Natural Theology: Definition, Viewpoints, Critics, Why It Matters
Have you ever been curious about this natural world? God intentionally created the universe with a specific design in mind, and that specific design teaches us things about God. We can learn about the character and nature of God by examining and enjoying this material world. This type of examination falls under the discipline we call Natural Theology.
What is Natural Theology? Natural Theology is the branch of theology that seeks to learn things about God by utilizing human reasoning and intellect to examine the cosmos. Natural Theology explains how God uses the universe and its functions to reveal his attributes to humanity. Proponents of Natural Theology often examine and interact with the arguments for God’s existence that inevitably emerge as humans study creation.
Natural Theology is relevant to ethical debates because some theologians assert that humans can determine what is right and wrong by examining what causes humans to flourish in the natural world. That reasoning leads to Natural Law theory.
Heart of Natural Theology
At the heart of Natural Theology is the propensity for humans to be curious. Being curious about this universe, its order, and its beauty can reveal things about God.
Have you wondered why grapes ferment and turn into wine? Or why vegetation and animals work together so perfectly to form ecosystems? Or why flower petals are so dainty? Or why dogs are so loyal to humans? Or why ice cream tastes good? Or why gravity exists? If we think deeply about these types of questions, the answers can help us better understand God.
This applies to the design of humanity too. God created humans to function and behave in certain ways, and by examining those behaviors God reveals certain things about himself us.
Have you ever been curious why mothers love their children? Or why there are only two sexes? Or why people in every society have a drive to engage in competitive games? Or why people are so outraged when a criminal goes unpunished? Being curious about humanity and our own inclinations help us attain a better understanding of God and his intentions.
Natural Theology Often Misunderstood
In his book, Natural Theology: A Biblical and Historical Introduction and Defense, David Haines defines Natural Theology as being the branch of philosophy which asks the question, “What can humans know about God by examining nature alone?” Haines contends that humans have the ability to reason—a gift from God—and that we can use that reason to come to some accurate conclusions about God. God has revealed himself through nature, so Natural Theology is simply the discipline of examining nature to discover what it is God has already revealed.
Haines says that Natural Theology has often been misrepresented as some futile or vain human attempt to understand God apart from the Scriptures. But Haines explains that understanding what God reveals in nature goes hand-in-hand with understanding what God reveals in Scripture. Haines also explains how Natural Theology has actually been a significant part of the Christian heritage.
Natural Theology has been helpful to Christian theologians for centuries as they have sought to articulate the doctrine of God. Furthermore, Natural Theology has provided an effective starting point from which Christians can launch into apologetic and evangelistic conversations with skeptics.
Two Ways God Reveals Himself: General Revelation vs. Special Revelation
When theologians and Bible scholars use the term revelation they are typically referring to how God reveals himself to human beings. There are two types of revelation: general revelation and special revelation. In my podcast interview with scientist and apologist Hugh Ross, he said it this way: “God has two books: the book of nature and the book of Scripture.“
What is General Revelation? General Revelation is the information about God that can be known by any person and can be understood by using human reasoning and intellect. General revelation refers to the things that people can figure out by examining the world and thinking deeply about it. Natural Theology is built upon general revelation.
What is Special Revelation? Special Revelation is the information and understanding about God that we can only know because God specially revealed those things. By Special Revelation we can know things about God that we could not otherwise simply figure out by using human reasoning or intellect.
Throughout human history there have been various forms of Special Revelation, but the form of Special Revelation available to us today is the written form, the Bible. There are things about God that are revealed to us in the Bible—things about God’s character, nature, intentions, and moral inclinations—that we would never be able to simply figure out on our own, no matter how smart we are and no matter how deeply we think about creation.
The study and organization of the things we learn from special revelation is sometimes called revealed theology but more often is known as dogmatics or systematic theology. It is also important to note that Natural Theology is always subordinate to dogmatics—dogmatics always serves as the lens by which we examine the things we learn from general revelation, never the other way around.
Does the Bible Support Natural Theology and General Revelation?
It can be said that Natural Theology is simply the organizing and articulation of what we’ve learned from General Revelation. And the overwhelming consensus from church history is that the Bible does indeed teach the concept of General Revelation. Consider these words from the apostle Paul:
“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.”
Here Paul says that God’s “eternal power and divine nature” can be seen in creation. Therefore, people don’t have an excuse, they cannot say there was not enough evidence to believe in God because there is certainly enough in nature to know that there is indeed a God.
Also consider the passages of Scripture that command us to examine nature. In each case the Biblical author’s aim is to get us to observe creation and to be in awe of God.
“But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you; or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind.”
“Lift up your eyes on high, and see who hath created these.”
“In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land.”
“Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it! Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy.”
“O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.”
Examining and enjoying creation causes us to see the awesomeness of God. We also can learn from behaviors and structures from the animal kingdom. Consider this from the Proverbs:
“Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest.”
Ask yourself: “What does the writer of this Proverb want me to learn? What wisdom can we obtain from the ant?” These are the types of questions we can ask about the universe, its structures, and its inhabitants. Our curiosity about the world around us can highlight the attributes of God.
Jesus Leveraged Nature
Jesus himself specifically commands us to think about nature and to reflect upon how nature reveals God to us. Consider his words about the birds of the air:
“Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?… So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you.”
Jesus points us toward an element of nature—in this case birds—to remind us that the Father in heaven loves us and promises to take care of us. Every time I hear birds chirping, I think of this passage and I am reminded of the kindness of God.
Jesus uses elements of nature in multiple parables too. Consider the parable of the sower (Mt. 13:1-23), the parable of weeds among wheat (Mt. 13:24-30), and the parable of the mustard seed (Mt. 13:31-32). In each case Jesus uses something we can observe in nature to reveal God’s attributes or intentions.
Jesus also uses the behaviors and inclinations of humans to demonstrate truths about God. This is different than merely examining creation, but looking closely at the design of human beings. Humans are made in the image of God (cf. Gen. 1:26-28; 5:1; 9:6), which means we can see elements of God indwelled in humanity. Although the image of God has been marred by sin, there are still things about humans that highlight the nature of God. Jesus does this in the parable of the lost sheep (Mt. 18:19-14), the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Mt. 20:1-16), the parable of the ten virgins (Mt. 25:1-13), the parable of the ten gold coins (Mt. 25:14-30), and the parable of the friend at midnight (Lk. 11:5-13).
Thomas Aquinas: Defender of Natural Theology
One of the men from church history often cited when discussing Natural Theology is the 13th century theologian Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas had significant confidence in humanity’s ability to discover things about God.
Aquinas argued that anyone rightly and deeply thinking about the natural world would eventually become convinced of God’s existence. Aquinas believed that the non-believer could reason his way toward the knowledge of God. He did not mean a complete exhaustive knowledge of God, Aquinas knew there were limits. An examination of the natural world will not lead us to a complete understanding of God, and certainly will not lead us to essential doctrines like the Trinity, the work of Christ, or the atonement, but such an examination may be able to demonstrate the foolishness of the atheist’s worldview.
Natural Theology, according to Aquinas, clearly demonstrates that the universe has an author. Aquinas contended that there are enough “proofs” in creation to lead a person to a real knowledge of God. While what the person learns might be limited, at least it would be true.
Aquinas believed that human beings are not necessarily born with an inherent knowledge of God, but born with the capacity to reason and think deeply which, if used properly, would eventually lead them to believing in God. Aquinas, however, contended that at creation God imprinted humans with inclinations that matched his own moral inclinations therefore it is fair to assume that humans have some propensity toward good things and moral behaviors—humans have some sense of right and wrong.
Can Protestants Trust Aquinas?
Aquinas’ writings greatly influenced Catholic theology and thought. Therefore, as a Protestant, it’s valuable for me to note that I disagree with Aquinas on several points of theology. There were definitely some arenas of his theology where Aquinas was in error, and it’d be detrimental for us to follow him on those things. However, there are some arenas of theology where Aquinas was correct, where his insights can be tremendously helpful.
Reading Aquinas certainly takes discernment, but I believe we can learn from him. However, some theologians have disagreed with Aquinas on Natural Theology, and most have come from the Reformed tradition.
Reformed Objections to Natural Theology
Some theologians from the Reformed tradition have been indifferent toward Natural Theology. Others have been suspicious or even hostile.
Knowledge of God
Many Reformed theologians, such as 20th century professor Cornelius Van Til, have been accused of rejecting natural theology, but I don’t think that’s a precisely accurate assessment. Theologians like Van Til do not necessarily deny natural theology altogether, instead, they reject certain types (or elements) of natural theology, including Aquinas’ view of how Adam was created.
For Van Til, and others, Adam had a natural knowledge of God from the time he was created; the knowledge of God was placed inside of Adam from the very beginning by God, and it remained in Adam even after the fall. All of us, likewise, have an inherent knowledge of God. The apostle Paul wrote that the “law” of God is “written on their hearts” and that “their conscience also bears witness” (Rom. 2:15).
Many Reformed theologians have written about the sensus divinitatis which is a term coined by the great 16th century pastor-theologian John Calvin; this term describes the sense or awareness that humans have of God. Mankind was created with more than the ability to know God but were created knowing God. In other words, it is natural to belief in God, and unnatural to reject God.
Aquinas’ starting point seems to be that man does not know God, but can reason his way toward God. The Reformed tradition’s starting point tends to be that human beings already know God; deep down, all humans know that God exists, they simply choose to deny him. The apostle Paul says that humans, “by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:18).
Aquinas and the Reformed tradition assert different starting points for humanity. Whichever starting point you embrace will inform your life and ministry. If you embrace Aquinas’ starting point, then you’ll likely preach, and evangelize, and counsel, and parent very differently than if you embrace the starting point of the traditional Reformed view.
Sin Impairs Our Thinking
Some theologians have argued that the human ability to reason is impaired by the fall of mankind. So even if Aquinas’ premise was correct—that humans ought to use reason to discover the divine—we would still see humans coming to very flawed understandings of God because their thinking is corrupted by sin.
Many Reformed theologians certainly agree that humans can think deeply and come to conclusions about God—that’s obviously—but most Reformed theologians disagree with quality of the trustworthiness of any such conclusions; human thinking is poisoned by sin, therefore human conclusions based on reason will often be tainted.
Some observers have asked: How could we ever possibly expect non-believing sinners, corrupted and poisoned by sin, to come to right conclusions about God?
Evangelism and Presuppositional Apologetics
For some Reformed theologians, it is not necessary to convince humans that God exists because they already know it. Many of those theologians have argued that we need not convince people to believe, but have a high emphasis on challenging people to repent of their sin.
For many in the Reformed tradition, we need not transfer a new knowledge of God because the knowledge of God is already inside of them, it must be stirred and awakened. The awakening is a supernatural task, God does it, and he primary does it through the preaching of his word.
Many of those theologians might say that whenever we do engage in apologetic conversations, we do not aim our efforts at convincing them that there is a God, but instead we seek to expose the fact that they have been suppressing the truth—we mainly do that by helping the atheist see how their claims against God can only be made because they presuppose some things that can only be true if God is real. This approach is known as presuppositional apologetics and was largely championed by Cornelius Van Til (pictured above).
For example, if an atheist claims there is no God because there is so much evil in the world. Rather than engaging the argument of evil, it might be better to point out that the atheist has presupposed that there is such a thing as evil. If there is no God, then how can there be anything such as good or evil? If we are all just animals, evolved from a single-cell organisms, then why does good or bad matter? That would be the conversation that many Reformed theologians contend we ought to engage with.
For many in the Reformed tradition seeking to convince people that God exist by pointing to creation is not needed. However, others (myself included) would take a different approach. I agree with the sensus divinitatis and I fully affirm that humans do indeed already know that there is a God and I also agree that presuppositional apologetics is often the ideal approach.
But I disagree that this is always the way to approach conversations. I would contend that one of the ways that God awakens people to their pre-existing knowledge of God is by using Natural Theology.
Ultimately people cannot come to a belief in God without hearing the gospel preached. The apostle Paul makes that clear. (cf. Rom. 10:13-15). However, I would argue that when I am preaching and evangelizing, in addition to giving a clear gospel presentation, one of the things that I can do is point-out the finger prints of God on creation, and allow that to help them see their own folly in suppressing the truth of the knowledge of God.
How Much Can We Learn from Nature?
The question: “How much can we really learn about God from nature?” is one key question when contrasting Aquinas with the Reformed tradition. The other key question: “Is what we learn accurate?”
As stated earlier, when Aquinas argued that a person could reason his way to the knowledge of God, he did not mean a complete and comprehensive knowledge of God. Aquinas knew that General Revelation would be limited.
However, Aquinas contended that there is indeed significant things we can learn about God and his intentions by examining creation, there’s enough there to lead a person to the knowledge of God. What the person learns would be limited, but at least what he learns would be true. Aquinas knew that the knowledge of God that we gain from nature is not as vast or as deep as the knowledge of God we get from Scripture. Nevertheless, Aquinas argued that what we get from nature is true.
According to Aquinas, there is a certain quality and quantity of knowledge that a person can attain through reason and examining nature. Likewise, according to many Reformed theologians there is a certain quality and quantity of knowledge that a person can attain through reason and examining nature. It is safe to say that Aquinas would contend that the quantity and quality of knowledge that a person can attain are greater than what many Reformed theologians would concede.
Natural Theology for Believers
The 19th century Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck said, “[Some give] the impression that the belief in the existence of God comes entirely [from reason],” however, any “proofs” for the existence of God that may come from reasoning will not ever serve as the “source [of] our most certain conviction that God exists.” Bavinck’s sentiment was that Natural Theology will never produce enough evidence to change the mind of an unbeliever and Natural Theology will never give Christians enough evidence to cause us to feel secure or assured in our belief in God.
However, God will certainly supernaturally change the minds of unbelievers!
And God will indeed supernaturally give believers assurance!
These things are not achieved through reason or deep thinking, but by the grace of God and the work of the Holy Spirit.
For Bavinck, and others in the Reformed tradition, a person comes to faith in Christ because of the supernatural work of God in their lives, not because they thought deeply enough to figure it out. In the same way, a believer does not remain committed to the faith because of their deep thinking. That too is supernatural.
“[God] is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy.”
However, most Reformed theologians do not completely discount Aquinas. Bavinck, for example, agreed that the “Scriptures” do indeed “urge us to behold heaven and earth, birds and flowers and lilies, in order that we may see and recognize God in them.” Yes we are to examine the natural world and learn from our examinations, however, Bavinck saw this as something believers ought to do, not something for us to expect from unbelievers.
First and foremost, we discover God’s attributes in Scripture. But in creation we see examples and metaphors and illustrations that can strengthen our understandings of God’s attributes. We cannot discover divine attributes by merely examining and enjoying the natural world, but proper examination and enjoyment of this natural world can strengthen and reinforce what we’ve already learned from Scripture about God. Being intentional in our examination and enjoyment of this natural world can comfort us, encourage us, and strengthen are confidence in God. This is a good use of Natural Theology in the life of the believer.
Many people feel connected to God when they’re in nature. I have several friends that have told me that this is the primary reason they go camping. Examining nature, creation, and the natural order of all things can certainly point us back to God. Allowing the things we examine to remind us about God can be very helpful to us. As the prophet Isaiah said, “Lift up your eyes on high, and see who hath created these.” In addition, examining nature and leveraging Natural Theology can be very helpful in our evangelistic efforts and apologetic conversations.