The need for natural theology: a critical evaluation of the natural-revealed theology debate and its relevance for contemporary discussion

by John S. Summerwill

© John S. Summerwill 2020. All rights reserved.


Until the 20th century natural theology was the partner of revealed theology, both being considered necessary in the training of preachers and ministers. Natural theology is human reasoning about God which seeks to discern what can be known of God from God's creation and includes the traditional philosophical arguments for the existence of God. Revealed theology is that which comes from reflection on God's work in salvation through Christ and is derived from the scriptures. Natural theology came to be seen as problematical when science challenged traditional views of creation and Karl Barth argued that nothing can be known about God except by revelation. In recent times, however, there has been a revival of interest in it. This essay explores the potential value of natural theology and the ways it which it could help to dissolve the conflicts between science and religion, support a more ecologically aware religious outlook and bridge the gaps between religions.

The roots of natural theology
Barth’s dismissal of natural theology
Why natural theology is needed today
Some current approaches to natural theology


The heavens declare thy glory, Lord,
In every star thy wisdom shines;
But when our eyes behold thy word,
We read thy name in fairer lines.

The rolling sun, the changing light,
And night and day, thy power confess;
But the blest volume thou hast writ
Reveals thy justice and thy grace.

Isaac Watts’ lines express a sentiment that would have been uncontroversial among both Protestants and Catholics, not only in the 18th century, but in almost any Christian century until the 20th. From God’s created world we may deduce by natural theology God’s glory and power: from scripture, the source of revealed theology, God’s justice and grace. From the earliest days of Christianity there has always been recognition that natural theology and revealed theology are both valid, though revealed theology has tended to be regarded more highly.

In this essay we shall explore the significance of natural theology, why it became unfashionable, and how far the criticism of it was justified. We shall identify some of the challenges to Christianity that might be more effectively met with the help of a robust new natural theology, and use these as benchmarks in a critical evaluation of the views of some leading 20th century and contemporary theologians, both opponents and advocates of natural theology. Finally we shall draw some conclusions.

It would require another essay to examine adequately the philosophical issues of epistemology involved in the debate about revelation. For present purposes let us take it for granted: that God can be known at all only by God’s willing self-disclosure; that within the Bible there is material that Christians receive as testimony to revelation and as a medium of revelation; and that central to Christian understanding is the gospel claim that the Word that was in the beginning with God became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14), thereby revealing uniquely the nature and will of God. All of these assumptions are highly controversial outside the tent of theology, but we cannot address them here.

The roots of natural theology

In general terms, natural theology is that knowledge of God that can be perceived by observation of the world, by reflection on experience and by reason. It includes conscience. In patristic times it was often associated with philosophy. From the time of Thomas Aquinas (13th cent), probably its most illustrious exponent, it was particularly associated with arguments for the existence of God, and in some quarters came to be so exclusively linked with them as to lose other meanings. Much of the rather sterile argument between natural and revealed theology in the 20th century, as we shall see, stems from too narrow a concept of natural theology.

Although natural theology is not named as such in the Old Testament, that God may be known from the creation is taken for granted. Psalm 8 and Psalm 104 particularly express recognition of the handiwork of God as evidenced in the glory of the night sky and the diversity of the creatures. The creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2, relatively late writings, in similar fashion give expression to God’s work in creation, the goodness of that creation, and God’s special relationship with human beings, who are made in God’s ‘image and likeness’. Many other passages, mainly post-exilic, express similar or related thoughts, such as Isaiah 40 and much of the Book of Job.

The assumption behind such passages is that something about the creator God is or should be evident to anyone who looks and thinks. The oldest covenant of all is not that revealed to the Israelites alone on Sinai but the one made with Noah and all living creatures, symbolised by the rainbow visible to all, and carrying with it the obligation that people must not kill, for man is made in God’s image (Genesis 9:6). What is significant here is the expectation within it that everyone knows that; it is obvious for all to see; it is ‘natural’ theology.

In the New Testament likewise there are clear indications that even a church convinced that it had a mission to bring all humanity to the worship of the God revealed uniquely in Jesus believed that pagans already knew God. At Lystra Paul speaks of God who

did not leave himself without witness, for he did good and gave you from heaven rains and fruitful seasons.  (Acts 14:17)

Of particular importance is the address that Luke puts on Paul’s lips at Athens:

The God who made the world and everything in it...made from one every nation of men ... that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him. Yet he is not far from each one of us, for “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your poets have said, “For we are indeed his offspring.” (Acts 17:24-28)

Paul’s own writings include a highly significant passage for natural theology. In Romans 1 Paul says:

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; for although they knew God they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. (Romans 1:19-21)

In Romans 2, even more surprisingly, he claims that there is even a natural law in people’s conscience, which leaves people without excuse if they fail to observe it.

Underlying this natural theology in the Bible is an assumption that there is no fundamental inconsistency between philosophy and theology, a view that was not challenged until modern times. Clement of Alexandria (c.150-c.215), for example, saw philosophy as a prelude to faith:

Thus until the coming of the Lord, philosophy was necessary to the Greeks for righteousness And now it assists those who come to faith by way of demonstration, as a kind of preparatory for true religion. ... For God is the source of all good things, some directly (as with the Old and the New Testaments), and some indirectly (as with philosophy).
(Stromata I.v.28, quoted in McGrath (2007b:4).

The consensus view that saw natural and rev ealed theology as compatible and mutually supportive survived the Reformation and flourished in the 17th and 18th centuries as enlightenment ideas spread and scientific discoveries were all the rage. Newton, Paley and others saw the scientific enterprise as a religious one, providing a way of discovering more about the Creator through the creation. The Design Argument for the existence of God was seen as particularly compelling. Awe and wonder were the appropriate responses.

The development of rationalism, and of a secular approach to philosophical logic, began to bring challenges. Hume undermined the logic of the traditional arguments for the existence of God, demonstrating that miracles were impossible. Kant, though a believer, also critiqued the rational approach. In the 19th century the foundations of faith were shaken by two forces: natural theology seemed less credible after Darwin, while revealed theology was undermined by higher criticism and by a moral revolt against those parts of scripture that were seen as unchristian. The limitations of natural theology, which had always been in part evident, came to appear too crippling to make it of continuing use. What, after all, could be known about God from creation?  God’s transcendence, certainly, and immanence if one adopted a romantic nature-mysticism; God’s intelligence, sense of order and purpose. The moral critique, though, began to perceive more ambiguity in the picture. Was there really evidence in nature of God’s beneficence and providence? Was there not more evidence of anger, wrath, unpredictability, cruelty, random purposelessness?

A reaction—which came in fundamentalism and neo-orthodoxy—was inevitable, and since natural theology, science, philosophy and higher criticism were all linked as rational ways of discovering knowledge, it was also inevitable that natural theology would be spurned or treated with suspicion by those who thought that scriptural authority was being undermined.

Barth’s dismissal of natural theology

All of this tradition of natural theology, rooted as it is in scripture, was swept aside in 1934 when Emil Brunner and Karl Barth fell out over natural theology in an ill-tempered public debate. Brunner had attempted to revive an interest in natural theology essentially for apologetic and educational reasons, which Barth opposed. The issue had been festering for some time before Brunner in Nature and Grace (1934) summed up and responded to what he took to be Barth’s position. Baillie (2002:9) in his introduction to the English translation of Brunner’s pamphlet says that Brunner distinguishes between an objective sense of natural theology—such knowledge of God in creation as comes to those enlightened by Christian revelation,—and a ‘subjective sense accessible to the heathen or by rational argument’. Brunner supported the first only.

Brunner claims that the imago Dei, the image of God in which man was created, was not totally obliterated by the Fall. He distinguishes between two senses of the image: the formal, which refers to humanity and the rationality that sets man apart from other animals, and which has not been lost, and the material, which is completely lost. ‘Man is a sinner through and through and there is nothing in him which is not defiled by sin.’ (op.cit.:24) However, it is the fact that man still has the imago in the formal sense that gives a ‘capacity for revelation’ and ‘a point of contact’ between man and God.

Barth’s reply under the title ‘Nein!’ so ridiculed Brunner’s views that it ended their friendship. Barth did not wish to consider natural theology to be theology at all.

By “natural theology” I mean every (positive or negative) formulation of a system which claims to be theological, i.e. to interpret divine revelation, whose subject, however, differs fundamentally from the revelation in Jesus Christ and whose method therefore differs equally from the exposition of Holy Scripture. ...For “natural theology” does not exist as an entity capable of becoming a separate subject within what I consider to be real theology. (Barth (1934):75)

He claims that he was forced into the debate with Brunner because of the need to defend himself against Brunner’s misrepresentation of his views and the attribution to him by Brunner of views he had never expressed.

Barth rejects utterly Brunner’s claim that there is a human ‘capacity for revelation’ in human rationality. What about people lacking reason: newborn children and idiots? Has Christ not died for them?  Brunner has abandoned sola scriptura—sola gratia. ‘I am no longer able to distinguish him from a Thomist or Neo-Protestant’ (op. cit.:90). He all but accuses him of heresy.

Brunner was justified in his complaint against Barth that ‘It is not unfair to say that “this is Thomism, that is Neo-Protestantism” is his chief and practically sole argument’ (op.cit.:35), for Barth signally fails in the whole pamphlet to justify his objection to natural theology. He ridicules Brunner’s claims but fails to answer them with any convincing alternative, mainly because he has no firm grounds upon which to argue. His extreme position of claiming that scripture is the sole authority means that he cannot appeal to reason, nor to experience, nor to tradition.  The problem for both theologians is that they are both so fully committed to the principle that salvation is possible only through a conscious faith in Christ that neither can allow the possibility that saving knowledge of God was available in pre-Christian Israel. They cannot, in other words, take the Old Testament seriously.

By way of explanation of Barth’s implacable hostility to natural theology, it is usually said that his real underlying concern was that any truck with rational, liberal theology would give succour to those German Christians who were prepared to cooperate with Hitler and the Nazis. Barth feared a State take-over of the church, and therefore was justified in taking his stance upon the total ‘otherness’ of God and the things of God. This may provide explanation: it does not excuse theological obscurantism, and it does not explain or justify the stance of post-war Barthians.

Barth continued to maintain his opposition to natural theology as a public stance, and though he modified has actual position in later years, arguing that the issue was essentially one of epistemology, he never ceased to regard natural theology as essentially superfluous.  In large part that is because he identified it far too much with arguments for the existence of God, for which he had no use. Because of the esteem in which other theologians held him, his objection to natural theology held sway as the received wisdom in conservative theological circles for decades afterwards and interest in natural theology declined.

The strength of Barth’s position was that it sidestepped the issue of the failure of the arguments to prove God’s existence—and, indeed, all the weaknesses of natural theology. All the questions about science and religion, Darwinism, the Problem of Evil etc become dismissible if corrupt human nature totally cuts us off from knowledge of the divine. Neo-conservatism, like fundamentalism and evangelicalism, seeks to protect traditional understandings of faith by ring-fencing theology to keep it apart from what would challenge it. In an age when secularism, scepticism and growing awareness of other religions increasingly challenge faith, a retreat is understandable.

Yet the Barthian position is outrageous. It presupposes the totally depravity of humanity in consequence of the Fall, as a result of which we are guilty of what we are not free to avoid. For this Barth is much more indebted to Augustine and Calvin than to Paul. His view also presupposes that though we may be able to reason successfully in the fields of science, the arts, music, etc, in relation to the most important areas of life reason is totally incapable of assisting; blind faith alone can save. The most extraordinary implication of this is that whilst we cannot think our way to God because our minds are corrupt, God is somehow able to reveal Godself directly and believably to those same corrupt minds. The fundamental flaw in Barthism is that it supposes that revealed theology is possible when natural theology is not. When it was believed that the Bible had been divinely dictated, such a view might just have been defensible, but if the Bible has human as well as divine input—which Barth admitted—revealed theology has no more guarantee of authenticity than natural theology: they stand or fall together.

Macquarrie (1977:50) firmly rejects the Calvinistic/Barthian view that the human condition of fallenness has stripped humanity of intelligence, hopelessly corrupting both mind and will.

The Calvinist believes that he himself, as one of the elect, has been rescued from this sea of error and that his mind has been enlightened by the Holy Spirit. However much he may insist that this is God’s doing and not his own, his claim is nevertheless one of the most arrogant that has ever been made.’ It has ‘earned for theology the contempt of serious men.

Keith Ward (2007:195) considers that Barth was

mistaken in denying that there could be a common basis of human knowledge and experience ...we have the best chances of approaching truth when we take fully into account the viewpoints of others on what is, after all, the same reality...Christians do need to affirm the priority of God and to have confidence that God’s revelation in Jesus Christ has the power to illumine every area of human thought and activity. But this is best done by openness to and engagement with, not rejection of, all the diverse aspects of modern culture. That requires, not a view that rejects liberalism, but a more careful analysis of the positive values of liberalism...

Barth, however, still has supporters as well as critics. Stanley Hauerwas (2001:15), for example, maintains that ‘natural theology divorced from a full doctrine of God cannot help but distort the character of God.’ Barth, he claims,

shows us the way that theology must be done if the subject of theology, that is, the God of Jesus Christ, is to be more than just another piece of the metaphysical furniture in the universe (ibid.:145-146).

As his own contribution to the debate, Hauerwas claims the necessity of witness to God’s revelation, and discusses how three very different contemporaries—the Mennonite John Howard Yoder, Pope John Paul II, and the Catholic pacifist Dorothy Day—had been witnesses to the rationality of Christian convictions by refusing to compromise with modernity and with Constantinianism.

Readable and thought-provoking as it is, Hauerwas’s book is unconvincing. There is a distinct lack of clarity about what is meant by ‘revelation’, and how Christians can ‘know’ the God who reveals Godself. We are asked to take it as axiomatic, or to receive it by faith, that God reveals truth through scripture, the preached word, prayer, etc. Yet this God does not or cannot be perceived through reason, experience and observation of the world, so it is far from clear how God communicates at all.

The least convincing part of Hauerwas’ case is his dependence ultimately on witnesses rather than on reasoning.

 The truth of Christian convictions can be known only through witnesses because the God Christians worship is triune. If the truth of Christian convictions could be known without witnesses, then that truth would no longer be the work of the Trinity, and those who espoused it would no longer be Christians. (ibid.:211-212)

This is illogical rhetoric, hugely problematical and unconvincing. Hauerwas takes it as axiomatic that God is a Trinity, but that was not obvious to the Christian ‘witnesses’ of the first three centuries,  it is not universally agreed among Christians today, and it takes no account of the witness to God of Hindus, Sikhs, Bahá’i and others. Witnesses in a court context are required to give evidence only of what they personally know: second-hand, hearsay evidence is inadmissible and worthless. Moreover, a court needs to hear both sides of a case. Witnesses may be mistaken, unreliable, dishonest. 

Why natural theology is needed today

So, what can natural theology do? What are the tasks of today for which a natural theology is essential? Why try to rejuvenate an approach to theology that had already become outdated even before Barth’s attempt to bury it?

If we understand natural theology not as restricted to largely discredited ‘proofs’ of God’s existence but as bringing together knowledge from all human disciplines for the fuller understanding of faith, natural theology is arguably an essential division of theology. Moltmann (1985:58) sees it as having three tasks:

He sees the distinction between natural and revealed theology as misleading: there is but one theology existing in varying conditions. The theology of glory is the knowledge yet to come when creation and history are consummated. His is less a natural theology than a theology of nature, and reaching beyond the field of this essay. However, it is worth mentioning as an example of the way in which the definition of natural theology and the function it is intended to fulfil are crucially interrelated.

The range of possible tasks for natural theology is wide. For our present purpose we must confine ourselves to four that stand out as being particularly important.

Firstly, theology needs to be engaged in dialogue with other disciplines, especially scientific ones, for their mutual benefit and in order that Christians may come to an integrated understanding of human life and the life of the cosmos. The unavoidable 19th century conflict between science and religion has been hugely damaging, and the moribund state of religion in the west is in part attributable to the perception that science has made religion redundant. Revealed theology alone cannot possibly resolve this issue. Then there is the need to challenge such militantly atheistic critics as Richard Dawkins, which requires a science-theology axis. More important still is the genuine spirit of inquiry that seeks an understanding of spirituality and is not persuaded by conventional Christianity. Most religious education in Britain today takes place not in churches but in school classrooms, where the issues central to natural theology are very much alive in popular GCSE and A-level courses on the philosophy of religion and ethics, though often with little theological content. Religious studies is popular: theology is not. Theologians need to consider why.

Secondly, in a pluralistic world in which there is increasing dialogue between religions, it becomes evident that theological claims about the uniqueness of Christianity are often exaggerated and ill-informed, and more focus on natural theology might help to establish more of the commonality between religions. Hick (1990:114) observes that in the Axial Period of religious creativity after 1000 BCE a series of revelatory experiences in different parts of the world saw similar ideas emerging among a range of people across the world—the Hebrew prophets, Zoroaster in Persia, in the Greek philosophers, Confucius in China, the Buddha and Mahavira in India, etc. Even Christianity and Islam, coming later, have their roots in that older movement. These religious movements developed independently, but it is conceivable, he thinks, that the conscious interactions between the great religions today could lead to future convergence. He sees the conflicting truths claims of religions as partly due to different modes of experiencing divine reality (as, for example, personal or non-personal), and partly due to differences of philosophical theory and doctrine, observing that a book of contemporary Christian theology (post-Darwin, post-Einstein, post Freud) using biblical criticism and a demythologised New Testament world view ‘would have been unrecognisable as Christian theology two centuries ago.’ (op.cit.:116) The greatest challenge to convergence comes from the absolute claims that are made when the Holy is revealed, says Hick, giving as example ‘the absoluteness and exclusiveness...in the doctrine that Christ was uniquely divine...the only mediator between God and man.’ This doctrine, formed in an age of substantial ignorance of the wider religious life of humanity, is problematic today because it means that ‘infinite love has ordained that human beings can be saved only in a way that in fact excludes the large majority of them.’ (ibid.:116) Christian thinkers, says Hick, must address this, and he is surely right.

Thirdly,  theology must answer the challenges that arise from biblical scholarship. Some theology, and a great deal of Christian worship and popular piety, still assumes that the portrait of Jesus painted by the gospel writers is simple history and entirely compatible with the high Christology developed by the Church Fathers. The Christ of neo-conservative theology and the Jesus of history who emerges from, for example, E.P. Sanders’ research (Sanders, 1985) —a visionary Jesus who died mistakenly hoping to bring about the restoration of Israel—are almost totally different persons. Sanders observes:

Some readers will wonder how the Jesus who has been described here is relevant to Christian faith and practice. That is a theological problem into which I am not going to venture, at least not here. (op.cit.:327).

But if the Christ of Christological theology is not the Jesus of history, he is an impostor, and there was no incarnation and no basis for Christ-centred theology. Ward (2007) has shown that in fact Christianity is essentially a diverse and developing faith that is always reassessing its understanding of truth. He traces the different views of the Christ in the New Testament and across the centuries, finding that the general direction is clearly ‘towards a more pluralistic and critical faith, committed to the cause of human flourishing and centred on liberating apprehensions of Transcendence.’ (op.cit.:viii) If the application of the methods of science, history and other disciplines to religious sources are a form of natural theology, there is undoubtedly a need for them.

Fourthly, Gunton (1977:154-5) thinks there is an urgent need for an ethic of creation, and comments on Moltmann’s view that

if the universe is treated simply as a mechanism, within the control of human reason and without direct reference to God...its living creatures...are treated with despite.

Gunton does not think that Christian teaching about human dominion is to blame. Rather, the crisis has developed as a result of the modern abandonment of a religious view of the world. If we cease to see the world as God’s, we shall exploit it at will.

This is rather an easy way of letting Christianity off the hook, perhaps. The USA has not abandoned a religious view of the world: on the contrary, Christianity plays a large part in the American worldview and its politics, and rather an aggressive, exploitative and self-serving one. Barthian neo-orthodoxy and biblical fundamentalism, both of which are more common in the USA than in Europe, are focused on the saving of human souls rather than on the care of the planet that we share with all other species. A really thoroughgoing concern for creation is far more convincingly seen in those faiths that are pantheistic, or monistic, such as Hinduism, Jainism and Wicca. An adequate natural theology needs to address these issues in their worldwide context.

Some current approaches to natural theology

These four tasks can provide us with some yardstick for measuring the usefulness of some of the attempts that have been made to construct natural theologies in the late 20th century, though it would require several essays to discuss and illustrate them all properly.  We shall restrict ourselves to mention of three examples: a critical and suspicious acceptance of natural theology on biblical grounds, as discussed by James Barr; a welcoming of it on scientific grounds, as exemplified by John Polkinghorne; and the eager promotion of it as part of a multi-disciplinary approach to truth, beauty and goodness, as we find in Alister McGrath.


James Barr, the 1991 Gifford Lecturer, accepts the necessity for natural theology without great enthusiasm. Barr (1993:1) defines natural theology in wide terms to include the knowledge and awareness of God, or capacity for such awareness, that exists ‘anterior to the special revelation of God made through Jesus Christ, through the Church, through the Bible.’  He sees natural theology as having two directions: an apologetic function, in endeavouring to show that faith is right, or at least reasonable, and a critical function in keeping the claims of faith within bounds. Barr does not have much sympathy for the idea that natural theology, or any theology, should have much dealing with science. There is some, very little, and very primitive interest in science and technology in the Bible. Barr thinks that theology belongs ‘with the human disciplines, not those of natural science. It belongs with literary appreciation, with the history of ideas, with history in general, with philosophy, and with language and linguistic studies.’ (op.cit.:182)

Much of Barr’s book returns repeatedly to criticism of Barth: the ‘preposterous’ argument that Barth had used in his 1937-8 Gifford Lectures when he had refused to speak of natural theology because such a thing did not really exist; Barth’s claim that Luther and Calvin should not have employed natural theology; his ignoring of the place of natural theology in much conservative Protestant thought since the Reformation (ibid.:9), and so on. In Barr’s view Barth’s position was ‘resolutely clamped upon the picture of the political conflict in Germany’ (ibid.:11). But what if scripture itself supports natural theology?

If the Bible accepted or implied natural theology this [Barth’s] argument falls to pieces: the Word of God, as attested in the scriptures, must then include natural theology as part of the revelation, or as the background to it, or as an implication of it or mode through which it is communicated (ibid.:20)

—as Luther and Calvin had supposed. How had Barth got round this? He thought he ‘could exegetically overcome or evade all the arguments that seemed to support natural theology on scriptural grounds.’

In the midst of this anti-Barthian polemic, though, Barr has some positive and valuable things to say about the passages supportive of natural theology that we identified above. There are masterly chapters on Paul at Athens and Romans 1, as well as a thorough treatment of Old Testament ideas. Barr is clear that the Bible supports natural theology, but is not convinced that natural theology is always right. He maintains that scholarship should honestly deal with what is there in the text, and disagree with it where necessary, not try to make the text say something different from what it says. Moreover, natural theology and revealed theology in the Bible are deeply interwoven.

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’ (ibid.:151).

Both depend on interpretation. In Barr’s view it is far from evident that what was true for people in Bible times is necessarily still true for other peoples in other times and places. Barr believes that biblical interpretation after Barth and Bultmann went disastrously astray. Modern theology needs to free itself from its dogmatic assumptions, its slavery to the canon, its determination to defend the ancient Jewish perspective on Israel and its neighbours,

for the situation in the present-day Middle East sufficiently demonstrates the result that follows, when ancient ideologies of war, people, and land are allowed to survive and grow without adequate ethical evaluation. (ibid.:220)

Barr is powerful in his tracing of the Biblical justification for natural theology and his critique of Barth. His contribution to the biblical critique of theology is penetrating and challenging. In terms of other criteria, though, Barr is less helpful. He is not equipped to do the necessary reconstruction work with science and with other faiths (though he is sympathetic to the idea of multi-disciplinary and multi-faith approaches).


John Polkinghorne, Dean and Chaplain of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and a former Professor of Mathematical Physics, is a strong advocate of natural theology. Theology, in his view, must not prescribe the answers to the questions discussed by other disciplines, but avail itself of their answers, not attempting to assert a hegemony over them. (Polkinghorne (1994:1)). He is critical of Barth’s ‘overstatement’ of the impossibility of God being known by human powers.

God is to be found in the general as well as in the particular...natural theology can provide valuable help in an inquiry about whether the process of the world is the carrier of significance and the expression of purpose. (op.cit.:2-3)

He is sympathetic to Torrance’s view of natural theology as the ‘epistemological “geometry” of revealed theology. The analogy is with the way that the integration of geometry and mechanics was made possible by Einstein’s Theory of Relativity whereas previously they had been regarded as discrete and sequential. Torrance saw natural theology not as the precursor to revealed theology but an integral part of a theological enterprise that requires both for completeness. ‘On this view natural theology is an essential study, not just an optional extra.’ (ibid.:15)

In Science and Creation Polkinghorne (1988) discusses the history of natural theology and goes on to illustrate its application in relation to issues of order and disorder, creation and creator, the nature of reality and ‘theological science’. He gives a more extended treatment in Science and Christian Belief, which constituted the Gifford Lectures for 1993-4, in which he uses the Nicene Creed as a framework and discusses the scientific questions which arise in relation to each of the articles of the creed and how a scientific method of approaching the sources upon which they are based may assist us to a deeper understanding of them. The result is a theological discussion of a very much wider and richer kind than is possible from theological sources alone, and which demonstrates the potential that natural theology has for revealing new insights even into orthodox dogmas. Even the notorious Richard Dawkins (who, incidentally, has also been a Gifford lecturer) has to concede that Polkinghorne, with whom he has had ‘amicable discussions...both in public and in private’, is a good scientist who is sincerely religious in the full, traditional sense, though Dawkins (2007:125) remains baffled at Polkinghorne’s acceptance of ‘the details of the Christian religion: resurrection, forgiveness of sins and all’. If such fundamentalist atheists as Dawkins are to be effectively answered, only those who have sufficient intellectual stature and scientific credentials can do it. Polkinghorne and McGrath are among the few who are up to the task. This is not because they alone can see the flaws in Dawkins’ theology, which is really very elementary and naive, but because they can perceive the errors in his science.

Polkinghorne is positive about the value of natural theology. His contribution on the scientific side is enormously authoritative and useful. His writings have been much appreciated among A-level students of Religion and Science. We need interpreters who are able to bridge the disciplines and show the possibility of consistency between them.

Polkinghorne (1994:179) identifies himself with D’Costa’s inclusivist approach to world faiths. His contribution on the issue of interfaith relations is weaker than his contribution on science because he is too rooted in the conviction that the Christian view of Christ’s uniqueness is the only right answer, though he does see one area where there is a scope for theological and scientific interfaith dialogue, which is in the unsolved problems of quantum mechanics and its metaphysical significance. Thinkers like Fritjof Capra have claimed that there is a consistency between subatomic physics and some Eastern thought. Although Polkinghorne is suspicious of such claims, he does see a ‘promising area of interaction for the world faiths’ in this (1994:192).

On the biblical side, Polkinghorne is inevitably less effective than Barr. Surprisingly, perhaps, he is much more ready than Barr to accept as factual the miraculous elements in scripture and in general to read the Bible more literally. The principal challenges to taking Bible stories literally come not from science but from historical and literary criticism. Intelligent design, like the creationism that preceded it, often assumes that the only objection to a literal reading of the Genesis creation story is Darwinism; undermine that and the Bible account becomes the definitive one again. But why choose the Bible account over, say, the Hindu myths? Wellhausen did more than Darwin to put an end to literalistic readings of Genesis.


Among contemporary theologians probably the greatest enthusiast for natural theology, and one of the best equipped to advocate it, is Alister McGrath, who combines Oxford doctorates in molecular physics and in theology. In Christian Theology: an Introduction (2007a) he reviews what he considers to be the three ways in which the presence of God may be discerned in creation: human reason, the ordering of the world, and the beauty of the world, exemplifying these three ways by reference to Augustine’s analogy between the processes of human reasoning and the Trinity, Polkinghorne’s focus on the deep-seated congruence between human rationality and the orderedness we perceive in the world (such as in mathematics), and the religious sense of the aesthetic to be found in the theologies of Jonathan Edwards and Hans Urs von Balthasar. He expands on these themes in Science and Religion (2004). Although he does not specifically draw attention to it, one may read these three ways as the ways of the philosopher, the scientist and the artist, all of who have particular perceptions, methods and insights that are complementary. This would, though, be too narrow a pigeon-holing, because the particularly useful point that McGrath implies is that these ways overlap: there is beauty in mathematics and philosophy in science. McGrath sees these as offering ‘a significant interface between religion and the natural sciences, which points to the importance of natural theology as a means of dialogue between these disciplines.’ (op.cit.:138) 

In Christian Theology (2007a) McGrath outlines four broad schools of thought about the relationship between the natural sciences and theology: theories of their continuity (Schleiermacher, Whitehead, de Chardin, etc), of their distinctiveness (Barth, Rahner), of their convergence (Torrance and himself), and of their opposition (e.g. American conservative evangelicalism). (op.cit.:170-172). Science and Religion expands in some detail on these and other themes, exploring a range of models and analogies in science and religion, issues in physics and cosmology, biology and psychology, and the contributions to the debate of some significant scientific theologians. It is impossible in this brief essay to convey much of the substance of McGrath’s clear and sure-footed treatment of this immense field. He offers it merely as an introduction and it is certainly one that whets the appetite. If it has a significant limitation, it is that the focus is rather more on science than on theology, and what is covered is Christian theology rather than religion in the broader sense.

McGrath’s scientific scholarship and eminence equip him to respond forcefully and effectively to militant atheism. He sees Dawkins’ view of the ‘warfare’ between science and religion as muddled and obsolete.

 The point is simple: nature is open to many legitimate interpretations. It can be interpreted in atheist, deist, theist and many other ways—but it does not demand to be interpreted in any of these. One can be a “real” scientist without being committed to any specific religious, spiritual or antireligious view of the world. (McGrath & McGrath (2007c:46))

McGrath, then, makes a significant contribution to more than one of the five areas we identified as needed natural theology, particularly on the linking of disciplines and apologetics. There are indications too that he has more to say on interfaith issues and ethical matters.


This essay has explored some of the strengths and limitations of natural theology, seeking to show that dependence on revealed theology alone would deprive us of understanding. When theology tries to view everything through a Christological lens, distortion is inevitable, not least because what God has revealed to people of other faiths is omitted.  Whilst the classical arguments cannot prove the existence of God, there remains a need for a rational defence of faith that is sufficiently intelligible to allow dialogue with non-believers who are sceptical of theological claims, and, at a more academic level, dialogue between theology and other disciplines. Barth’s attempt to shut down debate on natural theology was foolish and unsuccessful. The debate, so far from being ended, has begun afresh and produced many new and valuable insights. The contributions of such as Barr, Polkinghorne and McGrath have each brought something significant from their particular field of expertise, but none individually has all of the knowledge and understanding that they have collectively. It should not in the least surprise us that this is so: it is exactly what we should expect unless we are dogmatically committed to the highly improbable notion that scripture is the only source and medium of Christian understanding. That narrow view is not necessary to Protestantism; it is more Pharisaic than Christian; at its worst, it is idolatry and blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, the one unforgivable sin.

The 21st century has brought something of a revival to Natural Theology.  Brent’s article on Natural Theology in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says that a vast literature has recently become available to assist those who wish to think through their faith. He claims:

Natural theology today is practiced (sic) with a degree of diversity and confidence unprecedented since the late Middle Ages… Natural theology is alive and well to assist anyone interested grappling with the perennial questions about God.

That is good news.


Baillie, John (ed.) (2002), Natural Theology: comprising “Nature and Grace” by Professor Dr. Emil Brunner and the reply “No!” by Dr. Karl Barth, trans. Peter Fraenkel (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock)

Barr, James (1993), Biblical Faith and Natural Theology: the Gifford Lectures for 1991 delivered in the University of Edinburgh (Oxford: Clarendon Press)

Barth, Karl (1934), “No!”, in Baillie, John (ed.). Natural Theology: comprising “Nature and Grace” by Professor Dr. Emil Brunner and the reply “No!” by Dr. Karl Barth, trans. Peter Fraenkel (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock)

Brent, James (n.d.), “Naturalistic Theology,” in, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ISSN 2161-0002, https://www.iep.utm.edu/theo-nat/, accessed 26/12/20

Brunner, Emil (1934), “Nature and Grace”, in Baillie, John (ed.). Natural Theology: comprising “Nature and Grace” by Professor Dr. Emil Brunner and the reply “No!” by Dr. Karl Barth, trans. Peter Fraenkel (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock)

Dawkins, Richard (2007), The God Delusion (London: Transworld Publishers)

Gunton, Colin E. (1997), ‘The Doctrine of Creation’ in Colin E. Gunton (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Hauerwas, Stanley (2001), With the Grain of the Universe: the church’s witness and natural theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press)

Hick, John (1990), Philosophy of Religion - 4th edn (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall)

McGrath, Alister E. (2004), Science and Religion: an introduction (London: Random House)

McGrath, Alister E. (2007a), Christian Theology: an introduction - 4th edn (Oxford: Blackwell)

McGrath, Alister E. (2007b), The Christian Theology Reader - 3rd edn (Oxford: Blackwell)

McGrath, Alister E. & McGrath, Joanna Collicutt (2007c)   The Dawkins Delusion?: atheist fundamentalism and the denial of the divine (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press)

Macquarrie, John  (1977), Principles of Christian Theology, rev edn (London, SCM Press)

Moltmann, Jürgen (1985), God in Creation: an ecological doctrine of creation (London: SCM)

Polkinghorne, John (1988). Science and Creation: the search for understanding (London: SPCK)

Polkinghorne, John (1994) , Science & Christian Belief : reflections of a bottom-up thinker (London: SPCK)

Sanders, E.P. (1985), Jesus and Judaism (London: SCM Press)

Ward, Keith (2007), Re-thinking Christianity (Oxford: Oneworld Publications)