Natural Theology: What It is and Why You Need It

by Melissa Cain Travis

The enterprise of Christian apologetics incorporates a broad range of intellectual disciplines, such as history, philosophy, theology, physics, ethics, mathematics, fine arts, biology, and literature. It’s a beautiful and remarkable thing that virtually every avenue of mankind’s scholarly exploration has yielded significant support for Christianity. The result is a spectacular mosaic that, unless Christianity is actually true, should never have materialized, much less in such high definition. The picture that has emerged over the past two thousand years, the product of man’s attempt at a comprehensive study of reality, is an argument itself, I think.

Notice, however, that when some of these relevant disciplines are taken individually, the evidence they provide doesn’t get you all the way to Christian theism. It may get you to a rather vague theism, or even a theism with strong Christian flavor, but no further. We don’t see the creeds spelled out in nature. We should be mindful of this so as not to overstate a claim and in order to hold the non-theist accountable when (not if) they try to argue against the existence of God in general by criticizing Christian theism in particular. We must not underestimate the value of these disciplines; they are crucial for the foundation upon which our broader project depends.  They constitute what some have called our pre-apologetic.

A subset of these disciplines make up what is referred to as natural theology, which is, for me, an area of keen academic interest. Natural theology explores the questions of the existence and nature of God without examining Scripture or other forms of alleged divine revelation. Instead, the practitioner philosophically reflects upon observations of the natural world and draws metaphysical conclusions–i.e., that God exists and has certain attributes. This stands in contrast to revealed theology, which is wholly dependent upon special revelation (Scripture, for example). Historically, natural theology has been employed by some adherents of all the major monotheistic religions–Christianity, Judaism, and Islam–as well as some prominent thinkers who rejected all of those characterizations of God (think Voltaire and Spinoza).

You’re probably familiar with at least a few of the arguments developed by natural theology, even if you haven’t heard them labeled as such. The Kalam cosmological argument for the existence of God, which incorporates logic and astrophysics, is the poster child. The fine-tuning argument and the argument from consciousness are other better-known examples. While science often factors in, it doesn’t always. For instance, natural theology also includes the moral argument and the argument from the existence of evil.

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