What Is Natural Theology?
Natural theology is a branch of theology that has to do with discovering what we can know about God apart from divine revelation. Natural theology has a long history in the Christian church, going back to the apostles of Jesus. In Romans 1:20 NKJV, Paul the apostle writes,
"For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that that they are without excuse."
In this sense, the natural theologian is someone who studies what most theologians would refer to as "General Revelation". Natural theologians study a wide variety of topics, from philosophy to the sciences. From here, the natural theologian would seek to discover attributes of the Creator, such as His existence, power, intelligence, etc.
Natural theology also plays a large role in the discipline of apologetics. Christian apologetics itself is a branch of theology that relies often on natural theology to make its case, even though apologetics often relies on other disciplines in the field of theology as well. In this sense, however, apologetics and natural theology are intertwined. Without natural theology, it becomes harder for the apologist to make his or her case. It also does us no good, however, to have a strong case for God from nature and not make that case known.
Although some theologians reject the use of natural theology (perhaps the most well-known is Karl Barth) based on the principle of Sola Scriptura ("Scripture alone"), their case against natural theology is not very strong. As we have already seen, Paul the apostle understood natural theology. He even made it clear that everyone is "without excuse", appearing to expect us to look at "the things that are made" to see "His invisible attributes........even His eternal power and Godhead."
Opponents of natural theology sometimes make reference to various passages of Scripture that, on their interpretation, seem to contradict the idea of natural theology. However, the only thing that this shows is that a bad hermeneutic can lead to a bad understanding of what Scripture really says. The following are some examples:
1. "Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding."
-Proverbs 3:5 NKJV
This verse, considered by some critics to contradict the idea of natural theology, is often quoted without an understanding of the true meaning of the passage. The passage is not saying that everything that we understand, or can understand, should be trusted. If this were the case, that last statement could not be trusted, since I relied on both my understanding and what I perceive to be the understanding of critics of natural theology. Rather, it is saying that God should be trusted entirely.
The Pulpit Commentary sums the meaning of this passage up quite well by stating, "The admonition does not mean that we are not to use our own understanding........but that, when we use it, we are to depend upon God and His directing and overruling providence." (1)
2. "He declares His word to Jacob, His statutes and His judgments to Israel. He has not dealt thus with any nation; and as for His judgments, they have not known them. Praise the LORD!"
Some critics have quoted this verse whenever the natural theologian and/or apologist makes a case for objective morals apart from divine revelation. This passage from the book of Psalms is said to contradict the idea of objective morals being known to anyone but Israel, since, according to critics, they were not declared to any other nation. However, this simply comes from a bad hermeneutic.
Look carefully at the verse, and you will see that it does not show what the critic intends it to show. What this passage does show is that the Israelites had the added advantage of God's divine revelation. However, this passage does not show that no one outside of Israel had no understanding of objective morals.
Matthew Henry, in his commentary on this passage, points out that this passage shows that, "Jacob and Israel had God’s statutes and judgments among them. They were under his peculiar government; the municipal laws of their nation were of his framing and enacting, and their constitution was a theocracy. They had the benefit of divine revelation; the great things of God’s law were written to them. They had a priesthood of divine institution for all things pertaining to God, and prophets for all extraordinary occasions. No people besides went upon sure grounds in their religion." (2)
In sharp contrast to this, many support the concept of natural theology. The list of people who believe natural theology is important is quite impressive. Some of these include:
1. C.S. Lewis
2. J.P. Moreland
3. Alvin Plantinga
5. Norman Geisler
6. Frank Turek
7. J. Warner Wallace
There is no doubt that apologetics owes much to natural theology.