Barr-the meaning of biblical natural theology

James Barr in his Biblical Faith and Natural Theology argued that the Bible contains natural theology or something akin to it. He qualified this claim in a long lecture about religion, tradition and natural theology.

One of his interesting points was that there is a tension in the Bible between the universal and rational notion of God that we associate with natural theology and the personal, dynamic, and often anthropomorphic God of the Bible. Natural theology would conceive of God as unchanging and all-knowing. But in the Bible God sometimes changes and sometimes doesn’t know everything.

Sometimes the Bible affirms the unchangableness of God (1 Samuel 15:29) and sometimes it affirms that he knows everything (Jesus saying that he knows when every sparrow will fall and numbers the hairs on our heads). Since the Bible has it both ways, it is unlikely that either side of the tension is revealed. The anthropomorphic character of God relates to mythology. God often acts in the Bible in ways similar to the way the Greek gods act in Homer. But the universal, transcendent side of the tension probably comes from applying reason after the fashion of natural theology.

I am going to quote a section of his lecture where he states his view of how natural theology worked for the Jews.

Although the natural theology of the Jews insisted that from the observation of the created world one could and should conclude to the existence of the creator that was not the way in which their own ancestors had arrived at their belief in the one creator God They had arrived at it indeed not by simple revelation as if God had just told them I happen to be the creator of the world. They had arrived at it through an intellectual process caused by the meeting of two forces: on the one hand the mythologies of the origin of the world which were inherited from earlier and environing religion and from earlier stages of their own religion and on the other hand and dominantly their own monotheism their tradition of the one God which brought about a substantial remoulding of ideas in this area. It was by some such process and not primarily by actual observation of the universe that they came to the view of creation which we find in Genesis 1: generally speaking a world formed by a process of separation and ordering the result being all good.

So the Bible does not rely for its understanding of creation on direct revelation or on empirical data, but on a process of accommodating the mythologies around them with a tradition of monotheism.

Barr did  not see the tradition of monotheism as the result of God telling Israel this in an uncomplicated way. Rather they probably got it from others. He mentioned the Kenite hypothesis that Moses may have derived his monotheism from the people of his father-in-law, the Kenite or Midianite priest. He also seemed to think the Levites may originally have been non-Israelite. From both of these sources Israel may have gotten an imperfect and sometimes fanatical monotheism.

The Bible is partly the process of Israel working out the implications of this tradition. For a long time they were strongly tempted by polytheism. But eventually they settled on monotheism. They used a faulty and amateurish kind of natural theology in the process.

For this reason we cannot use their form of natural theology as a standard or a norm. What Barr seemed to say is that the reality that they used natural theology gives us a mandate to go beyond them and use a better kind of natural theology in our theology and biblical interpretation.

One of the reasons that Biblical natural theology cannot become ours is that the biblical writers were badly misinformed about some aspects of reality. So, in order for us to use natural theology, we have to bring to bear the best philosophy and science that we can so as to have a better informed natural theology.

I guess I have some questions about this because it seems to me to give us too much leeway. Just one example that he brought up tangentially is that for the authors who gave us the command to be fruitful and multiply the problem was underpopulation. But what if the reality is overpopulation? Does this allow us to cut free entirely from the family as a reproductive unit? Does it allow us to make up a different structure in which marriage and parenthood become much less important? In other words, if the realities addressed by the Bible change, does that allow us to make up a completely different moral agenda?

Maybe Barr dealt with this more in a later lecture.

About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
This entry was posted in Ancient Israel, Bible, Ethics, Theology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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