Natural Theology and the Resurrection: Part 1

Dear Readers, I bring to you another excellent 2-part series from my guest contributor, Ken Mann. 

Enjoy!

MCT

Natural Theology and the Resurrection: Part 1

           The resurgence of Christian apologetics over the past 50 years has been a wonderful development for the Church. The growing presence of orthodox Christians in fields such as philosophy, biology, and physics has essentially resurrected the intellectual roots of the Church. At its core Christianity is a worldview, a view of reality that can withstand any challenge from any quarter of human knowledge. The response to such challenges does not always come from Scripture. In fact, many fields of human knowledge present arguments for the truth of the Christian worldview. Such arguments are usually referred to as natural theology, which simply refers to finding evidence for God in what is revealed in nature. A rubric for grounding this enterprise is the “two books” approach to God’s revelation. As the single author of creation and scripture, God cannot contradict himself.

The power of arguments from natural theology is in their capacity to draw upon the knowledge we glean from nature. Many times the very knowledge we rely on to survive and thrive in a modern, technology-driven society, can lead us to profound clues about the existence and nature of God. Structured in this way, these arguments are not burdened with the misunderstandings and cultural baggage that a secular society attaches to religious doctrine. In effect, these arguments take the knowledge secular society accepts and exposes implications that support a theistic worldview. This conclusion is a long way from the “foot of the cross,” but such an expectation misses the point. Whether building confidence in God’s existence or undermining confidence in metaphysical naturalism, natural theology can move one closer to God. If nothing else, as Austin Farrer reminds us, we must contend for the rationality of our belief:

It is commonly said that if rational argument is so seldom the cause of conviction, philosophical apologists must largely be wasting their shot. The premise is true, but the conclusion does not follow. For though argument does not create conviction, the lack of it destroys belief. What seems to be proved may not be embraced; but what no one shows the ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish.[1]

In these posts I argue that the form of arguments drawn from natural theology can and should be expanded into areas of Christian doctrine that are typically left to purely hermeneutic defenses. The real foundation for natural theology is not merely the sciences, but what human beings can learn about reality apart from special revelation (Scripture, the Church, or direct revelation to individuals). This view has been informed by Michael Licona’s book, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. The Bible and other ancient texts are the raw data that are interpreted by historians to determine what happened in the past, and when possible, why those things happened. Licona draws upon the development of historiography, the philosophy of history, and the study of ancient manuscripts to create a robust defense of the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus.

I will examine natural theology arguments from cosmology and show how core tenets, practices and difficulties from these fields are also demonstrated in Licona’s approach to defending the Resurrection. For each, we will consider the goal of the argument, what each argument can actually accomplish, and the data and intellectual tools used. This comparison will demonstrate that the truth of Christianity has nothing to fear when the data, tools and worldviews involved are all clearly understood.

Let us begin with an overview of cosmological arguments.[2] Cosmology is the study of the origin and development of the universe. The definition of the term concedes part of what cosmological arguments seek to demonstrate: that the universe (all matter, space, and even time) had a beginning. A second goal is to demonstrate that whatever caused the universe was something that transcends matter, space and time. While the goal of such arguments may seem modest compared to the scope Christian theism, it is still significant. They establish that the material universe is not an eternal, self-existent entity. Further, they demonstrate that the universe could not “create itself.” Assuming their conclusions are accepted, what do cosmological arguments establish? They argue for the existence of a being that has many of the characteristics of God found in the Judeo-Christian traditions of the Old and New Testaments. They establish that the existence of a being like the Christian God is more plausible than a purely materialistic universe.

Cosmological arguments are played out in the realms of physics and philosophy. At least those are the two disciplines that should be involved. For millennia, the dominant view found in science, philosophy and most religious traditions, was that the universe was eternal. The lone exception to this view was the creation narrative found in Genesis that argued that God did not organize or manipulate existing matter, but that God created everything.

In 1964, empirical evidence of the universe having a beginning in the finite past was discovered in the form of the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR). This was only one in a long series of empirical discoveries supporting a beginning to the universe based on a cosmic singularity[3]. The establishment of Big Bang cosmology has cemented in the scientific realm that the universe had a beginning. The debate since then been a sometimes-convoluted wrestling match between philosophy and very obscure disciplines within physics (e.g. quantum mechanics and string theory).

In Part 2, we will turn our attention to Licona’s defense of the resurrection and the connection his approach has to natural theology.

 

[1] “Austin Farrer Quotes,” http://www.sourcedquotes.com/Austin-Farrer-Quotes, (accessed April 22, 2014).

[2] For the sake of space and avoiding excessive technical depth, we will not go into details of any given argument. There are of course different specific arguments within this category. The goal here is to provide an overview that allows the reader to connect this argument with what Licona has done regarding the resurrection.

[3] What has come to be known as the “Big Bang Theory” was originally proposed by Georges Lemaître in 1927 as a consequence of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity (1915). The discovery of the CMBR eliminated any models of an eternal universe from serious consideration.