What Is Natural Theology?

The following explanation of Natural Theology is sourced from the Gifford Lectures.

Traditionally natural theology is the term used for the attempt to prove the existence of God and divine purpose through observation of nature and the use of human reason. Seen in a more positive light natural theology is the part of theology that does not depend on revelation. To the extent “revealed theology,” which presupposes that God and divine purposes are not open to human understanding, is engaged at all by natural theology it is to address the issue of the probability that revealed theology can be reconciled with reason. During the 17th and 18th centuries attempts were made to establish a “natural religion” to which people might assent and thereby ameliorate harsh charges and actions against doubters of revealed religion. The classic work arguing for a rational derivation of divine purpose is William Paley’s Natural Theology (1802), but the rational arguments for the existence of divine reason at work in the world can be found as early as the writings of Plato (c.427-347).

Christian theology has a long history of attempting to reconcile the revelation of God in Jesus Christ with human reason. Orthodox Christian theology asserts the special quality of salvation found in the unique experience of God in Christ while at the same time holding humans responsible for responding to God’s grace. In short revelation had to be reconciled with a responsible, rational individual. Among the many attempts that have been made to reconcile natural theology with Christian faith were the efforts of Thomas Aquinas (c.1225-74) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). The philosopher David Hume (1711-76) argued that natural theology was mere speculation and that if Christian truth was to be believed at all, it must be believed on blind faith.

While for many people science and the scientific method seem to challenge the traditional understanding of faith, for others they complement their religious understanding. Thus the physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne explains the complementarity when he writes, “It is the desire for ontological knowledge, and not mere functional success, which motivates the labour of scientists.” (Belief in God in an Age of Science, 30) Polkinghorne along with Ian Barbour and Arthur Peacocke are scientist-theologians who have in recent years delivered the Gifford Lectures.

A more modern view of natural theology suggests that reason does not so much seek to supply a proof for the existence of God as to provide a coherent form drawn from the insights of religion to pull together the best of human knowledge from all areas of human activity. In this understanding natural theology attempts to relate science, history, morality and the arts in an integrating vision of the place of humanity in the universe. This vision, an integrating activity of reason, is religious to the extent it refers to an encompassing reality that is transcendent in power and value. Natural theology is thus not a prelude to faith but a general worldview within which faith can have an intelligible place.

Anthony Flew, A Dictionary of Philosophy, Revised Second Edition
Dagobert D. Runes, Dictionary of Philosophy
Van A. Harvey, A Handbook of Theological Terms
Keith Ward, “Natural Theology” in The Macmillan Encyclopedia of Science and Religion
John Polkinghorne, Belief in God in an Age of Science

Misconceptions about Old Testament Law

A common misconception about the Old Testament is that it’s laws were meant for everyone. This is not so. The laws of the Old Testament were always handed down in the context of a covenant or treaty. The rules were always articulated in the context of a relationship. Outside of that covenant, that treaty, that relationship, they were null and void.

Now in some instances the relationship in view was that between God and the whole of humanity, as was the case when Noah and the other survivors with him made their covenant with God, but this was more the exception than the rule. More often the relationship in view was far more immediate, such as God’s relationship with the twelve tribes of Israel, or God’s relationship with the tribe of Levi, or God’s relationship with the priests from the tribe of Levi, or God’s relationship with the high priest. Such laws were NOT universal. Rules handed down to the high priest were applicable to no one other than the high priest.

This is why it is foolish to cherry pick laws out of the Old Testament and apply them indiscriminately. If you don’t know the context you can’t know who it was supposed to apply to.

Consider how, even in our society, there are different rules and responsibilities for emergency services than for the general public. Police officers are exempted from some rules in order to fulfill higher duties but have additional responsibilities placed on them for the same reason. When they err and have to front up to court they are not judged as anyone in the street would be but are judged by a higher standard as befitting of a professional. The situation here is not exactly equivalent but neither is it entirely different. According to the scriptures God had a special relationship with Israel and held Israel to a higher standard as a consequence. It was never intended that the laws of Moses be applied to non-Israelites, especially beyond the borders of Israel, unless it was specifically stated or merely reiterated a more general law already instituted elsewhere in more generalised situations.

We should be very wary, therefore, of formulating a universal ethic or public policy from an indiscriminately application of Old Testament law. We need to be a lot more discriminating about what’s a valid application of Old Testament law and what is not.

How transformative is your God?

How people view God is often influenced by their experience of authority, especially parental authority.

Some parents can be quite harsh and tyrannical, always pushing and rarely encouraging. Some parents can be quite the opposite, permissive but not providing much in the way of structure or support. Other parents can be altogether absent. The best parents however tend to challenge their kids but in the context of a loving, nurturing relationship.

The picture the bible paints of God (and the Messiah) is of one who is both loving and challenging, of a God who sets high standards but is actively engaged in our lives, seeking to transform society and ourselves for the better.

I think it’s important to challenge versions of God that reflect dysfunctional authority experiences more than a Christ centred reading of the Bible.

Christians need to hear the gospel

Christians need to hear the gospel as much as non-Christians. Why?

1/ Because there are plenty of people who identify as Christians who aren’t actually saved; who are Christian in name only. They need to hear the gospel.

2/ Because there are plenty of Christians whose faith is immature; who haven’t integrated the gospel into the their life and teaching even after many years in church (or even ministry); who need deeper roots so they can produce healthier fruit. They need to hear the gospel.

3/ Because growing in grace is essential for growing in Christ even for mature Christians. Grace is not just the ABCs of Christianity, it is A-Z. Everyone needs to hear the gospel.

The efficacy of ritual

Interacting with Pagans prompts me on occasion to consider the function and efficacy of ritual. I am not entirely comfortable with Catholics sacramentalism but I’m also seeing limitations with the way Protestants speak of “ordinances” and wonder if we’ve sometimes tossed the baby out with the bathwater. If we see mental assent as sufficient for salvation we’re being awfully dualistic. Shouldn’t we be approaching it more holistically? I am beginning to wonder if preaching the gospel, praising God, breaking bread together, gathering together, and baptising one another should not all be considered “expressions of faith”, and as such, “means of grace”. It’s not that God can’t confer grace through other means, it’s just that it pleases God to frequently act through these means. I am not at all comfortable with the way that the sinner’s prayer and/or altar call seem to have gazumped baptism in many baptist churches. Something is seriously wrong with that picture. When I think of baptism as a kinaesthetic expression of faith it kind of makes more sense for me though. Baptism isn’t a work or the law, it’s an act of gift reception.

Speaking of Sin

I know a lot of left wing Christians prefer the language of injustice over the language of sin but I’m of the view that in conversations with right wing Christians we need to be framing injustices as sin a whole lot more. It’s the language they understand. We need to state boldly that sacrificing the environment to Mammon is a form of idolatry, and consequently, sinful; that animal cruelty is sinful; that spreading misinformation and slander is sinful; that oppressing the vulnerable, including the foreigner, is sinful; that not paying workers a living wage is sinful; that stealing from future generations is sinful; and that there is no love of God or of others in ignoring this. Yet we also need to be humble and admit our own sins, lest we fall into self righteousness.

Racism Is Sin

If you want to know what the Bible has to say about racism and other forms of discrimination, just search for words like “favouritism” and “partiality” and you’ll find more than enough.

Consider for instance Deuteronomy 10:17-18 which says, “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.” There’s no room for racism here in the law of Moses. Nor is the New Testament any less insistent. In passages like Acts 10:34 and Romans 2:11 we are explicitly told that “God does not show favouritism” and cares for foreigners every bit as much as the Hebrews.

Other forms of discrimination, like classism, are also forbidden. Consider James 2:2-4 where we are told, “believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favouritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” We are explicitly told this is evil.

Privileging the vulnerable

God shows a consistent concern for the welfare of the vulnerable throughout the pages of scripture. Particularly singled out are the poor, widows, orphans, and foreigners living amongst the people of God (see Zechariah 7:10 for instance). God takes a dim view of those who would sin against them through passive neglect or active oppression. There is no room in God’s law for legal or economic discrimination. Quite the opposite in fact.

Is YHWH just a Hebrew version of Zeus?

Is YHWH equivalent to other gods? Just a Hebrew version of Zeus for instance? With a wife even? No, YHWH’s domain is not limited to the sky. Nor did YHWH come into being at some point like Zeus did. Granted there is some evidence to suggest early Hebrews had a more limited conception of YHWH, but subsequent revelation, not least through Jesus, has expanded our understanding of YHWH.

The Trinity before the Council of Nicea

I thought I’d clarify why I affirm trinitarian doctrine even though I am no fan of Emperor Constantine, a man historically associated with the Nicene Creed (325AD). It’s because, although the Nicene Creed wasn’t formulated till then, the trinitarian thinking it articulated hardly appeared out of nowhere. Christian leaders had been expressing themselves in these terms long prior to that. A prime example is Tertullian (160-215AD), an African apologist and theologian, who put it this way:

“We define that there are two, the Father and the Son, and three with the Holy Spirit, and this number is made by the pattern of salvation . . . [which] brings about unity in trinity, interrelating the three, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They are three, not in dignity, but in degree, not in substance but in form, not in power but in kind. They are of one substance and power, because there is one God from whom these degrees, forms and kinds devolve in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

In every pulse

Catholic theologian, Father Edward Leen, expresses in his book, The Holy Spirit, just how intimate God’s presence is in nature: “God’s power is put forth in every pulse of organic and inorganic being, in repose and movement, in every slightest change. Since every being and every aspect of being is the effect of God’s creative or conservative action, God’s power and exercise of that power is present to and in everything to the very depths of its reality. Where anything, therefore, is, God must be. God, therefore envelops all reality, since he himself is the source of all that is real….”