[asa] natural theology, bad and good

From: George Murphy <GMURPHY10@neo.rr.com>
Date: Wed Apr 29 2009 - 21:56:09 EDT

Under this heading I want to reply to some of Cameron’s recently expressed views on issues related to knowledge of God and natural theology. These are relevant to questions being discussed about divine action but (I see now after 3+ pages) that will have to wait. (Old timers on this list and those who have read some of my things in other settings may find little new here.)


I begin with a paragraph from a post of Cameron to Dave Siemens of 25 April. Dave had referred to Luther’s description of creatures as “masks of God.” Cameron responded as follows:


“Only a quasi-Gnostic would refer to nature as the "mask" of God, as if nature *hides* God rather than reveals him. When Luther said this, he obviously had forgotten that "the heavens declare the glory of God". The idea that God is completely "hidden" in relation to nature is Manichean, not Christian. Of course nature does not show us God directly, but it expresses something of the mind of God. Classical Christianity affirmed the goodness, beauty and wisdom of creation, and its evident connection with its divine source. Read Genesis 1. Read the Psalms. Read Romans. Read the Greek Fathers. Read Thomas Aquinas. Read Paley. Read just about every English theologian and poet from 1600 onward. (I can't speak for what the gloomy Teutonic theologians across the channel believed; nor do I care.)”


This shows (a) ignorance of Luther & his theology, (b) fantasy, (c) dangerous natural theology and (d) parochialism. These are intertwined but I will try to deal with them successively.


First, I hope my previous remarks about Luther make it clear that I don’t consider him infallible or leap to defend him against every criticism. However -


Luther’s tremendous respect for the Hebrew scriptures, his emphasis on faith, rather than knowledge, as the key human factor in salvation, his insistence that God is the creator of all things (which any 14 year old Lutheran confirmation student is supposed to know) and his appreciation for the natural world show how silly it is to classify him as “Gnostic” in anything like the proper sense.


Then note the trick of suggesting that Luther had “forgotten” Ps.19:1. Cameron might consider the possibility that someone might have a somewhat more nuanced reading of the Psalm. (For starters, it helps to read the whole thing.) More on this later.


But what does Luther actually say about the “masks of God”? One of the places in which he uses that phrase is in his lecture on Ps.147 that can be found in volume 14 of Luther’s Works, p.114:

God could easily give you grain and fruit without your plowing and planting. But He does not want to do so. Neither does He want your plowing and planting alone to give you grain and fruit; but you are to plow and plant and then ask His blessing and pray: "Now let God take over; now grant grain and fruit, dear Lord! Our plowing and planting will not do it. It is Thy gift." This is what we do when we teach children to fast and pray and hang up their stockings that the Christ Child or St. Nicholas may bring them presents. But if they do not pray, they will get nothing or only a switch and horse apples.

What else is all our work to God - whether in the fields, in the garden, in the city, in the house, in war, or in government - but just such a child's performance, by which He wants to give us His gifts in the fields, at home, and everywhere else? These are the masks of God [unsers herrn Gotts larven], behind which He wants to remain concealed and do all things.


Now ask yourself, in the various activities Luther mentions (farming, government, &c) do we observe God at work? Do we see the unveiled God Almighty unambiguously doing these things? Of course not! It is, as I said earlier, just a fantasy to imagine that we do. What we observe is farmers, judges, &c.


But aren’t Christians supposed to believe that God is active in all those things. Yes, & that’s exactly what Luther means by calling them masks of God. To say that does not mean, in any reasonable construal of the word, the absence of God but that God is active behind the things we observe. It is a matter of faith to say that God is at work to provide our food &c – as Luther sets out in detail in explaining what it means to say that God is the creator in the catechisms.


The Christian tradition – including the Lutheran part of it – do speak of “the goodness, beauty and wisdom” of creation. “Its evident connection with its divine source” is more problematic. Here Cameron has fallen into the common trap of an independent natural knowledge of God and natural theology. It is, indeed, widespread in the Christian tradition but that doesn’t make it right.


First we need to dispose of the idea that there is necessarily some imprint of God on creation, the analogia entis or “analogy of being.” I think Barth overstated things a bit when he called this “the mark of Antichrist” but OTOH there is just no reason to think it’s true. “The book of God’s works,” to use that old metaphor, does not necessarily tell us anything about its author. Ezra Pound’s comment is pertinent: “You can always tell the bad critic when he starts talking about the poet instead of the poem.”


Does scripture itself say that the creation tells us about God? We need to distinguish a couple of things: (1) whether or not creation offers evidence for God and (2) whether or not we are able to grasp the significance of the evidence and know who God is.

Ps.19:1-2 and Rom.1:19-20 say that there is evidence in creation for God. But we immediately have to note that they do not say that people are able to understand that evidence. The psalm is ambiguous – “There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard.” Paul is quite unambiguous. The whole point of his discussion in Rom.1 is that while people should be able to know God from creation, they uniformly distort the knowledge of God and produce idols. The evidence for God in creation has a purely negative function – “so they are without excuse.” This is the beginning of Paul’s two chapter indictment of the whole human race as sinful, and that sinfulness shows itself most fundamentally in crass or subtle idolatry.


To put it another way, we may infer from creation that there is “a God” but always go astray when trying to get from there to any knowledge of who God is. In commenting on the pagan sailors in Jon.1 who "each cried to his god." Luther says, “"For if they had been ignorant of the existence of God or of a godhead, how could they have called upon him and cried to him?" ... "Thus you also note that the people in the ship know of God, but they have no definite God."


When Paul is finished with his demonstration of the general sinfulness of humanity he does not say, “OK, let’s go back now and interpret that evidence for God in creation correctly.” Instead he turns immediately (3:21) to what God has done in Christ. He never returns to the idea of knowledge of God from creation. In 10:18 he does quote Ps.19:4 - but understands it to be about the apostolic proclamation of Christ rather than any message of the heavenly bodies!


Thus the idea that we can have a natural knowledge of God and develop any kind of natural theology independent of God’s historical revelation has at best a dubious scriptural basis. But it’s also important to emphasize that it is simply dangerous. In what I’ve called the “classic” view of natural theology it’s supposed to serve just as an introduction to full Christian theology – Trinity and Incarnation, atonement etc – based on revelation. But it often doesn’t work that way. Christian history is replete with examples of earnest natural theologians distorting or ignoring aspects of the distinctive Christian message and leading the church astray. One example will suffice. It’s from Richard S. Westfall's Science and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England (Yale, 1958), pp.106-107:


 "While the virtuosi [scientists in today's parlance] concentrated vigorously on the demonstrations of natural religion and proved to their own satisfaction that the cosmos reveals its Creator, they came to neglect their own contention that natural religion is only the foundation. The supernatural teachings of Christianity received little more than a perfunctory nod, expressing approval but indicating disinterest. Although the absorption in natural religion and the external manifestations of divine power did not dispute or deny any specific Christian doctrine, it did more to undermine Christianity than any conclusion of natural science."


I.e., the “classic” view slides easily into that of the Enlightenment: “Everything I need to know about God I learned from nature.”


The de facto claim of IDers that they can provide scientific evidence for God, but “no definite God” in Luther’s words, leads in exactly the same direction. & of course they will deny that that’s what they’re doing, but that’s what the average person in the pew who’s impressed by ID picks up from it.


All of this makes it clear that Barth was on the right track with his rejection of natural theology. (The immediate cause of that rejection in the Barmen Declaration, the appeal of the Deutsche Christen to Uroffenbarung, is just one example of the kind of natural theology he had in mind.) A completely negative position is, however, inadequate. The necessary positive completion of Barth’s view was made by Thomas Torrance, who argued that a legitimate natural theology can be developed if we put our knowledge of the world, including that of science, in the context of God’s historical revelation. I.e., what is to be rejected is an independent natural theology, one that claims to know God without reference to God's revelation to Israel culminating in Christ. A natural theology that is dependent upon that revelation is another matter. The latter is, e.g., what Luther is implicitly doing when he speaks of things in the world as “masks of God.” It is God’s self-revelation in Christ that enables us to know who is behind the mask.


Finally, I don’t know exactly who “the gloomy Teutonic theologians across the channel” that Cameron refers to are but in context I assume it’s people like Luther, Bonhoeffer, Jűngel, Barth and others who take sin seriously and thus realize that “the starry heavens above and the moral law within” are a pretty flimsy basis for real theology. I have to say that I’m amazed at the narrow-minded attitude Cameron expresses here. In the words of a Dominican seminary prof of mine, it reminds one of an Italian cardinal in 1890.

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Received on Wed Apr 29 21:57:18 2009

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