David Haines is helping to reinvigorate the study of natural theology with two new books. Without Excuse and Natural Theology call us to think deeply on this most important subject. The covers of both of these books play with the contrast of light and dark. A light shining in the darkness. The cover for Natural Theology adds in the boat tossed in stormy waves. This reminds of us the disciples and “oh you of little faith, do you still not understand?” When we think about light and darkness the impression can be that we are doing the best we can but are left in darkness and tossed in a storm. But the truth of this imagery is that the darkness is self imposed and the storm is due to our own lack of understanding. The light of the glory of God shines clearly all around and yet we imagine ourselves without a revelation of God. We excuse the Greek and Roman philosophers for their unbelief because we imagine them doing their best with what they had rather than denying what was clearly revealed all around them.
Having studied and worked on natural theology for the last 25 years I have always been amazed at the general neglect of this subject. The tendency has been toward either evidentialism or presuppositionalism. My research and books have all engaged natural theology as I hoped to see the field infused with more energy and attention. Perhaps this is finally happening. Two new books by David Haines address this subject. Together they make a case for the Aristotelian/Thomist approach to natural theology against the presuppositional approach represented by VanTil.
Natural Theology is a historical work that looks to defend Christian engagement in natural theology from critics like Barth or VanTil. It correctly points to the rich history of Christian work in natural theology. It also highlights the many mixtures of error with non-Christian philosophers that have resulted. If the basic truth is that general revelation clearly reveals the eternal power and divine nature of God so that unbelief is without excuse, then 1) the Christian must be able to give the arguments that show these truths about God and 2) the Christian should be able to demonstrate how the wisdom of this world in Plato or Aristotle evinces culpable ignorance and is without excuse in unbelief about God. Far from doing all that can be done in natural theology without scripture, these philosophers came short on the first things and are indicted in their failure to know what is clear about God from general revelation. The following is a reflective engagement with these two books and the clarity of general revelation. The main topic is to highlight that, whatever useful arguments Aristotle gave, he fundamentally came short in the knowledge of God available in general revelation and he directed his followers away from the works of God.
These two books are excellent in bringing to our attention the many important topics that need attention in natural theology. They each are useful resources that can be read with benefit by a wide audience. They highlight challenges that remain for those studying natural theology. Perhaps my favorite parts were when Haines deals with common objections to the work of natural theology. There are standard ways that natural theology is set aside with unsound arguments, and these need to be recognized and permanently abandoned. It is also wonderful to see Haines bring together so many resources affirming that our chief joy is in knowing God (correctly defined). Rather than dismiss natural theology, view it as a vestigial organ, or find it a burden, its pursuit should be counted among our favorite things because we find joy in knowing God in all that by which He has made Himself known.
Natural Theology is divided into two parts: the first gives the Biblical foundation of natural theology, and the second provides the history of natural theology from the pre-Socratics to the Reformers. Haines brings together classical and Reformed sources to critically engage with those who reject natural theology. The book is informative about key thinkers in this debate. Haines helps us see how “natural theology” is an ambiguous term that often refers to a complex field of contradictory bodies of work. He is careful to affirm the many mistakes in Greek Philosophy. Aquinas’s attempt to synthesize Greek Dualism with Christian Theism should not be confused with natural theology, which is the body of truths discovered in general revelation. It is on this point (natural theology = Aquinas/Aristotle) that presuppositionalism rejects natural theology as inadequate and full of errors. My own research has critically engaged the problems of natural theology (Reason and Worldviews 2008, The Clarity of God’s Existence 2008, The Natural Moral Law 2012, God and the Declaration of Independence 2015). These problems are especially evident in the false dichotomy between reason and scripture and in coming short of our highest good as the knowledge of God revealed in all of His works.
Natural theology is the use of reason to study what may be known about God from general revelation. What can be known about God is that God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchanging in being, wisdom, power, holiness, goodness, justice, and truth. This is not redemptive knowledge that includes truths about the Trinity, Incarnation, and the plan of redemption. But that is because we need redemption due to having rejected the clear general revelation of God to us. General revelation shows us God’s call to us in our need to be redeemed in His providential rule over all of history and in our individual lives. Natural theology is propositional (vs. intuitive) and uses reason to give sound arguments supporting these true propositions about God. Just as we use reason to understand general revelation, so too we use reason to understand redemptive revelation.
What Haines does for us is demonstrate the role of natural theology at each step of church history. For instance, the Reformers read the works of natural theologians and referred to the light of nature, and made use of natural theology. While it is helpful to have these resources brought to greater attention to respond to the simple claim that natural theology didn’t impact the Reformation, it raises many questions for us about how the Reformers understood the natural knowledge of God. A quote from Calvin shows us that this Reformer thought all persons had an innate knowledge of God. But what does this mean? Is it like the later Scheiermachian “feeling of dependence”? Feelings are non-cognitive and compatible with competing views of God. Calvin speaks of how humans are idol factories which seems at tension with the claim that all persons know God. An innate awareness is not propositional. Calvin doesn’t mean all humans believe the proposition “God is real,” have the proper definition of “God,” and can show why the proposition is true. That is easily refuted. Here is where you see the VanTillians (who Haines is keen to argue against) offer a solution in self-deception. But even in self-deception, one doesn’t have knowledge in the sense outlined just above. The idea of innate knowledge seems to mean more like an awareness of something greater than oneself, which is a far distance from God the Creator. Or it means something like the idea of “eternity” (eternity in their hearts), but humans then misapply that idea to what amount to idols. The scriptures are clear in their teaching about the reality of unbelief, that “my people do not know me,” and the universality of not seeking, not understanding, and not doing what is right.
Haines compares what various Reformed thinkers said can be known of God (163). One view from these is that all humans innately know God and that this is a witness against them for not worshiping God (VanTil is in this line). The idea seems to be that if humans are guilty, it is because they acted against what they knew. This is called voluntarism: we can know and act against what we know. It requires a definition of “know” more like “aware.” It isn’t a propositional knowledge that can be shown through reason and argument. And it requires a reading of Romans 1 that all humans always continued to know God. Rather, Romans 1 teaches that although there was a time in human history where they knew God from the creation (by inference, not innately), they did not retain this knowledge but exchanged it for idols. We can know that this does not refer to each and every human who ever lived because the things Paul goes on to speak about were not done by each and every human. It describes a descent from the knowledge of God into the darkened mind. It doesn’t support the idea of a sensus divinitatis that is innate and non-propositional. On the other hand, if the sensus divinitatis is propositional then it raises the questions “how do we know the ppropostion is true and what does it mean? Those who propose “innate knowledge” (a square circle?) have used it to avoid knowing God through His works by reason and argument and instead rely on intuitions. When these intuitions are challenged some in the Reformed tradition will count it as proof the other person isn’t regenerated. This begs the question. The only way to avoid that fallacy is to actually show (by reason and argument) that it is indeed clear God exists (a full definition, not a minimal one). Give sound arguments. This also problematizes the “see God” phrase. Just go out and look around, and you’ll “see God.” “See” here appears to mean intuit rather than come to understand by reason and argument (Haines defines “knowledge” this second way on pg 16).”
Haines helps us with some of the standard objections to natural theology that need to be laid to rest permanently. These include that natural theology is not salvific, that natural theology does not get us to God, and that natural theology is mixed with errors from Greek philosophy. Haines looks at arguments given from various thinkers who end up with competing definitions of “God,” including Cicero (68) and Plotinus (73). This helps us see how this one term “God” is used in competing ways and might be thought to lend strength to the claim that natural theology cannot actually prove anything since it proves everything from Thales to Plato to Aristotle to Cicero to Plotinus and more. But in reality, this highlights the clarity of general revelation about God. Not only God’s nature but also God’s providential rule in calling these thinkers to repent. To object that natural theology is not salvific is to simply miss why we need salvation. We need salvation because we have rejected the clear general revelation of God and his moral law. It is a category mistake to say general revelation is not salvific. The Westminster Confession gets the order correct in 1.1. Those who raise this objection are themselves failing to see that there is a clear general revelation that all humans are responsible to know God (believe and show is true, understand).
The idea that general revelation is not full because it does not get us to God the Trinity is this same category mistake. From general revelation, we can know that God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth. The problem in the traditional theistic arguments (like Aquinas’s Five Ways) is that each argument claims to conclude “and this is God” which makes the argument unsound. Instead, we can use different arguments for each of these parts of the definition to show why they must be true. And this means we do indeed know about God. That there is more to know does not mean we do not know some things from general revelation. The Trinity and Incarnation are doctrines we are taught in relation to redemption. General revelation is clear, and it is full (this is a full definition of God as given in WSC Q4) rather than shadowy and bare.
The objection that this is just Greek philosophy is an important one and needs a careful answer. Haines acknowledges the many mistakes in Greek philosophers while also pointing to valuable arguments. And yet it is sometimes said by those doing natural theology that such philosophers did the best they could with what they were given in general revelation. Only a shadowy figure was given, and that’s what they got. Instead, we need to show where these philosophers were in culpable unbelief and in need of redemption. Far from saying they did the best they could and even putting them in Limbo as Dante does (along with Abraham), these are more guilty for having developed and taught an entire system raised up against the knowledge of God. They violated the third commandment (knowable from nature) and treated the name of God in general revelation with contempt. This led them to violate the second commandment (also knowable from nature) and construct their own idols (toward which their “virtue” was directed). And all because they did not love God (the first commandment knowable by nature). They never saw God’s providential rule in natural evil calling them to repent of unbelief (compare to Job, who was called through suffering to repent of not seeing what is clear about God in creation). Indeed, this is exactly where Paul beings in Athens (Acts 17) when he says what they call unknown, he will make known to them and then begins with natural theology about God. That we might find a useful argument in them here or there (I am fond of Aristotle’s transcendental argument for the law of non-contradiction) does not reduce their own culpable ignorance. Rather, it increases his culpability precisely because the very one that gave an argument for the law of non-contradiction failed to use it to know God.
There are many remaining problems for all of us that study natural theology which need to be sorted out. While retrieval is important, it can run the risk of repeating the mistakes that led to the challenges which still need answering. If it is a return to the Thomists and, therefore, all of the problems that have been challenged since then, it won’t help us as we need to resolve the tensions that later thinkers pointed out. One option is that his views just haven’t been correctly understood or applied until now. Sometimes this is true, but more often it is that there are remaining problems and challenges that have given rise to the objections. For instance, to follow Charles Taylor and think returning to the Medieval will somehow help solve the problems of Modernity is to miss that the problems of Modernity were inherited from the Medieval (which also had numerous other problems that Modernity helped solve). We need a focused understanding of these challenges and a response that considers where previous thinkers came short while affirming important contributions they made. To do this we need to show what can be known of God from general revelation and then that will put the “God” of Plato and Aristotle in stark contrast.
Two more problems accompanying Greek philosophy are what it means to “see” God and how we are united with God. In many discussions of the beatific vision, this is taken to be a future immediate vision of God apart from His works. This teaching is from Plato and Aristotle and is a good example of how those philosophers denied and pointed away from the works of God. Instead, “see” means to understand. Job says, “now I see,” after having been pointed to creation to understand the work of God. This problem enters into natural theology when theologians mostly think of it as an intuitive enterprise of immediate non-propositional awareness. They can say our highest good is in knowing God, but they mean an intuition and don’t mean knowing God in all that by which He makes Himself known in creation and providence. And this problem overlaps with another about what it means to be united to God and be one with God. The incommunicable attributes keep us from thinking we can become God or are currently God. But just as God has knowledge, holiness, and righteousness (but infinitely, eternally, and unchangeably) so we can as well (but finitely, temporally, and changeable). We are also taught in redemptive revelation about our adoption but still within the framework of incommunicable attributes.
Some adherents of this type of approach to natural theology will call it Christian Platonism. It is understandable that people want a quick way to describe their position. But I would caution that care is needed above and beyond the usefulness of a description. If you tell me you are a Christian-Augustinian I understand what you mean, even if I think it ill-advised. For some of my reasons see my article in New Blackfriars (91.1031, 2010). Augustine mined the best arguments from the Platonists while also holding them accountable for their unbelief and need for Christ. But if someone says they are a Christian-Platonist, a contradiction is introduced not there in a Christian-Augustinian. Why append the name of a worldly philosopher to the name of Christ? A worldly philosopher who constructed a system of belief opposed to the knowledge of God. Paul, in 2 Corinthians 10:5, speaks of demolishing the strongholds raised up against the knowledge of God and not adding them to Christianity. If your reason is that you find useful arguments, then see Augustine. There are plenty of Christians who have made these same points. Plato’s philosophical tradition quickly descended into Academic Skepticism and otherworldliness.
We see this same problem in connecting natural theology to Aristotle’s “God.” Haines brings this to our attention early in the book. “For Aristotle, theology was the knowledge of the first principle of all that exists–God.” But what Aristotle calls “God” is not God the Creator and Ruler. From that perspective, it is just another one of the idols. Aristotle just gets us to a formal truth (there are first principles) but not to the content we need. Still, it should be a cautionary quotation to show how Aristotle, that supposedly great philosopher who articulated the laws of thought, failed to understand what is revealed about God in general revelation. He cannot be the example of how to do natural theology. And this is contrary to much tradition that looks to him as the best that the natural mind can accomplish without scripture. And it is contrary to the idea in education that if we just revive Greek Philosophy, we will answer the problems of meaning and purpose in Modernity. Instead, Aristotle goes right along with the other Greek philosophers as failing to know what can be known about God and turning aside to their own imaginations.
Compare Aristotelianism to the Westminster Confession of Faith. In 1.1, it affirms that “the eternal power and: “the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence, do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; and yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation.” The distinction is about the content of redemption, not about knowing God. The failure to know God (the first part of 1.1) is why humans need redemption. This is the exact opposite of saying Aristotle did the best he could. He came so short in his work on metaphysics/natural theology that his unbelief is without excuse and he needs to be redeemed. We are given the definition of “God” in WSC Question 4. God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchanging in being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth. That is what can be known of God from general revelation. The Trinity, the Incarnation, and the plan of redemption are revealed in special revelation.
Let us hypothetically say Aristotle did affirm Theism and God the Creator instead of Greek Dualism. We don’t find him inquiring at all about redemption or confessing his sin before God. His problem is only how to teach virtue. But if he did indeed know God the Creator then he would also know that God made the world very good and that the reality of sins means humans need to be redeemed. Aristotle is nowhere concerned about redemption or forgiveness from God. He gives no indication that he recognizes his own sin as a problem before the infinite justice of God. He does not wrestle with his own spiritual death or need for life. The reality of sin and the need for redemption is knowable from general revelation and so accessible to Aristotle even if the plan of redemption is only knowable from scripture. The Greeks greatly admired the Egyptians and used philosophy to analytically reflect on the Greek mysteries. But they ignored all that happened in Israel and the teaching of vicarious atonement at Jerusalem. Aristotle didn’t confess his own need for redemption and he hindered others from doing so. Positing that he was a Theist and not a Dualist does him little good.
We see the problem of faith and reason come up right away in the “Introduction” of Natural Theology. “Many Christian theologians throughout history have distinguished between what man can know of God by reason alone and what man can know of God through the inspired word of God” (14). This is true, and many have done that. But the idea that there is a division between reason and scripture is the problem that needs to be solved, not defended. We use reason to understand creation and we use reason to understand scripture. Scripture combines faith and understanding (you of little faith do you still not understand), and the light of the mind is the eternal Logos. The claim that faith is opposed to reason or goes beyond reason is self-contradictory because in order to show that claim is true one would use reason to construct an argument. We cannot avoid reason whether we are studying general revelation or special revelation.
The difference between nature and grace is important to understand and Haines helps us understand the Thomist position. “Thomas Aquinas notes that metaphysics is the most excellent and certain science that man can attain through the human intellect, without any super-added divine grace needed in addition to common grace in order to comprehend it. But there is a science that is superior to metaphysics: sacred theology, which is based on the Word of God. Sacred theology is superior to metaphysics because it is the knowledge that comes directly from God. As such, it is more certain than human knowledge” (14). This is a perfect sentence for bringing all of the problems into one place. We use reason to understand both nature and grace. Nature (meaning general revelation) reveals God and scripture (as redemptive revelation) explains how sinners can be redeemed and restored to what is known from general revelation. Scripture deepens the knowledge of God but this is not the same as perfecting nature. That language can appear to excuse unbelief. As the supreme metaphysician, Aristotle supposedly did the best that could be done but did not have divine grace. Equating “metaphysics” with “what Aristotle did” does not see where Aristotle was in unbelief about God as revealed in general revelation and he pointed the philosophers away from the works of God to contemplationism.
The division in Aquinas between human reason and sacred scripture is a fundamental mistake. To say that on the one hand, there is reason, and on the other hand, there is the Word of God written which is more certain, misunderstands what reason is. Reason, as the laws of thought, is that by which we understand anything at all. We use reason to understand nature, and we use reason to understand scripture. John 1 does not have this false dichotomy. The eternal Word of God is the light of man. But Aquinas tells us that reason cannot discover if the world was created or is eternal (Aristotle taught it is eternal). This means we cannot know if only God is eternal or if God is co-eternal from general revelation. The problem for Aristotle is not that he only had nature. The problem for Aristotle is that he is culpably ignorant about what creation reveals about God.
We can ask: if reason only takes us so far, why should we accept the faith of Aquinas? Why not the faith of Maimonides, Al-Ghazali, Lao-Tzu, Shankara, or some other? As soon as Aquinas begins to give us an argument about why we should accept his faith, he is using reason to form an argument and using reason in the realm of faith not only nature. On this division, Aquinas and Kant are similar. Kant made the mistake of telling us reason does not extend to the noumenal, and we must remain silent about it but then tries to teach us about the noumenal. Reason is used to understand both nature and grace, the phenomenal and the noumenal. Christianity makes the distinctive claim that reason makes God known to all humans so that unbelief is without excuse. It is because of this culpable ignorance that humans need the redemptive truths found in the Bible. Far from being limited to the realm of nature, reason is that by which anything is understood.
We find Augustine struggling toward this point. The Platonists of his day (having had centuries of contact with Christians) could teach some true things while bringing in error. And we can conclude from Augustine’s affirmation of the clarity of God’s existence that this is culpable on their part. The issue is not that we need more of what general revelation already does, the issue is that we need this question answered: having rejected the knowledge of God clearly available to me in general revelation, how can I be redeemed from this sin? God’s work of redemption does deepen the revelation of God, especially His justice and mercy. But it does not remove the obligation to know what is clear about God from general revelation. The Christian of all persons should know this. The Christian can note where persons in any field of human study have discovered true things while also affirming that in natural theology Aristotle, Plato, Platoninus, and whoever else in those schools as systems of belief, were in fundamental rejection of what reason reveals about God to all humans.
Haines helps us get into this problem when he points out that many have defined natural theology this way: “Natural revelation, however, is not sufficient for telling us more than that God exists, something of his nature, and that God is worthy of worship. According to Christian theology, to discover that Jesus is God incarnate, that God is triune, and other truths explicitly revealed in Christian scriptures, one must have recourse to special revelation“(16). The concern is to show that natural theology is not redemptive. And that is true. The rejection of clear general revelation is the basis for our need of redemption. The issue isn’t that the philosophers only had natural revelation; it is that they didn’t even use the natural revelation they had been given.
Here is the central problem that needs to be overcome in this line of thinking about natural theology. In the section on objections to natural theology, Haines says: “Paul, is not saying that humans are able to attain to a clear and complete understanding of the divine nature. Rather, he seems to be saying that enough can be learned about God from nature that man is responsible for worshiping God, but not enough is learned from nature such that man can be saved. (179). This is an ambiguous way to phrase the clarity of general revelation. “Complete” could mean the entire definition of God given in WSC4 and not just an impersonal unmoved mover. Or “complete” could mean God the Creator and the Trinity and the Incarnation. “Clear” could mean the eternal power and divine nature are readily knowable from general revelation, or it could mean clear about the Trinity and Incarnation. But this ambiguity rests on a category mistake about general revelation. It is full and clear about God the Creator and Ruler. And it is clear in telling us our need for redemption and the role of natural evil in calling us to repent. Haines is responding to a VanTillian objection that the God of natural theology isn’t the God of the Bible because natural theology doesn’t give us the Trinity or Incarnation. So in that sense, it is incomplete and not clear on those points. But that is a category mistaken (by the VanTillian). Those are redemptive truths about God revealed in our having failed to know what is clear from general revelation. And when we say that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all God, or that Jesus is God incarnate, we mean “God” as defined in WSC Q4 which is a full definition. General revelation can be clear without saying all things are clear or that everything that is clear is clear in general revelation.
It is clear that God is eternal, infinite, and unchanging. It is clear that God is not seen (Spirit, immaterial). It is clear that God is the Creator and Ruler. It is clear that God has knowledge, power, goodness, holiness, justice, and more. (WSC Q#4). The answer usually is that it is unclear how God will redeem us, but that isn’t proof that general revelation isn’t clear. Just the opposite, because general revelation is clear and we have rejected what is clear we need the additional work of redemptive revelation. To say that general revelation is unclear or lacking because it does not provide redemptive revelation is a category mistake. The works of God display the glory of God for all to see in general revelation. If the Greek philosophers gave an argument here or there that is useful, they nevertheless constructed a system that rejected what is clear about God mentioned just a few sentences above.
Haines has put together a useful work that gathers into one place the many instances of Christian theology defending natural theology and also answering the standard and worn-out objections to natural theology. Without Excuse is an edited volume that brings together an impressive collection of scholars in a critique of Presuppositional Apologetics. It is composed of a Preface and thirteen chapters. The choice of authors is excellent and provides us with one fascinating chapter after another. It is a balanced and fair volume that takes pains to be respectful of those in the presuppositional camp while offering thoughtful challenges. If it were to be categorized, it would be as a historical work defending classical apologetics in Protestant thought. As such, a possible concern will be working within a well-worn dichotomy that has been formed by these two methods. Neither has much that is new to say to the other. This volume seeks to avoid that deadlock by doing historical work that shows the Reformers’ use of classical sources and explains times when they reject thinkers like Aristotle. And it works to do this philosophically by offering solutions to the problems in modern philosophy from thinkers like Hume and Kant that motivated VanTil. It calls our attention to the need to more clearly define “reason” and to see where the failure to do so has left Christians with significant shortcomings in their ability to respond to challenges and pursue the knowledge of God.
Perhaps the formative debate of the 20th century for Reformed Theology was the interaction between Abraham Kuyper and B.B. Warfield. This is not because it drew great numbers and media attention. It is because it represented the two great tendencies that would go on to develop and characterize the century. On the one hand, in Kuyper you have the insight that beliefs are nested in systems and ordered from basic to less basic. How a person “reasons” is defined by their system. On the other hand, in Warfield you have the truth that we can use reason and argument to arrive at knowledge and understanding.
Without Excuse looks at the VanTillian outcome of this debate. Cornelius VanTil perhaps thought of himself as finding a middle between the two, but his method of apologetics is Kuyperian. This means that it has all of the benefits but also all of the shortcomings of that system. Kuyper was right to affirm the relationship of beliefs as systems and that the truth must fill all areas of human culture. He was right to say that there is no neutral ground in the sense that all beliefs have a context in a system. But his view of palingenesis-turned-epistemology meant that there was no common ground either. Perhaps under the influence of Pierre Bayle on the Dutch Reformation, this was a skepticism about reason and the human potential to use reason to understand. This usually pushes the debate into the relationship between soteriology and epistemology (which a couple of authors in this volume consider in terms of common grace and general province) but that is to beg the question in the first place. We would need to know there is a God who can be known so that unbelief is a sin, and this requires reason and argument.
Warfield, following the Scottish Reformation, made the case that all humans can use reason to know God. This isn’t a statement about the noetic effects of the fall but a statement about reason. Reason makes God known. Reason is that by which we understand anything at all. It is not simply a first principle because we use reason even to form first principles. Reason is transcendental, meaning it cannot be questioned because it makes questioning possible. We use reason to form beliefs about nature, and we use reason to form beliefs about scripture. Humans are fallen having a darkened mind meaning they have rejected reason and for that they are without excuse. Reason and argument are still there to reveal their condition in unbelief and its consequences. Warfield is speaking of reason as the laws of thought (right reason), Kuyper of man’s reasoning process. Warfield’s definition is more basic. It is the failure to correctly define reason that allowed the challenges of Hume and Kant to the knowledge of God.
A problem is in the tendency toward a false antinomy. Kantianism or Aristotelianism. Both are mistaken. But the classical apologist has a tendency to overlook the many mistakes of Aristotle. And these are embarrassingly simple mistakes. Apparently, Aristotle couldn’t even be bothered to step outside and see if his theory of the speed of falling objects is accurate. Hundreds of years had to pass before someone took the time to experiment. But Aristotle’s view of God is even worse. “God” is a placeholder term and the term’s meaning is what matters. That someone believes in “God” isn’t what is important. It is what they believe about God. And Aristotle’s God is a misconception that can and should be rejected from general revelation alone. The classical apologist should not think Aristotle did the best he could with the limited resources of general revelation but should press the point home that Aristotle too is without excuse.
There is a fear from the VanTillians that natural theology as the study of general revelation will only lead us to the rationalistic deism of a Thomas Paine, or the division of faith and reason in Aquinas, or the misconceptions of God in Aristotle. But this can only happen if a truncated view of general revelation is permitted. Paine failed to 1) know all that can be known of God from general revelation (he denied providence), 2) know his own sin, 3) affirm he needs redemption. These are all truths knowable from general revelation. And if Paine came short, Aristotle was even further behind in his definition of God. That Aquinas said reason can only take us so far is part of the legacy of harm from which the study of natural theology needs to be freed. Much of modern philosophy in persons like Hume or Kant is due to that false division found in Aquinas.
We can get stuck in an antinomy between affirming the many great discoveries that humans from all areas of the world have made in contributing to the general store of knowledge and the fundamental truth about the human condition in rejecting what is clear about God. We don’t need to be stuck on either side. Both are true. However, the closer a topic is to teach about God the greater the rejection of general revelation can be. So while Aristotle made some helpful discoveries about logic, he taught falsehoods that have harmed many down through the centuries. And in the final account, he is first to be assessed in relation to his own denial of God the Creator and Ruler and not primarily in terms of whether he was mistaken about the speed of gravity on differently weighted objects.
It is unlikely that a volume like this will end the differences between Thomists/Aristotelians and the VanTillians/Presuppositionalists. And it would be unfair to ask it to do so. The Classical view is right that we can know things about God from general revelation. The Presuppositionalists are right that beliefs come in systems and that just because we find a useful argument in a non-Christian system doesn’t make that system any less a rejection God’s revelation. In this way, they are speaking past each other. But if I had to add anything, it would have been to precisely identify reason as the laws of thought, show what reason makes known about the eternal power of God, and then ask the VanTillians to reply to those arguments. Give the VanTillians sound arguments from general revelation. This might go a long way to clearing up the concerns of the VanTillians. It won’t help to appeal to Aristotle or Aquinas. The VanTillians can easily point out the problems in these sources and the shortcomings in the “five ways.” But it will help to show that reason is transcendental. Not all attempts at transcendental arguments are sound, but there are sound transcendental arguments that establish the inescapability of the laws of thought. And then simply give a sound argument from general revelation to show what is clear about God. Give several. Not in the sense of a cumulative case “whatever sticks” model but in the sense that each argument is proving the truth of different conclusions. Something has existed from eternity. The material world exists but is not eternal (two different arguments). The soul exists and is not eternal (two different arguments). Only God is eternal. The nature of God. A sound argument to show each of these is what is needed. We can talk about methods without ever having simply given sound arguments to show it is indeed clear to reason that God exists.
We need more books like Natural Theology and Without Excuse. And we need more done on reason and the knowledge of God. General revelation is full and clear. It does not simply offer a shadowy figure down a dim path while waiting for scripture to fill out the details. It tells us of God the Creator and Ruler, of his incommunicable attributes, of his moral attributes, of the moral law and the consequences of violating the moral law, and of God’s providential rule in calling all humans to stop and think. It tells us that our highest good is in knowing God in all that by which He has made Himself known, in all of His works of creation and providence. It warns us about dismissing the works of God or trying to access God apart form His works. Through the Logos all things were made, and all reveal God. Scripture gives redemptive knowledge calling humans to repent of their failure to know what is clear about God from general revelation. Scripture deepens our knowledge of God’s justice and mercy, but it is a grave error to emphasize that at the expense of all that can be known of God from general revelation.