Considering Natural Theology (lite)

It is not difficult to think of examples of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It seems such a foolish error that we might assume that the really smart people we choose as thought leaders certainly never would make such a mistake.

 

Over the last couple of days, I randomly and informally approached the question of the future of Christianity in the current transformative time. Spitballing really, but it is becoming clear, that some things worked partially, for a time and now show cracks and other ways seem to better produce some of what I would think to be desirable. It all raises more questions than answers. But there is one thing I think I can say that is generally wrong across Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox thinking.

 

It all begins with critical and influential thinkers in each of those traditions rejecting an entire concept because it is tied to men that hold another concept that they find disfavorable, and thus the baby goes with the bathwater.  Let's consider, and we will begin with the Catholics.

 

The Catholics define our conscience, the thing that tells us right from wrong as being part of natural law. This is a historical understanding at least, I am not an expert on modern Catholic theology but I do know Catholics have asked me why I am not myself a Catholic because of my view of natural law, so I assume it is still there with them in doctrine. In very simple terms it is natural law that tells us as a toddler that it is not fair if another child takes our toy. We know it because it is a universal. We can ignore it, but so long as we can hear our conscience, it is there. That is the very simple explaination.

 

The Orthodox were predisposed from the beginning to reject the notion of natural law, in the Catholic sense, because of their theology related to deification. To them, man can only know God through the ‘eye of the Soul’ with the help of the Holy Spirit. It is impossible, more or less, in Orthodox theology to know anything of God outside of God. This was fundamentally a rejection of the influence of philosophy on Christianity, (their view). In a very broad sense, the Orthodox position is correct, man cannot know God outside of God but taken to an extreme the Orthodox view fails to explain humans and history.

 

Then came the reformers. Luther and Calvin, mostly Calvin, looked at the world and Scripture and the broken and corrupt Catholic Church and concluded that “none were righteous, no not one”. The fall occurred and man was broken and separated from God, man lived in a state of total depravity, separated from God and only able to know anything of God through God. The reformers believed human nature itself had fallen, disagreeing with the Orthodox, and that we needed the Holy Spirit and revelation to know of God, mostly agreeing with the Orthodox. To address the obvious difficulty of explaining that good things occur in the world outside of Christians directly acting the Reformers added the concept of General Revelation and tied that to societies and people. This is a sort of conditional natural law, a blessing on people for reasons and seasons according to God’s sovereignty.

 

It is easy to see how wrong one can go with Catholic natural theology. A person can reason back to a first mover, a prime cause in the universe and then call that entity anything they like. You could end up a theist, Muslim, Catholic, or Methodist. Taken to an extreme a Catholic could sit with any other theist and call them “brother”; that is absurd. When Paul sat with the Athenians he was speaking to theists that had reasoned through a form of natural theology to gods. Paul spoke truth to them, told them they were without excuse for knowing God because they had already figured out there must be a god. The Orthodox and Calvinists are correct, the Athenians could not know God without the revelation of God, but it is also incorrect to state they were powerless to know there has to be a god in the first place.

 

Likewise, it was probably always wrong to take “total depravity” to mean, without any ability to act decently. The history of mankind is not one of neighbor killing neighbor and roasting them on a fire pit. We come very close, often, but something inside of us civilizes us, even those that reject revelation. The reformed tradition would tell us that is general revelation, this thing that protects us and civilizes us and there seems to be truth to that. But to account for that being the only force throughout history, and nothing else inside individual humans removes all possibility of agency. I am oversimplifying, but I think the doctrine itself is often overcomplicated. Man is unrighteous without God, that is simple and true enough.

 

Perhaps that is the point I wish to make. Adopting dogmatic position of the extreme meaning of a term can result in logical fallacies that do not result in properly explaining the world. All of the positions above could be said to hold some truth, in simple and broad terms, and all could be said to be flawed, if taken to a natural end. In simple terms, natural theology ought not to affect a proper Christology nor epistemology of important things. We can reason back to a first cause, and we can observe in toddlers, and dogs even, the law of fairness written into their hearts. Man can be depraved, separated and broken, and still have within his nature knowledge that points him back to his Creator and the laws of the universe. His depravity can merely be his will and agency rejecting that which he ought to know.

 

Again, I am just spitballing, I am not suggesting a new orthodox reformed catholic doctrine. I do suggest that sometimes humans get into camps and reject some good to ensure we purge the bad.