Re: [asa] Re: natural theology, bad and good

From: Cameron Wybrow <>
Date: Sun May 03 2009 - 01:23:34 EDT

Hello, George. For some reason, even though your reply had both my name and the ASA list on the "to" line, it came only to my Inbox; I don't see it on the ASA site. So I'm including your note to me in this reply to all.

First, let me thank you for your firm but gentle response. I will try to reply in kind.

I will start with a note of agreement, regarding the woman in your congregation. That woman is not going to learn about sin from studying nature. Nor is she going to learn about the remedy for sin from studying nature. You and I are in complete agreement on this point. But I can't think of an ID proponent, or any proponent of classical natural theology, who would say that one can learn all one needs to know about God from nature, or even the greater part of what one needs to know about God from nature. Aquinas, for example, was very clear about that. And given that ID proponents are generally accused of hiding a conservative Biblicism underneath their appeal to ID as science, I can't believe that you or anyone here would suppose that Paul Nelson and George Hunter and Stephen Meyer believe that they can be saved by feeding birds or communing with nature.

I also agree with you that anti-bodily, anti-natural attitudes can be found in Catholicism as well as Protestantism. I am not defending them when they occur in Catholicism, though I understand that the Roman Church has moved quite a bit away from its former popular teaching about the inherent "lowness" of things bodily.

Yes, I'm aware that the second part of Psalm 19 is about the Law, not about nature. The question is what is the relation between the two parts. I suspect that we would disagree on that. But we cannot take on exegetical matters in this forum. They are too detailed.

I cannot comment on the German theological discussions you raise, as I am unfamiliar with them. I suspect that your liking for Barth springs partly from his stance in some internal German theological discussions which I am not familiar with. For all I know, Barth was reacting against an extreme natural theology and felt he had to be almost extreme in the other direction. And he may have been entirely justified in doing so, in context. I would not know. I am for the most part uninterested in any theology written after about 1600-1700 anyway, except to the extent that it helps to revive and explain for modern audiences the pre-modern tradition of theological thought. Thus, I enjoy the writings of Etienne Gilson and Father Copleston.

While we are talking about dates, let me clarify: by "classical", I meant not only pre-20th century; I meant prior to about 1700. And when I spoke of Protestant confessions, I was speaking of the Westminister, Augsburg, etc. Confessions.

Your concern with 17th and 18th century natural theology and rationalism (which by the way George Hunter also deplores, but that doesn't stop him from endorsing ID) is revelatory. It shows that we are talking at cross-purposes. If you think I am defending some liberal 18th-century rationalism against Barth, you are mistaken. I am defending Aquinas against Barth, or, more broadly, those forms of Christianity which co-ordinate Athens and Jerusalem in a careful way against those which would reject Athens in favour of Jerusalem. Generally speaking, I think the whole modern discussion is misguided, because it is based on the destruction of the pre-modern balance achieved by the Fathers, the Scholastics, and the Renaissance thinkers, and therefore swings wildly towards either Reason or Revelation, towards rationalist or fideist positions. My own position is partly expressed in the Pope's Regensburg speech of a few years ago: the truths of faith may sometimes go beyond reason, but they are not against reason, and religious traditions which do not avail themselves of the reason which belongs to man as man, the reason given to us by God, will have trouble communicating themselves to unbelievers, and will have trouble sustaining themselves over the generations even within their own communities. This is why I defend the Classical-Christian tradition. You may believe otherwise; I don't know. However, I do want to make it clear that I am not standing in the Enlightenment tradition, but in the tradition of Plato-Aristotle and of pre-1700 theological writers. I would guess that most ID proponents would not rest as much emphasis on the Classical-Christian tradition as I do, and would locate their critiques of TE and Darwinism in the theology of Reformers and of the first few generations after them, i.e., the period from about 1517 to 1650 or so.

You wrote:

"Kenotic divine action doesn’t mean that God isn’t doing anything but that God limits his cooperation with creatures to what is within their natural capacities."

Well, fine, but God created those natural capacities. And the question I keep asking is: How do Darwinists (whether TE or atheist) *know*, in advance of seeing a thorough Darwinian explanation for at least one major organ, system, body plan, etc., that "the natural capacities of creatures" that we have empirically observed are capable of producing major macroevolutionary change? It seems to me to be an article of evolutionary faith, not a confirmed result of science, that they are capable of this. And why should the public, or for that matter dissenting scientists, share the faith of evolutionary biologists on this question?

I agree that theologians are supposed to make assertions, but I think that, given that Christianity is fragmented into several major traditions, not to mention hundreds of minor ones, it sounds less dismissive to say: "I read Paul's account of the Incarnation as implying...", rather than: "A truly Christian understanding of creation requires ...". In other words, I prefer to see some sense of the ambiguity of the Christian tradition preserved. A good example of this approach I found in Paul Santmire's book *The Travail of Nature*, which I made use of in my own book on the Hebrew Bible and the environment (*The Bible, Baconianism and Mastery over Nature: The Old Testament and its Modern Misreading*). Santmire (whom I believe is a Lutheran) brings out the ambiguity in both Scripture and tradition regarding the themes with which he deals. That is how I wish TEs would write about "the" Christian understanding of creation and "the" Christian understanding of nature.

I wasn't making the point that more people agree with Aquinas than with Torrance in order to prove, by show of hands, that Aquinas was right. My point was one of protest: it seemed to me that you were dismissing centuries of pre-modern thinking on the question at issue, and asking me to endorse a few modern voices like Torrance and Barth. This makes theology out to be something "progressive", like chemistry, in which the latest measurement of the atomic weight of some element surpasses earlier ones, which can be discarded as less accurate. I, however, see no reason to think that modern theology is necessarily superior to older forms of theology. I admit that the majority is not always right; but the newer is not always right, either. And of course I grant the possibility that on any given *single* point, a modern thinker like Torrance might be more correct than an older one like Aquinas. However, based on the one book of Torrance that I read part of, many years ago, it seems clear to me that Aquinas is, overall, the greater comprehensive thinker of the two. (Which is not surprising, as there are few in the history of Western thought who are greater comprehensive thinkers than Aquinas.)

Finally, it is very funny that you should mention Lessing -- and I have read that work, by the way -- as someone against whom you have fundamental objections. In reading many of the opinions expressed by people here regarding miracles, naturalism, the interpretation of the Bible, etc. I have often felt that I was reading Lessing, or one of his Enlightenment ilk, rather than Luther, Calvin, or Augustine. And you must know that ID folk would agree with you in regarding Lessing as one of those modern "rationalists" who is to be utterly deplored. ID people in fact see TE and ASA people as the Enlightenment folk, the Lessing-ites, the non-traditionalists, the liberals who don't emphasize revelation enough, and who overemphasize reason. What do you make of that?


----- Original Message -----
From: George Murphy
To: Cameron Wybrow ;
Sent: Saturday, May 02, 2009 8:52 PM
Subject: Re: [asa] Re: natural theology, bad and good

Cameron – Your post is below, preceded by my response. I'm afraid some points have been given scant attention due to lack of time. When writing I sympathize with Lincoln - "I walk slowly but I never walk back."

Cameron –
Thanks for your detailed response. In turn I’m going to reply thematically rather than to each of your statements in order. & in fact I’ll begin at the end, where you say, “you have really sidestepped my observation, which is that a limited natural theology was never a big problem for the Christian tradition.”
On the contrary, I think I did show why the view of natural theology for which you argue has been a problem, and that you have sidestepped the problem by just repeating the limited role that an independent natural theology is supposed to have. A major way in which an independent natural theology has been a problem is that it has often introduced foreign elements into distinctively Christian theology and in some cases has entirely replaced it. The quotation I gave from Westfall is an important example but we needn’t rely just on his statement. It’s quite obvious that in the 17th and 18th centuries natural theology moved from being the “forecourt” of Christian theology to a “natural religion” that in some cases replaced Christianity. Lessing’s “Education of the Human Race” sets this idea out explicitly, with revelation relegated to the role of a “primer” for humanity in its infancy.
I also pointed out the way in which the concept of a primordial revelation was used by the Deutsche Christen. It’s important to realize that this was not just a matter of Nazi propaganda but the claim of respectable theologians like Paul Althaus. & the idea that German Blut und Boden gave Germans some special insights into the way God works is paralleled today by claims of some (not all) feminist, black, liberation &c theologians that their gender or race or economic condition gives them special religious insights.
& philosophical ideas about divine impassibility, immutability and unity created problems for Christian theology that we’re still to some extent trying to fight free of. I’m not suggesting that the Greek philosophical was of no value for the church or that the fathers completely succumbed to it. The way in which they worked out the trinitarian and Christological dogmas in the 4th & 5th centuries was brilliant. But they were constrained by the fact that their presuppositions made what is supposed to be a solution to basic human problems into problem – i.e., how could one who lived a fully human life and died a fully human death really be “true God of true God”?
Now of course it’s not supposed to work that way. What I’ve called the classic view of natural theology, the one for which you argue, is only to be a stepping stone to a full Christian understanding. But it seems to be easier to maintain this limitation in theory than in practice. & that suggests that maybe there’s a more fundamental problem.
& the source of that problem isn’t too far to seek. It’s the issue of sin that Paul speaks of in Romans 1 & specifically idolatry, “worshipping the creature rather than the creator” (including creatures of our imagination. That is what bedevils attempts to start doing theology from what we supposedly learn from “the starry heavens above & the moral law within.” (I’m not trying to pin that phrase on you but it does summarize nicely the sources of a supposed natural knowledge of God.) And we don’t get rid of that problem when we become Christians. We will be simul justus et peccator, in Luther’s phrase, until our death.
So if one is just concerned about independent natural theology in the abstract, there doesn’t appear to be any problem. But as soon as you look at the way it functions in the real world, with real people, things don’t look so simple. I’m a pastor, not just an academic theologian, & when a woman tells me that she doesn’t need to come to church to hear God’s word because “God speaks to me when I feed the birds,” I see some of that reality.
(BTW, my understanding of the seriousness of sin does not come simply from Paul, though obviously the Pauline epistles play an important role there. As far as my own theological maturation is concerned, Ezekiel was at least as important.)
At this point I think some important distinctions are in order. I already made the point that there is an important difference between an independent (of “special” revelation) natural theology and one that is dependent upon – i.e., a part of – a theology based upon God’s historical revelation. (I wish I had a better name for the latter than “dependent natural theology” but no one has suggested an alternative yet.) & both should be distinguished from a “theology of nature,” although that is is close to a dependent natural theology & some people identify the two. A theology of nature speaks about the natural world in its relationship with God but does not claim that nature itself tells us anything about God. & having made those distinctions, I would say that a lot of what you call “natural theology” is either of the dependent variety or a theology of nature.
For starters, you said (in the part of a post that I quoted to begin mine of 29 April), “Classical Christianity affirmed the goodness, beauty and wisdom of creation, and its evident connection with its divine source. Read Genesis 1. Read the Psalms. [and continuing with other sources.]”
I don’t disagree with your reference to Genesis & Psalms but contend that there’s no “natural theology” in Genesis 1 and little if any in the Psalms. Genesis 1 of course speaks about the world as God’s creation, but doesn’t say that nature itself tells us anything about God. Similarly Ps.104, e.g., is a great hymn of creation celebrating God’s activity in the world but it doesn’t say that on its own it provides evidence for God.
Then consider some attempts to demonstrate the existence of God from our knowledge of the world & reason. When Thomas makes the case for the existence of God in the Summa Theologica, each of his five arguments ends with “And this everyone understands to be God” or some variant of that. In other words, we already have some idea of God before we start the argument. & of course that’s made quite explicit by the fact that he prefaces the five ways by quoting Ex.3:14.
That doesn’t mean that these – I would call them plausibility arguments rather than proofs – are of no value, but that they are attempts to understand what is believed. That’s the point that Barth made his book on Anselm’s ontological argument. Anselm didn’t say to himself, “I’m not sure whether God exists or not. Let’s see, the idea of God must include perfection ... “ and conclude with relief that God does indeed exist! It was instead faith in search of understanding.
In fact, it would be interesting to know whether any atheist has ever convinced him or herself of the existence of God by arguing from nature. I don’t mean being convinced by someone else’s natural theology – one likely developed from the standpoint of faith – but doing it on his or her own. Perhaps so but I don’t know of any cases.
Then what is the basis for any independent natural theology? You’re right that you didn’t say that there is “necessarily some imprint of God on creation" & I didn’t say you did. I simply wanted first of all “dispose” of the idea that there is, so to speak, a built in analogia entis. If we’re agreed that there isn’t we needn’t pursue that further and can move to the question of whether or not God in creating the world has intended some aspects of it to function as “general revelation” of himself.
Then is there a biblical basis for the existence of such a general revelation. I’ve already commented on the verses in Ps.19 & Rom.1. Certainly those texts point to some kind of evidence for God in nature. Even Barth recognized that. But he argued, I think correctly, that there is not in those few verses a justification for developing a natural theology. (For completeness one ought to add Acts 14:15-17 and 17:22-31. But arguments that can be made for apologetic effect don’t necessarily make for good theology – cf. Pascal’s “doubtfully orthodox” wager.)
One further comment on Ps.19. I don’t think you can blunt the thrust of v.3 by saying “Stars don’t talk.” Of course they don’t but vv.2 & 4 speak of the “speech, “voice” and “words” of the heavens. When you put these verses together at least one reasonable interpretation is that the metaphorical speech of the heavens is not heard. I.e., again there is evidence for God but people don’t grasp it. & that would point to the second half of the psalm in which it’s not any “general revelation” but “the law of the LORD” that is “perfect,” makes “wise the simple,” etc.
The some further points.
Quasi-gnosticism. I would agree that protestants have sometimes had attitudes to the world that can be described this way but it’s not the property of protestants alone. Roman Catholic attitudes toward sexuality in particular could often be called quasi-gnostic.
You also used the term “Manichean” of the idea that nature hides God. I don’t think that applies. OTOH Roman Catholic theologians have sometimes suspected Lutheran ideas of original sin as Manichaean – the counterpart of Lutherans suspecting Roman Catholics of being semi-pelagian!
There is some truth to the former charge when applied to ideas of original sin so extreme that they make fallen humanity no longer God’s creation, but those ideas were already condemned as Manichaean by the Lutheran Formula of Concord. Interestingly, some “young earth” ideas that ascribe the “apparent age” of the earth to the fall have the same effect on a cosmic scale.
The ecumenical status of natural theology. You say no declaration of an ecumenical council condemning a “limited” natural theology. You could have gone farther and noted that Vatican I explicitly taught that God can be known “by the natural light of human reason, by means of created things.” Of course only Roman Catholics consider than an ecumenical council. OTOH it’s not quite true that no “classical protestant confession” rejects natural theology, unless by “classical” you mean “pre-20th century. The Barmen Declaration says very plainly that “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God whom have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.”
Some Lutherans, BTW, were unable to sign the declaration precisely because of that statement. Opposition to independent natural theology was not part of the Lutheran tradition from the time of Lutheran scholasticism at least till the 20th century, & still today for some. You should not consider me representative of all Lutherans in that.
That doesn’t mean that what I say about natural theology is just my opinion. I freely admit that it’s a minority view in the Christian tradition but as a member of what was originally, & still tries to be, a reforming movement in the church catholic, I’m used to that. Similarly, I’m not impressed with the fact that more people agree with Thomas Aquinas than with Thomas Torrance.
The theology of the cross. I only mentioned this in passing and you make no explicit comment on it. To avoid giving a false picture I should be clear that my fundamental position is not a negative one of rejecting independent natural theology but a positive one of affirming that true knowledge of the true God is given to us in the crucified Christ. That is a starting point for theology that is deeper, closer to the roots of creation and the human condition and the threats to them than any sort of natural theology. When confronting Corinthian claims to wisdom Paul told them that he had decided to preach nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified. Obviously that was hyperbolic but it certainly makes clear what was of prime importance for him. I don’t think it’s just my own, or Luther’s, idiosyncrasy, to say that it should be for the church.
Kenosis. I’m running out of time – I told myself I’d get this done by Saturday evening - & am going to have to leave some things out for now, but I want to be clear here because a lot of people have misinterpreted me. I do not understand kenosis to mean the absence of God but God’s self-limitation. Kenotic divine action doesn’t mean that God isn’t doing anything but that God limits his cooperation with creatures to what is within their natural capacities.
My tone. In criticizing this you sound a bit like Erasmus criticizing Luther. Perhaps you’ll take that as a compliment. Myself, I’d rather line up with Luther. Theologians are supposed to make assertions.
I feel even less reason to use gentler language when dealing with ID. ID proponents like to give the impression that of course they hold the theological high ground. It’s supposed to go without saying that they’re the one’s who are standing up for God, while people who claim to be Christians but don’t agree with them are just trying to curry favor with the secular establishment and don’t really believe that God does anything in the world anyway. So if you wish you can understand my tone as a may of sying that those claims are false.
Let me be clear though. While I think that the theological assumptions and implications of ID are dangerous, misleading & without any real basis, I do not want to excommunicate ID proponents. If a supporter of ID comes for Communion when I am presiding, I will not refuse that person the sacrament because of that theological view. I’d say the same thing about a young earth creationist. But I would prefer not to have people teaching those views in Sunday School or preaching them from the pulpit.
That’ll have to do it for now.

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Received on Sun May 3 01:24:23 2009

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