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Ten Questions on Natural Theology

Lutheran theologian Jordan Cooper says Natural Theology is profoundly important

In this interview, Credo Editor Lance English sat down with Jordan B. Cooper, a distinguished Lutheran scholar and theologian. During this captivating conversation, Cooper explores the profound significance of natural theology in today’s theological landscape. He navigates the delicate balance between reason and revelation, elucidating how natural theology harmonizes with Scripture to deepen our understanding of God’s nature. With a keen eye on the scholastic approach, he unveils how rigorous analysis and logical argumentation contribute to the construction of sound theological foundations. Additionally, Cooper graciously shares personal anecdotes, influential sources, and his vision for the future development of natural theology within the Protestant tradition.

1. What is natural theology?

Natural theology is the term that is used to define the things about God which can be known through reason. This includes empirical observations about the world, as well as logical inquiries from philosophy surrounding the nature of existence and the need for a first cause. There is also an internal inherent sense within the human soul of the reality of the divine which John Calvin called the sensus divinitatis. St. Paul refers to this natural theology as the things which are “clearly seen” by pagan and Christian alike, which is why the apostle can cite non-Christian philosophers as testimonies to truth about God’s relationship to the world (Acts 17:28). Even without God’s special revelation in Scripture, his existence and some of his attributes can be discovered by meditation upon his creation.

What can be known by means of natural revelation is significantly limited. While the non-believer does have a sense of God and his moral law (Rom. 2:15), the natural man or woman is totally unable to come to a knowledge of the Gospel apart from the clear proclamation of God’s word (Rom. 10:14-15). Special revelation is thus needed as the divinely appointed means by which the Holy Spirit works faith. However, this does not mean that natural revelation is wrong or useless. It is profoundly important for the intellectual lives of all people, as the human creature is able to gain true knowledge about the world even without explicit knowledge of Christ.

2. What are the strongest arguments or evidence from the natural world that support the existence of God?

The problem is that when no metaphysical assertions are made, then the contemporary world’s metaphysics are simply assumed. Click To Tweet I tend to think that arguments surrounding causality are the strongest. With that being said, they do take some work to explain, as when St. Thomas first proposed his five proofs of God’s existence, there were certain assumptions about the world which were taken for granted that his arguments rely on. This is no longer the case. Therefore, the strongest argument needs a discussion of what causes are, what purpose is, and how one thing causes another. David Hume has made the work here more difficult by his denial of the inherent connection between a cause and its effect. This has shaped modern people, mostly unconsciously, in a way that makes the causal arguments for God’s existence not so convincing.

However, when all of the background is explained, it remains a solid ground by which one can rationally assert the existence of God as a metaphysical necessity. This means bringing people out of the mindset of thinking of causality in solely linear terms (in other words, what happened before what in time). The more important questions are: why is there anything at all? How can a universe of contingent objects simply exist if they are all contingent? Where does motion come from? When all of the answers are tried, the inevitable logical conclusion is that there must be a non-contingent source of being and motion in other things. This is God.

3. Natural theology often involves complex philosophical and metaphysical concepts. How do you approach making these ideas accessible and relevant to a broader audience?

That has always been my goal, as quite a small portion of people has strong knowledge of the Greek philosophical categories which were once standard in the West. This is not only an issue among laity, but it is not uncommon to find well-known philosophers who profoundly misunderstand the causal language of Aquinas, for example. One might purport (and many do) that we could just simply get rid of the philosophical language altogether as an unnecessary hindrance to these conversations. While it might, perhaps, sound pious it is not quite so obviously the correct move to make.

The problem is that when no metaphysical assertions are made, then the contemporary world’s metaphysics are simply assumed by people . We do not live in a post-metaphysical world, but in a world with bad metaphysics. There simply is no escaping the ideas of being, existence, causality, or other traditional metaphysical constructs. It is only when thinking through these ideas clearly and distinctly that we truly begin to understand precisely where our current cultural mindset departs from a classical Christian one. In other words, the problems people have with Christianity and its application in the modern world are often metaphysical ones. Therefore, we have to deal with them.

In terms of bringing these to a non-philosophically educated audience, it is probably easier to do than is assumed. What is really important is to give specific examples of how changes in metaphysics have led our culture away from simple obvious fact—such as the difference between male and female. Once people start to understand how changing philosophical categories impact our own world’s issues, they begin to see that perhaps philosophy is not so abstract after all. In light of this, I always use a lot of examples to explain ideas, and I generally try to avoid unnecessarily complicated terminology or over-extensive use of Latin.

4. You’ve written a book on the loss of transcendence and the decline of the West entitled In Defense of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. How does a diminished natural theology contribute to our collective loss of transcendence?

The history of modern philosophy can essentially be defined as the loss of transcendence in the Western world and its unfolding consequences. When Descartes adopted a mechanistic approach to the natural world and consequently relegated the spiritual to the inward human soul, he interiorized purpose, so that the external world was no longer viewed through the lens of teleology. This meant that the natural world simply is what it is. It is no longer viewed as part of one comprehensive reality of what God is the consistent ground and sustainer. The history of modern philosophy can essentially be defined as the loss of transcendence in the Western world and its unfolding consequences. Click To Tweet

In terms of natural theology, one can acknowledge the reality of the transcendent without an explicit orthodox confession of the Christian faith. Plato was a thinker of the transcendent, but I am not quite willing to place him in the communion of the saints as Clement of Alexandria may have been. The same could be said about Neoplatonists like Plotinus who had a lot of profound good to share with the world, though without an understanding of the Triune nature of God or of the incarnation. My point is that the loss of transcendence is, yes, a loss of Christianity in the West, but it is also a move away even from the non-Christian West.

This loss of any anchor in the transcendent has meant that people now have to create their own purpose in life, since in their view it is no longer simply given to them. People continue to look inward to find some kind of ground of their own being or reason for living. This endless search for some kind of inwardly self-derived joy leads to things like the gender crisis we currently see around us, along with increased rates of depression and anxiety. We have lost contact with our Creator or any sense that there is any objective reality to grab onto. This should lead the church to new ministry opportunities to provide care for souls who are left without any guidance at all.

5. Are there any particular authors who have significantly influenced your thinking and approach to natural theology?

There are a significant number of figures that I have been influenced by in thinking through questions of natural theology and the role of metaphysics in Christian theology. Probably unsurprisingly, I include Augustine in this list near the top, along with St. Anselm and Thomas Aquinas. My most significant historical influence here, however, is Johann Gerhard. In most of my work, he stands above all others in his influence on my ideas, as the great synthesis between Thomas Aquinas’s metaphysics and Martin Luther’s gospel-centered Reformational theology. Thus, if I had to pick just one historical figure, it would be Gerhard. I've been influenced by Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas, but my most significant historical influence is Johann Gerhard. Click To Tweet

Along with these historical theological giants, there are some more contemporary authors who have impacted my thought on these issues. Edward Feser has probably done more than anyone else in demonstrating the importance of the shift away from classical metaphysics in the rise of modern philosophy—at least on a popular level. James Dolezal is probably the first thinker who turned me toward the earlier Protestant scholastic sources on some of these issues. I would also cite Etienne Gilson, Richard Muller, and David Oderberg as more recent thinkers who have impacted my formulation of natural theology.

6. What are some of the main criticisms or challenges that have been raised against the claims of natural theology, and how do you respond to them?

In some ways, the debate surrounding the relationship between Greek philosophy and Christian thought has existed as long as the discipline of theology itself. Tertullian’s famous question “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” is often repeated. However, it is to be remembered that Tertullian himself used Greek philosophical categories quite frequently in his own writings. His concern was more about letting Scripture lead rather than philosophy, than it was a total rejection of philosophy as a discipline.

Challenges today come from a number of fronts. To name them all would take far more space than I can give in this interview, so I will limit myself to just three. First, it is argued that the tenets of what are referred to as classical theism are really just the product of Greek philosophy being imposed on Scripture. This is an outgrowth of what is sometimes referred to as the Hellenization thesis. In summary, this thesis states that there was a purer more Jewish form of theology in the earlier church which gradually merged with ideas from Hellenism—namely through the Greek philosophical schools. The church then gradually moved away from this earlier Hebraic theology to some kind of Platonic one. The problems here are numerous, such as the fact that this thesis has its roots in historical criticism of Christianity itself with thinkers like F.C. Bauer, rather than from within a Christian framework. Also, the idea that there existed, in the Roman world, Jewish and Hellenistic thought as these two hermetically sealed categories is simply unsupportable. The first century Jewish world was a Hellenized one, and that is apparent even in the language of the New Testament itself.Van Til, like Barth, adopts what is an essentially Kantian view of the world. Click To Tweet

A second critique of natural theology comes from those who are of a Van Tillian presuppositional disposition who, while theoretically viewing arguments for God’s existence as acceptable, often in practicality reject classical philosophical argumentation for God’s existence. While there is a lot to be said here, I do tend to think that Van Til, like Barth, adopts what is an essentially Kantian view of the world in which the phenomena is not truly capable of revealing the noumena. This then makes the transcendental argument the only convincing one for the presuppositionalist. On a more basic note, I am simply not convinced that the kind of apologetic demonstrated in Scripture itself aligns with that of the Van Tillians.

Finally, many of the criticisms of natural theology simply rely on an inaccurate portrayal of what natural theology teaches. For example, Jeffrey Johnson, in his work on Aquinas, categorizes the doctrine of divine immutability as “immobility.” If classical philosophy really did mean by immutability that God is inactive, then this would be a clear contradiction with the written revelation of God in Scripture. However, this is not, nor has it ever been, what Christian theologians mean by immutability. Rather than being inactive, God is actually the most active, which is why he is pure act. Nearly every time that a theologian posits a contradiction between (Thomistic) natural theology and revealed theology, there is a significant misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the classical doctrine.

7. The scholastic method often involves rigorous logical analysis and argumentation. How does this method enhance the study of natural theology, particularly in terms of formulating and defending theological claims?

I find that a lot of Barthian and post-Barthian theology proper thrives on obscurantism. These thinkers often sound quite impressive with their erudite speech, but because they lack a more strictly logical structure, they often avoid dealing with what are some of the most obvious challenges to their proposals. With Thomas, quite the opposite is the case, as some of the best arguments against his proposals are the ones that he brings up himself as possible critiques of his contentions. This latter model forces the thinker to be as clear and precise as possible.

Precision and clarity are a rarity in theological writing in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This is why Karl Barth, for example, has interpreters of his thought who differ wildly on his meaning and intentions on nearly any point. This is quite surprising given how relatively recently Barth was alive and writing. In contrast to this, a thinker like Johann Gerhard does not need interpreters to make sense of his thought in quite the same way. Any reader with a clear idea of his terms and context will come away with nearly the same conception of what it is that he believes—because he valued clarity.

We do not live in a post-metaphysical world, but in a world with bad metaphysics. Click To Tweet When I use the term “scholastic method,” sometimes people think that what I contend for is the exact formulation of something like Thomas’s Summa where you have a very clear structure of: Proposal, rebuttal, answer to rebuttal. I do not think it always needs to be done in exactly this manner. However, that general approach to theology which is laden with propositions, possible refutations of propositions, and then response to those refutations, is far better than the alternatives. I am not, however, contending that we do away with any structure that is not directly medieval.

Essentially, what this method does is force the writer to both think and communicate clearly so that actual doctrinal propositions being set forth can be defined. It also means both the writer and reader must lay out a clear and logical set of arguments and ideas which come forth from those propositions.

8. When you’re not delving into deep theological inquiries or serving the church, what hobbies or activities do you enjoy to relax and unwind?

Despite the impression I might give off sometimes, I don’t only read and write theology. I also spend a significant amount of time reading literature (Edith Wharton is my favorite), learning about art, and watching operas. I am a connoisseur of classic menswear and mid century modern furniture. My interests are mostly aesthetic in orientation, as I believe that God reveals himself in the beauty and order which is in our world. But for less sophisticated hobbies, I do relax by playing the Zelda and Elder Scrolls games, and I used to compete in yo-yoing at the international level.

9. If you could have a conversation with any historical figure, who would it be and why? How do you imagine that conversation would unfold?

That’s a difficult question, as there are so many to choose from. Since I have to choose only one, I’ll pick Plato. I truly do wonder how Plato would have responded to Christian revelation. What I might prefer, more than talking to him myself, is to get Plato and Justin Martyr in a room together and simply sit back and watch the conversation, but since that wasn’t an option, I would present Plato with the Gospel. I’d tell him that the Logos became flesh, and that all of the sources of knowledge and wisdom which Plato so thoroughly searched were found in Christ. How would the conversation unfold? I have no idea. But that’s the fun of it.

10. How do you believe the exploration of natural theology can be integrated and beneficial within the setting of the local church? What role can it play in enriching the theological understanding of congregants and fostering spiritual growth within the community?

I find that a lot of Barthian and post-Barthian theology proper thrives on obscurantism. Click To Tweet I don’t think that natural theology means that pastors should consistently use technical philosophical terms in the pulpit. As part of the Lutheran tradition, we strongly distinguish between the kind of teaching that is done outside of the Divine Service, and what is to be brought into the pulpit. With that being said, however, there are plenty of opportunities to reference arguments for the existence of God, general revelation, and the ideas of classical theism within preaching. Like anything else, the guide here is the text. When these things appear in the text (and they do), preach it.

But there are times in the church to get more in-depth on many of the apologetic and theological issues related to natural theology outside of the pulpit. In my own ministry, this is often done with college students who are struggling with the intellectual reputability of their faith or are trying to find ways to respond to the secular world around them. While I don’t believe that faith is ultimately grounded upon rational arguments (as it is given by the Holy Spirit through Word and Sacrament), God certainly does use rational arguments for good purposes in the life of his people.

In terms of spiritual growth, I would simply say that the increase in our knowledge of God is a significant, though often neglected, aspect of Christian sanctification (2 Pet. 3:18). Getting to know our God more also means loving God more, and this then also leads to the formation of character. We often, unfortunately, pit mind and heart against one another, thinking that we are to grow in the latter but not the former. In reality, as creatures made of mind, body, and soul, we are to grow in sanctification in multitudinous ways.

Jordan B. Cooper

Jordan B. Cooper is an ordained Lutheran pastor, an adjunct professor of Systematic Theology, the Executive Director of Just and Sinner, and the President of the American Lutheran Theological Seminary. He has authored several books, including In Defense of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, as well as theological articles in a variety of publications. He hosts the Just and Sinner Podcast, and is a frequent guest on many other podcasts. He lives in Ithaca, NY with his wife Lisa and their two boys: Jacen, and Ben.