Natural theology, a biography…

© Ruth Bancewicz

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. God revealed himself to the Hebrews, and their scriptures speak of creation revealing God’s glory, his ordering of times and seasons, and his lavish provision.

As the Christian era dawned, the apostle Paul wrote in the New Testament that creation wordlessly communicates something of God to everyone. Ancient Greek philosophers agreed: there is evidence for God in nature. The early Christian theologian Augustine gave a name to this revelation of God through creation: natural theology. In the Middle Ages Thomas Aquinas laid out his now famous ‘five ways’ argument for God from observations of nature. Different expressions of natural theology were studied and taught throughout the Christian church.

The scientific era dawned, and scientist-theologians began to describe detailed evidence for design. God was described as the lawgiver, establishing order from chaos. Christian scholars during the Enlightenment tried to use natural theology to prove God’s existence in a scientific rational way, apart from other sources of revelation. But the God described was distant and uncaring, and disease and natural disaster created serious theological conundrums. Endless detailed proofs looked foolish in the light of new and contrary evidence. Natural theology was used to justify class differences. And what of the doctrine of the fall, or the dangers of creating God in our image? Natural theology, of the sort trumpeted in the early Boyle lectures, was largely discredited.

Karl Barth led what he hoped would be the final Protestant charge against natural theology in the 1930s, picking off the last unhelpful remnants of this way of thinking. Others challenged him, or put the argument more moderately. Proof for God is not a useful concept, but we can see something of God in nature. Our first encounter with God may be on a mountaintop or in a laboratory, but we also need to experience God as he reveals himself through the church, through scripture and through the person of Jesus Christ.

A rich vein of a more helpful brand of natural theology remained in the Catholic Church, alongside an understanding of aesthetics that drives worship, wonder and science. Beauty in both theology and science has been receiving increasing attention from Protestant and Catholic writers in recent decades. Natural theology is going through a process of redemption in scholarly circles, though maybe it needs a new name…

Sources:

The Heavens Declare: Natural Theology & the Legacy of Karl Barth, Rodney Holder, Templeton Press, May 2012 (reviewed here)

The Open Secret: A new vision for natural theology, Alister E. McGrath, Blackwell, 2008

The Fortunes & Functions of Natural Theology, in Science & Religion, Some Historical Perspectives, John Hedley Brooke, CUP, 1991

9 thoughts on “Natural theology, a biography…

  1. Ed February 23, 2012 / 5:16 pm

    Dear Ruth,
    You haven’t referred to any Church Fathers or Orthodox sources – is there nothing of relevance there on what we now call natural theology?

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    • Ruth Bancewicz February 24, 2012 / 10:23 am

      Augustine of Hippo is a church father by most people’s reckoning. If you have any interesting Orthodox sources on this I’d be interested to see them (my literature search on this has not been exhaustive – this isn’t the main part os my current project… so ideas are always useful!)

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  2. paulstuartanderson February 24, 2012 / 8:44 pm

    Great post! Maybe each discipline has its own opening onto aesthetics. I definitely think there is room for wonder in anthropology…because although it attempts to “fix” human experience – showing how it is socially, historically conditioned – trying to do so leaves me feeling that life is elsewhere. Even for the most sensitive ethnographer, I expect that the meaning and possibility that animates another life is fleeting – glimpsable but never really graspable. I find it amazing that there could be a God of Truth who can speak into all those unarticulable moments, who can know them without constraining them by that knowledge.

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    • Ruth Bancewicz February 28, 2012 / 9:44 am

      Absolutely. I think it’s vital that we tell those stories about our own occupations as often as possible, even if it takes a while to explain, or people don’t completely get it. People enjoy hearing that you enjoy it, and are tremendously encouraged to hear ‘God stories’ about professions they know little about, and might have thought were Godless endeavors…

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