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Part I: The Knowledge of God

Lecture I: “Natural Theology” and the Teaching of the Reformation


Lord Gifford, who died in 1887, left a will containing two unambiguously clear requirements in regard to the lectures to be held in the four Scottish Universities on the basis of the lectureship founded by him. The law of good faith towards the will of the founder demands that those who have the honour to be commissioned with the holding of this lectureship shall take note of these requirements without altering their meaning. It requires also that the content of their lectures shall meet these requirements within the limits of what is possible for the lecturers. The two requirements of Lord Gifford are as follows:—

1. The lecturers shall have as their subject “Natural Theology” “in the widest sense of the term”; by this is clearly meant the highest perfection of what in the history of the Christian church has generally been understood by “Natural Theology”—a science of God, of the relations in which the world stands to Him and of the human ethics and morality resulting from the knowledge of Him. This science is to be constructed independently of all historical religions and religious bodies as a strict natural science like chemistry and astronomy “without reference to or reliance upon any supposed special exceptional or so-called miraculous revelation.” According to the presuppositions of “Natural Theology” as Lord Gifford understood the term—and he was perfectly correct in understanding it in this way—there does exist a knowledge of God and His connection with the world and men, apart from any special and supernatural revelation. This is a knowledge which perhaps requires and is capable of development and cultivation, but is none the less a knowledge which man as man is master of, just as he is of chemical and astronomical knowledge. It is a knowledge of which man, since as man he still stands in an original relation to God, indisputably possesses, and it is therefore a knowledge which he only requires to discover, as something which he himself possesses, as he discovers the mathematical laws which lie at the basis of chemistry and astronomy, in order then to apply them to these sciences. It is just this knowledge which is at man's disposal from his origin, which “Natural Theology” has in the course of its development to present.

2. The Gifford Lectures shall serve the “promoting, advancing, teaching and diffusing” of the study of such natural theology, and that “among all classes of society” and “among the whole population of Scotland.” What is required therefore is both a definite service intensively, the deepening and clarifying of this science within itself, to be afforded by means of these lectures, and a definite service extensively—public teaching in its import and propaganda for its methods and results.


I feel that more than one, though perhaps not all, of those who in the past have given these lectures must have had to rack their brains over these requirements of Lord Gifford's, but I am sure that to none of my distinguished predecessors have they given so much trouble as to me.

Permit me to state at once quite frankly the reason for this. I certainly see—with astonishment—that such a science as Lord Gifford had in mind does exist, but I do not see how it is possible for it to exist. I am convinced that so far as it has existed and still exists, it owes its existence to a radical error. How then should I be in a position to further and to spread it? Further, the difficulty with which I am faced, so far as I understand the matter, does not lie merely in the personal opinions which I happen to possess. It lies in a circumstance much more important and compelling than any private opinion—namely, in my calling as a theologian of the Reformed Church, a calling which I cannot well exchange for any other, e.g. for that of a philosopher or psychologist. If I wish to remain in my calling and true to it—and I have no choice in the matter—I am not in the position to do justice to the task set me by Lord Gifford's will “in direct affirmation and fufilment of the intention of the testator.” As a Reformed theologian I am subject to an ordinance which would keep me away from “Natural Theology,” even if my personal opinions inclined me to it. I am of course aware that both in the past and in recent times there have been Reformed theologians also, to whom “Natural Theology,” at least in a rather weakened and obscure sense of the term, appeared to be no impossible pursuit. I feel, however, that precisely the strong and clear sense in which this conception appears in the will of Lord Gifford, must make it clear even to the most innocent of men—even if he does not know it otherwise—that it cannot really be the business of a Reformed theologian to raise so much as his little finger to support this undertaking in any positive way.

In the face of this critical state of affairs I am happy to be in a position to mention that in the summer of 1935, after I had received the honour of being invited to give these lectures, I expressly reminded the Senatus of this University of the fact that “I am an avowed opponent of all natural theology.” Since this invitation was none the less sustained and a part of the responsibility for the resulting situation has been taken from me, I would like briefly to explain in what sense I propose to bear my share of this responsibility and to satisfy the duty of good faith toward the will of the testator, since I have accepted this invitation.

I do not know anything which could prevent me from doing justice at least indirectly to his intentions. “Natural Theology” is thrown into relief by the dark background of a totally different theology. It is openly or secretly conducting a discussion with this other theology. It exists in antithesis to this theology and, as the will of Lord Gifford itself clearly shows, it has its whole emotional appeal in its antithesis to this other theology. “Natural Theology” has to make itself known, demonstrate itself and maintain itself over against this other theology by distinguishing itself from it and protesting against it. How could it do otherwise? It has at any rate never done otherwise with vigour and success. When “Natural Theology” has this opponent no longer in view, it is notorious how soon it tends to become arid and listless. And when its conflict with this adversary no longer attracts attention, it is also notorious that interest too in “Natural Theology” soon tends to flag. Why then should the service not be rendered it of presenting to it once more this its indispensable opponent, since the requirement is that “Natural Theology” shall here be served? And this opponent is that totally different theology by which “Natural Theology” lives, in so far as it must affirm what the other denies and deny what the other affirms. I could well imagine that there could be nothing more animating and stimulating for all wholehearted and halfhearted friends of “Natural Theology” than to listen to this totally different theology once again. I could well imagine that by gaining a hearing for the voice of this totally different theology, to the best of my ability and understanding, I may actually win new friends and new sympathy for “Natural Theology” in all spheres of society. I could well imagine that all those who do not know that ordinance which prevents me from devoting myself to “Natural Theology” will, on hearing my lectures, feel themselves confirmed in their intention to devote themselves for their part all the more to “Natural Theology.” But however that may be, it can only be to the good of “Natural Theology” to be able once again to measure itself as the truth—if it is the truth!—by that which from its point of view is the greatest of errors. Opportunity is to be given it to do this here. And in this sense I propose to satisfy Lord Gifford's requirements.


This background and antithesis to “Natural Theology,” however, is the knowledge of God and the service of God according to the teaching of the Reformation, and it is about this that I would like to speak in these lectures, all the time continuing in my calling and subject to its ordinance, and continuing true to both of them. Roman Catholic theology stands in no clear antithesis to “Natural Theology” and just as little does this antithesis hold good of modern Protestant theology, as it has attained sway in most non-Roman churches since about the year 1700. Both are based on compromises with “Natural Theology.” Were I a Roman Catholic or a Protestant Modernist, I could not render “Natural Theology” the service which I would like to render it here. But the Reformation and the teaching of the Reformation churches stand in an antithesis to “Natural Theology” which is at once clear and instructive for both.

It is well known that the sixteenth century was not yet able to see that so clearly as we must see it to-day after the developments of the last four hundred years. The Reformers occasionally made a guarded and conditional use of the possibility of “Natural Theology” (as, e.g. Calvin in the first chapters of his Institutes), but they made occasionally also an unguarded and unconditional use of it (as did, e.g. Luther and Calvin in their teaching on the Law)—that, however, in no way alters the principle, that the revival of the gospel by Luther and Calvin consisted in their desire to see both the church and human salvation founded on the Word of God alone, on God's revelation in Jesus Christ, as it is attested in the Scripture, and on faith in that Word. This is the reason why their teaching—if we disregard the fact that in its historical form it is not absolutely free from certain elements of “Natural Theology”—is the clear antithesis to that form of teaching which declares that man himself possesses the capacity and the power to inform himself about God, the world and man. From the point of view of Reformed teaching what could be more impossible than this task, undertaken by all “Natural Theology”? And similarly because the teaching of the Reformation is so absolute an opponent of “Natural Theology,” the latter could have no other opponent, whom it must look full in the face so frankly and with so much interest. We shall have opportunity here and there in these lectures to make this antithesis clear.

But the proving of this antithesis is not to be the aim of these lectures. They will not therefore be devoted to the refutation of “Natural Theology.” This is not only because this aim would be incompatible with good faith towards Lord Gifford's will. The decisive reason is that the Reformation teaching does not live by its antithesis to “Natural Theology” in the way in which the latter lives by its antithesis to Reformed teaching. Even if there were no “Natural Theology,” Reformed teaching would be just as it is. It lives independently by its positive content. For this reason we must turn our attention to this positive content—and we must do so for the sake of our proposed service to “Natural Theology” as well. If it is to know whom it is contradicting and if it is really to have the opportunity once more of measuring itself by its most dangerous opponent, it must not hear exclusively or even primarily this opponent's denial of it, but must first and foremost hear the positive affirmation of that opponent, in order that then and from that position it may perhaps also understand the denial which is directed against it. In these lectures I shall therefore endeavour to speak not negatively but positively, without, however, losing sight of the problem of “Natural Theology.”


In order to remind us that we are dealing here not with my personal opinions but with the teaching of the Reformed church, these lectures on that teaching will not take the form of an independent outline, but will be connected with a document of the Reformation. Further, taking into account the specifically Scottish character of the Gifford foundation, this document will be a document of the Scottish Reformation. In responsibility towards what was 325 years later offered “to the whole population of Scotland,” I am letting John Knox and his friend speak in their Confessio Scotica of 1560. This is not to take the form of an historical analysis of the Scottish Confession, but that of a theological paraphrase and elucidation of the document as it speaks to-day and as we to-day by a careful objective examination of its content can hear it speak. I say “to-day” advisedly. I am aware that in present-day Scotland the Confessio Scotica has no longer any significance as a standard of the church. Naturally it has no significance in that sense for me either. On that account we shall be in a position to listen to what it has to say all the more impartially. The Confession of a church, if it was once a good confession, cannot lose its message just because it has lost its significance as a standard of the church. He that has ears to hear, hears it even then. And the confession of John Knox is a good confession—and, moreover, in many respects a very original and interesting confession. And besides, even if it had significance as a standard of the church, it could not even then be understood as a code of doctrine binding us by its letters and sentences. Reformation teaching knows of no law set over it except the spiritual law of the Scripture, which must be heeded ever anew. Reformation teaching neither can nor will insinuate itself between us and Scripture. The Confessio Scotica itself declares in Article 18: “The interpretation [of Scripture] we confesse, neither appertaines to private nor publick persone, nether zit to ony Kirk for ony preheminence or prerogative personallie or locallie, quhilk ane hes above ane uther, bot apperteines to the Spirite of God, be the quhilk also the Scripture was written.” And it applies this to itself in the words of the preface, “Protestand that gif onie man will note in this our confessioun onie artickle or sentence repugnand to Gods Halie word, that it wald pleis him of his gentleness and for christian charities sake to admonish us of the same in writing; and we upon our honoures and fidelitie, be Gods grace do promise unto him satisfactioun fra the mouth of God, that is fra his haly scriptures, or else reformation of that quhilk he sal prove to be amisse.” That means manifestly that when we associate ourselves with this document, we must at the same time remain free in relation to it—free to give heed to the Scripture itself. The Confessio Scotica wishes to be read and understood as a signpost pointing to Scripture. To understand it in any other sense would be to fail to understand it in its true and historical significance. Therefore the theological paraphrase and elucidation of the Confessio Scotica, that I would like to offer here, is to be a repetition, exposition and presentation of its text in the way in which according to its own purport it desires to be read and understood to-day—as a witness to Scripture and therefore in the light of Scripture, which authenticates but also criticises it. It goes without saying that my treatment of the text of the Confession is subjected to the same standard and ultimately to this standard only.