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

From: George Murphy <>
Date: Mon May 04 2009 - 11:50:09 EDT

Cameron -

Below are some of my reflections on your most recent post in this thread as well as some material that I omitted from my Saturday post for want of time. I haven't replied to all the points you raise as you haven't to all of mine. Obviously we could both write a lot more - & in fact have.


First I should note this statement of yours: “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.” I suspect that will ensure a large gap between your views & mine, in spite of whatever agreement we may reach on details. I have great respect for the Christian theological tradition & insist that it be taken seriously in current theological work. But we’ve learned a lot about the world & humanity in the past few centuries, including the knowledge gained by the natural sciences. As I’ll say below about philosophy, those things have a ministerial but not a magisterial role in theology. They can’t dictate our theology but need to be taken seriously if we believe that the world that science explores is indeed God’s creation. In any case I see nothing special about 1700 as an endpoint.


Then let me reiterate what I said in a brief post yesterday. The problem with the natural theology as a prelude to proper Christian theology is shown by the examples I’ve noted through Christian history - & not just the 17th & 18th centuries – of the tendency for natural theology to take over. The late medieval theology against which Luther reacted is another example. These are not just isolated cases & I am not just presenting an abstract slippery slope example. I think this tendency shows a fundamental problem with that approach, & that the problem can be identified as the fundamental sin of idolatry that Paul speaks of in Rom.1. & since natural theology enters the system prior to the message of the cross, or indeed any indictment of sin, there is really little to check this tendency.


The answer, it seems to me, is clear: Start with God’s self-revelation and then, when with the knowledge of who the true God is, look at the natural world to see where and how that God is at work.


Again, you’re of course right that Aquinas, saw a quite limited role for a natural knowledge of God. So did the theologians of Lutheran Orthodoxy. Quenstedt, e.g., says “The natural knowledge of God is not adequate to secure everlasting life, nor has any mortal ever been redeemed, nor can anyone ever be redeemed, by it alone.” But they were still, IMO, starting people off on the wrong track. The supposed limitation of the role of natural religion is unstable, a paper barrier that is all too easy to breach.


As far as theology is concerned (note the qualification) I think it’s misleading to speak about “coordinating” Athens and Jerusalem. Philosophy (as shorthand for all theology’s ancillary disciplines) is needed for theology but, as Lutherans say, is to have a ministerial and not a magisterial role. Human reason can’t pass judgments on the fundamental assumptions of theology that come from revelation, but comes into play in developing the consequences and implications of those assumptions. The belief that a specific Jewish carpenter dying on a cross is the embodiment of the creator of the universe seems crazy to normal ways of thinking, but that’s where we begin. Theology, like the sciences, is not to be judged by the a prori plausibility of its postulates but by their consequences. If heliocentric astronomy or special relativity had been judged by the apparent plausibility of their presuppositions, they would have died in infancy.


Your point that both IDers & I are critical of Lessing is interesting but doesn’t mean we’re in agreement. One thing that may bring out the difference is Lessing’s claim that "accidental truths of history can never become the proof of necessary truths of reason," a claim that challenges any foundation of theology on an historically contingent event like that of Jesus’ death and resurrection. One response is to look for a basis for theology that isn’t contingent, in aspects of the world that are in principle available to everyone at all times & places, like the subject matter of the natural sciences, or in pure reason. This, of course, is to yield some kind of natural theology. A theologian of the cross, OTOH, will reply that searching for necessary truths of reason is the task of philosopher rather than theologians.


Then on kenosis, divine action, ID & your comments on God “showing off.” A lot of people talk about kenotic views of divine action in what I consider questionable ways & some reviewers have misunderstood what I myself have said about it. Kenosis, as I said, is divine self-limitation, not divine absence, & it cannot be a complete theology of divine action because it emphasizes what God doesn’t do rather than what God does. As I’ve argued in several places (e.g.,, an adequate view of divine action requires 3 components: God’s cooperation with creatures in their actions (what Barbour calls a Neo-Thomist view), God’s self-limitation to the capacities of creatures in that cooperation (kenosis) & faith (because we do not “observe” God acting but the “tools” God uses).


You can come at that idea of divine self-limitation in a couple of ways. If “true theology and the recognition of God are in the crucified Christ” then the kenosis of Christ will be seen as revelatory of God’s character & MO generally. ( N.B. That is an “if-then” statement, like my earlier one that if one adopts a kenotic view then something like MN follows. If not then of course not.) OTOH if we start with belief that God is active in the world and take into account the empirical fact that the vast majority of phenomena in the world conform to the kind of regularities that science studies then it seems that God must somehow be limiting what he does with creatures instead of acting in completely capricious ways. One way of stating that uses the old terminology of God’s use of his ordinate rather than his absolute power.


In discussing this at any length I have always tried to qualify the claim that God acts within the capacities of creatures with phrases like “in the vast majority of cases.” Because of course God may have reasons to act in other ways on occasion & scripture gives some warrant for thinking that he has. In addition, Godel’s theorem suggests that the universe must be logically open & that no set of consistent mathematical can describe all phenomena.


& the laws or patterns to which God limits divine action are, as you say, God’s creation. I agree that we can’t know a priori that the particular patterns people call neo-Darwinism can account for the development of life. I have never, BTW, identified myself as a “Darwinist” (with or without neo) but have instead said things like “Darwin and Wallace’s concept of natural selection is at least a major component of how life has evolved.” It may well be that some fundamentally new idea is required, something like Planck’s idea of discontinuity in energy transfer that radically changed physics.


But ID makes no contribution here. Even if one grants for the sake of argument that there are biochemical phenomena whose development current evolutionary theory can’t account for, ID suggests no alternative way, no “tools” God could have used, to bring about that development. So are these phenomena miraculous in the sense of being beyond the capacity of creatures? Here appeal to biblical miracles doesn’t help because those miracles have either a salvific or semeiotic character – or both. A sign like the feeding of the multitudes points to the presence of the creator who is working all the time in the world to provide food for creatures through non-miraculous means. (Lewis’ discussion is good here.) There is no theological reason at to think that God ongoing work of creation in the world is miraculous.


What about God “showing off”? I had in mind, of course, statements like Johnson’s about believing in a God who “left his fingerprints all over the evidence.” (En passant, what would you think of someone who painted your house & left his fingerprints all over it? & how do you know whose fingerprints are at a crime scene unless you’ve got them in a data base to start with?)


Is there biblical justification for that kind of language? Signs like Jesus walking on the sea are not so much “showing off” as identifying himself. Then, as you say, there are texts like those of the Exodus in which God is represented as boasting that he will “get glory” &c. 1st, I think that picture of God as a boastful warrior has to be seen as a stage in the development of Israel’s understanding that eventually gets transcended, rather in the way the picture of God demanding the extermination of whole populations gets transcended by the picture of a God who reaches out to all nations & commands love of enemies. In any case, the Exodus is a single salvific event, & provides no justification for the idea that God is continually showing off with things like the bacterial flagellum.


Interesting that you mention Paul Santmire. Paul is a friend of mine – we served together on the task force that developed the ELCA’s environmental statement & he was pastor of a parish in Akron just a few miles from me for several years. He did his doctoral work on Barth’s doctrine of creation & is critical of some aspects of that (as you’ll know from the final chapter of The Travail of Nature) but for reasons rather different from yours I think. We don’t agree on everything but Paul’s never expressed any disapproval of my theological approach that he’s expressed has had to do with it perhaps being too anthropocentric rather than the kind of issues we’ve. Of course I can’t speak for him about that.




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Received on Mon May 4 11:50:49 2009

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