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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