Natural Theology vs. Ancient Idolatry

Natural Theology vs. Ancient Idolatry May 20, 2024

Natural theology can mean two things. It can mean the affirmation that God (Yahweh) is known by his works. This is called general revelation. Natural theology is the study of general revelation. We can know from general revelation that God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in being, wisdom, power, holiness, goodness, justice, and truth. We can know that God alone has existed from eternity and is the Creator of the heavens and the earth.  We can know that our highest good is to know God as he has revealed himself to us through his works. God is clearly revealed by His works so that unbelief is without excuse.  Romans 1:19-20 puts it this way:

19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse;

But we can also know that we have sinned by rejecting the knowledge of God. Like Adam and Eve, we have attempted to be God by ourselves. We cannot blur the distinction between God and the creation. It is our sin that has alienated us from God, who is our highest good. We can know from general revelation that God is acting redemptively in the world first by imposing natural evil as a call back from sin toward the good. And so we expect that God, being good, will give us redemptive revelation to explain the means of redemption and reconciliation to Him.

Paul explains God giving us over to evil this way:

for though they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools; 23 and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.

24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen.

26 For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. 29 They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters,insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.

This is the correct view of Natural Theology. It tells us important truths about God as well as our own sin and our need to reject our sin and return to God.

The Wrong View of Natural Theology

However, natural theology can also refer to a specific philosopher’s claims about natural theology. Much of what is published today as natural theology is this second one. It takes for granted that Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus correctly studied general revelation and gave us a body of natural theology. 

I am writing to upend this view. We should reject this view as it harms the name of natural theology. It is a failure to understand clear general revelation. Because clear general revelation has not been understood, the idols of Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus are accepted as “close enough.” Such a view participates in their unbelief, and by promoting it as natural theology harms the name of natural theology. There has been a lot of deference by Christians over the generations to these pagan thinkers. Fortunately for me, I found a Jewish philosopher who helped me to recognize this error. 

Maimonides on Natural Theology And Pagan Idolatry

I recently came across an unexpected help in this fight.  Perhaps you have heard the view that Plato et al. got so close to the truth about God that they must have studied Moses. The 2nd-century Philosopher, Numenius, probably best captured this idea when he wrote “What is Plato, but Moses speaking in Attic [Greek]?”. Others have mimicked it since. Yet anyone who thinks this cannot understand what Moses meant by “God,” even Numenius. 

Yahweh is without beginning. The creation had a beginning. Yahweh acts providentially in the world to bring about redemption.  The God of Plato is the demiurge, which merely shapes matter to imitate the forms. Aristotle’s “unmoved mover” is unaware of humans and is involved in self-contemplation. Both Plato and Aristotle taught that the world is eternal (without beginning).  Plotinus was a monist who taught that “all is one, all is God.” The eternality of the universe and the claim that all is one are not close to belief, which is Yahweh. They are the rejection of Yahweh. They are the ancient systems of unbelief that have set themes up against the knowledge of God.

My unexpected help came from Maimonides. In his Treatise on the Resurrection, he refutes the notion that the ancients derived their wisdom from Moses. It is quite the opposite. At that time, he asserts, the nations of the world were immersed in idolatry and denied creation ex nihilo, teaching the eternity of the world. I was surprised by this because Maimonides, like Al Ghazali and Aquinas, taught that we cannot show by reason that the universe had a beginning but must rely on special revelation. That amounts to saying that the work of God in creation does not reveal God the Creator. It is to say that Plato et al. couldn’t have known better because they did not have special revelation. This is a different but related problem to the one we are now thinking about.

Based on what Maimonides said about the ancient idolaters who deny that God is the creator, we can further argue that Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus are three thinkers who attempted to articulate this ancient idolatry. Far from understanding general revelation, they strive to replace what is clearly revealed about God with their own futile imaginations. Similarly, the early Christian philosopher, Johannes Philoponus, penned “Against Aristotle and Eternality of the World.” Perhaps those living closer to this kind of idolatry were more capable of discerning how it deviates from the clarity of God’s existence.

A Failure to Perceive Natural Revelation?

So, why do contemporary natural theologians present the second type of natural theology that erroneously elevates Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus? The only plausible explanation is that they fail to perceive how general revelation clearly demonstrates that God (Yahweh) alone is eternal and the universe had a beginning. If a person does not understand clear general revelation, they cannot hold another person, such as Plato, accountable for not understanding it. The solution is to delve into the clarity of general revelation. God, Yahweh, is unveiled in His act of creation. God is not co-eternal with the universe; He is the Creator of the universe. Learn to understand this for yourself and be able to present a sound argument to anyone who asks for one.  

Look to the Apostle Paul, who reasoned this way in Acts 17 while speaking to the Greek philosophers. The Stoics teach an eternal cycle, and the Epicureans teach materialism (atoms and the void). Both teach the eternality of the world.  Can you show what is clear about God and refute these systems?

The Glory of God Evident From His Creation
About Owen Anderson
Owen Anderson is a professor of philosophy and religious studies at Arizona State University and has taught philosophical theology at Phoenix Seminary. He has published books on natural theology with Cambridge University Press. He is the pastor of the Historic Christian Church of Phoenix and a certified Gracie Jiu-Jitsu instructor. All his views are his own. Find out more about Owen Anderson on: Amazon Follow Dr. Anderson on Twitter. You can read more about the author here.
"John,I draw mainly from Pagan scholars in my books, to include Michael York, Sabine Magliocco, ..."

My New eBook: “The Return of ..."
"Thanks Roger, you've been my most faithful reader over the last several years!I appreciate that.Regards,Anthony"

My New eBook: “The Return of ..."
"Very interesting! Can't wait to read it."

My New eBook: “The Return of ..."
"Unlike so many who rant against "Paganism" when what they really mean is "secularism" or ..."

My New eBook: “The Return of ..."

Browse Our Archives