Jim Stump
 on December 08, 2015

Did Deism Lead to Natural Theology?

Reason alone is no more capable of delivering a consensus about God and religious truths than human efforts to interpret Scripture.


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This post is part of my series of reflections on David Fergusson’s book Creation. I’ve just realized there are seven chapters in the book. Yes, seven chapters for a book on creation. Day five in the Genesis account was devoted to populating the seas and the sky; chapter five in this book is about deism and natural theology. I’m guessing that Fergusson did not intend for us to draw any parallels.

I’ve already commented on how the doctrine of creation ex nihilo helps to counter the charge of deism. God’s creative activity was not confined to starting things off and then letting them run on their own; by creating out of nothing, God is the on-going source of being for all created things.

But that understanding of deism is a contemporary one. Fergusson corrects our ahistorical tendencies saying, “More accurately, however, deism represents a range of positions that affirm God as creator on the basis of natural reason rather than revelation, judging that the rationality with which God has endowed us is a more reliable guide than Scripture in matters of morality and religion” (p. 64). So, the first deists arose in the seventeenth century when the Protestant Reformation led to a multiplicity of denominations, all with different interpretations of Scripture. The Thirty Years’ War gave a lot of people in Europe a distaste for claiming that their take on the Bible was the absolutely correct one, and everyone else was wrong.

One of the first deists was Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648). He was not a professional academic, but captured the thought of the time in his book De veritate. He summarized what he thought the “Common Notions of Religion” would be if we confined ourselves to what can be known from our natural capacities:

  1. There is a supreme God.
  2. People have an obligation to worship this deity.
  3. Worship is to be identified with a practical morality.
  4. People must repent of sin and abandon it.
  5. There will be rewards and punishments in the afterlife.[1]

There are two very different trajectories that this kind of thinking leads to. One is natural religion and what we think of as deism today. In the wake of Lord Herbert are people like John Toland and Matthew Tindal. They argued that anything distinctive about Christianity that derives from revelation and not natural reason ought to be abandoned. It’s not too difficult to connect the dots from this natural religion to deism (as we think of it today) and then to atheism.

But there is another trajectory leading away from natural religion to the tradition of natural theology. In this, people aren’t generally trying to trim down the faith to what can be established by reason, but rather they are trying to demonstrate the truth of Christianity by showing that it reasonably follows from truths we know through reason and experience.

This sounds great, but I think we need to be careful here: historians have shown that there are costs to be paid for thinking it is better to ground our religious beliefs on supposedly neutral premises drawn from science and philosophy. One of my favorite books on the topic is Michael Buckley’s At the Origins of Modern Atheism (Yale University Press, 1987). Buckley’s thesis is that the theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries treated atheism as if it were a philosophical problem rather than a religious one, and in so doing denied the relevance of the person of Jesus Christ in answering skeptics and atheists of the time. Instead, they tried to defend an idea—the “god of the philosophers” as it has come to be known—rather than the Christian Trinity. This led to deism and ultimately to the atheism that characterized much of the French intelligentsia of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and continues to dominate academia today.

“The remarkable thing is not that d’Holbach and Diderot found theologians and philosophers with whom to battle, but that the theologians themselves had become philosophers in order to enter the match. The extraordinary note about this emergence of the denial of the Christian god which Nietzsche celebrated is that Christianity as such, more specifically the person and teaching of Jesus or the experience and history of the Christian Church, did not enter the discussion. The absence of any consideration of Christology is so pervasive throughout serious discussion that it becomes taken for granted, yet it is so stunningly curious that it raises a fundamental issue of the modes of thought: How did the issue of Christianity vs. atheism become purely philosophical? To paraphrase Tertullian: How was it that the only arms to defend the temple were to be found in the Stoa?” (33).

Buckley’s last sentence there refers to Tertullian’s famous question, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” That is sometimes construed as advocating the elimination of all “secular” learning from discussions of faith. I don’t think that’s what Tertullian meant, and it certainly is not what Buckley is advocating. Rather, Buckley’s concern is that stipping down the content of faith to what is provable by natural means ends up with something not recognizable as the Trinitarian faith of the Christian tradition. And that “something” ends up not being very stable and is what led to widespread atheism.

Of course it is not the case that all natural theology turned into atheism. There is still a vibrant tradition of natural theology today, and it often points back to Aquinas and even Calvin for support of what they’re doing. Fergusson notes, though, that those two had a very different context for their natural theology:

“For Aquinas, the arguments of natural theology were brought within the presentation of the Christian faith, grounded upon Scripture and the teaching of the church. For Calvin, the sensus divinitatis, although natural and universal, is clouded and corrupted by sin, and too confused to afford a clear knowledge of God. For this we need Scripture” (65).

I know there is much debate about the propriety and effectiveness of natural theology in service to the Gospel. Certainly there are people who find arguments from scientific premises to theological conclusions to be persuasive. I know people who have become Christians because of such arguments. But I also know people who have become Christians for all sorts of other reasons that we wouldn’t accept as rational. So we can’t just point to conversions and think that establishes the rational justification of natural theology. And in fact, you might think that if Christianity were rationally justified, all rational people would accept its claims. I’m not willing to say that all people who don’t accept my brand of Christianity are irrational. Rationality is trickier than that.

The original deists thought they were doing the faithful a great service by founding the truths of Christianity on reason instead of on the varieties of biblical interpretation that were proliferating in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. But here, it seems, is the hard lesson to be drawn from what we know now: Reason is no more capable of delivering a consensus about God and religious truths than were our interpretations of Scripture.

This leads Fergusson to support the distinguishing of natural theology from a theology of nature. The latter is a project “proceeding from within the faith community and seeking to understand nature as God’s good creation of which we are an integral part” (p. 78). Sounds to me like faith seeking understanding.

The next chapter (day 6) is on “Evolution and Cosmic Fine-Tuning”. See you then.

About the author

Jim Stump

Jim Stump

Jim Stump is Vice President of Programs at BioLogos. He oversees the editorial team, participates in strategic planning, and hosts the podcast, Language of God. Jim also writes and speaks on behalf of BioLogos. He has a PhD in philosophy and was formerly a professor and academic administrator. His books include, Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design; Science and Christianity: An Introduction to the Issues; How I Changed My Mind about Evolution; and The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity. You can email Jim Stump at or follow him on Twitter.

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