Natural Theology vs. Dogmatic Theology

Natural Theology is the branch of philosophy which investigates what human reason unaided by revelation can tell us concerning God. The end at which it aims is to demonstrate the existence of God, to establish the principal divine attributes, to vindicate God's relation to the world as that of the Creator to the creature, and, finally, to throw what light it can on the action of divine providence with regard to man and the problem of evil. In the discussion of these questions the apologist bases his conclusions purely and solely on the data afforded by natural reason. He claims that these are sufficient for his purpose: that in this manner the mind may, from the contemplation of the visible universe, come to a knowledge of the First Cause from whom it proceeds: from the experience of finite beings to a knowledge of the Infinite Being, whose perfections are reflected by the things of the created world. Another name given to this science is Theodicy. The term seems to have been coined by Leibniz, and its literal meaning is "the justification of God." As used by him it implied his own special viewpoint, which was that of an exaggerated optimism. He conceived it to be the function of Theodicy to demonstrate that, even with all the physical and moral evils of the world, we have no valid reason for thinking that the existing order of providence is not the best that even divine omnipotence could have devised. With later writers, however, the word no longer has this significance, but is simply synonymous with Natural Theology. In this sense it is appropriate enough, since Natural Theology has as its professed object to vindicate our belief in God, and to deal with objections, which argue against His existence or against His infinite perfections. The philosophical systems which assert the existence of God fall into three classes: deism, pantheism and theism.

Deism teaches that God created the world, but that having created it, He leaves it to the guidance of those laws which He established at its creation, abstaining from further interference. This lack of personal influence extends to the physical and moral order. There is no such thing as a personal providence: nor does prayer avail to obtain His special assistance. The remoteness of God in relation to the world is fundamental in this system.

Pantheism goes to the other extreme. It denies that there is any distinction between God and the universe. Nothing exists, it contends, except God. The universe is, in fact, simply the Divine Being evolving itself in various forms.

Theism holds a middle position between these. Like deism, it maintains the doctrine of creation, affirming that finite things are fundamentally distinct from their Infinite Maker. But it rejects the teaching which makes God remote from the world. It asserts, on the contrary, that God is, and must be, ever present to every created thing, sustaining it in existence and conferring upon it whatever activity it possesses: that "in Him we live and move and are". Further, that He exercises a special and detailed providence over the whole course of things, interfering as He sees fit, and guiding all things to their respective ends. The Natural Theology which I aim to defend in this article is completely theistic. I contend that the conclusions of theism may be demonstratively established, and that it will be evident that no other system is capable of a rational defense.

Natural Theology is rightly termed a science. A science is an organized body of truth regarding some special object of thought. Currently our culture uses the term to denote the physical or empirical sciences alone. This is a misleading use of the word. The characteristics of scientific knowledge as distinguished from the mere experience of particulars are generality, organization and certainty. These characteristics are most fully realized when the system of knowledge consists of principles of admitted certainty and of conclusions derived from these by a rigorous process of deductive proof. For example, mathematics. The method and object of Natural Theology are very different from those of mathematics; but it is science for the same reason. Both disciplines offer us a body of securely established truths regarding a specific object, reached by deduction from general principles, and organized into a systematic whole. In claiming for Natural Theology the character of science, we must not be understood to maintain that it solves all difficulties concerning God and His providence over man. Difficulties remain, even when the human mind has done its best, as indeed they remain in the physical sciences. This does not destroy a science's value. The human intellect finds its innate object in that material world which the senses reveal to it. Only by a serious process of reasoning can it attain any knowledge of what is immaterial. Therefore, it stands to reason that its knowledge of the Infinite Being must be fragmentary and imperfect. Yet where the supreme object of human thought is concerned, even such imperfect knowledge as is within our reach is of far greater worth than the most perfect knowledge of any aspect of the created order, and its attainment affords an end more deserving of our attention than the discovery of any physical law. Also, though the idea of God thus gained is fragmentary, it is at least vastly more adequate than the conceptions of Him which arise in the mind apart from scientific reflection, such as those offered by cultists inventing their own religion. Such notions of God are invariably deeply tinged with anthropomorphism. Only through philosophical analysis do we learn to attribute to God perfections made known to us in creatures, and yet to abstract from them in this reference the many limitations which adhere to them as realized in the finite order.

It should be stressed that Natural Theology is not an independent science in its own right, but a portion of the science of metaphysics. For it to rank as a complete science distinct from others we would have to possess a direct insight into the Divine Nature itself, and be able to derive our conclusions from the principles proper to that nature as such. We are unable to do so, since the Infinite Nature is utterly beyond the ability of the finite mind to comprehend. In this sense there is no science of God. The point is a very important one, since here we have the ultimate reason for the incomplete and fragmentary character of Natural Theology. Our knowledge of God consists of a series of conclusions concerning Him, viewed simply as the First Cause of Being. Being is the object of metaphysics: and the body of truths which relate to the Supreme Being form a section of that science.

The problems here under discussion are the most important that can be presented to the human mind. We should not concern ourselves with petty academic disputes or the circular and rote arguments of Atheistic Naturalists, but with vital issues which force themselves upon the mind of any rational person, and demand an answer. If it is demonstrably certain that there is a God, infinite in all perfections, the Creator of all things and exercising a direct and immediate supervision over every action of His creatures, it follows that His will must be the rule of our life, and that our primary duty is the observance of His laws. Only in so far as we use our freedom to this end, can we hope to obtain the gift of eternal life with our Creator. If, on the other hand, there is, as Atheistic Naturalists claim, no sufficient ground for affirming the existence of God or of divine providence, we are bound by no such obligation, and holiness is not to be sought in Absolute Truth and Goodness; concepts devoid of objective reality. The best man could do in such a world is reflect relative goodness, and recognize no Absolute Truth and Goodness exists. It is obvious that a man's whole attitude in regard to life and its activities depends on which of these worldviews he adopts. Nor does the choice between theism and materialism affect his individual life alone. Its consequences are no less profound in the social and political order. To see this it is only necessary to realize how different the conceptions of human progress are which men will entertain under the two different worldviews, since progress consists in advance towards a worthy end, and no end is worthy of man's pursuit which diverts him from the ultimate goal of his being, and which cannot be brought into relation to that last end. Where no other end of human effort is recognized than temporal well-being, progress will be held to consist in such things as the advance of the arts and sciences, the development of material resources, and the increase of national wealth. But if throughout society there is a firm conviction that man"s true end lies in the attainment of God, then, though men will not cease to set a high value on temporal well-being, they will recognize that it may be bought at too dear a cost, and that if obtained by the sacrifice of a higher good, national prosperity may be detrimental, not beneficial, to those who secure it.

The controversy with deism and pantheism is no less decisive with regard to our outlook on existence than that with materialism. The philosophy of deism is wholly incompatible with personal faith. According to this system, as we have seen, God is entirely remote from His creatures. He does not intervene in their lives, but leaves the world to the working of natural law. The personal relation between God and the human soul, which is the very presupposition of the Christian Faith, has no existence. The pantheist, if he is faithful to his principles, can neither admit personality in God nor free will in man. Further, he must deny any ultimate distinction between moral good and moral evil. To him both are moments in the one all-inclusive substance, which is God.

We must not, however, be understood to imply that the detailed proofs of Natural Theology are requisite to convince men of the existence of God. On the contrary, we maintain that the evidence for that truth is so plain to see and so cogent, that no rational being can remain in inculpable ignorance regarding it. The mind of man instinctively asks where the universe which surrounds him came from, and the answer which forces itself upon him is that it was formed by the will of a Supreme Being, a personal agent as he himself is. Furthermore, within him the voice of conscience enforces the authority of the moral law, approving all obedience and sternly condemning any disobedience to its commands. And this sense of obligation conveys to him the assurance that that law is the expression of the will of a Supreme Lawgiver, to whom he is responsible. In these ways reason spontaneously and without any detailed research affirms the existence of God. Natural Theology gives us the scientific elaboration of these arguments. It shows that, simple as they are, they are philosophically valid; that no fallacy renders them worthless; that they are, if properly understood, irrefutable. Further, since difficulties and objections are likely to suggest themselves to thoughtful minds, it deals with these, and demonstrates that satisfactory answers can be given to them, and that none can be adduced that can shake the certainty of the conclusion.

There are many ways of establishing God's existence; some of them simple, such as those which I've briefly mentioned, as well as others of a lesser known character and demanding a trained intellect to appreciate their value. Yet the idea of God which springs spontaneously to the mind is, as we have already noted, very imperfect. It sets before us a Supreme Being, endowed with intellect and will, to whom man owes the debt of obedience and of worship. However, this is its limit. It sheds little light on the character and attributes of that Being. It barely scratches the surface of His infinite perfections, His omnipotence, His position as Creator of the world, His justice, His mercy —these are not matters of immediate recognition. For any assurance about them, recourse must be had to reflective reason since we then proceed to the question of a supernatural revelation. Man needs a true philosophy of God—in other words, a sound Natural Theology. And unless he is given such guidance, he will go wildly astray, and fall into errors with the most serious consequences.

The question naturally arises then: What are the relations between Natural Theology and Dogmatic Theology? How do they differ? How is it that one or the other is not superfluous? It should be understood, first, that, though both address questions on God, they are radically distinct as branches of knowledge. Natural Theology addresses God solely in so far as He is known by the natural reason. The principles from which it derives its conclusions are the intuitions of the mind and the facts of experience. The scope of those conclusions is very limited. They relate to God purely and solely in so far as He is the First Cause of Being. A science of God as known in His own essential nature is utterly beyond the range of the unaided intellect. By intellect alone we know no more of God than we can gather from the philosophy of being. Dogmatic Theology has a very different character. It is based, not on natural knowledge, but on what God has taught us regarding Himself in the Christian revelation. Unlike Natural Theology, it is derived from a direct and immediate intuition of the Divine nature as such, for its ultimate source is God's knowledge of His own essence. Its data are truths regarding that nature made known to us by God the Son and His chosen apostles, and contained in Sacred Scripture. Differing this way in sources, the two sciences differ greatly in regard to the information they relate. Thus Dogmatic Theology deals with many subjects which are beyond the scope of Natural Theology, such as the mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation. It does not profess to explain these doctrines as to make them in all respects comprehensible, since the mysteries of the Godhead are of necessity beyond the reach of man's finite intelligence. But it analyses their precise meaning, establishes their mutual relations, and demonstrates that they do not conflict with the assured conclusions of reason. Thus it would be a mistake to confuse the two sciences-Dogmatic Theology and Natural Theology. They view God under different aspects, and even when they teach the same truth, they reach it by totally different paths. Both of these branches of knowledge are necessary. Neither would suffice for man's needs without the other. If the path of reason was our sole means of learning about God, our provision for the practical conduct of life would be inadequate. A knowledge of the fundamental truths of God is important for all. Everyone needs to know that God is one and is supreme, that He is not bound in His action either by blind fate nor by an opponent principle of evil, that whatever befalls us, if we are faithful, He will turn all things to our good; that He will reward the good and punish the evil. We need to know these things as certainties beyond all possibility of question.