Barr-the moderating function of natural theology

It is a great service to thought and scholarship to have the Gifford Lectures largely available online: here. These lectures have been held since the 1880s at various universities in Scotland. Lord Adam Gifford, who originally endowed the lectures, specified that they should concern natural theology in its broadest sense. Indeed, the lectures have been given by many varieties of Christian, by Jews, by Muslims, by representatives of Eastern Religions, by Atheists, and by Agnostics. Even Karl Barth, who famously said that “no” to natural theology, was a lecturer.

After I read Kenton Sparks on God’s Word in Human Words, I was inspired to look again at the ideas of James Barr. Barr gave the Gifford Lectures in 1990-1991. Hecalled his lectures Biblical Faith and Natural Theology.  You can read them here.

Barr, according to the blurb provided at the beginning:

argues that the Bible not only endorses elements of natural theology, but also is heavily dependent on natural theology both in its composition and for its responsible interpretation. Interacting throughout with the influential views of Karl Barth, Barr thus offers a devastating critique of the notion that natural theology is at odds with biblical theology.

Some have thought of natural theology as an attempt to prove the existence of God without reference to the Bible or other revelation.  But Barr seems to believe that the two approaches support each other.

Those who deny natural theology either think proof of God is impossible or that the God you get is a false “God of the philosophers.” This usually goes along with heavy reliance on revelation (not the last book of the Bible, but God’s self disclosure in history, law, prophets, Jesus or the inspired Scripture).

Those Christians who deny natural theology also tend to think that Christianity does not belong to the general class of religion or theism. Christianity is unique, they say. Thus natural theology is of little use in defending the faith because it only leads to a generic theism and not to the Judeo-Christian God.

Barr, however thinks that using natural theology to defend the faith is useful, not just because it might lead some to faith, but because it prevents Christians from going too far out on the fringe. Natural theology not only supports faith but it helps to keep faith from going to extremes. The defender of the faith using natural theology,

may say well yes we believe and faith is justifiable but it will be more easily justifiable if we keep it within certain bounds. We can demonstrate the reality of God but only if our faith in God remains fairly close to the sort of God whose reality we can demonstrate. Science may leave room for divine creation but not if we insist that divine creation took place in one week in 4004 BC and in the exact sequence described by Genesis. Historical study may leave room for divine action in history but only if that divine action is seen in a less crude and more sophisticated way than a literal understanding of some biblical passages would seem to suggest. Thus the apologetic functions which include natural theology do not only support faith but they also tend to act critically upon faith to correct it to guide it into certain channels. (There are no page numbers in the online lectures. This is from his first lecture, Natural Theology in This Century: Concepts and Approaches.)

I had not thought of it quite like this before, but it makes sense. If you use an inspired book without reference to general human knowledge, you can get pretty far out there, making claims about reality that do not jibe with what we know from science, history, or reason. This helps explain why Roman Catholic thought; in spite of some hard-to-swallow dogmas and past problems with, say, Copernicus; tends to be more moderate than conservative Protestantism and to relate more to the sciences.


About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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One Response to Barr-the moderating function of natural theology

  1. Pingback: History and general revelation | theoutwardquest

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