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On Ramified Natural Theology

Winter 2013 Issue of Philosophia Christi

Guest Editors: Angus Menuge and Charles Taliaferro

Assistant Editors: Lydia and Timothy McGrew

Background: The Project of Ramified Natural Theology

As usually conceived, natural theology aims to justify belief in the existence of God without relying on the authority of divine revelation. However, even if successful, such a "bare" or "generic" approach fails to discriminate among competing theistic religions. Recently, however, scholars have argued that it is possible to develop natural theological arguments to count decisively in favor of the Christian portrayal of God. This is really a revival and extension of the approach taken by some of the church fathers and Pascal, who emphasized the way the evidence for miracles and fulfilled prophecy favor Christianity over rival religions. Richard Swinburne has dubbed this approach ramified natural theology, and in his The Resurrection of God Incarnate(Oxford, 2003) and other works, he has developed a powerful argument for the truth of Christianity by combining the general background evidence for God's existence with the prior likelihood of the incarnation and the posterior unlikelihood of our having the evidence we do for the life, death and resurrection of Christ unless those events were the result of God's plan of salvation. For a potent summary of Swinburne's case, see his new article, "The Probability of the Resurrection of Jesus." This article appears in the Winter 2013 issueof Philosophia Christi, and provides the central focus for that issue's broader discussion of the merits and potential of ramified natural theology.

Swinburne's approach is by no means uncontroversial. Some oppose the very idea of natural theology, preferring a presuppositionalist approach. On the other hand, some evidentialists hold that the existence of God can be argued directly from the case for the resurrection without building a prior case for theism. Between these poles there is a spectrum of intermediate positions, some closer to Swinburne's preferred methodology than others. There are also alternatives to Swinburne's Bayesian formulation that may be worth exploring.

One topic deserving critical discussion is the merit of Swinburne's approach as compared to alternative methodologies. It would also be interesting to consider what impact an expanded notion of natural theology has on the standard distinctions between revealed and natural theology and between natural theology and natural science. Will some of the hard and fast distinctions of the past break down? Should they? An interesting implication of ramified natural theology is that scripture can be used as a source of public evidence without presuming inspiration, so that it functions in a quite different way than it does in systematic theology and dogmatics. However, assuming that some version of ramified natural theology has promise, at least as important as these methodological concerns is a consideration of its scope and proper content: what kinds of evidence can and should be folded into an extended natural theology to make the strongest possible case for the truth of Christianity?

Topics in Ramified Natural Theology

To flesh out the possibilities here, consider the following (certainly incomplete) list of topics which might figure in ramified natural theology.
  1. Christian Religious Experience. This is not the standard argument for God based on religious experience but rather the case for Christianity based in part on the particular character of some religious experience. Such experience includes not only personal visions (cf. Phillip Weibe's Visions of Jesus [Oxford, 1997]), but also church witness (cf. Stanley Hauerwas' Gifford Addresses inWith the Grain of the Universe [Brazos Press, 2001]).
  2. The Moral Argument for Christianity. The moral argument for God is an important and thriving area of Christian philosophy, but the focus here would be moral arguments, like those of Pascal, which favor a distinctively Christian anthropology and account of God's saving work.
  3. Fulfilled Bible Prophecy. While not all Bible prophecies meet the stringent demands of public natural theology, it is arguable that some do, and these are enough to mount an important case for the veracity of Christianity. Important work in this area has been done by Hugh Gauch, John Bloom, and Robert Newman (Philosophia Christi 4 (2002):45-88).
  4. The Problem of Evil. Traditional approaches concern the compatibility of a good God with moral and natural evil. However, Eleonore Stump's approach (in Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering [Oxford, 2010]), treats the narratives about evil in scripture as candidates for an adequate account of evil. And some argue that only an explicitly Christocentric approach is adequate to address the most difficult issues, such as "gratuitous" and "radical" evil.
  5. Natural Theology's Case for Christ's Resurrection. This is arguably the supreme topic of ramified natural theology, developed by Swinburne and, in a somewhat different way, by Timothy and Lydia McGrew, in the last chapter of the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (Blackwell, 2009). Swinburne's approach makes the evidence for generic theism crucially relevant to the case for the resurrection whereas it is only indirectly relevant in the argument made by the McGrews. A paper by Hugh Gauch commenting on the differing methodologies of Swinburne and the McGrews appears in the Winter 2011 issue of Philosophia Christi.

The last topic raises again the whole issue of how we assess promising methodologies for ramified natural theology. Is there one best method, or several approaches which may have value, perhaps depending on the target audience or other worldviews actively in competition with Christianity? Are some methods fatally flawed because they rely on a mistaken anthropology or on inscrutable or inaccessible probabilities? Can defenders of ramified natural theology provide convincing replies to their critics? Are there viable compromise positions that should be explored?

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