Here’s a special edition Sunday Quote which features a more extended discussion. Let me know what you think in the comments.
Is Natural Theology Excluded for Apologetics?
Paul Molnar’s Faith, Freedom and the Spirit is a massive study on the Trinity–specifically the economic Trinity–with much insight from contemporary theology. Early on, Molnar makes a statement which, as a trained Christian apologist, seemed a bit like “fightin’ words”:
If contemporary theologians were to make explicit the role of the Holy Spirit in enabling our knowledge of the triune God, then there could be wide agreement that natural theology of whatever stripe is not only unhelpful but is directly excluded from any serious understanding of theological epistemology. (82)
Now, “natural theology” is, according to Justo Gonzalez’s Essential Theological Terms, “A theology that claims to be based on the natural gifts of the human mind, and on the ‘general revelation’ granted to all… rather than on a ‘special revelation’ in Scripture or Jesus Christ” (118). Natural theology, that is, is the attempt to show that God exists and certain other truths through looking at the world. From this quote, it seems that Molnar is arguing that if we had a better notion of the role of the Holy Spirit, we would basically think that natural theology is worthless related to knowledge of God.
Molnar develops this notion further throughout the next 50 pages or so. His argument basically is that if we acknowledge that it is the Holy Spirit who enables faith and knowledge of God, then any “knowledge” of God which is not directly through faith (i.e. through something like a cosmological argument) is not objective knowledge of God.
Although some of what Molnar argues resonates with me–particularly the notion that the Holy Spirit is the one who imparts faith rather than it being some kind of choice we make–I think that his dismissal of natural theology is unnecessary and mistaken. First, the most obvious question to be asked is whether the Spirit can use natural theology to create faith. If it is the case that the Holy Spirit can work through natural theology–something which seems to be clearly correct to me–then the objection that natural theology ignores the role of the Spirit is mistaken.
Second, Molnar’s argument seems to rely on a concept of natural theology which is entirely about trying to impart knowledge of God to those who do not have faith. This, however, ignores the use of apologetics in strengthening the faith of believers. Natural theology can be a valuable tool for those who have faith to pursue the call of 1 Peter 3:15 and have a reason for the hope within them. Whatever one’s view of whether natural theology can bring people to the true God, it seems that it can and should be used for believers to explore the natural world and bolster their faith.
Third and finally, it seems to me that Romans 1 in particular demonstrates that natural theology is not a worthless project. If God’s invisible attributes are capable of being discovered in the things God has made, then surely natural theology has some value in tracing God’s handiwork.
Should we think that natural theology is a failed project? Can it have other uses like those I listed? Is it possible to go from God to Christ? What of the role of the Spirit in apologetics?
Faith, Freedom and the Spirit is a thoroughly thought-provoking read which I recommend to those interested in the doctrine of the Trinity. It has certainly gotten my wheels turning!
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Paul D. Molnar, Faith, Freedom and the Spirit (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2015).
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Reblogged this on Talmidimblogging.
You are confusing and conflating natural theology with natural revelation. Romans 1 teaches natural revelation. Not natural theology. They are vastly different from one another. This is from the heart, if you can forget our first meeting for a moment. Biola is disastrous on topics like this. I’m not being sarcastic now at all.
I’m pretty sure, but not absolutely certain that this is the one I was looking for.
Time to get ready for church.
Natural revelation provides the data which natural theology interprets. The moment I look at the wonders of the night sky and say “these declare the glory of their maker” I have engaged in natural theology. When we derive the “invisible attributes” of God from nature, that is the practice of doing natural theology.
Ad hominems and blanket condemnations of institutions will not be tolerated. Please cease these practices if you wish to keep commenting.
Enjoyed the thought provoking post.
Also excited that my library has the Gonzoles book you referenced http://sfot.ind.opalsinfo.net/bin/search/recDetailPage?sf0=1016&kw0=Justo+Essential+Theological+Terms&sortAttr=31&sortOrder=1&zid=&languageFilter=&formatFilter=&authorFilter=&subjectFilter=&deweyFilter=&eraFilter=&genreFilter=&callnumberPrefixFilter=&pNum=1&recRsPos=0
That’s fantastic! It’s a pretty solid book for referencing terms and explaining them. Fairly comprehensive in scope. There are a few things I could wish for more or better details but I’ve found it a very helpful work.
Regarding your first objection, it seems that, if the Holy Spirit is working through natural theology, then it is the Holy Spirit at work, not the natural theology. Can not the Spirit also work through the circumstances in our lives, interactions with non-believers, etc? What places natural theology on any better footing than say, interaction with atheists, or the experience of natural struggles, if it is really the Holy Spirit at work?
Regarding your second point, it does seem reasonable that natural theology can be a tool to bolster faith. But like any natural effort, it is bound to be imperfect, and may also serve to challenge one’s faith if used incorrectly. In my opinion, it should never be used as a replacement for experiencing God individually and personally. Unfortunately, it seems like that very thing sometimes happens, at least in my experience.
Regarding your third point, it does seem to point to natural thinking, unless one takes the view that the Holy Spirit can work through such observations of the natural world even in the hearts of unbelievers. In that case, it is still the Holy Spirit at work, isn’t it?
The importance of spiritual discernment (aka the involvement of the Holy Spirit) in knowing God and His ways seems to be a theme that runs through Scripture, from the explicit example of Elijah’s servant in 2 Kings 6:17, to the Psalmist’s repeated plea for God to give him understanding (ie, Psalm 119:12, 18, 26, 27, 29, 33-38, 64, 66, 68, 73, 108, 144, 169, 171), to the importance of the Spirit’s role in 1 Corinthians 2. Admittedly, these are not necessarily the same thing as theological understanding, but I’m wondering to what extent there is a spiritual principle that would apply.
As a specific example, consider the “mind of Christ” of 1 Corinthians 2:16. If one looks through the Gospels at the times when people did not understand Jesus and He chided their lack of understanding, He always pointed to elements of spiritual discernment, not natural thinking: unbelief (John 6:51-52, 64a), hard hearts (Mark 8:14-17), blind eyes (Matthew 15:10-14), and lack of faith (Matthew 16:5–8). Paul seems to apply this principle to Timothy when he uses a collection of metaphors in 2 Timothy, then tells him to expect his understanding of them to come from the Lord (verse 2:7).
But of course, we need the activity of the natural mind for us to operate consciously. So it seems that there needs to be a balance of the natural mind with spiritual discernment. Perhaps this is the sort of balance indicated by Paul when he mention praying and singing with the spirit, and also the mind (1 Corinthians 14:15). So I guess I would tend to agree with Molnar, to the extent that without such balance, there is risk for spiritual fruitlessness in any natural reasoning.