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7: Religion Tradition and Natural Theology

Let us suppose that we have shown that natural theology is not only sporadically present in the Bible, but widely and deeply involved in it. Even if this is true, it will not be the end of our problems, for a new set of questions will arise, including the following.

The elements we have detected, which we may call a ‘biblical’ natural theology, seem very limited in character. They do not amount to the fuller natural theology with which we have been familiar. They do not offer philosophical proofs of the existence of God, they do not work by means of pure reason, they do not appear to amount to the total system of classical theism or anything like it. People might therefore object: if it had never been any more than this, no one would have objected so vigorously to the idea of natural theology at all.

It might therefore be said: let us accept this very limited ‘biblical’ natural theology, but let us refuse to expand it in any way. Let us deny classical theism, rational proofs of God, and all the rest, let us stick within the biblical limits. The idea is a tempting one. It would be nice to say, for instance, that the limited natural theology as deployed by the Wisdom of Solomon, or by Paul whether in Acts or in Romans or in both, integrated with revelatory material and used as a sort of conceptual auxiliary to his missionary purposes, is fully acceptable, but that the full philosophical natural theology, working by reason alone, separated from revelation, leads away from the God of the Bible and of Christian faith and is to be rejected. One is validated by the Bible, the other is not. Why should we not take this path?

In order to start an approach to the question, let us go back to the contrast between what we shall call the biblical God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the God of the philosophers, the God of theism. Biblical scholars, as we have seen, are interested in the biblical God, and not much in the God of the philosophers.

When we begin to describe the character of the biblical God, we have to make a remark that will doubtless be surprising: the God of Israel is, in some ways, not so different from the Greek gods as has been supposed. By ‘the Greek gods’ I mean, of course, the gods of Homer, not the god of the Greek philosophers. The God of Israel is a clearly defined personality, as they are. He has a personal name, as they have. He speaks articulately, in Hebrew, as they do in Greek. He has many anthropomorphic features, and they are highly anthropomorphic. He changes his mind, as they do, and allows himself on occasion to be persuaded to do so, as is the case with them. He intervenes in historical events, as they do. He favours certain individuals or social groups, as they do. He takes vengeance on those who have offended his will, as they sometimes do. He is interested in atonement for offences, as some at least of them are. These common elements have much of importance about them. It is ironic now to think back on the biblical theology of this century and contemplate the fact that the features which were most valued as constituting Hebrew thought as against Greek were actually features which Hebrew thought in considerable measure held in common with the gods of Homer. What made the great difference to the God of Israel was that, along with this common personality profile, he was the only God and jealous of that unique status; and, in addition, he was the sole creator of the world.

Now when we in modern times talk about the ‘biblical view’ of things, its distinctiveness, its personal and dynamic character, its grounding in history, its involvement in human events, and so on, we are in large measure basing ourselves upon just these aspects of the God of Israel, and upon the many biblical passages that speak in this way. These form the basis, we might say, for the characteristically ‘biblical’ emphasis in contrast with the theistic one. But its commonage with the gods of Homer may perhaps suggest that those aspects which are most characteristic of the God of the Bible have some basis in the natural rather than in the strictly revelational.

The theistic emphasis, by contrast, is universal. It seeks consistency. It lays emphasis on the distinction of transcendent from immanent, of eternity from time. It is interested in omnipotence, in omniscience, in perfection. Its God does not change. He controls absolutely everything. Naturally, he makes no mistakes. Nor does he suffer. Anthropomorphism disappears from his character, becoming at the most a pleasant figure of speech, for God is incorporeal, and the concept of being god means the opposite of all the finitude that belongs to humanity. If the ‘biblical’ emphasis has many similarities to the gods of Homer, the theistic has much in common with the god of Greek philosophy.

Now this contrast has much to do with the problems we have been discussing. Modern biblical studies and theology came to emphasize a view of the human person, and of God, for which terms like ‘personal’, ‘active’, ‘dynamic’, and ‘historical’ were used. According to this view, the person was an active entity, living in interrelation with other persons, and this interrelation took place in time, with one action being followed by a reaction, a sequence which deepened and developed the very living interrelation between persons. This was true of biblical humanity, and it was true of the God of the Bible. The story-presentation of the God of the Bible is a supreme quality of biblically based religion. Contrary to this view there stands the traditional theistic approach and terminology, which, one might say, stresses the absolute rather than the interactive: eternity, omniscience, omnipotence, immutability, and so on, as we have said. Such a theism appears to bring us closer to the world of natural theology. The personal-activity picture of biblical God and man has been dominant among biblical scholars, had some overlap with personalist and existentialist philosophies,1 and was actively emphasized by Barth, forming part of his adherence to biblical thought-forms2 and underlying his rejection of natural theology. Thus theologians emerging from the Barthian matrix tend to regard theism and theistic arguments as outdated and generally intolerable. Listen for instance to Dietrich Ritschl, in his The Logic of Theology:3

Biblically based talk of God is not supported by classical theism but is rather sucked into a lack of freedom… This strait-jacket of the theistic model of God, the postulate of a self-sufficient sovereign God who is conceivable without reference to humanity in the last resort, allows only [either] compulsory subjection to the rule of a mysterious god or a decision for the supposed freedom of godlessness. To this degree it is right to say that classical theism allows no freedom—it requires the sacrifice either of our own humanity or of belief in God…

[Only a trinitarian understanding can] suppress the theistic longing for the demonstration of a physical and mechanistic omnipotence of God over a meaningless, suffering world.4

And with these judgements I very much sympathize. Where then is the problem? Why can we not reject the entire theistic impulse and confine ourselves to the personal, active, biblical God? The problem is that the theistic impulses appear to have a place within the Bible itself. We cannot be sure that the Bible succeeded in keeping pure the ideal of the personally active biblical God as distinct from the God of theistic universalism. It did not. These tendencies which we have, very inexactly, labelled as ‘theistic’ are already present in the Bible. They are part of the inner-biblical interpretative process. As far as I can see, they do not belong to any one stratum of the literature but are scattered over all of it. They are, not surprisingly, a tendency that is stimulated when Hebrew thought enters into the Greek world, and again with the move of Christianity into that world, but they do not seem to be confined to late strata in particular, for examples can be found in quite ancient Hebrew materials. From quite early times the interpretative process included some perception of the need for consistency, some sense of a universal perspective which might need to be respected, some sense of the difficulties of simple anthropomorphism, some sense of the difficulty involved with a God who takes part in some earthly events but ignores other events or stands aloof from them.

Let us take some examples. First, change of mind in God. The God of Israel can regret what he himself has done. He regretted, for instance, that he had made humanity at all, and other living animals as well, and decided to wipe out the whole lot of them. It had been a mistake; or, if not a mistake, he was sorry he had done it anyway. He made Saul king, choosing him carefully from among the people, but later decided to reject him. That had been a mistake too. He planned to destroy everyone in the city of Sodom but allowed himself to be persuaded by Abraham, stage by stage, that this would be wrong if there were fifty righteous people, then if there were forty, then if there were thirty, or twenty, or ten. And these are only the better-known places. If we bring in interpretations of God's will by prophets and others, there are a good number more. According to Ezekiel 26, God brought up Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon against the city of Tyre. The prophet vividly describes the destruction of the city that will follow. The statement was made ‘in the eleventh year, on the first day of the month’. Only a few pages later, in a prophecy dated, apparently, sixteen years later (Ezek. 2917), Ezekiel starts out from the evident fact that Nebuchadnezzar's siege of Tyre had been a failure. Though he and his army had worked hard, they had gained nothing for their labour. Therefore, the prophet goes on,

Behold, I will give the land of Egypt to Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon; and he shall carry off its wealth and despoil it and plunder it; and it shall be the wages for his army. I have given him the land of Egypt as his recompense for which he laboured, because they worked for me, says the Lord God. (Ezek. 2919 f.)5

This all makes for a very natural ‘human’ reaction, but it is unlike what one expects of a God who controls the world. In fact God changes his mind, or regrets what he has decided or done, a number of times in the Old Testament. All this belongs to what we think of as the ‘biblical’ picture of God. But 1 Samuel 1529 gives us the opposite point of view: ‘Also the God of Israel will not lie nor repent; for he is not a man, that he should repent.’6 Because God is different from a human being, one can be sure that he does not change his mind. He has immutability. Something of the theistic viewpoint is already there. Is not something of the same viewpoint already there in St James when he speaks of God as the ‘Father of lights in whom there is no variation or shadow of turning’ (Jas. 217)?

Similarly with God's power. The God of Israel alone had power, other gods were nonentities who could not do anything; Yahweh alone had created the world and guided what went on within it. The Bible tells us a selection of events in which all this can be seen. But does this mean that God's power is absolute, so that he can do anything at all? The answer is, generally speaking: they had not thought of that, the biblical material is not designed, selected, or edited with that in mind. They certainly had no idea of the logical puzzles that emerge, such as whether God can create an object too heavy for God to lift, or whether God can make a table which God did not make.7 But they were certainly able to produce sayings that could appear to point in such a direction, and which were later so understood.

The same applies to God's knowledge. Human knowledge is very limited but God knows everything that is going on. Yet the main part of Israel's story is very reserved about God's knowledge and planning.8 These things happen, God is somewhere behind it all, but little is said explicitly about a universal direction of events. In Genesis 1920 God has heard the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah for their evil ways, but he is not sure that these reports are accurate, and he proposes to go down there to see for himself; clearly, he did not already know. On the other hand, Jesus’ words about how a sparrow does not fall to the ground without the Father's will, or about how every hair of the head is numbered, look like a very absolute and universal statement. Too universal, indeed, for some people, so that, even early on, interpreters had to begin explaining that such sayings should not be taken literally: thus it is absurd, St Jerome argues, to suppose that God knows at every moment how many fleas there are in the world or how many fish in the sea.9

Time and eternity produced the same kind of problem. It was not surprising that Oscar Cullmann strove so hard to show that ‘eternity’ in the Bible was not something different from time, but was the totality of time: it was only part of the anti-theistic reaction of the period, disliking eternity as it disliked immortality. The characteristic Hebrew ~lw[, in the Bible doubtless means ‘perpetuity’, and no ‘problem of time and eternity’ was known.10 But since ~lw[ was an area specially associated with God it was an easy passage to the thought of it as something essentially different from time as humans experience it.

The question of the immediate parousia is a good illustration. Matthew 2434 is quite clear: ‘Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away till all these things take place’ (RSV). An expectation of a swift or immediate parousia is not to be denied. But by the later New Testament times it was necessary to argue and reason about this. According to 2 Peter 33 ff., there would be scoffers, asking ‘Where is the promise of his coming? For, ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation.’ This rational objection required a considered reply. As the time-honoured answer goes, for God a day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. So, it implies, God is not behind time with his promise. Moreover, God has a reason: he is giving time for sinners to reach repentance. The inner-biblical interpretative adjustment is necessary in order to meet a reasoned objection.

To sum up this point: those universalizing, rationalizing terms which we take to be characteristic of theism are not wholly absent from the Bible. On the contrary, they are already present, and represent tendencies already there in the Hebrew text. These tendencies, however, were much strengthened through the task of expressing the Jewish religion in the Greek world, and later of doing the same for Christianity. Those aspects within the Bible which have an affinity with theism are indications of operations within the Bible that are similar to natural theology.

My second main argument is this: that some of the features of the Hebrew Bible which at first sight appear most ‘revelatory’ may in a certain sense themselves be ‘natural’. I have already suggested this for the personal, active, nature of the God of Israel, in that that character is at least shared with other gods like the gods of Homer. To this may be added, however, questions of origin. Whence did Israel's monotheism11 derive?12 It is not easy to explain it as emerging from an earlier polytheism, as if people who had for centuries been polytheists became monotheistic, whether by gradual evolution or by some sudden internal crisis. In more recent times, when the centrality of the Exodus as a revelatory event was so much emphasized, it was often said that monotheism in its Israelite form emerged as a response to the Exodus experience, or as a result of it, or as a reflection on it or an inference from it. Yahweh alone had delivered the people from Egypt, and so they concluded that there was no other god than he. But none of these explanations is really convincing: they often depend on an inappropriate mixing of different categories of evidence and theory. It is at least equally possible that monotheism came to be established in Israel through inheritance from an earlier stage and from an earlier people or group, where monotheism already existed, doubtless in an inchoate form. And it is not unlikely that considerations that would, in later centuries, have been considered to belong to natural theology were already at work in providing an element of rational structure within the complex world of myth.13

The so-called ‘Kenite hypothesis’—it can hardly be said to have been definitely proved, and in that sense is a hypothesis, but on the other hand is not at all hypothetical, in that it is based on a clear collocation of material from within the Bible—points very suggestively in this direction. The father-in-law of Moses, whom we just met in another connection, appears under another name when Judges 411 tells of Heber the Kenite, whose wife was shortly to do a memorable act of exclusivism for the God of Israel, and mentions that he had ‘separated from the Kenites, the descendants of Hobab the father-in-law of Moses’—a different name, but again the father-in-law, and this time in relation to the Kenites. The Kenites seem to have been early absorbed within the society of Judah and their identity disappeared, but they left an important mark on Israelite tradition, the most obvious sign of which is the presence, at a key point in Israel's traditions, of the story of their eponymous ancestor or first man, Cain himself. Cain is famous, of course, for his murder of his brother, but he has many other claims to fame, and the one that will concern us is that his family were, within the canonical books of the Old Testament, the great innovators in technology: Cain built the first city, and his children were the first raisers of animals, the first musicians, and the first metal-workers—something that will be relevant much later in our story, when we think about the place of science. But, for the present, to cut a long story short, the exclusive and sometimes fanatical devotion to the one God only may have come into Israel as the existing religious attitude of a group in early times, a group or more than one such group, for along with Kenites we see Levites with the same characteristics, such as the Phinehas of Numbers 25, noted for his fanaticism (hanq) for Yahweh the God of Israel, who pierced through with a spear a man and a Midianite woman and brought an end to a destructive plague. In other words, what I am saying is that monotheism may have come into Israel as a conviction that was already ‘natural’ within a particular group and eventually, partly through their fanaticism, partly through its intrinsic theological power, came to be dominant, so that in the end monotheism came to be ‘natural’ for all Jews everywhere. It became the given way in which people thought. Jews eventually ceased to feel polytheism as a temptation. Monotheism, like aniconic worship and like belief in creation, came to be the particular social and intellectual inheritance of a group, and their world-view was based upon it. This was not ‘natural theology’ in the sense of dependence upon philosophical thinking with its universal categories, but it was ‘natural’ in that for the group concerned it already was the normal human awareness of deity which everyone inherited from birth. Once established, however, monotheism could quickly form links and contacts with universal philosophical categories, and this is what took place, in Judaism certainly in the Greek period but probably even before. The mockery of the feeble and unreal gods of polytheism, as in Deutero-Isaiah, is an easy and obvious expression of these tendencies; compare and contrast with this the criticism by Xenophanes of the anthropomorphic gods of Greek tradition. Hebrew monotheism was part of the essential data of the Bible which enabled the subsequent connection with natural theology to be made; and this was all the more so because Hebrew monotheism itself had an aspect of natural religion about it. Monotheism and natural theology are thus connected not only logically but also historically, and the Hebrew law is one of the central means of connection between them.

But here we must add one of the obvious realities of the whole question: as a matter of fact, the Jewish tradition proved itself to be capable of synthesis with natural theology or something extremely like it. At one end of the temporal spectrum we may name Philo of Alexandria, at the other Maimonides. Both these major figures proved able to dovetail philosophical insights dependent on Greek philosophy into a quite traditional Judaism, and, while Philo came to be largely lost from Jewish tradition until fairly modern times and was preserved mainly in a Christian stream of consciousness, Maimonides in spite of criticism and controversy remained a towering intellectual figure, profoundly authoritative in Judaism. Certainly, it may well be asked in what sense their work really constituted a natural theology; but let us say that, in this sense, namely that the authoritative material received from God in the Bible and Jewish tradition could be and should be communicated and expressed in categories that were knowable to humanity and already existing in human life, in that sense their work definitely included and implied natural theology. So simple facts make improbable the idea that the Hebrew mind is innately hostile to natural theology. Our arguments have provided an explanation of why this is so.

There is, however, yet another reason why we cannot ‘canonize’ the natural theology of the Bible and treat it as the sole and final, good and valid, instance of natural theology argument. Though I think there is much use of natural theology in the Bible, I am not sure that its natural theology is always right. It does not seem to me to be definitely or necessarily true. First, I am not sure that it possesses internal coherence, in other words it is not proved by the warrants that are offered in order to prove it; secondly, it is poorly informed about some of the realities of the world; thirdly, it is not really ‘autonomous’ natural theology, but is itself derived from previous religion and is dependent on previous religion. The only way, therefore, in which the direction indicated by the ‘biblical’ natural theology can be salutarily pursued is that it be extended into the wider world of philosophical, scientific, and other investigation, which within the Bible itself is scarcely attempted. This, I suggest, may be the rationale for the ‘full’ natural theology which did in fact develop through history and the legitimacy of which is now in question.

Let me exemplify this from some biblical materials. Nothing is more clear about the classic ‘natural theology’ passages of the Bible than their starting-point in creation. God created the world and its wonderful and beneficent design should have demonstrated the reality of the creator. This is a proof, one may say, from nature, but it does not arise from any dispassionate examination of the natural world. It arises from religion, from the established religious belief that one deity had made the world and made it good. Although the natural theology of the Jews insisted that from the observation of the created world one could and should conclude to the existence of the creator, that was not the way in which their own ancestors had arrived at their belief in the one creator God.14 They had arrived at it, indeed, not by simple revelation, as if God had just told them, I happen to be the creator of the world. They had arrived at it through an intellectual process caused by the meeting of two forces: on the one hand the mythologies of the origin of the world which were inherited from earlier and environing religion and from earlier stages of their own religion, and on the other hand, and dominantly, their own monotheism, their tradition of the one God which brought about a substantial remoulding of ideas in this area. It was by some such process, and not primarily by actual observation of the universe, that they came to the view of creation which we find in Genesis 1: generally speaking, a world formed by a process of separation and ordering, the result being all good. There were, indeed, snags here and there in this belief—Wisdom, you remember, mentioned creatures so horrid that they were not included in the verdict that everything that was made was good. But by and large the belief was held. And, as we have seen, the development of this belief into natural theology was motivated by a particular problem, that of idolatry, which was a way of explaining why things had gone so badly wrong, and especially why the Gentile world was so awful. But that very use of the argument prevented it from taking any even and comprehensive account of the constitution of the world. And, when one goes on to the application of this argument, the idea that all the moral defects and evils of the Gentile world, from malice through gossiping, slander, disobedience to parents, up to ruthlessness, envy, and murder, plus approbation of all these practices, that all this derived from that original act of idolatry is impossible to take very seriously. It was theory, and polemic religious theory at that. It had no reason to offer for why homosexual practices should derive from idolatry, no explanation of why the original inhabitants of the planet, seeing rivers, mountains, horses, cows and sheep, snakes, mosquitoes, and scorpions, had the means to conclude immediately that one beneficent God had created all. It was, in fact, very amateurish and religiously very prejudiced natural theology. And this is one of the defects that have often existed in the tradition of natural theology, and forms an argument against it which Barth may have had in mind, and might indeed have used if he had bothered to provide a proper discussion of natural theology at all. What has been called natural theology has often been a mode in which particular social or religious world-views have been justified and perpetuated: a good example is the way in which aspects of the Greco-Roman world-view have been given sanction by the Church, counted as natural theology, and thus enforced on a later society for which these norms were no longer relevant, or indeed had been proved to be defective.15 And, as I say, some of the natural theology of the Bible itself may suffer from these same defects. For this reason it is difficult to canonize the limited natural theology of the Bible while denying the right of the subject to expand, to exercise self-criticism, to make fresh contact with the subject-matter, and to invite discussion and illumination from those who stand in a different religious tradition or outside the religious community altogether. These, then, are preliminary reasons why we cannot easily succumb to the temptation to accept natural theology within its biblical limits while denying its proliferation beyond them.

This is highly relevant for many social and ethical problems of the present day. On highly disputed questions such as those of population control, legality of abortion, and the like, people may quote biblical utterances of a ‘revelational’ type like the command not to kill, but it must be suspected that the real underlying reason is an appeal to ‘nature’: things must go as nature itself provides, and humans should not presume to interfere with nature. But ‘nature’ has changed from what it was in ancient times, whether in Greek thought or in the Bible. Neither of these sources had any idea that the ecological balance of the world could be damaged or destroyed by human economics, exploitation, consumption, or other activities; nor had they any idea that human life could be medically prolonged far beyond the limits that would be set by unaided ‘nature’. They thought of ‘nature’ as something already fixed and set, whether by natural processes alone or by the creator God; they had no idea that human purpose was going to have a part in deciding what ‘nature’ is and is to be. Quite possibly the natural theology of the Bible can be extended, analogically or in some other way, in order to take account of these very substantial changes, but an extension at the least it must be: just left to stand as it is, it cannot be expected to cope with the problems.

We must pass, however, to another way in which we may think about it. Central to modern study of the Bible has been the theme of interpretation. Almost all currents of scholarship emphasize it. Part of the popularity of this emphasis comes from the wish to minimize the claims of objectivity which, it is commonly but erroneously supposed, critical scholarship made for itself. Not only does the Bible have to be interpreted, but interpretation goes on within the Bible itself. Much of the Bible, perhaps all of the Bible, is the product of interpretation. But the consequence of this has not always been noticed: the more we stress the importance of interpretation, the more we render probable the influence of something like natural theology. Influenced by the dialectical theology, people have been inclined to think of interpretation as something that followed and expounded the contours of revelation without going in any way outside this narrow channel of thought. Interpretation, seen in this way, not only interprets revelation but interprets it solely by the use of categories which themselves derive from revelation and are internal to it. Some of the peculiar contortions of modern interpretative theory are probably half-conscious attempts to demonstrate this. But it would really be very strange if there was interpretation which used no categories whatever that were external to the material being interpreted. From the material itself, new categories grew, and these called for expression in terms which the original material had not contained. But as soon as we admit that such categories may have been used, we face the likelihood that operations of natural theology took place. Moreover, we can show reasons of particular strength why this was very likely in the traditions of Israel as well as those of the New Testament. Consider this thought:

If God is God, then he must be understood as a reality that determines everything, not as a spatially and temporally provincial deity who by chance has some adherents, but as a comprehensive power which is to be rationally perceived out of the reality which it rationally determines.16

This thought, of a modern theologian, expresses something of the need that Jews may have felt when conscious of the Greek world around them. In interpreting Jewish religion in that world and to that world, the primary category might be, not the God personally active in history—a thought that was certainly still known and affirmed—but, rather, monotheism, opposition to idols, and all that argumentation from the created world which was the central basis for natural theology. All this was already there within the Bible.

What this means is that ‘revelational’ theology and ‘natural’ theology were irretrievably mixed up with one another. What had been ‘natural’ could come to be expressed as if it was ‘revelational’. What had been a ‘revelational’ element could come to be restated as ‘natural theology’.

One of the old popular arguments against natural theology was the argument about the camel and the tent. Once the camel gets its nose into the tent, it will soon take up all the space within. Similarly, it was said, if natural theology gets its nose into the edifice of Christian theology, it will soon occupy the entire space and be mixed up in everything, including the purest divine revelation. The only way, therefore, to deal with natural theology is to keep it out entirely. And, so long as one thinks of natural theology as a totally foreign body, and revelatory theology as something quite different, it looks as if the argument might have some force. But we have seen how it may be circumvented. The natural theology within the Bible is not a foreign body intruded, but an interpretative stage through which the revelatory material passes, or—sometimes—it is material inherited ‘by nature’ which then recasts itself as revelatory material.

And, in conclusion, this argument from interpretation offers an answer to another of the apparently strong traditional arguments against natural theology. Natural theology, it was always said by its opponents, produces idols, thoughts and ideas generated out of the human mind, as distinct from revelation, where the thoughts and ideas come from God himself. The emphasis on the interpretatory element, within the Bible and in the handling of the Bible, overturns this argument. That argument makes sense only if the entire Bible is a univocal expression of one unitary theology. As soon as we accept that there are different theologies within the Bible, and that only interpretation can lead us back to the one God who is the object of its witness, then we see that revelational theology is, in this respect, on the same basis as natural theology. Even if there is no natural theology in the Bible at all, but only revelational theology, it cannot produce a total picture of God except through the activity of the theological interpreter. But that interpreter must use his own thoughts, reason, instincts, and experience in order to grade, to select, to bring together, to order, and to raise to higher levels the material with which he or she works. The interpreter will have to draw conclusions from the scripture which it itself does not make express; and this drawing of conclusions will depend on the categories, methods, and anterior preferences of the interpreter. Thus the theologian who fully denies natural theology may nevertheless be constructing an ‘idol’ out of scriptural materials just as much as the natural theologian is constructing an ‘idol’ out of other materials. That this has been so, the history of theological thinking, and notably of those theologies which minimized the role of natural theology, makes sufficiently clear.

Another point to be added is this. It is often thought that the effect of natural theology is to tone down revelation, to decrease its strangeness by assimilating it to accepted human experience and the tolerances which it will permit. And sometimes this may well be so. But the opposite can also be the case. Natural theology can also work to exaggerate the differences between the human and the divine. God is, people say, ‘by definition’ perfect, eternal, infinite, in all respects removed from the limitations of human existence. Thoughts of this kind, by emphasizing the infinite distance of God from humanity, strike people as being particularly ‘revelatory’, just when they are actually produced by operations of natural theology. Some things that are in the Bible may have come about in this way. Take miracle stories, at first sight an obvious area of revelation. But why do we find that one version of a story shows an enormously increased degree of miraculous character as compared with another story of the same kind? Why, for example, does Chronicles sometimes show enormously inflated numbers of soldiers and of casualties in battle, as compared with Samuel/Kings?17 Part of the explanation may lie in the belief that, God being God, matters of historical probability and even of theological balance cease to matter at all. Natural theology operates not only through the severely rational philosophic discussion but also through the mythopoeic capacity of biblical authors. Or, to take a case from more modern experience, is not the basic conviction of fundamentalism, the idea that the Bible is infallible or inerrant, a piece of natural theology: God being (by standard arguments of natural theology) absolutely perfect, if the Bible is his Word, it must be absolutely perfect also—a piece of natural theology which, because it carries sufficient conviction, comes to have the status of revelation?

Finally, another word or two about atheism, which has already been mentioned above. As we saw, the refutation of atheism has often been accepted as a major role of natural theology. Calvin in the first chapters of his Institutes used it in this way. All human beings, he believed, had an awareness of God, and an awareness that God was their creator. This was of strategic importance for all that followed, establishing in particular the blameworthiness of people for their sins. Knowing all this, they did not glorify God and that leads on to their all-embracing sinfulness and guilt. To some extent this rested on biblical passages, especially of course the first chapter of Romans; though it rested in considerable degree on debates among the classical philosophers, which were very important in Calvin's mind.

But what sort of value does this have? And what about the famous words of Psalm 141, ‘The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God’? Scholars tend to assure us that these words imply no ‘theoretical’ atheism: they are not so much denying the existence of God, rather they question his active presence, his power in action. Maybe so. But I do not really see why this must be so; I do not see why the fool should not have thought, as the words directly say, that there is no God at all, that no God exists. Why not? In the world of Israel's interaction with the neighbouring cultures, the primary question was not whether there was a god or not, but how many gods there were; and, along with that, whether male or female, and in particular the question, when one had one major deity, whether that deity had also a female consort—a question that now, from archaeological discoveries, has become a very central one for studies in the Hebrew Bible. In Israel, where the dominant current of tradition had insisted on the one God, and insisted that all other supposed deities were vain or non-existent, the elimination of gods was so obvious and dominant a principle and achievement that it could seem an obvious further step to eliminate them all, and to say that there was none. I do not see why persons could not have taken this step. The Psalmist does not argue with them, either by natural theology or by revealed: such a person is a fool, he says, and he goes straight on into moral condemnation. Perhaps that was all that could be done. All I want to say, at this point, is that atheism as an option is hinted at in the Bible. It is a part of the direction in which Hebrew religion could have been taken to point.

Returning to Calvin's argument—whether based on Romans or on natural theology—we come to this question: how did he know that his views were true for all humanity? People like Calvin lived within the culture and traditions of European Christianity and knew very little outside it. Their sources were the Bible, the later traditions of the Church, and classical Greek and Roman literature. Within Christendom everyone was readily classifiable: there were Roman Catholics; there were Protestants; there were various kinds of heretics; there were Jews; on the edge of the world there were Muslims, or Turks as they were then generally called. All these people had some kind of God and some word for God, almost all believed they had been created by God. Starting from this, it was easy to put into words the judgement that all human persons knew that there was a God (meaning one single personal and transcendent God), who was also their creator. But if they thought this, and if the Bible suggested it, perhaps they were wrong! For, once explorers and missionaries began to travel into Africa, among the Pacific islands, and among the native Americans, they were puzzled to find persons who did not conform to the outlook that dogma considered to be universal to humanity. God? Never heard of any such being. Sin? No idea what you are talking about. Creation? No one here ever bothered about that. In other words, the view of humanity in traditional Christianity, whether built upon biblical grounds or upon natural theology, was the product of a particular religious history and cultural situation. If it is to be tested for its final validity, we know, perhaps, how to do this from the biblical side; from the side of natural theology, it is not clear that the natural theology of the Bible itself can be sufficient. Once again we see: natural theology is supported by the Bible, may be made to combine with the Bible, but is also an aspect of the cultural limitedness of the Bible. The Bible, especially the Old Testament, built upon the Near Eastern cultural patterns of the Semitic-speaking peoples. It knew nothing about the way in which the world had actually originated or how the earliest human beings had lived. It knew nothing about what was going on in China or South America, where considerable civilizations already existed in Old Testament times. All this, needless to say, is relevant to questions of the Churches in the Third World today, and the question of whether, and how far, there is an indigenous basis of thought in their own cultures, as distinct from the taking over of ideas from the Western Churches. But here we shall have to leave it for the present.

  • 1.

    Here one should bear in mind the very considerable impact of the thought of Martin Buber and of John Macmurray, both of whom were very influential in the upbuilding of Scottish Barthianism in the period 1940–60.

  • 2.

    See Wolfhart Schlichting, Biblische Denkform in der Dogmatik (Zurich: Theologischer Verlag, 1971)—a work on an important theme, but one that seems unfortunately to be almost slavishly uncritical concerning Barth's success in this regard.

  • 3.

    Cf. also E. Jüngel, God as the Mystery of the World (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1983), and J. B. Webster, Eberhard Jüngel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), esp. 80 f.

  • 4.

    D. Ritschl, The Logic of Theology (London: SCM, 1986), 139 f., 155; German original, Zur Logik der Theologie (Munich: Kaiser, 1984), 176 f., 194.

  • 5.

    Already discussed in my Escaping from Fundamentalism (London: SCM, 1984), 26 f.

  • 6.

    On this cf. already my The Semantics of Biblical Language (London: Oxford University Press, 1961), 252 f. and n. 1.

  • 7.

    A. Kenny, The God of the Philosophers (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), 93, 98.

  • 8.

    That the Old Testament contains no idea of a divine ‘plan’ was shown by B. Albrektson. History and the Gods (Lund: Gleerup, 1967), ch. 5, pp. 68 ff.

  • 9.

    Kenny, The God of the Philosophers, 6; cf. also below, Ch. 9.

  • 10.

    See J. Barr, Biblical Words for Time (2nd edn., London: SCM, 1969), esp. 117.

  • 11.

    I accept the caution expressed by Dr Peter Hayman of Edinburgh in his learned article ‘Monotheism: A Misused Word in Jewish Studies’, JJS 42 (1991), 1–15. Within the world of Jewish religion ‘monotheism’ may well be too simple and universal a term. But from the point of view of comparison with, say, the world of Homer, the Jewish religion appears extremely different and ‘monotheism’ seems a natural word to express the difference.

  • 12.

    Cf. my brief discussions in the articles ‘Monotheism’ and ‘Polytheism’, in Harper's Bible Dictionary (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), 652 and 806 f.; earlier, and somewhat immaturely, ‘The Problem of Israelite Monotheism’, TGUOS 17 (1957–8), 52–62.

  • 13.

    For relevant thoughts in these regards, see John C. L. Gibson, ‘The Theology of the Ugaritic Baal Cycle’, Orientalia 53 (1984), 202–19: note his words (219): ‘The Ugaritic Baal Cycle, so interpreted, enshrines in my estimation a view of reality, a natural theology, if you like, that reflects the greatest credit on the mythic poets who composed it.’ See also his ‘Language about God in the Old Testament’, Cosmos, 5, (1989). 43–50.

  • 14.

    Schmithals (Ch. 3 above) makes an analogous point when he argues that Jews did not require the theology of creation implied by Romans 1, because as Jews they were fully informed about creation by the Torah. This is an analogous observation, but my point is not about what was, eventually, in the Torah, but about how the view of creation in Genesis came to be formed.

  • 15.

    The Church's insistence on the authority of Aristotle in scientific matters is an obvious instance; and provides an obvious reason why Reformers and others came to be opposed to natural theology in general.

  • 16.

    H. Dembowski, ‘Natürliche Theologie—Theologie der Natur’, Ev. Th. 45 (1985), 225.

  • 17.

    See my Escaping from Fundamentalism (= Beyond Fundamentalism (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984)), 88 f.