The Problem of Criteria and the Necessity of Natural Theology

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Abstract

Most streams of Christianity have emphasized the unknowability of God, but they have also asserted that Christ is the criterion through whom we may have limited access to the depths of God, and through whose life and death we can formulate the doctrine of God as Triune. This standpoint, however, leads to certain complications regarding ‘translating’ the Christian message to adherents of other religious traditions, and in particular the question, ‘Why do you accept Christ as the criterion?’, is one that Christian thinkers have attempted to answer in different ways. There are two influential responses to this query in recent Christian thought: an ‘evidentialist’ approach which gradually moves from a theistic metaphysics to a Christ-centred soteriology, and an ‘unapologetic’ standpoint which takes God's self-disclosure in Christ as the perspectival lens through which to view the world. The opposition between these two groups is primarily over the status of ‘natural theology’, that is, whether we may speak of a ‘natural’ reason, which human beings possess even outside the circle of the Christian revelation, and through which they may arrive at some minimalist understanding of the divine reality. I outline the status of ‘natural theology’ in these strands of contemporary Christian thought, from Barthian ‘Christomonism’ to post-liberal theology to Reformed epistemology, and suggest certain problems within these standpoints which indicate the need for an appropriately qualified ‘natural theology’. Most of the criticisms leveled against ‘natural theology’, whether from secular philosophers or from Christian theologians themselves, can be put in two groups: first, the arguments for God's existence are logically flawed, and, second, even if they succeed they do not point to the Triune God that Christians worship. In contrast to such an old-fashioned ‘natural theology’ which allegedly starts from premises self-evidently true for all rational agents and leads through an inexorable logic to God, the qualified version is an attempt to spell out the doctrinal beliefs of Christianity such as the existence of a personal God who interacts with human beings in different ways, and outline the reasons offered in defence of such statements. In other words, without denying that Christian doctrines operate at one level as the grammatical rules which structure the Christian discourse, such a natural theology insists on the importance of the question of whether these utterances are true, in the sense that they refer to an objective reality which is independent of the Christian life-world. Such a ‘natural theology’, as the discussion will emphasize, is not an optional extra but follows in fact from the internal logic of the Christian position on the universality of God's salvific reach.

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