From Trinity and Revelation
Both common sense and Christian tradition have always believed that the “traces” of God are to be found in the world God created. This intuition can even be placed in a wider framework in the history of religions and of cultures: “The idea that a transcendent reality can be known or at least intimated through the mundane has a long history and is not a specifically religious idea.” (Alister McGrath) To say that common sense and Christian intuition have posited the existence of God on the basis of the created order is not to say that the expressed doctrine of natural theology has always been a pedigree of Christian theology. Indeed, “natural theology – as this notion would now be understood – is a recent invention.” (Alister McGrath)
When compared to typical systematic presentations, it may seem odd for talk about natural revelation and natural theology to come so late, almost at the end of the discussion of the doctrine of revelation. Isn’t it the norm to divide the doctrine of revelation into two parts – general and special revelation – and then to speak of the former first? While that approach is possible and in many ways useful, the reason for the current choice of order has to do with the marginalized – almost exclusively preparatory – role assigned to natural theology in modern theology. Indeed, there are theological traditions such as neo-orthodoxy in which natural theology has a hard time getting a word into the dogmatic discussion, apart from when it’s critiqued. The thesis of this discussion argues for both the possibility and the need for a robust Christian natural theology and that, whatever preparatory role (in relation to special revelation) it may play, natural theology is an essential part of the polymorphous doctrine of revelation. Indeed, it will be argued that natural theology is not “natural” in the sense that it wouldn’t be part of the divine revelation. Similar to the doctrine of revelation in general, which is thoroughly and robustly trinitarian, the discussion of natural theology in this project concerns itself with “the dynamics of a trinitarian natural theology.” (Alister McGrath)
Important here is how one understands the category of “nature.” Whereas for common sense “nature” seems to be a self-evident concept, it is not necessarily so when subjected to scrutiny. It is socially constructed. However, this does not make impossible the theological evaluation of nature – not at all. The acknowledgement of the socially constructed idea of “nature” rather opens the door for a robustly Christian understanding of nature. For Christian theology, nature is “creation.” All Christian talk about natural theology rejects the idea of the autonomy of nature, either as in creation or as in human nature. For Christian theology, all nature is contingent and derives from God. Hence also, all natural knowledge and natural theology are based on God, and God alone.
Until the beginning of the twentieth century, the “natural” knowledge of God by human beings created in the image of God was not contested. Biblical passages such as Psalm 19, Romans 1:19-21, and Acts 17:16-34, among others, seemed to affirm it unequivocally. Said Athanasius: “For by means of the creation itself, the Word reveals God the Creator; and by means of the world does he declare the Lord the maker of the world; and by means of the formation of man the artificer who formed him.” In Aquinas’s theology, natural knowledge of God was, of course, an important theme, as it was in Calvin’s. Even Luther, who was also critical of perversions of natural knowledge of God prior to revelation in Christ, took the natural knowledge of God for granted, even among the idolaters. The Swedish botanist Carl von Linné of the eighteenth century saw clearly the vestiges of God. English natural theology came to its zenith in William Paley’s Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity in the beginning of the nineteenth century (1802).
In contemporary theology, Dei Verbum‘s formulation expresses well this confidence in wider Christian tradition: “God, who through the Word creates all things (see John 1:3) and keeps them in existence, gives men an enduring witness to himself in created realities, (see Romans 1:19-20).” Whereas criticism of the idea of natural theology began from the time of Friedrich Schleiermacher, before Karl Barth the natural knowledge of God was not contested. Even Barth, of course, did not categorically contest the notion of some kind of natural knowledge of God; he just did not take it for a revelation and, rather than making it an asset, considered it a major obstacle to the saving knowledge of God.