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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Natural Theology

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is that department of study which treats of the existence and attributes of God as revealed to us in the natural world. Since no book can be accepted by us as coming from any being until we have proof of the existence of such a being, natural theology is to us the foundation of all revealed religion. Even if we infer the existence of the being and his character from the character of the book itself, the process is the same in kind as inferring his existence and character from any other work, so that the proof which we have from the Bible of the existence of God cannot be higher in kind than that which we have from nature.

1. Method of Proof. Natural theology sets out with the assumption that every event must have a cause, and that there may be such relations between causes and effects-such combinations of matter and force in producing specific results, that the existence of a Designer may be inferred, and his attributes and character may thus be revealed. Until these positions are granted, no step can be taken in this science. If they are not to be accepted, then a science of natural theology is impossible. The truth of these assumptions is found in the intuitive beliefs of the human mind.

Natural theology now claims as its field of investigation not only the whole natural world, but also the physical, intellectual, and moral nature of man.

2. Claims as a Science. It being now conceded by all that the present order of things had a beginning in this sense, at least, that there was a time when not a single species of plants or animals now upon the earth had an existence, in fact that there was a time when there was no living thing upon the earth it is a fair question to ask, How came all these animals and plants here, with all their complex relations for the continuance of the species? How came man here? The hypothesis that living species have always existed as they now are being abandoned, two other hypotheses only seem possible:

(1) That animals and plants have been produced as the resultants of forces eternally inherent in matter;

(2) That they have been produced by the design and organizing power of a personal being. Both of these hypotheses have their supporters, though those who accept the latter by no means agree as to the method in which creative power has been manifested in the production of species. It is certain that the large majority of students of nature have seen, in its different departments, such combinations to produce specific results, such likeness to the works of man contrivances differing from his only in their grandeur and perfection that they have believed in a being who has originated, by some method, all the living things upon the earth. The existence of man is taken as proof of the existence of a being like him in the elements of personality, though infinitely above him in wisdom and power. It is claimed that belief in the existence of a personal God is reached by the same process of thought -by which every science has been built up, and by which all the conclusions in common life are reached; that the necessary principles of belief, careful investigation, and sound induction all aid in proving the existence of a personal Creator from the works of nature. It is claimed that no scientific process has been more legitimate, and no inference in actual life more in accordance with the common-sense wisdom of the world, than the investigations and the results reached in natural theology. This claims, therefore, a place among the sciences, relying upon the nature of the processes by which its conclusions are reached. Its claim has been, and still is, admitted by a large majority of the ablest students of nature and of man.

That natural theology, as it has now been defined, has any just claim to scientific rank is utterly denied by a class of philosophers, positivists, who seek to limit all investigation to observed phenomena, ignoring or denying both efficient and final causes; and also by those who, without denying the abstract doctrine of final causes, affirm that we have no evidence of final cause in the works of nature. They regard the adaptation which we see in nature simply as the result of materials and forces mutually limited in producing the existing forms. The conclusions of such writers are well expressed in the words of Buchner: "Our reflecting reason is the sole cause of this apparent design, which is nothing but the necessary consequence of the combination of natural materials and forces" (Force and Matter, page 90).

3. Arguments.

(1.) The history of the race proves that there has been at all times and in all places, except among the most degraded tribes, some notion of God, or gods, or some supernatural agents to be feared and worshipped. It is claimed by Sir John Lubbock and others that the most degraded tribes are without any notion of a Supreme Being; and it is asserted that deaf mutes are ill the same condition till they are instructed. Granting all the facts stated, the conclusions may be fairly questioned. It does not follow that there is no idea of God present in the mind because it has not forced its way up into language, or because it cannot be detected in our imperfect intercourse with degraded savages and uneducated mutes. So constantly has the notion of a God appeared in all ages, that it has been claimed by some that the idea of God is innate. This doctrine, at the present time, is accepted only in this modified form, if at all, that the capabilities of the human mind are such that in its perfect development the idea of God is surely reached in the study of nature and man.

An a priori proof of the existence of God has been accepted by some, from the supposed power of the human mind to form a conception of a perfect being. The inference is made from such a power of the mind that a being must exist to correspond to the conceptions of it. This argument in some of its forms has been accepted and enforced by Des Cartes, Leibnitz, Dr. Samuel Clarke, and other eminent philosophers. As it involves subtile metaphysical distinctions, it is certainly not fitted to impress the popular mind; and it has failed to satisfv such acute metaphysicians as Reid and Stewart, who surely could not be charged with undue scepticism.

(2.) The theological argument may fairly be made to include the study of nature and the study of man as a physical, intellectual, and moral being. It is simple in form, readily apprehended, and has been enforced among thinking men in all ages. Socrates and Cicero are well known among the ancients for their arguments on this subject. The Bible appeals to nature for illustrations of the power and goodness of God. His existence is taken for granted in the first verse of Genesis, on the ground that there is in nature proof of the existence of such a being. In the New Testament we have the testimony of Paul to the fulness and value of this proof (Romans 1:19-20), and among the fathers there have been able writers on this subject. Since the time of Paley, whose name is best known of all those who have entered this field, writers in large numbers have appeared, who have written treatises professedly on this subject, or have treated it indirectly in connection with scientific discussions. Some of the ablest arguments have been made in this way; and of late years great additions have been made, directly and indirectly, to such writings (see Literature below).

It has been objected to the argument from design that, at best, it only proves the existence of aworker, or world-builder; that it is only in man that we have proof of the existence of a personal Creator. It may be added that the creator of man is not necessarily the self-existent God. But the existence of man's creator proves that there must be a self-existent, personal God.

After we reach the proof that our Creator is a personal being, loving justice and truth, we must wait for him to declare whether he is the Almighty or notwhether he shall swear by himself or one greater. Thus we join natural theology to revelation. Natural theology declares a Creator of man, of the heavens and the earth. He declares himself to be the Almighty, which we know from the laws of our belief must exist. Wa seek for a cause of what we see, and cannot stop till we find one adequate and necessarily eternal.

4. Counter Tendencies of the Present Day. As already intimated, the positive philosophy, of which Comte is the father, would render the science of natural theology impossible. This science assumes the existence of efficient causes, and rests for its proof upon final causes. Both efficient and final causes positive philosophy forbids us to name as having any relation to science. If they exist, they are to be to us as though they were not.

The doctrine of evolution, which, in some of its forms, is now accepted by many scientific men, is supposed by some to weaken or destroy the proof for the existence of a Creator. This result is claimed by some who hold the doctrine, and denied by others of the same school. For one who accepts the doctrine of causality, belief in the existence and wisdom of a designer will not be affected at all by the time required or the secondary agencies employed in producing results. The only question that could arise would be in reference to power. When a certain effect is reached, as the production of a tree or animal, with all their complex relations, such an effect demands belief in a cause adequate to produce such a result; and if there is evidence of wisdom and skill in it, the evidence is there irrespective of the time or secondary agencies concerned in its production. The belief that a being of low rank can be raised to a higher rank by any process of development or natural selection, without the same agency in kind as would be required to produce the being of high rank directly, can arise only by ignoring the plainest principles of causality. Whatever may be the final conclusions of science in regard to the origin of species, they cannot affect the argument for design in the creation of species, nor materially change the teachings of natural theology. If any difficulty arises, it will be found in harmonizing the teachings of science with the Bible account of creation as to the mode in which the creative power was manifested.

5. Literature. Xenoph. Memorabilia; Plato, Laws, 10; Cicero. De Natura Deorum; Des Cartes, Princip. Philos.; Leibnitz, Theodiae; Augustine, Confess.; Derham, Phys. Theology; Nieuwentyt, Relig. Philos.; Dr. Samuel Clarke, Boyle Lect. and Sermons, volume 2; Paley, Natural Theology; the Bridgewater Treatises; Chalmers, Nat. Theology; Tulloch, Theism; McCosh and Dickie, Typical Forms, etc.; Hitchcock, Rel. of Geol.; Cooke, Rel. of Chem.; Agassiz, Contrib. to Nat. Iist. U.S. volume 1; Chadbourne, Nat. Theol. (N.Y. 1867, 8vo); Jackson, Philos. of Nat. Theol. (Lond. 1874); Cocker, Theistic Conception, etc. (N.Y. 1875); Godwin, Christ and Humanity (N.Y. 1875); Gillett, Nat. Theol. (N.Y. 1874, 12mo); Wiseman, Con. between Science and Reveanled Relig.; Bushnell, Nat. and Supernatural; President Hopkins, in the Am. Quar. Obs. volume 1; Child, Benedicite; Molloy, Geol. and Rev.; Foster (J.), On Nat. Religion and Social Virtue; Grose (John), Rational Ethics; Jevon, System. Mlorality on the Grounds of Nat. Rel.; Priestley, Institutes of Nat. Rel.; Wilkins, Principles of Nat. Rel.; Thompson, Christian Theism; Zickler, Theol. naturalis; Amer. Presb. Rev. July 1866, art. 1; Amer. Ch. Qu. Rev. April 1869, art. 2; Mercersburg Rev. 1860; North Am. Rev. January 1865; October 1865; July 1867; NewEnglander, January 1868; October 1874; January 1875; Bibliotheca Sacra, April 1868; October 1868; Westminster Rev. January 1854; January 1867; Presb. Qu. and Princet. Rev. April 1875, art. 8; Meth. Qu. Rev. July 1865, page 519 sq. (See THEOLOGY). (P.A.C.)


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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Natural Theology'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/tce/n/natural-theology.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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Tuesday, September 17th, 2019
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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