The Oxford Handbook of Natural Theology

By Brewer, Christopher R. | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, June 2013 | Go to article overview

The Oxford Handbook of Natural Theology


Brewer, Christopher R., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


The Oxford Handbook of Natural Theology. Edited by Russell Re Manning. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, xiv + 632 pp. $150.00 cloth.

In this timely volume, Russell Re Manning, Lord Gifford Fellow in the School of Divinity, History, and Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen, serves up an impressive array of articles on the topic of natural theology. And what is natural theology? Re Manning responds: "There is no easy answer to this question; indeed it is one of the primary aims of this Handbook to highlight the rich diversity of approaches to, and definitions of, natural theology. The lack of a fixed consensus on the definition of natural theology is due, in part, to its inherently interdisciplinary character and the inevitable limitations of definitions that belong firmly within particular disciplines" (p. 1). Each contributor, then, gives their own definition of natural theology, "reflect[ing] the plurality of contexts within which the study of natural theology must be situated" (p. 1). Carving out space for conversation, Re Manning notes: "To assert the contemporary vitality of natural theology is to cut against a widely accepted and deeply ingrained standard narrative of the rise and fall of natural theology, a simplified story of the historical and intellectual trajectory of natural theology that still dominates most assessments of the topic. As the chapters in this Handbook collectively demonstrate, however, "this standard story is a myth, and one that deserves nothing so much as a decent burial" (p. 2). Re Manning goes on to outline "this myth ... point by point" (pp. 3-4). That said, the Handbook's thirty-eight articles are grouped into five, post-Introduction parts: (1) Historical Perspectives on Natural Theology; (2) Theological Perspectives on Natural Theology; (3) Philosophical Perspectives on Natural Theology; (4) Scientific Perspectives on Natural Theology; and (5) Perspectives on Natural Theology from the Arts.

In Part 1, Stephen R. L. Clark begins with the classical origins of natural theology. Here, theoria is significant, and this despite the fact that "neither Aristotle nor his successors are clear about what theoria involves," though it "does at least include a delight in beauty" (p. 15). Christopher Rowland opens his essay on natural theology by noting that he is "deliberately playing with several approaches to the meaning of nature and natural" (p. 23). Acknowledging that "Biblical writings rarely offer an argument for God's existence based on appeal to the natural world" (p. 28), Rowland deftly shifts the conversation to "the human in the midst of the natural world" (p. 28) "as the peculiar vehicle of the divine" (p. 31). He concludes with Revelation and William Blake, for whom "the natural [was] a signifier for the theological" (p. 36). Wayne Hankey covers the patristic period read through the eyes of Henri de Lubac and the nouvelle theologians with their conflation of natural and supernatural. This chapter is largely concerned with philosophical harmonization and the relationship of philosophy to theology. Alexander W. Hall describes the medieval period as one in which "philosophy is ancillary to theology" (p. 57) and where "Scripture sets the agenda for and fixes the parameters of natural theology" (p. 58). Scott Mandelbrote argues that natural theology in the early modern period "was a contested arena" reflecting "differences in how one should read the evidence of nature, and what weight one should give to the Bible and to reason" (p. 86). Special attention is given to the changing role of natural theology in the context of the universities of Western Europe in the late seventeenth century. Matthew D. Eddy's contribution considering the nineteenth century focuses on the argument from design, an argument synonymous with natural theology during this period. That said, Eddy also considers Immanuel Kant and the moral argument, as well as John Stuart Mill's response and the impact of the First World War, "one of the biggest blows to Victorian natural theology" (p. …

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