More on Natural Theology: A New Exchange with George Murphy

Over on BioLogos, George Murphy has responded to my previous post here on the Hump. As I have no posting privileges at BioLogos, I will have to engage Dr. Murphy from my position here. This is an awkward arrangement, but it will serve for the moment. I add, however, that Dr. Murphy is free to sign up here on the Hump as a commenter and respond directly, free of charge, to this post or to any others in the future; I’m sure that his interests sufficiently overlap with the Hump’s that he would be a valuable addition to not just this but other conversations here.

Given that not all readers here will wish to keep going back and forth between two sites to follow the conversation, I will reproduce what Dr. Murphy wrote on BioLogos in response to me, before going on to comment on it:

“I was glad to read @Eddie’s positive remarks about my work, while of course noting our quite different views on natural theology. It may be helpful for him & others if I say a bit more about my own thoughts on that.

“I’ve bottomed out from the position I used to have back when I sometimes used theologia naturala delenda est as a signature line. But even then I never denied that experience of the natural world and human reason could conclude that there is a God. (& I don’t think that Barth ever explicitly did either. Luther affirmed it.) But that is not a theology – certainly not a Christian theology. And in Romans, Paul doesn’t use his statement to that effect in 1:19-20 to start developing such a theology but to say, “So they are without excuse.”

“I have found a fourfold typology of views about natural theologies to be helpful.

“The Classic view: Natural theology can be the “forecourt of the temple” of Christianity. It’s legitimate, but can only take us so far and then must be supplemented by special revelation.

“The Enlightenment view: Natural theology is all we really need. A significant example is Lessing’s The Education of the Human Race. Humanity needed revelation in its immature state, but when it comes to maturity that’s no longer needed.

“The Barthian view: “Nein” to natural theology.

“Torrance’s corollary to Barth’s view: A natural theology independent of distinctively Christian theology is inadequate, but a legitimate natural theology can be developed within the context of distinctively Christian thought.

“I think Torrance’s view is very important and certainly the best of these four. The particular Christian theology that should contextualize the knowledge about the world that we get from science will, of course, make a difference. As I’ve said, I have used a theology of the cross, which is why one of my books is titled The Cosmos in the Light of the Cross.

“I do not say that the Classic view is in itself heretical, or that a legitimate Christian theology can’t be developed from it. That would be foolish. But I do say that this view is dangerous because it’s all too easy for people to remain in the forecourt and never get into the sanctuary, or to develop doctrines or practices that clash with Christianity from their natural theology. Barth’s concern about the way natural theology helped some Christians into bed with Hitler is an example of the latter concern.

“An example of the former problem is pointed out by Richard Westfall in Science and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England (U. of Michigan, 1973). Some of the scientists placed great emphasis on “natural religion” to combat the threat of atheism. The result wasn’t what they expected. “Although the absorption in natural religion and the external manifestations of divine power did not did not dispute or deny any specific Christian doctrine, it did more to undermine Christianity than any conclusion of natural science”. (pp.106-107)”

On Dr. Murphy’s first paragraph:

I agree that natural theology, as I defined it (corresponding to the “Classic” view in the fourfold scheme above), is “certainly not a Christian theology.” But it was never intended to be a Christian theology, as Dr. Murphy knows. It was an exercise in philosophy, not theology; it concerned the philosophical knowledge of God. It purported only to deduce such things about God as “unaided reason” was supposedly capable of deducing, i.e., God’s existence, and a few (the number depending on the philosopher involved) of God’s more general characteristics, such as wisdom, power, or goodness. It was not tied specifically to Christian religion (though probably Christian philosophers discussed it more than those of other religions) and it was not intended as a substitute for religion.

On Dr. Murphy’s fourfold categorization:

The Classic view: I agree with the characterization. And note that by its inherent limitations (to what can be derived from unaided reason, without resorting to revealed knowledge), “classical” natural theology cannot possibly substitute for Christian teachings about sin, fall, salvation, etc. It is therefore an illegitimate criticism to make of classical natural theology that it diminishes the need for revealed knowledge such as one finds in the Bible, knowledge of Jesus Christ, etc. One who knows merely that God exists and that God is powerful and wise does not thereby know that he is a sinner in need of salvation, etc. Yet many TE writers in comments sections on BioLogos or in other venues have made passing slams against natural theology on the assumption that it somehow undermines reliance upon God’s grace, Christ’s works, etc. That’s simply not the case.

The Enlightenment view: Like Dr. Murphy, I disagree with this view. I would add only that I question whether much of Enlightenment philosophy is “natural theology” in the sense that I mean the term, i.e., conclusions about God derived specifically from the consideration of the facts of the natural world. Much Enlightenment thought about man no longer needing revelation, because philosophy suffices, is not derived from considerations such as those of Paley, but from an exaggerated view of the capacities of man typical of Enlightenment thought. I suppose this could still be “natural theology” in the sense of “theology derived from the light of nature”, where “the light of nature” means “the light provided by human reason”; but in the context of the contemporary discussion about ID, the “nature” referred to in the phrase “natural theology” is “nature” as conceived of by Paley or the Bridgewater Treatise writers, and when ID writers speak explicitly of natural theology, it’s that sense of natural theology they have in mind, not some more general conception of a theology derived from human reason. In fact, ID writers, being empirical in temperament, tend to distrust the purely speculative use of reason, and it is reasoning from nature (meaning matter, energy, stars, plants, animals, natural regularities, etc.), not just reasoning simply, that they have in mind. Again, their model is not Lessing or Hegel or many other of the French or German thinkers, but the British or Greek models of reasoning from nature.

The Barthian view: As I understand this view, I disagree with it. If Barth did not mean to say what most of his interpreters seem to take him to say, then I might have to modify my opinion. But I understand Barth to be saying that there is no knowledge of God outside of revelation, and I don’t agree with that view. I also understand his motivation for his position to be to “hype up” the urgency of the acceptance of Christ by making human beings out to be in utter darkness without Christian revelation, and I don’t agree with that attitude, because (a) if the truths about Jesus Christ are so much more valuable than what mere natural theology can provide, such “hyping” shouldn’t be needed (e.g., no one uses a typewriter any more now that word processors are available); and (b) as a philosopher I don’t agree that human beings are in utter darkness without Christian revelation. I think that Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and many others (including Aquinas in his philosophical mode) demonstrate that human beings can know some very important truths, including truths about God and truths about ethics, without any knowledge of Biblical revelation.

The Torrance view: I read some of Torrance many years ago. I did not read enough of him to retain a clear sense of his position. I am given to understand that he modified Barth’s more extreme view to allow a limited role for natural theology, but only within a Christian context. I would need to read more of Torrance before I could say what I agree or disagree with in his thinking.

On Dr. Murphy’s subsequent remarks:

“I do not say that the Classic view is in itself heretical” — good. Perhaps Dr. Murphy would concur with me that some of the “bad theology” statements made by biochemists, etc. from BioLogos or the ASA, are a bit over the top.

“or that a legitimate Christian theology can’t be developed from it” — here I would say that I have no desire to develop any Christian theology from natural theology, so this is not a point we need to discuss. Christian theology does not need natural theology as its basis. I am not asking for natural theology to be made an essential part of Christian theology. I’m content if Christian theologians don’t try to ban the classical form of natural theology from the world, don’t condemn it or declare it heretical or bad theology.

“But I do say that this view is dangerous” — perhaps I am over-reading the word “dangerous”, but as I normally use the word, no, I do not agree that classical natural theology is dangerous (to Christian faith). I don’t see any evidence that most of the Fathers regarded it as such (perhaps Tertullian did); on the whole they seemed glad to have general confirmations of the existence and wisdom of God from Greek philosophers. And surely Calvin, of all the Reformers, had the greatest natural radar system for detecting “dangers” posed by worldly philosophy to Christian faith; yet smack in the middle of his major theological work, the Institutio, he has a passage endorsing a limited natural theology, and the passage not only indicates that this knowledge of God is available even to non-Christians, but even has a broadly Paleyesque ring to it. So I confess I don’t see the “danger” — unless “danger” means something mild such as “potential to mislead, in certain contexts”. (But in that milder sense, driving a car, having a drink of wine, etc. can be dangerous, yet we don’t ban these activities because sometimes people misuse them.)

Dr. Murphy gives two examples of “dangers” posed by classical natural theology. The first is the alleged connection between natural theology and the embrace of Hitler by some Germans sympathetic with natural theology. I would need to hear more specifics, because I don’t know what this means. By “natural theology” I have in mind statements like, “We can see from the ingenious rotating scheme of the human shoulder that the human frame could not have come into existence by blind chance, but required an intelligent designer” — and frankly, I don’t see how belief in a designing God derived from such arguments has anything at all to do with embracing Hitler. I don’t think Germans read Paley one night and then decided to accept Nazi atrocities the next morning because of what they read in Paley. I suspect that Barth is using “natural theology” in a broader sense than I mean it, and than any ID proponent means it. (I won’t here get into the strong evidential case made by Richard Weikart that it was the Nazi appropriation of Darwinism, not of natural theology, that paved the way for acceptance of Nazi atrocities!)

The second example he takes from Westfall. The allegation of Westfall is that in England something called “natural religion” undermined Christianity. Well, maybe so, though I have done considerable study in 17th-century thought and Westfall’s claim is new to me; but I am not defending “natural religion”, so unless “natural religion” can be shown to be logically entailed by “natural theology” I don’t see that “natural theology” is guilty of the charge Westfall is making. In any case, we are not in England in the 17th century, but in North America in the 21st, and I’d be interested in any evidence that those most attracted to natural theology today are doing damage to Christian faith. It certainly doesn’t look that way from where I sit.

I hope I have been fair to Dr. Murphy in my reply. I repeat my invitation for him to sign up and continue this conversation here. I am banned from BioLogos and have to resort to this circuitous route to talk with him in public, but no similar ban prevents him from responding here, so it seems to me that the most efficient way of continuing this dialogue is to continue it here.

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About Edward Robinson

Edward Robinson (Eddie) started his university career on a science scholarship, but ended up as a philosopher/theologian researching the relationship between religion and natural science. He has published several books and articles on religion/science topics in both mainstream academic outlets and denominational and popular periodicals. He has also taught courses in various departments in several universities.
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2 Responses to More on Natural Theology: A New Exchange with George Murphy

  1. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    On a brief survey of the Fathers’ views on natural theology (through the simple expedient of checking their use of Rom.1:20) the “classical view” of natural theology was so universal in early centuries that several modern authors regard it as a cliché, or a facile trope the Fathers regularly adopted.

    As far as my brief study can tell, only one author, Athanasius, attempted to take it beyond the idea that the beauty, order and wisdom of creation clearly demonstrates the hand of an invisible God (as opposed to many gods, inherent divinity or even autonomous Nature). Athanasius sems to hint that to the truly rational mind, even Christ and the Trinity may be logically inferred. But neither he nor anyone else ever suggests that one should build ones theology from the works of nature, which suggests that if that is such a danger, it’s one culturally localised to the Enlightenment, for the reasons you state above.

    The only danger I have seen suggested by modern authors is that this widespread early apologetic, that the works of nature point clearly to a single Creator God, is that it fostered prejudice and misunderstanding of pagans! Presumably it only did that by being convincing to those who heard it from the apologists and became Christians.

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