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Some Pros and Cons of  Natural Theology

 

Colin Brown*

 

The following are quoted excerpts from the section, entitled “Natural Theology.”

 

(1) The traditional rationalistic arguments for the existence of God will not hold water.  Their logic is suspect and they fail to bring us to the God of Christian faith (Ed—as presented in the 66 books of the agreed-upon Bible).  We saw this (misrepresentation in) … Anselm and Aquinas … Descartes and Kant … John Robinson and Paul Tillich.  But this, in the opinion of the writer is no great loss.  It brings no honor to God to resort to dubious arguments in his defense!  Nor does it help the faith of the believer to be propped up by such proofs which are drawn outside the Christian revelation. 

 

(2) Natural theology (in medieval philosophy) opened the door to all kinds of speculation which had the effect of obscuring the Christian gospel.  Instead of opening up man’s mind to the challenge of the Christian revelation, it has proved a perennial temptation to fashion God in the image of man.  See onto-theology.

 

(3) On the other hand, writers like the early Barth fall into the opposite error when they insist that man has no knowledge at all of God apart from the Gospel.  It would seem to be both the common experience of men and also the testimony of several important strands of Scripture (Psalm 19:1; Acts 14:17; Romans 1:19ff, 32; 2:12-16) that men have an awareness of God regardless of whether they respond or not.  This awareness may be dim (and certainly not saving—Ed)…. This general awareness of God gains added points when we reflect on the question whether we really believe that this universe that we live in with all its apparent evidence of design is purely the product of accidental chance or whether it points to some sort of connection with a rational mind…. But this does not seem to add up to anything capable of being called a theology except in the most rudimentary sense. 

 

Natural theology is a blind alley…. it seems legitimate on the basis of both common experience and the witness of the biblical writers to speak of a revelation in nature and a natural awareness of God.  And these deserve due attention in preaching, apologetics, and the philosophy of religion.

 

(4) The Christian faith …. suggests explanations for phenomena which are otherwise inexplicable.  It makes sense of what at first seemed senseless.  It gives a wholeness to life which is missing in other views.  This is so whether we look at the universe in general or at personal experience of life.  On atheistic, humanistic premises, the whole universe is the product of blind chance.  All human values are accidental and arbitrary.  If this is so, life is what Macbeth said it was, ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ 

 

The universe in general and human life in particular make real sense only on Christian (Ed-Biblical) premises.  (This) … is not natural theology in the accepted sense of the term.  The key to meaning is not derived simply from reflecting on phenomena.  The latter is more like a jig-saw puzzle with vital pieces missing, or perhaps one so complex that the pieces just do not make sense without the aid of a picture from outside.  By beginning with himself and his rationalism, man just cannot make sense of it as a whole.

 

To say this is not to say that the Bible explains everything.  Clearly, it does not.  It does not pretend to do the job of the scientist for him.  It does not say everything there is to know about God himself.  But it does provide the key which gives coherence to life as a whole.  To argue in this way is not to relapse into the discredited God-of-the-gaps arguments of old-fashioned apologetics…. The arguments here are on a different plane.  It concerns the presuppositions of naturalistic explanations.  By itself scientific explanation gives an account of particular phenomena…. The Christian belief that God created all things outside of himself is a presupposition of Christian thought about life generally.

 

(5) All too often in the past, it has been assumed that the philosophy of the Christian religion was synonymous with natural theology.  No doubt this was partly due to the fact that those Christians who were interested in philosophy tended to be devotees of some established brand of secular philosophy or advocates of the methods of natural theology.  But in fact this is not the only option.  There remains the possibility that the philosophy of the Christian religion should be worked out on the basis of the Christian revelation and the Christian’s experience of God.

 

This is not an attempt to turn the Christian message into esoteric philosophy…. Philosophy is not everybody’s cup of tea…. Nevertheless, because the Christian faith lays claims to a type of knowledge and asserts that certain events in the past are decisive for humanity, Christianity inevitably raises philosophical questions.  In so far as the phenomenon of the gospel raises philosophical issues, it is this which should provide the subject-matter for the philosophy of the Christian religion….

 

The Christian gospel (the entirety of the Bible and its deduced propositions) must henceforth stand or fall—from the philosophical point of view—by itself…. In the future Christian philosophers must be prepared to vindicate Christianity by a more thorough investigation of the Christian revelation, or quit the field altogether.

 

*Colin Brown, Philosophy and the Christian Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1968), 271-276.  This book is highly recommended, as one of the few Christian philosophers are truly Biblical.

 

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