Natural theology, the Bible

and the church

Editorial by Jonathan Clatworthy

from Signs of the Times, No. 27 - Oct 2007

Which counts more, the Bible or reason? Most of the big debates in the churches today revolve around this question. Where does authority lie? 'Natural theology' and 'revealed theology' are presented as alternatives: whether women priests, evolution, divorce, homosexuality or whatever else, one side appeals to science and 'what makes sense' while the other side appeals to the Bible or the church's tradition.

Karl Barth's denunciations of natural theology still echo around the churches almost a century after he uttered them. Liberals tend to be more sympathetic to natural theology, or at least with the basic principle that truth is revealed through normal human mental processes and observations of life.

What makes the division such a sharp one is the insistence that the Bible, as divine revelation, is independent of human reason and that there is no natural theology in it. For most of the twentieth century biblical scholars, following Barth's lead, were determined to interpret every biblical text as direct divine revelation, transcending all human norms and reason.

Towards the end of the century, however, biblical scholars began to point out that the Bible itself contains natural theology. James Barr's Biblical Faith and Natural Theology (1993) and John Barton's Ethics and the Old Testament (1998) are landmarks. The Old Testament prophets might precede their judgements with a 'Thus says the Lord', but they often condemned foreign tribes for moral outrages like mistreating prisoners of war, thus indicating that even people who worshipped different gods were expected to share the same moral standards. Various narratives similarly appeal to natural law ethics, as when Abraham persuades God not to kill all the Sodomites because it would be immoral: God ought to obey the moral law. The Wisdom writings are full of natural theology; when the scribes quote Scripture at Jesus he replies with stories about everyday life; and the much-debated Romans 1:20, which expects pagans to know God's moral laws, still refuses to get up and walk out of the Bible.

One of Barton's most intriguing points is about the Torah. Here there is a massive collection of laws: at the time of Jesus every Jew knew that there are 613 of them. The edition which has been handed down to us states at the end that they were all given by God to Moses and by Moses to the people of Israel. Thus the final editors of the Pentateuch present them as divine commands. On the other hand some of the individual laws are accompanied by reasons explaining why they should be obeyed. We find pragmatic considerations and natural law ethics. This suggests that whereas the final editors of the Pentateuch presented the laws as God's command, their earlier sources had different accounts of their authority, more based on natural law.

Barton argues that because many of these laws seem to us quite barbaric, or pointless, we tend to assume that there cannot have been any reasons for them; and that leaves us with divine command as the only alternative explanation. Often, though, this is only because we do not share ancient Hebrew ways of thought. Even the complex food laws, which seem quite bizarre to us, had reasons.

So laws are given practical and natural law reasons in earlier texts, but are described as divine commands in later texts. Roughly speaking, the bigger the time lag between the introduction of the law and the writing of the text, the more likely it is to be described as divine command.

No surprises here then. When a law is introduced, it has reasons. Laws often remain in force for a long time, long after the original reasons have been forgotten or no longer apply. Or they may be discontinued but later revived by a new movement which knows nothing of the original reasons for them.

If this happened within the Bible, it has carried on. The doctrines of the Incarnation, the Trinity and the Atonement were hammered out over centuries of debate in the early church and only received their classic Christian forms in the fourth and fifth centuries; yet in the later Middle Ages they were reinterpreted as reason-transcending divine revelation, given by God as they were, to be accepted without question. Ever since then some Christian traditions have insisted that attempting to question them is sinful. For example, the Vatican's Joint Pastoral of 1900 complained that democracy had caused some Catholics to be 'infected by the critical spirit of private judgment' and advised those who had difficulty accepting the church's teachings to develop 'a more docile spirit'.

Doctrines become authoritative not when everyone agrees with them, but when they are most disputed. The Nicene Creed was established as orthodoxy at the Councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon because of the conflicts of the fourth and fifth centuries; if there had been no disagreement there would have been no councils. Once the creed was formally established as the church's belief, Christianity changed. Before, Arianism and Athanasianism were both widely held views within the church; afterwards, one view was permitted and the other was not. Before, Athanasianism was defended as the best way of explaining Christ; after, it was to be believed because the church had so decreed.

Similarly the Westminster Confession, the Thirty-Nine Articles and the Council of Trent were imposed on the faithful in an age of bitter conflict. They would not have been written, let alone given authoritative status, if everybody had agreed with them. Wiser and more consensual ages did not see the need to impose their views on others.

And so it continues. Issues in Human Sexuality was published in 1991 as a discussion document, taking the trouble to deny that it was the last word on the matter. Eleven years later, when Rowan Williams' appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury was announced, and in the following year in the debates about Jeffrey John and Gene Robinson, it was widely cited as the church's teaching.

Doctrines and moral judgements are introduced for reasons. Later they get reinterpreted as divine revelation, which appears to give them greater authority. In the long term, though, it freezes them in a particular form, prevents them being adapted to meet changing circumstances, and ensures that eventually they become outdated and irrelevant.

We should not blame the editors of the Pentateuch. The Bible knew nothing about our tradition of opposing natural to revealed theology, as though they excluded each other. Many biblical laws are similar to those of Hammurabi, the emperor of Babylon who lived a few centuries before Moses. Are we to believe that Moses and the Israelites knew nothing of the laws of Babylon? And if they did, are we to believe that, whereas Hammurabi could think them up for himself, Moses needed divine revelation? It hardly seems convincing.

Chapter 15 of Acts suggests a different relationship, more characteristic of the Bible. A council was held to decide whether non-Jewish converts to Christianity should be exempted from obeying the Jewish laws. James, the undisputed leader of the church at the time, listened to the debate and declared: '... Therefore I have reached the decision what we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God.' A letter was composed to announce the decision to the churches. In the letter there was no 'James decided... ' Instead they wrote 'It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us... '

Luke tells us that the decision was made largely for pragmatic reasons, but once they had made it they interpreted it as divine inspiration. To them, it seems, God can guide us by means of our reason, our information and our pragmatic considerations. If more Christians today had the same expectations, perhaps it would be easier to solve many of our current disputes.

Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and is Modern Church General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.