Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology

The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology by Michael Sudduth
Reviewed by Paul Manata

The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology, Michael Sudduth, Ashgate Philosophy of Religion Series, Ashgate Publishing Company, 2009, 238 pages.


At a time when Christian thinkers are offering blistering critiques of naturalism it should not be thought that Christianity has an aversion to all things natural. For example, the Reformed tradition has not shied away from pointing out natural goods such as the goodness of nature, the value of common tasks, and the freedom to imbibe strong drink. However, it has had a tendency, at least during the twentieth century, to shy away from giving three cheers to the "natural” in ‘natural law’ and ‘natural theology’. Some wonder, "Is this negative appraisal to be considered part and parcel to Reformed theology as such?" Recently, a negative answer is being offered to that question. Apropos the former, several books defending natural law have made their way on to the market. For example, Stephen J. Grabill has written Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics (Eerdmans, 2006), and David VanDrunen has written both the monograph A Biblical Case for Natural Law (Acton, 2006) as well as the much larger Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought (Eerdmans, 2010). Yet, with regard to the latter, contemporary Reformed aversion to natural theology has went largely unanswered. With apologies to John Gertsner, R.C. Sproul, and Arthur Lindsley (Classical Apologetics, Zondervan, 1984), many have wondered if a rigorous Reformed defense of natural theology could be offered against the contemporary nay-sayers. To those who have tried to offer Reformed defenses of natural theology it has been asked of them, “Are you the one, or shall I look for another?” With the arrival of analytic philosopher Michael Sudduth’s book The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology (Ashgate, 2009), he may be the one.

To any contemporary Reformed philosopher or apologist, the fact that there is something like a Reformed objection to natural theology is well known. Unfavorable appraisals of natural theology have been offered by such Reformed luminaries as Herman Bavinck, Abraham Kuyper, Herman Dooyeweerd, Cornelius Van Til, Gordon Clark, Herman Hoeksema, Greg Bahnsen, and Robert Reymond. Further Reformed objections to natural theology have been given by those in the mainline, borderline, and sideline Reformed denominations. One thinks of the critiques offered by Karl Barth, G.C. Berkouwer, and John Baillie, or critiques from the school known as Reformed Epistemology, headed up by the likes of Alvin Plantinga, William Alston, and Nicholas Wolterstorff. Yet the precise nature of this objection as well as its historical precedence is elusive. Questions about the nature and project of natural theology, the nature of the Reformed objection to it, and whether the historic Reformers were opposed to natural theology (so that there is a Reformed objection to natural theology that exists, not just objections to natural theology within the Reformed tradition), are questions Michael Sudduth seeks to address in this refreshing look at the subject. This book is sure to be relevant to Reformed thinkers and deserves a spot on the bookshelf of Reformed philosophers and apologists (both lay and professional). But, it would be unfortunate if I gave the impression that Reformed thinkers are the only ones who will benefit from Sudduth’s book. The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology will prove valuable to the broader Christian community, and even atheologians who seek to assess the role natural theology plays in debates over God’s existence.

Michael Sudduth is highly qualified to write a book on the topic of a Reformed objection to natural theology. With a Ph.D. from the University of Oxford, Sudduth specializes in the philosophy of religion, philosophical theology, and the history of Christian thought. Sudduth has published a number of influential articles on the subject of natural theology as well as religious epistemology. Sudduth’s doctoral dissertation was on the topic of the book as well. The back cover of The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology comes with endorsements by the likes of Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, and Alister McGrath. These high expectations are met within the pages of the book. Sudduth’s book also profited from the feedback he received by putting various drafts online and requesting critical comments on the book. The end product is high quality and the reader gets a good value.


Sudduth opens with a useful introduction wherein he offers some initial definitions and conceptual distinctions that he will use, clarify, and qualify throughout the book. The reader is introduced to the term ‘natural theology’ as, in the broad sense, referring “to what can be known or rationally believed about the existence and nature of God on the basis of human reason or our natural cognitive faculties” (1). This sense designates natural knowledge of God, which is to be contrasted with knowledge of God gained from special revelation. Since it is a “dominant tendency” to view the natural knowledge of God as knowledge “acquired by way of logical inference from other truths naturally knowable by the human mind,” than a more narrow definition of ‘natural theology’ is “more commonly identified with the project of developing arguments for God’s existence, so-called ‘theistic arguments’” (1). Sudduth points out that there have been two general criticisms of this conception of natural theology. These objections come under the heading of either philosophical criticisms or theological criticisms. The former concerns criticisms of an epistemic and logical nature while the latter is concerned with how natural theology coheres with the internal logic of the Christian faith, e.g., the effect of the fall on human reason, the nature of the knowledge of God, etc. “Engaging these objections will bring greater clarity to both the nature of the project of natural theology itself and its proper place within Reformed theology” (3).

In chapter one Sudduth engages in some valuable spade work in the field of historical theology. Before Sudduth examines Reformed objections to the propriety of natural theology he first looks at the various stances Reformed theologians have taken toward natural theology. The assessment might come as a surprise to those who think that a Reformed objection to natural theology is ubiquitous in the writings of the Reformers and their successors. Rather, what is found is that “the Reformed theological tradition exhibits a deeply entrenched and historically continuous endorsement of natural theology” (9). Sudduth traces this endorsement from “the period of the Reformation to the end of the nineteenth century” (9). To this end, Sudduth looks at statements by the likes of Luther, Zwingli, Bucer, Melanchthon, Musculus, Vermigli, Calvin, Ursinus, Turretin, Charnock, Mather, Edwards, Gill, Chalmers, Dabney, Thornwell, the Hodges, and Shedd (to name a few). Sudduth also looks at endorsements of natural theology given by commentaries on both the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster catechisms.

This survey reveals that “the Reformed tradition consistently affirmed both a natural knowledge of God as well as rational arguments for the existence of God” (40). However, a pluralism within the tradition is seen with respect to the function of theistic arguments. Concerning the various functions natural theology fulfills, Reformed theologians were not in total agreement. We see theistic arguments viewed as demonstrative proofs, non-rigorous rhetorical arguments, playing an apologetic role, confirming or strengthening the faith of believers and an unpacking of the natural knowledge of God. An agreement between the various functional views could be seen in that these arguments were presented from within dogmatic systems. These arguments presented in dogmatic works were “typically placed under the prolegomena or the locus de Deo, both of which exhibit dependence on and integration with Scripture and the Christian doctrine of God” (32). The doctrine of God the arguments depended on, for the Reformers, “rests on Scriptural revelation as its foundation, not reason.” This prevented theistic arguments “from developing into an autonomous system of rational theology prefaced to dogmatic theology” (32). However, the survey also revealed the existence of a functional account of natural theology that was pre-dogmatic, i.e., an autonomous system of rational theology prefaced to dogmatic theology. The pre-dogmatic view of natural theology was influenced by “Cartesianism on Reformed orthodoxy during the latter part of the seventeenth century [which] led to an increasing reliance on reason among some Reformed theologians” (31). Sudduth’s valuable survey reveals that, while there was a plurality of views on the function of arguments for God, there is a consistent endorsement of the natural knowledge of God and the propriety of rational arguments for the existence of God. It furthermore reveals that the majority report was one of endorsing a dogmatic model of natural theology rather than a pre-dogmatic model, though the latter could be found within the Reformed tradition.

Chapter two seeks to understand the Reformed objection to natural theology. While chapter one shows that natural theology was endorsed by Reformed theologians, this is consistent with there being objections to natural theology within the Reformed tradition. After all, perhaps the Reformers surveyed were inconsistent with their principles. “Is” does not imply “ought.” On the way to understanding the Reformed objection to natural theology, if there is one, Sudduth finds two misconceptions that loom large when considering the significance of any Reformed objection to natural theology. Sudduth looks at these misconceptions as well as lays out some important conceptual distinctions he will make use of as he evaluates objections to natural theology from ostensible Reformed (in a broad sense) thinkers.

The first “misconception about natural theology concerns the extent to which Reformed theology has rejected natural theology” (41). Sudduth grants that from within the Reformed tradition there have been objections to natural theology, and even that these objections have been among some of the sharper and aggressive sort, “it is inaccurate to say that the bulk of Reformed theologians have rejected natural theology, or that a revulsion against theistic arguments has been characteristic of the Continental Calvinist tradition” (42). Sudduth notes that Warfield and Charles Hodge are not aberrations within the Reformed tradition, and then goes on to look at writings by Reformers, noting a conspicuous absence of any thing like a recognized “Reformed” objection to natural theology. Indeed, this absence is made more curious by the fact that mention of or familiarity with a Reformed objection to natural theology is lacking in precisely the places where one would expect to see it. “In fact, when the Socinians rejected natural theology, Reformed theologians were quick to challenge their denial!” (43). Sudduth then looks at plausible sources for this misconception. For example, (i) some Reformed theologians characterized the Reformed tradition this way; (ii) some analytic philosophers of religion focused on narrow streams from within the Reformed tradition that housed a more negative view of natural theology, particularly as represented by late nineteenth- and twentieth-century Dutch Calvinists; (iii) there has been insensitivity towards the distinction between the propriety of using natural theology arguments and the divergent views on the function natural theology arguments should take; and (iv) there has been an asymmetrical study of early representatives of Reformed thought with the most focus on John Calvin, who has been improperly interpreted and given unfair weight, “result[ing] in a distorted generalized picture of Reformed attitudes toward natural theology” (47).

A second misconception arises from those who grant a prominent Reformed endorsement of natural theology while claiming that this endorsement was nevertheless “incompatible with Reformation principles, not that actual theology of the Reformation.” The endorsement represented a “scholastic departure from the theology of the Reformation and a capitulation to Roman Catholic theology” (47). However, Sudduth argues that this misconception results from (i) “an overly narrow view of the nature of theistic arguments and (ii) an inaccurate view of the function of theistic arguments within the dogmatic systems of early and high orthodoxy” (48). Sudduth points to distinctions between natural and philosophical arguments, the former being more prevalent, and to the various functional roles natural theology arguments were thought to play. Rejecting some functional accounts does not entail rejecting other functional accounts. Finding rejections of pre-dogmatic functions for those arguments does not mean dogmatic functions were rejected. It is important to keep in mind the functional diversity of natural theology arguments when assessing attitudes to natural theology from within the Reformed tradition.

All of this leads up to the introduction of several helpful conceptual distinctions to make use of when assessing the existence of a Reformed objection to natural theology. One such distinction is between the natural knowledge of God and theistic argument. Sudduth calls the former natural theology alpha (A) and the latter natural theology beta (B). The former arises in a way other than “explicitly formulated arguments” (a la Romans 1) and the latter refers to knowledge “produced by reflection and argument” or knowledge of “a more spontaneous inference from the visible works of creation.” Sudduth offers further clarification of natural theology (A) and natural theology (B), but a point of the distinction between (A) and (B) is “that there is some natural knowledge of God that is not derived from theistic argument” (50). The distinction is that natural theology (B) “is properly construed as the reflective development of natural theology (A), not the initial source or basis of natural theology (A)” (51). Natural theology (B) would unpack the details of a natural knowledge of God that is spontaneously inferential by (i) making explicit the premises and conclusions of such inferences, (ii) supporting and defending the inferences, and (iii) “establishing and defending the relevant principles that would sanction the inferences” (51). All of this Sudduth refers to as the process of formalizing the natural knowledge of God (the formalization thesis). This formalization thesis recalls the functional diversity of theistic arguments discovered in chapter one. One such function of natural theology (B) is the dogmatic function, which (i) clarifies and develops the natural knowledge of God as a biblical datum, (ii) assists “the systematic development of a biblically based doctrine of God,” and (iii) strengthens the Christian’s knowledge of God (53). Other functions of natural theology (B) are the pre-dogmatic function, where reason becomes a principium of dogmatic theology, serving as its foundation, and the apologetic function, which uses natural theology arguments to defend Christianity against attacks or refute objections to the faith. Apropos the latter, reason is given an instrumental use as opposed to being a principium. These various functions can be understood as models of natural theology (B), where a “model of natural theology (B) will specify some function(s) for natural theology (B) and provide a particular account of the logic of theistic arguments” (53). This in turn brings up the distinction between Reformed objections to natural theology that are objections to a specific model of natural theology (B) (model-specific objections) or objections to all models of natural theology (B). An objection to all models would constitute an objection to the project of natural theology (B). Sudduth grants that there may be good model-specific objections but is interesting to find if there are any good project objections.

In chapter three Sudduth looks for a possible project objection to natural theology (B) in the direction of the doctrine of the innate idea of God. The Reformed tradition has affirmed a knowledge of God that is innate or naturally implanted in the human mind (natural theology (A)). This affirmation is thought by some to count as an objection to natural theology (B). This view of the natural knowledge of God has been thought to be incompatible with theistic argument if not render it superfluous or otherwise unnecessary. Furthermore, “since the nineteenth century there has been a trend in Protestant theology to take the naturally implanted knowledge of God as intuitive or immediate” (58), a view which was thought to oppose natural theology (B). So Sudduth wonders if there’s a good project objection lurking here.

Certainly the above is “logically consistent with there being epistemically efficacious arguments for God’s existence” (58). And if the naturally implanted knowledge is inferential (even if spontaneous), then the formalization thesis (cf. ch. 2) of natural theology (B) can be seen as unpacking and developing this natural knowledge. But if the natural knowledge of God is viewed as immediate knowledge would this generate a problem for natural theology (B)? And if so, how?

Sudduth looks at two ways the immediate knowledge of God might prove to be problematic for natural theology (B), The first is that it renders natural theology (B) unnecessary. That is, that immediate knowledge of God is sufficient. Since it would appear that on this view anything important that could be known about God by way of natural arguments can also be known immediately. “Hence, even if natural theology (B) is epistemically efficacious, it is epistemically superfluous” (59). This is a project objection to the relevance of natural theology (B). This view is dubbed “the SI thesis.” But there looms a more radical immediacy thesis. This take on the immediate natural knowledge of God “would be that God is naturally known only in an immediate manner” (59). So natural knowledge of God is exclusively immediate, which entails a project objection to natural to natural theology (B) since natural theology (B) assumes that some knowledge of God is inferential. This view of immediate knowledge (exclusive immediacy) is dubbed “the EI thesis.”

In response to Reformed objections to natural theology (B) that arise from either the SI or the EI theses, Sudduth tries to find any Reformed models of the immediate knowledge of God that entail the SI or the EI thesis. Sudduth begins by surveying several remarks on the natural knowledge of God from Calvin, Alvin Plantinga, Bucer, Vermigili, Melancthon, Turretin, Hodge, Strong, and Shedd. Sudduth finds the existence of two modes of natural knowledge affirmed by many of the above. These two modes are the sensus divinitatis and the external witness. The latter mode includes inferential belief or knowledge of God, which means that it is implausible to view some of those mentioned above as affirming either the SI or EI theses. Furthermore, the Reformers’ models of the natural knowledge of God Sudduth looks at “entail that either the naturally implanted knowledge of God is not immediate knowledge at all or it is immediate knowledge supplemented by inferential knowledge” (69). The scholastic and puritan models of the natural knowledge of God Sudduth looks at “affirmed a model of the natural knowledge of God involving two important theses: (i) that natural knowledge of God is naturally implanted and acquired, and (ii) the acquired knowledge of God is an inferential knowledge that refines, augments, and/or confirms the naturally implanted knowledge of God” (70). These models deny both the SI and the EI theses. Same with the models of Hodge, Strong, and Shedd. Based on their writings, these models “actually entail a negation of the EI and SI thesis” (73) because either the content of God given by the innate idea is limited, or the knowledge of God is expanded and developed by inferences, the natural knowledge working “in tandem” with inferences. Sudduth finds continuity on these points between these Reformed thinkers and thus does not find a Reformed objection to natural theology (B) based on the actual theology of the Reformers and their theological successors examined. But perhaps there are other immediacy models that give us a project objection.

Chapter four considers two more immediacy models of the natural knowledge of God (natural theology (A)), that of John Baillie and Alvin Plantinga. These two thinkers develop their view in dialogue with the Reformed tradition even though they may not themselves be robustly (confessionaly?) Reformed. Baillie argues that knowledge of God is revelational and that there is no unaided natural knowledge of God. Furthermore, “Baillie challenges the idea that all of our knowledge of God is exclusively inferential” (79). These are both consistent with the survey of Reformational views on the natural knowledge of God given in the previous chapter. But Baillie goes on to argue that “theistic arguments would be superfluous to those who already have an immediate knowledge of God” (79). But Baillie seems to leave open the idea that there is some inferential knowledge of God, or that inference can contribute in some way to knowledge of God. At any event, Baillie’s primary argument for the immediate knowledge of God is to model said knowledge on knowledge of other minds. But even Baillie’s own view, as well as considerations about knowledge of other minds in general, does not support a claim that knowledge of God is exclusively immediate (cf. 80). Sudduth perceptively points out that while such knowledge may be immediate, it is not exclusively so. We might have immediate knowledge of the existence of other minds, “or perhaps more specifically ‘this here is another mind,’” but inference can play a further role in “developing and augmenting out knowledge of other minds by inferring details about the characteristics of other minds; for example, our belief that one person is kind and another person cruel is typically based on observation and inference, in conjunction with our moral beliefs” (81). Baillie offers further arguments to the effect that knowledge of God is knowledge by acquaintance and that this knowledge is of a better kind or more religiously superior kind. But Sudduth points out that this misses the point in that natural theology (B) is only claiming that there is inferential knowledge or warranted beliefs about God, not that it is the best kind or religiously superior kind of knowledge or warranted belief in God. So we don’t get a project objection out of Baillie.

Plantinga’s view receives a similar assessment. Inference is not found to be excluded by Plantinga’s proposal, in fact, there are several plausible ways inference can be considered to play a role in producing some knowledge of God or warranted theistic inferences. Sudduth offers some further accounts of how inference could mesh with immediately warranted theistic knowledge or beliefs. For example, some “theistic beliefs may be warranted in part by way of inference” (87). There are warranted beliefs or knowledge that are immediate, inferential, and those in a third category, knowledge and warranted beliefs that are partly inferential and partly immediate. Since, for Plantinga, warrant is a function of degree of belief, then the more firmly a cognizer S believes some proposition p, the more warrant the belief that p will have for S. There may be some cognizers in some circumstances where “the sensus divintatis produces a less than firm belief in God,” (87), and in these circumstances theistic arguments can confirm and strengthen belief in God. Morever, there are less than ideal cognizers (pilgrim Christians who have not yet reached glory and are assailed by doubts or other warrant-reducing factors) who lose some of the warrant or knowledge a theistic belief has for them. Theistic belief could then both be immediately warranted at a time but not diachronically so for, say, “negative evidence could eliminate or significantly reduce warrant and thereby undermine the immediate knowledge of God” (89). (For an account of this the reader may consult Sudduth’s online article at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy titled “Defeaters in Epistemology.”) There may be defeaters that rebut or undercut immediately warranted theistic belief and natural theology (B) could play a role in defeating these defeaters, thus bringing the original belief back to a state of knowledge. Natural theology (B) could also play a role in insulating theistic belief from losing their initial warrant in the first place. All of this is consistent with the model of immediate natural knowledge Plantinga may be taken as offering. Sudduth addresses some further refinements to Plantinga’s position, but then end is the same, “In the final analysis, neither Baillie nor Plantinga provides a model of the natural knowledge of God on which we can base a project objection to natural theology (B)” (95).

Chapter five continues to look in the direction of immediate knowledge of God as an objection to natural theology (B). Recalling that his critiques of both the SI and EI theses have relied upon the contributions inference can make to our natural knowledge of God, Sudduth then summarizes the role inference plays, even if we allow that some natural knowledge of God is immediate, as follows:

“[I] Inference can augment, refine, or confirm the immediate natural knowledge of God” (98).

Sudduth elaborates on this by pointing out how inference augments, refines, or confirms the immediate knowledge of God. For example, inference can ‘augment’ by providing “knowledge of theistic propositions that are not immediately known.” Inference can ‘refine’ by filling out what is known, and inference can confirm by providing “knowledge of theistic propositions that are immediately known” (98). Sudduth then draws a distinction between strong and weak versions of [I]. Since warrant (that which turns true belief into knowledge) comes in degrees, Sudduth proposes we distinguish [I] as follows:

“[SIP] Rational inference confers a degree of N warrant on some range of theistic beliefs, where N is a degree of warrant sufficient to transform true belief into knowledge.

[MIP] Rational inference confers a degree of warrant less than [N] on some range of theistic beliefs, where the Nth degree of warrant is sufficient to transform true beliefs into knowledge” (98).

So, a [SIP] inference would give you some natural knowledge of God and a [MIP] inference would confer some warrant on a theistic belief, just not enough for knowledge. [MIP] is important since, though a [MIP] inference doesn’t give you knowledge straight away, it can still add to the warrant already present which might be enough to push your belief up into the honorable epistemic status, ‘knowledge.’

This distinction is highly relevant for a few reasons, one such reason is that since natural theology claims to provide us with beliefs that are “epistemically loaded,” and since both [SIP] and [MIP] are epistemically loaded (just that one is strongly loaded and the other weakly loaded), then to offer an objection to the “epistemic efficacy of natural theology (B) in the sense of [SIP] is not a project objection.” Sudduth then proceeds to defend this idea by showing the sufficiency of [MIP] related to “several of the functions of natural theology (B) . . .” (99). Sudduth looks at the functions of his dogmatic model, the apologetic model, and the pre-dogmatic model. The first two only require [MIP] while the pre-dogmatic model seems to require something like [SIP].

Sudduth then notes that the [SIP] and [MIP] distinction require two kinds of EI theses (cf. ch. 3). The EI thesis affirmed “that the natural knowledge of God is solely immediate” which means that beliefs delivered by [I] can amount to knowledge. Thus construed, the EI thesis only denies[SIP]. A project objection would need a stronger EI thesis, one that denied [MIP]. A stronger thesis is “that our only warranted natural beliefs about God are immediately warranted” (102). Sudduth correctly maintains that this is a hard saying, moreover, he finds nothing supportive of it in the prominent Reformed theologians surveyed so far.

Sudduth then wonders at what grounds a Reformed theologian might have to affirm either EI thesis. Not surprisingly, Sudduth does not “see much hope for a well-grounded Reformed account of immediate knowledge of God that entails the denial of either [SIP] or [MIP] . . .” (105). For example, some Reformed theologians might wonder about our inexcusability before God. But it seems clear that if some spontaneous natural knowledge of God is had by men, then that secures inexcusability. Sudduth then looks at a modified EI thesis, namely:

“[EI*] For most human cognizers, rational inference does not confer significant warrant on any theistic belief” (105).

This thesis fares no better. For example, good theistic arguments could confirm the natural knowledge of God by “providing reasons for supposing that the target theistic propositions are true.” Or, theistic arguments “could explicate the content of a widely instantiated immediate knowledge of God” (106). Neither would [EI*] provide a good objection to the apologetic functions of natural theology (B). There are several ways we could construe the apologetic use of theistic arguments that do not suppose that [EI*] must be false. For example, apologetic arguments need not be “ostensibly aimed at producing belief in God in anyone.” They could simply show that such beliefs are true or “that we are warranted in accepting them.” For these reasons, Sudduth maintains that we will need to look elsewhere for a good project objection to natural theology (B) other than any alleged immediate knowledge of God.

Chapter six looks elsewhere; the direction of the doctrine of the noetic effects of sin. Sudduth says the most common objections to natural theology (B) are based off this doctrine. Roughly put, the Reformed confess total depravity, the doctrine that sin has affected every aspect of man’s being. The noetic effects of sin refers to the affects sin has on the cognitive aspects of man being. The way this doctrine could supply resources for an objection to natural theology (B) are several. First, the noetic effects of sin could cash out to the consequence that there is no natural knowledge of God, no natural theology (A). Second, it could be that a modest natural theology (A) is granted but the noetic effects of sin rule out the epistemic efficacy of any inferential arguments so that there is no inferential knowledge of God. Third, the first and second points might only apply for unregenerate persons. It is hard to see how any of these would constitute a project objection to natural theology (B) given the points raised in the last few chapters. Characteristically, Sudduth further explores the prospects for a project objection to natural theology (B) based of the noetic effects of sin. Sudduth looks at ostensible Reformed theologians (broadly considered) who may have an objection to natural theology (A) or (B) based of the noetic effects of sin. The theologians Sudduth looks at are Calvin, Hoeksema, Barth, and Brunner.

Sudduth enters into a fascinating discussion over the various comments made by Calvin which have been taken by some to imply a negative view of natural theology (B). The gist of the discussion is that Calvin’s comments on the natural knowledge of God had two dimensions, a propositional one and an affective/moral one. Natural theology (B) is concerned with the former. Calvin denied that unregenerate had a “true knowledge of God,” not that they did not retain some true beliefs with propositional content about God. Moreover, Calvin’s comments were not compatible with any extensive unregenerate natural theology (A) and (B). It may be that some true propositions are known, but the noetic effects of sin would affect a true systematic unregenerate natural theology. However, this leaves open interesting prospects for a regenerate natural theology (B).

The next topic broached in this chapter is the possible problem that imago dei coupled with sin might have for the prospect of natural theology (A) or (B). Sudduth looks at comments by Herman Hoeksema, Karl Barth, and Emil Brunner. The situation is similar to the above. Though it is not entirely clear just how the imago dei is supposed to present a problem for natural theology, it appears that the comments have more to do with a knowledge of God that is other than propositional. Natural theology need not deny this. Rather than explore Sudduth’s discussion of Hoeksema, Barth, and Brunner in more detail, I will note my agreement with Sudduth’s claim that, “The whole argument [from the imago dei] proceeds on the assumption that the natural knowledge of God is tied to the image of God. This is a dubious assumption. Indeed, the doctrine of the image of God looks like an unhelpful digression from the question of whether the effects of sin render our rational faculties epistemically impotent” (125-126).

Chapter seven continues to attend to the question whether the noetic effects of sin can get us a project objection to natural theology (B). In the last chapter it was seen that the doctrine of the noetic effects of sin as construed by some theologians in the Reformed tradition did not give us good grounds to deny that fallen unregenerate persons did not possess some natural knowledge of God. Either this view was denied (Calvin) or rested upon an idea of knowledge of God that was not propositional. Sudduth thinks the doctrine of the noetic effects of sin, and the possibility that there is a project objection lurking in the neighborhood, deserves further analysis. To do this he “draw[s] on insights from contemporary epistemology to examine the prospects for a case against propositional natural knowledge of God based on the noetic effects of sin” (127).

Sudduth begins by wondering if the doctrine of the noetic effects of sin (he takes a statement from the Canons of Dort as his fodder) is logically inconsistent with:

“[K] Unregenerate persons possess some natural propositional knowledge of God” (127).

Now, [K] is consistent with affirming that unregenerate persons possess knowledge of God if we parse ‘knowledge’ in such minimalist terms as, say, “true belief.” However, this analysis of knowledge is faulty; for example, it does not rule out lucky guesses counting as knowledge. Contemporary epistemologists want to add a condition that, if met, turns true belief into knowledge, and that condition is warrant. So, the question is whether [K] is inconsistent with the noetic effects of sin where ‘knowledge’ is understood as needing a sufficient degree of warrant.

The first way to understand how the noetic effects of sin might conflict with [K] that Sudduth looks at is “that human reason is unreliable in theological matters” (128). This view is understood as:

“[N] No natural belief-forming cognitive process in unregenerate persons reliably produces any true beliefs about God” (128).

Now, [N] does not claim that no natural belief-forming cognitive process in unregenerate persons reliably produces true beliefs about anything, just in matters theological. Furthermore, the cognitive process may be a single faculty or mechanism that produces theistic belief, or a set of mechanisms that converge to produce theistic belief. Whatever the process, it is unreliable just in case the faculty or process is working to produce theistic belief, not necessarily beliefs about mundane matters. Moreover, a “‘reliable’ cognitive process is often understood as one that has an actual track record that is favorable vis-a-vis the goal of producing true beliefs, that is, produces mostly true beliefs. Alternatively, ‘reliable’ can mean a propensity to deliver a significantly higher number of true beliefs.” Sudduth takes [N] as the negation of this latter sense. Unregenerate not only do not have the propensity to produce mostly true theistic beliefs, they have the propensity to produce mostly false ones.

Next, Sudduth shows that [K] and [N] are inconsistent on two popular theories of knowledge, externalism and internalism. However, all of this presupposes that [N] is true. Sudduth does not think [N] is true. For example, the noetic effects of sin do not seem to entail the unreliability of our natural theistic-belief producing faculties, just that they are not as reliable as they initially were. Another problem would be that accountability would be lost if unregenerate persons had no knowledge of God (assuming a popular understanding of Romans 1). For these reasons, as well as others, Sudduth seeks to offer a more modest unreliability thesis, namely:

“[N*] No natural inferential cognitive process in unregenerate persons reliably produced any true beliefs about God” (137).

[N*] is based off the skepticism of some Reformers “about theological conclusions reached through the power of unregenerate human reasoning” (136). Sudduth cites Reformed thinkers such as Calvin, Luther, Masselink, and Melanchthon to this end. [N*] attributes unreliability just to inferential knowledge of God which leaves open the reliability of a non-inferential process, thus allowing for some natural knowledge of God and so leaving [K] in tact. Thus, if a non-inferential model of natural knowledge of God is true, then [N*] and [K] are consistent.

In support of motives for [N*] Sudduth looks at several statements by Dutch Calvinists Herman Bavinck and Louis Berkhof. Their statements on the matter seem to affirm an innate knowledge of God while bringing up difficulties for an acquired knowledge. They base these difficulties on the belief that the will of man conditions the obtaining of acquired knowledge of God. The will influences what we believe of God by directing the “complex process of inquiry, evidence gathering, and evidence evaluation” (138). Since the will is in opposition or rebellion against God, knowledge of God obtained by this more elaborate reasoning process is vulnerable. However, for all that is said, the views expressed by Bavinck and Berkhof do not entail that unregenerate persons have no inferential knowledge of God, just that it is harder to obtain. Moreover, since [N*] and [K] are consistent, there is no objection to natural theology (B) that proceeds from a denial of natural theology (A). For [N*] to work as a project objection to natural theology (B), or a model-specific objection, it must be in terms of denying the epistemic efficacy of natural theology (B).

Sudduth briefly defends natural theology (B) against the idea that [N*] gives us an objection to it. First, Sudduth points out that the project natural theology (B) does not assume that unregenerate people have de facto knowledge of God or inferential knowledge. His dogmatic model, for example, presupposes that natural theology is a task carried out by regenerate Christians (theologia naturalis regenitorium). Second, recall that natural theology rests on the more modest epistemic principle [MIP] (cf. ch. 5). [MIP] is compatible with [N] and [N*]. Next, even if [N*] is consistent with natural theology (B), perhaps it is inconsistent with the apologetic function of natural theology (B). Sudduth gives several reasons for supposing that this line doesn’t work. For example, theistic arguments can refute atheological objections and reduce the warrant an unbeliever has for believing God does not exist. Or, theistic arguments could remove obstacles to belief, conferring some modest degree of warrant for belief in God. There are a range of roles theistic arguments can play, not only for the unbeliever, but for the believer to (who is also the proper subject of receiving apologetic argument in some cases).

Chapter eight lays out and defends the dogmatic model of natural theology. Sudduth begins by explaining the epistemic effects of regeneration as applied specifically to the theistic belief forming cognitive processes of the regenerate. This is relevant since Sudduth’s model “presupposes that natural theistic arguments are the product of human reason as it operates in the regenerate mind” (145). Regeneration would be relevant from both externalist and internalist vantage points, undoing the problems they faced in chapter seven. Another presupposition of the dogmatic model is that “natural theology (B) presupposes the wider context of dogmatic theology where the Bible is regarded as the primary source of knowledge about God. Natural theology represents rational reflection on God’s general revelation in the created order from the viewpoint of God’s special revelation in sacred Scripture” (148). This brings out a crucial difference between the pre-dogmatic model and the dogmatic model. The former does not presuppose the content of special revelation and “is an autonomous system based solely on the resources of human reason and constituting a justificatory preface to the system of revealed theology” (150). This separation of natural theology from theology based on Scripture concerned several Reformed thinkers, such as Lecerf, Kuyper, Bavinck, and Berkhof. The Reformers did not think human reason could construct a scientific system of theology based on natural revelation alone. This objection to natural theology (B) would be a model-specific objection then, targeting the pre-dogmatic model rather than the dogmatic model.

These features of the dogmatic model of natural theology (B) combine to make:

“[CNT] Reflective inquiry concerning natural revelation is systematically reliable only if it is dependent on scriptural revelation and carried out by regenerate reason” (152).

Systematically reliable concerns the development of a “systematic doctrine of God,” thus “[CNT] is logically consistent with there being some natural propositional knowledge of God independent of regeneration and the influence of Scripture.” [CNT] is also consistent with theistic arguments “conferring warrant on theistic beliefs.” [CNT] is also consistent with this warrant “conferring knowledge on theistic beliefs,” contrary to [N*]. The reason this is so is because “[N*] overlooked an important distinction between all theistically relevant inferential cognitive processes being unreliable and the unreliability and inadequacy of a purported systematic account of the natural knowledge of God produced by such cognitive processes” (152, emphasis mine).

But this way lies an objection. If natural theology (B) presupposes or is dependent on Scripture, how is this natural theology? Is natural theology (B) really just a theology of nature based on special revelation? Does the dogmatic model reduce to simply repeating what the Bible says about natural revelation? Sudduth attempts to answer this objection throughout the remainder of the chapter. The first thing he does is to get clear on what this dependency thesis amounts to. He does this by “noting the relevant range of biblical data on which natural theology might plausibly depend” (154).

Sudduth provides several ways to understand the claim that natural theology depends on Scripture. This includes meta-level dependence where Scripture justifies the “project of developing theistic arguments,” or provides functional guidance “bear[ing] on the proper and effective use of theistic arguments.” The relevant range also includes more substantial ways in which natural theology could depend on Scripture. For example, Scripture can provide “negative constraints on natural theistic arguments,” protecting the Christian from drawing false conclusions about God. This “does not undermine the natural character of natural theology.” For example, the overall project of natural theology (B) will be guided by Scripture, but the individual arguments are based on reason. That Scripture identifies false patterns of human reasoning also does not remove the natural character of natural theology, for reason could still identify just how the reasoning is faulty. Besides negative substantial dependence, Scripture could provide positive a positive substantial dependence. It could do so by providing “instances or examples of natural theistic inferences.” Reason could show why these inferences are cogent. Or, following Bavinck and Calvin, Scripture could “contain in a general way the starting points and direction of traditional theistic arguments.” Here, natural theology depends on Scripture in a germinal way. Natural theology could also depend on the concept of God given in Scripture and then show the cogent arguments that get this God as the conclusion of theistic arguments (155-163). These plausible lines of dependency, argued for more fully in the chapter, show how natural theology (B) is carried out in the dogmatic model. This model is carried out most successfully by the regenerate Christian. While granting that non-Christians may be helpful at points or even have warrant to believe some theistic propositions, they fail to formulate a systematic doctrine of God.

Chapter nine looks at another popular objection to natural theology (B), the “most prominent kind of objection to natural theology (B) in the western philosophical tradition since the eighteenth century” (167). The objection criticizes the logic of theistic arguments. This objection could provide a project objection to natural theology (B) by showing that theistic arguments fail to be epistemically efficacious. For example, some have argued that natural theology arguments fail as logical demonstrations or proofs of the existence of God. Sudduth cites several Reformed theologians to this end (e.g., Bavinck, Lecerf, Berkoff, Hoeksema, and Gordon Clark). These thinkers agree with and even appeal to David Hume and Immanuel Kant in this line of argument about the failure of theistic arguments as logical demonstrations. Logical demonstrations consist of a valid, non-circular deductive argument with premises that “have strong epistemic credentials.” For a premise to have strong epistemic credentials it must be “immune from doubt, error, or revision, or they are universally held by all rational cognizers who consider and understand the premises of the argument.” Sudduth refers to these premises as “rationally compelling” (171). Given these considerations, the objection to natural theology (B) from their failure as logical demonstrations can be formulated as:

“(1) A proposition p is logically demonstrated just if it is a valid, non-circular inference from true and rationally compelling premises,


No theistic argument can satisfy the conditions of demonstration stipulated in (1),

we can infer:

(3) No theistic argument constitutes a logical demonstration of the existence of God” (171).

Sudduth refers to this arguments as the DAF argument. So considered, does the DAF objection provide a project objection to natural theology (B)? It would seem not. As explained throughout the book, natural theology (B) need not be considered as offering arguments that are logical demonstrations in the DAF sense. According to [MIP] for example, theistic arguments can be epistemically efficacious without being logical demonstrations or sources of knowledge. Theistic arguments could be inductive arguments that confer “some significant degree of probability on the proposition ‘God exists’” (172). So Sudduth adds a premise to DAFin order to get a project objection:

“(4) If an argument, A, for some proposition p is not a logical demonstration of p, then A is an epistemically deficient basis for believing p” (172).

An argument could be an epistemically deficient basis for believing some proposition p by failing to “confer warrant or justification on the belief that p,” or by failing to “confer enough warrant for knowledge” (172). Starting with the latter, DAF could be applied to inferential knowledge and give us a project objection by:

“(5) No inferentially derived proposition p constitutes knowledge for some person S who believes p unless p is the conclusion of an argument that satisfies the conditions of demonstration stipulated in (1)” (172).

Of course (5) is problematic. There are paradigm cases of knowledge that don’t satisfy the conditions laid out by (5), like my knowledge that Michael Sudduth is the author of The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology, for example. Second, as Sudduth showed in chapter 5, there are models of natural theology not committed to the claim that theistic arguments confer enough warrant for knowledge. [MIP] is weakly epistemically loaded, conferring some degree of warrant for a theistic belief only partly grounded in rational inference. So (5) doesn’t give us a project objection, we need something like:

“(6) No inferentially derived proposition p has warrant for some person S who believes p unless p is the conclusion of an argument that satisfies the conditions of demonstration stipulated in (1)” (174).

But (6) is even more dubious that (5). If I believe with warrant that my neighbor lives in my housing development, and I believe with warrant that 90% of the houses in my housing development have real grass, then my belief that my neighbor has real grass is warranted. Some have replied that any inductive belief cannot yield warrant since they are obtained by a formally fallacious process of reasoning. Sudduth’s response is on target. ‘Invalidity’ is a “descriptive term that simply refers to the fact that a conclusion does not follow by necessity from its premises” (175). We can still be warranted to believe the conclusion based on the premises even if it is logically consistent to deny the conclusion of the argument while affirming the truth of the premises. But it does not follow from this that denying the conclusion is “reasonable or warranted” given the “evidential relation between propositions,” a relation that “comes in degrees and can be rationally tracked” (175). Moreover, (6) has the unfortunate problem that you could not believe (6) with warrant. It does not look like (6) can be either immediately warranted or that it is the product of a logical demonstration in the sense required by (1).

At this point Sudduth lays out the value of non-demonstrative theistic arguments. He notes that many Reformed theologians have granted that theistic arguments have value, even if not logical demonstrations. He surveys the Reformed tradition and finds that this is agreed upon by many Reformed thinkers. These arguments will be inductive in nature, using probabilistic arguments to confer warrant on theistic belief. The evidential support these arguments have for theistic belief can be weak or strong. Weak inductive support is where the “premises merely add up to the probability of the conclusion,” and strong inductive support is where the “premises render the conclusion at least more likely than not.” Both types of inductive arguments have value, even arguments that are weakly inductive. For example, “a collection of individual arguments may only provide weal inductive support for each of their conclusions, but when combined the arguments may offer strong inductive support for a single conclusion.” Weak inductive arguments can also increase the warrant a belief has, “a point that is particularly important when considering that knowledge requires a very high degree of warrant” (179).

Still, there have been objections to the value inductive arguments have that arise within the Reformed tradition. Sudduth looks at the two most prominent considerations against inductive arguments for theistic belief. They are (i) the inconsistency between those arguments and the certainty of faith, and (ii) the clarity of general revelation. Those who offer these kinds of objections need not hold to either (5) or (6). They will just want to say that the considerations (i) and (ii) give us “outweigh whatever epistemic value such arguments have” (179). Concerning (i), those who have offered this objection have objected to the idea of basing Christian belief off probabilistic reasoning. This objection is not very good since natural theology (B) need not be read as attempting to “base” belief in God off such arguments. Theistic arguments could confirm belief in God, show the epistemic status of belief in God, function as just one part of the varied sources for belief in God, or be used in apologetic fashion to give reasons for belief that need not be reasons why one believes (e.g., the cause of belief). Concerning (ii), clarity would not seem to demand certainty. God’s existence can be clear without being certain. But even if it did, the probabilistic arguments need not be the source of belief in God, they could codify the spontaneous inference patters that are implicated in the clarity of general revelation. Or, probabilistic beliefs could be but one source for belief in God. Probabilistic arguments could confirm the knowledge of God, as well as play an apologetic role. Lastly, even if general revelation were probable, why would that leave man with an excuse? If the town’s best car mechanic told me that my breaks would fail if I drove down a hill, then I would be morally responsible for leaving the shop, driving down a steep hill, and hitting children playing baseball at the bottom of the hill. What sense would it make to claim that I was not responsible because of the mere possibility that the mechanic was wrong?

Chapter ten continues to look at Reformed objections to natural theology (B) based off the logic of theistic arguments. The objection considered here is that theistic arguments can only prove a “God of the philosophers,” not the God of the Christian scriptures. Sudduth refers to the God of the philosophers as the GOP objection and claims that of all the objections to natural theology (B), this one is usually considered the most decisive. What is going on in the GOP objection is that the God proved by theistic arguments is formal and empty, and so is not the God as described in scripture. There is some descriptive inadequacy such that arguments for the ‘God’ referred to in natural theistic arguments is some being other than the God referred to in the Bible. After discussing the concept of definite description, and parsing out several ways of just how to phrase the GOP objection, Sudduth settles on the most interesting and forceful way to state the objection:

“[DIM-B] The traditional theistic arguments taken together do not provide adequate inductive support for the existence of a being under any definite descriptions that either (i) pick out the same divine being picked out by the descriptions of God in Scripture or (ii) fix reference to the same being named ‘God’ in Scripture” (193).

This way of putting the GOP objection is best because “the fate of natural theology (B) depends on the truth of [DIM-B]” and not any of the other analyses of the descriptive inadequacy objection GOP replies on. The cumulative case of theistic arguments features prominently in Sudduth’s response to the various descriptive inadequacy objections. Sudduth thinks this feature of natural theology arguments is an important but frequently overlooked one.

After citing several Reformed theologians who offer statements supportive of cumulative case arguments, Sudduth wonders just what “sort of description would constitute an adequate description of the true God for the purposes of proving the existence of God,” (195) and finds that the Reformed have not offered us anything like a rigorous set of necessary and sufficient conditions specifying the descriptions that need to be affirmed. However, they have given some reasons to suppose that some descriptions are descriptively inadequate. The first view Sudduth looks he calls “Trinitarian descriptivism.” On this view, “reference to the true God requires a description of God as one God in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (195). If natural theology arguments cannot prove that God is a trinity, then they fail to prove the existence of the God who exists. Yet, while natural theology arguments may not be able to offer a logical demonstration of the trinity, there may be probabilistic grounds for assuming that God is a trinity (Sudduth refers to some of Richard Swinburne’s material here; another suggestion might be in the direction of a scaled-down transcendental argument with recourse to the one and many (cf. James Anderson, If Knowledge, then God: The Epistemological Arguments of Plantinga and Van Til)). Putting this aside, however, there is a bigger worry with the Trinitarian descriptivist objection: how does failure to prove that God is three persons entail that we cannot prove the existence of a God that is three persons? Further insights from theories of sense and reference confirm this. Moreover, there are several other problems with Trinitarian descriptivism. One such problem is that the Reformed tradition has wanted to affirm the natural knowledge of God (natural theology (A)), but the “knowledge of God as redeemer or Trinity of persons is not part of the content of the natural knowledge of God” (199). I would add to that that Old Testament believers did not have a Trinitarian concept of God either, yet they could refer to the same God as New Testament believers do. So Trinitarian descriptivism seems to run up against the knowledge of God both naturally revealed and specially revealed (at least in the Old Testament). “Trinitarian descriptivism proves too much for a Reformed theologian who wishes to remain faithful to the tradition’s acceptance of natural knowledge of God” (200).

Chapter 10 ends with another objection that is picked up in chapter 11, the final chapter. The objection is the last objection considered and continues to press the objection to the logic of theistic arguments. Whereas Trinitarian descriptivism failed to provide much of a worry for natural theology (B), another objection may prove stronger. This objection is that natural theology (B) fails to prove a robust theism, settling for, at best, the god of deism or pantheism. This is known as the robust theistic descriptivist objection. The reasons given for why natural theology (B) cannot prove a robust God are taken largely from Hume and Kant. Reformed who offer this objection “have appealed to two principles concerning causation and causal inferences: (i) the restriction of causation to experience and (ii) the necessity of proportioning causes to their effects” (203). Sudduth examines these charges.

Sudduth first addresses the argument that restricts causal inferences to experience, claiming that it is unjustified to move from effects to causes beyond our experience. Sudduth points to some Reformed thinkers who have relied on Hume and Kant and then subjects this principle to critique. Of course, reliance on Hume and Kant here is problematic. Fundamental to Christian theism is the concept that God has caused certain things (e.g., creation of the world). Furthermore, not only does Sudduth reject the radical empiricism the objections from Hume and Kant presuppose, point out that modern science has made this crude empiricism “no longer sensible,” but he points out that this objection leads a “theological skepticism that easily undermines theological discourse and knowledge” (206). The second objection deals with the principle of proportionality. The idea here is that “we must not ascribe to a cause anything beyond what is minimally required to account for the effect” (207). If I come home and see a hole in my wall, I am justified in attributing the hole to a cause, say, strong enough to cause the hole. I am not justified in concluding that it was a major league pitcher throwing a split finger fastball through my wall. So the design argument, even if we grant it shows supernatural design, cannot lead to the God of robust theistic descriptivism: a single, spiritual, eternal, infinite, all-knowing, all-powerful, unchangeable, and the source of good. At this point Sudduth offers several responses to this line of thought. One of his responses makes use of cumulative case arguments, the conjunction of which renders robust theism more probable than, say, the God of deism. Surely the natural theology arguments do not show the existence of a robustly described God with Cartesian certainty, but Sudduth already covered this objection. Sudduth then shows the value of cumulative case arguments in answering the charge of robust descriptivism. For example, some argue that if you argue for a creator, that doesn’t get you a designer, and vice versa. Or, if you show design, this does not show one designer is responsible, perhaps there were multiple designers. Sudduth brings several lines of response to bear on this argument. He appeals to contemporary arguments to show that it is more reasonable to believe in the unity of the designer or creator than to deny it. Others have argued that the cosmological argument, even if granted, does not get you, say, a personal God. Sudduth appeals to contemporary arguments to undermine this as well. One such response is to appeal to personal explanation in terms of intentions and desires as an explanation for the existence of the world (asking why my table is set the way it is needs a personal explanation in terms of intentions, beliefs, and powers of an agent). Pulling from many arguments, we can get rational support for a robustly described God, The above brief survey aims to hint at how Sudduth shows how cumulative case arguments do not yield an empty, formal, and abstract conception of God. With that, the objection from robust descriptivism does not seem to give us a good objection to natural theology (B).

Final thoughts

The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology is very well done. The conceptual distinctions offered are very valuable and definitely move the discussion forward. Reformed thinkers would do well to make use of natural theology arguments in all its varied functions. Reformed thinkers would do well to add Sudduth's book to their library and delve into it for it contains many valuable insights from a variety of disciplines (historical, philosophical, and apologetical(!?)). Considering I have merely reviewed Sudduth’s book, I guess I should offer some obligatory comments and questions. I half-heartedly offer these for further consideration:

(1) Much of the arguments against the logic of theistic arguments were employed by Reformed thinkers who rested on the tired objections of Hume and Kant. However, there still remains the more savvy objections by the likes of a Sobel or an Oppy. Reformed thinkers who find natural theology (B) troublesome will eventually appeal to this more steely material.

(2) Some Reformed objectors to natural theology (B), or at least objectors to the status quo, may feel their concerns have not been considered. One thinker Sudduth did not mention is Owen Anderson (Anderson’s book came too late for Sudduth to interact with in his book). In The Clarity of God’s Existence (Wipf and Stock, 2008), Anderson argues against the probabilistic rejoinder Sudduth makes use of. Anderson argues that clarity does mean that God’s existence must be readily knowable, “the opposite is impossible” (200). Granted, Anderson supports the project of natural theology, so there’s no worry of a project objection here. But Anderson does challenge some of Sudduth’s main defenses of his dogmatic model, however, I do not find much of what Anderson says to be very plausible.

(3) I wonder why an unregenerate could not produce a systematic doctrine of God if he used Sudduth’s dogmatic model. If he used Scripture in the way Sudduth suggests, would not this ward off false conclusions? Similarly, if only regenerate can produce a systematic doctrine of God, does this mean that we have a guide to knowing which philosophers are or have been regenerate?

(4) What of the charge that the dogmatic model “begs the question” or uses “circular reasoning?” For example, it is a common charge against presuppositional apologetics that it “begs the question” by presupposing the truth of Christianity. It would seem that many pre-dogmatic natural theologians would object that the dogmatic model is circular given that they argue that one must not presuppose or depend on the truth of Christianity (cf. Moreland and Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 465; and Charles Taliaferro, “The Project of Natural Theology” in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, 1). They might contend that if the dogmatic model is needed to save a Reformed natural theology, so much the worse for a Reformed natural theology. As a presuppositionalist, I do not agree with this critique, but I would have liked to see it addressed in the book.

(5) Sudduth’s book seemed to suggest (and this is also hinted at in Paul Helm’s review of Sudduth’s book) that Cornelius Van Til and Greg Bahnsen were against natural theology. But given his dogmatic model, would he not consider them natural theologians? Sure, they rejected a lot of natural theology arguments (while also claiming that there were valid formulations of those arguments), but they had their own arguments for the faith. Given the dogmatic model, would not Van Til and Greg Bahnsen qualify as natural theologians, perhaps just objecting to pre-dogmatic models? (In private conversation Sudduth let me know that he did admit this in a prior draft of the book but had to cut it for the final draft.)


  1. Paul,

    Thanks for this very informative review.

    I would say not only has the twentieth century Reformed aversion been toward Natural Theology, but also Natural Law. Dr VanDrunen has spent most of his efforts arguing that the Reformed Tradition accepted the latter. Is Dr. Sudduth arguing for the Reformed Tradition acceptance of both of these doctrines? Does he see them as one logically leading to the other? Two complete issues and he is only dealing with one?


  2. Hi Ronnie, I address that very question in the opening paragraph :-)

    . . . except I don't comment on his view on natural law or its connection to natural theology. I'm not sure he'd say that they logically imply the other, but I think I rember him saying that he affirmed natural law in an email once.

  3. Thank you Paul. This is awesome. Still going through it. Thanks so much for taking the time to write this review.

  4. Paul, I think if what is intended in promoting "natural law" AND "natural theology" is simply what we mean by "general revelation", then there should be no objection. I think the ambiguity comes in when we consider how natural theology should lead us to the God and story that Scripture presents, and how Scripture serves as a corrective for distortions and errors we make in interpreting general revelation.

    I suppose I have come to see knowledge in a two-tiered system, corresponding to the law/gospel distinction. In general revelation (natural theology, natural law) God, his attributes, and His law are revealed. Whereas in special revelation, the gospel is revealed. Presuppositional and transcendental arguments are good to establish the former, but historical, inductive ("evidential") arguments are good for the latter.

  5. David,

    Natural theology broadly refers to what we can or do know about God aprt from special revelation. General revelation would be a medium or source of natural knowledge. Most grant general revelation but some have denied we can know anything about God *from* or *by* general revelation due to various epistemic post-lapsarian conditions.

    Sudduth helpfully distingushes between natural theology A and natural theology B, his book is a defense of the latter.

    Natural theology B is useful for the knowledge of God and his attributes, or for giving us warrant for a belief even if not enough warrant for knowledge can be given by natural arguments.

    As far as natural law, that's a divided question from natural theology. Perhaps I shouldn't have even mentioned natural *law* in the introduction.


  6. Most grant general revelation but some have denied we can know anything about God *from* or *by* general revelation due to various epistemic post-lapsarian conditions.

    Sudduth helpfully distingushes between natural theology A and natural theology B, his book is a defense of the latter.

    Natural theology B is useful for the knowledge of God and his attributes, or for giving us warrant for a belief even if not enough warrant for knowledge can be given by natural arguments.

    How does one deny natural theology is useful for *some* knowledge of God and His attributes with Romans 1:21-22 in mind?

  7. Hi Ronnie,

    Well, there are various ways, ways Sudduth covers in the book. Much of it depends on how you understand some of those terms. For example, some might grant that natural theology (A) can give us knowledge, but not natural theology (B), and it is the latter Sudduth is mainly trying to defend. Some might exegete those passages differently than you (indeed, regarding Romans 2, for instance, there is a popular exegetical strain that argues Paul is referring to Gentile converts). Some might want to argue that the knowledge is not diachronic, and so can be lost, etc. For discussions on this (except the point about Romans 2 since Sudduth isn't writing on NL), see the book for further elaboration on the points I hit on in the review.

  8. I still can't figure out why anyone would have thought Plantinga was opposed to natural theology. He's spent quite a lot of energy actually doing natural theology, as has Alston. Thinking that there are a couple dozen good arguments for the existence of God is incompatible with rejecting natural theology.

    As for presuppositionalist arguments, of course there are arguments. In fact, I would contend that presuppositionalists endorse all the traditional arguments. They just recast them under the illusion that they're transcendental arguments. But I've seen cosmological, teleological, moral, and ontological arguments coming out of presuppositionalists. They just inconsistently claim that it's blasphemy to use such arguments when offered in a non-transcendental forms, as if asserting a premise as true rather than presuming we all think it somehow makes a difference as to whether your argument is blasphemous.

  9. Hi Jeremy,

    From what I gather, Plantinga was actually more negative towards natural theology towards the earlier statges of his career. Indeed, Sudduth's title is based off Plantinga's claim that there is a "Reformed objection to natural theology." At lbest, Plantinga could have been read as allowing natural theology but claiming that it is superfluous. This runs afoul of Sudduth's functional account, though. But as some criticisms came out and some subtlties in Plantinga's epistemology were discovered, I think he became more congenial towards the project.

    As for presuppositionalists, yes, that was a point I made under #5 of my closing thoughts. And, no doubt there are some presuppositionalists given to using the rhetoric you tar them with, but that's not true of all presuppositionalists. James Anderson and John Frame come to mind. It seems to me that transcendental arguments are unique arguments (in terms of scope) and are properly used when the minor premise of the transcendnetal argument relates to human thought or intelligible experience. This is why William Hasker, for example, could call the Argument from Reason a *transcendnetal* argument.

  10. Michael Sudduth emailed me this response to the comment I made Jeremy:


    I wrote: "From what I gather, Plantinga was actually more negative towards natural theology towards the earlier statges of his career. Indeed, Sudduth's title is based off Plantinga's claim that there is a "Reformed objection to natural theology." At lbest, Plantinga could have been read as allowing natural theology but claiming that it is superfluous. This runs afoul of Sudduth's functional account, though. But as some criticisms came out and some subtlties in Plantinga's epistemology were discovered, I think he became more congenial towards the project.


    Yes, I think this is right. First, in God and other Minds (1967), Plantinga argued that the project of natural theology was unsuccessful. Plantinga later qualified this. He later admitted that he was working with an overly stringent conception of natural theology. That of course left the door open for exploring the prospects for good theistic arguments that were not rationally compelling. And, as Jeremy notes, this is precisely what Plantinga did, while also examining what such arguments might be good for. Secondly, though, the linking of the properly basic belief thesis with the "Reformed objection" to natural theology suggested to many that Plantinga at least saw natural theology as unnecessary and even inadequate as a basis for belief in God. Of course Plantinga *does* argue that theistic belief can be warranted without such arguments, subject perhaps to the kinds of qualifications I've made in my work. So the debate is really about how necessary natural theology is and for what exactly it is/is not necessary. Graham Oppy's paper "Natural Theology" provides a very good overview of the evolution of Plantinga's stance toward natural theology.

    I've argued for many years now that there is no incompatibility between the properly basic belief thesis and natural theology. And this is precisely what I argue in detail in chapter 4 of my book.


  11. Mr. Paul Manata,

    Have you read Dr. Robert Morey's book on Natural Theology? Its entitled:

    The Bible, Natural Theology and Natural Law: Conflict or Compromise?

    I have yet to read it but I have listened to his 8 part lecture on this subject which was excellent. Would be interesting to hear your thoughts.