[asa] Re: natural theology, bad and good

From: Cameron Wybrow <wybrowc@sympatico.ca>
Date: Fri May 01 2009 - 02:14:47 EDT

Splendid, George, just splendid! Finally we're getting some theology out in the open here. Now we can have a proper debate! Thanks for this response.

OK, I'll grant you that I took Luther's comments out of context. But to be fair, that's all that Dave Siemens gave me. He didn't give the passage, or any reference where I could look it up. And that was in the context of a rather aggressive criticism of my post. So I overreacted, and debated Luther's out-of-context statement, when I should have asked Dave Siemens for the context.

George, I carefully said "quasi-Gnostic", not Gnostic. I was of course deliberately exaggerating to make a point, and you can take it for granted that I know the difference between the real historical Gnostics and later people who may (in some respects) resemble them. But I was partly serious about the resemblance between certain themes in Protestantism which are reminiscent of Gnosticism (even though the historical Reformers would of course have utterly condemned real 2nd-3rd century Gnosticism). It is not unknown in the history of ideas for movements which nominally repudiate other movements to contain within themselves aspects of what they repudiate. It is not completely false, for example, to regard Marxism as a form of Biblical religion -- secularized, yes, but still in many ways strongly Biblical in its view of many things. And for the same reason, it isn't in principle impossible that certain forms of Protestantism may bear within them certain features reminiscent of Gnosticism, such as (1) a strong devaluation of "the world" at the all-important psychological level (even if the value of the world as God's creation is formally affirmed), and (2) a sense of "the world" as a barrier blocking us from God, rather than as a bridge leading us to God.

Regarding Psalm 19: George, I am hardly the first person in the history of Christian thought to interpret it the way I suggested. But of course you have every right to disagree with such an interpretation. Yet you hardly have the right to say that a "natural theology" interpretation of the Psalm (and of many other Psalms, and other OT texts) is forbidden by Christian theology. I am not arguing that just because many great theologians in the past have argued for something, that it must be right; but I am arguing that when a large number of great theologians have argued for something, one cannot say that their view is not part of the Christian tradition. A limited natural theology, whether you like it or not, whether Barth or Torrance likes it or not, is part of the Christian tradition. It isn't a mandatory part of the tradition, in the sense that the Creeds are; but it isn't forbidden, it was never condemned by any Ecumenical Council, I don't think it was even condemned in any classical Protestant Confession, and some of the deepest exponents of Christianity (Protestant and Catholic) have adhered to it. No one is asking you to accept it if you don't like it, but equally neither you nor any TE is in any position to say that ID is bad theology because it is natural theology. If you say this, you are merely expressing George Murphy's opinion. You cannot speak for Christianity as a whole. Whether you can speak for Lutheranism as a whole, I leave up to you to inform us.

Regarding your quick remarks on Psalm 19 and Romans 1. You are a good enough Biblical scholar, George, to know that the truth can't be settled by such one-liners. You note that: "There is no speech ..." Of course there is no verbal speech! Stars don't talk! The point is that even though they can't "talk", they still "declare the glory of God". And so what if Paul's purpose in Romans is mainly negative? If pagan knowledge of God, debased as it is, is still enough to leave men "without excuse", then it's a substantive knowledge of God. But you and I both know that such exegetical debates would require many pages, and can't be settled in an internet setting like this.

On some other points:

"First we need to dispose of the idea that there is necessarily some imprint of God on creation"

I never said there was. I said that many major Christian theologians have felt that the creation gives us a genuine knowledge of God -- not of his secret inner nature, of course, or of his hidden counsels, but a knowledge of him nonetheless. In saying this, they were not dictating to God, as if to say: "God, you MUST indicate something of yourself to us through nature!" Rather, they were saying that they felt that God *had* indicated something of himself through nature. There is a huge difference. And if you want to make a parallel between natural theology and ID's identification of a designer, it is the latter position, not the former, that ID proponents take. But several people on this list, even when corrected on this point, continue to repeat the mantra "ID requires that God's action be detectable." ID does not require anything. ID says: "Let's go out and investigate and see *whether* God's action has left any traces." The ID attitude is not to talk about what God would have done, might have done, must have done, should have done, etc. It is to find out what God has done, by examining the things that he himself has told us that he made, i.e., the natural things. I see nothing theologically objectionable in that. What seems to me to be theologically objectionable is for people to say that design cannot be detectable in nature, because (in their opinion) God is not the kind of God who would allow his design to be detected. It takes a lot of confidence for a mortal to be certain how God would behave in creating the world. I confess that I lack such intimate knowledge of God's motivations and intentions.

You wrote:

"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."

So what? Natural theology does not try to know who God is in a personal way. That's not its function. It's not a substitute for revealed theology. It's merely, for some people, a preparation. (And I concede that it's not even a necessary preparation, as Aquinas would concede also. But it's foolish to attack it when it may be useful for some people as a preparation for later receiving the Gospel.) But let's be honest, George, a certain kind of Protestant enjoys painting the picture of human life as so dark, so mired in sin, so hopeless, so bleak, that there is no hope of *any* knowledge of God at all outside of revelation, even non-salvific knowledge. That makes the need of revelation seem even greater. If there is no light anywhere, nothing but darkness, even about the bare existence of God, then revelation is not only essential for salvation, it is essential even to avoid complete despair and nihilism. I find this psychological need of some Protestants (to darken things more than need be, and more than the Bible itself does) very bizarre, and I also find it very un-Biblical. Or rather, it is selectively Biblical, focused on Genesis 2-3 (read in the light of Paul), rather than, say, Genesis 1, or some of the Psalms, or parts of the prophets or Job, read on their own, or in the light of, say, Jewish tradition, or Catholic tradition.

You wrote:

"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."

George, I never said that "the starry heavens above and the moral law within" were sufficient to ground an entire theology. If you read my remark in context, you should realize that I was replying to someone who was talking about knowledge of the bare fact of God, and I was indicating that I had, long before hearing of ID, been convinced of that bare fact by such general considerations. I did not say or imply that my theological inquiries stopped there, or that nothing more needed to be known.

And by the way, one can take sin seriously without adopting modern German academic Paulinism, and even without adopting Luther's Paulinism. Moses did not know anything about Paul, and he took sin seriously. The prophets had never heard of Paul, and they took sin seriously. Jesus had never read a line of Paul, and took sin seriously. Orthodox Jews do not accept Paul today, and in my experience they take sin much more seriously than most Protestants. The idea that we cannot understand the full depths of the notion of "sin" without the help of Paul as interpreted by Luther or Calvin or Barth or Torrance is ridiculous. It is not necessary to accept a particular (in my view gloomy) metaphysics of sin in order to know what sin is, any more than it is necessary to accept a particular metaphysical account of love to know what love is.
You wrote:

"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."

I don't like the declaratory tone here, whether it's coming from you or Torrance. "What is to be rejected" -- what puts Thomas Torrance in a position to say "what is to be rejected" by Christians? Another Thomas I know of, who lived in the 13th century, and who has a considerably larger historical and geographical following than Thomas Torrance, seems to disagree with him. I find that you have a tendency to present particular views within the Christian tradition as if they are authoritative, rather than merely representative of an individual, or a limited school of thought. You do this again in your more recent post, where you write:

"Here the point that I made in my earlier post about a distinctively Christian understanding of God, as distinguished from mere philosophical theism, is crucial. Such a distinctively Christian understanding must be informed by the event of the cross. As Luther puts it, "True theology and the recognition of God are in the crucified Christ." If the kenosis involved in this event (and the Incarnation generally) was not just a temporary tactic but revelatory of the divine MO generally then we should indeed "come up with 'methodological naturalism'." That may not be "spontaneous" - our natural desire to have a God who shows off and "leaves his fingerprints all over the evidence" (because that's the kind of God we would be if we could be God) struggles against it. Ultimately it depends on whether we get our understanding of God from God's self-revelation or from our own philosophizing."

The tone here says: Luther is right and other theologians are wrong. All talk of God must be channelled through talk of Christ. Talk of God that is not so channelled is illegitimate. It was this tone that set me off when someone else referred to Luther's "mask of God" remark, as if it was the final word of the Christian tradition on what nature is.

It's far from obvious that a kenotic God logically entails "methodological naturalism", but even if it did, one thing is certain: if "kenosis" in creation is pressed too far, if it is taken to mean that God gives up his divine nature entirely (in relation to nature, that is), renouncing all power and control, so that nature can be utterly free, then God has also given up his role (beloved of German Biblical scholars and theologians, though perhaps not the ones you like) as "Lord over nature and history", and also he has given up his providential role. If nature is really to be let go "on its own", by God's self-surrender, then God cannot exercise any control over evolution at all. And that means that God cannot guarantee that anything of interest will be produced by nature, even life itself, let alone higher life forms or man. This creates a huge logical problem: how does a God whose fundamental mode of operation is kenosis act the traditional role of the mighty, unstoppable, unthwartable God? And it creates a textual problem: what about all those verses in the Bible, Old Testament and New, where God exercises mastery over nature and human events boldly and dramatically? Where God hardens hearts, determines events in a strict way, creates evil, etc.? Can even a Biblical scholar as skilled as you, George, "interpret away" *all* the Biblical passages which clearly can't be squared with a kenotic God? Aren't you, sooner or later, going to have to bite the bullet, and declare that some Biblical passages just aren't true -- contain faulty theology, a bad picture of God? And I wouldn't actually mind if you did that, because it would make your position much clearer and more coherent. As it is now, you are asking us to accept your person rendition of Luther, and many of us are not going to do that, because we read the Bible differently than you do, and than Luther did, and we don't necessarily accept that Luther is *the* great theologian of Christianity. I imagine that not a few here prefer Calvin, and I myself would rank both Augustine and Aquinas above Luther.

The remark about "our natural desire to have a God who shows off" may be intended as a shot at ID supporters, but actually it is a slam against the writers of innumerable passages of Scripture, in which God is depicted by the narrator as "showing off". Why does Jesus need to walk on water or calm the storm, or curse a fig tree? What are such things, but "showing off", and aren't they utterly unlike a kenotic God? And in the Exodus passage we were discussing earlier, God boasts loudly about how he is going to get a great triumph over the Egyptians. Doesn't sound very kenotic to me. I have nothing against the notion of a kenotic God -- it's a profound one. But you are greatly downplaying the difficulty of maintaining that such a God is uniformly expressed throughout the Bible. In fact, Luther notwithstanding, it seems to me that the plain sense of the text is more often suggestive of a God of power, of forceful will, of relentless control. I do not think your view is as "Biblical" as you make out, unless you are willing to interpret the Bible very selectively, ignoring some passages (if not utterly excising them), and employing strained exegesis to neutralize many others.

In any case, you have really sidestepped my observation, which is that a limited natural theology was never a big problem for the Christian tradition. You can't really account for why a full-throttle attack on natural theology appears to have been delayed until the time of Barth and Torrance. Did no one know how to read the Bible until those men came along? Were Aquinas and Augustine and Abelard and Hooker just big dummies? If I seem parochial to you in showing a lack of interest in Luther, Pascal, Barth, and Torrance, do you not see why you would seem parochial to me by appearing to more or less dismiss the rational and metaphysical tradition in pre-Reformation Christianity?


  ----- Original Message -----
  From: George Murphy
  To: Cameron Wybrow ; asa@lists.calvin.edu
  Sent: Wednesday, April 29, 2009 9:56 PM
  Subject: natural theology, bad and good

  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 Fri May 1 02:16:23 2009

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