Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Richard Howe and an interesting thought on the New Atheists

    Richard Howe was my thesis advisor when I was doing my master's at Southern Evangelical Seminary. He is also a great christian philosopher and debater. As such I always enjoy reading his blogposts. If you follow the link that is listed below you will be pleasantly surprised with an interesting critique of the New Atheists. Some people think that philosophers are arguing, pointlessly, about definitions. Well, in most cases definitions are extremely important, and can be the deciding point in whether a position is viable or not. As Howe points out in this article, the New Atheists have painted themselves into a corner with their definitions of Atheism.

God Can Exist Even If Atheism Is True http://quodlibetalblog.wordpress.com/2011/11/15/god-can-exist-even-if-atheism-is-true/

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The Open Theist View of Divine Sovereignty and Human Free-Will

           Open Theism is a fairly new development, and has raised a lot of controversy in theological and philosophical circles. In our exposition of Open Theism we will refer primarily to John Sanders book, The God Who Risks:A Theology of Divine Providence.[1] In this book Sanders points out that his main worry, in his theological endeavor, is to preserve the relationship of true love between God and his creatures.[2] The Open Theist view depends upon placing God within time,[3] and claiming that God actually interacts with man exactly as the Bible portrays his interactions.[4]

Divine Sovereignty

            Open Theism holds that God is indeed in control of the universe, but qualifies that control. “God does not control everything that happens but does control many things.”[5] God’s control consists in creating this world, setting us loose in it, and guaranteeing a happy ending. “God has sovereignly established a type of world in which god sets up general structures or an overall framework for meaning and allows the creatures significant input into exactly how things will turn out. God desires a relationship of love with his creation and so elects to grant it the freedom to enter into a give-and-take relationship with himself. Since God macromanages the overall project (while remaining free to micromanage some things), God takes risks in governing the world.”[6]

            The sovereign God of the open theist is not at all like the God of Calvinism, he is very much the opposite. He creates us, and lets us get on with our lives, waiting, and hoping that we will turn to him for an intimate love relationship. A relationship that he desires so much, but can do nothing to obtain without removing our freedom, or diminishing its value in some important way.

Freedom of Will

            The one thing that Molinism and Open Theism have in common is their view of human freedom. They hold a view which is called Libertarianism. Simply put, Libertarianism claims that a voluntary act is free when, and only when, it is not determined by any antecedent state of affairs. An action is only free if the agent, in performing any action, could have done otherwise. In Sanders own words, “…an agent is free with respect to a given action at a given time if at that time it is within the agent’s power to perform the action and also in the agent’s power to refrain from the action.”[7]

Putting Sovereignty and Free Will Together in Open Theism

            In order to save libertarian free will, and an intimate “give-and-take” relationship between God and his creatures, the open theist redefines Gods sovereignty, and goes to great lengths to justify this view from the Bible. For the open theist there really is no problem with Gods sovereign control over the world, and libertarian free will. This is because God has very little control over the world. Proponents of this view claim that it is not only faithful to the Bible, but that it is also practical for pastoral counseling.[8] However, there are a number of major problems with this view, both hermeneutically, and philosophically.

            The God of Open Theism is in time, as we mentioned earlier, and cannot know future contingent events (if he did then they would not be contingent, but necessary events, because Gods knowledge is immutable and infallible), which means that he finds out what happens at the same time as we do. It is difficult to see how such a view accords with the biblical prophecies about the actions of individuals (such as the Messianic prophecies that were fulfilled in Jesus, or the prophecy about Cyrus), and even of nations and world events. One might try to say, as Sanders does, that God maintains the right to “micromanage” certain things.[9] However, it is difficult to see how such a view is consistent with libertarian freewill. God could be accused of giving us a pseudo-libertarian freewill, as he freely intervenes in world events, taking away the freedom of anyone who might get in the way of his prophetic declarations. God could also be accused of manipulating and coercing the people affected by his predictions so that they do what they are supposed to do. On the open theist view, God is a jealous lover who intervenes in the world’s history, taking away our freedom, whenever necessary, in order to “save face”, and the rest of the time he sits back and waits for us to come to him. Of course, if a little tweaking of certain circumstances is required to bring you to him, then so be it; and if someone’s freedom is removed for a period of time, well, it was worth it to gain a lover.

            A second problem with open theism is that if we follow their hermeneutic, then we must say that not only does God not know the future, but that he also knows no more than we do about current events (Gen. 3:9, 11, 13), and that on top of that, he is a poor planner (Gen. 6:6; Ex. 4:14, 32:14), not even capable of foreseeing potential glitches in his plan. He is as surprise as we are by what happens (Jer. 3:7, 32:35), and can be grieved to the point of wanting to start all over again (Gen. 6:6). He can also get tired (Gen. 2:3), has a bad memory (Gen. 8:1), and has to check out the facts of world events by physically going and examining the circumstances (Gen. 18:1-2, 20-21). Finally, it seems that he is also a poor judge of character, because, he needs to test us to find out if we will trust and obey him (Gen.22).

            One other problem with Open Theism is their view of free will. However, I have already mentioned some of the problems with libertarian freewill when I looked at Molinism.

[1]John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007).

[2]Ibid., 223.

[3]John Sanders, “Divine Suffering in an Openness of God Perspective”, in The Sovereignty of God Debate, ed. by D. Stephen Long and George Kalantzis (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009), 112.

[4]Sanders, The God Who Risks, 224.

[5]Ibid., 227.

[6]Ibid., 225.

[7]Ibid., 235

[8]Gregory A. Boyd, God of thePossible (2000; repr., Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2008), 153-156. Cf. Gregory A. Boyd, “The Open-Theism View”, in DivineForeknowledge: Four Views, ed. by James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 27.

[9]Sanders, The God Who Risks, 225.

Monday, November 28, 2011

A thought on Suicide by C. S. Lewis

    In two previous posts (here, and here) I addressed the question of suicide. In The Problem of Pain C. S. Lewis, says, in a couple sentences what took me two posts to say. He says,
    "'It would be better for me not to exist' -- in what sense 'for me'? How should I, if I did not exist, profit by not existing? (p. 27)"

Molinism and C. S. Lewis

     I gave a brief (perhaps too simple) exposition of Molinism in a previous post. This morning, in reading C. S. Lewis's book The Problem of Pain, I cam across an interesting remark. I don't think that he is addressing the Molinistic theory concerning Divine Sovereignty and Human Free-Will, however, his comment seems to apply to this theory.

    He says, "Perhaps this is not the 'best of all possible' universes, but the only possible one. Possible worlds can mean only 'worlds that God could have made, but didn't'. The idea of that which God 'could have' done involves a too anthropomorphic conception of God's freedom. Whatever human freedom means, Divine freedom cannot mean indeterminacy between alternatives and choice of one of them. Perfect goodness can never debate about the end to be attained, and perfect wisdom cannot debate about the means most suited to achieve it. The freedom of God consists in the fact that no cause other than Himself produces His acts and no external obstacle impedes them -- that His own goodness is the root from which they all grow and His own omnipotence the air in which they all flower. (p. 26-27)"

    I don't think that Lewis had Molinism in mind, I do, however, think that the problem that he brings up about "possible world" talk does point to a major problem with Molinism (as Molinism is founded upon possible worlds). 

The Calvinistic view of Divine Sovereignty and Human free-will

             Calvinism is a view that has been growing in popularity in recent years, due mainly to the writings of some of its most eloquent proponents, John Piper and John MacArthur. Calvinism holds that divine sovereignty and human freewill are compatible. For our exposition of Calvinism we will primarily use the book by Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will,[1] and the book by J. Gresham Machen, The Christian View of Man.[2]

Divine Sovereignty

            Calvinists hold the view that God, by his sovereignty, governs, or determines, all things. Machen says, “How much is embraced in the eternal purpose of God? The true answer to that question is very simple. The true answer is ‘Everything’. Everything that happens is embraced in the eternal purpose of God; nothing at all happens outside of His eternal plan.”[3] In fact, Gods providence extends to even the free acts of his creatures. “According to the Bible, God governs all, and the Bible is particularly clear in teaching that He determines the voluntary acts of His creatures.”[4] God’s foreknowledge is that by which he predetermined everything that happens in this world, from before time began, even the future free acts of voluntary creatures.[5]

Freedom of Will

            Jonathan Edwards’s book, The Freedom of the Will, is the authoritative work on the subject of free will for Calvinism. In this book he purports to explain what it means to say that man has free will, and that God knows all things before they happen, before he even created the world. In defining human freedom of will he begins by defining the will, and then defines freedom.

            Edwards defines freedom as “The power, opportunity, or advantage, that anyone has, to do as he pleases…being free from hindrance or impediment in the way of doing, or conducting in any respect, as he wills.”[6] Freedom, for the Calvinist, is only related to the will in the sense that the agent is free if the agent is not hindered in pursuing the object of the will. The will, however, can be determined without removing the freedom of the agent. Regardless of how a person’s will is determined, the agent is free as long as he is not hindered in pursuing, or acting upon his will.

            Edwards defines the will as “that by which the mind chooses anything.”[7] Concerning the determination of the will, Edwards says that “the will is said to be determined, when, in consequence of some action, or influence, its choice is directed to, and fixed upon a particular object.”[8]

            For the Calvinist, then, freedom of the will means that an agent with the power to do as he pleases (to act freely) is not hindered in pursuing the object of his will. The will of an agent can be determined, or directed, towards something, without removing the agent’s freedom.

Putting Calvinistic Sovereignty and Free Will Together

            The claim of Calvinism is that God determines everything, even the will of every voluntary agent. Man, however, does not lose his freedom when God determines man’s will, because God does not hinder man, in any way, from pursuing and achieving that which God wills man to will. In other words, God determines the will of each voluntary agent, who then acts freely on his predetermined will. Machen says of God, “He does not cause them to do those things against their will, but He determines their will, and their freedom as persons is fully preserved when they perform those acts.”[9] Therefore, the Calvinist claims that divine sovereignty and human free will are indeed compatible. However, Calvinism’s view of free will would be more appropriately entitled, “human freedom of action”.

            The best example that we could use of the Calvinistic view would be that of a modern vacuum cleaner robot. Its purpose and “will”, so to say, are predetermined by the programmer, but in the action of vacuuming, the robot moves freely. Its actions are free due to the fact that it is not hindered in performing the actions that it “wills”. Nobody is moving it, it is moving by itself. On the Calvinistic explanation of free will, this robot could be said to have “free will”.

            Such a conception of free will is at best a pseudo-freedom, for though I am claiming to be technically “free” in my actions; my actions are determined by my will. However, my will is determined by God. Therefore, if my will is determined by God, and my actions are determined by my will, then all my actions are determined by God. This of course, removes any responsibility that I might be said to have for my actions. Can someone really be held responsible for actions that he did not freely, and personally, choose to perform? If I am not responsible for my actions, then how can I be judged according to my actions? In light of this serious problem, we can conclude that Calvinism does not give an adequate answer to the problem of sovereignty and freedom, so, we will now look at Open Theism.

[1]Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will (1757; repr., Goodyear, AZ: Diggory Press, 2008).

[2]J. Gresham Machen, The Christian View of Man (1937; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1995).

[3]Ibid., 35.

[4]Ibid., 39.

[5]Edwards, 66, 78-9.

[6]Ibid., 23.

[7]Ibid., 7.

[8]Ibid., 9.

[9]Machen, 44.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Great Article by Paul Helm on John Piper

     For a while now I've been intrigued by John Piper's teaching about finding pleasure in God. I heard him preach about it in Montreal a couple years ago, and couldn't help thinking that there was something about his teaching that wasn't quite right. Piper is a reformed pastor, last night, through Steve Cowan (http://cowanchronicles.blogspot.com/) I came across the following article by Paul Helm (a reformed theologian teaching at Regent College in Vancouver). In this article he confirms my suspicions and explains what seemed strange about Piper's teaching. I would encourage everybody who has ever come in contact with Piper, either through his books or sermons, to read this article.

Helm's Deep: Christian Hedonism: Further Thoughts

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Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Molinistic view of Divine Sovereignty and Human Free-Will

       There are four major views of Divine Sovereignty and Human Free-will. They are Calvinism, Open Theism, Molinism and the Thomistic view. They are all trying to explain the question of how to explain divine sovereignty and human free-will. In this post I will give a brief exposition and explanation of the Molinistic view. In my explanation of Molinism I will primarily refer to works by Thomas P. Flint and William Lane Craig, who are some of the leading scholars who hold to the Molinistic theory.

Divine Sovereignty

       The Molinist view of sovereignty sits squarely within the traditional view. Flint describes the traditional view as follows, “Divine control over all that occurs, along with both foreknowledge and knowledge of counterfactuals of creaturely freedom, are non-negotiable elements of a sound doctrine of providence.”[1] Flint further elaborates on the traditional view in his book, where he says, “…to see God as provident is to see him as knowingly and lovingly directing each and every event involving each and every creature toward the ends he has ordained for them.”[2]

       Put simply, to say that God is sovereign is to say that he is in complete control of everything that happens in the universe, everywhere, and all the time, from the movement of the planets to the free decisions of all voluntary creatures, directing everything according to his divine wisdom and goodness.

 Freedom of Will

            Molinism is the only credible orthodox system by which one is able to maintain that God is sovereign in the traditional sense, and that man has libertarian free will. Libertarianism has already been described, but for the sake of letting each position speak for itself, and due to an important aspect that Flint brings out, we will quote Flint’s description of libertarian freewill. “…the basic idea is that external determination of a person’s action (especially causal determination by some factor not subject to the person’s causal control) is incompatible with the action’s being free…The central idea here seems to be that my actions (or at least my free actions) are the ones that I initiate and control.”[3] Libertarianism holds that in any set of circumstances, the agent ‘A’ is free, if and only if, no antecedent state of affairs, ‘P’, can determine the agent’s actions or decisions, ‘D’.[4]

Putting the Molinistic View of Sovereignty and Free Will Together

            Molinism is not a theological system; rather it is an attempt to solve the problem of sovereignty and free will. Molinism solves the problem by positing the existence of “middle knowledge” in God. The argument is as follows.

            First of all, God has knowledge of all necessary truths and all possible worlds. This is called Gods natural knowledge. This knowledge is of every possible action, thought, event, and all possible variations of all things. Secondly, as traditional Christian Theism affirms, God has immutable and perfect knowledge of everything that will happen, does happen, and has happened. This second type of knowledge is called God’s free knowledge, and is the source of the problem that we are examining. The molinist, in order to solve this problem, posits a third type of knowledge in God, middle knowledge. Middle knowledge is knowledge of everything that would happen, just in case, God created a certain world.[5]

            Based upon these three types of knowledge, the Molinist goes on to say that God, from knowledge of what could happen knows all that would happen if he created any particular possible world. God then declares that one possible world, with all that happens in it, come into existence. He is therefore, seen to be fully sovereign, having declared everything that happens from before time, without removing libertarian freewill. We have libertarian free will not only because God does not make us act, or make us will, but also because there is no set of antecedent truths that determine our action. God simply creates a world in which you perform exactly what he decreed that you would perform, because he decreed what he knew that you would do in the circumstances (in the world) that he created. 

            This view has its obvious merits, however, Robert C. Koons advances an argument against Molinism that claims to show that Molinism is actually determinism disguised as indeterminism. He says, “Is the middle fact about what he [the agent in question, in the case of Koons article—Adam in the garden of Eden] would do under such circumstances causally prior to his actual, future refusal? It’s hard for me to see how the Molinist can avoid answering that these middle facts are causally prior to the corresponding actual choices. God knew all these middle facts before creating anything at all.” [6]

            Putting the problems of middle knowledge itself aside, libertarian freedom is, in my view, the greatest downfall of Molinism. If libertarian freedom is true, then there is no way, even given middle knowledge, that God could know that an agent would perform action A instead of action A1 or A2 or A3, ad infinitum. This is due to the fact that libertarianism claims that no antecedent state of affairs, “especially causal determination by some factor not subject to the person’s causal control”,[7] can have any causal influence on the decisions or actions of the agent. This can be taken to mean that nothing about the mind-exterior world, nothing about a person’s character, nothing about a person’s upbringing, nothing about a person’s desires or personal preferences, or previously determined goals, can determine the person’s choice or action in any given set of circumstances. Therefore, God has no way to know what an agent would do in any given circumstance. In order to know such a thing, he would have to know the character of the agent, or his needs, goals, and desires, but these are all part of the antecedent state of affairs that cannot determine the agent’s goals in any way.

            Perhaps the molinist is willing to accept this problem, there may be answers to this problem, which might satisfy molinists, however we do not have enough space in this article to consider them. 


[1]Thomas P. Flint, “Divine Providence”, in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology, ed. by Thomas P. Flint and Michael C. Rea (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 274.

[2]Thomas P. Flint, Divine Providence: The Molinist Account (1998; repr., Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006),12.

[3]Flint, “Divine Providence”, in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology, 265. Note that the “central idea”, according to Flint, is very similar to Aquinas’s view, as we will see later. Italics mine.

[4]A ↔[(P→D) & (P→~D)]

[5]William Lane Craig, “The Middle-Knowledge View”, in Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views, ed. by James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 121-23.

[6]Robert C. Koons, “Dual Agency: A Thomistic Account of Providence and Human Freedom”, in Philosophia Christi, 4.2 (2002), 401.

[7]Flint, “Divine Providence”, in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology, 265.  The term “especially” in this quote implies that no determination, not just causal, but any type of determination. In other words, when we say “especially”, we mean, “especially…, but not limited to…”.

Friday, November 25, 2011

How Descartes Influences us even Today

    Anybody that is familiar with Rene Descartes is familiar with his "clear & distinct ideas". In attempting to construct a perfect science, Descartes tore down the structures of philosophy and theology that preceded him, and sought to build a perfect science based upon clear and distinct ideas. So, he found that the clearest and most distinct idea that he could discover, that which he could not doubt in any way, was Cogito ergo Sum. I think, therefore, I am.

     Jacques Maritain, in the book Three Reformers, quotes Bossuet as follows: "Under the pretext that we must not accept anything but what we understand clearly - which, within certain limits, is very true - everyone gives himself liberty to say, 'I understand this, and I do not understand that,' and on this sole basis they admit and reject whatever they like. (p. 75)"

     There are many things that we, as humans, and due to our natural limitations, cannot understand. Some such things include what it means to be eternal, how it is possible for Jesus to be at the same time fully God and fully man, what it means to say that God is triune. There are, perhaps, many more subjects that we cannot fully understand. However, there is a difference between something being a subject that we can't, due to the limits of human nature, understand, and something being a subject that is very difficult to understand. There are an innumerable number of subjects that are so difficult to understand that only a few humans may ever attain an understanding of them, but, these subjects, though not easily understood, are not, for all that, beyond our reach.

    A disturbing trend that I have noticed in the church is summed up by the following phrase, "X is beyond me. But, there are some things that we were not meant to fully comprehend..." (X is a place holder into which you can insert any number of doctrinal or philosophical subjects.) The remark by Bossuet is directly to the point, just because I don't understand something doesn't mean that I can reject it as false, or put it in the pile of the impossible, or mysterious. (This seems to be one of the many ways in which Descartes has influenced the contemporary church.) On the contrary, we should not allow our personal incomprehension of any given subject to get in the way of our potentially learning some vital truths. The joy of being human, of being rational, is the joy of discovery.

    Those things that the human mind is unable to discover, which are necessary for our salvation, have been revealed to us, by God, in the Bible. Aside from these things, which we cannot arrive at by deduction, we should not count anything as being incomprehensible. If something is difficult to understand, let us roll up our sleeves and seek truth.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Jacques Maritain on Personality

    In the course of my research on Descartes I stumbled across the book "Three Reformers: Luther, Descartes & Rousseau" by Jacques Maritain. His remarks about personality are quite interesting. He gives a quote from Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, who says,

    "the full development of our poor personality consists in losing it in some way in that of God, Who alone possesses personality in the perfect sense of the word, for He alone is absolutely independent in His being and action. (p. 24-25)"

    He says, a little bit later, "But did the saints set out to develop their personality? They found it without seeking it, because they did not seek it, but God alone. They understood that their person, just in so far as it was person, in so far as it was free, was complete dependence on God, and that the inner mastery over our acts which we cannot resign to man or angel they must deliver into the hands of God, by Whose Spirit they must be moved in order to be His sons. (p. 25-26)"

    Earlier he noted that a person is a complete substance that is rational in nature and is the source of its actions (p. 19). Personality, then, is the spiritual side of us, the intellectual or rational side of us. As such we should not be seeking to find our personality in others, or in what we do, but in God alone.

Monday, November 21, 2011

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”.



[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.