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An Introduction to Natural Theology

In the history of the Church, few theologians and philosophers are as important and influential as St. Thomas Aquinas. Among his many contributions to Christian philosophy and theology were his five proofs, or ways, for the existence of God. These were philosophical arguments that sought to show that God exists using the human capacity of reason aside from divine revelation. This endeavor to show that God exists using arguments is called natural theology.

The motto for this blog, its raison d'être, is to present an apologetic that appeals both to the head and the heart. The idea, which I borrow from the philosopher, Paul Gould, is to present the Christian worldview as both reasonable and desirable. We can think of this as two ways to respond to the unbeliever. Sometimes, the unbeliever finds the Christian worldview desirable but not reasonable. He or she may say that he or she wishes that Christianity were true, but he or she doesn't think that it is. Sometimes, the unbeliever finds the Christian worldview reasonable but not desirable. He or she may say that even if Christianity were true, he or she doesn't want God. Sometimes, it is both, and we may, depending on the temperament, personality and interests of the unbeliever, stress certain arguments or parts of the Christian worldview in order to best appeal to him or her.

Why do we do this? When I talk to brothers and sisters who want to become more effective apologists, I often encourage them to become well-versed in a variety of arguments for God's existence. Why is that? I encourage them in this way because different arguments appeal to different types of people. The argument from the beginning of the universe tends to appeal to people who are interested in science, for instance. As I began to read about cultural apologetics, I realized that this principle could be extended to the desirability of Christianity, that, often, I only had to talk about the beauty of the Christian story or even particular topics, like the goodness of biblical sexuality, to appeal to the person. This embodies a principle of charity that I think is key to Christian apologetics; we want to meet people where they are.

Not everyone believes that the Bible is the inspired word of God, so appealing to Scripture isn't always immediately effective. It can be a conversation-stopper. This is not to say that we can't still use Scripture, but we need to consider, as apologists, how best we can defend the Christian worldview in a way that will uniquely appeal to the person to whom we're speaking. We do this out of love for them, to reach them where they are. I believe firmly that natural theology embodies this principle and helps us to better reach those who do not believe in God.

What is natural theology? According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, natural theology can be defined as "the project of using the cognitive faculties that are 'natural' to human beings—reason, sense-perception, introspection—to investigate religious or theological matters." Natural theology is the use of what we share as human beings, our shared cognitive faculties, to discover truth concerning God. This has, for centuries, been a controversial proposition, and I don't have nearly the space (nor the particular expertise) to go over the controversies in detail. In an indirect way, I will address them by giving a positive account of natural theology from Scripture and theology.

While you won't find specific appeals to natural theology, per se, in Scripture, you will find appeals to general revelation. General revelation, as revelation, is revealed by God, but it is not revealed in written words or God's speech, as we find in the Bible. That is called special revelation. General revelation is that which is revealed by God in what He has created and leads us to discover Him and aspects of His nature. What is discovered is not complete-that's why we need special revelation-but it is substantive.

Let me highlight two examples from Scripture. The first is Romans 1:18-23, which says (NASB; emphasis is mine):

"For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures."

This passage falls within the context of verses 18-32, in which Paul condemns those who, instead of worshiping the Creator, worship the creature (verse 25). This condemnation begins with verse 18, where Paul says that God's wrath is revealed against this unrighteousness because of those who "suppress the truth in unrighteousness." How did these people come to know the truth that they suppress? In verses 19-20, we see that God has made His nature evident to them through what He has made. Paul is not talking about the Jews in this passage, but gentiles. Gentiles, who did not have God's special revelation, are nonetheless held responsible for their response to God's general revelation and are therefore "without excuse" for instead worshiping idols.

It seems clear to me that Paul is referring to what is revealed about God through creation, or "through what has been made" (verse 20). Yet what is often missed in discussions about general revelation, it seems to me, is that God also created our cognitive faculties, which we share as human beings created in the image of God, which enable us to come to know God through His creation. We tend to forget that all that exists is from God. He designed our minds to discover Him. If this is the case, then God has created both that which reveals Him and that which perceives Him.

Some Christians are uncomfortable with the idea that arguments could tell us something about God's nature. But what is logic? Logic is nothing but those rules by which propositions are related to one another. Whatever those rules are, God is their foundation. If He has created our minds to understand these rules intuitively, then logic will also lead us to Him. Creation reveals the glory of God. How else is it that the connection between His creation and Him is established in our minds, if not for some intuitive understanding of logic? To be clear, I'm simplifying this a bit. My claim basically concerns epistemology (i.e., the philosophy of knowledge or truth). God holds people without Scripture responsible for their faith in Him based on what is revealed to them in His creation. If that is the case, then He has also created our minds to know Him without special revelation, not in full, but enough to condemn us for the wrong response. Natural theology, then, simply appeals to the minds God made to help our unbelieving friends make that connection between what God has made and God.

The second example comes from the Sermon on Mars Hill in Acts 17:22-31. Starting in verse 16, Paul has traveled to Athens and, as he walks around the ancient city, he is provoked by all of the idols in the city. As he converses with the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles in the synagogue and the philosophers in the market, they decide to hear him out on the Areopagus, a large rock in Athens where people would be heard publicly. The text says (NASB):

"So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, 'Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, "TO AN UNKNOWN GOD." Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, "For we also are His children." Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man. Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.'"

Again, though this is not a direct appeal to natural theology in the sense defined above, it is nonetheless, I think, consistent with natural theology. Paul begins by finding common ground in the religious devotion of the Greeks, who were so devoted that they had a statue praising the Unknown God, just to ensure that everyone was covered. Paul then masterfully begins to show that the Unknown God, the God whom they admit not to know, is the one God of Israel, who created the heavens and the earth and has decisively revealed Himself through "a Man whom He has appointed," who God raised from the dead. Paul makes this connection by meeting the Greeks where they are and building a bridge from that starting position to the gospel. Some well-meaning Christians fear that, by starting with reason, we either never get to the gospel, or the way of getting to the gospel is somehow illegitimate. Just to be clear, special revelation is the end goal of general revelation. No proponent of natural theology that I know of would argue that you should refrain from making a specific appeal to faith in Christ. That sounds absurd.

This bridge that Paul builds is firmly rooted in general revelation. Using their own admission of ignorance, Paul begins to teach them about the one God who is Provider and Creator , not limited by a habitation or requiring anything. This is a subtle but important objection to the pagan religion of the Greeks, who worshiped and gave sacrifices to many so-called gods. He replaces their limited view of the gods with the one true God, Provider and Creator, who created all peoples and calls all peoples to Himself. He supports this more exalted view of God with a quotation of a Greek poet, Aratus, in Phaenomena, which any of the learned Greeks would have immediately recognized. Again, Paul is meeting his audience where they are by appealing to their poetry. Having supported his contention that they should worship the one true God, Paul then moves to special revelation and the gospel, saying that the one true God has revealed Himself in Christ by raising Him from the dead. This is the point of conflict, as we see in verse 32, when some laugh off the idea of a resurrection.

Acts 17:22-31 is one of the most important texts for apologists to know and study, and for good reason. It represents with a concrete example what Paul believes in Romans 1, that God has made His nature evident in what He has made. Paul appeals to this common ground in order to present the gospels to this Greek crowd. Notice what is missing from this passage. There is no direct appeal to the Law or the Prophets, even though Paul, in other places, appeals to them to present the gospel. Why is that? Because it would not have been effective.

Using natural theology, I think, is an application of what it means when Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 9:19-22 that he becomes like the one he wants to win to Christ. The context here is liberty in Christ; Paul is arguing that it would be better to give up his liberty for the sake of spreading the gospel (to a church that tended to confuse liberty with lawlessness). The specific context is how he will live, but I think that there is a general principle at work here as well, that we should be willing to meet someone where he or she is in order to make it easier for him or her to receive the gospel in faith. Here is the text (NASB):

"For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some."

In order to meet our unbelieving friends where they are, so that we may perhaps persuade them of the truth of the gospel, let's be willing to appeal to these arguments. This requires a sensitivity to the person. Sometimes, arguments won't really help. At other times, they will. Some arguments won't appeal to the person, while others will. In order to do this with wisdom, we have to get to know the person.

For this series, I won't cover every argument for God's existence. These arguments have many forms and a long history. In 1986, the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga gave a lecture called "Two Dozen (or so) Theistic Arguments," which has since become very famous. It covers a wide range of arguments for God's existence. Though this list is impressive, I'll use William Lane Craig's much shorter list. His ministry, Reasonable Faith, has made a series of animated videos for these arguments, which are short and concise. There is a playlist on YouTube for these videos. For every post on an argument in this series, I will link to the animated video and give a brief summary and defense of my own on each argument. After covering arguments for the existence of God, I will cover arguments against the existence of God, and there are videos for that as well. My hope is that these posts will be relatively shorter and give a nice overview for your consideration.

Here is a list of the arguments that I'll cover in the coming weeks:

  1. The Argument from the Beginning of the Universe

  2. The Argument from Contingency

  3. The Argument from Fine-Tuning

  4. The Moral Argument

  5. The Ontological Argument

  6. The Argument from the Resurrection of Jesus

I will also cover some other topics, so this list is not exhaustive. My hope from this series is twofold. As my story shows, I dealt severely with doubts as a follower of Christ and nearly renounced my faith. Natural theology had a huge impact in rescuing my faith. Maybe some reading this are also dealing with doubts. If you are, stay tuned. Know that I understand what you're going through personally and that you're not alone in your struggle with those doubts. Feel free to message me through Facebook or this blog with any questions, and I'd love to get back to you. That same offer is open for any non-Christians who read this. My hope is that this will help you to see the reasonableness of the Christian faith and why you should put your faith in Christ as your Savior and Lord. I'd like to meet you where you are as well.

That's it for this week's post. Next week, we won't quite get to arguments for God's existence, but we will briefly discuss logic. Knowing some simple logical rules will help you to understand these arguments, as well as help in life in general. I'm also working on a post or two to follow up my post on critical theory and the riots from a few weeks ago. I want to spend some time working on and praying over these posts, which will be about how we can give a distinctly Christian response to racism and injustice. I suspect that I won't be able to write on that for a couple more weeks, so stay tuned for that as well.

If you find yourself continuing to come back to the blog, please consider subscribing to it, so that you will get notified of each new post. With a subscription, you can also comment below and start a discussion! Finally, if you have any questions or comments about the blog, then you can send me a message from the bottom of the homepage. I look forward to receiving messages from you. Thank you for reading!

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