Can we prove God from nature? and other thoughts on natural theology

The spacious firmament on high,
With all the blue ethereal sky,
And spangled heavens, a shining frame,
Their great Original proclaim.
Th’unwearied Sun from day to day
Does his Creator’s power display;
And publishes to every land
The work of an Almighty hand.
~Joseph Addison’s poetic rendering of Psalm 19

The final chapter of Alister McGrath’s A Scientific Theology: Nature is about the purpose and place of natural theology – he offers William P. Alston’s definition of natural theology as “the enterprise of providing support for religious beliefs by starting from premises that are neither nor presuppose any religious beliefs.” As we’ll see, McGrath concludes that natural theology is valuable, but perhaps not in the way this definition suggests.

As Christians, we might begin by asking if there is biblical warrant for thinking God might be known, in part, apart from direct divine revelation, just by studying the natural world. And the answer seems to be yes – in the Old Testament, we can cite passages like Psalm 19, paraphrased above. But we should read them carefully – the Psalms were written by and to the Israelites who already knew God. Already knowing God, they could discern his power in Creation. There is nothing in the passages to indicate they could discern it otherwise.

In the New Testament, we see Paul, especially, pay a lot of attention to one group of non-Christians (and non-Jews), the Greeks. In his address to the Athenians, Paul bases his discussion upon Greek theistic assumptions but then goes beyond them – think especially of the altar “to an unknown God” which Paul declares he is now making known. Says McGrath,

The fundamental point being made is that a deity of whom the Greeks had some implicit or intuitive awareness through the natural order is being made known to them by name and in full. According to Paul, the God who is made known indirectly through creation can be known fully in redemption.

Later, in the beginning of the book of Romans Paul, though writing to a Christian audience, says that (ESV),

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.

Says McGrath,

The general line of argument is that sufficient of God’s nature and requirements has been manifested within the created order to render humanity without excuse for any failure to respond to God, in particular recognizing their status as creatures.

So the Bible does seem to indicate that we can talk about a naturally-derived knowledge of God. However, several well-known Christian philsophers have wished to qualify this point. I don’t want to go through them all, but I’ll give one example – Alvin Plantinga, who rejected the idea that we could prove the existence of God from nature. Why not? Because, he thinks, that idea rests on a false understanding of the nature of religious belief. Says McGrath,

Natural theology supposes that belief in God must rest upon an evidential basis. Belief in God is thus not, strictly speaking, a basic belief – that is, something which is self-evident, incorrigible or evident to the senses. It is therefore a belief which requires to be itself grounded in some more basic belief. However, to ground a belief in God upon some other belief is, in effect, to depict that latter belief as endowed with a greater epistemic status than belief in God. For Plantinga, a properly Christian approach is to affirm that belief in God is itself basic, and does not require justification with reference to other beliefs.

Not sure I agree with that or not – but it does lead McGrath to point out that the historical purpose of natural theology has NOT been to prove the existence of God, but rather to help us understand his nature. We may also study nature to reinforce our belief in God – asking questions like, “if the Christian God exists, what might we expect to observe in nature?”

McGrath concludes the chapter by saying that,

Christian theology provides an interpretive framework by which nature may be interpreted. This approach takes nature to be an explicandum, something which requires or demands explication, but is not itself possessed of the intrinsic capacity or ability to offer such an explanation.

He thinks it important that we study nature as Christians, placing natural theology underneath revealed theology, rather than trying to approach nature with no assumptions whatsoever. Indeed,

It is impossible to read theological insights from an allegedly epistemologically neutral ‘nature’. Nature has to be seen in a certain way before it has revelatory potential.

To prove his point here, he offers the example of Gnosticism, which held that the world was created by a Demiurge, not God. Why, then, would we expect to learn anything about God by studying Creation? For Christians, though, who believe that God created the world out of nothing, we can expect to see his identity revealed in Creation. Hence the assumptions we come to our study of natural theology with matter a lot.

(This argument sounds like a good one to me – but I do wonder how to reconcile this idea with Romans 1, which seems to say that all people, regardless of their assumptions, can perceive some of the same things about God in nature. Leave a comment if you have a suggestion.)

That is all! That ends this book. I will continue with the next two books of the trilogy, but not with any regular posting schedule, because apparently I’m too busy to make that happen! Thanks for reading along.

Previous Posts in this series

Chapter 5 – Order, order, everywhere
Chapter 4 – in Vetere Novum latet et in Novo Vetus pater
Chapter 3 – Nobody knows what “nature” is
Chapter 2 – Preventing another “Galileo Affair” (and other thoughts)
Chapter 1 – Science as the ancilla theologiae
Preface – Blogging Through “A Scientific Theology”

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