In his seminal work, A Christian Natural Theology, John Cobb argues that at the outset of Christianity there were two varieties, the Jewish and Greek. Eventually, it was the latter of the two that prevailed, and as a result, it is the Greek variety that one easily observes well established in Orthodoxy today. The presence of Greek philosophy within Christian orthodoxy gives rise to what Cobb believes is the essential problem of historical Christian theology “the problem of relating Greek thought to the Christian faith.” Attempts to relate the two have produced significant tension, but out of this tension, Cobb believes, was birthed natural theology which he defines as reason illuminated by revelation, reason being that which can explain said revelation and ultimately make intelligible the whole of reality.
To further this theme, Cobb offers a historical account of Thomas Aquinas in terms of the development of Thomas’ natural theology. Aquinas did not rule out the strengths of philosophy, but could not abandon the roots of his faith. Thomas saw them not as mutually exclusive. Of Thomas, Cobb writes, “He committed himself only to showing that where he disagreed with Aristotle, he did so on responsible philosophic grounds. His natural theology is an improved Aristotelian philosophy.” Aquinas’ final conclusion was that the highest conviction is one that is compatible with reason but can only be known by revelation.
In the later Middle Ages, Thomas’ work was largely left alone. The distinction between natural and revealed theology was more or less retained, but it did not inform the daily lives of the faithful. Philosophy gradually became more analytical and abstract. And out of such a shift came a focus on a moral based monotheism. The Newtonian understanding of the world put to rest many of the battles between moral monotheism and rationalistic orthodoxy.
A major work from this time was David Hume’s “History of Natural Religion.” Hume argued that “the supposed self-evidence of a supreme and moral intelligence is illusory. If we will to speculate as to the source of the ordered universe we know, we cannot exclude chance.” The development of such a systematic reproach of moral deism was a major blow to monotheism. Another significant development was Immanuel Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” in which Kant developed his notion of the “difference between appearance and reality, between phenomena and noumena.” Kant believed that science dealt only with the world of phenomena, which excluded the world of noumena. A major consequence of this belief was the “separation of the sphere of distinctively human existence—the moral, spiritual, and historical—from the sphere of the phenomenal world in which scientific thinking operates.”
The final major shift in the history of natural theology was the development of Darwinism. As Cobb explains, “The argument centered around the view that man has an animal ancestry, but a more fundamental issue was at stake…the wider implication of Darwin’s evolutionism was that blind forces immanent in nature account for the complex order that we now observe.” This argument is devastating to Christian fundamentalists who depend on the order of the universe for evidence of a designer. In response to this, many returned to Kant as his philosophy “was seen as saving morality and religion from the imperialistic claims of a hostile science. The whole Newtonian world was reduced to the phenomenal realm, and ethics and religion were vindicated in the superior sphere of the noumenal.”
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