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Natural Theology

Natural Theology And The Birth Of Modern Science, Natural Theology And Its Critics In The Eighteenth And Nineteenth Centuries

The primary sense of the term natural theology rests on the contrast between natural and revealed knowledge. Natural theology concerns knowledge of the existence and attributes of God arrived at using only the natural faculties of sense and reason. Philosophical arguments for the existence, intelligence, power, and goodness of God based on the order and beauty of the world, or on purely intellectual considerations, are examples of natural theology. Knowledge of God that is based on divine revelation as set down in scripture is the subject of revealed theology.

A central metaphor for the distinction between natural theology and revealed theology is that of the "two books"—the book of God's word (scripture) and the book of God's works (nature). The mainstream theological position has always been that the primary source of truth was revelation and that natural reasoning—reading the book of God's works—can provide ancillary support for revealed truths. Reason can confirm what is already known by faith. Natural theology has, therefore, been a more or less important, and more or less welcome, secondary support for Christian doctrine over the centuries. A constant worry for theologians has been the possibility of relying too heavily on natural theology and thus giving too much away to rationalistic and secular ways of understanding the world and placing insufficient emphasis on the importance of scripture and revelation.

Although the primary sense of "natural" in the phrase "natural theology" is natural as opposed to revealed knowledge, there is a secondary sense that is also important. Works of natural theology produced from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries frequently focused on the wonders of the natural world and on developments in natural science. The phrase "natural theology" thus came to stand for a rather particular kind of natural theology—a celebration of the beauty of the natural world and the power, wisdom, and goodness of its Creator, as revealed by the scientific study of nature. This sort of natural theology might also be thought of as a kind of "theology of nature," to distinguish it from the broader intellectual enterprise of arguing about God independently of revelation.

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