fbpx

On the Nature and Possibility of So-Called Natural Theology: Comments on Swain’s Theses

Introduction

The following is a response to Scott Swain’s post at Reformation21, “Theses on Natural Theology.” But it is more than that. I take the opportunity, in interaction with Swain, to advance the discussion. I want to emphasize that, while I am critical of a number of Swain’s claims, my goals, as follows, are constructive: to push for increased theological precision and increased exegetical faithfulness in discussions of this topic, and to make the distinctions necessary for considering the possibility of sound and legitimately named ‘natural theology’.

I come from a school of thought in which natural theology is, particularly in the already-not-yet, either a contradiction in terms and distinctly un-Reformed, or a species of dogmatic theology, sharing its principia. I believe the latter is possible, as did Van Til, but extremely rare, but I also suspect that the distinction may be even finer than most have acknowledged. For example, when we say that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are ‘persons’, are we to any degree at all doing natural theology? How can we distinguish between ‘good and necessary consequence’ and ‘natural theology’? Or where does one end, and the other begin? Maybe these are easy questions, but I am still wondering.

I am grateful for Swain’s contribution to this enduring biblical, theological, and confessional question. His piece attempts to put natural theology in a more favorable light than I am accustomed to. So that’s kind of the context for the present query. I’m interested in where and how, within a shared Reformed theology and confessional framework, our approaches to the nature and status of natural theology diverge. Maybe our approaches don’t, in the end, differ much at all. I hope that what follows will get us closer to finding out.

Opening quibbles: Definition, purpose, and argumentation

Swain’s opening paragraph says that early modern Reformed discussions of natural theology are not of a kind with Enlightenment projects by the same name, and that therefore those historic early Reformed natural theologies dodge the critiques coming from later Reformed thinkers. Swain says, “Here natural theology is not treated as a pre-dogmatic discipline but as a discipline that is dependent upon dogmatic theology for its success.”

This characterization is unclear. If natural theology is “dependent upon dogmatic theology for its success,” then the distinction between natural and revealed theology must be finer than, and perhaps other than, Swain tells us in his post. Later in the post Swain defines natural theology as theology carried out by ‘natural reason’, with natural reason as its “epistemological principle,” which I take to mean principium cognoscendi. If the earlier statement appears to mean that natural reason depends for its success in theologizing upon dogmatic theology, all kinds of wires are crossed here. And if natural reason ‘depends’ upon dogmatic theology, then it is not clear how Swain understands either or both natural theology and natural reason.

Swain proceeds to provide what appears to be an explanation of this statement. He says: “the terms of early Protestant natural theology are largely set by biblical commentary on texts such as Romans 1–2.” As for Romans 2, I can only think that 2:14–15 could be relevant, but even there Paul is arguing that sin is universal and so also, and justly so, is condemnation. The gentiles’ having the law written on their hearts means that the gentiles convict themselves: “their conflicting thoughts accuse and even excuse them on that day . . . when God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (2:15–16). General revelation convicts the sinner even from within his own moral consciousness. Romans 1 appears to me to contain no endorsement of the conduct or soundness of natural reason.

Swain also says that “the noetic effects of sin upon natural theology” are recognized by the early Reformed theologians as “effects which require assistance from the epistemological principles of dogmatics (i.e., Holy Scripture, the Holy Spirit) if they are to be overcome.” The Holy Spirit and Scripture are the principia cognoscendi of theology (Swain’s “epistemological principles”). Notice that they are also the primary agents in effectual calling and the application of redemption. That is not a coincidence. So, again, what is natural theology, and what sort of principium is natural reason? And in what sense is natural theology distinguishable from dogmatic revealed theology? Swain’s characterization of early modern Reformed natural theology is elusive.

This leads to a second question: what is Swain’s goal here? Perhaps I am misreading, but if Swain wishes to make the historical theological point that early Reformed theologians understood natural theology as vindicated or endorsed or whatever by Romans 1 and 2, then that is one thing; the only thing missing is quotation from these theologians substantiating the historical observation. If the point is in fact programmatic, or even dogmatic, that in agreement with these historical writers, it is the case that natural theology finds its charter in Romans 1 and 2, then I think Swain’s post vastly undervalues the claim it makes. There is no exegesis given—neither Swain’s own nor historical—nor is it at all obvious that these chapters put natural reason in a positive light. Further complicating the question of purpose, the historical interest Swain’s introduction evokes is disappointed when he produces for us a definition of natural theology not from our Reformed forbears but his own. It is not then clear at all what the procedure is here, or what the goal is: to tell a story or to make an argument.

In fact Swain closes his introduction with two statements that appear to offer clarity:

  1. “Based upon earlier Protestant treatments of natural theology,” he says, “I have come to see the importance of natural theology for a number of spheres of Christian intellectual and practical inquiry”; and
  2. “I have come to the conclusion that, far from detracting from revealed theology, it is only in giving natural theology its due that we can fully appreciate the true honor and dignity of revealed theology.”

The spheres from (1) receive no further attention in the post, nor is the notion of a fuller appreciation of “the honor and dignity of revealed theology” thanks to natural theology revisited. No harm done, I suppose, since these two claims are largely wide of the main issue, which is perhaps twofold: what is the value—truth-value, perhaps, or doxological value—and the nature, of natural theology?

Swain characterizes the relationship between natural and revealed theology as one of ‘opposition’. Or perhaps this is too wooden on my part. He compares the two as follows. The principium of natural theology is natural reason, “as opposed to revealed theology,” the principia of which are special revelation and the illumination of the Holy Spirit. The thing to notice is that the two projects, natural and revealed theology, have distinct principia. How this is meant to be reconciled with Swain’s emphasis on continuity between them (in his introduction and later) is not clear, but it is a central question if the vindication of natural theology by natural reason is the question at hand.

Most curious in this regard is the definition of natural theology offered, which looks as much like a definition as it does an undecorated affirmation of the viability of the thing. Swains says: “Natural theology considers the existence, attributes, and operations of God insofar as they may be known through God’s works of creation and providence by means of natural reason.”

But does it do this? Which God? “God’s works of creation and providence” are biblical doctrines. So is the object of natural theology the God of the Bible? If the principia of natural and revealed theology are distinct, some account of the possibility of their soundly and knowingly referring to the same object is needed. In fact, Swain’s post contains no argument for the viability of natural theology. As noted, I believe the viability is within reach, but the issue of principia must be sorted out.

‘Natural’ reason, the ordo salutis, and biblical anthropology

‘Natural’ in the phrase ‘natural reason’ appears to indicate something like ‘by nature’, or ‘man’s default state’. Biblically or theologically speaking then, ‘natural’ reason means the ratiocination of the unregenerate. Given the ambiguities in Swain’s definition of natural theology, however, we cannot be exactly sure who the natural theologian is, or whether Swain believes natural theology is as equally viable for the unregenerate as for the regenerate. So the question is, how does “natural” modify “reason”?

I think an eminently sound way to answer this question is to situate it within a Reformed redemptive-historical anthropology, as Swain does, though only briefly. He writes, “In the state of nature after the fall, natural theology is severely corrupted but not absolutely extinguished.” This is somewhat confusing, however, since it misses if not begs the question; the issue is the status of natural reason as the determining principle of natural theology.

If we take account of reason within the already-not-yet we should find that we have, according to traditional taxonomy: (1) reason non posse non peccare (all men of Rom 1 and 3); and (2) reason posse non peccare–the former the unregenerate and the regenerate the latter. So in terms of reason, we then have (1) the inability to reason righteously; and (2) reason in principle restored.

The former is more often the one referred to as ‘natural’ reason. But it would seem that the principium cognoscendi of the unregenerate—his ‘natural reason’—is incapable of righteous reasoning. So the claim that natural reason is an active and sound principle of natural theology implies one of two things: (1) the totally depraved mind can reason righteously, in denial of our classical doctrine of sin and corruption; or (2) natural theology is an activity of the unregenerate in which true may be separated from God-honoring or righteous. Even Abraham Kuyper, the foremost modern formulator of the theology of common grace and the antithesis, who believed that natural reason could function soundly in observation and calculation, wouldn’t go that far.

Does Swain then have the regenerate in mind as the hypothetical practitioner of natural theology? This alternative, on his account, also faces difficulties. As Swain indicates, the principia of revealed theology are the Spirit and Scripture. These are also the means and agency of effectual calling, the very principles of new obedience and resurrection life. The question is, then, can the regenerate reason rightly, about God no less, on the principle of natural reason, independent of the Spirit and Scripture?

We should ask: can the regenerate do anything at all ‘rightly’, independent of Scripture and the Spirit? Why would he ever want to? To affirm the former—that the regenerate can act or think ‘rightly’ apart from the Spirit and Scripture—is basically to say that sanctification and good works are possible without the enabling indwelling of the Holy Spirit, or to say that the Spirit operates independently of Scripture. Or, again, am I unjustly and too closely associating regenerate righteousness and truth? I would rather think that the burden of proof is his who claims that those whose thinking is futile and whose hearts are darkened and who are by nature children of wrath, are capable of uttering, through throats like open graves, between curses and bitterness, theological truth.

The creature’s reason and the Creator’s revelation

Swain says that “Revealed theology is the light in which natural theology sees light and by which it is perfected (Psalm 19).” He also says that “Natural theology is always intrinsically incomplete and therefore incapable of producing religion that is pleasing to God.”

To me these statements are much easier to understand if we swap general and special revelation for natural and revealed theology, if, that is, we are thinking in terms of God’s design and activity in revealing himself through the general-particular or natural-supernatural organism of revelation, rather than of two distinct methods of theology with mutually hostile principia. If the former is in fact what is meant, I feel very much at home; but if it is indeed the latter pair that is meant—natural and revealed theology, both activities of the image-bearer—the issue is raised once again whether the purported natural theologian is regenerate or unregenerate, which is the same as to ask whether the theological method in view is Christian or not Christian, sound or futile.

Suppose the believer and the unbeliever both undertake the same natural theological reasoning; word for word, they articulate the same natural theological claims. How can we distinguish their theologies? One example is this: says Aratus, “in him we live and move and exist.” Aratus’ theology is theologia falsa; it is idolatry. The apostle Paul, who declared that “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit,” also says, “in him we live and move and exist” (Acts 17:28, 1 Cor 12:3). Paul’s is theologia vera, or theologia naturalis regenetorum, natural theology of the regenerate used to show the truth of revelation and the falsity of bare theism. The key here though is principia; Paul might be doing something we may call ‘natural theology’, but not by the strength of his pre-conversion ‘natural’ reason. Nor is Paul’s theology true merely because he is regenerate, but because his theological method is consistent with the principia of his regeneration (see K. S. Oliphint, Reasons for Faith, 12–13).

According to some interpretations, the unbeliever is prone to err, since he attempts to suppress the truth which is in fact insuppressible, and so the Christian under grace, on different principia, may improve upon or perfect the unbeliever’s reason. Sounds good enough. But according to Paul, all men suppress and obscure, and then they do not still retain true but acutely fallible knowledge; rather, they replace the object and content of their admiring cognition with idols, creatures instead of the Creator, and this replacement is the outworking of their principium, natural reason. Certainly special revelation improves, perfects, and completes general revelation; but according to Paul there is no improving, perfecting, or completing of natural reason. Natural reason does not require improvement; it must be undone completely, uprooted, burned, and reborn—in a word, crucified and resurrected. For natural reason to accomplish anything—“apart from me you can do nothing”—it must be changed in principle, at the level of principia. It must be reborn not of natural principia, the will of man, but of supernatural principia, the will of God (John 1:13). As it is, the completion and perfection of natural reason is hell.

So on the side of the fallen sinner, some account must be taken of the complexity in Romans 1 where there appears to be a distinction between ‘knowing God’—knowing and perceiving all these particular things about him—and the suppression of that truth in unrighteousness that blossoms into idolatry and essentially a turning of the Creator/creature ethic upside down: worshiping the creature instead of the Creator. Paul says in no uncertain terms, “no one understands; no one seeks after God.” The image-bearers’ intentions here are so unequivocally wicked that divine wrath consists merely in allowing these desires to be fulfilled, in ‘giving them over’ (vv. 24, 26, 28) to their sinful desires. This is what is meant by the comparison between total depravity and utter depravity; the unregenerate has no resident righteousness, but were it not for common grace he would be much worse.

Missing from Swain’s discussion is then an account of sin as portrayed here in Romans 1 in terms of what becomes of this objectively clear revelation in the hands of the totally depraved. Our Reformed doctrines of sin and of regeneration wrought by the Spirit in and through the Scriptures and the ordinary means, must be determinative in how we handle this material. To say, as Swain I think does, that the noetic effect of sin amounts to increased possibility of error (Merold Westphal, not much of a Reformed thinker, takes this view), or that natural theology and revealed theology are “discordant” as a result of sin, seems insufficiently appreciative of Romans 1 and 3. Swain says that “natural theology is severely corrupted but not absolutely extinguished.” But Paul in Romans 1 in particular does not teach that natural reason is severely corrupted; he teaches not a matter of degree but of basic, antithetical disposition. The distinction is principial, at the level of principium. The natural man is not dull, nor has he merely grown dim; he is sharp and lively, but in principle evil, and he wants to be as evil as he can be. His passions and his mind claw and tear at the Lord’s hand restraining the full development of his wickedness.

The whole point of Romans 1 is sin and suppression, rebellion and idolatry. The clarity of natural revelation—as distinct from natural theology, an act of God rather than an act of man—is defended by Paul in Romans 1 in service of the main point of the chapter, in order to contrast it with the idolatry of sinful suppression. General revelation is clear but nevertheless always, certainly since Genesis 3, fails to impart true doxological knowledge. That failure is to the credit of so-called ‘natural’ reason. Natural reason is the principium cognoscendi of idolatry, even before the face of God, in the theater of God’s abundant self-display, even while in him we live and move and have our being. Natural revelation is a gracious gift of God, and serves as the evidence brought against the idolatrous inclinations of natural reason, “the mind that is set on the flesh.” The natural mind is “hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom 8:7).

Exegesis of Romans 1

Continuing on the question of the exegesis of Romans 1, Swain says this: “Natural theology also addresses . . . especially human beings in their moral and social capacities” (Rom 1.26). Rom 1:26 reads as follows: “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature.”

The verse says that God allows sinners to pursue and to realize the dishonorable passions that burn within them, and one example is given: unnatural relations between women. Swain says that this verse is related to the value of natural theology for addressing moral and social issues.

Another reference to Romans is this. Swain writes, “In terms of morals: natural theology (or, more precisely, natural law) addresses that which may be known about divine worship and human ethics through creation and providence by means of natural reason” (Rom 1.21–32).

The verses cited in this case begin, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him,” and end, “Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” Verse 32 is quite possibly autobiographical (see Acts 8:1), as it recalls Paul’s participation in the murder of Stephen. Swain says that this passage has something positive to say about unregenerate reason relative to articles of worship and godly ethics.

In both cases, the association of these verses with Swain’s claims regarding the viability of natural reason is baffling. In fact, I see no positive role whatsoever for ‘natural’ (fallen) reason in Romans 1:18–32, where the thrust of the passage appears to be the clarity of general revelation and the wickedness of idolatry. Swain claims that the early Reformers found in Romans 1–3 vindication of the theologizing endeavors of the unregenerate (or the regenerate somehow on alien principia). I would be glad to see the best attempt at making that work, but it just doesn’t sound feasible.

Conclusion

I would like to do three things in conclusion. The first is to rehearse my claims regarding Swain’s piece: In the preceding, I have attempted to argue that the principle weakness in Swain’s claim is that it is ambiguous; it is difficult to tell whether it is historical or dogmatic. The difficulty is compounded by this, a second claim I make: there are no arguments of any kind, either historical or exegetical. Swain encloses the names of several early Reformers in parentheses, indicating that he has read their work and that in his view his own statements enjoy their support. But there are no quotations, nor even citations. Even his definition of natural theology is a brand new one, and evidently not time-tested. Also not a single passage of Scripture is quoted or explained. Proof texts appear in parentheses, but none of these references is explained, and many of the connections counterintuitive. Swain seems at many places to conflate revelation, God’s revealing himself, and theology, the image-bearers response to revelation. The crucial connections between soteriology and principia are neglected, and, consequently, we face a dilemma: if the regenerate is the natural theologizer, he operates on the principles of Scripture, Spirit, and the existence of the triune God, and it is not clear whether he is in fact doing anything properly called ‘natural’ theology, or certainly not essentially distinct from revealed theology. If the unregenerate is the natural theologizer, his cognition is wholly evil, debased, corrupt, and an instrument of unrighteousness. In this sense, too, we are still a long way from knowing just what so-called ‘natural’ theology is.

The second thing I would like to do is to propose a seriously amateur theory as to why the early Reformers were so penetrating, and why their work has repaid something like four centuries of careful attention, and even a resurgence of interest today. My uninformed guess is that it must have at least something to do with context, and possibly the salient feature of their context was that they were Reformers in an age of reformation. They had every license and duty to scrutinize their predecessors—the fathers, the medievals, even their own training—all in the name of Scripture, the solas, and Reformed confession. So perhaps there is some embarrassing irony then when in the present day early Reformed literature sits in seats of honor and is thought qualified to stand in for biblical dogmatics. Are we missing the basic thrust of their example? I’m grateful to a friend for bringing this quote from Herman Bavinck to my attention:

The faith of the sixteenth century became the orthodoxy of the seventeenth. People no longer confessed their beliefs, but they only believed their confessions. Among most of the people this orthodoxy prepared the road for rationalism. Religion became a matter of reason, the truth regarding eternal things was now dependent on historical proofs and rational argument, and the certainty of faith became confused with rational insight (Herman Bavinck, Certainty of Faith, p. 41).

Finally, when Swain’s piece was posted, he announced it on Twitter describing it as an “in-house” discussion, and he opens the post itself referring to the critical stance some contemporary Reformed theologians have taken relative to natural theology. I conclude my comments with a short list of examples of in-house literature which may fit this description, though much of it is more constructive and exegetical than merely critical. I trust that the reader will find that the arguments made in the following publications are substantial; furthermore they are confessional and biblical, or at the very least they mean to be. Once again, I am grateful to Swain for his contribution. I hope works such as these will be accounted for in further reflection on this question.

Richard Gaffin. “Epistemological Reflections on 1 Corinthans 2:6–16.” In Revelation and Reason: New Essays in Reformed Apologetics. P&R, 2007.

Jeffrey K. Jue. “Theologia Naturalis: A Reformed Tradition.” In Revelation and Reason.

Scott Oliphint. “The Irrationality of Unbelief” and “Cornelius Van Til and the Reformation of Christian Apologetics.” In Revelation and Reason.

–––––. “Primary and Simple Knowledge,” in Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes. P&R, 2008.

–––––. “Is There a Reformed Objection to Natural Theology?” Westminster Theological Journal 74, no.1 (2012).

Share:

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn
Share on email
Email
On Key

Related Posts

A Reflection on Anthropomorphic Language

Currently, amidst the Reformed discussion concerning God’s simplicity and immutability, there has been repeated references to the anthropomorphic language of Scripture. It is commonly understood

Man Shall Not Live by Bread Alone

Life—understood biblically as the enjoyment of the covenant communion bond with God in a holy kingdom—is brought into close association with God’s word from the

Scripture: The Speech of God

The more I read orthodox theology, the more apparent it becomes that a fundamental tenet of Christian belief is either embraced or ignored (to various