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The Meaning of Natural Theology: Open Thread

I imagine that natural theology is near the top of the list of theological issues that are most fervently argued about and simultaneously most misunderstood. At least since Barth and Brunner’s head-on collision over the matter it has been the subject of voracious conflict with both sides claiming that the other doesn’t really understand the issues.

So, here’s the question: What, in a couple sentences do you understand natural theology to be? Sub-question: Is natural theology licit, that is, does it impart knowledge of God?



  1. Isn’t natural theology what we used to call science before it was secularized?

    Monday, November 2, 2009 at 2:59 pm | Permalink
  2. i like Steven’s comment :)

    I’d say that Natural Theology (in so much as it is natural Theology!) imparts the Creation-shaped kind of knowledge of God (a la ‘clearly seen by the things that were made’), but obviously does not and can not impart a Redeption-shaped kind of knowledge which we see perfectly/clearly in Jesus Christ.

    Monday, November 2, 2009 at 4:24 pm | Permalink
  3. Jeremy wrote:

    I always thought of natural theology as an attempt to infer characteristics of the divine by the observation of the world while bracketing the analysis of sites of supposed divine revelation. However, coming up with a precise definition of these hallowed sites that do not fall under the purview of natural theology might be difficult.

    Monday, November 2, 2009 at 5:44 pm | Permalink
  4. Zac wrote:

    Natural Theology, at least in one of its forms, can be understood as an attempt at appreciating the extent to which God’s glory, displayed in the created order, is more pervasive than the stain of sin on that order, and is in fact a manifestation of God’s grace. In this way, some knowledge of God is not an impossibility as this would imply that sin is more pervasive than THIS (created) grace. However, the only means by which THIS glory is fully licit to sinful man is through the grace and glory of Jesus Christ (Jn. 1:14).

    Whether or not this position is truly biblical is up for grabs, however.

    Monday, November 2, 2009 at 6:06 pm | Permalink
  5. Paul wrote:

    Natural Theology is
    1. Natural, and here we need to deal with the relations between nature and grace,
    2. Theology, and here we need to deal with the difference between theology and other disciplines.

    Monday, November 2, 2009 at 8:10 pm | Permalink
  6. Natural theology is the attempt by the theologian to find a source for knowledge of God apart from the divine gift of faith, and henceforth provide a criterion for proper analogies both in the subjectivity of the knower and the objectivity of the cosmos.

    Monday, November 2, 2009 at 8:49 pm | Permalink
  7. Natural Theology is the attempt to find revelation, which for Barth is also grace, in the created order apart from scripture. For Barth there is a “true” natural theology, but it is only realized when one is enlightened by Christ. Barth wants to stray clear of any idea of revelation in nature, which would suggest a second grace apart from the saving act of Christ. Check out my last blog post, it is part of a paper I wrote on natural theology.

    Monday, November 2, 2009 at 10:32 pm | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    Good comments, all. I need more . . .

    Tuesday, November 3, 2009 at 9:15 am | Permalink
  9. Brad E. wrote:

    I really, really like this. Bravo, Zac.

    Tuesday, November 3, 2009 at 9:27 am | Permalink
  10. Darin Fawley wrote:

    Edward Schillebeeckx: “[T]he crisis today of Protestant and Catholic theology seems to me, seen from a particular angle of view, to be the ultimate consequence of the denial of every form of ‘natural theology,’ a result of the breach between human experience and Christian faith. Anyone who starts out from the fact of this breach must sooner or later come to perceive that Christian faith is a useless superstructure over human reality” (quoted in James Barr, Biblical Faith and Natural Theology, 50n15).

    Tuesday, November 3, 2009 at 9:29 am | Permalink
  11. The problem is and the problem was for Barth, that “natural theology” opens the flood gates. It opens the flood gates to supposed secondary graces, which in result turns our eyes from the grace of Christ. Knowledge of God and revelation can be in no way a result of human or created agency. The idea that “the Christian faith is a useless superstructure over human reality” is a vague empty statement that supposes that Christianity must appease and direct itself towards human reality. This is why Barth has such a problem with “natural theology.”

    Tuesday, November 3, 2009 at 9:56 am | Permalink
  12. Darin Fawley wrote:

    I think we should reject the Barthian notion that any real knowledge of God necessarily brings salvation.

    “From the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator” (Wis 13:5)

    “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse” (Rom 1:20).

    Tuesday, November 3, 2009 at 11:44 am | Permalink
  13. You are exactly right in your citation of scripture, but the the problem lies in the unbelievers ability to understand that what has been created has been created by God. Any person can look at creation and come to the conclusion that creation is beautiful and must have been created by something greater or more powerful than oneself. But, this does not lead us to the God of scripture and certainly not Jesus Christ. In light of this Barth would therefore say that this is a false knowledge of God. Barth believes in a true “natural theology” but only on account of the illumination of Christ. Any notion of the divine apart from the revelation of scripture is ambiguous and does not necessitate a relation between creation and “the” creator,i.e. Jesus, these notions can be only of “a” creator. Real knowledge of God does not necessarily bring salvation, there are many who have known God and then become apostate, but real knowledge is necessarily linked to the one who gives salvation.

    Tuesday, November 3, 2009 at 12:27 pm | Permalink
  14. Hill wrote:

    Everyone knows that the first verse you cite isn’t in the real Bible.

    Tuesday, November 3, 2009 at 12:50 pm | Permalink
  15. Halden wrote:

    But if it was, man, that would have been annoying for Barth!

    Tuesday, November 3, 2009 at 12:53 pm | Permalink
  16. Hill wrote:

    We all really dodged a bullet on that one. It’s too bad Luther couldn’t get the book of James thrown out, too. There’s still hope, I suppose.

    Tuesday, November 3, 2009 at 1:03 pm | Permalink
  17. Halden wrote:

    James is fine. It doesn’t say anything about natural theology.

    Tuesday, November 3, 2009 at 1:12 pm | Permalink
  18. mike d wrote:

    I have to admit that I haven’t gotten around to reading all of Alister McGrath’s recent work on Natural Theology but FWIW here is his definition from ‘A Scientific Theology: Reality’:

    “the enterprise of seeing nature as creation, which both presupposes and reinforces fundamental Christian theological affirmations.”

    Perhaps of interest…his 2009 Gifford lecture texts are available:

    Tuesday, November 3, 2009 at 1:52 pm | Permalink
  19. Hill wrote:

    But it does imply something about that evil works-righteousness, which we all know is a product of natural theology.

    Tuesday, November 3, 2009 at 2:01 pm | Permalink
  20. Halden wrote:

    As an Anabaptist I tend to like works-righteousness, perfection, absolute purity, all that sort of stuff.

    Tuesday, November 3, 2009 at 2:03 pm | Permalink
  21. Hill wrote:

    Here, here.

    Tuesday, November 3, 2009 at 2:04 pm | Permalink
  22. Halden wrote:

    I still hate papists though. Jesus just won’t let me kill them. He’s ever so demanding.

    Tuesday, November 3, 2009 at 2:06 pm | Permalink
  23. Hill wrote:

    Fortunately for me as a papist, Jesus periodically demands that we kill people.

    Tuesday, November 3, 2009 at 2:27 pm | Permalink
  24. Halden wrote:

    Just more proof that you have a different Jesus and are going to hell. Not purgatory. That’s also not in the real Bible.

    Tuesday, November 3, 2009 at 2:30 pm | Permalink
  25. I wish I knew what it meant in the context of Paul’s theology as a whole.

    Thursday, November 5, 2009 at 8:44 pm | Permalink
  26. Szaszi wrote:

    Natural theology is flirting with a priori reasons to believe in Gog or know God. In natural theology God comes down to a good and rational idea. The summ of our perfect ideas about the divine is the knowledge of God. Natural theological understanding of who or what God is completly a historical, which means that it is essentially idealistic and wishful thinking.

    Friday, November 13, 2009 at 7:07 am | Permalink
  27. Most of my encounters with “natural theology” were in the context of a class on the enlightenment. specifically, for Isaac Newton, natural theology was an effort to prove God’s existence through observable, physical evidence (nature) and applied logic.

    Perhaps there has been progress in the field of natural theology since Newton’s time. I’m not sure.

    Worth noting, Newton believed his work on natural theology to be his greatest achievement… not, say, inventing calculus and physics.

    Wednesday, November 18, 2009 at 3:06 am | Permalink

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