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Natural Theology

The Twentieth Century

Twentieth-century developments add weight to the view that Darwin's writings, while requiring theologians to rethink natural theology, did not compel them to abandon it. One of the institutions through which natural theological endeavors were continued was the Gifford lectures. These lectures, set up to promote the study of natural theology, were instituted by the will of Adam Gifford, who died in 1887. Delivered in the Scottish universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, St Andrews, and Aberdeen, by a range of distinguished philosophers, scientists, historians, and theologians since 1888, the Gifford lectures have resulted in a lively and ongoing series of natural theological reflections, conceived in the broadest sense. Gifford lecturers have included William James, Nils Bohr, Charles Raven, and Paul Tillich; and, more recently, the physicist and Anglican minister John Polkinghorne, historians of science John Hedley Brooke and Geoffrey Cantor, and the American theologian Stanley Hauerwas.


In February 1829 the Reverend Francis Henry, earl of Bridgewater, died. His will made provision for £8000 sterling to be held at the disposal of the president of the Royal Society in London and used to finance the publication of one thousand copies of a work on the power, wisdom, and goodness of God as manifested in the creation. The result, eventually, was not one but eight such works. These works of natural theology were written by leading religious and scientific figures of the day and were published between 1833 and 1836 (see Addinall; Topham):

  1. Thomas Chalmers (1780–1847), On the Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God as Manifested in the Adaptation of External Nature to the Moral and Intellectual Constitution of Man (1833).
  2. John Kidd (1775–1851), On the Adaptation of External Nature to the Physical Condition of Man: Principally with Reference to the Supply of His Wants and the Exercise of His Intellectual Faculties (1833).
  3. William Whewell (1794–1866), Astronomy and General Physics Considered with Reference to Natural Theology (1833).
  4. Charles Bell (1774–1842), The Hand: Its Mechanism and Vital Endowments in Evincing Design (1833).
  5. Peter Roget (1779–1869), Animal and Vegetable Physiology: Considered with Reference to Natural Theology (1834). 6. William Buckland (1784–1856), Geology and Mineralogy Considered with Reference to Natural Theology (1836).
  6. William Kirby (1759–1850), On the Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God as Manifested in the Creation of Animals and in Their History, Habits and Instincts (1835).
  7. William Prout (1785–1850), Chemistry, Meteorology, and the Function of Digestion: Considered with Reference to Natural Theology (1834).

In 1837 Charles Babbage (1791–1871), the creator of the famous "difference engine" (a calculating machine often cited as the earliest forerunner of the modern computer), wrote an unsolicited Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, which argued that a system operated entirely by mathematical laws could result in the appearance of unexpected novelties. Babbage's suggestion that divine intervention could thus be replaced by the operation of natural laws was explicitly taken up in the evolutionary work Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, published anonymously in 1844 (the author was later revealed to have been the Edinburgh journalist and publisher Robert Chambers), and, more tacitly, in Darwin's Origin of Species (1859).

Discussions of natural theology have, ever since the mid-1930s, been carried out under the shadow of the figure of Karl Barth (1886–1968). In reaction to a 1934 treatise on Nature and Grace by Emil Brunner, Barth wrote a response titled simply No! In this and other works, Barth (and many others in twentieth-century academic theology who shared his dissatisfaction with nineteenth-century theological accommodations with scientific rationalism) emphasized the centrality of revelation and a religious relation to Christ. For the Barthian, rational argumentation undertaken on secular foundations could never produce distinctively Christian knowledge, and to suppose that it might was a theological mistake (regardless of whether it was also a philosophical and scientific one). Interestingly, both Barth and Brunner were subsequently Gifford lecturers; Stanley Hauerwas, in his recent Gifford lectures, argues in favor of a form of natural theology reconceived along Barthian lines.

Given the Humean, Darwinian, and Barthian objections to any form of natural theology grounded in the sciences, attempts to revive it in the later twentieth century certainly seemed to be doing so in the face of formidable opposition. Nonetheless, such attempts have been made. In the area of "science and religion," authors such as Ian Barbour, Arthur Peacocke, John Polkinghorne, Bob Russell, and Nancey Murphy have argued that divine purposes can still be discerned in the findings of modern science. There has been particular interest in the question of whether the "fine-tuning" of the fundamental physical constants of our universe might indicate that it was made by a deity with an interest in creating intelligent life. Another area of lively revived natural theological speculations has been quantum physics.

In the United States, the twentieth century saw the invention of another new variety of natural theology, namely "creation science" or "scientific creationism," whose advocates continue to resist mainstream neo-Darwinian orthodoxy and to call for "balanced treatment" of Darwinian science and "creation science" in the classroom. In this American controversy, not only the relationship between church and state but also the ancient question of the relationship between the book of nature and the book of scripture continues to be contested. Each group has its own view about this relationship. For creationists, revealed theology (specifically a literalist interpretation of the book of Genesis) and natural theology (specifically an anti-evolutionary interpretation of scientific evidence) concur in teaching that God created separate forms and that humans do not have a common ancestry with other animals. For other Christians, revelation and nature can be brought into harmony by reading Genesis less literally and accepting mainstream science. For others again—those who take a view like Thomas Paine's—churches and supposed revelations are all nothing more than human creations: the only real source of transcendent knowledge is the study of the natural world, and the most fruitful means of studying it are science and philosophy. It thus continues to hold true that debates about natural theology are closely connected with debates about the relationship between church and state, especially in the area of education.



Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologiae. Translated by the Dominican Fathers. London: Blackfriars, 1964–1981.

Brunner, Emil, and Karl Barth. Natural Theology. Translated from the German by Peter Fraenkel, with an introduction by John Baillie. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1946. Reprint, Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock, 2002. Comprising Nature and Grace by Emil Brunner and the reply No! by Karl Barth.

Hume, David. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Edited by J. C. A. Gaskin. Oxford: Oxford World's Classics, 1998. First published 1779.

Paley, William. Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Atributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature. 1802. Reprint, Oxford: Oxford University Press World Classics Series, 2005.


Addinall, Peter. Philosophy and Biblical Interpretation: A Study in Nineteenth-Century Conflict. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Barr, James. Biblical Faith and Natural Theology. Oxford: Clarendon, 1993.

Behe, Michael. Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. New York and London: Free Press, 1996.

Brooke, John Hedley. "Darwin and Victorian Christianity." In The Cambridge Companion to Darwin, edited by Jonathan Hodge and Gregory Radick. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

——. Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Brooke, John Hedley, and Geoffrey Cantor. Reconstructing Nature: The Engagement of Science and Religion. Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1998. See especially section 3.

Buckley, Michael. At the Origins of Modern Atheism. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987.

Dawkins, Richard. The Blind Watchmaker. London: Penguin, 1988.

Dembski, William. Intelligent Design: The Bridge between Science and Theology. Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 1999.

Desmond, Adrian, and James Moore. Darwin. London: Penguin, 1992.

Hauerwas, Stanley. With the Grain of the Universe: The Church's Witness and Natural Theology. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2001.

Jaki, Stanley L. Lord Gifford and His Lectures: A Centenary Retrospect. 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1995.

Merton, Robert K. "Puritanism, Pietism, and Science." In Science and Religious Belief: A Selection of Recent Historical Studies, edited by C. A. Russell. London: University of London Press, 1973.

Numbers, Ronald L. The Creationists. New York: Knopf, 1992.

Nuovo, Victor. "William Paley." In The Dictionary of Eighteenth-Century British Philosophers, edited by John Yolton, John Valdimir, and John Stephens. Bristol, U.K., and Sterling, Va.: Thoemmes Press, 1999.

Olding, Alan. Modern Biology and Natural Theology. London: Routledge, 1990.

Ospovat, Dov. The Development of Darwin's Theory: Natural History, Natural Theology, and Natural Selection, 1838–1850. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Polkinghorne, John. Science and Christian Belief. London: SPCK, 1994. Published in the United States as The Faith of a Physicist: Reflections of a Bottom-up Thinker. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Richards, Robert. Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Ruse, Michael. Darwin and Design: Does Evolution Have a Purpose? Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Topham, Jonathan. "Beyond the 'Common Context': The Production and Reading of the Bridgewater Treatises." Isis 89 (1998): 233–262.

Thomas Dixon

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