Re: [asa] natural theology, bad and good

From: Ted Davis <>
Date: Thu Apr 30 2009 - 11:03:41 EDT

This will probably be my last big post for several days, if not longer. I
need to get back to my day job and to family matters, but first I do want to
comment on George Murphy's quotation from the late Richard S. Westfall,

 "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."


Ted comments:

"Sam," as Westfall was called, was my dissertation adviser. I had no idea
who he was, believe it or not, at the time I decided to go to Indiana for my
doctorate. I knew very little about the field itself and only a few of its
key ideas. But, enough to know that if I wanted to specialize in
Christianity and science it was probably the only good road to that
destination at that point in time. As I quickly discovered, however, he was
the greatest Newton scholar of his generation and probably (still) the
greatest Newton scholar who has ever lived. This doesn't mean that I agree
with his own view of Newton's religion -- I don't (to see the nature of my
disagreement, get the new book "Galileo Goes to Jail..."). Nor do I agree
with his general view that early modern science broke away from, rather than
was nurtured by, Christian beliefs. (Many historians today would be closer
to my view than to Sam's.)

However, I do agree with the passage George quoted above. The one thing
that strikes me, more than anything else, in reading early modern natural
theology, is the almost complete absence of God the Son (or God the Spirit
for that matter) from the great works of natural theology, even those
written by my good friend Robert Boyle (sometimes it seems as though I knew
him, but this could just be my imagination). Boyle actually wrote quite a
bit about Jesus and a lot about the supernatural truths of Christianity, and
all of the evidence we have indicates that Boyle was one of the most deeply
Christian (as vs merely theistic) scientists in history, yet he like almost
everyone else kept Jesus out of natural theology. Boyle typically thought
of his own works as being about *either* natural philosophy *or* about
theology, and in the two places where he nevertheless blended those
categories most visibly (his treatise on the notion of nature and his
treatise on final causes in natural philosophy) he left God the Son out of
the conversation.


My sense is that, like most of his more thoughtful contemporaries, he was
pretty disgusted with the sectarian strife that had been going on nearly
unabated since Luther challenged his colleagues to debate those 95 academic
propositions. Boyle's overall religious attitude can only be called
"Erasmian," and he was more attracted to Grotius than to the sectarians.
Like Grotius, he believed that reason could indeed take one quite a long way
toward Christian belief, farther certainly than Pascal or Luther thought (or
George Murphy thinks). I admire Boyle (this can surprise no one) and often
agree with him, but ultimately I line up closer to Pascal than to Boyle,
which is to say that I line up with Polkinghorne--and, if Boyle were alive
today (to be fair to him), as I've said before, I think that he might be
Polkinghorne. Natural theology can still be done and ought to be done, but
faith has a bigger role than the old natural theology was prepared to admit,
and natural theology is done best when it's closely accompanied by, not
deliberately separated from, an incarnational theology of creation that
emphasizes the kenotic character of the creator and redeemer of "all
things." IMO.


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Received on Thu Apr 30 11:04:05 2009

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