Natural Theology and the Theology of Nature
‘Natural theology’ is to be distinguished from the ‘theology of nature’. Those who draw their Christian theology mainly from Holy Scripture usually have no qualms about the idea of a theology of nature, nor of developing it as part of the Bible’s testimony to God’s creation. The biblical doctrine of creation, the ‘nature Psalms’, the place of beauty and miracle and order, and the suspension of the entire natural order on the sovereign will of God, are fit aspects for inclusion in the development of a full-orbed Christian theology. The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth his handiwork. The Scriptural testimony to the glory and beauty and God-givenness of nature is on a par with the Scriptural testimony about anything, or so it seems.
But what of ‘natural theology’? Here we enter another realm; not that of integrating the data of physical nature into an overall theological account of things drawn from Scripture, but that of developing a theology from nature, using the fact or facts of nature alone to draw theological conclusions. Here we are faced with various types of such argument, and this fact alone makes it unwise to generalise about their value, for perhaps some have more value than others.
Note, please, that in what follows we are concerned with the place of such arguments in apologetics. So our question is , Are they, or may they be, good tools for defending or vindicating key claims of Scripture about the existence and nature of Almighty God to those who rely, at this point at least, not on the authority of Scripture but solely or in part on the authority of reason and of sense experience? This is a different question from, is it necessary to have convincing arguments from nature to God in order to establish the rationality or reasonableness of belief in God for myself? Following the lead of what these days is called ‘Reformed’ epistemology, it may well be that it is rational for me to believe in God without argument, and not to have to defend the rationality of such belief by reference to an independent set of criteria, such as what is reasonable, or demonstrable. But if so, and I shall not further debate this question here, this does not prevent the use of arguments for apologetic purposes. And while it would be logically circular to suppose that there is scriptural warrant for natural theological arguments as providing supports of scriptural authority, it would certainly be logically possible to develop a scriptural case for the use of such arguments in apologetics. This is quite apart from the question of whether or not there is such warrant for the development of such arguments as an intrinsically worthwhile thing to pursue, for its own sake, an interesting issue but another area that I shan’t be considering in what remains.
The Design Approach
Among a posteriori arguments, which any argument from nature must be, it is usual to distinguish cosmological from teleological arguments, arguments from design as they are more conventionally called. The distinction is not a merely academic one, and I shall argue that it is of some importance in addressing this topic, even in the general style that we are adopting in this paper. Cosmological arguments draw their premise or premises from some basic fact of nature, a fact so obvious and basic as to be undeniable, such as the fact that some things move. At least three such arguments are among Aquinas’s Five Ways, and they have been endorsed in various versions by a variety of philosophers such as Leibniz and Newton's English disciple Samuel Clarke, as well as a number of contemporary philosophers and theologians.
The point of the difference is that cosmological arguments are generally regarded as being deductive arguments proceeding from such basic, undeniable a posteriori propositions as that just cited. Those arguments which are regarded as convincing are said to establish by reason that there is a God, whereas it is generally agreed that teleological arguments, arguments from design, proceed from the complexity, orderliness, and interconnectedness of natural phenomena, and seek to establish, or partly to establish, both that there is a God, and that he is a God of such and such a kind. If, through being convinced by a cosmological argument, we know that there is a first mover, then in one sense we know a lot, in another sense we know very little. For we know that there is a first mover but we do not know anything about what he (or it) is like. By contrast teleological arguments are generally thought by their proponents to be informative about the nature of God; they tell us important things about what he is like. They are famously illustrated by William Paley’s example of the discovery of a watch while out walking on the heath.
Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being grater and more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation. I mean that the contrivances of nature surpass the contrivances of art, in the complexity, subtilty, and curiosity of the mechanism; and still more, if poasible, do they go beyond them in number and variety’. (Wlliam Paley, Natural Theology, Chapter 3,), quoted in John Hick ed. The Existence of God, (Collier-Macmillan, 1964, 103))
Even someone who does not know what a watch is, on coming across one on a walk in the country is at once one is impressed by the intricacy, orderliness, and apparent purposiveness of its parts and is strongly inclined to believe that it must have been made. It is unreasonable to believe that it made itself, or that it just happened by accident. By analogy, Paley argued, as the watch is good evidence of a watch-maker, so the much greater intricacy in nature is good evidence of a nature-maker, an intelligent and powerful creator, wise and amazingly skilful. So the empirical input for a typical teleological argument is very much richer than that for a typical cosmological argument, and the logical structure of such arguments is inductive and analogical, rather than deductive. Given the complexities of the premises of arguments from design, what can at best be warranted, by way of conclusion, is a statement of what is probable, or reasonable, given the premises, rather than the conclusions being entailed by the premises, as with typical cosmological arguments, and even more spectacularly, of course, with ontological arguments.
Arguments from design continue to appeal to one kind of evangelical apologist, and so it is this type of argument that I shall concentrate on in what follows.
However it is worth noting that some forms of the argument from design are more abstract than others, produced in black and white rather than glorious technicolour. In his illuminating discussion of the argument from design, the teleological argument, Richard Swinburne distinguishes between spatial and temporal versions of the argument, the argument from co-presence and the argument from succession, as he calls them. Arguments from co-presence have to do with complex arrangements at any one time, arguments from the regularities of temporal succession with the orderliness and repeatability of types of event. Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God, (Oxford, The Clarendon Press, 1979, Ch.8) He relies, in rather the style of Aquinas ins Five Ways, on relatively abstract forms of the argument, with various types of regularity, and such an approach certainly offers protection from the more anthropomorphic conceptions of God that flow from the technicolour forms of the argument, even though in other works Richard Swinburne himself offers a quite anthropomorphic account of God.
The less abstract forms of the argument, what Swinburne calls arguments from co-presence, are of course easier to understand by men and women and children of all kinds, and have a greater impressiveness than do cosmological arguments, or more abstract teleological argument. Who cannot fail to be stunned by the intricacy of the human eye when it is featured in a Moody Science film, moved to there must be a designer and engineer of unsurpassed intelligence and power? Such data can have a strong dramatic impact. But we must continue to hold in the back of our minds that there has been a strong tradition, deriving mainly Augustine and endorsed by such as Thomas Aquinas, for which the less abstract forms of the argument have little or no appeal. In the Summa Theologiae Thomas thinks that it is possible to argue that there is a God, un Unmoved Mover, or even, in another of his Five Ways, that there is evidence of purpose in nature, leaving it to the faith of the church, drawn from divine self-revelation in Scripture, to fill in the character of the unmoved mover or purposer already in place, whose existence has been demonstrated by reason, or what the character of his purposes is.
Is the development of design arguments in the Paleyian manner for using for apologetic purposes something that is warranted by Scripture? When Paul argues in Acts 17 that God made the world and everything in it, that he made one race from one man, (and similarly at Lystra, in Acts 14.15) is he arguing like Paley? Does his remark in Romans 1.20, that the invisible attributes of God , his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, warrant Paleyite arguments? I don’t know whether Paley himself ever appealed to such data, but in fact Rom. 1.20 has been variously interpreted in the history of Christian thought. Both Thomas Aquinas and Rene Descartes believed that the text was a reference to some form of cosmological argument, whereas as we know John Calvin thought that it was a reference to the operation of the sensus divinitatis that is universally present in all men and women, an idea that he also thought was corroborated by what Cicero says in his The Nature of the Gods , except that naturally enough Cicero says nothing about the malfunctioning of the sensus due to the Fall. Certainly Paul’s emphasis seems to be placed on what is actually known and the knowledge of which holds us all accountable, something immediately manifest, rather than on the creation of actual or possible arguments for God’s existence by those who are clever enough to do so. And in drawing attention to the eternal power and divine nature, he seems to be making a stronger claim than the claim that there is an unmoved mover. He outlines a move from the world to God, the conclusion of which is that there is a God of eternal power who is glorious and immortal. (v.23)
In thinking further about the worthwhileness of teleological arguments we need to bear in mind its logic. It is, as I have stressed, an inductive, analogical argument. What does this mean? Two things, principally. One is that the argument proceeds probablistically, via the accumulation of evidence, to a conclusion to which, it is claimed, this evidence points. It does not set out, and cannot in the very nature of things set out, to provide a logical guarantee of God’s existence, but to a conclusion of the form: this evidence makes it probable to some degree that an intelligent and powerful designer exists; or more boldly, this evidence makes it more probable than not that an intelligent and powerful designer exists. That’s so to speak, the most we can expect. Some might say, Well, yes, that the most we can expect, but then that’s pretty good, isn’t it? To have evidence from the intricacies of nature that probabilifies to some degree the existence of an intelligent and powerful designer is a result worth having. For depending upon the strength of the probability that we believe the evidence provides, it gives theism some kind of presumption, and in apologetics such a presumption is something worth having.
But we need to note something else that might curb any growing enthusiasm for the design position. It certainly ought to. This is that a true induction of the evidence must be a full induction. We cannot in all honesty cherry pick, taking the evidence that suits our hypothesis that an intelligent and powerful designer exists, and ignoring the counter evidence. There is the wonderful beauty and adaptedness of the human eye, but there is also the existence of the liver fluke, and of cancers and asthma and …….However positive we may feel about the positive evidence, this negative evidence ought to lead us to feel less positive. For it is evidence against the hypothesis. To the analogies between the watchmaker and an intelligent designer there can be ranged a series of disanalogies.
It is at such a point as this in the argument, the point where not only evidence for the hypothesis, but also counter-evidence, is to be weighed, that Philo, one of the dialogue partners in David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, has this to say about the proponent of the design hypothesis
The world, for aught he knows, is very faulty and imperfect, compared to a superior standard; and was only the first rude essay of some infant Deity, who afterwards abandoned it, ashamed of his lame performance; it is the work only of some dependent, inferior Deity; and is the object of derision to his superiors: it is the production of old age and dotage in some superannuated deity; and ever since his death, has run on at adventures, from the first impulse and active force, which it received from him…. David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, (Oxford World’s Classics, ) 71.
That is, in less derisive language, the total evidence is seriously ambiguous. Even granted that we can get so far as to propose creation, what kind of creator or creators does it suggest? What is he (or they) like? What’s his (or their) nature? Hume’s point (through Philo) is that the total evidence, or a good induction of such evidence, is compatible with a whole range of alternative hypotheses; it is just as likely that the world is the creation of a committee of gods or of a finite god, a god in old age or in infancy, as it is a creation of the infinite, eternal God of Christian theism.
Such an argument might be countered by an appeal to the explanatory simpliciity of postulating the existence of one God, ‘a person of a very simple kind’ as Swinburne puts it , and one of great explanatory power. (The Existence of God, 102).
There’s a difference, then, between a use of an argument such as that from design, given the existence of God, postulated by reason or made known to us by special revelation, and the use of such an argument to attempt to establish the existence of God ab initio.
If we don’t see this point then the argument from design may present us with a dilemma. Suppose that, apologetically speaking, we look to it, in its technicolour form, focussing on the regularities of co-presence, for our doctrine of God, that is, for our understanding and approach to the nature of God. And let us leave out of consideration the point just noted about the compatibility of the evidence with rival theological hypotheses. We cannot get any further as to the nature of this God than the evidence from nature takes us. And the result must be an anthropomorphic God. So for those who wish to assert that God the Creator transcends his creation, that in his essence he is distinctly non human-like, outside time and space, simple and immutable, the design approach appears to be taking us in entirely the other direction, to a God who is a super watch-designer, and like a watch-designer works in time and space, has fingers and a brain, pre-existing materials which he fashions, and a workshop; he makes trial runs and is capable of doing better than he has so far managed to do in the manufacture of watches, and so on.
To the extent that we are not anthropomorphic in our understanding of God, but regard such figures as the necessary accommodating of God’s transcendence to our weakness, to that extent the design approach is not helpful, and may be positively unhelpful, as a sole or central apologetic tool. If we deny that such things are true of God we are flouting the evidence provided by the design approach. For if we begin to qualify the possible gods of the design approach, to protest that the biblical God, our God, is not like that, but on the contrary that he is a ‘spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable’, to that extent we are saying that the design approach is besides the point; for were it to be successful in convincing us that God is like a watch maker, then in fact it delivers another God than the biblical Creator. Unless, of course, you really do think that God has ears.
We may approach the problem in another way. In our theological thinking we must of course distinguish God from his providential working. His providence is what he has chosen to do or to permit, and our understanding of it must be constructed from what we know of his ways. But it’s a serious mistake to suppose that God is what he does, that what he does exhausts the being of God. Yet this is what the design approach is committed to, or at least what it is in serious danger of being committed to. When Paul wrote that God’s invisible attributes are clearly perceived in the things that have been made, he clearly regards our perceptions as evidence of some greater reality. What is visible is evidence of what is necessarily invisible, a divine nature of a God of eternal power and wisdom. But it’s not so clear that the technicolour design approach can make the move from the visible to the invisible, from the immanent to the transcendent, in a clear and convincing way.
Allow me to develop this point a little. The Christian culture of which we are a part is characterised by a strong anthropomorphic emphasis in its idea of God. It chief desire is not to have a God who is a watchmaker, but one who is near, who will sympathise, even who will suffer alongside us. This anthropomorphic mood, the positing of a God who is above all things familiar, affects everything; the lyrics of our worship songs, the way in which people try to cope with the evils of their lives, the doctrine of divine providence, and so on. It is even seen in popular Christology. I wonder how many think that when God became man he ceased to be God, or ceased to be that God? Are our churches characterised by a robust two-natures Christology? I rather doubt it, though my evidence on this is only anecdotal.
There are various reasons for the turn to anthropomorphism. Some have to do with philosophical sea-changes, the influence of Hegel and Hegelianism in the development of modern Protestant liberal theology. From Hegel we get a God who develops, who realises himself through history, and so who mutates and matures. Some reasons have to do with moral anxieties. After the Holocaust, and in a culture in which through the media the evils which affect people on the far side of the world buffet us every night, men and women want a God who is alongside us. If God cannot or does not prevent such evils, and he certainly does not prevent them, then the second best is a God whose nature it is to laugh when we laugh and to weep when we weep. Added to these powerful influences, I believe, is that provided by the anthropomorphic God (or gods) of the design approach. He is human, all too human. May this not be another case of the danger of us creating a God in our own image, in this case the image of the technologist?
Intelligent design and evolution by random natural selection
One obstacle in the path of those who favour the design approach is said to be the theory of evolution by random natural selection. This brings me to say a word or two about what is regarded as the current saviour from the alleged atheism of such a doctrine, the idea of Intelligent Design. I have no wish her to dwell on its internal features, or on its problems. Or Let us take it on its own estimate of itself. We can fairly easily see, from what we have been discussing, that Intelligent Design is a participant in the ‘design approach’ to natural theology and to apologetics. And it offers falsifying evidence against the theory of evolution by natural (i.e. random) selection (TENS), or certain forms or parts of this theory. For it argues that given certain pieces of evidence, evolution cannot be minutely incremental, but must involve step changes, and that these step changes are data that are manifestly the result of intelligence. Such data tend to the falsification of TENS and to support a design hypothesis.
But as it is usually presented TENS is a series of, or one gigantic instance of, a ‘Just So’ story. Necessarily everything that has so far survived, like rats and the human race, supports TENS, and everything that has failed to survive, like the Dodo and the Sabre-Toothed Tiger, also supports it. The headmarkings of the goldcrest, say, or the colour of a blackbird’s beak, cannot be explained in any other way than that either they have been necessary for that species’ survival to the present, in a way that we may not be able to specify, or that they have not so far fatally interfered with its capacity to survive.
In my view if TENS is to be regarded as a serious scientific hypothesis, and not simply an ideology about the origins of life in our world, it has to be falsifiable. For as Karl Popper and others have plausibly maintained, falsifiability is intrinsic to science. If a ‘theory’ is compatible with all the possible evidence, then it is not a scientific theory about that evidence, but something else – metaphysics perhaps, or myth, as Popper suggested.
So efforts to provide hypotheses that could falsify TENS scientifically, and evidence for the truth of these hypotheses, are to be applauded. Scientific theories should be tested to destruction, But other than to serve that very useful function, the function of setting up evidence that may conflict with TENS, it does not seem to me that Intelligent Design has any other important or distinctive function, certainly not an important place in Christian apologetics. In any case believers in TENS are well aware of the need for falsifiability. For example, if it could be shown that both human and dinosaur remains occurred in the same fossil record, then this would disprove modern evolution. (Michael Ruse, ‘Creationism’, Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy ed. Edward N. Zalta, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/creationism/science.)
Why, If what we desire is an argument from design, is ID an improvement on good ole-fashioned TENS? If the one is a design argument, then may not the other be? The fact that the knee-joint is evidence of intelligent design, if it is, is no different in principle than the fact that it is possible to account for the intricacy and fecundity of the natural order from features present at the Big Bang. What is marvellous, if we wish to have evidence for design, on the hypothesis of a Big Bang, is the power and potential of that first event. That event may not be explicable, but it is presumably not self-generated. It looks incoherent to suppose that the Big Bang caused itself. Its existence as such is either an ultimate brute physical fact, or the effect of some creative fiat. And together with the components of and the occurrence of this first event there is the stability of the natural order giving rise to the amazing regularities of succession, which enables this event to develop its potential so amazingly. We are told that if the universe had expanded differently after the Big Bang by a rate of only one part in a million million, then as a result there would be no stars and planets to support life. (W.L.Craig, ‘The Teleological Argument and the Anthropic Principle’ in The Logic of Rational Theism: Exploratory Essays, ed. Craig and M. McLeod (Lewiston, N.Y., Edwin Mellen 1990)) 127-53.
An increase of just 1% in the strong nuclear force would have ruled out the formation of carbon, a decrease of 4% would have meant that the only atoms would have been of hydrogen. (John D Barrow and Frank J. Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmoloigcal Principle, (New York, OUP, 1986) ,322). So if the human knee is good evidence of intelligent design then how much more so the first event and the environmental stability that we are told was necessary for the first event to develop as it did and from which (on the hypothesis of TEDS) the human knee developed by surviving countless trials and errors in locomotion. Any reluctance to draw this conclusion may be due to a concentration on one kind of design. But there are not only watch-designers, there are designers of cakes, where a small change in the ingredients or the baking conditions may mean a very different, totally inedible product.
So I don’t think that ID is such good news for the apologete, or changes the logical terms of debate in this area. In addition there are some serious theological issues which often tend to get overlooked. We shall glance at these.
Creation Strictly Speaking
Proponents of the design approach, whether they are classical Paleyites or the more recent ID folk, share a common theological outlook which has its difficulties. They make the assumption that the very idea of divine creation, whether of the Big Bang or of a knee joint, is itself unproblematic. We use phrases like ‘creatio ex nihilo’, ‘before the creation’, ‘before time’, ‘the first moment of time’, and so forth as if their meaning is clear, or pretty clear. We imagine it to be something like this: there was nothing, and then there was something, and the something came into being by divine fiat, and what came into being in this way was almost immediately wonderfully and beautifully made. We don’t stop to puzzle about this ‘and then’. We may even think that what came into being first was primeval soup, without form and void, and that God acted upon it like a potter fashions the clay, only more so. And then the question becomes, can we, for the purposes of apologetics, sever the creation (whatever precise account we give of it) from the Creator and use it to make his existence more probable than not?
What is creation out of nothing? The phrase ‘creation out of nothing’ is extremely weird. It is not a case of creation out of something, namely nothing. The point of the expression is to signal that God’s creation is unique, unparalleled, and that it is not a case of anything that we would normally call creation: creating a meal, or a portrait, or a stink, say. That is, in considering the Christian theological idea of creation we need sharply to distinguish between creation and development. I am extremely wary of trying to map Genesis 1 onto any presently-believed scientific picture; nevertheless the opening words of that chapter seem to indicate that the act of creation was the coming into being of (as regards the material creation) a formless, dark void. What follows that, the so-called ‘days of creation’, is logically speaking the development of that void into a lighted, ordered natural order full of examples of kinds of thing, though the creation of man also looks discontinuous with that.
What enabled B.B. Warfield, that doughty upholder of the Reformed Faith, to regard TENS with equanimity was just this distinction between creation proper, and development. The development was from the original potency of the ‘world-stuff’, the original act of creation, creatio ex nihilo but this development, the ‘finishing’ (Gen. 2.1) did not take place apart from God, ‘naturally’, that is, deistically, but was a case of the upholding and governing hand of God over every detail through the means of ‘secondary causes’, namely the causal potency of the matter of the original creation. (See his discussion of Calvin’s view of the creation which he clearly endorses, ‘Calvin’s Doctrine of Creation’ in Calvin and Calvinism, (New York, Oxford University Press, 1931), 299f. The relevant sections of the article are reprinted in B.B. Warfield, Evolution, Science and Scripture, Selected Writings ed. Mark A Noll and David N Livingstone (Baker Books, 2000) . Here what is at issue is not Warfield’s view of Calvin, which has been contested, but what his treatment of Calvin reveals of his own views. For doubts about Warfield’s understanding of Calvin see John Murray, ‘Calvin’s Doctrine of Creation’ (Westminster Theological Journal, 1954)). The ‘Six Days of Creation’ would, on Warfield’s view, be better described as the six days of ‘finishing’, or the six days of ‘development’. In the course of expounding Calvin’s doctrine of creation, which Warfield appears to endorse and to appropriate, he says
With Calvin, while the perfecting of the world – as its subsequent government – is a process, creation, strictly conceived, tended to be thought of as an act. ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’: after that it was not “creation” strictly so called, but “formation”, gradual modelling into form, which took place. ( (‘Calvin’s Doctrine of Creation’, 299).
And Warfield quotes Calvin himself.
God, by the power of His Word and Spirit created out of nothing (creasse ex nihlo) the heavens and the earth; thence produced (produxisse) every kind of animate and inanimate thing, distinguished by a wonderful gradation the innumerable variety of things, endowed each kind with its own nature, assigned its office, appointed its place and station to it, and since all things are subject to corruption, provided, nevertheless, that each kind should be preserved safe to the last day. (Inst. I.14.20). (Calvin’s Doctrine of Creation’, 300)
Similarly with our attitude to phrases such as ‘the first moment of time’, ‘before creation’ (that is, if creation is ex nihilo). The first moment of time is not like the first moment of the film or of my life. Before my first moment there were other moments. But before the first moment there could not be any previous moments. So what is this ‘before’? And if you think that such questions are too abstruse and speculative then ask yourself the question: what do you suppose that Titus understood by Paul’s claim that God (who does not lie) promised eternal life before the beginning of time? (Titus 1.2) All I mean to do here is to note with you the queerness of such sentences, and to suggest that they should weaken our confidence that we may readily understand the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo and regard an evidence approach to establishing it as a fact as unproblematic.
Implicit in these remarks is the distinction between deism and theism. The biblical picture is not that the products of the first moment of creation, whatever exactly they were, once they were in place, were then left to the vagaries of an impersonal and hostile environment. Rather the move from darkness to light, and from formlessness to form, was itself a divinely instigated business, akin (this time) to the human activity of creating something out of something else. That is, providence, development, is every bit as much a divine activity as creation properly speaking, creation ex nihilo. But, and this is vital, according to the Church’s confession both creation and development are ordered from a standpoint outside the creation.
The puzzlement of the first act of creation, creation out of nothing, is doubled if we think, with the church fathers, the medievals (mostly), the Reformers, with Owen and Edwards and all who subscribe to the great confessions of faith ex animo, that God is ‘outside time’ or timeless or timelessly eternal.
It is not my purpose to try to begin to take any of these questions further here, or even to say much more about them, but rather to unsettle us, unsettle those who adopt the design approach, or who readily permit themselves to say things like ‘The Big Bang is the beginning of time’, or the ‘first moment’. Or to make it less obvious that TENS is unacceptable because it is necessarily ‘naturalistic’. It may be unacceptable, but not for that reason. Because this ‘development’ of what occurred at the initial act of divine creation is (from a theistic point of view) every bit as much a providential ordering as are the hairs of our head. Random mutations may not be what we expect from God, but this has by no means been the only surprise that he has had in store for us. This whole area is deeply weird from a theological and a philosophical point of view. We are often inclined to surrender some of this weirdness by adopting a starting point that we are not committed to by it, in our eagerness to make the terms of debate more readily manageable (or imaginable). But in doing this we may surrender or compromise some of the features that are essential to biblical theism, the shape of which has been sharpened over the centuries of Christian thought and which is part of our heritage.
So I am arguing that evidence approach apologetics, if it is used to set the terms of the debate about the nature of God, is a theologically risky strategy which is as likely as not to dull important theological distinctions and to result in a highly anthropomorphic doctrine of God; and that this is so whether we think of design in terms of classical Paleyism, recent Intelligent Design, or in terms of TENS.
Before trying to lift us out of this gathering gloom as regards the design approach in apologetics there is one other factor that is be added, another dilemma, if you like. We may , prompted by the considerations that we have just noted, be tempted to swing to the other extreme, to separate the Christian faith and its theology from current science altogether. But this too carries its dangers, as I shall briefly note.
Here we need to return briefly to the distinction we made earlier, between a theology of nature and natural theology. A theology of nature is an attempt to fit an account of nature into an account of the nature and purposes of Almighty God. As the Christian theological endeavour is usually understood, this involves attempting from Scripture to spell out truths about God and nature and their relation. But it is seems to be difficult to do that without attempting to say things that are true about nature, and it is hard to see how this can be done without being committed to some scientific account of nature. Otherwise we surrender the controlling idea of the unity of truth, surely a vital principle. Whatever the difficulties, it is hard to see how a proposition can express a theological truth but a scientific falsehood. So we are driven, in developing a theology of nature, also to say something about science, or so it seems.
Various strategies for avoiding this do not seem to be very appealing. One could claim that science does not ever express true scientific propositions, to adopt instrumentalism, to hold that it provides a series of prescriptions and no true descriptions. At the other extreme one might so stress the presence of divine accommodation in the language of Scripture as to hold to a form of instrumentalism here, while holding that science, or science alone, gives us truths. The theologian Kenneth Kantzer is reported as saying that the Bible gives us divinely revealed misinformation about God. (As reported by his former student Merold Westphal, Overcoming Onto-Theology, (New York, Fordham University Press, 2001, 98-9).
I presume that there is some divinely revealed misinformation about God in Scripture, because he does not have a backside or a nose, though we are told that he has both. Such misinformation is not the result of the incapacity of the informer, nor is it designed to mislead us, rather the reverse. But it is surely going too far to suppose that all that is revealed about God is such misinformation (if indeed this is what Kantzer intended), since this seems to reduce to a sort of theological instrumentalism, involving a good deal of agnosticism, the purpose of such instrumentality being to enable pilgrims to make progress without telling them very much at all that is true. At that point, the prospect of a theology of nature seems to vanish.
Finally, one might preserve the tension between the two not by denying scientific truth or theological truth, or by putting each of them in separate rooms, and so developing a theory of two-fold truth, but by keeping them at opposite ends of the same room. This seems to be the wisest of the alternatives. There is great danger in understanding the Scripture in terms of some scientific account, whether it concerns the movement or immobility of the sun or earth, or the belief that the ‘kinds’ of Genesis 1 can only be understood in terms of Aristotelian forms, or of TENS. For theories of solar and planetary motion have changed, and Aristotelianism is not self-evidently true and there may yet be shown to be decisive evidence against TENS, or present versions of TENS, or some as yet undetected theoretical flaw in its formulation. Nonetheless there is presumably some account of the natural kinds that is the correct one, and some account of the stars and their orbits that is the truth of the matter, and some account of the natural history of the universe that is correct. Nevertheless, we do well to be self-critical about our readiness to believe that the latest scientific theory expresses the final truth, and to heed the salutary question addressed by the Lord to Job, ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.’ (38.4)
So far I have argued that natural theology must be distinguished from a theology of nature; that the design approach, even if successful as an apologetic strategy, is in danger of delivering an anthropomorphic God, that Intelligent Design is no better or worse a case for the existence of a Designer than the evidence provided by the Big Bang and the theory of evolution by random natural selection; that we need to exercise caution in view of the oddity of the ideas of creatio ex nihilo, the beginning of time and divine timelessness, and not readily surrender them. Finally, we need to be aware of the dilemma between developing a theology of nature that is too closely allied with current natural science, but also one that is too distant from contemporary natural science, lest we imperil the ideal of the unity of truth.
These remarks that I have made so far are mainly cautionary; negative, if you like. So I shall try to strike a more positive note before I close, but I know that I shan’t altogether succeed.
First, it is possible to be more positive in regard to the design approach by bearing one further point in mind. We have stressed that intrinsic to the argument from design, or the design approach, is that it is an argument that probabilifies the conclusion that there is an intelligent designer of the universe. Of course the derisive remarks made by David Hume do not by themselves invalidate that conclusion, they rather make it unreasonable to identify such a designer with the God of Christian theism.
But what if we make the design approach part of a cumulative case for the Christian faith? Doing that might at one and the same time qualify its tendencies to take us in the direction of anthropomorphism, and also develop a case in which, by the accumulation of arguments including arguments from the design approach, may increase the overall probability of Christian theism. For example, arguments from religious experience, from miracles, from responses to the problem of evil, from providence, from beauty and morality, and so on.
Second, I must say a word, rather late in the day, about apologetics, since this paper is intended as a contribution to Christian apologetics. Apologetics, the business of offering apologiae for the Christian faith or for some part of it is, presumably, a part of the missionary and evangelistic calling of the Church. That strategy is set by the Great Commission. It is (where the words are understood in a comprehensive sense), 'the preaching of the Gospel'. The New Testament also indicates the manner of such preaching: 'I am among you as the one who serves', (Lk. 22.27); 'The servant is not greater than his master', (Jn. 13. 16); 'I was with you in weakness and fear and much trembling', 'Not in plausible words of wisdom....' (I Cor. 1.3-4 ); ' 'For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake' (2 Cor. 4.5); 'To the Jews became I as a Jew, in order to win Jews' (I Cor. 9.20). The New Testament is full of such expressions. The Church fulfils her mandate when her preachers preach Christ, in the manner in which Christ should be preached. Matter and manner together. That, in a nutshell, is the strategy.
There is not, as part of that strategy, something in addition, a revealed apologetic system. I’d say, there is no more a revealed apologetic system than there is a revealed way of heating church buildings. But there is a revealed Gospel and a revealed way of spreading it. This way of spreading it is, naturally enough, often given to us in Scripture in the form of examples.
If the preaching of Christ in the manner in which Christ ought to be preached is the Church's strategy, what, then, are the tactics? I’d say Apologiae, defences, is one type of tactic. In the case of tactics, there are no separate ends, but the means, the apologetic tactics, are justified by the ends. This, surely, is clear enough. Paul preaches, delivering his apologia for the Gospel, differently in Lystra and Athens than in Antioch and Thessalonica.
So what is Paul doing? What are his tactics? They differ from place to place. In Antioch and Thessalonica he 'presupposes' the Old Testament and Israel's divine election. (Acts 17.2, Acts 13) In Lystra, he appeals to the evidence of our common humanity. In Athens, he boldly commandeers an alien culture. In Corinth, or rather to the Corinthians, Paul appears to adopt yet another tactic. 'Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, yet....' (I Cor. 1. 22) Paul's distancing himself from both Jews and Greeks must not be misunderstood, however. He discounts the 'wisdom of the world', yet later in his letter reasons cogently in defence of bodily resurrection, taking as his starting point the gospel witness. (I Cor. 15) In turning his back on the wisdom of the world, Paul is not turning his back on all thought, or on all reasoning. Even when he is preaching Christ crucified, and distinguishing himself from both Jew and Greek, Paul is employing reason (in the sense of reasoning) to do so.
So where does apologetics fit into this? Apologetics is in the business of making space - intellectual, cultural, religious space - for the Gospel to do its work. It aims to remove prejudices, mistakes, misinformation, wilful ignorance of the gospel, to start from where people are, to utilise (in Karl Barth's ambiguous phrase) a 'point of contact'. Apologetics is person-relative and culture-relative. It has the difficult task of 'manifesting' the gospel 'to everyone's conscience in the sight of God'. (2 Cor. 4.2) One gospel in many different circumstances.
In the absence of a revealed apologetic, the devising of apologetic arguments and approaches is a case where 'is' and 'ought' come close together. We may note the varied ways that Christ speaks, in parables, solemn warnings, sarcasm, critique, and the ways in which the apostles preach, together with the even more varied ways in which men and women are brought to Christ, and we let what we discover influence how the gospel ought to be angled. So apologetics is concerned not with the creation and preservation of a system, but by the very opposite: by empathy, imagination, appropriation, inventiveness.
Put more formally, Christian apologetics has as its aim to convince, to prove to men and women of the truth of the Christian faith, or some aspect of it. There are some necessary conditions of this that it is important to appreciate. First, if one is going to attempt to prove a conclusion, or to render a conclusion more probable than not in the eyes of one’s conversation partner, then necessarily one has to start from premises that he or she accepts. For the aim is to advance one’s partner’s knowledge or reasonable belief. So necessarily, the apologetic role is a person–relative role, with an eye not only on demonstration but on persuasion. (See Geoge Mavrodes, Belief in God, (New York, Random House, 1970)
Suppose two people, one with a firm grasp on the idea that what we have sensory experience of is not all that exists, but with a vague belief that it comes from somewhere or someone; and another firmly and resolutely atheistic. The design approach in Christian apologetics might be appropriate in the first case but, I have been implying, not as appropriate in the second. Or suppose that there is someone with bits and pieces of beliefs about the orderliness of nature etc. then a cumulative case approach might be an intelligent strategy to adopt.
But this strategy too carries its dangers, the danger that the criteria for success will swamp the criteria for intellectual integrity. For in our zeal to present convincing apologia for our faith we must be careful not to commit the immorality and folly of using falsehoods as premises for true conclusions. Shall we do evil that good may come? But falling into such an error, is not, alas, one that Christians, including evangelical Christians, are altogether innocent of.