My theological journey has been largely influenced by an ambivalent relationship I have with the theology of Karl Barth. Karl Barth’s famous and decisive “Nein!” to Emil Brunner simultaneously expressed something important and yet, at the same time, said something false.1 On the one hand, any responsible theologian would recognize that identifying God and His purposes with the creation risks falling into idolatry. Beyond this, the amounts of historical evils that have been perpetuated by a sense of a natural order of things that Christians have fallen into, including notably the German Holocaust, behooves us to be, at the minimum, incredibly frightened by natural theology. At the same time, despite protests and attempts to suggest that Romans 1.20 doesn’t mean what it seems to mean prima facie (or, ala Douglas Campbell, suggest it isn’t reflective of Paul’s own thinking), any highly warranted reading of that passage and the rest of the Scriptures, such as Psalms 19, would recognize that nature is a critical component of the understanding God.
To that end, perhaps the problem with natural theology is not the problem of nature, but rather the problem of theology. The act of doing theology makes an implicitly bold claim: that the mind comprehends God’s nature and purposes in such a way that a person who possesses such understanding can reliably communicate this knowledge to other persons. We have been accustomed as Christians to think we can possess such theological knowledge in virtue of the Bible being the embodiment of theological knowledge about God, Paul’s words in Romans 2.20 to the hypothetical Jewish sage who think they possess in the Torah as an embodiment of knowledge and truth should give great caution and concern about seeing the Bible as an embodiment of theological knowledge. Ultimately, God’s Word and instruction is about giving us light for the path we should follow in our life, not so much about light to the inner recessing of our minds (Psa. 119). Nevertheless, certainly, we can suggest that knowledge about God and His veiled purposes is transmitted not by the words of Scriptures, but through the Scriptures in the formation of the heart so that the person is prepared to receive God’s Wisdom. Through the work of the Triune God in our life, we can hope to arrive at such wisdom.
Yet, because the pursuit of theological knowledge from the Scriptures has been taken to run through the rational analysis of the interpretation of the Scriptures, there has come to be the slow but steady emergence of the idol of the mind: that through one’s rational faculties one has the power to reliably arrive at truth and correct knowledge about God and His purposes. While this rationality may generally be taken to combined with the interpretation of the Scriptures, once this sense of rationality takes other sources for its thinking, such as tradition, experience, science, the claims of theology begin to dramatically diverge from a theology grounded in a doctrine of sola/prima Scriptura. Beyond that, however, it is implicitly inculcated that the mind is the primary tool one uses to understand God.
When nature becomes the source of rational, theological reflection, there comes to be a problem. If God is holy and distinct from us and the creation, how can I reliably move from an understanding of creation to the knowledge of the Creator? How can one distinguish between one’s interpretation from another to discern the nature and will of God? It is here where the boldness of the claim to theological knowledge may very well blur into pride and arrogance: unless you have the mind of Christ, how can you know what the ultimate significance and order of creation is?
However, when we look at Psalmist 19.1-4, we see the Psalmist recognizes that nature communicates knowledge about God, even though it communicates without words. The type of thinking that is generally considered to be rationality is largely a function of how language forms and influences what concepts, ideas, and inferences are valid and invalid. The logic of most forms of rationality is largely “internal” to the system of language that a person thinks within, even if it may have some “external” input from the external world. Yet, the knowledge that creation provides is largely non-linguistic, and if one is willing to blend this with modern concepts of the mind, perhaps largely rooted in the subconscious.
What if the primary purpose of nature in the life of the Christian isn’t to be like some text that we directly interpret the will of God from, but rather to be an experience of God’s loving purposes in creation that forms the heart and mind? Then, God’s instruction mentioned in Psalm 19.7-9 can be seen as building on the work of creation. God’s Instruction takes the good gifts of creation that God gives and seeks for us to have in the creation and then refines us so that we are refreshing, become wise, giving light and understanding, and helping us to live righteously. In my mind, God’s Instruction helps us to live within the creation, providing verbal guidance for human action and thinking that modifies how we understand the creation. In other words, God seeks to teach us about His creation.
In this case, then, creation is a source of theological reflection. It isn’t about understanding God’s ontological nature or even discerning some overarching, general order that God supposedly intended, but rather we understand the glory of God, distinguished from God Himself, and the ecological functioning of what God created. But this doesn’t come by our rational reflection upon creation, but our submission to God’s instruction, which allows us to then begin to truly perceive the goodness of God that fills creation. Then, once our hearts and minds have been formed to understand and seek the good things of God through the practice of God’s Instruction teaching us, including most important in the word and example of Jesus Christ, in such a way that what is (subconsciously) implanted in our hearts becomes manifest to our minds, we are then prepared to understand God’s Wisdom, the Wisdom that formed creation in the first place.