Natural Theology: A Biblical and Historical Introduction and Defense
Natural Theology: A Biblical and Historical Introduction and Defense. By David Haines. Davenant Press, 2021. 195 pages, paper, $14.95
As a classical apologist, C. S. Lewis began his defense of the faith by examining shared human experience. In Book I of Mere Christianity, Lewis argued that we all have knowledge of a universal, cross-cultural moral code. This code—which Lewis called “the Tao” in The Abolition of Man—is hardwired into our conscience, and therefore evidences a supernatural, transcendent Creator and Director. Lewis further argued that, while we all know we are bound to follow this code, we do not and cannot. Only after establishing these preconditions via general revelation did Lewis move on to argue for the uniquely Christian doctrines of the Trinity, incarnation, atonement, and resurrection—doctrines that ultimately rest on the special revelation of the Scriptures, the prophets, and Christ himself.
Over against Lewis and other classical apologists stands Cornelius Van Til and the Presuppositional school. For presuppositionalists, Scripture is the only reliable source of truth and logic. Apologetics must therefore be grounded upon Scripture, not upon “neutral” grounds that (regenerate) believers and (unregenerate) non-believers share. Significantly, while this school was developed by Reformed/Calvinist thinkers, it does not reflect the theological approach of Calvin or his fellow Reformers.
So argues David Haines, Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Theology at Bethlehem College and Seminary, in his brief but important new book, Natural Theology: A Biblical and Historical Introduction and Defense. By amassing irrefutable testimony from the writings of early church fathers like Justin Martyr and Athanasius, medieval theologians like Augustine and Aquinas, and key Reformers like Calvin, Beza, Vermigli, Davenant, and Turretin, Haines demonstrates that a belief in natural theology has been a central and standard belief for most of the history of the faith.
But what does Haines mean by natural theology? Simply this: “that part of philosophy which explores that which man can know about God (His existence, divine nature, etc.) from nature alone, via man’s divinely bestowed faculty of reason, unaided by special revelation from any religion, and without presupposing the truth of any religion” (12). Natural theologians believe that the book of nature reveals to human reason aspects of the divine creator that point to the one true God, while freely confessing that only the book of scripture reveals to human faith the gospel by which alone we can be saved.
Not to be confused with natural religion—which Haines defines as the “historical attempt, by a number of Deistic philosophers, to make that which can be known of God via natural revelation into a religion in its own right” (14-15)—natural theology is humbly aware of its limits. It accepts that general (or natural) revelation “is not sufficient for telling us more than that God exists, something of His nature, and that God is worthy of worship” (14). Still, the wisdom so gained, when it squares with scripture, is true wisdom that can (and has) served as a preparation for the gospel message.
After all, Haines argues, “even the most basic attempt to interpret Scripture requires, as a precondition, that the interpreter be in possession of a number of important types of natural knowledge: acquired linguistic knowledge, experience and knowledge of the sensible world, philosophical or theoretical knowledge, natural knowledge of the divine nature, and the very hermeneutical principles that we so meticulously apply to Scripture in order to arrive at ‘biblical’ teaching” (23). That is to say, we cannot receive God’s direct communication in the Bible, if we do not already possess, via general revelation-natural theology, a sense of the divine, an understanding that God works in and through nature, and the rational ability to rightly discern the words and principles of scripture.
Before proceeding to his historical survey of Christian theologians who upheld natural theology, Haines pauses to highlight passages of scripture that support natural theology and then illustrates the truth of those passages by considering a group of pagan writers whose reason led them, via general revelation, to actual truths about God. The first passage is Psalm 19:1-4, where David celebrates how the created order speaks, without actual words, of God’s glory and creative skill. This assertion of nature’s ability to show forth God’s existence and character is echoed in Romans 1:19-20, where Paul argues that our ability to perceive God’s power and presence in nature is what leaves us without excuse when we worship the creature rather than the creator.
One chapter later, in Romans 2:14-15, Paul extends our innate knowledge of the divine, and therefore our guilt, to the law which God has written in our hearts, and which defends as well as accuses us. In both Pauline passages, the recipients of God’s general revelation are Gentiles who are ignorant of the Hebrew Bible yet possess genuine knowledge of the God whom Paul would introduce them to more fully. Paul follows the same apologetical method in Acts 14:15-17 and Acts 17: 22-31, appealing to the knowledge of God that has been revealed to the Greek pagans by the seasonal cycle and by their own poets who have attested (dimly) to the image of God within us.
It is true, Haines concludes, that when Paul preached to his fellow Jews, “he began with that which they accepted as authoritative (the Jewish Scriptures), preached the Messiah, and then presented Christ as the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecies. When speaking to the pagans, however, who did not accept the authority of the Jewish Scriptures, Paul called upon their religious nature and their own poets as authorities in order to present to them the true nature of the one true God and the inevitability of divine judgment, and to bring them to the gospel” (44). Like Lewis in Mere Christianity, Paul first established common ground with his pagan audience through an appeal to natural theology before moving on to share the good news of Christ.
On account of his Hellenic education, Paul would have been aware of the theories of the pre-Christian philosophers whom Haines surveys. He would have known that pre-Socratic philosophers like Thales, Anaximander, and Xenophanes recognized that there must be a “divine first principle” (56) in the universe, a recognition that blossomed in Plato, who “rightly described God as the intelligent, wise, powerful, and personal first principle or cause of the totality of the sensible universe and ground of morality” (61).
Aristotle, in turn, added a sense “that this God is worthy of some form of adoration . . . [and is] eternal, pure actuality, immutable, necessarily existing, alive, joyful and eternally happy, thought thinking itself, most good, immaterial, transcendent (‘separate from sensible things’), un-extended (i.e., omnipresent), absolutely simple (without parts and indivisible), absolutely infinite, and impassible” (62-63). Though Aristotle obviously had no knowledge of the gospel and was thus ignorant of Christian soteriology, his theorizing about the divine nature, Haines argues, is “essentially identical” to the major “Reformed confessions” (68).
Haines has much more to say about the natural theology of classical pagan philosophy, in particular, an excellent overview of Plotinus, whose neo-Platonic theories exerted a strong influence on Augustine, but I will only mention here one detail that I found helpful. Although many have written, myself included, of the common pagan appeal to arguments by design, Haines clarifies that Cicero, building on Plato and Aristotle, posited a more intimate “argument by beauty” that reverberated throughout the Middle Ages.
“Both Plato and Aristotle,” Haines explains, “had already described beauty in created things as being due to order and symmetry among the parts, wholeness or perfection, proper size, fittingness, and so on” (72). What Cicero added was a logical deduction from the beauty of the ordered cosmos to the existence of “an artist that is clearly other than the beautiful thing in question” (72).
Critics of natural theology, Haines explains, often take an all-or-nothing approach to theology, arguing that because proofs for the existence of God constructed by unregenerate philosophers do not “lead us to the existence of the Triune God, they cannot be said to give us knowledge of the existence and attributes of the true God” (172). But this is both demonstrably untrue (since pagan philosophers discovered many truths about the divine nature) and false to ecclesiastical history (since Christian theologians from the beginning have incorporated the discoveries of Greek philosophy into their theology).
Thus, in his discussion of Proclus, a neo-Platonic heir of Plotinus, Haines argues that, though Proclus sought “to revive Greek polytheism . . . the actual result was that Christian thinkers assimilated many of the ideas and arguments of Proclus into an already well-articulated and well-established Christian theology proper. This was not a corruption of Christian thought through an appropriation of pagan ideas, but a reinforcing of Christian doctrine with the help of natural truths discovered by pagans” (78-79). Though these Christian thinkers were aware of the errors in Proclus’s thought, they did not throw the baby out with the bathwater but kept what was true and discarded what was false.
The first Christian apologist we know of to deliver a defense of the faith before a pagan audience was named Aristides. After analyzing and quoting from that defense, Haines concludes that “Aristides clearly thinks that unregenerate humans (he writes to a Roman emperor and his household) are able to understand something about God from their observations of nature, and that these observations are useful in a rational defense of the Christian faith. This may be the first extra-biblical Christian use of what we today call natural theology, in the service of Christian apologetics” (83).
And so it goes for Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Athanasius, Gregory Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa—the last of whom would begin his apologetical presentations by “discovering what authorities or beliefs we hold in common with the other person” and who was happy to argue for God’s existence by means of “the Ciceronian argument from beauty” (98). As for Augustine, he adapted key tenets of Platonism to Christian theology by placing Plato’s Forms in the mind of God and by adapting Plato’s belief that our soul knows divine truths because it pre-existed in heaven to fit a more orthodox doctrine of “divine illumination” by which “God implants the divine reasons, or Forms, into each human mind at birth” (110).
Though the Reformers were a bit more cautious than Augustine in their handling of pagan wisdom, Calvin paved the way for a fruitful dialogue with the natural theology of the Greek and Roman philosophers by distinguishing between “knowledge of God as Creator,” which comes via general revelation, and “knowledge of God as Redeemer,” which come via special revelation (145). The former was not only available to all people; it made possible God’s judgment on idolaters, who perverted their natural understanding of God to worship created things rather than the One who created them.
Though it is true that not all the Reformers accepted Augustine’s Platonic belief that we are born with innate ideas inscribed in us by God, almost all of them agreed, “including Calvin himself, that a discursive and inferred knowledge of the existence and attributes of God was both possible, and had in fact been attained by some pagans” (153). Consider these quotes that Haines offers up from three Reformed Puritan theologians:
William Perkins (1558-1602): “That there is a God, it is evident, 1. By the course of nature: 2. By the nature of the soule of man.” (147)
William Ames (1576-1633): “By the Creation God is known, but not God the Father, Sonne and Holy Spirit.” (147)
Richard Sibbes (1577-1635): “the light of reason, the principle of reason, is given us as a candle in the dark night of this world, to lead us in civil and in common actions, and it hath its use” (147)
To these clear affirmations of natural theology, Haines adds two more from two other key Reformed theologians:
Stephen Charnock (1628-80): “The light of nature tells us there is a God; the gospel gives us a more magnificent report of him; the light of nature condemns gross atheism, and that of the gospel condemns and conquers spiritual atheism in the hearts of men.” (151)
Theodore Beza (1519-1605): “Neither the intelligence nor the will are removed [by the Fall], as I have just stated, otherwise the soul would perish, and would no longer exist today” (154)
I could quote many more passages, but I hope these will suffice to show that Haines has done his due diligence—and more. Once he establishes by his survey of the key Reformers that they shared the early and medieval church’s embrace of natural theology, Haines concludes his book by responding to objections, particularly those from Van Til.
Among the objections he takes up, most center around an all-or-nothing argument that holds that pagan thought, because it was filled with errors, cannot be relied upon. In answer, Haines reminds his readers that all truth is God’s truth, that a person can know about the existence of God without knowing the full nature of that God, and “that someone has made some false claims about something does not imply that every statement that has been made by that person about the thing in question is false” (178).
From the early church fathers to the medieval doctors to the great theologians of the Reformation, there is strong agreement on the limits and the abilities of fallen man. We are fallen, depraved creatures, it is true, incapable of saving ourselves; but that does not mean that we have lost the image of God or that our God-given reason can no longer discern God’s presence and nature in the heavens above and the conscience within.
Louis Markos is Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, holding the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities. His works include From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics, The Myth Made Fact: Reading Greek and Roman Mythology through Christian Eyes, and From Plato to Christ: How Platonic Thought Shaped the Christian Faith.
Podcast: "Natural Theology"
"Theses on Natural Theology" by Scott Swain
"Is Natural Theology Reliable?" by John Hartley
"Puritan Theology and the 'Two Lights'" by Bob McKelvey
All That Is in God by James Dolezal
Theoretical-Practical Theology by Petrus van Mastricht
Image: "The Wrath of the Seas" by Ivan Aivazovsky