Perspectives on John: Natural Theology


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I try to hike regularly, particularly because anything else that resembles exercise seems entirely too tedious and uncomfortable. Since moving to the Black Hills area, I have spent most of my time hiking the Serenity Trail just off Highway 85 north going out of Newcastle. I have also managed a few hikes further north on the Flying V trail or over into South Dakota at Hell Canyon around Jewel Cave, which are a bit more challenging and encroach more on my non-exercise exercise rule. Honestly, I’m just trying to stay healthy enough that I don’t have to give up pastries. So, when I went for a hike this past week on the Flying V Trail, I was just trying to stretch my legs and mange not to work too hard.

My wife, for some strange reason, thinks hiking is supposed to be exercise. She goes looking for places that will elevate your heart rate and stress your muscles and just generally make you feel lousy in the name being healthy. As a medical professional who specializes in nutrition, I know she is right about the exercise aspects but I’m not out there to exercise, I’m just trying to do the bare minimum. So, when we chose a trail to hike at the Flying V this past week, she chose the one that goes straight up.

From a distance, this is a beautiful area, majestic hills with evergreen forests. Riding along Highway 85, in my car, listening to the radio, having a pleasant conversation, is a wonderful way to spend a day. Taking a hard hike, straight up a hill at a forty-five-degree angle, is another story. Entirely too close to work and effort and if that is case, it takes the fun out of it. Understand, I have no problem with work, sweaty, grimy, exhausting work but don’t call it fun and try to convince me I’m having an enjoyable time when I can’t breathe, my lungs burn, and what I really wanted to do was stroll in the evergreens.

When the next opportunity arises again to go hiking with my wife, however, I’ll go. For three reasons: first, I know, despite my protests, that I need to actually exercise. I’m nearing forty-five years old and if I don’t take care of myself the next fifteen to twenty years may not be so much fun. Second, I love being in the woods. Exercise or not, nature is place where I sort through the stuff that runs through my mind. I get a lot of internal processing done. Finally, nature is temple of worship for me. It is in nature that I feel most a part of Creation and find my deepest connection to God. I see God through the things that have been shaped, formed, set in motion, in the natural order.

This final reason brings us to the idea of natural theology.

Natural theology defined

Natural theology is simply theology that has not been revealed to us by divine revelation, meaning the Bible, the Church, or traditions. It is the truth of God that we come to find out using things like sensation, reason, and science. It is theology practiced in and through the mind and perception of the individual and tries to answer questions like what does the word God mean, does God exist, do we have free will if God does exist and doing so without drawing claims from sacred texts or divine revelation, even if we personally hold those claims. It is seeking God with our natural, intellectual faculties without the use of the Bible or church traditions or teachings.

This kind of thinking about and questioning about God is nothing new and goes back to the ancient Greek philosophers. The earliest idea of theology had to do, not with thinking about a Jewish or Christian God, but thinking about the lives and activities of gods and divinities. Thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, and other Greek philosophers asked questions about the nature of the universe and referred to it as metaphysics. While this was taking place in ancient Greece, the Israelite people began to develop a tribal and then corporate identity around the being the chosen people of Adonai. Eventually, a group splintered off of Judaism around the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and began its own quest to define itself with regard to what theology was and how Greek philosophy intersected with that.

From the Christian perspective, much of the thinking about God that goes into natural theology has been influenced by Greek philosophy, particularly the works of Plato and Aristotle. During the time of the early church fathers, the idea of theology was a difficult term because of the poetic nature of Greek ‘theology’ and the term philosophy was sometimes seen as Greek rather than Christian. Eventually, Saint Augustine made the distinction between revealed theology (what is held by faith) and natural theology (what is understood by reason). Augustine saw the written texts of the Judeo-Christian faith as that which was revealed and those things which were thought out about God in the human mind. The early church fathers Anselm and Aquinas continued this conversation in a more robust way and with a very specific line of thought. Both advocated ideas on proving the existence of God, Anselm by means of his ontological argument (an argument based on logic and laws of non-contradiction) and Aquinas by means of defining two kinds of truth, that which can be reasoned and that which is beyond our ability to reason.

Theologians and philosophers, such as Kierkegaard, Hume, Kant, and Paley continued to expound and build on these ideas until the time of Darwin in the nineteenth century. At this point, natural theology became part of a discussion around the evolutionary process and natural theology was wrapped up in the discussion of modern apologetics. It wasn’t until the end of the twentieth century that theologians and philosophers began asking the questions of natural theology without tying them to the debate about the existence of God although such questions and defenses are still part of that conversation. Typically, natural theology is referred to as the Philosophy of Religion with thinkers like Alvin Plantinga, John Hick and others taking up the mantle of this nearly three thousand year tradition.

An application

So how can we use natural theology as a lens to look at the biblical text. It almost seems like a contradiction to say we are going to think about God without the Bible while reading a story in the Bible. I think this can be done and I think it would work best as an exercise. The plans is this: we will read the story again, looking for questions to ask about how we see God in the natural world presented in the text. From John chapter six:

After this Jesus went across the Galilee Sea (that is, the Tiberias Sea). A large crowd followed him, because they had seen the miraculous signs he had done among the sick. Jesus went up a mountain and sat there with his disciples. It was nearly time for Passover, the Jewish festival.

Jesus looked up and saw the large crowd coming toward him. He asked Philip, “Where will we buy food to feed these people?” Jesus said this to test him, for he already knew what he was going to do.

Philip replied, “More than a half year’s salary worth of food wouldn’t be enough for each person to have even a little bit.”

One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said, “A youth here has five barley loaves and two fish. But what good is that for a crowd like this?”

Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass there. They sat down, about five thousand of them. Then Jesus took the bread. When he had given thanks, he distributed it to those who were sitting there. He did the same with the fish, each getting as much as they wanted. When they had plenty to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather up the leftover pieces, so that nothing will be wasted.” So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves that had been left over by those who had eaten.

When the people saw that he had done a miraculous sign, they said, “This is truly the prophet who is coming into the world.” Jesus understood that they were about to come and force him to be their king, so he took refuge again, alone on a mountain.

When evening came, Jesus’ disciples went down to the lake. They got into a boat and were crossing the lake to Capernaum. It was already getting dark and Jesus hadn’t come to them yet. The water was getting rough because a strong wind was blowing. When the wind had driven them out for about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the water. He was approaching the boat and they were afraid. He said to them, “I Am. Don’t be afraid.” Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and just then the boat reached the land where they had been heading.

The next day the crowd that remained on the other side of the lake realized that only one boat had been there. They knew Jesus hadn’t gone with his disciples, but that the disciples had gone alone. Some boats came from Tiberias, near the place where they had eaten the bread over which the Lord had given thanks. When the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into the boats and came to Capernaum looking for Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”

What are some the questions that come to mind?

Some of the questions that we might ask that are natural theology questions are:

• What does it mean for something to be a miracle?

• How does God act in relation to nature?

• What does it mean for Jesus to defy the natural order of things?

• What kind of healing is talked about in the beginning of the chapter? Physical? Spiritual?

What do you think?

References

Brent, J. (n.d.). Natural Theology. Retrieved from Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://www.iep.utm.edu/theo-nat/

Olson, R. E. (1999). The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform. Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press.

What is Natural Theology? (2006). Retrieved from The Gifford Lectures: https://www.giffordlectures.org/overview/natural-theology

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