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Tennant, Frederick Robert (1866–1957)


Frederick Robert Tennant, the philosopher of religion and theologian, spent most of his life in Cambridge, England, and was educated at Cambridge University. He was a fellow of Trinity College and university lecturer in the philosophy of religion. His writings are in two main areas. In the strictly theological field he produced several influential studies of the concepts of sin and the fall of man, in which he diverged widely from the traditional Augustinian doctrines. In the philosophy of religion and the philosophy of science (in both of which his thought shows the influence of his Cambridge contemporary James Ward) Tennant's magnum opus is the two-volume Philosophical Theology, which develops, from foundations in the sciences, the thesis that there is "a theistic world-view commending itself as more reasonable than other interpretations or than the refusal to interpret, and congruent with the knowledgei.e. the probabilitywhich is the guide of life and science" (Vol. II, p. 245).

Tennant described his method as empirical rather than a priori. He meant (1) that his epistemology was based on a psychological examination of the cognitive capacities of the human mind, and (2) that his theistic argument was inductive, treating the existence of God as a hypothesis that goes beyond but builds upon the hypotheses of the special sciences.

Tennant argued in Philosophy of the Sciences that all knowledge, other than that in logic and mathematics, consists in probable interpretative judgments whose verification to the human mind is ultimately pragmatic. Thus, science and natural theology share a common method and status: "inductive science has its interpretative explanation-principles, and its faith elements with which the faith of natural theology is, in essence, continuous" (p. 185). So Tennant can speak of theology as "the final link in a continuous chain of interpretative belief" (p. 184) and can say that "theistic belief is but a continuation, by extrapolation, or through points representing further observations, of the curve of 'knowledge' which natural science has constructed" (pp. 185186). (For Tennant's conception of faith as the volitional element in the acquisition of all knowledge, scientific no less than religious, see the entry faith).

Tennant rejected religious experienceboth the special experiences of the mystic and the less special religious experience of the ordinary believeras a valid ground for belief in God, and he rested his entire case upon what he called the wider, or cosmic, teleology.

The version of the Argument to Design in Volume II of Tennant's Philosophical Theology taking account as it does of David Hume's critique of the much simpler arguments of the eighteenth-century teleologists culminating in William Paley's Natural Theology, and taking account also of relevant developments in nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century science including the work of Charles Darwinis probably the strongest presentation that has been written of this type of theistic reasoning. Serious discussions of the Teleological Argument should deal with it in the form provided by Tennant rather than in the relatively cruder versions of earlier centuries or of contemporary popular apologetics.

Tennant begins by making it clear, in accordance with his general theory of knowledge, that the argument is to provide "grounds for reasonable belief rather than rational and coercive demonstration." It employs a concept of probability that is not that of mathematics or logic but "the alogical probability which is the guide of life" and which, Tennant had already claimed in Volume I, is the ultimate basis of all scientific induction.

The argument itself does not rely (as did Paley's) on particular instances of apparent design in nature or on the arithmetical accumulation of these. Tennant allowed that each separate case of adaptation may be adequately explicable in purely naturalistic as well as in teleological terms. But he held that "the multitude of interwoven adaptations by which the world is constituted a theatre of life, intelligence, and morality, cannot reasonably be regarded as an outcome of mechanism, or of blind formative power, or of aught but purposive intelligence." (Philosophical Theology, Vol. II, p. 121).

His detailed argument contains the following strands:

  1. The basic instance of order is that the world stands in relation to human thought as something "more or less intelligible, in that it happens to be more or less a cosmos, when conceivably it might have been a self-subsistent and determinate 'chaos' in which similar events never occurred, none recurred, universals had no place, relations no fixity, things no nexus of determination, and 'real' categories no foothold" (p. 82).
  2. The internal and external adaptation of animal organisms can be accounted for in terms of an evolutionary process operating by means of natural selection; but how, other than by a cosmic purpose, is that process itself to be accounted for? Here "The discovery of organic evolution has caused the ideologist to shift his ground from special design in the products to directivity in the process, and plan in the primary collocations" (p. 85).
  3. The emergence of organic life presupposes complex and specific preparatory processes at the inorganic level. Why has a universe of matter produced life and intelligence? If there were millions of universes, we might expect this to happen in a few of them. But there is only one universe. "Presumably the world is comparable with a single throw of dice. And common sense is not foolish in suspecting the dice to have been loaded" (p. 87).
  4. Nature produces in great abundance beauty that seems to exist only for the enjoyment of man. "Theistically regarded, Nature's beauty is of a piece with the world's intelligibility and with its being a theatre for moral life; and thus far the case for theism is strengthened by aesthetic considerations" (p. 93).
  5. Nature has produced man, with his ethical sense. If we judge the evolutionary process not by its roots in the primeval slime but by its fruits in human moral and spiritual experience, we note that "The whole process of Nature is capable of being regarded as instrumental to the development of intelligent and moral creatures" (p. 103).
  6. These five aspects of nature can individually be understood naturalistically. Nevertheless, taken as a whole they suggest a cosmic purpose that has used nature for the production of man. The more we learn of the complex conditions that had to come about before man could exist, "the less reasonable or credible becomes the alternative theory of cumulative groundless coincidence" (p. 106).

Having thus sought to establish theism as the most reasonable explanation of the world as a whole, Tennant discussed the problem of evil considered as challenging the theistic hypothesis, and he offered a theodicy that is typical of the thought of many British theologians on this subject in the twentieth century. This type of theodicy has an ancestry going back through Friedrich Schleiermacher to the early Hellenistic thinkers of the Christian church, especially Irenaeus, and it stands in contrast to the Augustinian and Latin tradition. For Tennant the possibility of the moral evil of sin was involved in the creation of free and responsible personal beings and was justified by the fact that only free persons can be the bearers of moral and spiritual values. Tennant saw the natural evil of pain in its many forms as a necessary concomitant of man's existence in a world that has its own stable structure and laws of operation; and it is justified by the fact that only in such an environment can the higher values of the human personality develop.

The same aspects of Tennant's thought constitute its strength from one philosophical point of view and its weakness from another point of view. He presented theology as an extension of science and theism as a hypothesis that is arguable in essentially the same sort of way as, for example, organic evolution. To some it will seem that by thus assimilating religious to scientific theorizing, Tennant made theology intellectually respectable; and this was his own view of the matter. To others, however, it will seem that Tennant was presenting religious belief in false colors. From their point of view, having excluded the true basis of religious faith in religious experience, Tennant attempted in vain to infer religious conclusions from nonreligious data, and by thus setting theistic belief upon a wrong and inadequate foundation, he has weakened rather than strengthened it.

See also Darwin, Charles Robert; Evil, The Problem of; Faith; Hume, David; Moral Arguments for the Existence of God; Paley, William; Schleiermacher, Friedrich Daniel Ernst; Teleological Argument for the Existence of God.


works by tennant

The Origin and Propagation of Sin. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1902.

The Sources of the Doctrines of the Fall and Original Sin. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1903.

The Concept of Sin. Cambridge, 1912.

Miracle and Its Philosophical Presuppositions. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1925.

Philosophical Theology, 2 vols. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1928 and 1930.

Philosophy of the Sciences. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1932.

The Nature of Belief. London: Centenary Press, 1943.

Philosophical Theology, Vol. 3. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1968.

works on tennant

Attfield, David. "The Morality of Sins." Religious Studies 20 (1984): 227238.

Broad, C. D. "Frederick Robert Tennant, 18661957." Proceedings of the British Academy 44 (1960).

Buswell, J. Oliver. The Philosophies of F. R. Tennant and John Dewey. New York: Philosophical Library, 1950.

Mellor, D. H. "God and Probability." Religious Studies 5 (1968): 223234.

Scudder, D. L. Tennant's Philosophical Theology. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1940.

Smart, Ninian. "F. R. Tennant and the Problem of Evil." In his Philosophers and Religious Truth. London: S.C.M. Press, 1964.

Smart, Ninian. Philosophers and Religious Truth. New York: Collier, 1969.

Wynn, Mark. God and Goodness: A Natural Theological Perspective. London: Routledge, 1999.

John Hick (1967)

Bibliography updated by Christian B. Miller (2005)

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