Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Approaching Belief Naturally (Part I)

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.


Arcaemede said...


Good to see you back to posting.

One of my launching points within my own tradition (Restoration Movement) that lead me to Natural Theology (I didn't call it that but it appears to be what I was observing) was from a writer of Hermeneutics (Dungan).

In his section on "figurative language" he left room for reason and Science to trump plain sense reading of text.

Obviously, he and the people who used his hermeneutics didn't buy into that wholesale for all parts of Scripture. But, it was highly influential in my own transition to natural theology.

My point is that it seems to me that many Christians already accept natural theology in some cases but reject it in others.

Cliff Martin said...


Yes, I would think that most Christians would use some mix of natural and revealed theology. The significant key for me is where we start out. If you could somehow wipe your own slate clean, would your theism begin with a book or with nature and reason?

I think I know how you would answer. But I think that most evangelical Christians have a mindset that would say, "If there is a God, he must have tried to communicate with us. Which holy book is the likeliest candidate?" Then, they would build their belief from what they consider this special revelation.

Michael Thompson said...

Hi Cliff
interesting subject.
I know I should wait for part two, but I can't wait to ask,
Is there any way we can know there is a Jesus, or an afterlife, resurrection, etc... through natural theology? Don't we need revealed theology for those kind of things?

Cliff Martin said...


If you look at the diagram I made for Natural Theology, you will see that it includes input from special revelation (the Bible, and spiritual experiences). The answer to your question is yes, Christian theology is dependent upon special revelation.

The question is where do we start? (and this is what I will address more in the next post). Do we begin with a "holy book", or do we begin with observations of the created order, and the application of reason? Consider Abraham. How did he arrive at the knowledge of God?

Moses said...

"Consider Abraham. How did he arrive at the knowledge of God?"

Interesting...an example of reason and observation ( and perhaps Abraham's own environmental conditioning) taken from the holy book.

Sounds like "chicken or the egg." ( of course everyone knows it was the chicken )

But seriously, Abraham's understanding of God and how to communicate and respond to Him was conditioned by his background. Yet the Bible shows that God spoke to him by accommodating to Abraham - yet at the same time calling him out of that tradition to a new "land" that He would show him.

Now it may very well be that Abraham is really a made up character in a story concocted or adapted by Israelite priests in Babylonian exile, but yet consider that one can see how if there is a God, he would "Incarnate" himself to speak our language, and reveal himself even through our superstitious traditions and religions. He shows up in the imperfect - all the while pointing us to a better way. No matter how bad we screw it up, God finds a way to use religion ( or even atheism ) to get our attention and lead us to the promised "land".

Michael Thompson said...

Cool! I will wait and read the 2nd post to see! thanks for the reply Cliff!

Rich G. said...


It's interesting that the writers of the scriptures almost all seem to have started from a Natural Theology viewpoint. It looks like they were open to revelation, but only when it expanded upon rather than contradicted what they could see around them.

Rich G.