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Works of an almighty hand?

24 May 2013

Andrew Davison on a kind of theology that has its non-believers


The Oxford Handbook of Natural Theology
Russell Re Manning with John Hedley Brooke and Fraser Watts, editors
OUP £95
Church Times Bookshop £85.50

THE Oxford Handbook series is becoming a new mainstay for the library. Perfect for institutional libraries, these books also serve the individual wanting to survey the field in any of a burgeoning range of disciplines. They occupy similar territory to the Cambridge Companions but are often both more specific and much longer.

This is a handbook to natural theology, but, as a topic, even the definition of natural theology is contested. As the principal editor points out, one purpose of the book is, therefore, to discuss what natural theology might amount to. Broadly speaking, a definition will rest on sources: an approach to theology is "natural" in as much as it takes its lead from the nature of reality, principally or solely.

The volume has five sections. The first lays out historical perspectives, stretching from the classical world to the 20th century. The chapters in part two offer theological perspectives, with one for each of several religious traditions, except that Christianity receives three: Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox.

The third part looks at the place of natural theology in various approaches to philosophy (analytic, Continental, process, and feminist) and philosophical disciplines (ethics and religious experience are two).

The essays of the fourth part consider natural theology from the perspective of different scientific disciplines. Here there is quite a selection: biology, chemistry and physics receive separate chapters, for instance. The gem is John Polkinghorne's discussion of natural theology and mathematics.

The final part looks at natural theology as taken up by the arts, both more generally ("Imagination and Natural Theology" from Douglas Hedley, for instance) and more specifically (Jeremy Begbie looks at music, for example). There is overlap between chapters across the volume, but this adds depth more than it seems repetitious.

A striking feature of this book is the presence of critiques of natural theology throughout. Most sections close with a chapter criticising natural theology from the perspective under discussion in that portion. Rarely can a handbook have devoted so much space to doubting the possibility or desirability of its subject. That is part of what makes this book so stimulating.

The theme of critique recurs like a drumbeat across the volume; whether it is a death knell depends on one's perspective, and how one situates natural theology in rela- tion to other approaches. Some of the authors assume a tension between natural theology and "revealed theology". Hedley, in a stimulating article, writes that revelation can "hardly be employed by philosophers". Almost at the other extreme we have Begbie, for whom natural theology represents the capacity of theology to find in nature (here, music) a witness to themes from Christian doctrine, as established from revelation. An example is the capacity of music "to bear witness to the cosmos as the creation of the triune God of Jesus Christ".

I wrote "almost at the other extreme" in connection with Begbie: there are others for whom even this revelation-driven attempt to relate doctrine in the character of the world would be seen as selling out revealed dogma. Christopher Rowland's chapter on the Bible argues against this: the Bible itself invites reflection on the world and its witness to God. Whether we follow the Bible's lead here will depend on whether we take the scriptures as a beginning or an end.

In these debates, Thomas Torrance emerges as an insightful voice. I was reminded that his book Theological Science presents much that is best from Karl Barth, that great critic of natural theology, but with a greater attention to the natural sciences, and a greater affection for them. Torrance licensed an exposition of theology with an eye to nature, so long as it takes its lead from "positive" theology, which is to say, from theology grounded in revelation. There can indeed be an intense theological interest in the world, but, to be theology, it must start with God.

The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is Tutor in Doctrine at Westcott House, Cambridge.

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