The first section of Alister McGrath’s book A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology deals with his vision of a Trinitarian natural theology. The section is rather academic. As McGrath sets up his vision for natural theology, he runs through the ideas advanced by many other Christian thinkers and apologists. Doing this he seems to ramble through a wide range of ideas. The section is well worth reading, even if it seems to take awhile at times to get to the point. What follows is a summary of some of the major points from his first six chapters.
Several significant criticisms have been leveled against the notion of a natural theology and McGrath agrees with most of them. These criticisms are focused (1) on the use of natural theology as an apologetic for God, (2) on the tendency to search out gaps and insert God, and (3) on the emphasis in many expressions of natural theology on epistemology (how we know and basis for knowledge) rather than ontology (the nature of the world we see). When natural theology is viewed, as was common in the 18th to 20th century, as a way to know God on the basis of human reason alone, without recourse to God’s self-revelation in Christ, Church, Scripture, through the power of the Spirit, it will fall short. It may point to a God – it will not point to the God.
Not a foundation but a synthesis. The power of natural theology is not in its ability to provide a foundation for knowledge of God but in its ability to provide a synthesis of information and a Christian vision of reality.
[Christian natural theology] offers an alternative way of viewing nature, which may at times challenge exaggerated versions of the scientific method, yet welcomes and sees itself as part of the human quest for truth, whether scientific or religious. It expects to find, and does in fact find, a significant explanatory resonance with what is known of nature from other sources, while at the same time insisting on its right to depict and describe nature in its own special way – as God’s creation. (p. 29-30)
Christian natural theology is a tool – a powerful tool – for making sense of the world we see. It provides a lens for engagement with observation and empirical data. McGrath, taking his cue from Paul in Romans 12:2 (do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind) notes that faith, Christian faith, transforms the human understanding of the world and revolutionizes the way we inhabit the world.
The human mind is not replaced or displaced; rather it is illuminated and energized through faith. … Faith is about the transformation of the human mind to see things in a certain manner, involving the acquisition of certain habits of thinking and perception. (p. 39)
A renewed vision of natural theology asks two questions in iteration:
How does a Christian faith, a Christian view of the world, inform our understanding of nature?
How does our increasing knowledge of nature inform our understanding of the nature of God and his creation?
History confirms what orthodoxy suspects – that any attempt to render the character of God through human engagement with nature ultimately leads to a vision of God that is at best Deist, and more probably pagan – a point of no small importance on account of the revival of paganism in many parts of the Western world, although often in somewhat softened and sanitized forms. (p. 67)
But a Christian view does not treat God as a speculative hypothesis, it does not view God as impersonal or detached. A Christian view of God is inherently trinitarian, and this trinitarian view of God in relationship, of perichoresis, must inform and imbue a true Christian natural theology.
McGrath outlines four points of particular significance for his view of a Trinitarian Natural Theology:
1. Trinitarianism and a Self-Revealing God.
Deism holds that God created the world; theism holds that God created the world and continues to direct it through divine providence; Trinitarianism holds that God created the world, continues to direct it through divine providence, and guides the interpreters of both the books of nature and Scripture through the illumination of the Holy Spirit. (p. 72)
God reveals himself and enters into relationship with his creation. To consider God without taking into account this element of relationship within the Godhead and with creation will ensure a theology that comes up short.
2. The Doctrine of Creation Ex Nihilo.
Because creation is ex nihilo – out of nothing – study of creation will reveal God. He did not work with preexisting or alien material, but with material of his own choice and form.
This leads to the notion that the created order is capable of rendering the character of God, especially God’s wisdom, goodness, and beauty. This does not mean that one can read such attributes out of the natural order unproblematically and unambiguously. Nevertheless, a theological foundation for such an approach has been laid. (p. 74)
3. Humanity and the Imago Dei.
The intelligibility of the natural world, demonstrated by the natural sciences, raises the fundamental question as to why there is such a fundamental resonance between human minds and the structures of the universe. From a Trinitarian perspective, this “congruence between our minds and the universe, between the rationality experienced within and the rationality observed without,” is to be explained by the rationality of God as creator of both the fundamental ordering of nature and the human observer of nature. (p. 77)
4. The Economy of Salvation.
A Trinitarian view of natural theology avoids the pitfalls of deism, functional atheism, and paganism. Creation groans (Romans 8) and is observed in its groaning by humans affected by sin. That creation groans gives rise to the problems of natural evil and moral ambivalence in the world. Human sin and finite limitations include clouded judgment and moral evil. As such a “neutral” development of natural theology will inevitably fail to reveal the Christian God. “Nature must be “seen” in the right way for it to act as a witness to, or conduit for, the Trinitarian God of the Christian tradition. (p. 79)“
A Trinitarian “economy of salvation” offers such a framework. … It affirms that God created all things good and that they will finally be restored to goodness. Yet at the present, it insists that good and evil coexist in the world, as wheat and weeds grow together in the same field (Matthew 13:24-43). Without collapsing one into the other, it allows us to locate good and evil within the context of the theological trajectory of creation, fall, incarnation, redemption, and consummation. (p. 80-81).
These four points outlining a Trinitarian natural theology add another question to the two posed above.
How do these features of Christian doctrine, particularly the concepts of imago dei and the economy of salvation, change the way we view nature and interpret our observations?
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