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Natural Theology and John MacArthur

      I recently attended a Christian Conference in Montreal whose purpose was to lay doctrinal foundations for Quebec Christians, encouraging them in their faith. One of the main speakers, John MacArthur,[1] started off the conference with a sermon on the importance of Faith. The purpose of his sermon was to show that faith is absolutely necessary for salvation. In the introduction to his sermon he attempted to contrast what he was about to present with some opposing views.  He began his sermon with the following definition (This is only a paraphrase). "Natural Theology is commonly understood as man's attempt to get to God through the use of his own powers of reasoning." He continued by stating that Natural Theology is seen to be a way of attaining one's salvation through man's capacity for reasoning. He next mentioned Clark Pinnock and Billy Graham as having made the claim that everyone, or at least those who have never heard the gospel, get to go to heaven.[2] MacArthur claimed that these thoughts all find their source in the works of Aquinas and Aristotle.


      I felt that it was necessary to correct this error. To do so, I think that it is simply necessary to point out what Natural Theology is, and what those who do Natural Theology have to say about it. Before I get to the quotes, I would like to point out that Natural Theology is not, as MacArthur said, man’s attempt to get to God through the use of his power’s of reasoning. Natural Theology is the collected knowledge (albeit, imperfect knowledge) of God that can be gleaned from God’s creation. It is knowledge of a cause gleaned through its effect. This knowledge cannot save anyone from their sins, it cannot make anyone worthy to enter into God’s presence, and it cannot justify anyone in Gods sight. On the contrary, as Paul makes quite clear in Romans 1:19-20 “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.”[3] Paul makes it eminently clear that man can glean knowledge about the creator from the creation, but, that far from providing salvation, such knowledge only becomes the source of their condemnation. This is Natural Theology, it is man’s use of his powers of reasoning, given to him by God, in seeking to know, through creation, what can be known about God, the creator. That is it, that is all. Let us look at what some other authors have said about Natural Theology.

     In the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, Natural Theology is defined as, “theology that uses the methods of investigation and standards of rationality of any other area of philosophy. Traditionally, the central problems of natural theology are proofs for the existence of God and the problem of evil.”[4] In the article concerning the philosophy of religion it is noted that “A proof of the existence of God would yield such knowledge [knowledge that God exists], and it is the task of natural theology to evaluate arguments that purport to be such proofs. As opposed to revealed theology, natural theology restricts the assumptions fit to serve as premises in its arguments to things naturally knowable by humans, i.e., knowable without special revelation from supernatural sources.”[5] The author goes on to note that some have attempted to create, from natural theology, a natural religion. Perhaps it is to this natural religion that MacArthur is referring (of course it is always dangerous to attempt to explain what an author is thinking, or intending).

     In Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, we are told that “Theologia naturalis as it is now understood is a theology constructed irrespective of revelation...The role allowed it in Christian theology has therefore been subsidiary, and usually preparatory, to the theology of revelation. This is so whether as “pre-ambles” in Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theolo., I, q. 2, art. 2), or as analogy, for example, in Butler (The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature).”[6] Though the author seems to look with disdain upon the practice of Natural Theology his remark is important. Natural Theology, for the Christian, is a pre-amble to faith.

     In The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought, Natural Theology is described as, “the knowledge of God (and perhaps also of related topics, such as the immortality of the soul) accessible to all rational human being without recourse to any special or supposedly supernatural revelation...The expression ‘natural theology’ (theologia naturalis) seems to have been first used by Augustine with reference to the deepest theological insights of the classical philosophers, insights which in some respects Augustine could acknowledge as anticipating the teaching about God in the ‘theologia supernaturalis’ of Christianity (Jaeger, 1947, pp. 1-44.) Many other patristic writers had used arguments from pre-Christian philosophers in their theological writings.”[7] Many of the early church fathers were Neo-Platonists, and used arguments coming from Neo-Platonic Philosophers to prove the existence of God. Discussing what Natural Theology meant to Aquinas, the author says, “In Aquinas, natural theology has an auxiliary function, as leading the reader from everyday experience to the specific experience of being addressed by the Christian revelation.”[8] At the end of the article the author concludes that, “In Christian theology, its role must always be subordinate, though perhaps in an age like the present one, it needs to be given more prominence.”[9]

     In The Christian Theology Reader, Alister McGrath compiles and comments on a number of citations from great theologians throughout the ages. He quotes John Calvin from the first part of his institutes saying, “There is within the human mind, and that by natural instinct, a sense of divinity [divinitatis sensus]. This we take to be beyond controversy. So that no one might take refuge in the pretext of ignorance.”[10] In his comment on the issue McGrath has this to say, “Calvin is often presented as an opponent of natural theology. However, it is important to read Calvin and let him speak his own mind on the matter of a natural knowledge of God. Many twentieth-century theologians base their understanding of Calvin on the historical sections of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics, which portray Calvin as being uniformly hostile to natural theology. In fact this is quite misleading.”[11]

    In a book, which I have already commented on in an earlier post, in which the author compares and contrasts the thought of Thomas Aquinas and the thought of John Calvin, on faith and reason, we read the following: “To sum up, our concern was to determine Calvin’s attitude toward natural theology. He clearly has no use for it, but to say only this is to miss the point. In fact, he never discusses natural theology explicitly. We must deduce that he rejects it from the fact that he rejects philosophy as a whole...Calvin’s rejection of philosophy is rooted in his education and outlook as a humanist...As we noted, Aquinas also insists that the philosophers cannot reach the truth about God that we all need in order to be saved, and yet his attitude toward philosophers and philosophy is completely different from Calvin’s.”[12] He has much more to say on this topic, but, as I said in a previous post, get the book and read it. It’s well worth the time it will take to read it.

     According to Winfried Corduan, a well-known Christian philosopher and apologist, “Natural theology comprises a set of conclusions about God and the world based on a general revelation which God has made universally available to mankind. We contrast natural theology with revealed theology which bases itself on God’s special revelation in Christ and in Scripture. Natural theology relies on information apart from those particular sources of revelation. That means natural theology becomes very philosophical, utilizing reason and common insights.”[13]

     C. Stephen Evans, in discussing what he will call Natural Theology, says, “First one must determine whether God exists, and then one can go on to ask whether God has revealed himself through special events and people. This attempt to determine the truth of theism without assuming the standpoint of a particular religion we shall term natural theology, or philosophical theology. The natural theologian attempts to see what can be known about God independently of any special religious authority.”[14] It is important to note, Evans goes on to mention this, that, quite frequently, those Christians who would reject Natural Theology as being either wrong, or useless, do so because they tend towards a fideistic view of Christianity (faith alone is important, reason is worthless). Perhaps part of the confusion comes from an error concerning the relation between faith and reason (see my posts here, here, and here).

     William Lane Craig says, “The burden of natural theology is to provide arguments and evidence in support of theism, or the existence of God.”[15] Later on, in the same book, Craig mentions the attack on Natural Theology which comes from the Reformed (Calvinist) side of Protestantism. He notes, primarily, Alvin Plantinga’s arguments against Natural Theology.[16] On these points the comment that we cited above, by McGrath, is particularly interesting. In their book, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, Craig and J. P. Moreland say that Natural Theology is, “that branch of theology that seeks to prove God’s existence apart from the resources of authoritative divine revelation.”[17]

     Alister McGrath, in the book The Open Secret: A New Vision for Natural Theology, says this “Natural theology can broadly be understood as the systematic exploration of a proposed link between the everyday world of our experience and another asserted transcendent reality.”[18] He says, a little later, that “A Christian natural theology is thus about seeing nature in a specific manner, which enables the truth, beauty, and goodness of God to be discerned, and which acknowledges nature as a legitimate, authorized, and limited pointer to the divine.”[19] He later cites James Barr’s definition of Natural Theology, “Traditionally, ‘natural theology’ has commonly meant something like this: that ‘by nature,’ that is, just by being human beings, men and women have a certain degree of knowledge of God and awareness of him, or at least a capacity for such awareness; and this knowledge or awareness exists anterior to the special revelation of God made through Jesus Christ, through the church, through the Bible.”[20]

    Ronald Nash, a well-known Reformed philosopher and theologian, wrote this, “Natural theology is an attempt to discover arguments that will prove or otherwise provide warrant for belief in God without appealing to special revelation, e.g., the Bible.”[21] Nash does not think that natural theology is necessary as he thinks that belief in God is properly basic. The point that I would like to make by quoting Ronald Nash, is that his definition of natural theology is nothing at all like the definition that John MacArthur gives us. Nash correctly defines natural theology though he does not think that it is necessary for Christian faith.

     Norman Geisler, in the Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, defines Natural theology as, “the study of God based on what one can know from nature...Natural theology depends on the rational arguments for God’s existence and nature. Most natural theologians, following Thomas Aquinas, believe that one can know the existence, unity, and general nature of God from natural revelation. However the triunity of God, incarnation of Christ, and redemption can only be known by supernatural revelation.”[22]

     Up to this point I have remained strictly within the realms of non-Thomistic definitions of Natural Theology (with Norman Geisler being the only flagrant exception). The primary reason is that I wanted to demonstrate that MacArthur definition does not coincide with any modern protestant, or traditional, view of natural theology. I will now quote a number of the leading Thomistic scholars on the subject of Natural Theology, in order to show that MacArthur does not get this definition from the Thomistic view either.

     Norman Kretzmann, a well-known authority on thomistic philosophy explains that the agenda of natural theology is “investigating, by means of analysis and argument, at least the existence and nature of God, and in a fuller development, the relation of everything else – especially human nature and behaviour – to God considered as reality’s first principle.”[23] Note that there is no mention of salvation, or working one’s way to God. Natural theology is man’s attempt to understand what can be known about God, and his creation, from his creation. A little later Kretzmann notes that “Natural theology is as old as the rest of philosophy, and the most familiar sort of criticism of it must be almost equally ancient, because it’s just the sort that any philosophical undertaking is bound to generate within philosophy itself. The methods of natural theology are analysis and argument, the methods of the rest of philosophy; and, like any other branch of philosophy, natural theology submits its results to rational assessment.”[24]

     Another well-known author says, “Aquinas devotes the first three books of Summa contra gentiles to a systematic development of natural theology, which he saw as a part of philosophy (cf. ST Ia.1.1 ad 2). As part of philosophy, natural theology must of course be based entirely on ‘principles known by the natural light of intellect’, principles of the sort that underlie Aristotle’s metaphysics, which Aristotle himself thought of as culminating in theology.”[25] Though certain knowledge about God, and creation, is possible from creation, it is, however, impossible to learn what one needs to know to be saved, from creation. That which is necessary to salvation is found in revealed revelation – the Bible. “There are propositions that belong uniquely to revealed theology’s subject matter...no doctrinal proposition that is initially available to human beings only in virtue of having been revealed by God can be part of natural theology’s subject matter.”[26]

     Gerard Smith says, “Natural Theology is the knowledge about God in the light of human reason. Revealed Theology is knowledge about God which is illuminated by the light of supernatural Faith. The distinction is valid as between Natural and Revealed Theology.”[27]

     Maurice R. Holloway gives the most complete definition of Natural Theology that we have yet seen, “The material subject of natural theology, then, will be God. For it is concerning the existence and nature of God that the natural theologian wishes to draw his conclusions and make his predications. But what will be his formal subject, what will be the point of view from which he treats of God? It will be God insofar as he is knowable from through the light of natural reason alone, apart from any revelation God may have made concerning himself. That is to say, it will be God as knowable through the being of creatures; in a word, God as the first principle and proper cause of being, as the pure act of subsistent existence. The material object of natural theology will be the conclusions or truths which we can learn of God as first cause of being, and the formal object will be those intelligible principles in being, and thus our knowledge of being, because of which we can arrive at our material object, namely, those truths we can know about God through reason alone, such as his existence, his unity, his power, and so forth.”[28]

    Before I conclude this survey, I would like to quote Thomas Aquinas on the reasons why it was necessary for God to give to man divine revelation. This quote, found at the very beginning of the Summa Theologiae, demonstrates Aquinas’s views on Natural Theology and divine revelation.[29] “Hence it was necessary for the salvation of man that certain truths which exceed human reason should be made known to him by divine revelation. Even as regards those truths about God which human reason could have discovered, it was necessary that man should be taught by a divine revelation; because the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors. Whereas man’s whole salvation, which is in God, depends upon the knowledge of this truth. Therefore, in order that the salvation of men might be brought about more fitly and more surely, it was necessary that they should be taught divine truths by divine revelation.”[30] There is a lot that could be said, and that has been said about this small passage of the Summa. I will content myself with simply noting two things. First of all, Aquinas claims that there is something that man can know about God through creation, but that, that which can be known is extremely difficult to discover, and would only be known by a few. On top of that, that which could be known about God through his creation cannot bring men to salvation. Secondly, salvation, which is only found in God, is revealed only in the Bible. It cannot be discovered through nature, it cannot be arrived at by deduction from creation, it is revealed to man in divine revelation. Therefore, for Aquinas, there most certainly is such a thing as natural theology, but it most certainly cannot bring anyone to salvation. Salvation is from God alone, and is revealed only in scripture – divine revelation.

      We have surveyed a number of scholars, spanning through all kinds of theological and philosophical stances. In none of these views have we been able to find anything similar to MacArthur’s claims. Have there been people who claimed that natural theology could bring mankind to salvation without faith? I won’t deny it. However, such a view is far from the traditional view of natural theology, a view that began in the early church and continues to be the predominant view even today. Natural theology is, contrary to Ronald Nash, a necessary and important part of Christian Apologetics. In natural theology we present to man, arguments that are designed to prove God’s existence, divine power and divine nature (Romans 1:19-20). It is not a system to be attacked, but a method of apologetics that should be embraced and used by Christian apologists (it goes without saying that the great majority of Christian apologists have engaged in at least some form of natural theology).


[1]It is the unfortunate habit of some Christian authors to bash their opponent as they are in the process of refuting what they perceive to be a false claim. I do not wish to be accused of such an act. Therefore, I would like to explain why it is that I mention the name of the author. Due to the nature of the subject, as we will see, anybody who is familiar with Natural Theology, when they see the claim that MacArthur makes, will respond by saying, “Who says that? Nobody who does Natural Theology makes that claim.” If I say, “a well-known author says ...”, the response will be, “No! Nobody says that!”. I am, therefore, obligated to point out that there is indeed someone who says this. When I heard him make the claim that I explain above I just about fell out of my chair. My reaction was, “Who says that? Nobody thinks that.” I am inclined to think that the reason that MacArthur makes the claim mentioned above is simply a misunderstanding of terminology. Perhaps he read it somewhere; however he gave no citations or sources, so I am unsure where he found such a definition. This error does not, I don’t think, remove any credibility from his other works which are for the most part well-written commentaries.

[2]I make no claim to have seen for myself the quotes that MacArthur mentioned, nor to know what these authors have said. I will not be discussing these claims.

[3]All Bible quotes will be from the English Standard Version (ESV) unless otherwise noted.

[4]The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy,2nd ed., s.v.  “theologia naturalis”.

[5]Ibid., s.v. “philosophy of religion”.

[6]Baker’s Dictionary of Theology, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1960), s.v. “Natural Theology”.

[7]Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought, (1993; repr., Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000), s.v. “natural theology”.

[8]Ibid.

[9]Ibid.

[10]John Calvin, Institutes I.iii.1, 2; in Joannis: Opera Selecta, ed. P. Barth and W. Niesel, vol. 3 (Munich: Kaiser Verlag, 1928), 37.16-46.11, quoted in Alister E. McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 101.

[11]Alister E. McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader,3rd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 101.

[12]ArvinVos, Aquinas, Calvin, & ContemporaryProtestant Thought (Washington D.C.: Christian University Press, 1985), 122.
[14]C.Stephen Evans, Philosophy of Religion:Thinking About Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 38.

[15]WilliamLane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 2nd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994), xv

[16]Ibid., 28-37.


[18]AlisterMcGrath, The Open Secret: A New Visionfor Natural Theology (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008), 2.

[19]Ibid., 5.

[20]JamesBarr, Biblical Faith and Natural Theology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993 ), 1, quoted in Alister McGrath, The Open Secret: A New Vision for Natural Theology (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008), 10.
[21]RonaldNash, Faith & Reason: Searching for aRational Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1988), 93.

[22]Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (1999; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: 2006), s. v. “Natural Theology”.

[24]Ibid., 3.

[25]EleonoreStump, Aquinas (New York: Routledge, 2003), 26.

[26]Ibid., 30.

[27]GerardSmith, Natural Theology: Metaphysics II (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1951), 18.

[28]MauriceR. Holloway, An Introduction to NaturalTheology (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1959), 16.

[29]I should note that, given this quote, it seems that MacArthur has never, himself, read Aquinas. Otherwise he would not have made the claims that he did.

[30]ThomasAquinas, Summa Theologica (1911; repr., Notre Dame, IN: Christian Classics, 1981), 1.

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