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Natural Theology vs Theology of Nature

In Ian Barbour’s Typology of the possible relationships between science and religion he uses these two similar terms.

Natural theology is traditionally understood as the consideration of what can be known about God without the aid of revelation, i.e. from consideration of the created world in general, aided by reason.

Whereas Barbour’s theology of nature ‘starts from a religious tradition based on religious experience and historical revelation. But it holds that some traditional doctrines need to be reformulated in the light of current science.’Religion and Science (London: SCM Press, 1998) p100The framing of a theology of nature is in fact what most of the contemporary writers in the science-and-religion field are engaged upon.

Most Christian natural theology has stemmed in one way or other from the work of Thomas Aquinas. Two of his arguments for the existence of God have stimulated particular interest among those concerned with science: the cosmological argument (that all change must stem from a necessary, self-existent being who is the First Cause of all phenomena in the universe) and the teleological argument (that order and intelligibility and apparent purpose in nature imply a rational designer). Much of the science done in the late 17th and the 18th Centuries was motivated by a desire to learn more of the nature of this ordering designer-divinity.See God, Humanity and the Cosmos pp32-33However, the teleological argument was the subject of a devastating attack by David Hume (1711-76), who pointed out for example that our experience of the world does not rule out its order having arisen by chance, or indeed there being not one but many designers.

Arguments for the existence of God from apparent design in nature persisted, but were finally laid to rest by the work of Charles Darwin (1809-82).See God, Humanity and the Cosmos, pp140-42Arguments for a different sort of divine designer then developed, but they were arguments from presuppositions about God, rather than attempts to prove God’s existence or character.There is a good discussion of this in John Brooke’s Science and Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp310-17

The cosmological argument has also received much critical scrutiny from the time of Kant on, and it must now be accepted that what we know about the universe can never demonstrate whether it has a cause, or whether its existence is ultimately inexplicable.

The demise of natural theology, and its partial rebirth as ‘a philosophical theology or new style natural theology’ are well analysed by John Macquarrie.Principles of Christian Theology (London: SCM Press, 1977, 2nd revised edn) Ch.2The central point to note is that those authors claiming to revive natural theology tend to do so in a way which is ‘descriptive instead of deductive’Macquarrie, 1977, 56A good example concerns the ‘anthropic coincidences’. Commenting on the notion that the universe appears to be fine-tuned so as to produce life, John Polkinghorne calls this not a demonstration of the existence or the nature of God but merely ‘a fact of interest calling for an explanation.’Reason and Reality (London, SCM Press, 1991) p78 - see also anthropic design arguments.The boldest attempt to reinvoke natural theology in our own time is that of Richard Swinburne who claims not that what we know of the universe demonstrates God, but that it renders theism more probable than not.See God, Humanity and the Cosmos pp58-61

Email link | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Christopher Southgate
Source: God, Humanity and the Cosmos  (T&T Clark, 1999)

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