Saturday, February 26, 2011

Does the Mars Hill address endorse natural theology?

In Acts 17 there is a famous speech of Paul in Athens where he identifies with the local residents, beginning with their "unknown God" and moves towards proclaiming the Risen Christ. I was recently asked whether this passage provides support for natural theology, particularly because it starts with a "point of contact" with the non-believers. How does this relate to my previous post, promoting Karl Barth's perspective, that one should move from faith in Christ to faith in the Creator, rather than the reverse.

I looked to see what Barth's perspective is on Paul's speech and found the following discussion. I include some of the preceding material because it helps put Barth's position in context. I am not sure I completely follow his argument, but it does seem to emphasize that one cannot separate natural theology from Christology. Furthermore, much is hidden unless the self-revealing God discloses himself.
We cannot conclude this whole discussion, however, without some indication at least of what kind of faith it is that, as faith in Jesus Christ, contains within itself the knowledge of the secret of creation, the Creator and the creature... is the presupposition on which Jesus Christ becomes the known quantity in face of which the reality and relationship of Creator and creature cannot remain hidden from us.....
Faith in Jesus Christ is a life in the presence of the Creator. No matter who or whatever else is there for the believer in Him, there can be no doubt that Jesus Christ is there for him as the Creator: an absolute new beginning brought about by God; an absolute new beginning of his existence; an absolute new beginning of all things; an authority which is posited basically and decisively before all others; a power which has not only illumined and altered and improved his whole reality but completely transformed it....  
...according to Mt. 1125, Jesus addresses God as "Father, Lord of heaven and earth," and praises Him as such, "because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent and hast revealed them unto babes. Even so Father: for so it seemed good in thy sight." It is the act of the good-pleasure of the Lord and therefore the Creator of heaven and earth that there is this concealment on the one side and disclosure on the other. 
And reference to the need for a point of contact in natural theology is not enough to explain why, in his speech on Mars' hill, Paul described the God whom the Athenians worshipped but did not know as supremely the One who created the world and all that is therein, and then went on to say that this "the Lord of heaven and earth dwelleth not in temples made with hands; neither is worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed anything, seeing he giveth to all life and breath and all things." An address which is to close ( v. 31) with the proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead must obviously begin with the creation, and there is no natural theology either in the one case or the other. In the New Testament to meet the Messiah Jesus is always implicitly or explicitly to meet the secret of God the Creator, and faith in Him always means acceptance of the secret of His presence. If we are not prepared to take account of this relationship it is difficult or impossible to realise either the fact or extent that faith in Him really contains within itself the knowledge of creation.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.1: The Doctrine of Creation, pp. 31-34 

So my position would be something like the following. The non-believer observing the world around us should be in awe of its beauty and intricacy. This should lead to a questioning and searching for answers as to the meaning and purpose of it all. This might lead to an investigation to the person of Jesus Christ. But, such an investigation is not logically compelled by observations about the natural world. But, faith in Christ as a Saviour can then lead to an understanding of the natural world as a Creation with a purpose and meaning.

Such an approach is nicely taken in Alister McGrath's little book, Glimpsing the Face of God: The Search for Meaning in the Universe.

Light Echoes From Red Supergiant Star V838 Monocerotis – Hubble Space Telescope - October 2002


  1. If you're interested in chasing further down this trail, you could also add James Barr's Gifford Lectures to the list of reading. He interacted extensively with Barth, and ch. 2 is devoted to "Paul on the Areopagus".

    You probably know it already! But there's the reference, just in case...

  2. Hi David
    Thanks for that helpful reference. I did not know that it deals directly with this question and so will read it.