Natural Theology: A Brief History

I am going to be starting a semi-weekly series on Natural Theology. I will try once a week to put up a new post referring to Arguments for the Existence of God from the Natural World. I will survey the person who proposed it very briefly, give the argument as they pose it and then attempt to both give critique and defense of the argument.

This week we’re going to be giving a brief history of the views towards Natural Theology, where it comes from and how people typically respond to it. To begin though, we need to define Natural Theology. Natural Theology is a field of study that deals with the existence and attributes of God through natural human experiences, reason, and evidences. Some of the questions that might also be addressed by it are whether God knows future free choices of creatures, how is God related to time, what does it mean for God to be omnipotent, etc. This is done without an authoritative appeal to revealed scriptures of your tradition. This allows even atheists and agnostics to participate in Natural Theology and most apologetic arguments and work would be in the field of Natural Theology. In this post, we will discuss the origins and history of Natural Theology.

Theology and Natural theology have their earliest roots in the same place: Ancient Greece. Poets were theologians, discussing the attributes, activities, and character of the Gods, and at roughly the same time came the philosophers. The pre-socratic philosophers began their search for the “First Principle” of all things, the source and origin of all others. Their attempts varied much from each other, but we had candidates like Fire, Water, duality, “Being”, number, etc. These were supposed to be the principle from which everything else was derived. Note that both these activities, Theology and Philosophy, were in the air of the society by the time Socrates and Plato came on the scene.

And that brings us to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. We don’t know much about Socrates’ actual thoughts, only that he was executed for ‘corrupting the Youth’ and on charge of Atheism. (that is, denying the gods of the poets.) In his Republic1Plato describes what the purpose of an education is, and he does this by analogy of a Cave. Under normal circumstances we are chained to walls made to watch shadows dance, illusions cast by puppets over fire. Then we are debating and discussing the virtues of these so called ‘shadows’ and talking about them as if they are real. Eventually, we are taken and dragged out of the cave, kicking and screaming. We see the puppets and the fire, and the puppeteers, and eventually are thrown out fully into the light of the sun, which burns our eyes and hurts us. But we gaze upon the sun, that gives understanding to the forms below it. And then we go back into the cave and tell everyone else what we’ve seen, and they count us as mad.

Plato claims that the first principle is the “Form of the Good” or the sunlight in his analogy. It is the source of all knowledge, and is arrived at through a means of dialectic. By working on ideas with other people, we eventually come to the conclusion that there is this ‘good’ which is beyond adequate description (but we come to this conclusion not by inference but in some non-inferential way), but without which we don’t have much else. Plato himself didn’t think of this as ‘God’ but later thinkers most certainly did.

Aristotle, Plato’s student, offers a series of arguments for the Prime Mover, or the Prime God, the God of Gods. He starts with the observation that things change. And then based on his Physics, he goes to show that there must be an unmoved mover. A Prime mover. And this is what he means by God. He also claims that this is not an inference, but a proof2. In his Metaphysics, he then tries to show that this substance must be nous, or reason, because all things in the universe move in accord with reason. So this first mover, this prime mover, must be reason itself.

Both Aristotle and Plato agree that you don’t need sacred writings or texts to arrive at ideas about God. And this laid the groundwork for later thinkers.

Jump ahead quite a bit, and we get to the Early Christians. Early Christians were vexed with two distinct questions, “do we have a theology, and what do we do with philosophy?” Theology, in the 1st Century world, still had the connotation of poets, describing the myths and actions of their gods. So for a time, Christians rejected theology. After the milieu shifted away from paganism and towards Christianity, only then did they adopt the word.

So what did they do with philosophy? Well, they were largely divided. Christians had received a lot of flack from philosophers for their central tenant, which can be roughly paraphrased as thus. “The first principle, became flesh.” This is simply a logical contradiction, they argued. Tertullian was, in response to them, known to have said, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?”3 This response was (perhaps without warrant or unfairly) used to show that Christians have no business with rational argument when it comes to their theology. But his response was not unanimous. Justin Martyr, a rough contemporary of Tertullian, developed an account of the activity of Christ in the vein of Platonist and Stoic ideas. As well, Clement of Alexandria was a fan of philosophy, believing it to be a sort of “proto-gospel” preparing the hearts of the Greeks for the reception of the gospel much like the law did for the Jews.4 He also developed a theory of knowledge (gnosis) based on contemporary theories and philosophies available.

Soon, the Greek speaking church was using philosophical language to define their terms and their theology. But just using philosophical language doesn’t make something philosophy, does it?

It seemed then, that even though theology was using philosophical language, it wasn’t philosophy in the proper sense. Philosophy, had been done historically without appeal to sacred texts, and theology was the analysis of sacred texts(admittedly with philosophical terms.) Often the two disciplines overlapped, say, in trying to understand determinism and free will, but they were distinct disciplines.

So we arrive at this distinction with Augustine (though he does not use these terms): Natural Theology is theology that is done by reason and experience alone. Revealed Theology is done by appeals to revelation and the Authority of the Church. In other words, Faith is concerned with Theology, Reason is concerned with Natural Theology, even though they might deal with some of the same topics. But nothing (in Augustine’s view) is more powerful than the Authority of the Church.

Later, Boethius writes a full treatise on the attributes of God, God’s existence, and his providence, without a single appeal to sacred texts to establish any points he establishes God as good, providential, etc.

Pseudo-Dionysus did similar, dividing between these two disciplines more sharply, but showing that they were about the same thing. One approached God from below, and one approached God from his level and himself. They both helped contribute to a complete picture of God and the world he made. (Though one is more reliable than the other.)

Then there was an age of monasticism where no Natural Theology was done per se, but there were extensive meditations on the Scriptures and the limits of them. Though there was a distinction made by most of them between scientia or that which is established by principles, and opinia that which is known by appeals to authority. If a proposition was confirmed by either of these options, then we should believe it(even though scientia is a limited faculty, recalling that we “see only through a mirror dimly”.) That all changed with Anselm of Canterbury, who resurrected the idea of trying to understand God without appeals to revelation. He however, did think that reason would eventually meet the unintelligible, and would be supported by the claims of faith. Reason was not fit to rule over faith, but to support it.

He is also regarded commonly as the founder of Scholasticism, where dogmas met changing thoughts and pluralism and adapted to arguments as they grew. The most famous Scholastic, or at least, the most famous in my opinion, is Thomas Aquinas.

Aquinas viewed Faith and Reason, as two approaches to the same thing, like his predecessor. He may have also borrowed this approach from Averroës, or The Commentator, as he mentions him in his works. Aquinas viewed Truth, as being able to obtained through a two fold path. The lesser is reason, as the truths we get apart from it are incomplete but nonetheless true. The greater then is revelation. There can be no contradiction that exists between them, though faith is allowed to have a truth that cannot be confirmed by philosophy. This is because as Averroës puts it, “for truth does not oppose truth but accords with it and bears witness to it.” 5 Aquinas thought that philosophy could be used to support revelation and the propositions revealed there, but if there was a falsification or contradiction, then faith would continue through. This “twofold truth” 6 was necessary because Faith and Reason are distinct faculties and they cannot know the same truth.

Aquinas argued on the basis of his two-fold truth, that there are two distinct types of theology. Revealed Theology and Rational Theology, the former being a science not based on reason or experience, it deals with only one thing, the nature of God, and has a higher degree of certainty than the latter. Rational theology on the other hand can make demonstrations using articles of faith as its principles, and can make apologetic defenses whilst assuming no articles of faith. However, unlike the former, this science can err. He bases this idea on a form of hierarchical reality which is essential in his Natural Theology, for example, I think it’s his third of the Five Ways where he demonstrates the existence of God from ascending measurements.

This “two truth” method however, soon caused great skepticism, and was not accepted even within the church as an established method of using reason. Within the Dominican order(which Francis was a part of), these seemed to be okay, but later Franciscans rejected Aquinas’ natural theology. One example is Duns Scotus: Scotus for example, rejected the premise that you can learn things about the higher order from the lower order. Meaning that yes, moving things here require movement, but you cannot show that about the heavens or anything above them. Scotus instead thinks that reason can only be used to clarify a concept, and the concept we should be looking at is “infinite being”. When Scotus uses his natural theology he explains that there is no prime mover, but a self-existent being that makes all possibles possible.7

Ockham similarly rejects Aquinas’ metaphysics. Ockham suggested that a large majority of Aristotelian physics was simply a corruption of the Christian faith. God seemed more bound by principles and the natures of things than being their author. Ockham rejected the use of reason without revelation in every sense, claiming that there was no point in doing Natural Theology, because not much can be known of God.

The Reformers, Luther and Calvin, took a lot of the faith and made it sola fides, meaning that you could only know God through faith, and that there was little room for reason. This is a broad stroke of course, as they had their nuance. Luther for example rejected the idea of divine analogy, and thought that the only way you could learn anything about God was through looking upon the Cross and Christ. The human will was even more unable to bring itself to think about the things of God, without God’s first helping, so no faith could be based upon will or reason.

Calvin on the other hand, in his Institutes, talks about a sensus divinatus, which is a general sense of and awareness of the Divine, given certain circumstances. Whenever we experience Beauty, Guilt, Danger, we are learning about God and becoming aware of his attributes. Even idolatry contains some aspect of this, so religion itself is not an arbitrary thing, but he then emphasizes that the sensus divinatus is not enough to build your faith on, that faith must be established by revelation and the hand of God.

The modern period gets a lot more rapid in the discussion, quickly realizing that Aquinas’ two-truths had opened a door no one knew what was on the other side of. Two camps arose: those that thought that nature affirms some knowledge of God, and that there is a way to approach his nature from Human nature(even if inadequately) and others who thought the exact opposite. The rise of modern science and philosophy, caused a change in Natural Theology, even possibly creating an Anti-Aristotelian form of it.

Descartes for example, derives a version of the Ontological Argument, that is proving God a priori, in his Meditations. He concludes that since he has an idea of perfection, even though he doubts everything, he himself exists, and he himself has an idea of perfection. This idea cannot come from without, and it cannot come from the world, because he has no basis for it, therefore it must come from the idea of God. God must exist, and he wouldn’t lie, and therefore our senses are reliable.8 And this method of rationalistic a priori Natural Theology took a firm root in the continent. This continues through Leibniz, Spinoza, and Pascal.9

In Great Britain however, something different was occurring. These arguments were Empirical and took the form of Probabilistic arguments. Clark and Butler are two examples. Clark’s book A Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God, starts with the observation that something has always existed (since nothing can arise from nothing) and it argues from that fact that God exists and that he has the attributes he has. Presumably this is all founded upon an empirical claim (which I’m thinking is ex nihilo, nihilo fit. “Out of Nothing, nothing comes.”)

Hume though, came along and leveled his powerful objections to just about every form of belief anyone could have. He criticized design arguments, and arguments from Miracles10 and left us with either mysticism or skepticism. In his work Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Hume applies principles of his epistemology to Natural Theology as a whole, tackling it and smashing into it’s side with a large wrecking ball. This however, did not stop natural theologians. William Paley, to use just one example, put forth one of the most famous arguments from design, which I will address in a later post, where he believes the existence of a Creator is the proper inference due to the massive complexity of the universe.

But then came Kant. Kant, in an attempt to escape the wild metaphysical musings of the Rationalists, and the deep Skepticism of the Empiricists(specifically Hume.) he devised a metaphysical system that caused trouble for Natural Theologians. He argued that the arguments for the existence of God cannot make their point, due to the limits of human cognition. The apparent sensibility of these arguments is due to a transcendental illusion that our mind creates due to our confusion of the essence of things and our experience of things. The idea that our experience of objects as they affect us, is somehow the experience of objects as they are. For example: The premise of causality that “every event has a cause” is simply the way our mind orders experiences to make sense of them, not a product of the way they are. This is from Hume’s demonstration that there is no necessary reasoning that makes a cause a cause. Causality is one example of an illusion. Therefore, any demonstration of God’s existence from premises concerning the essence of things are illusory. Therefore, any metaphysics, classical or natural theology had to answer this problem.

So after Kant, Natural Theology took two general directions. The Catholic Church took it in one direction and the Protestant Church took it in another. The Protestant church was largely inspired by William Paley, who’s natural theology suffered a major blow from the works of Charles Darwin, who was able to explain away the appearance of design through Natural Selection. As Dawkins once put it, “Darwin made it acceptable to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”11 In Protestant circles natural theology fell out of fashion throughout the 20th century, as theology became less founded on historical knowledge and more on a sort of textual or philosophical or faith based knowledge. This is in response to both historical criticism of the New Testament following the Enlightenment, and also an arousal of doubt in the historicity of the text. G.E. Lessing in his Philosophical and Theological Writings, argues that there is a “ugly great ditch” that cannot be crossed in terms of epistemology. We cannot reliably trust historical truths, and especially not ones that claim miracle. Because of this we cannot base our metaphysical understanding or truths on historical truths. This led to a movement where his successors both redefined faith, knowledge, and history in attempts to get around this. This had the unfortunate effect of either removing the gospel from real spatio-temporal history, actual knowability, or the realm of the concrete, depending on whom you are dealing with.  This move might also have been supported by their sola fide affirmation that only faith is useful in understanding God, and that reason if useful at all, is only a secondary and less important thing. (I do not think that’s what we mean necessarily by sola fide, but I see how that sort of interpretation could be made.)

The Catholic Church went in two forks of its own:

  1. First: there were those who intended to adapt modern philosophy for Theological use, like Aquinas had done with Aristotle, and Augustine had done with Plato. Examples of these men include Antonio Rosmini, who drawing on the work of Augustine, Bonaventure, Pascal, Malebranche and others developed his theology. He wrote many works with philosophical overtones, addressing some of the same topics, such as “A New Essay concerning the Origin of Ideas” which if the title isn’t a dead giveaway, was set out to replace Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding. 

  2.  Second: There were the thinkers who revised the work of Thomas Aquinas. This was originally a small movement, but overtime grew in strength, gaining power and following. But there were disagreements, which led to splintering, which gives us many distinct groups of Neo-Thomistic thinkers. You have Aristotelian Thomists, and Transcendental Thomism, and Analytic Thomism, and so forth. Some examples of  Neo-Thomistic thinkers today would be Peter Kreeft and Edward Feser 12

But then, something really odd happened in the latter half of the Twentieth Century. As far as I can tell, starting with Alvin Plantinga’s God and Other Minds, a renaissance in Natural Theology has burst forth in the Anglo-American world. Natural Theology has not enjoyed such a time of free expression since the medieval period. Discussions of Divine Attributes about in books and journals, and articles written in Academic Journals such as Faith and Philosophy, and Philosophia Christi, and arguments for the existence of God are showing up all over the place. There have been revisions of the argument from design based on recent Cosmological discussions, such as Robin Collin’s The Teleological Argument: an exploration of the fine tuning of the universe,13 or TJ Mawson’s Explaining the Fine Tuning of the Universe to Us, and Us to the Universe. 14 We’ve seen the argument from the Origin of the Universe retraced in articles such as William Lane Craig and James Sinclair’s The Kalaam Cosmological Argument 15 arguments from the existence of Objective Morality, and from states of Consciousness, and arguments from Contingency, like Alexander Pruss’ The Leibnizian Cosmological Argument,16 and arguments like Anselm’s ontological argument have been revised, by men like Plantinga who put forth a Modal Version of the Argument, and Robert Maydole, who put forth another sophisticated version of it. (The logic used in it is hard for me to follow, so I don’t plan on doing a review of his any time soon.)

This advance is of course, not without its critics, but I think it is at least a good thing for Christians in this day and age. To clarify our positions wisely, and not to fight uphill against science and philosophy but try and use it. Because as Al-Ghazali observed in his Incoherence of the Philosophers: 17

“The second part is one where their doctrine does not clash with any religious principle and where it is not a necessity of the belief in the prophets and God’s messengers, God’s prayer be upon them, to dispute with them about it.

Whoever thinks that to engage in a disputation for refuting such a theory is a religious duty harms religion and weakens it. For these matters rest on demonstrations – geometrical and arithmetical – that leave no room for doubt. Thus when one who studies these demonstrations and ascertains their proofs, deriving thereby information about the time of the two eclipses and their extent and duration, is told that this is contrary to religion, such an individual will not suspect this science, but only religion. The harm inflicted on religion by those who defend it in a way not proper to it. As it has been said: ‘A rational foe is better than an ignorant friend.’

So I think Christians should welcome the revival of Natural Theology. All while understanding that while religion is not based on the affirmation of certain propositions, nonetheless, rational defense and understanding of these propositions might help to strengthen ones faith, to give you more room to defend it to yourself and to other people when you encounter a difficulty.

  1. The Republic, book VII. 
  2. Based on his theory of proof put forth in the Prior Analytics
  3.  Prescription Against the Heretics, ch. VII 
  4.  In Defense of Greek Learning 
  5.  The Decisive Treatise, chapter 2. 
  6.  Summa Contra Gentiles 
  7. There is a resemblance here to Avicenna’s argument for a necessary existent. This form of argument is called the “Contingency Argument” in modern nomenclature. Maimonides, Leibniz, Avicenna, and apparently Scotus use a form of it, but they tend to reject cosmological arguments from motion(or the absolute beginning) 
  8. Interestingly, this form of argumentation is becoming useful again. Plantinga in several places, has raised what is called the “Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism” which shows that given naturalism, we have little reason to trust our senses are delivering us truth. 
  9. How Pascal was affected by the probabilistic versions of arguments being raised in Britain is unclear. I would have to do more research on them. All we know is he leveled a version of the argument based on Game probability, commonly called Pascal’s Wager. 
  10. Interestingly, with the rise of Bayesian Probability, Hume’s argument against miracles has been shown, not just to be failure, but an irredeemable failure. For full explanation see “Hume’s Abject Failure” 
  11.  Dawkins, Richard. 1986. The Blind Watchmaker. New York: Norton. 
  12. Edward Feser’s blog can be found here. 
  17.  Ghazzālī, and Michael E. Marmura. The Incoherence of the Philosophers = Tahaful Al-falasifah. Provo, UT: Brigham Young UP, 2000. Print. 


    1. You are correct, and I must apologize. When I re-read my article before posting I saw that and didn’t register that people might not know what I meant, I will amend the original post.

      What I meant was that there was a broad ‘movement’ of sorts in response to the work of G.E. Lessing, who said that historical truths which are in doubt are no basis for metaphysical claims. We can’t even definitively prove the past, how can we use a past historical event to prove the theological and metaphysical implications of it. This problem, known as “Lessing’s ditch” was addressed by several theologians in different ways.
      Kierkegaard for example made this ‘leap across the ditch’ or the ‘impossible leap’ the central motif in his work.
      Kant also picked up on it and came up with the Noumenal/Phenomenal divide.
      Scheliermacher attemped to get around this gap by revising what is meant by ‘knowledge’ and distinguishing between different kinds of knowledge.
      Barth attempted a resolution by saying that the scriptures aren’t history proper(historie) but are rather a sort of timeless history(Geschichte). This history cannot be upturned by historical investigation because it is a timeless history and not a concrete history. My difficulties with this are numerous, namely that he never gives a clear reason for exactly why something is Geschichte rather than Historie, and it makes it seem almost arbitrary in what goes in and out of the category.
      But I am not an expert on Barth. I am still working through his works, as well as I am working through the works of everyone listed in this long article. So I apologize if I misunderstood. Thank you for bringing it to my attention, I will revise the said passage.

      1. Barth doesn’t distinguish between two histories or two types of history. Barth’s distinction is epistemic, not ontological. The New Testament is a witness to real events in real history. What Barth is arguing against is ‘the assured results of higher criticism’, and the idea that truth is a matter of infallible method.

        He does, in fact, give reasons for his distinction(s). This goes along with his rejection of various interpretations of Thomist-influenced natural theology as an a priori, abstract knowledge of God apart from any positive experience of God. His conception of God’s absolute transcendence is also part of this. Revelation is historical, but history is not revelation, because God’s acts in history are not visible as acts of God without the eyes of faith – a condition which is had only by the healing of Grace. Without grace, and without faith, one cannot arrive at the Truth of the New Testament witness.

      2. Hmm. That’s not how I have ever read him. I should go back and do a re-read.
        Come to think of it, my thinking on Barth was shaped a lot by an RTS course i went through online on “The History of Philosophy and Theology” and the professor there didn’t seem to read him that way either.

        But the above would make sense. I’ll go and re-read through him again with that in mind, maybe I’ll wind up liking him more.

      3. This was super helpful in understanding the nuance of the debate. I was not aware there was such a massive debate over him, that is mostly my fault for failing to do the research. I was introduced to the thought of Barth at first by a disapproving Catholic blog I used to follow, and then I read him for the first time when going through it for a course taught by a Van Tilian professor.

        I will be sure to reread Barth again. With a more fair mind this time.

  1. Interesting post, Zach! I enjoyed this! You have a real gift for whittling down complicated concepts into readable prose while still pointing out their complexity. This is a really interesting run-through the history of philosophy on this question.

    1. Thanks Mr./Dr/Andy/Black.(It’s weird not knowing how to address people that were once your teachers. I see John Hodges fairly regularly and I can’t call him “John” despite his insistence.)
      I do try and keep it as simple and non-jargon-y as possible. I however, have to assume some level of philosophical understanding on the part of the reader in order to not get bogged down by defining every single term, (such as ‘metaphysics’.)
      I fear however, my individual assessments of arguments(like the one I’m working on right now dealing with Anselm’s Ontological Argument) will be more technical since it’s specific.
      But thank you! It’s always good to hear approval from people who are smarter than me.

      1. ha! the only ones I feel qualified to comment on are the denizens of my period (Hume and Kant), and you’ve done a fine job there. Just curious – have you read George Campbell’s attack on Hume in his PHILOSOPHY OF RHETORIC? There’s room for a whole book to be written on the common sense(ical) responses to that fascinating, perplexing piece. See also Thomas Reid and David Hartley….

      2. I’ve never heard of it, no. I should check it out. I’m not a big fan of Hume. Hume always seemed to me to just be the guy denying everyone else’s premises. There’s no argument in the world that ‘forces’ assent, but there are arguments that drive intellectual price tags up high. For example,
        1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
        2. The universe began to exist.
        3. The universe has a cause.

        There’s been more argument over (1.) than (2.) in philosophical journals. It seems odd to me that we’d take that intellectual price rather than accepting it, or denying (2.) which has historically been more usable.

        Hume just always struck me as the guy willing to chuck out (1.) but because he doesn’t believe in Causation. He doesn’t believe in anything.

        I’ve also never heard of David Hartley. I am reworking through Thomas Reids work though, and Berkeley’s work mainly because I have an idea that Empiricism more naturally leads to Theism than Atheism, but I need to get source material from the work of the Empiricists and Common Sense School, to do that.

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