Principles of Natural Theology / by George Hayward Joyce, S.J.

Part I. The Existence of God

Chapter I. The Scope and Importance of Natural Theology.

  1. The Scope of Natural Theology.
  2. Natural Theology as one of the Sciences.
  3. The Importance of Natural Theology.
  4. Relation of Natural and Supernatural Theology.

1. The scope of Natural Theology. Natural Theology is that branch of philosophy which investigates what human reason unaided by revelation can tell us concerning God. The end at which it aims is to demonstrate the existence of God, to establish the principal divine attributes, to vindicate God's relation to the world as that of the Creator to the creature, and, finally, to throw what light it can on the action of divine providence in regard of man and on the problem of evil. In the discussion of these questions the Natural Theologian bases his conclusions purely and solely on the data afforded by natural reason. He claims that these are sufficient for his purpose: that in this manner the mind may rise from the contemplation of the visible universe to a knowledge of the First Cause from whom it proceeds: from the experience of finite beings to a knowledge of the Infinite Being, whose perfections are faintly shadowed forth by the things of the created world.

Another name given to this science is Theodicy. The term seems to have been coined by Leibniz,{1} and its literal meaning is 'the justification of God.' As used by him it implied his own special standpoint, which was that of an exaggerated optimism. He conceived it to be the function of Theodicy to shew that, notwithstanding all the physical and moral evils of the world, we have no valid reason for thinking that the existing order of providence is not the best that even divine omnipotence could have devised. With later writers, however, the word no longer has this significance, but is simply synonymous with Natural Theology. In this sense it is appropriate enough. For Natural Theology has as its professed object to vindicate our belief in God, and to deal with the manifold objections, which from a wide variety of standpoints have been urged either against His existence or against His infinite perfections. The philosophical systems which assert the existence of God fall into three classes, deism, pantheism and theism. Deism teaches that God created the world, but that having created it, He leaves it to the guidance of those laws which He established at its creation, abstaining from further interference. He acts thus, it holds, both in regard to the physical and moral order. There is no such thing as a personal providence: nor does prayer avail to obtain His special assistance. The externality, not to say the remoteness, of God in relation to the world is fundamental in this system. Pantheism goes to the other extreme. It denies that there is any distinction between God and the universe. Nothing exists, it contends, except God. The universe is, in fact, simply the Divine Being evolving itself in various forms. Theism holds a middle position between these. Like deism, it maintains the doctrine of creation, affirming that finite things are fundamentally distinct from their Infinite Maker. But it rejects the teaching which makes God remote from the world. It asserts, on the contrary, that God is, and must be, ever present to every created thing, sustaining it in existence and conferring upon it whatever activity it possesses: that "in Him we live and move and are" : and further, that He exercises a special and detailed providence over the whole course of things, interfering as He sees fit, and guiding all things to their respective ends. The Natural Theology which we defend in this volume -- the Natural Theology of Scholasticism -- is through and through theistic. We contend that the conclusions of theism may be demonstratively established, and that it will appear that no other system is capable of a rational defence.

2. Natural Theology as one of the Sciences. Natural Theology is rightly termed a science. A science is an organized body of truth regarding some special object of thought. In these days, it is true, we sometimes find the term employed to denote the physical sciences alone. This is an altogether misleading use of the word. The characteristics of scientific knowledge as distinguished from the mere experience of particulars are generality, organization and certainty. These characteristics are most fully realized when the system of knowledge consists of principles of admitted certainty and of conclusions derived from these by a rigorous process of deductive proof. Such, for instance, is mathematics. The method and object of Natural Theology are very different from those of mathematics; but it is science for the same reason. Both disciplines offer us a body of securely established truths regarding a specific object, reached by deduction from general principles, and organized into a systematic whole.

In claiming for Natural Theology the character of science, we must not be understood to maintain that it solves all difficulties concerning God and His providence over man. Difficulties remain, even when the human mind has done its utmost, as indeed they remain in the physical sciences. This does not destroy a science's value. Does any one propose to dismiss the whole science of light, because we know nothing certain regarding the medium of propagation which we term the ether, or the science of electricity, because we are wholly tn the dark as to what electricity is? We have far more reason to anticipate obscurity in our knowledge of God than we have to look for it in the physical sciences. The human intellect finds its connatural object in that material world which the senses reveal to it. Only by a laborious process of reasoning does it attain to any knowledge of what is immaterial. Hence it stands to reason that its knowledge of the Infinite Being must be fragmentary and imperfect. Yet where the supreme object of human thought is concerned, even such imperfect knowledge as is within our reach is of far higher worth than the most perfect acquaintance with any aspect of the created order, and its attainment affords an end more deserving of effort than the discovery of any physical law. Moreover, though the idea of God thus gained is fragmentary, it is at least vastly more adequate than the conceptions of Him which arise in the mind apart from scientific reflection. These latter spontaneous notions of God are invariably deeply tinged with anthropomorphism. Only through philosophical analysis do we learn to attribute to God perfections made known to us in creatures, and yet to abstract from them in this reference the manifold limitations which adhere to them as realized in the finite order.

Natural Theology, it is to be noted, is not an independent science in its own right, but a portion of the science of metaphysics. For it to rank as a complete science distinct from others we should have to possess a direct insight into the Divine Nature itself, and be able to derive our conclusions from the principles proper to that nature as such, just as, e.g., we derive our conclusions in plane geometry from the principles proper to spatial extension. This, of course, we cannot do: the Infinite Nature is utterly beyond our ken: in this sense there is no science of God. The point is a very important one, for here we have the ultimate reason for the incomplete and fragmentary character of Natural Theology. Our knowledge of God consists of a series of conclusions concerning Him, viewed simply as the First Cause of Being. Being is the object of metaphysics: and the body of truths which relate to the Supreme Being form a section of that science. The older writers, indeed, do not distinguish between the two, but regarded Natural Theology as an integral portion of metaphysics, and termed metaphysics Theology as being the science which treats of God.{2}

3. lmportance ot Natural Theology. The problems here brought under discussion are the most important which can be presented to the human mind. We are not concerned with barren academic disputes, but with vital issues which force themselves upon the mind of every rational being, and call imperiously for an answer. If it be demonstrably certain that there is a God, infinite in all perfections, the Creator of all things and exercising a direct and immediate supervision over every action of His creatures, it follows that His will must be the rule of our life: that our primary duty is the observance of His laws: and that only in so far as we employ our freedom to this end, can we hope to obtain the beatitude which is the goal of our endeavour. If, on the other hand. there is, as so many declare, no sufficient ground for affirming the existence of God or of divine providence, we are bound by no such obligation: and human beatitude is not to be sought in the attainment of the Supreme Truth and Supreme Goodness, figments devoid of objective reality, but in such a measure of temporal felicity as may be within our reach. It is manifest that a man's whole attitude in regard to life and its activities depends on which of these alternatives he adopts. Nor does the choice between theism and materialism affect his individual life alone: its consequences are not less profound in the social and political order. To see this it is only necessary to realize how different are the conceptions of human progress which men will entertain in the two cases. For progress consists in advance towards a worthy end: and no end is worthy of man's pursuit which diverts him from the ultimate goal of his being, and which cannot be brought into relation to that last end. Where no other end of human effort is recognized than temporal well-being, progress will be held to consist in such things as the advance of the arts and sciences, the development of material resources, and the increase of national wealth. But if throughout society there is a firm conviction that man's true end lies in the attainment of God, then, though men will not cease to set a high value on temporal well-being, they will recognize that it may be bought at too dear a rate, and that if obtained by the sacrifice of a higher good, national prosperity may be detrimental, not beneficial, to those who secure it.

The controversy with deism and pantheism is not less decisive as regards our outlook on existence than that with materialism. The philosophy of deism is wholly incompatible with personal religion. According to this system, as we have seen, God is entirely remote from His creatures. He does not intervene in their lives, but leaves the world to the working of natural law. The personal relation between God and the human soul, which is the very presupposition of religion, has no existence. Of pantheism a good deal will be said in the course of the volume. It will be sufficient here to say that the pantheist, if faithful to his principles, can neither admit personality in God nor free will in man. Further, he must deny any ultimate distinction between moral good and moral evil. To him both are moments in the one all-inclusive substance, which is God.

We must not, however, be here understood to imply that the detailed proofs of Natural Theology are requisite to convince men of the existence of God. On the contrary, we maintain that the evidence for that truth is so plain to see and so cogent, that no rational being can long remain in inculpable ignorance regarding it. The mind of man instinctively asks whence came this visible universe which surrounds him, and of which he forms a part: and the answer which forces itself upon him is that it was formed by the will of a Supreme Being, a personal agent as he himself is. Moreover, within him the voice of conscience enforces the authority of the moral law, approving all obedience and sternly condemning any disobedience to its commands. And this sense of obligation conveys to him the assurance that that law is the expression of the will of a Supreme Lawgiver, to whom he is responsible. In these ways -- and others might be mentioned -- reason spontaneously and without any laborious research affirms the existence of God.

Natural Theology gives us the scientific elaboration of these arguments. It shows that, simple as they are, they are philosophically valid: that no lurking fallacy renders them worthless: that they are, if properly estimated, irrefutable. Further, since difficulties and objections are apt to suggest themselves to thoughtful minds, it deals with these, and shews that satisfactory answers can be given to them: that none can be adduced which is such as to shake the certainty of the conclusion. Again, it goes further, and provides other proofs. There are many ways of establishing God's existence: some of them simple, such as those which we have instanced, others of a more recondite character and demanding a trained intellect to appreciate their value.

Yet the idea of God which springs spontaneously to the mind is, as we have already noted, very imperfect. It sets before us a Supreme Being, endowed with intellect and will, to whom man owes the debt of obedience and of worship. But further than this it hardly goes. On the attributes of that Being it throws little light. God's infinite perfections, His omnipotence, His office of Creator of the world, His justice, His mercy -- these are not matters of immediate recognition. For any assurance about them, recourse must be had to the reflective reason if we prescind for the moment from the question of a supernatural revelation. Man needs a true philosophy of God -- in other words, a sound Natural Theology. And unless he is thus armed, he will go widely astray, and fall into errors fraught with the most fatal consequences.

4. Relation of Natural and Supernatural theology. The question naturally suggests itself: What are the relations between Natural Theology and Revelation? How do they differ? How comes it that the one or the other is not superfluous?

It should be observed, first, that, though both treat of God, they are radically distinct as branches of knowledge. Natural Theology, as we have seen, treats of God solely in so far as He is known by the natural reason. The principles from which it derives its conclusions are the intuitions of the mind and the facts of experience. Moreover, the scope of those conclusions is very limited. They relate to God purely and solely in so far as He is the First Cause of Being. A science of God as known in His own essential nature is utterly beyond the range of the unaided intellect. By it alone we know no more of God than we can gather from the philosophy of being. Dogmatic Theology has a very different character. It is based, not on natural knowledge, but on what God has taught us regarding Himself in the Christian revelation. Unlike Natural Theology, it is derived from a direct and immediate intuition of the Divine nature as such: for its ultimate source is God's knowledge of His own essence. Its data, so far as we are concerned, are truths regarding that nature made known to us by God the Son and His chosen apostles, and contained in Scripture or ecclesiastical tradition. Differing thus in the sources whence they draw the premisses of their arguments, the two sciences differ likewise very largely in regard of the matter of which they treat. Thus it belongs to Dogmatic Theology to deal with many subjects which are altogether beyond the scope of Natural Theology, such as, e.g., the mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation. It does not, indeed, profess so to explain these doctrines as to make them in all respects comprehensible: for the mysteries of the Godhead are of necessity beyond the reach of man's intelligence. But it analyses their precise meaning, establishes their mutual relations, and demonstrates that they do not conflict with the assured conclusions of reason. Thus it would be a grave error to confuse the two sciences. They view God under different aspects: and even when they teach the same truth, e.g., the unity of God, they reach it by totally different paths.

Both of these branches of knowledge are necessary to us. Neither would suffice for man's needs without the other. Were the arduous path of reason our sole means of learning about God, our provision for the practical conduct of life would be indeed inadequate. A knowledge of the fundamental truths of religion is requisite to all, to the unlettered toiler as well as to the philosopher, to the boy and girl no less than to the man of mature years. All alike need to know that God is one and is supreme: that He is hampered in His action neither by blind fate nor by an opponent principle of evil: that whatever befalls us, happens by His permission: that, if we are but faithful, He will turn all things to our good: that He will reward the good and punish the evil. Moreover, they need to know these things as certainties beyond all possibility of question. Conclusions, still matter of speculative doubt, will not serve their turn: for what is dubious lacks force to determine man's action in situations of real difficulty. And they need to have this knowledge, not as the result of long and anxious reasoning, but forthwith. Reason, we allow, can establish these truths. But we are now considering men in the concrete, and not the ideal specimen of the homo rationalis. And how few there are who have either the ability or the leisure to engage in these discussions. 'The great majority of men are early forced to a life of labour which precludes them from speculation. Nothing can be more opposed to common sense than the idea so generally entertained that on moral and religious questions every man is bound to test all his beliefs by the cold light of reason, and admit none save those which reason shews to be valid.{3} Men require some shorter, easier way of attaining truth than speculative enquiry -- some way which is within the reach of all. This requirement a well-authenticated revelation can alone supply. Indeed, the learned can no more spare the assurance which revelation gives than can the unlearned. Though reason is capable of proving these truths, yet it is most liable to err: and the science of metaphysics is notoriously full of pit-falls for the unwary. The history of human thought bears witness how even the acutest minds have fallen into the gravest errors on these subjects. Here, then, revelation affords a sure safeguard. It warns the mind from error in many of the matters discussed in Natural Theology, and points out in which direction truth is to be sought.

Nor can it be alleged, on the other hand, that if a revelation be given, Natural Theology must lose its value and become unnecessary. Belief in Christianity demands as its basis a rational certitude of God's existence. The man who is persuaded that the human mind is incompetent even to determine whether there be a God or not, will inevitably turn a deaf ear to those who claim to be His accredited messengers. Only those who are already assured that there is a God, capable, if He should see fit, of manifesting His will to men, are in a position to attend to the proofs of revelation. In her work of preaching the Gospel the Church has to deal with many who either doubt God's existence, or in some way identify Him with the universe which He has made. For such as these only proofs drawn from natural reason can be of service. Moreover, materialism and pantheism are permanent factors in human thought, and in every age they are found in open conflict with the Church as the great bulwark, not merely of revealed religion, but of theism. The Church cannot defeat their disastrous propaganda unless she is able to meet them on their own ground, and establisb by irrefragable arguments the existence and principal attributes of a personal God.

In yet another way also Natural Theology lends support to revelation. God's revealed word is not confined to the mysteries of the Faith, but deals also with matters which fall within the scope of rational investigation. It is plain that truth cannot contradict truth: that a revelation, if it be really such, cannot be at issue with any incontrovertible conclusion of the speculative reason. And it is no small confirmation of the Christian religion that, where its teaching admits of being tested by our natural powers, it can invariably be shewn that no discrepancy exists: that the doctrines of the Faith are in full agreement with what may be learned about God from the data which natural knowledge supplies.

We have enlarged somewhat on the difference between Natural and Revealed Theology and on their reciprocal relations, because during the past half-century a new theory on this subject has obtained currency, according to which all distinction between the two is denied. The author chiefly responsible for the prevalence of this view was Schleiermacher (1768 -- 1834), a rationalizing theologian, whose works have exercised a far-reaching influence. His doctrine of God was a pantheism, founded on the system of Spinoza. Yet he followed Kant in holding the speculative reason to be incompetent to afford us any positive knowledge about Him. Moreover, his rationalism could find no place for the idea of revelation in the sense of an objective divine message. Starting with these presuppositions he sought a new basis for theology in religious experience. It should, he held, be the intellectual expression of our inward experience, and hence develop as that experience develops. It follows that no doctrinal formula is to be regarded as having permanent value, inasmuch as it must in time be superseded by one of fuller meaning. The significance of many dogmas is purely symbolical: they are not to be understood literally. Thus the Christian doctrines of the final judgment and the corporeal resurrection are to be accepted as symbols, not as realities. Here we have the origin of the view to which we have already adverted,{4} according to which Natural Theology is simply the speculative system involved in some particular phase of religious experience. Schleiermacher, however, contended that the modes in which the religious experience finds expression may justly claim to be at one and the same time Natural and Revealed Theology. It is natural as being the work of reason. It is revelation because our experience is God's manifestation of Himself. Indeed, since he found room in his system for a certain number of the doctrinal formulas of Christianity, he was actually regarded as a defender of revealed religion. He has unfortunately been followed by many subsequent writers in the entirely new sense thus given to the familiar terms, Natural Theology and Revelation.{5} Some of these, as, e.g., the Modernists (chap. viii. § 4) start from philosophical premisses not unlike his own. The standpoint of others (as of Mr. Webb) is different. But in all cases the identification of the two sciences implies that the idea of revelation as a direct communication of truth from God to man has been abandoned, and that reason is no longer regarded as able to afford certain, even if restricted, knowledge concerning Him. We hope in the following pages to make good the power of the human mind to possess a true Natural Theology -- -a body of conclusions regarding God derived by logical demonstrations from principles of indisputable truth. The possibility of revelation, truly so called, lies outside the scope of our work, but is adequately vindicated in many treatises on Apologetics.

{1} Essias de Théodicéé sur le bonté de Dieu, etc. (1710).

{2} Cf. Aristotle, Metaph. VI., c. i., 1026a28.

{3} Cf. Lord Balfour, Foundations of Belief, pt. iii., ch. ii., p. 195. The current theory appears to be something of this kind. Everyone has a right to adopt any opinions he pleases. It is his duty before exercising this right critically to sift the reasons by which such opinions may be supported, and so to adjust the degree of his convictions that they shall accurately correspond with the evidence adduced in their favour. Authority, therefore, has no place among the legitimate causes of belief. If it appears amongst them, it is as an intruder, to he jealously hunted down and mercilessly expelled. Reason, and reason only, can be safely permitted to mould the convictions of mankind utiments like these are among the commonplaces of political and social philosophy. Yet looked at scientifically, they seem to me to be, not merely erroneous, but absurd. Suppose for a moment a community, of which each member should deliberately set himself to the task of throwing off as far as possible all prejudices due to education: where each would consider it his duty critically to examine the grounds whereon rest every positive enactment and every moral precept which he has been accustomed to obey . . . and to weigh out with scrupulous precision the exact degree of assent which in each particular case the results of this process might seem to justify. To say that such a community, if it acted upon the opinions thus arrived at, would stand but a poor chance in the struggle for existence, is to say far too little. It could never even begin to be: and if by a miracle it was created, it would without doubt immediately resolve itself into its component elements."

{4} Introd., p. xii.

{5} The following passage from Mr. C. J. Webb's God and Personality may be cited in illustration: "I should hold that a definite type of religious experience, expressed in an historical religion, is presupposed in every system of Natural Theology: while the ultimate goal of all human speculation, which can be so named, must be a system which presupposes all the religious experience of mankind: an experience to which indeed those who regard Religion as genuine expericncc, and not as mere illusion throughout, cannot surely deny the name of Revelation" (p. 33). It is manifest how far removed is the sense here given to the terms from that which in the history of human thought has ever been regarded as their proper meaning.

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