Explore with me two launching points for Christian Theology. Natural Theology builds upon a foundation of observable nature, mixing reason with common experience. Understandings about God derive from reason and insights gleaned from nature. In Natural Theology, science informs the search for transcendent truths, and human reason, though far from infallible, becomes a useful tool. Natural Theology may make use of Scriptures, even come to rely upon them, but it will do so in the course of its reasoned search for truth. Though Natural Theology is an accepted starting point for many Roman Catholics (beginning with Thomas Aquinas), it has been looked upon with suspicion by many Protestants dating back to the Reformers. Revealed Theology begins with Scripture and religious experiences. Revealed Theology rejects nature and reason as starting points. Truth about God, it contends, can only be discerned from special writings, inspired by God himself, and given to man to be the basis for our understandings about him. Theologians who rely upon Revealed Theology often have a deep distrust of both science and human reason. The Fallen state of humankind, it is argued, predisposes us to error, and so we must not trust our own rational processes, our own observations.
For most of my Christian life, I was taught to rely upon Revealed Theology. My belief in God, and all my understandings about him, were sourced in the Bible texts. This was the only “safe” approach. I regarded the Bible as God’s message to man. My own Reformed background instructed me that we could know nothing about God except what he chose to reveal to us through the avenues of special revelation: The Scriptures and our personal spiritual experiences (the Holy Spirit).
All of this changed for me when my study of the natural world began to turn up data which was often at odds with the story told in the Scriptures. Big Bang cosmology, entropy dating back to the beginning of time, billions of years of evolutionary struggle and massive quantities of death and species extinction all preceding Adam and Eve, powerful geological evidence that the earth was never inundated à la the world-wide Flood of Noah; these things, and many more, demonstrated that the Bible must be read differently than I was accustomed to reading it. They touch directly upon the historical narrative; and by extension, they effect many traditional theological assumptions. They strongly suggest new understandings about the Creator of this Cosmos. Most of this data, unavailable to previous generations, results in understandings which, when placed alongside the Bible, alter, enhance and expand upon Christian Theology.
Thus, my personal journey lead me to rely heavily upon Natural Theology. My thoughts about the nature of God, what he is doing with this created order, the narrative of which we are a part ... all of these things are informed as much by observations of nature and the application of reason as by Scripture. Michael Dowd calls this “Public Revelation” (that which can be known by all) as opposed to “Private Revelation” (that which can only be learned through special revelation.) While the Reformers might have allowed for some input from nature, such input would merely supplement a full systematic theology derived from Scripture alone. On the other hand, Natural Theology advocates may include the “private revelation” of Scripture and spiritual experience, but only as they are guided to do so through their reasoned approach to Theology.
In my next post, I want to describe the starting point for my own Natural Theology. In the meantime, I invite your questions and comments.