17
Sep
2010

Natural Theology

The idea of natural theology has been much debated.  One’s understanding regarding the project of natural theology will inevitably impact substantially one’s apologetic methodology and epistemology.

K. Scott Oliphint and James Dolezal visit the Reformed Forum studio to discuss natural theology.  Michael Sudduth’s book The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology (Burlington: Ashgate, 2009) will act as the foil of the discussion.  The book is in the Ashgate “Philosophy of Religion” series edited by Paul Helm and Linda Zagzebski.

In The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology Sudduth identifies three main categories in the world of Reformed objections to natural theology: objections from the immediacy of our knowledge of God, the noetic effects of sin, and the logic of theistic arguments.  While recognizing various forms of natural theology, Sudduth argues that none of the main Reformed objections are successful against the project of natural theology itself.

The foundation for Sudduth’s book was laid in his 1996 D.Phil. dissertation at the University of Oxford.  In that work, Sudduth attempted “to synthesize the Reformed epistemology of Alvin Plantinga and features of the evidentialist tradition with its emphasis on natural theology – rational arguments for the existence and nature of God.” (Sudduth, Preface)  The book is even titled after Plantinga’s 1980 paper of the same title.

Links

Download

Participants: , ,

Christ the Center focuses on Reformed Christian theology. In each episode a group of informed panelists discusses important issues in order to encourage critical thinking and a better understanding of Reformed doctrine with a view toward godly living. Browse more episodes from this program and learn how to subscribe.

21 Responses

  1. Bobby

    I am curious to know if anyone views the modern day rejection of ‘Natural Theology’, along the lines of Van Til and others, as a legitimate ‘development of doctrine’? In other words, those who will acknowledge that most of the distinctives of Van Til and others were indeed a development or earlier thought. Thank you so much for any help you could provide.

  2. Steve Ruble

    Camden, I got so excited when you said, in response to Dr. Oliphant’s statements about how he had infallible knowledge because he started from revelation, “That’s where the defeaters come in, people saying, ‘Well, it’s easy to say that,'” because that’s exactly what I would have said. That’s exactly right. It’s easy to say that you have a revelation that gives you the absolute truth – in fact, people say it about all kinds of revelations, including ones directly contradictory to yours. I was so happy that you appeared to understand that fact!

    Unfortunately, you continued with, “That’s where, in the methodology, it’s helpful to use the transcendental method to say, ‘There’s no other way the world could exist as it does, except according to the God that’s revealed himself in nature and in Scripture.'”

    That’s also easy to say, Camden. But anyone else can say the same thing about their own gods – or even about the non-existence of certain gods. It’s very easy to say. And even if you say it all day every day it won’t attain any more epistemic power than your own personal authority.

    How is it that you can grasp a concept – that claims of revelation are easy to make – and yet not apply it to your own arguments and positions? What does that feel like?

    1. Steve,

      It feels orthodox.

      That’s also easy to say, Camden. But anyone else can say the same thing about their own gods – or even about the non-existence of certain gods. It’s very easy to say. And even if you say it all day every day it won’t attain any more epistemic power than your own personal authority.

      I’m not standing on my own authority, but on the authority of God’s authoritative revelation.

      Let me make a brief response to your comments of other gods. Islam in particular espouses a monistic metaphysic which at root won’t support intelligibility and basic predication. Solve the problem of the one-and-many without the Triune God revealed in the Bible and then we can talk more about my feelings.

      Methodologically, we engage in apologetics via the impossibility of the contrary. This, however, isn’t the basis of Christian belief. Fundamentally I don’t believe in Jesus Christ because of rational argumentation, but because in his grace he has revealed himself in creation and the Bible and he has been pleased to save me from my sin.

    2. Steve Ruble

      Camden, I know you think the problem of the one and the many is a big deal, but it seems pretty silly to me – especially given that your solution to it is to assert that God is one and many and, presto, problem solved – or at least, solved enough that we don’t need to worry about it any more. If asserting that an entity can be equally one and many is enough to solve the problem, then I’ll just go ahead and assert that reality is equally one and many and, presto, the problem is solved for me too. I can’t see any reason that a Muslim couldn’t do the same thing – they can say that Allah is one, but knows all the many, or whatever. Since all we’re doing here is messing around with words describing something which you and the Muslim admit is incomprehensible, all they have to do is say that Allah has some properties which solve the problem in an incomprehensible way and they’ve refuted your argument, using your own methods. It’s hard to see how you could object to that.

      By the way, part 1 of your Theology on the Go video, where it seems you explain why the problem is a problem, seems to have vanished. I could only find part 2.

      You wrote,

      I’m not standing on my own authority, but on the authority of God’s authoritative revelation…

      …Fundamentally I don’t believe in Jesus Christ because of rational argumentation, but because in his grace he has revealed himself in creation and the Bible and he has been pleased to save me from my sin.

      The problem is, Camden, that if you’re not convinced by rational argumentation, you only have your own authority – the authority by which you say to yourself (and others), “This book is God’s word, and that book is not.” Once you’ve made that authoritative declaration, you can go on to say that you’re following God’s authority… but on whose authority did you decide that you possessed God’s revelation? Only yours. No rational argumentation, no evidence, no reasons – just your feeling, hunch, intuition, whatever. Talk about autonomous!

  3. I have recently published The Bible, Natural Theology and Natural Law: Conflict or Compromise?, a book refuting Natural Law, Natural Religion, Natural Thelogy, and Natural Apologetics. It contains around 450 pages of exegetical, linguistical, historical, and philosophical objections to all forms of Naturalism, secular or religious. The book has recommendations from Drs. Kloosterman, Frame, Kistemacker, Cheung, and John Reisinger. You can get it from http://www.faithdefenders.com or Amazon.com I would love to join your discussion once you have read what I wrote. It is my 55th book.

    “We cannot properly set off the Reformed faith against the Roman Catholic Faith unless natural theology be rejected as springing from the autonomous man’s efforts to keep from facing the claims of his Creator Redeemer God. We cannot even set off the Protestant view of faith unless we distinguish God’s clear revelation speaking to us in man and in nature and man’s false response to this clear revelation in his natural theology.”
    -Cornelius Van Til

  4. Steve,
    I agree that anyone can attempt to use the transcendental argument with regard to any religion or “authority,” but the difference is that the Triune God made all things and all other gods are idols. This makes what Camden said absolutely accurate. Anyone can say anything about their religion, but the LORD made the heavens, the earth, the sea and all that is in them. He gives to all men life and breath and all things. All people live and move and have their being in Him. Jesus Christ is before all things, and in Him, all things hold together. He existed in the beginning, and by Him all things were created, “whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers..things visible or invisible.” So, I appreciate you noticing the fact that anyone can employ the transcendental argument with regard to their idol, but it can rightly be applied to the one true and living God who created all things–and to Him alone.

    1. Steve Ruble

      Oh, Nick, I wish you would open your eyes. Can’t you see that what you wrote demonstrates my point exactly? You’re saying that the transcendental argument can be “rightly applied” by Christians alone, because only their God is real – but what stops a Muslim from saying the same thing? A Muslim apologist can say that only a Muslim can “rightly apply” the transcendental argument, because there is no God but Allah.

      I, of course, would no more rely on the Muslim’s authority than I would rely on yours, Nick. Or Camden’s. Or the men who wrote the book you claim to draw your authority from, or the men who wrote the Muslim’s book. You all have exactly the same level of authority when it comes to claims about God or gods, and that level is exactly the same as mine. Why do you pretend you have more?

      1. Jared

        Steve,

        There are going to be a lot of claims that Christianity makes that look similar to other religions and other philosophies, and a lot of claims that Christianity makes that other religions *could* make as well. Of course anyone can formally just say that they’re right. That formal claim doesn’t make anything true. But saying, “someone else could claim the same thing” isn’t a defeater for the truth of what Christianity claims. Personally, I think the problem of “the one and the many” is a problem for Greeks under their metaphysic – not a problem for Christians. So if you don’t buy the Greek schema, you probably won’t care about the proposed solution.

        And no matter how many times you say these truths are grounded only in our own personal authority, it doesn’t make it so. As Plantinga likes to say, an argument is needed. Of course the beliefs are our own personal beliefs, but they are grounded in Scripture, which is God’s word. And yes, other belief systems claim to be God’s word, but if God is who he says he is then his word and his creation by his word will match up, won’t they? Without claiming God’s word as the final authority (we can argue over being consistent with that claim another time), your final authority will always be yourself. It will only be your personal opinion. Telling us, “hey, you do it too!” really doesn’t change the fact that it’s just your opinion, does it? If all claims really are just everyone’s own personal authority, why even care if we’re ‘wrong’, when ‘wrong’ incorrectly (or correctly?) assumes objectivity? If that’s the case, you’d be completely fine with Christians having our epistemic preferences, regardless of whether you share them formally or substantially.

      2. Steve Ruble

        Jared, you wrote:

        …saying, “someone else could claim the same thing” isn’t a defeater for the truth of what Christianity claims.

        No, it’s a defeater for the claim that your beliefs have any more credibility than anyone else’s claims about anything. Any number of other religious believers could use exactly your methods of argument to defend with exactly as much power a set of claims which contradict yours. So why should anyone believe yours? Or trust this whole argument-by-assertion methodology you promulgate?

        And no matter how many times you say these truths are grounded only in our own personal authority, it doesn’t make it so. As Plantinga likes to say, an argument is needed.

        In this case, I agree with Plantinga – but I think the person who needs to provide an argument is you. Despite your claim on another thread that ” no one here makes the argument that we’re right because we’re really sure we’re right”, that’s essentially all your compatriots have done so far – to assert over and over that in fact their arguments for God work because God is really real. In other words, they have been telling me that I should believe in their God, not because there are good reasons to, but because I should trust their authority when they tell me who God is.

        And yes, other belief systems claim to be God’s word, but if God is who he says he is then his word and his creation by his word will match up, won’t they?

        One problem with this that I don’t have access to “who [God] says he is”, I only have access to who you say he is – and who other people say he is. Another problem is that I don’t know which “word” is actually God’s, or how I would be able to tell. Yet another problem is that matching your interpretation of “word” up to with your observations about “creation” does not actually imply that either the “word” or the “creation” belong to any particular god.

        If all claims really are just everyone’s own personal authority…

        I don’t know where you got the idea that I’m saying that – I’m absolutely not. In the real world, people do sometimes defer to authority, but they also consider arguments, past experience, and new evidence. They consider conflicting claims and try to choose the claims that meet certain shared standards like logical consistency, parsimony, and source reliability. It’s true that some standards are subjective, but some are objective – logical consistency, for example, is an objective standard. You claim to make the Bible your objective standard (which strikes me as absurd, given the myriad contradictory creeds your “objective standard” has spawned) but you seem to be unable to give any reason why taking your (minority) understanding of the Bible as a standard would be a good idea.

        As for your closing questions, I’ll defer to Voltaire:

        Formerly there were those who said: You believe things that are incomprehensible, inconsistent, impossible because we have commanded you to believe them; go then and do what is unjust because we command it. Such people show admirable reasoning. Truly, whoever is able to make you absurd is able to make you unjust. If the God-given understanding of your mind does not resist a demand to believe what is impossible, then you will not resist a demand to do wrong to that God-given sense of justice in your heart. As soon as one faculty of your soul has been dominated, other faculties will follow as well. And from this derives all those crimes of religion which have overrun the world.

      3. Jeff Krause

        Islam cannot use the TAG…note the argument of Dr. Bahnsen:

        “Dr. Bahnsen argued that the Islamic doctrine of “tanzih” (or transcendence) – which says that no human language can positively describe Allah because he is allegedly “incomparable” (Surah 42:11) – would render it logically impossible for the Koran to be what it claims to be, a positive revelation and description of Allah.”

        http://www.cmfnow.com/articles/pa123.htm

  5. Dr. Morey,

    I’m interesteded in reading your book and perhaps getting a copy for the library at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Is there anyway we can get a free copy. 🙂

    Jeff Downs

  6. Free review copies are given to theological journals, magazines, seminary libraries, or professors who request it on official stationary. Too many pastors want free books all the time! But Amazon.comn does a good discount. My book took five years to write and entailed reading every English book on natural theology/law/religion at the Library of Congress. The Table of Contents gives you an idea of what it covers.
    Table of Contents
    PART ONE EXPOSITION
    CHAPTER ONE THE FOUNDATION OF THE CHRISTIAN WORLDVIEW ……………………………… 1
    CHAPTER TWO THE THREE PILLARS ………………………………………………………………….. ……59
    CHAPTER THREE CREATION EX NIHILO …………………………………………………………………. ….81
    CHAPTER FOUR THE RADICAL FALL OF MAN INTO SIN AND GUILT ………………………………. .99
    CHAPTER FIVE REDEMPTION …………………………………………………………………………. ………113
    CHAPTER SIX THE BOOK OF ECCLESIASTES ……………………………………………………. ………123
    PART TWO EXPOSITION
    CHAPTER SEVEN BIBLICAL THEISM ………………………………………………………………………… 145
    CHAPTER EIGHT BIBLICAL ANTHROPOLOGY ………………………………………………………… ….209
    CHAPTER NINE A BIBLICAL PHILOSOPHY OF SCIENCE …………………………………………. …..235
    PART THREE REFUTATION
    CHAPTER TEN THE FAILURE OF DEFINITION ……………………………………………………… …….271
    CHAPTER ELEVEN NATURAL LAW ……………………………………………………………………….. .289
    CHAPTER TWELVE NATURAL RELIGION ………………………………………………………………… .345
    CHAPTER THIRTEEN NATURAL THEOLOGY ………………………………………………………………369
    CHAPTER FOURTEEN NATURAL APOLOGETICS…………………………………………………………389
    CHAPTER FIFTEEN WHAT THE WORLD NEEDS TO HEAR ……………………………………………399
    BIBLIOGRAPHY …………………………………………………………………………………………………….405
    ENDNOTES ………………………………………………………………………………………………………….406

  7. This was an interesting discussion, but as learned as Michael Sudduth is, I have always been suspicious of his orthodoxy. He was on our Reformed Baptist Discussion list for years and always raised that red flag in our minds as to whether he really believed in Bible innerancy.

    I would be more interested in Robert Morey’s book simply because we have never doubted his orthodoxy. I will never forget, Dr. Morey. what the last John Gerstner wrote about your work on Death and the Afterlife… I am paraphrasing, but he said it was so thorough in its refutation of annihilationism is was like going after a fly with a cannon!

    TMS Jenison, MI

  8. BV

    I’m late to this discussion, but I’ve only recently discovered Christ the Center. I’m a little surprised the scope of the discussion did not cover any of Alister McGrath’s work. Granted, the intent of this program was to discuss a particular book, but at ~10:40 the panel discusses the important players in this field. McGrath has been very active in Natural Theology as of late, with particular emphasis on interpreting NT through a Trinitarian framework.

    http://users.ox.ac.uk/~mcgrath/nattheo.html

  9. Pingback : Sudduth on Natural Theology - Historia Salutis

  10. Jesse

    Is the method for articulating natural theology drawn merely from Scripture or can the Catholic Church’s traditions be identified as the origins of some of the defined terms [see, CCC Prolouge, I] or is the Westminster Confession your authority on the topic?

Leave a Reply