Natural theology is the name given to attempts to discover truths about the existence and nature of God by using human experience and human reason. For most Christian thinkers, natural theology has played an important part in supporting and developing Christian belief systems. The Bible offers the view that the natural world demonstrates truths about God. In the book of Psalms, for example, the writer looks up at the night sky and sees clear evidence of the existence of God and of God’s relationship with humanity. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, expressed the view that human experience and human reason easily lead to knowledge of God. In this passage, Paul argues that people have made God angry because they have ignored the obvious fact of God’s existence: “…since what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities… have been clearly seen.” (1:18-21)
The teleological argument is based upon looking at the order and beauty in the world to reach the conclusion that there must be a creator God. For Thomas Aquinas, natural theology was hugely important in demonstrating that Christian belief was reasonable. Modern supporters of the traditional arguments for the existence of God, such as Richard Swinburne, also put forward the view that our human reason and powers of observation provide us with solid grounds for supporting the probability that there is a God, and that we can discover truths about him using our reason. Swinburne argues, for example, that we have good reason to think that the world shows signs of order, regularity and purpose; therefore (he argues), leads us to conclude that there probably is an intelligent being who is the author of the universe, which we call God. However, is it enough that human reason leads us to ‘probable’ truths about God? Is this not tantamount to the claim that human reason alone leads us nowhere closer to knowing God?
Some thinkers argue that a sense of the divine is an intrinsic part of human nature, and as such we can trust our reason because we are all born with a sense for God, a recognition of the existence of this infinite being. One common argument for the probability of God’s existence known through the human reason alone was made by the Roman philosopher Cicero who points out that in all cultures and at all times in history, people have had a sense that there is an infinite being who is control of the universe. Furthermore, cultures with no knowledge of each other develop highly similar systems of belief. Perhaps we are all born with an innate sense of the divine that is accessed through our ability to reason.
Similarly, supporters of natural theology are that we have an innate sense of morality, which we can also tell, using our reason, must come from God. Moral arguments for the existence of God take our experience of conscience as evidence that God exists. Thinkers such as Joseph Butler, John Henry Newman and C.S. Lewis claim that we all have feelings of guilt when we do something wrong, even if no-one sees us, and we all feel satisfied when we have done the right thing. They argue that this ‘inner voice’ of conscience is evidence not only of the existence of God but of a God who makes moral demands of his people and wants them to follow his commandments.
John Calvin claimed that we have a ‘sensus divinitas’ (an innate sense of God). He wrote, “there is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity”. He argued that the world is like a mirror for God, and allows a universal awareness so that no person can have any excuse for pretending that he or she was unaware of God’s existence.
However, Calvin believed that natural theology alone was insufficient and would lead to the universality of religion (which, if uninformed by the Christian revelation, degenerates into idolatry), a troubled conscience and a servile fear of God.
So, for Calvin, a natural knowledge of God serves to deprive humanity of any excuses for ignoring the divine will; nevertheless, it is inadequate as the basis for a fully-fledged portrayal of the nature, character and purposes of God. Having stressed this point, Calvin then introduces the notion of revelation. Scripture alone offers knowledge of the redeeming actions of God in history, culminating in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He wrote:
“The knowledge of God, which is clearly shown in the ordering of the world and in all creatures, is still more clearly and familiarly explained in the Word.”
Scripture reiterates what may be known of God through nature, while simultaneously clarifying and enhancing. So, for Calvin, revelation is focused on the person of Jesus Christ; God may be fully known through Jesus, who may in turn only be known through Scripture. The basic idea here, then, is that a knowledge of God the creator may be had both through nature and through relation, with the latter clarifying, confirming, and extending what may be known through the former. Knowledge of God the redeemer – which for Calvin is a distinctively Christian knowledge of God – may only be had by the Christian revelation, in Christ and through Scripture.
That we are made in the ‘image of God’ has led supporters of natural theology to the view that we are made in such a way that we can appreciate and understand beauty and goodness in the world, and recognise them as manifestations of God’s creativity and goodness. However, for some thinkers, such as Augustine, the Fall of Adam and Eve when they disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden was so catastrophic as to place a barrier between God and humanity. Augustine argued that Original Sin prevents people from being able to know God because they have become corrupt in their will and could never be holy enough to approach God through their own efforts. Augustine argues that if God is to be discerned within the creation, we ought to expect to find God at the height of that creation, which according to Augustine is humanity. Augustine further argued that the height of that creation is the human capacity to reason. Therefore, he concluded, one should expect to find traces of God in human processes of reasoning, but the effect of the Original Sin is massively damaging on what can be discerned, and then trusted to be true.
Eventually, Aquinas came to a similar standpoint, describing all he seemed to have discovered about God through reason and experience as ‘like straw’, meaning that it only amounted to basic building blocks; knowledge of God in this world could only reach the most basic of levels, and so God is essentially unknowable.
For many Christians, natural theology and revealed theology are together necessary to gain knowledge of God. Christians can use their powers of observation and their reason to make discoveries about God; they can use revealed theology to gain knowledge of truths that are not available to observation and reason. The idea here being that natural theology provides people with a sound and rational basis for faith, and revealed theology supplies the details of that faith. One of the best-known objections to the idea that human reason can give knowledge of God came from the Protestant theologian Karl Barth. He argued that God reveals himself to us only when he wishes to, and that any attempt to know him through our own efforts will fail. We have finite minds, and cannot grasp a clear understanding of an infinite being without his help. Barth also argued that we do not need to try and know God through our reason and experience, because all we need to know has been revealed through Jesus Christ, so we have already been given the truth.
Author: A Meredith