In light of Sarah Coakley’s recent Gifford Lectures, I’ve been reflecting once again on the proper way to formulate the relation between natural and revealed theology. In particular, I am rather committed to Barth’s project of subsisting the doctrine of creation within the doctrine of the covenant (which is to say, within the doctrine of God). Thus, as Barth formulates this in the beginning of his doctrine of creation (CD III.1), creation is the external basis of the covenant, and the covenant is the internal basis of creation.
This means that there is such a thing as a natural theology, just not the sort that dominated either classical Christian theism or Protestant liberalism. The importance of this (and the importance of CD III) is that we are able to move beyond a merely existential theologia crucis that overly emphasizes the eschatological side of the creation-redemption dialectic.
Moreover, in regard to the concerns of Professor Coakley, this means that theology can give proper attention to creation as it presents itself to us (and to scientists). The natural world is a legitimate material field for theological formulations. Revealed theology provides the structure in which natural theology is given the right terms and conditions for its advancement, and (in turn) natural theology provides the material for those terms. There is a correlation in this reciprocity between revealed and natural theology, not a crude accommodation of one to the other. T. F. Torrance aptly expresses this correlation for how “we must advance through and beyond Barth” (not against Barth):
If we are to take as seriously as Barth himself did the relation between the incarnation and the creation in God’s creative and redemptive interaction with the world, then a closer relation must be established between natural theology and revealed theology. Karl Barth rightly attacked traditional natural theology as constituting an independent conceptual system on its own, and therefore as constituting the prior and prescriptive framework within which revealed theology could only be distorted and misinterpreted. He attacked it on a double ground:
(1) from the actual content of positive knowledge of God which called in question prescriptive forms derived from ground on which actual knowledge of God did not arise — the effect of that he held, was to split the concept of God into two, evidenced by the sharp division in mediaeval theology between the tractate on the one God and the tractate on the triune God;
(2) and also from the side of rigorous scientific method which will not allow such a bifurcation between prior epistemological structure and empirical content.
But for these same reasons, which presuppose a rejection of deistic and epistemological dualism, the theoretic and empirical components of our knowledge of God in and through the space-time structures of the creation must be brought together. There is a close parallel here to the advance of physics in its relation to geometry, as Einstein has expounded it. Euclidean geometry was pursued as an independent theoretic system, antecedent to physics, but that has proved an idealisation which falsifies our understanding of the real world when applied to it. But with the discovery of the four-dimensional geometries of space and time, geometry is brought into the heart of physics and pursued in indissoluble union with it. There it becomes, as Einstein said, a kind of natural science, for its structure changes, but it remains geometry and constituted in that organic relation with physics its epistemological structure. Similarly, I would argue, natural theology must be brought within the heart of positive theology, where of course its structure will change, for then physical statements and theological statement will be intimately correlated. This means that positive theology will change also, for it will have to be pursued in indissoluble relation with the space-time structures of the creation, which in a different way are explored by natural science.
[Thomas F. Torrance, “Newton, Einstein, and Scientific Theology,” in Transformation & Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1998), 281-282.]