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Dogmen- und Theologiegeschichte


Sudduth, Michael


The Reformed Objection to Natural Theol­ogy.


Farnham-Burlington: Ashgate 2009. XI, 238 S. gr.8° = Ashgate Philosophy of Religion Series. Lw. £ 50,00. ISBN 978-0-7546-6175-7.


Anthony Feneuil

There is no real Reformed objection to natural theology: Michael Sudduth defends this thesis both on historical and on philoso­phical grounds. Not that Reformed tradition did not formulate any objection against natural theology, but these objections were not directed against natural theology as such, and only against some specific models of natural theology.
In the first part of the book, S. intends to give a historical account of Reformed theology from 16th to 20th century, trying to understand, for each theological period, the role and place of natural theology. He argues that until the end of the 19th century, Reform­ed tradition has endorsed the natural theology project, though in different ways along its development. According to him, the idea of an incompatibility in principle between Reformed tradition and the project of natural theology only emerge in the 20th century. It is a projection of some contemporary thinkers on the history of Reformed theology, which therefore does not correspond to the historical data. Consequently such thinkers as K. Barth represent »a significant departure from Reformed orthodoxy« (46 and 4).
This historical overview is the occasion for S. to introduce two important conceptual pairs. Firstly, natural theology α and β. »Natural theology α« refers to any natural (as opposed to super­-natural) knowledge of God, including a possibly immediate or innate knowledge, whereas »natural theology β« is a natural knowledge that is produced by reflection, argumentation or conscious inference (50). S. is especially concerned with natural theology β, since it is this kind of natural knowledge of God, which seems particularly rejected by the Reformed theological tradition. Secondly, natural theology as a project and different models of natural theol­ogy, i.e. different ways of understanding its function: as a part of dogmatic theology or as a grounding principle for such a dogmatic, among other possible functions.
S. then engages in a refutation of what he thinks to be the three main Reformed objections to natural theology: the immediateness of the knowledge of God, the noetic effects of sin, and the logical deficiencies of theistic arguments. Each time, S. pursues the same strategy: to show that the objection is either philosophically un­-tenable – and, most often, not really Reformed – or, in an attenuate form easier to admit, is only an objection to some models of natural theology, but not to natural theology as such.
The argument of the immediateness of the knowledge of God is rooted in the Calvinist notion of sensus divinitatis, that is of an immediate awareness of the existence and of some of the attributes of God. Such a sensus (natural theology α) would render useless any theology β. In a dialogue with A. Plantinga, S. argues that there is no contradiction between the recognition of a sensus divinitatis and the existence of a natural theology β. One can understand natural theology β as formalizing or strengthening the immediate know­-l­edge of God.
As well, the argument of the noetic effects of sin cannot be considered as a »project objection«. The Barth-Brunner dialogue is brushed aside due to the confusion they would make between propositional and existential or practical knowledge. The main discussion partners are to be found in contemporary epistemology, where propositional knowledge is actually dealt with and where S. seems really at ease. He then shows that the argument of sin cannot discredit natural theology, since it does not have to be a knowledge for any subject. It may only be a knowledge for the re­-generates, i. e. included in a Reformed dogmatic system, and corrected by the Bible.
The objection of the logical deficiency of any theistic argument takes on three aspects: that theistic arguments fail to be logical demonstrations, that they only talk about a »God of the philosophers«, and a third stream of arguments which S. retraces back to Kant and Hume and which entail a kind of skepticism. The first crit­icism is easy to undermine showing that an argument does not need to be logically compelling in order to bring knowledge. The pascalian criticism is, according to S., overcome by the distinction between sense and reference. But the response to what he considers to be a Kantian skepticism is really not convincing (»Neither Hume nor Kant envisioned the success of scientific reasoning from observ­-able states of affairs to unobservable entities and causal processes on the grounds of the explanatory power of the latter.«, 206). This is very harmful to the remaining part of its demonstration, since its refutation of the Hume’s criticism of theistic arguments depends on the possibility for human understanding to speak about God.
So if the book is interesting by its ambition to address philo­-sophically some theological arguments, a continental reader may be frustrated in front of what appears to be a despising of the continental theologians of the 20th century. The question whether a propositional knowledge of God is legitimate is not raised, but only evoked when confronting to Karl Barth. The idea that natural theology should use the Scripture is considered, but without the question of the hermeneutics that would be logically entailed by such a use. One could also question a very arbitrary use of the terms »Reformed« and »tradition«: why K. Barth is so arbitrarily excluded? why Melanchthon is included? and why any reflection on the implications of such a term like »tradition« and its possible tensions with the idea of reformation as such is avoided?