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Searchlights on Contemporary Theology by Nels F. S. Ferré

Dr. Ferré was for many years Abbot Professor of Christian Theology at Andover Newton Theological School. Copyright 1961 by Nels F.S. Ferré. Published by Harper & Brothers, New York. All rights reserved by Harper & Brothers. This material has been prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

Chapter 13: Natural Theology and the Christian Faith

It should be obvious that the question concerning the validity and value of natural theology cannot be approached competently from within any system. To do so is to beg the initial and the determinative question. The subject calls for a decisive examination of theological method as a whole. The aim of this chapter, however, is only to describe and to evaluate two common approaches, and to suggest a third. We seem to be on the edge of a reformulation of the basic approach to religious knowledge. In any rethinking of this sort, natural theology, in one form or other, should be given an important place, for Horace’s contention will not die: Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret.


The first approach to be considered is that natural theology is itself the only basis of faith, even of the Christian faith. What other data are there, ask the advocates of this position, than those of this actual world? If there is any reality beyond this world, as soon as it has entered our world and can be grasped by our reason and experience, it is natural knowledge. Whatever can be known, communicated, and tested by our experience is natural knowledge. All valid knowledge, according to this position, is limited by the very fact of our situation to natural knowledge. Therefore, there can be no legitimate theology that is not natural theology. David Hume and Immanuel Kant have shown once for all, the advocates of this view of theology contend, that no arguments from this world can attain to knowledge of reality beyond it.

Few theologians, of course, have been content to limit theological knowledge to the reports of scientific inquiry. Those who do, hold that science deals only with the description of facts and functions. It limits its field of knowledge to such data as can be described and publicly verified by objective means. The aspirations and "revelations" of private devotions and public religion can never claim the status of knowledge. Such theological scientism obviously results in a completely this-worldly theology.

Nearly all other naturalistic theologians go beyond scientism, but reject in the name of philosophy all theological claims to know God beyond this world, at least in the sense of the supernaturalism of classical Christianity. Kant’s critical philosophy has usually been presupposed by their method. All proofs of a supernatural or a "transcendent" God depend in some way on the ontological, Kant claims, and this proof is in fact definitional only in nature. Existence is no predicate that can be added to a perfect idea, especially since such perfection necessarily lacks confirmation within the realm of the contingent, the perishable, and the evil. Furthermore, theologians of naturalism point out, knowledge is either univocal or equivocal. If, in speaking of the supernatural, we use words in the same sense in which they are used in our ordinary knowledge, we have not superseded it; merely to posit another realm of the same kind as this world, furthermore, as Aristotle and Hume both held, is in no way to explain or to account for this world.

On the other hand, if the words we use in seeking to go beyond this world do not have their ordinary meaning, we are appealing to ignorance. The transcendent world, in such a case, has no knowable nature and no ascertainable basis in fact. If appeal is made to analogy, even to the analogy of proportionality, such reasoning, in the final analysis, is subject to the same kind of demolition as that visited upon the proofs themselves if the analogy purports to leave the realm of knowledge to become informative of some superrealm. Therefore, it is claimed that the final result of the attempt to reach any supernatural order remains either mere anthropomorphism or mere agnosticism. Neither philosophy nor theology as knowledge can go beyond this world.

A modern form of this argument is linguistic analysis, by whatever name. According to this school, broadly speaking, science alone gives concrete knowledge. Philosophy is uninformative, dealing with the meaning of meaning and the clarification of meaning. Meaning is either propositional and analytical, as in philosophy, or else it is verifiable in some public manner by objective tests, as in science. Such verification is possible only in the realm of sense knowledge, or as this position has now developed, by the most stringent possible check-back of any inference to the sense data from which it was made. No other language is meaningful. Theology is meaningless, it is claimed, because it is neither purely analytical nor stringently empirical.

God as necessary being is either a statement that is guilty of logical confusion -- since necessity pertains to propositions alone and being to contingent probability -- or is a logically demonstrable falsehood. No growth of this analytical position can fundamentally alter its condemnation of theology, it seems, without destroying its original basis. In Ludwig Wittgenstein’s later usage, philosophy makes language less a matter of convention and less subject to correctional manipulation, but its stress on legitimate usage has never included any realm beyond natural knowledge. Whatever may be said, furthermore, of the existentialist school, including such persons as Heidegger and Jaspers, its dealing with transcendence has never reached any point where even the phrase "natural theology" could be properly used as relevant to the classical Christian field.

It is fair to say that both scientific naturalism and verification philosophy (linguistic analysis) should remind us that we have no right to live in a pre-Humian and pre-Kantian age. The day of an objective, rational metaphysics, deductive or inductive, is over. There is no presuppositionless thinking. Thought concerning ultimates is basically decisional, having at its disposal no full rational proof. Man has, even, the freedom not to see evidence. Justification by faith is a matter not only of life but also of knowledge.

The most adequate methodological inquiry in theology within the general assumptions of this first group in America is the work of men like Alfred North Whitehead, Paul Tillich, and Daniel Day Williams. They all reject scientism. They all proceed from validity to adequacy, to use Whitehead’s terminology. Whitehead believed that his best writing was on God, but the God he described is accessible to scientific and philosophic confirmation without recourse to any transcendence beyond the order of our natural world. Tillich likewise refuses to be limited to any scientific or even philosophic naturalism, in the narrow sense. He advocates instead "the ecstatic reason" as the door to legitimate transcendence. For the most part, Tillich’s method of correlation elicits theological answers to existential questions. Williams believes that all revelationisms that are unchecked by science and philosophy become arbitrary and ultimately relative. For this reason, he feels that honest and competent theology should avoid appeal to arbitrary "revelations" and speculative theological extensions that lack full relevance and power for our actual human situation. For these three thinkers all valid theological knowledge is natural theology in the sense that they cast out the supernaturalism of classical Christianity.

From the viewpoint of those who no longer believe in any ontological reality beyond this actual world or who believe positively that our theological task is correctly to analyze this world and to prescribe remedy for it, natural theology, in the classical sense, appears within a radically altered perspective. It is not right to observe this view of natural theology from within the assumptions of supernaturalism. Instead of being a realm beyond nature and history where God basically is and works and whence he came to reveal himself and to save us, the whole revelational content of classical theology is, for these thinkers, simply part of the data of Christian theology in the postcritical modern sense. Thus, whereas those who hold to supernaturalism interpret as naturalism all theologies that do not affirm supernaturalism, and consequently class and compare these, in intent and field, with the historic doctrines of natural theology generally, from the point of view of those who consider classical supernaturalism untenable, the old naturalism is itself untenable because it was built upon a fallacious dualism.

In general, the theological content of this position, whatever its name, stresses dependable cosmic order and resources for human life. This theology is no humanism. It testifies to objective powers that make for being and for harmony of being, to principles of concretion, to streams of reality that afford victory over anxiety. The human situation is accepted realistically and subjected to keen analysis, with its hopes and frustrations, its fulfillments and its demands. History itself becomes a matter of answering man’s basic questions of embarrassment, reason becomes ecstatic and a question of problem solving. Needs reveal the resources in reality to meet them. Usually the Christian content of love is accepted as a way of believing and of walking, with powers available in reality to answer such seeking for love. Christian words are taken over with a fresh meaning. Although God is no longer considered to be a supernatural, personal being, he is both the ground and the goodness of life. Creation and providence are no longer deemed to be due to God’s personal initiative from beyond our world but are rather conceived of as divine activity within our world and history.

In these interpretations, Christ is still central to Christian faith, not, to be sure, as the Son sent by God into the world to save the world, but as the revealer of the true meaning of existence and its saving power. The Cross and the resurrection are for them still the power of God for salvation, not as God going literally to his death and rising again a victor over it, and not as salvation in terms of continued personal life after death, but as God’s victory within history and human life over man’s chief enemies and the tragedies of existence. God, in a new sense, is ultimate meaning and effective power for good. Natural theology, as traditionally considered, becomes within this context the general religious experiences of men, and is apart from the central revelatory and redemptive acts of the Christian faith.

The honesty of this position is unmistakable. Its advocates are among our most competent and creative thinkers. If the facts of the situation demanded that we thus reduce our faith, we should all be willing, I hope, to do so. My own inability to do so is due to an insight that has captured me, namely, that the history of creation when seen in the light of the Incarnation indicates a transcendent ground of creation and a transcendent goal of human history. Furthermore, when Christ as agape is taken univocally as the revelation of God, we have within human experience him who promises fulfillment of it, but who, nevertheless, cannot be accounted for by general experience. By situation, all men must live by faith; and this faith in the transcendent God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, although unprovable, is for me the least arbitrary and the most convincing faith. An explicit or an implicit faith in the world we now know, apart from some explanation of the history of its long coming to be and the sudden appearance of the whole realm of life and meaning, would, for me, be begging the basic questions of ontology. This is my answer to the Hume-Kant rejection of all knowledge of the transcendent. It is not precritical but postcritical. In such a faith, meaning and mystery are both present; faith and reason join in the task of living. Within naturalism there is no real God as creator, no sovereign ruler, no ultimately inscrutable personal providence, no Cross as the identification in redemptive suffering of the infinite God with man, and no actual resurrection from the dead on the part of Christ or man, now or ever.

There is, therefore, no requisite answer within this position to the presence and power of evil in the world and no legitimate acceptance of the ontology of love as ultimate. Such is the case whether salvation be conceived of as a victory within man in this life or as some finding of final rest and fulfillment in the ocean of being. Every ocean of being ultimately drowns not only man’s hopes but man. The accommodation of this position to our actual world robs faith of its power for the people as soon as they see through the richness of the language to the poverty of the promises. We turn, therefore, to another way of looking at natural theology.


The opposite way of looking at natural theology is to accept a self-contained, authoritative revelation. From this standpoint, the method for determining whether or not natural theology is Christian is to search the revelation. If it is Christian, the next step is to ascertain what natural theology means in the light of the accepted authority and what place it has in the faith. There are three ways of doing so: (1) to search the teachings of the authoritative Bible; (2) to search the teachings of an authoritative Church; (3) to draw legitimate inferences from the given revelation.

Biblical scholars find that God in the Old Testament works in nature -- witness the testimony of the Psalms; and in general history -- witness God’s use of Cyrus. In the New Testament, occasional verses offer evidence for natural theology, as, for instance, in the statement of Jesus: "Why judge ye not of yourself what is right?" Similar testimony is Paul’s explicit reference to the Gentiles’ having a conscience whereby they judge what is right and wrong. Other suggestive statements may be added, such, for example, as that God has made himself plainly known through creation, "even his eternal power and deity"; or that the Gentiles worship the same God as the Jews, "for God is one." Against these verses must be balanced, of course, such a claim as the assertion that the natural man cannot know the things of the Spirit. Such an affirmation, however, refers not to natural theology, but rather to natural knowledge of revelation. Hendrik Kraemer’s basic analysis of natural theology in Religion and the Christian Faith is weakened by his failure to distinguish between these two kinds of knowledge. In any case, biblical exegesis shows that what may be called natural theology is plainly though rarely present in the Bible.

If, on the other hand, the Church is accepted as authority, it is important to observe that most of the Church Fathers, not just writers like Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria, assumed some form or measure of natural theology. In Augustine, God’s presence and work outside the Christian revelation is definite and large-scaled, and in Thomas Aquinas, natural theology is a twin pillar of faith. Should Rudolf Bultmann be right that such teaching is an importation of Stoicism and not a part of the original kerygma, those who depend on the authoritative teachings of the Church must, on the whole, consider natural theology a part of the Christian faith. Even the Reformers, as John McNeill has ably demonstrated, kept natural theology within their exposition of the Christian faith. Church Fathers like Tertullian, who in the main rejected natural theology, are exceptional. Thus, the Church has taught natural theology in some form.

In contemporary biblical and Reformation theology, however, there has been an outright denial of natural theology. This radical rejection has not come in the main from exegesis, but for the most part as a result of the acceptance of SØren Kierkegaard’s dictum that there is a qualitative distinction between time and eternity. Karl Barth formulated radically the consequences of this thesis. There is nothing of God in man, in history, or in nature, Barth growled, nor does any revelatory or redemptive work exist there. Even after Barth realized that his extreme stand was due to Kantian philosophy and not to the biblical revelation, he nevertheless maintained it.

Barth, to my knowledge, has never indicated that he sees any organic relation between God’s special presence and work in Christ and the realm of creation and history. In Fides Quaerens Intellectum, in Christengemeinde und Burgergerneinde, and especially in The Doctrine of Reconciliation, Barth has begun to deal with the question of God’s general work. His treatment of the Noachic Covenant in The Doctrine of Reconciliation is of real importance at this point, as are also his treatment of the Abrahamic Covenant, the Deutero-Isaiah Commission of the Suffering Servant, and the New Covenant of Jeremiah. But even in his frank and sweeping acknowledgment in Die Menschlichkeit Gottes of his definite failure at this point in his early writings, Barth is still so confiningly Christocentric that he does not begin to fathom the extent and importance of God’s general presence and work in nature and history in preparation for the fullness of time in Christ.

What has obviously happened in Barth’s case is that he has rejected so passionately the importation of philosophical considerations and conclusions that on the whole are unbiblical, that he has also rejected basically the minor allowance made for natural theology within the Bible. He has done so, evidently, on the ground that all natural theology is damaging to a vigorous and forthright Christian confession. In his main rejection, I believe him to be right. He is wrong, however, not only in his general neglect of whatever natural theology there is in the Bible, but, much more, in his narrow biblicism whereby he isolates Christ from God’s comprehensive, indirect work pedagogically in human experience, in nature, and in history.

The approach of an authoritative, self-contained revelation threatens us with an arbitrary faith and therefore, ultimately, with relativity. Inasmuch as revelation, in this understanding of it, cannot by its very nature to be related to general knowledge, it lacks relevance for life and thought. Although there was decisive need for the emphasis on the primacy of revelation, the time is long since past, or should be, when scholars had to obtain knowledge of nature from the Bible or from theology, and when they were willing even to dispute the facts of nature for the sake of a selfcontained fully authoritative revelation. Likewise, the time should be past when man’s religious knowledge, on any level or in any realm, could be isolated from his total knowledge. For me, consequently, recourse to an arbitrary revelation to determine the nature and meaning of natural theology, if any, is anachronistic and unrealistic. Such a faith is arbitrary, relativistic, and solicits a capricious acceptance.

Thus, just as I could not find adequate the position that assumes natural theology as the only available basis for faith, no more can I accept what to me is an arbitrary and authoritarian position in this matter. I turn, then, to an understanding of natural theology that I believe accepts the distinctive truths of both positions while doing fuller justice not only to faith and reason but especially to the nature of the full Gospel.


We have now sketched possibilities for natural theology: first, from the standpoint of reason informed by general experience, and second, from the point of view of revelation. There is, besides, the Thomist position which holds natural theology to be accessible within the realm of reasoned experience, but which superimposes upon such theology the distinctive revelation of the Christian faith. Although the method of Thomism gives expression to profound truth, it is as a whole a convenient historic solution, not sufficiently integrated organically to serve as the most inclusive context for unified inquiry and as the definitive discourse of religious knowledge.

What I propose, in place of the positions we have discussed, as the correct approach to the problem of natural theology goes neither from reason to revelation nor from revelation to reason; nor does it require a separation one from the other as does Thomism regardless of the extent to which they point toward the same conclusions. My suggestion is, rather, that we rethink natural theology within the context of incarnational theology. The Incarnation is Christ as the Event-meaning of agape; it is the revelation, for the world’s redemption and fulfillment, of the personal Spirit who is holy love. Both revelation and reason then center in Christ at the start, branching out afterwards into the supernatural and the natural realms. We do not start methodologically either with God or with man, but with the Godman. Incarnation is in, but basically not confined to, the world. The new being of Christ cannot be accounted for by general experience, nor reduced to it. Even so, he most fully gives meaning to experience, not only to personal experience but to that of history and of nature as well. His origin cannot be explained in terms of what we know, and yet he gives both reason for, and context to, that origin.

While the Incarnation is in itself selective, it nevertheless involves all we know, even reorienting and reshaping aggregative reality into an eschatological expectation by the power of the incarnational center. The Incarnation of Christ as agape has the power of supernatural transcendence. While it can never be definitely limited to the observation of the actual, calling as it does upon the illimitable mystery of the God of eternity, Incarnation is not arbitrary, since it offers definable meaning that can be tested, at least partially and secondarily, for its right to claim transcendence. In other words, Christ, the Godman of the Cross and the resurrection, is the Event which gives us eternity in, beyond and for time, which gives light for explanation, judgment and salvation, and which affords the power for the redemption and the fulfillment of life.

Christ is therefore no bridge between the natural and the supernatural. He is the common corridor that must be entered and traversed if either is properly to be reached. We can neither presuppose supernaturalism, unfolding thereafter its content in Christ, nor assume naturalism while reaching the full meaning of the natural in Christ. Instead, the only door to full truth is Christ as the Event-meaning who is agape. In the light of the life, teachings, Cross, and resurrection of Christ, we discover that no supernatural order can be known decisively apart from Christ, while no natural order of this world can contain and confine him. The supernatural order is the eternally transcendent reality and power of the love of God revealed in Christ for our judgment, salvation, and fulfillment. The natural order is the realm of creation in response to the realm of redemption: the conditions of nature and history that make our process pedagogical.

Thus both the supernatural and the natural, to be correctly known, must be seen in Christ. Accordingly, with the coming of Christ, natural theology offers no realm of investigation apart from him. Before his coming, the full scope of problems concerning natural theology could not be understood. He alone gives the full context to God’s plan and purpose for nature. Besides, natural theology cannot be carried on competently apart from the eyes of faith that kindle sight. Believing and knowing are twin requirements for theological adequacy. Discipleship and scholarship must be wed for legitimate theological children to be born.

At the same time, natural theology cannot be curtailed to the human nature of Christ, as Barth generally does. Even when he allows the Noachic and consequent Old Testament Covenants, thus providing more room for natural theology, even protesting, in his Doctrine of Reconciliation, a freedom to which he never gives content or concrete significance, Barth is still confined by his view of natural theology to a specialized biblical focus on God’s activity. The study of natural theology can be carried on aright, however, only when the theologian, with the eyes of faith and with ungrudging allowance for whatever measure of objective investigation of nature and history is possible, faces and genuinely comes to terms with the facts and relations of the natural order, as a whole and in specific parts, and then places all his findings within the context of God’s eternal purpose in Christ.

Christ as theological context alters no fact as fact, but the Christian pattern involves change in the meaning and the relations of the facts. The configuration of Christian revelation, Christ as Event-meaning, rearranges, revalues, and reconstitutes facts. Christian theology can never impose its truth; it cannot lord it over any other subject. Christ, when rightly known and accepted, sets men free to study the orders of nature in history. Christian love as context gives ultimate meaning and motivation to both life and study without distorting or prejudicing any content of knowledge in any field. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is complete freedom of mind, of task, and of field. If we abide in him who is the truth we shall take the way of meaningful but open inquiry and be set free by the truth. Only against the background of such natural theology does revealed theology display its more ample truth and relevance. Only God’s patient work on the level of creation makes intelligible, in the face of evil, the claim of God’s self-revelation to be from the beginning creative love.

In our day, there should be no need for a reminder that the supernatural is not to be thought of directionally or geographically. The eternal Spirit does not relate himself to his creation or creatures basically in spatial terms. Supernaturalism should be considered not directionally but dimensionally. Wherever God is, he is incomparably more and other than his creation. Even in his presence with nature, he is completely transcendent of it. Similarly in his presence with man, even in Incarnation, God retains his unbridgeable, qualitative distinction from man. Even when "filled with the fullness of God" man never becomes God in the slightest bit. Whether in his deity or in his humanity, God remains forever God. However much "in, with, and under" any creature God may be, he is wholly other and entirely transcendent in the sense that, while truly present, he never becomes part of, or commingles his nature with, any creature. Thus, no matter how fully God is present with a creature and no matter how fulfillingly he participates in its life, God remains God without localization or limitation.

Dimensional transcendence has been brilliantly and weightily treated by Paul Tillich as categorical necessity (nonexistent as a realm of transcendent being or of pure being within existence), the impingement of the unconditional on the conditional for the sake of being and harmony of being. Dimensional rather than directional transcendence in my understanding, however, presupposes difference of being from our time-space existence, but not the absence of transcendent being. The clue to such an order of being is God as Spirit. Theological content and context come together is Christ the Godman. Such supernaturalism as results from this conjunction is subject to no demythologizing. Such naturalism as results can have no limits of investigation set for it by revealed theology. The contents of the orders of redemption and creation are different, needing distinctive methods; the context for the knowledge of both is the same.

Simply to go from revelation to reason is to fall prey to the problems of an arbitrary faith; merely to go from reason to revelation is to center revelation in the natural order and, therefore, never decisively to rise beyond it. Rather, we should so start with Incarnation that the special revelation of God’s self-disclosure is related to general revelation as its fulfillment by transformation while the general revelation becomes secondarily a resultative check on the special, delivering the special from the charge of arbitrariness. Revelation should disclose to the trained eyes of faith at least the proper nature and meaning of the order of creation. In this way faith and reason, for us finite creatures, become dynamically interrelated, neither ever reducible to the other or independent of it. In the primary revelation of Christ, the agape of God, has come the full light. This light has not come apart from either man’s realms of darkness or the faint lights of God’s preparatory dawn; it is a light which, when rightly seen, cannot be dimmed by the natural order, but can be seen only in richer rays when reflected and diversified in God’s glory in creation.

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