Wednesday, August 10, 2022

On Natural Theology and Jordan Steffaniak's version of it

Some time ago on the London Lyceum, Jordan Steffaniak posted an article arguing that a recovery of Natural Theology is necessary and that the doctrine is indeed Reformed. Steffaniak first defined what he thinks Natural Theology is not, what it is, and argues for its pressence in various Reformed Confessional arguments and the writings of Reformed theologians up to the present time. As someone who is critical of Natural Theology and has written a book review of David Haines' book on the matter, I was of course intrigued by the article. I have read it, and would thus like to make some comments on it

In the article, Steffaniak first states what he believes Natural Theology is not. According to Steffaniak,

  1. Natural theology isn’t identical to the arguments for the existence of God (e.g., the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, etc.)
  2. Natural theology isn’t a means of understanding God in contradiction to supernatural theology (Scripture)
  3. Natural theology isn’t a means of understanding God completely apart from the norming norm of supernatural theology (Scripture)
  4. Natural theology isn’t required to begin apart from Scripture
  5. Natural theology isn’t a foundation from which supernatural theology is built
  6. Natural theology isn’t a project of natural salvation apart from Scripture

So what is Natural Theology? Natural Theology is to be defined as:

The task of utilizing natural means via our renewed reason (i.e., the light of nature) in service of theological construction under the authority of Scripture, the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and the context of the church.

In footnote 3, Steffaniak rejects Haines' definition of Natural Theology. According to Steffaniak,

Haines is right in some respects but wrong in the neutrality of natural theology. It is not alone. Indeed, no such natural theology is even possible for the Christian given their previous acquaintance with supernatural theology.

On Steffaniak's concept of Natural Theology

How should we think about Steffaniak's take on Natural Theology? Most certainly, Steffaniak has removed the objectionable parts of what is normally termed "Natural Theology." First of all, I am glad that Natural Theology is not to be seen as identical with arguments on the existence of God. But most importantly, Natural Theology is not to be thought of being apart from Scripture, function as a foundation for supernatural theology, and be in any way salvific. These are the most objectionable parts of "Natural Theology." Natural Theology being construed as utilizing natural means via renewed reason to understand God and the world is something one can find and defend in Scripture, and most certainly is taught in the Reformed Confessions and by many Reformed theologians. In this sense, "Natural Theology" as Steffaniak has construed it sounds almost if not identical with what I would consider General Revelation (and Natural Law as part of that General Revelation), and thus I would accept it as wholly biblical. Perhaps some clarification could be offered here?

What is in a name?

Having said that, I would like to question this move by Steffaniak. Perhaps it is good retrieving this particular term "Natural Theology" in this particular orthodox sense. But should we "redeem" this phrase? I would like to note that Haines' definition is more than just postulating a natural theology for Christians, but goes beyond that to make "Natural Theology" a sort of common ground whereby unbelievers can discuss true things concerning God. After all, Haines in his book did define it as "that part of philosophy that explores what man can know about God ... without presupposing the truth of any religion"' (Haines, Natural Theology: A Biblical and Historical Introduction and Defense, 12). It seems from my reading that Haines' natural theology is accessible to unbelievers, not just Christians. Haines' Natural Theology thus seems to be related to ressourcement and the idea that one should return to the "pristine philosophy" of "Christian Platonism" and Aristotelianism.

More importantly for the purpose at hand, from my experience at least, the default understanding of "natural theology" among many people is that it is theology done apart from the Scriptures, done by exegeting nature or thinking philosophically. Perhaps Steffaniak has a different experience from mine, but I wold suggest that a significant number of people have this definition of "Natural Theology" in mind when they hear of this phrase. Given that the exact phrase "natural theology" is not biblical and not confessional, is it necessary for us to retrieve this phrase as Steffaniak has done? Could we just use the phrase "general revelation" instead, or must we use a phrase that seems to me liable to much misunderstanding?

Concluding thoughts

In conclusion, Steffaniak's article on Natural Theology is helpful. But I am still not convinced that we must "retrieve" this particular phrase. I am not even sure that Steffaniak's retrieval is helpful in discussons about Natural Theology, for imagine the confusion when participants possess different definitions of "natural theology" and talk past each other. Would Steffaniak's retrieval aid clarity to the discussions about natural theology, or only cause more confusion when one engages those using Haime's defintion of the phrase? At least for the moment, I would continue being critical of the phrase, and use the phrases "General Revelation" and "Natural Law" instead of "Natural Theology."

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