reason” (noun) must exist if it is to be used at all. I will look out for Morey’s book – thank you.

  5. Are you talking about “Robert Morey?” If so, then put me on the waiting list for the book too. I have never learned as much from any other theologian on such a wide variety of topics than Dr. Morey. He was mentored by Gordon Clark, VanTil, Schaeffer, John Murray, Walter Matrin, Stephen Olford,… I understand that he has a new revised edition of Studies in the Atonement, the book that nailed Calvinism for me.

    As an aside, is Groothuis also a molinist?

  6. “The inexcusableness resides in the fact that being in possession of this knowledge they did not render to God the glory and the thanks which the knowledge they possessed ought to have constrained.”

    But what about the phrase “being understood from what has been made”? Does this not imply reasoning about the creation (teleology) rather than (or as well as) an innate knowledge of God?

    This is the basis of William Paley’s watchmaker analogy in his “Natural Theology” of 1802.

    (Sorry for the late post. I’ve just recently discovered this blog )

  7. David,

    The word rendered “understood” primarily means “to perceive mentally.” Couple that with the context: e.g. “without excuse” (lit. an apologetic or defense) (v.20); “what may be known of God (lit. knowing God”) (v.21). This indicates that Paul is not talking about reasoning in an independent way to God, but about already knowing God through the Divine stamp which God has left upon man’s reason and use of it.

    I cannot here address all the issues, but will post a fuller answer to your important question in the next week or so.

    Thank you and God bless.

  8. Stephen Macasil said: “By the way, there is no noun reason in Scripture.”

    See: LOGOS, meaning in ancient world, use in Judaism and Christianity, appearance throughout New Testament.

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