On Moser’s Rejection of Natural Theology

evidence

Not too long ago I read Paul Moser’s recent book, The Evidence for God: Religious Knowledge Reexamined (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010) and overall I think it’s a fabulous book that is worth reading carefully. He provides an insightful critique of both “nontheistic naturalism” and fideism (chapters two and three, respectively) that should be helpful to anyone interested in the philosophy of religion (his critique of Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith” is devastating). His rejection of fideism should not, however, lead one to think he’s a supporter of natural theology. He rejects that too (chapter four), and quite forcefully.1 This rejection of natural theology is what I’d like to briefly address in the remainder of this post.

To be clear, this shouldn’t be read as a full evaluation of Moser’s rejection of natural theology. He’s simply written far too much on the subject for me to tackle in a blog post. In what follows I want to address what seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding, at least as expressed in The Evidence for God, of 1) the aim of natural theology and 2) its scope.

Moser’s Objection to Natural Theology

It seems the main crux of Moser’s objection to natural theology is that it can, at best, only get one to see that some sort of theism is true, but it cannot be employed as part of a case for Christian theism. Moser argues that the task of natural theology is to establish the existence of God, understood as a “personal agent who is worthy of worship and is thus morally perfect and hence perfectly loving toward all persons” (152). Natural theology can, at best, establish the existence of a “just adequate” cause of various features of the universe. The “‘just-adequate’ causes, however, clearly fall short of establishing or confirming the moral character of a personal agent worthy of worship” (152).

Here I’d like to simply note that this argument shares a striking similarity with one given by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion. There Dawkins writes that Aquinas’ Five Ways give “absolutely no reason to endow [God] with any of the properties normally ascribed to God: omnipotence, omniscience, goodness…” (77–78). In fact, Moser even makes the same complaint about Aquinas. Because arguments of natural theology can only give us a “just adequate” cause, Moser writes of Aquinas’ famous Five Ways that, “It is just special pleading for Aquinas to refer to ‘a first efficient cause, which everyone gives the name of God’”(1523). Whereas the properties that Dawkins claims to not have been established are the traditional “omni” properties, Moser’s worry is that we haven’t established anything about the moral character of God.

What, then, are we to make of natural theology in light of this critique? Do all arguments of natural theology falter in the same way that Moser and Dawkins claim Aquinas’ arguments do? Here, I’ll argue that Moser’s objection fails in two important ways. First, it does not properly represent the two-fold purpose of natural theology and, secondly, it does not fully incorporate the full scope of natural theology.

The Aim of Natural Theology

What appears to be missing in Moser’s (and Dawkins’s) critique of natural theology is a recognition of the fact that natural theology has a two-fold purpose. In addition to aiming to establish that Christian theism is true, the focus of Moser’s critique, one might also aim to use natural theology to show that naturalism is false. If one believes that natural theology is only useful if it can show the existence of the Christian God, then the  much-heralded Kalam argument, as a component of natural theology, isn’t all that useful. But why think that’s the only aim of natural theology? Take, for example, one of natural theology’s most foremost defenders, JP Moreland. After presenting a version of the Kalam argument, Moreland notes that the argument “is not proof that such a being is the God of the Bible, but it is a strong statement that the world had its beginning by the act of a person. And this is at the very least a good reason to believe in some form of theism” (Scaling the Secular City, 42). In other words, the aim of the Kalam argument isn’t to establish Christian theism, but to establish that naturalism is false.

It seems Moser takes arguments of natural theology to be trying to accomplish more than their proponents ever intended. If you look at the conclusion of Moreland’s (or even William Lane Craig’s) Kalam argument you’ll notice any reference to Christianity is missing. But this is not an oversight, it’s by design. What this suggests is that the Moser’s objection simply has no purchase on those that take some arguments of natural theology to have a more limited aim of establishing that theism is true (and so naturalism is false). Furthermore, there is good reason to believe that this was even Aquinas’ understanding of natural theology, or at least his understanding of what role the Five Ways were to play.

In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Aquinas, Ralph McInerny and John O’Callaghan write,

In the Five Ways, [Aquinas] does not use ‘god’ as a proper name, but as a common noun having five different nominal definitions. So each of the ways concludes that there is “a god.” Only after demonstrating the “utter uniqueness of a god” can one begin to use ‘God’ as a proper name to refer to that utterly unique being.

It seems unlikely that Aquinas, in using ‘god’ as a common noun and not a proper name, would have intended his Five Ways to establish Christian theism. Peter Kreeft makes a similar point. In A Shorter Summa, he notes that the ‘God’ Aquinas attempts to prove with his Five Ways is “‘thinner’ than the God revealed in the Bible, [that God] is ‘thick’ enough to refute an atheist” (56).

This broader understanding of the role of natural theology not only counters objections of the sort raised by Moser, but also can be employed to undercut rebuttals from non-believers like Dawkins. In sum, many of the complaints that natural theology is unable to establish the truth of Christian theism are directed at specific arguments that were never aimed to establish such a thing. (However, Richard Davis and I have argued that establishing a “just adequate” cause is exactly what the Apostle Paul is trying to do in Romans 1. For more on this, see “What Place, Then, For Rational Apologetics” in Loving God with Your Mind: Essays in Honor of JP Moreland (Moody Press, 2014). If our reading of the Apostle is right, then his efforts to establish a just adequate cause may provide reason enough for us to try and do the same. That is, if it was good enough for the Apostle Paul, it’s good enough for us.)

The Scope of Natural Theology

Even if it is true that one cannot get Christian theism from cosmological, teleological, or ontological arguments for God’s existence, there is no reason to think that those sorts of arguments are all that ought to be included in one’s understanding of natural theology. For example, in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, Tim McGrew and Lydia McGrew provide a sophisticated argument for God’s existence based on miracles, in particular the miracle of the resurrection of Jesus. According to the McGrews, their argument from miracles is “unlike any of the other traditional proofs” because it “purports to establish not merely theism, but Christianity” (“The Argument from Miracles: A Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth,” pg. 593). The details of their specific argument are not of concern here, but it is important to note that there is no reason to think that such an argument cannot be included as a component of natural theology.

If one thinks that natural theology must exclude entirely all references to scripture, then of course natural theology will not be able to tell you too much about the personal nature of God. However, there is no reason to think that. Instead, an account of natural theology along the lines of Charles Taliaferro’s seems preferable. He defines natural theology as “the practice of philosophically reflecting on the existence and nature of God independent of real or apparent divine revelation or scripture” (“The Project of Natural Theology,” in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, pg. 1). I do not take this to mean that arguments of natural theology have to be constructed entirely independent of Scripture. Instead, one should not assume that Scripture itself is divine revelation at the start of the argument. One can look to Scripture as a historical document without assuming it is divinely inspired. This approach is importantly different from that of many presuppositionalist’s arguments for God’s existence. Because they do start with the belief that Scripture is divinely inspired2, it would be incorrect to consider such arguments as part of natural theology (at least on Taliaferro’s definition).

Here too Moreland’s work is instructive. In addition to various ‘traditional’ arguments of natural theology, Moreland has also provided arguments for the resurrection of Jesus and the historical reliability of the New Testament. (See Scaling the Secular City, chapters five and six.) Neither of these arguments assume that scripture is divinely revealed at the outset, but instead appeal to facts that can be understood and accepted by the non-believer. In fact, Moreland explicitly states at the start of his argument for the historicity of the New Testament that, “We will make no assumption which takes the New Testament as a divinely inspired document, although I believe such a position can be defended” (134). If one includes these sorts of arguments as part of natural theology, then it becomes quite clear that one can indeed come to understand not only that God exists, but that the Christian God exists. If we have good reason to think that the New Testament is reliable, then that gives us good reason to take seriously what the New Testament says about God—including his moral character. Good reason to accept that Jesus was resurrected provides good reason to think that what Jesus said about himself is true. Both of these arguments take one much further than a “just-adequate” cause of various features of the universe.

Conclusion

Just to reiterate, I found The Evidence for God to be a very helpful book. But I do think that Moser’s critique of natural theology misses the mark. Even if it is true that natural theology only gets one a ‘just adequate’ cause, that doesn’t mean that such a conclusion is not still helpful and important. Further, if one includes the full scope of natural theology there just isn’t reason to think that a “just adequate” cause is all that can be shown to exist via natural theology.

Follow me on Twitter @WPaul.
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Footnotes

  1. Given that Moser is the co-editor of The Rationality of Theism—a book chockfull of natural theology—this may be somewhat surprising to some.
  2. Take, for example, John Frame’s disastrous argument: 1) Whatever the Bible says is true. 2) The Bible says it is the Word of God. 3) Therefore, the Bible is the Word of God (Five Views on Apologetics, 356). Now, obviously, no one not already committed to (3) is going to accept (1). The McGrews and Moreland don’t simply start with some version of (1), but instead start with facts that even those that reject (3) could accept.

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