Chapter 1: The Historic Role of Natural Theology
What most struck the early Christians about their new faith was precisely its newness. Nevertheless, both then and now we are also aware that those who became Christians did not leave altogether behind the ways of thought by which they had lived in their pre-Christian days. Jewish Christians understood their faith quite differently from Greek Christians, and among the Greeks other differences emerged reflecting backgrounds, for example, in the mystery religions on the one hand and classical philosophy on the other.
In the long run, it was Greek and not Jewish Christianity that triumphed; hence, it was the problems of relating Greek thought to Christian faith that determined much of the intellectual history of Christendom. Furthermore, among the thinkers of the church the problem understandably focused specifically upon the relation of Greek philosophy to Christian revelation. The entire history of Christian thought may be studied in these terms, and the present book is guided in its presentation of contemporary Protestant theologies by the kinds of problems that have emerged.
From the earliest days to the present, many Christians have stressed the opposition between the conclusions of philosophy and theology. On the basis of this view some have simply turned away from philosophy and have encouraged others to do so. They have held that since God has granted us in Christ all that we need to know, concern with rational speculation can be only a detriment to faith and a source of heresy. Tertullian is the classical exponent of this view. For him, revelation decisively displaces philosophy. (Etienne Gilson, Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages, pp. 5-10.)
Others who have recognized the antithesis of Christian faith and philosophy, however, have believed that the problem lay not in reason as such but in a reason that refused the guidance of revelation. Man’s reason is seen as corrupted by his self-centeredness but as capable of serving a very useful function when man repents and receives the grace of God. Indeed, reason illuminated by revelation can explain that revelation and give intelligibility to the whole of reality. The real opposition is not between faith and reason but between Christian thinking and pagan thinking. The former, whether called Christian philosophy or Christian theology, is an eminently worthy task. Some such view as this has characterized the otherwise widely varying positions that may be loosely called Augustinian. (Ibid., pp. 15-22.)
Still others who have seen philosophy and faith as opposing each other have found that they must accept both and simply live with this opposition. They have believed, for example, that philosophy must begin with data that are universally acceptable and not depend upon revelation. They have believed that when this is honestly done the conclusions to which one is led are at odds with important Christian teachings. Usually some one philosopher such as Aristotle is taken as having shown once and for all what philosophy in its pure form must conclude. In the Middle Ages the interpretation of Aristotle by Averroës was widely held to have this authoritative status. Those who, despite their interest in a philosophy that contradicted the teaching of the church, continued sincerely to accept the Catholic faith, were forced to the conclusion that the results of philosophic demonstrations, though rational and necessary, are untrue. Others who overtly accepted this position were no doubt really mockers of the faith. (Ibid., pp. 37-66.)
As long as faith and autonomous speculative reason are seen as arriving at incompatible conclusions, there can be no such thing as natural theology. This consists in those theologically important conclusions of reason from generally accessible data which are confirmed by, or at least compatible with, Christian doctrine. But such conclusions constitute a natural theology in distinction from a philosophy only when they are brought into constructive relationship with other beliefs derived from revelation. The idea of natural theology presupposes a Christian revelation that essentially confirms and supplements reason, rather than either displacing it or functioning as its ground. This supplementary relationship is at least implicit in much early Christian thinking, wherever, for example, the convert assumes that the one God of whom he has learned in Greek philosophy is he who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. Actually, certain aspects of Greek thinking about God had a considerable influence upon the formulation even of the official creeds of the church. Hence, it must be said that natural theology has existed from the earliest days.
However, it was the special problems faced in coming to terms with Aristotle as interpreted by Averroës that led to the first and still normative definition of natural theology. On the one hand, Thomas Aquinas could not accept the view that the great achievements of Greek rationality should simply be ignored by Christians or assumed to be fundamentally distorted by sin. Philosophy appeared to him as having its own proper integrity of data and method which the Christian, too, should respect. On the other hand, Thomas could not accept the view that the conclusions of philosophy should either replace the content of revelation or be regarded as untrue. Truth is one. Mutually contradictory propositions cannot both be true. God has not deceived us in his revelation, but neither does he deceive us in the proper functioning of our reason.
On these assumptions we must suppose that the conclusions of philosophy are compatible with those of theology. The former begins with generally accessible data and employs reason in deriving conclusions. The latter begins with the act of will in which God’s revelation is believed and also employs reason in its understanding. If theology and philosophy seem to conflict, rational error has been made somewhere. This error is to be found and remedied by rational reflection.
The position of Thomas entails creative philosophic work on the part of the theologian. He can no longer simply identify the position of a particular philosopher as the necessary conclusion of reason itself. Since in his day Aristotle was the authoritative philosopher, Thomas devoted great energy and philosophical genius to his reinterpretation. But in principle he did not commit himself to agreement with Aristotle’s philosophy. He committed himself only to showing that where he disagreed with Aristotle he did so on responsible philosophic grounds. His natural theology is an improved Aristotelian philosophy. We may judge historically that he was guided in his improvements by his commitment to Christian faith, but he would have us judge his work on purely rational grounds. In this way we can distinguish his natural theology from the Christian philosophy of the Augustinians. (Christian character of Thomas’ philosophy as to put in question any distinction between his natural theology and a Christian philosophy. Cilson entitles his important work on Thomas The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. The question as to theological method that follows when this view is pressed will be considered in the criticism of Mascall in Chapter 2.)
Thomas’ philosophical work enabled him to conclude that some of the doctrines that were given in revelation are also susceptible of philosophical demonstration. Hence he distinguished three types of convictions. The highest is that which, while compatible with reason, could be known only by revelation. The second is that which, although actually revealed for the benefit of those who have neither time nor capacity for philosophic speculation, is also subject to such knowledge. The third is that which is left undetermined by revelation and is the proper province of philosophy alone. (for a much fuller discussion of Thomas along the lines of this presentation, see Gilson, Reason and Revolution in the Middle Ages, pp. 69-84.)
In the later Middle Ages this magnificent synthesis of faith and reason began to crumble, but the basic distinction between natural theology and revealed theology remained. In general, we may say, confidence in the purely rational character of philosophical conclusions declined in the face of the actual variety of belief among philosophers. Philosophy became more technical and abstract while the need of popular piety became more urgent. The view that autonomous reason has a proper sphere of operations remained, but there was less confidence that it included much that had theological value. Hence, a greater burden was placed upon faith in revelation and a widespread reaction against philosophical subtleties set in. Both Reformation and Renaissance express this mood in their quite different ways. (Ibid., pp. 85-95.)
Nevertheless, philosophy did not lose its theological importance. Leading Renaissance thinkers sought a synthesis of New Testament faith and Platonic thought in a new Christian philosophy. (Jaroslav Pelikan, From Luther to Kierkegaard: A Study in the History of Theology, p. 8.)
Even Luther, despite his hostility to Scholasticism, made use of philosophic categories and of the Aristotelian logic. (Ibid., pp. 12-14) In later life, he allowed a place to natural theology in the sense of a knowledge of God that leads men to despair. (Ibid., pp. 22-23) His chosen spokesman, Melanchthon, returned to Aristotle the place of honor and gave to his Physics, which Luther had rejected, the role of a positive natural theology hardly distinguishable in form from its role in Thomism. (Ibid., pp. 33-35.) Since Melanchthon was also responsible for the education of the Lutheran ministry, his reinstatement of Aristotle into the curriculum had far-reaching consequences for the whole history of Lutheran theological debate in the following century. (Ibid., p. 48 and Ch. 3.) The developments in Calvinist circles were not dissimilar.
The elaborate systematic theology of the schools was largely unaffected by the rise of modern science, whereas just this new movement was rapidly becoming decisive for Western thinking generally. Already in the seventeenth century the most sensitive thinkers had come to see their world in terms of matter whose motion is governed by mathematical laws. Since the nature of matter as such could in no wise account for the perfect order of its movements, there was almost unanimous agreement that the laws of nature must be understood as imposed by a supreme intelligence. To this intelligence it seemed natural to attribute the creation of matter as well.
For most thinkers, the success of the human mind in discussing the divine order showed an indubitable separation of man in his rationality from matter. Hence, the existence of man must be understood as a further creative act of God. Since man’s activity is then in the moral rather than the natural category, God is understood to have provided for him a moral law. This is comparable to the natural law except that its enforcement is by rewards and punishments rather than by necessity. These are incompletely distributed in the course of this life, but man’s radically nonnatural status enables us to suppose that he can survive natural death and receive full justice in another life. To the God who is the author of our being we owe gratitude, praise, and obedience. (For a summary of the rationalistic creed, see Neve, A History of Christian Thought, Vol. II, p. 57.)
From our twentieth-century perspective, it is clear that these beliefs represented a rationalization of inherited Christian faith, but to most men of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries they appeared as no more than the rudiments of common sense. Christians and enemies of Christianity agreed to this extent. Many supposed that the natural religion of all mankind consisted in this ethical monotheism. Those who limited their beliefs to this natural religion we may call deists.
Given agreement on this body of religiously important beliefs understood as the product of pure reason or common sense, the theological debates centered on the relation of Christian faith to these beliefs. Several possibilities were exemplified. One might regard Christianity as in opposition to them, in which case its corruption and superstition should be exposed. (Voltaire, Paine.)One might regard Christianity as essentially identical with them, in which case its additional elements should be rejected or minimized. (Herbert of Cherbury, Tindal, Toland, Chubb.) One might recognize that Christianity entails something more than these common-sense ideas but believe that its additional elements can be shown to be reasonable extensions of them, because of the corruption which had infected history. (Locke.)
In one usage of the terms, all these positions accept a natural theology. However, we are using the term "natural theology" in this book in distinction from philosophy or philosophy of religion to refer to a use of rational conclusions in constructive relation to another source of belief found in revelation. In this sense only the last can be understood as embodying a natural theology. Even here the line between natural theology and Christian theology is blurred. Many orthodox thinkers in England, however, did accept the deistic view as a natural theology that is both confirmed and supplemented by Christian revelation. (For a list of writers, see Neve, op.cit., Vol. II, pp. 62-63.) Thus the formal pattern of relation between revealed theology and natural theology as expounded by Thomas received new expression in the "age of reason."
Whereas Thomas justified the acceptance of revelation as a supplementary source of truth by the miracle of the church, the later orthodoxy appealed to the fulfillment of prophecy and the miracles of Jesus as evidence of the supernatural authentication of the Biblical revelation. Against this view thoroughgoing deists argued that belief in miracles is a superstition. (Arthur Cushman McGiffert, Protestant Thought Before Kant, pp. 194-210, 216-219.)
The debate between deism and rationalistic orthodoxy was ended by the defeat of both. Historically, this defeat was occasioned by the gradual erosion of the Newtonian understanding of the world, which both had accepted. Systematically, it was achieved much earlier by the work of David Hume. Hume has unusual importance for this study because he foreshadowed the emergence of a now widespread self-understanding of philosophy in which it abandons all cosmological and metaphysical pretensions. This means that it ceases to deal with those topics which it has had in common with theology in the past. In so far as this orientation is accepted, the possibility of a natural theology is undermined in a quite new way. At this point, therefore, we will summarize just those aspects of Hume’s thought which are relevant to the deist and orthodox rationalist positions.
A miracle was understood in the eighteenth century as an event that contradicted the universal laws of nature. (David Hume, "An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding," The English Philosophers from Bacon to Mill, Edwin Arthur Burtt, ed., p. 656.) Few Protestants supposed that such events had occurred after Biblical times. Hence, Hume could appeal to uniformity of present experience against the occurrence of miracles. Although Hume himself clearly disbelieved that any miracle had ever occurred, (Ibid., p. 663.)he was too shrewd to argue from present experience to such a conclusion. (Ibid., p. 665.) He argues instead that a rational man must employ his own experience as a guide to the credibility of assertions about what he has not experienced. Since our experience consistently confirms that every event occurs according to natural law, we are properly suspicious of assertions that events have occurred that contradict natural law. Indeed, we could reasonably accept such assertions only if their error would be more contrary to our experience than the occurrence of the events they report. In other words, we should believe that a miracle has occurred only if the reliability of the testimony is so great that we would regard its error as more miraculous, that is, in greater conflict with rational expectation, than the supposed event. (Ibid., p. 657.)This means that the evidence required for belief in a miracle is as great as the evidence required for belief in the idea that the miracle is supposed to authenticate. That no miracle has ever occurred could never be proved, but the probability against the occurrence of any particular miracle is so great that the supposition of its occurrence could never serve as evidence for anything else. (Ibid., p.665.) In recent years few have attempted to revive the argument for Christianity from miracles.
Against deists and the orthodox alike Hume argues that the supposed self-evidence of a supreme and moral intelligence is illusory. If we wish to speculate as to the source of the ordered universe we know, we cannot exclude chance. In an infinite length of time every pattern of order and chaos may have occurred any number of times. Any one arrangement is exceedingly improbable, but one such improbable arrangement must obtain. (David Hume, "Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion," Burtt, op. cit., p. 729.) Therefore, we can hardly argue from the present arrangement against the theory of chance.
But even if we acknowledge a cause of the universe beyond the universe, what can we know of it? The deists argue from the mechanical nature of the universe that its author must be like a machine maker — intelligent and purposeful. But Hume points out that an argument from the similarity of the whole to one of its parts allows equally for arguments from its similarity to others of its parts. The universe is also like an animal — therefore its author must resemble another animal; and like a plant — therefore its origin must be sought in a seed. (Ibid., p. 725.)
Again Hume is satisfied to show the weakness of the analogy without pressing the argument. Suppose that we do allow that in some vague way the analogy with a machine is better, what follows? If a mind is demanded, why stop with that? We are aware of bodies without minds, hence, we might simply take the universe as it is, but we have never experienced a mind without a body. Hence, we should provide God with a body. Then we must ask as to his origin, which presumably must be in parents who originated from their parents and so forth. (Ibid., p. 728.)
Once again, Hume shows the weakness of the deist position hut allows the possibility that it might be adopted. What, then, should we say of the divine mind? Essential to the deist’s view is the idea that God is good. But what is the evidence for God’s goodness? Surely nothing else than his creation. But the deist agrees that there is much evil in this world. Hence, how can he suppose that God, who is known only as its author, is perfectly good? The question is not whether the idea of God’s goodness can be made consistent with the evil in the world granted certain other assumptions such as God’s finitude. The question is whether the mixture of good and evil in the world as such can provide the basis for supposing its maker to be absolutely good. And to this, the answer must be negative. (Ibid., pp. 742-746.)
At the level of common-sense rationalism, Hume’s arguments could be ignored but hardly refuted. The general sensibility since Hume has been less and less inclined to regard belief in a powerful and good God as unequivocally supported by common sense. If God’s existence is to be believed at all, we require a far more elaborate and technical argument — or else an acknowledged leap of faith.
Since Thomism offers this more elaborate argument, it has survived the critique of Hume much more successfully than has deistic natural theology. However, we should note that Hume raised an objection to theology that applies also to Thomism and that will play a role in the following chapter. Thomism escapes the difficulties of arguing from the particular nature of the universe to a cause that explains its form by asserting that any existence whatsoever requires a ground in a different order of being. Hume had little appreciation for this kind of thinking, but he did see that the argument could not provide any concept of God. We may affirm that there is a "cause" of the world, but we can say nothing else whatever about it. In this case, Hume thinks, little of religious or even philosophic importance has been affirmed. (Ibid., pp. 734-735, 744, 756-757.)
Modern philosophy also had developed more technical arguments for the existence of God that could not be so lightly brushed aside. Descartes employed the ontological argument to the effect that the idea of God entails his existence. (Etienne Gilson, God and Philosophy, pp. 81-82) Spinoza developed a rigorous metaphysical scheme in which God could be identified as the one substance underlying or constituting all other reality. (Ibid., p. 101.) Berkeley formulated an ontology and epistemology that required God as the source of all experience of the nonmental world. (James Daniel Collins, God in Modern Philosophy, p. 110.) Although none of these philosophies was incorporated into an important theological tradition as its natural theology, they were open in varying degrees to this use. (Surprising enough, Spinoza’s philosophy serves almost this function in Schleiermacher’s theology.)
German rationalistic philosophy was developed by Leibniz and Wolff in still closer relation with Christian theology. However, the union of theology and philosophy that they developed is too intimate to allow a clear distinction between natural and revealed theology. (Pelikan, op.cit., pp. 85-87.)
Against these philosophic positions also, Hume posed crucial objections. All of them made use of the concepts of substance and causality, and in every case the doctrine of God depended on these concepts. Hume argued that the concept of substance is meaningless, and that causality is intelligible only as regularity of succession. This argument is so important for the critical evaluation of contemporary natural theologies that it must be elaborated briefly.
Hume begins with the empirical doctrine that all knowledge of fact and law arises in experience. (Hume, "An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding," Burtt, op. cit., pp. 595-596, 600-601.) There are no innate ideas and no special source of ideas in a mysterious intuition. This view had been accepted by Locke and Berkeley also. But Locke had supposed that the qualities given in sense experience required the positing of a substance in which they inhered. (John Locke, "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding," Burtt, op. cit., pp. 294-295.) Thus a certain brownness and a certain rectangularity both in here in a substance that with its qualities constitutes our idea of a table. Likewise, our thoughts inhere in a substantial mind.
Berkeley says that if we take seriously the empirical principle, we cannot pretend to have any idea of a material substance. All we experience of the physical world are qualities, so we can form no idea of anything beyond the conjunction of such qualities. (George Berkeley, " The Principles of Human Knowledge," Burtt, op. cit., pp. 523-531.) He held, however, that we do have a "notion" of mind or spirit as the active cause and locus of ideas. On the basis of this we may meaningfully posit a divine mind that causes us to have our regular and reliable sensory experience. (Ibid., pp. 532-533. For Berkeley, a "notion" in distinction from an "idea" need not arise from an impression.)
Hume examined his own experience and found no substantial mind or active cause underlying or effecting the qualitative flow that constituted his experience. (Hume, "An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding," Burtt, op. cit., pp. 623 ff.) Since no idea of such a power can be constituted out of qualities, he rejected the idea of substance altogether. Furthermore, among the qualities he observed in his experience he could find only spatial and temporal relations. The necessitation of one occurrence by another was unobservable. Hence, the idea of causality can be nothing other than that of a particular kind of spatiotemporal relation. (Ibid., pp. 632-633.) Clearly, then, it must be irrelevant to any such relationship as that between God and the world.
Hume’s phenomenalism was so radical that it was largely ignored in Great Britain during the following century. (Note, however, the arguments against it by the Scottish realists. Collins, op. cit., pp.122-125.) However, in our own time it has revived and largely triumphed in the English-speaking world. It can be identified by its rejection of substance, of causality as other than a descriptive term, and of the subject-object duality. Basically, the position of Wieman, presented in Chapter 4, belongs to the phenomenalist orientation. Those who today continue to accept the categories of thought undermined by Hume cannot ignore his objections with impunity.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Hume’s greatest historical importance lay in his influence upon Kant and through Kant on the whole German development. Kant recognized that Hume’s attack on such categories as substance and causality was a radical threat not only to metaphysics and theology but also to science and morality. He accepted Hume’s challenge and created the most original and influential system of modern times.
A summary of Kant’s philosophy would be out of place here, but its implications for natural theology must be noted. Kant introduced a sharp dichotomy between appearance and reality, which he distinguished as phenomena and noumena. In contrast to almost all earlier modern thought, he argued that science dealt only with the world of phenomena. As Hume had shown, this world consists entirely of the flow of experienced qualities that cannot in themselves explain or justify our ideas of substance and causality. Indeed, Hume should have seen that our ideas of space and time are equally underivable from this process. However, space, time, causality, and many other categories do function, and necessarily so, in our experience. Since they cannot derive from the flow of experiential qualities, they must be understood as functions of mind. Although Hume is right that the mind is never qualitatively experienced, its noumenal reality must be assumed. Likewise, a noumenal objective source of sensation must be posited. But of noumenal reality nothing can be known except its existence, and to it the categories of thought appropriate to phenomena cannot be applied. Metaphysics and cosmology, therefore, are almost wholly eliminated, and their relevance to belief in God is ended. (The "Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics" is Kant’s attempt to state these aspects of his thought in a simple way. Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, Carus, ed., pp. 8-9.)
Since natural theology has always consisted in metaphysical or cosmological arguments for the existence and nature of God, the Kantian argument confirmed the Humean refutation of it. The greatest consequence of Kant’s thought for the history of theology was its separation of the sphere of distinctively human existence — the moral, spiritual, and historical — from the sphere of the phenomenal world in which scientific thinking is relevant. With natural theology eliminated and the study of the human divorced from the natural sciences, theology received a quite new understanding of its role and function. For the first time it became possible to suppose that natural philosophy was simply irrelevant to systematic theology. (Luther had approached this position on very different grounds but had not reached it. See Pelikan, op. cit., pp. 10-15.) Parts II and III of this book treat the history and contemporary exposition of this theological orientation.
Kant himself did not understand the theological implications of his work in this way. On the contrary, he developed an elaborate justification for rational belief in God on the basis of ethical experience and worked out the religious implications of his understanding of God and man. Although the basis and content of his beliefs differed from those of the deists, he resembled them in his view that the only acceptable religion is that which is rationally justified. For Kant, too, reason defines the content and limits of authentic religion. (Immanuel Kant, Religion Within the Limits of Pure Reason.)
The immediate and most revolutionary impact of Kant on his philosophical successors lay in his attribution of a creative role to the mind. Kant severely restricted this role by positing an objective noumenal source of the content of experience. But just as Berkeley had rejected the material substances of Locke, so Kant’s successors rejected the objective noumena of Kant. Berkeley had assumed that the objectivity of sensory stimulation must still be explained and hence had argued for God as its cause. But the idealist successors of Kant could regard creative mind as the source of the whole of its experience.
They did not mean that the conscious intention of the individual could create the content of his experience. Quite the contrary, the creative mind was understood as altogether suprapersonal. Individual minds only embodied it to a greater or lesser degree. The whole movement of nature and history was to be understood as the self-manifestation or self-actualization of absolute mind. (For a very brief summary statement of major idealists between Kant and Hegel, see Neve, op. cit., Vol. II, pp. 101, 119. For a somewhat fuller discussion of this development, see Moore, The History of Christian Thought Since Kant, pp. 56-66.)
This absolute idealism received its superlative expression at the hands of Hegel. Its implications for the work of theology differed radically from those of Kantian philosophy. Whereas Kant separated the realms of the noumenal and the phenomenal, Hegel regarded the phenomenal as an embodiment of the pure rationality of the noumenal. The philosophic ideal was to explain the flow of observable events from the perspective of the structure of pure thought. Metaphysics in a quite new form is restored as the queen of all thought. From it and from it alone we can comprehend the truth in each of the particular fields of human inquiry. This process is embodied in such disciplines as philosophy of law, of history, of nature, and of religion. Philosophy of religion provides the norm by which the kernel of truth in theology can be distinguished from its mythical expressions. (A brief exposition of relevant aspects of Hegel’s thought is found in Mackintosh, Types of Modern Theology, pp. 101-117.)
Philosophy of religion as developed under the influence of Hegel introduced a quite new conception of the relation of philosophy and theology. During the Middle Ages and early modern period, theological assertions were taken seriously as embodying literal meanings. They were either true or false; as assertions about the nature of reality they were of the same order as philosophic statements. The question was that of the compatibility of the two sets of assertions, or of the justification of one or another statement. The deists and Kant rejected revelation as a source of knowledge. Christian orthodoxy typically accepted both philosophy and revelation and argued for their compatibility.
Now, however, theology is taken as expressive of a dim intuition of a truth that philosophy can grasp directly and clearly. Divergences between the two are recognized, but they are not seen as contradictions. The spiritual experience to which theology gives expression is vindicated, and even the theological expression is appreciated as a kind of poetry, but the real task of interpretation is taken over by philosophy.
Hegelian philosophy of religion as such cannot be understood as a natural theology, since it sought to supersede theology rather than to provide it a basis. However, like all philosophies that lead to conclusions about the reality of God, it could be regarded as susceptible of use as a natural theology. Such theologians as Biedermann and Dorner expended great ingenuity in this attempt. (See discussion of their work, ibid., pp. 130-134.)
Critics of natural theology argue that it always tyrannizes over the revealed theologies of those who use it. The doctrine of God and his relation to the world is so fixed by the philosophy employed that the revealed truth about God is distorted and foreshortened. Whether or not this is true of every use of natural theology, few doubt that the Hegelian philosophy resists Christianization and that the efforts of the theologians failed. Since the decline of Hegelianism, few Protestant Continental theologians have favored the use of natural theology.
The relations of philosophy and theology have had a very different history in the English-speaking world. Hume’s radical ideas were not taken seriously, and Kant’s influence was far from decisive. Bishop Butler was able to justify Christian orthodoxy by arguing that it offered no more obstacles to rational credence than did the natural religion of the deists. (Joseph Butler, The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the constitution and Course of Nature.) In America, it was the religious inadequacy of deism rather than its philosophic difficulties that caused its downfall. Fundamentally, the view that the orderliness of the world pointed to God as its source and sustainer remained a part of Anglo-Saxon common sense. Reason continued to supply the natural theology that the church supplemented by revealed truths.
For this reason, the great shock to Anglo-American natural theology was Darwinian science rather than critical philosophy. The argument centered around the view that man has an animal ancestry, but a more fundamental issue was at stake. (A brief discussion is found in Moore, op.cit., pp. 151-175.)
The wider implication of Darwin’s evolutionism was that blind forces immanent in nature account for the complex order that we now observe. In the context of the Newtonian world view, this meant that God, if posited at all as the cause of the world, was only the initiator of a much simpler and less impressive world than ours. It also meant that man was a part of the mechanical world of matter in motion, with only the remotest relations to God. No wonder that Darwinism appeared as synonymous with atheism to many sensitive Christians!
The response to Darwin dominated Anglo-Saxon thought for half a century or more. Apart from sheer rejection, which rapidly lost all color of justification, and sheer acceptance, which led in fact to atheism or agnosticism, three major alternatives emerged. It is interesting that they are fundamentally reappraisals of the Newtonian-deistic vision more than of evolution as such.
First, Kantian philosophy was now seen as saving morality and religion from the imperialistic claims of a hostile science. The whole Newtonian world was reduced to the phenomenal realm, and ethics and religion were vindicated in the superior sphere of the noumenal. In the less technical language of much theology, the realms of fact and value were distinguished and the Newtonian-Darwinian world was limited to the former. (This is the line taken by the Anglo-American Ritschlians.)
Second, absolute idealism could be used to show the ultimate unreality of matter. The whole notion of matter in motion producing mind could be reversed to show that in fact it is absolute mind alone that is the source of the real and that what we call matter in motion is only its self-manifestation. (Bradley, Royce.)
Third, the fundamental naturalism of the Newtonian-Darwinian world could be maintained while rejecting the mechanistic images that dominated it. If nature contained the power of producing life, intelligence, and spirit, then clearly it was not merely an inanimate machine. The persistent thrust toward spiritual being that dominates the evolutionary process could not be understood as a mechanical necessity. There is a force at work within nature that transcends all Newtonian natural categories. (Fisk, Alexander, Bergson, Tennant.)
Different interpretations of the relation of this creative force to God are possible. The least disturbing view of the situation to the Anglo-Saxon mind is that we have simply learned more about the way in which God creates. We had supposed he did so in a moment of time, and now we see that he is constantly creatively at work. (Lyman Abbott.) The religious implications of such a view are far from disturbing.
Others have thought the inference from creativity in nature to a transcendent God to be a weak one and have simply identified this creativity or some aspect of it with God. The implications of such a view may be much more disturbing to traditional Christianity, but they must not be confused with those of an earlier mechanistic naturalism. (Neo-naturalism. See Chapter 4.)
Whereas the Kantian and Hegelian solution to the Darwinian threat to theology tended to displace natural theology with philosophy of religion, the creative evolutionism of English and American thinkers revived natural theology in a new form. In quite different ways, roughly comparable to those indicated in the two preceding paragraphs, Bertocci and Wieman offer contemporary formulations of this kind of modern natural theology.
This historical survey of the fortunes of natural theology has focused attention on four of the forms that it has taken in Christian history. The first is that of a modified Aristotelian philosophy as employed by Roman Catholic and Protestant Scholasticism. The second is that of the rational religious beliefs of the deists. The third is Hegelian philosophy as adopted by theologically conservative thinkers. The fourth is some form of creative evolution. Since we have noted that many other types of philosophy are susceptible of the formal relation to Christian theology that defines natural theology, it is not necessary to stress that the foregoing list is in no sense exhaustive. In the thought of Brightman as presented in Chapter 3, a different type can be seen. Nevertheless, the four types on which we have focused attention do seem to have played the more prominent roles in the history of Christian theology.
Of these four, the second and third are not now widely regarded as serious possibilities. Hence, it is not surprising that the three positions treated in the following chapters represent primarily the first and fourth views. Further, we have seen that after the abortive attempt to employ Hegelian philosophy as a natural theology, Continental Protestant theologians turned against natural theology as a whole. Hence, it is also not surprising that, whereas Parts II and III are dominated by treatment of Continental thinkers, Part I treats only English and American theologians.
Special difficulties have attached to the selections of contemporary theologians who employ natural theology. The inclusion of a Thomist was clearly demanded, but the most famous Thomists are Roman Catholic. Stretching the definition of Protestant, I have included the Anglo-Catholic, E. L. Mascall.
In many ways at the opposite pole of the theological spectrum we find the radical empiricism of Neo-naturalism. Its clearest systematic exponent is Henry Nelson Wieman. Wieman’s work is primarily philosophy of religion rather than systematic theology, and for this reason his inclusion, too, raises questions. However, he does provide us with some clear indication of the way in which his philosophy can function as a natural theology in relation to specifically Christian theology.
The great body of American thought that still looks to natural theology stands between these polar positions: the Thomist, which thinks of God as transcendent and supernatural; and that of Wieman, which presents God as a process immanent in nature. It finds expression in many books, but few recent writers have treated it systematically and extensively. Generally, the philosophers of religion have been left by the theologians to go their own way, with relatively little interchange.
The place at which close co-operation between theology and a philosophy of religion falling in this middle area has been kept most vitally and viably alive is in Boston Personalism. Even here, no one contemporary has developed philosophy of religion as a natural theology in the context of a total theology, but the materials for the task are readily at hand.
The theological position of L. Harold DeWolf will be the basis of the chapter on Boston Personalism, but it would be unfair to criticize the natural theology of which he makes use only in terms of the limited development it receives at his hands. Hence, the arguments for the existence of a personal God developed in two recent books by Personalist philosophers will be used as illustrating the kind of philosophical thinking that can support DeWolf’s position. These books are Bertocci’s Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion and Brightman’s Person and Reality, edited posthumously by Bertocci.
Despite the fact that the discussions in the three following chapters will leave many other possible approaches uncriticized, most of the basic issues with respect to the viability of an approach to Christian thought through natural theology should be clearly raised. The fundamental questions that should be kept in mind are as follows. First, can we escape philosophical relativism sufficiently to justify any constructive doctrine as an objectively rational basis for understanding revelation? Second, can any doctrine of God arrived at philosophically be compatible with the distinctively Christian understanding of God? Unless both these questions can be answered positively, natural theology as understood in this chapter must be rejected.