Natural Theology

views updated Jun 27 2018


The primary sense of the term natural theology rests on the contrast between natural and revealed knowledge. Natural theology concerns knowledge of the existence and attributes of God arrived at using only the natural faculties of sense and reason. Philosophical arguments for the existence, intelligence, power, and goodness of God based on the order and beauty of the world, or on purely intellectual considerations, are examples of natural theology. Knowledge of God that is based on divine revelation as set down in scripture is the subject of revealed theology.

A central metaphor for the distinction between natural theology and revealed theology is that of the "two books"the book of God's word (scripture) and the book of God's works (nature). The mainstream theological position has always been that the primary source of truth was revelation and that natural reasoningreading the book of God's workscan provide ancillary support for revealed truths. Reason can confirm what is already known by faith. Natural theology has, therefore, been a more or less important, and more or less welcome, secondary support for Christian doctrine over the centuries. A constant worry for theologians has been the possibility of relying too heavily on natural theology and thus giving too much away to rationalistic and secular ways of understanding the world and placing insufficient emphasis on the importance of scripture and revelation.

Although the primary sense of "natural" in the phrase "natural theology" is natural as opposed to revealed knowledge, there is a secondary sense that is also important. Works of natural theology produced from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries frequently focused on the wonders of the natural world and on developments in natural science. The phrase "natural theology" thus came to stand for a rather particular kind of natural theologya celebration of the beauty of the natural world and the power, wisdom, and goodness of its Creator, as revealed by the scientific study of nature. This sort of natural theology might also be thought of as a kind of "theology of nature," to distinguish it from the broader intellectual enterprise of arguing about God independently of revelation.

Natural Theology and the Birth of Modern Science

Although it had roots both in ancient Greek philosophy and in medieval Christian theology (for instance, in Thomas Aquinas's famous "five ways" of demonstrating the existence of God), the heyday of natural theology was between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries and was intertwined with the rise of modern science (see Brooke, 2003; Brooke and Cantor).

Nature was investigated and interpreted in new ways in sixteenth-and seventeenth-century Europe. These innovations (which have traditionally been summed up as the "scientific revolution") included the use of new scientific instruments (such as the telescope, the microscope, and the air pump), a new emphasis on experimentation, and the use of mechanical models to explain natural phenomena. The natural theological genre was one that both allowed practitioners of the new mechanical and experimental philosophy to justify their work to a sometimes skeptical religious establishment and also allowed religious apologists to enlist new knowledge in the service of Christian piety.

Many of the early members of the Royal Society in London (founded in 1660) saw a connection between their experimental investigations and their Christian faith. (Robert K. Merton famously argued that the Puritan religious beliefs of many of the founder members played a key role in shaping the activities of the Royal Society.) Robert Boyle (16271691), for instance, as well as conducting important experiments with his air pump to investigate the pressure of air and other gases, wrote on The Excellency of Theology, Compared with NaturalPhilosophy (1674) and composed a work entitled The Christian Virtuoso (1690), subtitled, "shewing that by being addicted to experimental philosophy, a man is rather assisted than indisposed to be a good Christian." Another early Fellow of the Royal Society whose writings explored the way that the new experimental and mechanical philosophy could be used to support theology was John Ray (16271705), whose The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of the Creation (1691) was to become a classic of the natural theological genre. In this work, Ray argued that since the creativity of God was present throughout the natural world, no part of it was too low or insignificant to be a subject of natural-philosophical study.

The experimental investigation of nature in seventeenth-century England was, then, justified as being to the greater glory of God and for the good of man. The natural theology produced by men such as Boyle and Ray reflected the character of the new natural knowledge they were engaged in producing. Their God was an able mathematician, a geometer, a designer, a mechanic. If the experimental philosopher displayed his ingenuity by designing and constructing a telescope or a microscope, how much more ingenious must be the God who could design and construct the human eye? If the man of science gave evidence of his intelligence by discovering that natural phenomena were governed by elegant mathematical laws, how much more intelligent and powerful must be the God who drew up and laid down those laws?

In his will, Boyle left money to pay for a series of lectures to promote this natural theological vision, which he hoped would prove the truth of the Christian religion "against notorious infidels, viz. Atheists, Pagans, Jews, and Mahometans" (quoted in Brooke, 2003, p. 157). The result was a series of Boyle Lectures, which were delivered for around forty years, annually, starting in the year of Boyle's death, 1692, when the first Boyle lecturer was Isaac Newton's friend, the Reverend Richard Bentley (16621742). Another Newtonian and theologian, Samuel Clarke (16751729), was the Boyle lecturer in 17041705.

Natural Theology and Its Critics in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

Lectures and treatises in this same natural theological tradition continued to be produced throughout the eighteenth century and into the first half of the nineteenth century, across Europe, but with a particular popularity in Britain. Natural theologians argued from the harmonious, law-governed, architecturally sophisticated, mathematically precise wonders of natureanimate and inanimateto the existence and attributes of a good, powerful, and intelligent deity. Natural theological works frequently relied on arousing their readers' aesthetic feelings, but these could then be used in support of very different political programmes, from Joseph Priestley's and Thomas Paine's versions of radical republicanism to William Paley's and William Whewell's more conservative Anglicanism.

The most famous philosophical critique of natural theology, David Hume's (17111776) Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, appeared, posthumously, in 1779. Although the use of the dialogue form meant that Hume did not claim any view directly as his own, some have thought that the arguments against natural religion voiced by the skeptical Philo are closest to Hume's own views. In addition to throwing doubt on the soundness of the analogy between the universe and human artifacts, Philo suggests that if the analogy is to be taken seriously, then the correct inference should be to a cause more closely resembling the cause of human artifactsnamely, a being (or, more likely, a collaborating group of beings) of limited skill and foresight, not a single being of unlimited power and intelligence. Pressing the point even further, Philo asks why the natural theologian, once embarked upon the project of comparing human and divine designers, should not become a perfect anthropomorphite. Why not assert that the deity or deities has eyes, a nose, mouth, ears and so on, he asks.

Although the attacks upon the argument from design put forward in Hume's Dialogues are often seen, in retrospect, as devastating to the natural theological enterprise, that was not how they were perceived at the time. The most famous treatise in the natural theology tradition postdated the Dialogues and did not consider the arguments put forward in them to be seriously troubling. This was William Paley's (17431805) Natural Theology (1802), which is still considered the classic expression of the argument from natural design to divine designer. The Paleyite version of natural theology, with its focus on adaptation and design, was taken up by the authors of the Bridgewater Treatises. It was also the version of natural theology to which the young Charles Darwin (18091882) was introduced as a Cambridge undergraduate with a passion for natural history, in the late 1820s.

As the nineteenth century unfolded, however, the natural theology of Paley and the Bridgewater authors came under attack from a variety of different directions. Discussions about the intellectual status of natural theology overlapped with debates about the political desirability of church-dominated education. In Britain, for instance, the second half of the nineteenth century saw the Anglican monopoly on the universities and education being gradually eroded. Anglican men of science and their natural theological arguments were gradually displaced by agnostics and secularizers, with their more materialistic interpretations of scientific results, as the leading scientific authorities in Victorian Britain.

There had been, for some time, a radical, anti-Christian strand of natural theologya deistic sort of natural religion promoted most famously by Thomas Paine (17371809) in his Age of Reason (17941807). On this view natural theology was not a supplement to revealed theology but a self-sufficient alternative to it. Paine argued that the book of nature was the only book that was needed to understand God and his creation. All churches, scriptures, and doctrines were anathema to Paine. Christianity was pilloried as a corrupt and oppressive system, run by a self-serving and power-hungry priesthood. The true theologyas opposed to the immoral superstitions of the churcheswas to be found in the results of science and philosophy. Writing in the same freethinking tradition as Paine, but replacing Paine's deism with outright atheism, the secularist campaigner George Jacob Holyoake (18171906), while serving a prison sentence for blasphemy, composed a pamphlet entitled Paley Refuted in His Own Words (1847). Holyoake pressed arguments similar to those put forward in Hume's Dialogues seventy years earlier. Holyoake's conclusion was that he had shown natural theology to be logically flawed, and thus also shown that revealed theology was groundless (since he held that revealed theology presupposed natural theology). He then went on to denounce Christian religion as a barrier to human progress and demand that it be replaced by a utilitarian and scientific secular morality.

Paley's Watchmaker

William Paley (17431805) was an Anglican clergyman and successful writer whose Principles of Moral Philosophy (1785) and Natural Theology (1802) were widely read, especially by students, well into the nineteenth century. The central argument of Natural Theology was that living things are comparable to mechanical contrivances, such as watches; and just as from a mechanical contrivance we infer a human designer, so, by analogy, from natural contrivances we should infer a divine designer (see Addinall; Brooke, 2003; Nuovo). The opening paragraph of Paley's Natural Theology, quoted below, set the tone for the central analogy of the book. The title of Richard Dawkins's 1988 book, The Blind Watchmaker, alludes to this argument by suggesting that blind Darwinian processes of variation and natural selection have replaced Paley's divine watchmaker.

In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for any thing I knew to the contrary, it had lain there for ever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer which I had before given, that, for any thing I knew, the watch might have always been there. Yet why should not this answer serve for the watch as well as for the stone? Why is it not as admissible in the second case, as in the first? For this reason, and for no other, viz. that, when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive (what we could not discover in the stone) that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e.g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that, if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, of a different size from what they are, or placed after any other manner, or in any other order, than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it. This mechanism being observed (it requires indeed an examination of the instrument, and perhaps some previous knowledge of the subject, to perceive and understand it; but being once, as we have said, observed and understood), the inference, we think, is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker: that there must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use.

Charles Darwin's explanation in The Origin of Species (1859) of how the processes of random variation and natural selection could combine to produce what appeared to be instances of "design" in the natural world is often described as the final nail in natural theology's coffin. If blind natural forces could create adaptation, then surely no role was left for Paley's God. It was not quite that simple, however. Historians of science have shown that Darwin took over much of the language of natural theology (the discourse of "adaptation" and "design") as well as some of its leading assumptionssuch as the idea that every anatomical and behavioral trait should be assumed to have a function. Darwin was certainly no Holyoake. Whatever his own personal doubts about theology, he presented his ideas not as an argument for atheism but as an explanation of how the creator could make new species through the operation of laws rather than through miraculous interventions. Paley's watchmaker-God may have been banished in Darwin's new view of nature, but that had only ever been one of the images of God with which natural theologians had been concerned.

The Twentieth Century

Twentieth-century developments add weight to the view that Darwin's writings, while requiring theologians to rethink natural theology, did not compel them to abandon it. One of the institutions through which natural theological endeavors were continued was the Gifford lectures. These lectures, set up to promote the study of natural theology, were instituted by the will of Adam Gifford, who died in 1887. Delivered in the Scottish universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, St Andrews, and Aberdeen, by a range of distinguished philosophers, scientists, historians, and theologians since 1888, the Gifford lectures have resulted in a lively and ongoing series of natural theological reflections, conceived in the broadest sense. Gifford lecturers have included William James, Nils Bohr, Charles Raven, and Paul Tillich; and, more recently, the physicist and Anglican minister John Polkinghorne, historians of science John Hedley Brooke and Geoffrey Cantor, and the American theologian Stanley Hauerwas.

The Bridgewater Treatises

In February 1829 the Reverend Francis Henry, earl of Bridgewater, died. His will made provision for £8000 sterling to be held at the disposal of the president of the Royal Society in London and used to finance the publication of one thousand copies of a work on the power, wisdom, and goodness of God as manifested in the creation. The result, eventually, was not one but eight such works. These works of natural theology were written by leading religious and scientific figures of the day and were published between 1833 and 1836 (see Addinall; Topham):

  1. Thomas Chalmers (17801847), On the Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God as Manifested in the Adaptation of External Nature to the Moral and Intellectual Constitution of Man (1833).
  2. John Kidd (17751851), On the Adaptation of External Nature to the Physical Condition of Man: Principally with Reference to the Supply of His Wants and the Exercise of His Intellectual Faculties (1833).
  3. William Whewell (17941866), Astronomy and General Physics Considered with Reference to Natural Theology (1833).
  4. Charles Bell (17741842), The Hand: Its Mechanism and Vital Endowments in Evincing Design (1833).
  5. Peter Roget (17791869), Animal and Vegetable Physiology: Considered with Reference to Natural Theology (1834). 6. William Buckland (17841856), Geology and Mineralogy Considered with Reference to Natural Theology (1836).
  6. William Kirby (17591850), On the Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God as Manifested in the Creation of Animals and in Their History, Habits and Instincts (1835).
  7. William Prout (17851850), Chemistry, Meteorology, and the Function of Digestion: Considered with Reference to Natural Theology (1834).

In 1837 Charles Babbage (17911871), the creator of the famous "difference engine" (a calculating machine often cited as the earliest forerunner of the modern computer), wrote an unsolicited Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, which argued that a system operated entirely by mathematical laws could result in the appearance of unexpected novelties. Babbage's suggestion that divine intervention could thus be replaced by the operation of natural laws was explicitly taken up in the evolutionary work Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, published anonymously in 1844 (the author was later revealed to have been the Edinburgh journalist and publisher Robert Chambers), and, more tacitly, in Darwin's Origin of Species (1859).

Discussions of natural theology have, ever since the mid-1930s, been carried out under the shadow of the figure of Karl Barth (18861968). In reaction to a 1934 treatise on Nature and Grace by Emil Brunner, Barth wrote a response titled simply No! In this and other works, Barth (and many others in twentieth-century academic theology who shared his dissatisfaction with nineteenth-century theological accommodations with scientific rationalism) emphasized the centrality of revelation and a religious relation to Christ. For the Barthian, rational argumentation undertaken on secular foundations could never produce distinctively Christian knowledge, and to suppose that it might was a theological mistake (regardless of whether it was also a philosophical and scientific one). Interestingly, both Barth and Brunner were subsequently Gifford lecturers; Stanley Hauerwas, in his recent Gifford lectures, argues in favor of a form of natural theology reconceived along Barthian lines.

Given the Humean, Darwinian, and Barthian objections to any form of natural theology grounded in the sciences, attempts to revive it in the later twentieth century certainly seemed to be doing so in the face of formidable opposition. Nonetheless, such attempts have been made. In the area of "science and religion," authors such as Ian Barbour, Arthur Peacocke, John Polkinghorne, Bob Russell, and Nancey Murphy have argued that divine purposes can still be discerned in the findings of modern science. There has been particular interest in the question of whether the "fine-tuning" of the fundamental physical constants of our universe might indicate that it was made by a deity with an interest in creating intelligent life. Another area of lively revived natural theological speculations has been quantum physics.

In the United States, the twentieth century saw the invention of another new variety of natural theology, namely "creation science" or "scientific creationism," whose advocates continue to resist mainstream neo-Darwinian orthodoxy and to call for "balanced treatment" of Darwinian science and "creation science" in the classroom. In this American controversy, not only the relationship between church and state but also the ancient question of the relationship between the book of nature and the book of scripture continues to be contested. Each group has its own view about this relationship. For creationists, revealed theology (specifically a literalist interpretation of the book of Genesis) and natural theology (specifically an anti-evolutionary interpretation of scientific evidence) concur in teaching that God created separate forms and that humans do not have a common ancestry with other animals. For other Christians, revelation and nature can be brought into harmony by reading Genesis less literally and accepting mainstream science. For others againthose who take a view like Thomas Paine'schurches and supposed revelations are all nothing more than human creations: the only real source of transcendent knowledge is the study of the natural world, and the most fruitful means of studying it are science and philosophy. It thus continues to hold true that debates about natural theology are closely connected with debates about the relationship between church and state, especially in the area of education.

See also Creationism ; Evolution ; Mechanical Philosophy ; Natural History ; Nature ; Religion and Science .



Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologiae. Translated by the Dominican Fathers. London: Blackfriars, 19641981.

Brunner, Emil, and Karl Barth. Natural Theology. Translated from the German by Peter Fraenkel, with an introduction by John Baillie. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1946. Reprint, Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock, 2002. Comprising Nature and Grace by Emil Brunner and the reply No! by Karl Barth.

Hume, David. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Edited by J. C. A. Gaskin. Oxford: Oxford World's Classics, 1998. First published 1779.

Paley, William. Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Atributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature. 1802. Reprint, Oxford: Oxford University Press World Classics Series, 2005.


Addinall, Peter. Philosophy and Biblical Interpretation: A Study in Nineteenth-Century Conflict. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Barr, James. Biblical Faith and Natural Theology. Oxford: Clarendon, 1993.

Behe, Michael. Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. New York and London: Free Press, 1996.

Brooke, John Hedley. "Darwin and Victorian Christianity." In The Cambridge Companion to Darwin, edited by Jonathan Hodge and Gregory Radick. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

. Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Brooke, John Hedley, and Geoffrey Cantor. Reconstructing Nature: The Engagement of Science and Religion. Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1998. See especially section 3.

Buckley, Michael. At the Origins of Modern Atheism. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987.

Dawkins, Richard. The Blind Watchmaker. London: Penguin, 1988.

Dembski, William. Intelligent Design: The Bridge between Science and Theology. Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 1999.

Desmond, Adrian, and James Moore. Darwin. London: Penguin, 1992.

Hauerwas, Stanley. With the Grain of the Universe: The Church's Witness and Natural Theology. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2001.

Jaki, Stanley L. Lord Gifford and His Lectures: A Centenary Retrospect. 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1995.

Merton, Robert K. "Puritanism, Pietism, and Science." In Science and Religious Belief: A Selection of Recent Historical Studies, edited by C. A. Russell. London: University of London Press, 1973.

Numbers, Ronald L. The Creationists. New York: Knopf, 1992.

Nuovo, Victor. "William Paley." In The Dictionary of Eighteenth-Century British Philosophers, edited by John Yolton, John Valdimir, and John Stephens. Bristol, U.K., and Sterling, Va.: Thoemmes Press, 1999.

Olding, Alan. Modern Biology and Natural Theology. London: Routledge, 1990.

Ospovat, Dov. The Development of Darwin's Theory: Natural History, Natural Theology, and Natural Selection, 18381850. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Polkinghorne, John. Science and Christian Belief. London: SPCK, 1994. Published in the United States as The Faith of a Physicist: Reflections of a Bottom-up Thinker. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Richards, Robert. Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Ruse, Michael. Darwin and Design: Does Evolution Have a Purpose? Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Topham, Jonathan. "Beyond the 'Common Context': The Production and Reading of the Bridgewater Treatises. " Isis 89 (1998): 233262.

Thomas Dixon

Natural Theology

views updated Jun 08 2018

Natural Theology

Natural theology is the part of theology that does not depend upon revelation. During the Middle Ages, natural theology included arguments for the existence and nature of God, for the immortality of the soul, and for the basic principles of morality insofar as they are founded on nature as created by God.

The first flourishing of natural theology was in ancient Greece. Plato's dialogue, the Phaedo, contains a number of weak arguments for the everlastingness of the soul, and Aristotle's Metaphysics contains arguments for a "Prime Mover," which is also the best of all possible beings. In the Christian tradition, medieval theologians, often appealing to Romans 1:1820, developed the viewed that natural theology could establish the existence of God, which it is logically necessary to do before discussing the things that God had revealed. The first Vatican Council, held from 1869 to 1870, defined as a matter of faith that the existence of God could be demonstrated by reason. The best known arguments in this regard are those of medieval philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas, whose "Five Ways" for demonstrating God are drawn from Aristotle.

Aristotle's four causes

In Aristotle's (384322 b.c.e.) work, there is no sharp distinction between physics and theology. The Prime Mover is part of a scientific explanation of the universe, which explains why and for what purpose the universe exists. Aristotle describes four basic types of causes, and a complete causal explanation would trace them to an ultimate self-evident origin. There must be an ultimate efficient cause of the universe, something that brings everything else into being without itself being capable of entering into being or of passing away (it will be eternal). It will cause changes without being capable of change (it will be immutable). It will generate all transient things without itself being affected by anything (it will be necessary). According to Aristotle, there must be an ultimate formal cause of the universesomething that includes the natures of all things in a higher and underived manner (it will contain all possible perfections). There must be an ultimate final cause of the universesomething to which all things strive, or for the sake of which they exist (a perfection that all things strive to imitate in their own way). And there must be an ultimate material cause of the universesomething out of which it is made, which is not itself made out of anything more basic.

For Aristotle, the eternal, immutable, necessary, perfect pattern of the universe is one and the same being, since an all-perfect being will be eternal, immutable, and necessary. Prime matter, however, the material cause, is in itself imperfect and formless, and is a basic brute fact alongside the perfect being. Aquinas (c. 12251274) adopted all these arguments, and agreed with Aristotle that the efficient, formal, and final cause of the universe is not its material cause. But he argued that matter is not an ultimate principle. It is brought into being "ex nihilo " by the cause of the universe which is wholly immaterial and which, he said, "all men call God" (Summa Contra Gentiles 1, 13).

These arguments for God are essentially arguments to an ultimate cause, which will provide an ultimate explanation for the universe. Perhaps the "first cause" simply exists, as the ultimate brute fact. But one might push the argument as far as it can go, and say that the first cause has to exist. It cannot fail to exist, since it is the very source of all possibilities, and without it nothing would be even possible. The twentieth-century philosopher Richard Swinburne calls this an "absolute explanation," since it arrives at a being that is self-explanatory, whereas an ultimate explanation simply arrives at a being that cannot be explained in simpler or more basic terms.

These arguments continue to be the basis for most arguments in natural theology, construed as an attempt to explain the universe, but they have ceased to be considered a part of science. This is largely because science has rejected Aristotelian forms of explanation as being both superfluous and vacuous. Aristotelian science looked for the "essences" or true natures of things, and assumed that the essences must be brought about by things which were like them and at least as "great" in reality, and that each thing must have a "final cause" or purpose for the sake of which it exists.

Since the sixteenth century, scientists have ceased to look for "real essences" or for "final causes," and have given up the causal principle that things must be brought into being by other things that are like but greater than themselves. Such investigations led to no practical results. Instead, the "new scientific method" consisted of close observation, repeated experiment, and the formulation of general precise laws that govern events. Using this new method, one discovers no real essences, final causes, or efficient causes in the sense of beings that "bring about" their effects by some inner propensity. What one finds are sets of general laws and regular principles that are effective in describing and predicting series of events.

"Explanation" becomes the formulation of such laws, and an ultimate explanation would consist in the formulation of a general law that cannot be subsumed under a higher, more general, or simpler law. The idea of a First Cause, in the sense of a perfect and causally efficacious being, has disappeared from science. Science still asks why the ultimate laws of nature exist, but a scientific answer is likely to lie in a demonstration that such laws exist by some sort of inherent necessity. The eternal and perfect originator of the universe of Aquinas has been transformed by science into the inherent necessity of an ultimate mathematical formula, which is not "what all men call God."

Experimental sciences and idealism

Natural theology thus lost its scientific credibility with the rise of the properly experimental sciences. For some, however, this merely indicated that the natural sciences had limited the range of their enquiries to phenomena that could be measured, repeatedly observed, and explained under general mathematical laws. Questions about the ultimate nature, origin, and destiny of the universe remain, and if science does not attempt to answer such questions, then metaphysics or "first philosophy" must try.

As a result, a second stage in the history of natural theology began in seventeenth-century Europe with the rise of philosophical Idealismthe view that the ultimate nature of the universe is spiritual, that physical phenomena are appearances of that spiritual realm, and that the intellect can uncover the structure of the spiritual world, with which the physical sciences cannot deal. It is characteristic of this approach that it seeks to take conscious experience as its fundamental clue to the nature of reality, and to explain physical phenomena as confused appearances of basically conscious entities, or perhaps of one supreme Spirit.

The Idealist approach raises in an acute way the question of the relationship between the sciences and the humanities, or between physical and mental states. It may be claimed that law-like explanation which is open to any detached observer is only appropriate to physical phenomena, whereas one must understand the phenomena of consciousness in terms of interpretation, empathetic understanding, and personal engagement. Whether such a broad difference between human and natural sciences exists and is irreducible, is strongly disputed.

Rationalist or Idealist philosophers seldom agree with one another, and there seems to be no way of objectively verifying their claims. However, this is to be expected from systems that claim to be based on personal engagement and interpretation. The difference between traditional natural theology and Idealist natural theology is clearly exemplified in the writings of German philosopher Immanuel Kant (17241804). Kant is best known for his destructive criticism of the traditional arguments for God, but he firmly believed that there is an underlying reality that is the cause of physical reality as it appears to our senses. According to Kant there can be no theoretical knowledge of such reality in-itself (what he termed "noumenal" reality), but the mind does provide a priori knowledge of the form and order of sensory appearances (so knowledge does not depend merely on empirical information). Knowledge depends on the inner structure of reason, and reason necessarily postulates God, freedom, and immortality as ideas in terms of which we must represent ultimate reality to ourselves.

Kant is also, as are most idealists, firmly committed to science understood as the investigation of the rational structure of phenomenal experience. The claim would be that idealismi.e., the postulate that the universe must be thought of as basically mind-likeis the surest foundation of the natural sciences, which must presume there is a rational structure in the natural world. But Idealism also points out that there are limits to science, which are reached when it claims to disclose the ultimate structure of reality, or to extend its reach into the realm of the personal or spiritual. That is a realm into which philosophy can reach, with the aid of its principles of rational coherence, establishing a system within which consciousness, value, and purpose can have an intelligible place. The crucial question is whether the concepts of value and purpose have a place in explanations of the universe. If they do, then an Idealist approach offers a complement to science, which only comes into conflict with it if and insofar as value and purpose are denied.

Modern appropriations of the design argument

The failure to establish useful general laws in psychology and sociology, as well as the subjective nature of much of history and economics, suggests that these areas are not amenable to the scientific techniques that have been so useful in physics and chemistry. But the fields of neurophysiology and of evolutionary psychology contain promises (or threats) to explain consciousness itself in physical or evolutionary terms. Consciousness may be a byproduct of past successful survival strategies, and its present functioning may be incidental to the adaptive functions (of discerning prey or avoiding predators) that it originally possessed. This sort of natural theology, which argues from consciousness to a supreme consciousness or Spirit, needs to argue that consciousness is an irreducible and distinctive phenomenon beyond the reach of experimental science. That remains a highly disputed issue.

A third, slightly different approach to natural theology reverts to the methodology of the sciences, not the Aristotelian method of searching for essential natures, but the experimental method of inferring hypotheses from observed evidence. The most famous example of this approach is found in the work of eighteenth-century English theologian William Paley, who inferred from evidences of design in nature the existence of a wise designer. This approach is unlike the Aristotelian approach, since it does not assume that all substances have final causes. Rather, Paley's approach looks at organisms, in particular, as highly organized and efficient systems for supporting animal and human life, and argues that it is much more probable that such systems are designed than that they originated by chance. If we found a watch, says Paley, we would surely infer that it had a designer, it is so intricately organized to a purpose, with all its parts finely balanced and tuned to one another. So we must infer that the world has a designer, for similar reasons.

This approach was dealt a severe blow by Charles Darwin's (18091882) theory of evolution and natural selection, which claims to show how well-designed organisms can evolve, if not by chance, than at least by random mutation and natural adaptation to the environment, in strongly competitive situations. Given the difficulty Paley has in accounting for why such strange organisms as giraffes and ichneuman flies (which lay their eggs in living caterpillars) exist, mutation and natural selection seem a better explanation than trying to figure out why God would design such odd or unpleasant creatures.

Nevertheless, design proponents argue that a wise creator may not have specifically designed every type of creature that exists. But such a creator might have designed the general laws of genetic mutation and environmental selection so that they would generate sentient rational organisms by a process that is partly random, yet directed to certain goals (the existence of rational agency). When one adds to this the extreme improbability of the laws of nature giving rise to a universe with life-forms in it at all, one has an argument to the general elegant design of the laws of nature and of evolution, if not to all their particular products. Many of the findings of physics, which disclose the elegance and integrated simplicity of the fundamental forces of the physical world, and those of biology, which reveal the amazingly complex structure of DNA and the adaptedness of living creatures to their environment, are strongly suggestive of design.

On the other hand, some argue that any universe with conscious beings in it would have to be complex and ordered in just such a way, so it is hardly surprising that we find such complex order. The structure is highly improbable, but so is the existence of any universe at all, so this universe is no more improbable than any other. In addition, it may be doubted whether it makes sense to speak of purpose or direction in evolution, and whether existence is worthwhile at all. So these probabilistic arguments of design-type natural theology are far from conclusive.

It seems that the universe, as science shows it to be, could be the work of an intelligent creator. But the universe may also just happen to exist as it does. The inference to a creator is not strictly required. The arguments of natural theology may seem to make a creator probable to many people. They do show the intelligibility and elegance of the universe, and thus enrich the idea of a creator that a theist might hold. But they are not overwhelming, and non-scientific factors concerning the value and possible purpose of creation will probably weigh the balance one way or another.

Contemporary assessment

Partly for this reason, many theologians deny that religious belief depends upon the success of natural theology. Some, like Swiss theologian Karl Barth (18861996), even argue that the program of natural theology is based on human arrogance, and flies in the face of revelation, which is to be accepted on faith, not because it seems on balance to be probable. Kant said, "I have had to deny knowledge, in order to make room for faith" (p. 29). He meant that only when it could be shown that no speculative knowledge of transcendent reality is possible, so that one could neither affirm nor deny God by argument, was one free to adopt faith on practical or moral grounds.

It has come to be widely held in modern theology that faith results either from a commitment of the will (Søren Kierkegaard [18131855]), or from some basic and nonrational apprehension of the holy (Friedrich Schleiermacher [17681834] and Rudolf Otto [18691937]), or, as according to John Barth, simply from an act of divine grace, which has no rational grounds. The problem with such views is that they prevent anyone from giving a reason why they should adopt one faith (say the Christian) rather than another (Islam, perhaps). Such views are also in danger of isolating religious belief from scientific belief, so that religion and science have no relation to one another. Yet it seems odd to say that religious belief in a creator God is not affected by new discoveries about the nature of the created universe, or that religious beliefs (such as the belief that God is one rational purposive creator) have nothing to say about the nature of such a creation.

Natural theology is often no longer seen as the task of proving that God exists, or of showing to any independent observer that God is the most probable explanation of why the universe is the way it is. But, it might be said, one should be able to assemble the best human knowledge in all the diverse areas of human activity, and show how it can reasonably be construed, and even shaped into a more coherent form, by the insights of religion, which may themselves derive from some distinctive source in revelation or experience. Natural theology will then be the attempt to show how science, history, morality, and the arts are so related that a total integrating vision of the place of humanity in the universe may be formulated. Such a vision will be religious insofar as it includes reference to an encompassing reality that is transcendent in power and value, and that may disclose itself in distinctive ways. This will not be proof, or even probability, starting from some neutral, completely shared ground. It will be an integrating activity of reason, both provisional in its formulations and constructed from a standpoint of specific basic postulates and personal value commitments. Within such a perspective, science will be able to make a positive contribution to natural theology, and natural theology will develop ways of integrating scientific activity into a wider worldview. This will be more of an imaginative art than an inferential or deductive science. It will not be the intellectual foundation or prelude for faith, but will involve the construction of a general worldview within which faith can have an intelligible place. That is not too far from the aims of Aristotle, though the distinctions between natural science, philosophy, and religious belief are now clearer (but only in some ways) than they were for him. In this form, natural theology becomes the speculative and constructive part of the post-eighteenth-century discipline of the "philosophy of religion." As such, it is not confined to one particular religious tradition, and its exponents may hold any or no religious beliefs.

However, there are many philosophers of religion who would hold that systematic construction is not properly part of philosophy, the function of which should be primarily analytic and expository. Therefore, natural theology in all its form remains, like religion itself, a highly pluralistic and disputed discipline. It is clear, however, that this is an area in which science and religion fruitfully interact in examining the fundamental problem of the ultimate nature of existence.

See also Aristotle; Darwin, Charles; Design Argument; Evolutionary Psychology; Idealism; Kant, Immanuel; Rationalism; Thomas Aquinas


barrow, john d., and tipler, frank j. the anthropic cosmological principle. new york: oxford university press, 1986.

barth, karl. the epistle to the romans (1921), trans. edwyn hoskyns. new york: oxford university press, 1933.

davies, paul. the mind of god; the scientific basis for a rational world. new york: simon and schuster, 1992.

dennett, daniel c. darwin's dangerous idea; evolution and the meanings of life. new york: touchstone, 1995.

hume, david. dialogues concerning natural religion (1779). indianapolis, ind.: hackett, 1980.

kant, immanuel. critique of pure reason (1781), trans. norman kemp smith. london: macmillan, 1933.

kierkegaard, soren. concluding unscientific postscript to the philosophical fragments (1846), trans. howard v. hong and edna h. hong. princeton, n.j.: princeton university press, 1992.

otto, rudolf. the idea of the holy (1917), trans. john w. harvey. london: oxford university press, 1923.

paley, william. natural theology (1802), eds. henry brougham and charles bell. london: c. knight, 1836.

schleiermacher, friedrich. on religion: speeches to its cultured despisers (1799), trans. richard crouter. cambridge, uk: cambridge university press, 1988.

swinburne, richard. the existence of god. new york: oxford university press, 1979.

ward, keith. god, chance, and necessity. oxford: oneworld press, 1996.

ward, keith. religion and revelation. oxford: clarendon press, 1996.

wilson, edward o. consilience: the unity of knowledge. new york: knopf, 1998.

keith ward

Natural Theology

views updated May 14 2018

Natural Theology


Natural theology is a system of finding basic truths about the existence of God and human destiny by reason. "Natural" refers to the idea that reason is an essential faculty possessed by all thinking people. Thus, in this view, rational thinking may also provide a basis for revelation, so that reason and revelation go hand in hand. This approach supports the discovery of religious truths through rational argument, proofs, and reason, and is often concerned with two principal topics: 1) Can God's existence be logically and rationally proved?, and 2) Can the immortality of the soul be arrived at through logical, rational argument?

Several eighteenth-century philosophers and scientists, notably John Ray (1627-1705), Robert Boyle (1627-1691), William Derham (1657-1735), Nehemiah Grew (1641-1712), and Samuel Clarke (1675-1729), contributed to and developed these ideas. Natural theology had a great influence on the sciences, and biology in particular. Opponents to natural theology were led by Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776), who pointed out that while the system had logic, it was also possible for things to fall together by chance.


The idea of the existence of God in nature was present in the Greco-Roman world. Saint Paul, in his epistle to the Romans, wrote that since the creation of the world an eternal God is seen in things that are made. (Romans 1:20). Design in nature is a major supportive theme and argument. These organized designs, it was assumed, pointed toward a divine Creator who must have created the patterns. Anselm, an early church thinker, proposed that all humans possess the idea of God, which in itself implies the existence of a corresponding reality.

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) posited "five ways" of establishing the existence of God, so that from our experience as human beings we must conclude the existence of an infinite being on whom the world depends. According to his schema: 1) when looking at the world of motion, we must conclude there is a Prime Mover; 2) when looking at result or cause, we must conclude there is a First Cause; 3) when we look at the unsure happenings in life, we must conclude there is a Necessary Being; 4) when we look at the imperfections of life, we must conclude there is a Perfect Being; 5) when we look at order and design, we must conclude there is a Supreme Intelligence that created design and order.

The intellectual energy of the Renaissance sparked an adventuresome exploratory spirit in Europe. In 1509 Nicholaus Copernicus (1473-1543) proposed a revolutionary new view of the cosmos, positioning the sun—not the Earth—at the center of the solar system. This impact on traditional thought caused many to question the values of the Church and the existence of God.


The Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw a period of great conflict between science and religion. Many of the Enlightenment thinkers were also Christians who did not want to undermine religious beliefs. The theologians of the time tried to adjust their beliefs to the scientific theories of Copernican astronomy and Newtonian physics. Many revived and revised St. Thomas's earlier five proofs. These scientists were involved in different areas of discovery.

John Ray, the son of a village blacksmith in Black Notley, Essex, England, came to Cambridge at a time when the organization of chemistry and anatomy was just beginning. A devout Puritan, he became respected and prospered as part of the regime of Oliver Cromwell. He received a bachelor's degree in 1648 and then spent the next 13 years as an academic scholar. With the Restoration of the monarchy, Ray hit unfortunate times since he was a dedicated Puritan. He had refused to sign the Act of Uniformity, leading to his dismissal from Cambridge in 1662. Some prosperous friends supported him for 43 years while he continued to work as a naturalist.

In 1660 Ray began to catalog plants growing around Cambridge and, after studying that small area, explored the rest of Great Britain. His dedication to taxonomy (the establishment of an orderly account of species) was fitting, as he was also interested in finding order in the world through natural theology. A turning point in his life occurred when he met Francis Willughby (1635-1672), a fellow naturalist who convinced him to undertake a study of the complete natural history of living things. Ray would investigate all of the plants and Willughby all of the animals.

The two searched Europe for flora (plants) and fauna (animals). In 1670, just as Ray produced his "Catalog of English Plants," Willughby suddenly died, leaving Ray to finish both projects. He published Ornithology and History of Fish, giving all the credit and recognition to Willughby.

While he was continuing his major works in botany, Ray also published three volumes on religion. In an 1691 essay called "The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation" he delineated the full range of his correlation of science with natural theology. The essay described how it was obvious that form and function in organic nature demonstrated there must be an allknowing God. This argument of design supporting a static view was contrdicted by the development of evolution in the nineteenth century.

Also of importance was Robert Boyle, an Irish chemist and natural philosopher. Though known for his work on the properties of gases and the chemical elements, he was a great defender of the Christian faith. The fourteenth child of a family of wealth and influence, he went to Eton College and there began his experimental work while writing moral essays as well. At his estate in Ireland he was very interested in anatomical dissection. At the University of Oxford he came into contact with Robert Hooke (1635-1703), the scientist who discovered cells. Hooke was also an able inventor, and they worked to demonstrate the physical characteristics of air and the necessity of air in combustion, respiration, and the transmission of sound.

Boyle was dedicated to proving the Christian religion against what he called "notorious infidels." He was a devout Protestant and took a special interest in promoting the Christian religion abroad. In 1690 he wrote a book called The Christian Virtuoso, in which he sought to show the study of nature was a central religious duty. He believed that nature was a clock-like mechanism that had been made and set in motion by a divine Creator. This, it was believed, was done at the beginning of time and thereafter the world functioned according to secondary laws. In line with natural theology, Boyle asserted that science can reveal these secondary laws. Indeed, he believed the human soul was much more than just the circulation and moving blood cells in the body.

William Derham, a chaplain and ordained deacon of the Church of England, was very interested in the work of Boyle and delivered lectures on his ideas. He published many papers on meteorology, astronomy, and natural history, as well as an outstanding work on the sexes of wasps. His admiration of the works of Ray and Hooke led him to natural theology.

Though Derham published new editions of Ray's Physico-Theological Discourses and Philosophical Letters, it is for his own works that he is known. The Artificial Clockmaker and Astro-Theology were translated into French, Swedish, and German. "Astro-theology" concerns the attempt to argue from astronomy to God. Derham's works greatly influenced William Paley (1743-1805), the great natural theologian of the late eighteenth century.

Nehemiah Grew, an English physician and botanist, was one of the founders of the science of plant anatomy. As he pondered the growth and anatomy of plants and how they reproduce, he became convinced that the design must be part of the wisdom of God, the infinite designer. Grew was very prominent and was elected to the Royal Society in 1671. His most famous work was The Anatomy of Plants (1682), but he also wrote Cosmologia Sacra, or sacred cosmology, in 1701, in which he described the rational beliefs of natural theology.

Samuel Clarke, an English theologian, philosopher, and chaplain to Queen Anne, attempted to prove the existence of God by mathematical methods. He presented his ideas in A Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God (1795). He also established a group of moral principles that aspired to the certainty of mathematical propositions, presented in the essay "A Discourse Concerning the Unchangeable Obligation of Natural Religion" (1706). Clarke was a friend and disciple of Isaac Newton (1642-1727) at the University of Cambridge, and was dedicated to spreading Newton's views. He defended Newton as well as Christian religion in four collected volumes of his works (1738-42). It was Clarke in particular who provoked Hume's criticism of religion.

Hume, one of the greatest critics of natural theology, is well known for his skepticism and empiricism. In his 1779 Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion he determined that the world was more or less a smoothly functioning system or it would not exist. He argued that the world may have come about by chance as particles falling into a temporary or permanent self-sustaining order. These chance developments have the look of design, but really are not. Hume also pointed out that the world is not perfect. There are many examples of human and animal suffering, and one cannot assume a good and powerful Creator would make such an imperfect world.

Less than a century later Charles Darwin (1809-1882) postulated that adaptations of life forms are the result of natural selection. Those species that adapted, survived; those that did not, died. And thus the "survival of the fittest" was ensured. Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection contradicted the claims of natural theology. Evolution suggested that life originated and changed according to scientifically structured laws with timeframes and outcomes that directly refuted biblical claims.

Discussions about natural theology now are generally relegated to philosophers and theologians. While some groups invoke arguments of divine design, most modern scientists have reconciled and accepted a separation between science and religion.


Further Reading

Maddison, R.E.W. The Life of the Honourable Robert Boyle. London: Taylor & Francis, 1969.

Raven, Charles E. John Ray, Naturalist: His Life and Works. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Westfall, Richard S. Science and Religion in the Seventeenth Century England. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1970.

Natural Theology

views updated Jun 27 2018

Natural Theology


Faith and Reason. The rise of modern science spawned such controversies as the debate over whether or not the universe was the result of divine creation or natural evolution. Intellectuals regarded science as rational and objective rather than intuitive and subjective. The empirical scientific method implied that the scientist understood and controlled the forces of nature. Nothing was mystical, magical, or divine in the laboratory. But at the beginning of the scientific revolution when America was first explored and colonized, faith and reason seemed complementary. Nicholas Copernicus was a Catholic clergyman. Christopher Columbus thought God directed his voyages to America. Carolus Linnaeus believed that God had created an unchanging Chain of Being neither subject to evolution nor to extinction. Cotton Mather was a physician and scientist but also a leading Puritan clergyman. The Protestant leader John Calvin welcomed the discoveries of science. The Quaker William Penn believed that the study of science revealed the laws of nature and their Creator.

Elder Scripture. The most religious and devout Christians in America, the New England Puritans, ironically welcomed the new science. The discoveries of Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, and Sir Isaac Newton led to greater reverence for God. Knowing that the Earth was not the center of a possibly infinite universe was for Puritans proof of Gods power and benevolence. Indeed, Puritans perceived science as complementing faith. God revealed himself to humans by means of the Old and New Testaments as well as through his works. Gods creation, nature, was considered to be elder scripture. The scientific study of nature led to knowledge of God, resulting in wonder and praise. In more simple terms, science strengthened faith.

Deism. During the eighteenth century in Europe and America some scientists and philosophers began to reach conclusions different from those of the Puritans. The new science implied a universe that ran like a machine. This natural machine operated according to laws that never changed. God appeared to deists as the Creator who made a universe that always operated the same way. Franklin, for example, wrote that the supreme Being acts in and upon the Machine of the World. The scientist, using experimentation, reason, and mathematics, discovered the predictable laws of the universe. God obeyed his own laws and was passive. He set the universe in motion and then sat back to watch, never intervening or performing miracles. God was a craftsman, and the universe was his invention. Deists were not atheists, but they were not Christians either. The idea of Christs resurrection contradicted natural law. The deist believed that faith, prayer, and worship of God were meaningless activities. Throughout the 1700s the deists and Puritans debated Gods role in the universe. Although both sides believed in the validity and methods of the new science, they reached vastly different conclusions.


Jeremy Belknap, The History of New-Hampshire (Boston: Belknap & Young, 1792);

George H. Daniels, Science in American Society: A Social History (New York: Knopf, 1971);

Benjamin Franklin, The Complete Poor Richard Almanacks, 2 volumes (Barre, Mass.: Imprint Society, 1970);

Frederick Tolles, Meeting House and Counting House: The Quaker Merchants of Colonial Philadelphia, 16821763 (New York: Norton, 1948);

Conrad Wright, The Beginnings of Unitarianism in America (Boston: Starr King Press, 1955);

Louis B. Wright, Cultural Life of the American Colonies (New York: Harper, 1957).

Natural theology

views updated Jun 27 2018

Natural theology. Knowledge of God obtainable by human reason alone without the aid of revelation. Exponents of such theology claim that God's existence and at least some of his attributes can be known through reason (e.g. by philosophical argument). The traditional arguments for God's existence are a central part of such theology (see COSMOLOGICAL; MORAL; ONTOLOGICAL; PHYSICO-THEOLOGICAL; and TELEOLOGICAL ARGUMENTS).

Natural theology continues to be an important part of the philosophy of religion; and the traditional theistic arguments are still vigorously debated.

natural theology

views updated May 08 2018

natural theology (physico-theology) A philosophy which tries to link the study of natural phenomena with the notion of divine providence, stressing that harmony and order in nature are evidence of God's design. It became important in 18th-century England, being associated with the work of John Ray, William Paley, and many others. The 19th-century Bridgewater Treatises were the last major exposition of natural theology. See BUCKLAND.

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