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Natural theology

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-K107-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 21, 2024, from

Article Summary

Natural theology aims at establishing truths or acquiring knowledge about God (or divine matters generally) using only our natural cognitive resources. The phrase ‘our natural cognitive resources’ identifies both the methods and data for natural theology: it relies on standard techniques of reasoning and facts or truths in principle available to all human beings just in virtue of their possessing reason and sense perception. As traditionally conceived, natural theology begins by establishing the existence of God, and then proceeds by establishing truths about God’s nature (for example, that God is eternal, immutable and omniscient) and about God’s relation to the world.

A precise characterization of natural theology depends on further specification of its methods and data. One strict conception of natural theology – the traditional conception sometimes associated with Thomas Aquinas – allows only certain kinds of deductive argument, the starting points of which are propositions that are either self-evident or evident to sense perception. A broader conception might allow not just deductive but also inductive inference and admit as starting points propositions that fall short of being wholly evident.

Natural theology contrasts with investigations into divine matters that rely at least in part on data not naturally available to us as human beings. This sort of enterprise might be characterized as revelation-based theology, in so far as the supernatural element on which it relies is something supernaturally revealed to us by God. Revelation-based theology can make use of what is ascertainable by us only because of special divine aid. Dogmatic and biblical theology would be enterprises of this sort.

Critics of natural theology fall generally into three groups. The first group, the majority, argue that some or all of the particular arguments of natural theology are, as a matter of fact, unsuccessful. Critics in the second group argue that, in principle, natural theology cannot succeed, either because of essential limitations on human knowledge that make it impossible for us to attain knowledge of God or because religious language is such as to make an investigation into its truth inappropriate. The third group of critics holds that natural theology is in some way irrelevant or inimical to true religion. They argue in various ways that the objectifying, abstract and impersonal methods of natural theology cannot capture what is fundamentally important about the divine and our relation to it.

Citing this article:
MacDonald, Scott. Natural theology, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-K107-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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