Book Review: The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology by Michael Sudduth
Michael Sudduth, The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology, Ashgate Philosophy of Religion Series (Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2009). 238 pp. $99.95.
Is there a place for theistic arguments and evidences in the Reformed theological and apologetical enterprise? Michael Sudduth, in The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology, answers in the affirmative in an irenic, clear, and cogent work devoted to dispelling myths, clarifying positions and salvaging the project of natural theology, which he considers to be a helpful component in Reformed theological and apologetic endeavors.
The book is broken up into four parts. In part one (chapters 1-2), Sudduth treats natural theology in the Reformed tradition. Though by no means monolithic on the function of natural theology, Sudduth argues that there has been a historically continuous commitment in the Reformed tradition to both the natural knowledge of God and the project of developing theistic arguments.
In chapter 2, Sudduth distinguishes two different types of natural theology. The first is natural theology A (nta) which he defines as natural knowledge of God (or “intuitive”). Nta may be culled from the created order without labored inference, reasoning, or formal argumentation. The second is natural theology B (ntb) which he defines as rational proofs or arguments for the existence and nature of god (i.e., “theistic arguments"). Sudduth explains three common objections to ntb and concludes that none of them constitute an insurmountable objection to the project of ntb.
In part two (chapters 3-5), Sudduth takes up the specific objections to natural theology that focus on the alleged innate or immediate character of the natural knowledge of God and again shows that none of them constitute a prohect objection to ntb since knowledge of God is both immediate and inferential.
In part three (chapters 6-8), Sudduth takes up the objections to natural theology that focus on sin and its ramifications for any construction of natural theology. In chapters 6-7 he examines objections to ntb based on Reformed anthropology, specifically the alleged noetic effects of sin on the reasoning process. Utilizing insights from contemporary epistemology, Sudduth finds such arguments wanting since, among other reasons, there could be no propositional, natural knowledge of God for fallen, unregenerate persons.
Then in chapter 8--as a further response to such arguments--Sudduth explores the nature and plausibility of Christian natural theology which he considers to be the dogmatic model of ntb.
In part four (chapters 9-11), Sudduth deals with the logic of natural theology by evaluating objections to ntb from their alleged deficiencies as pieces of logical argumentation, that is, the failure of the arguments to prove, demonstrate, or rationally support their conclusions about the existence and nature of God.
Michael Sudduth has rendered a great service to the Reformed world in moving the discussion forward on the efficacy and place of natural theology. Whether or not one agrees with Sudduth’s conclusions, it is obvious that he has sought to stimulate discussion with serious questions that bring historical, philosophical, and theological reflections to the table. Specifically, I see benefit in what Sudduth has done in the following areas:
First, Sudduth has shown that contemporary philosophical considerations, specifically epistemology, can shed light on natural theology’s relation to revealed theology. A glance toward sub-disciplines of philosophy can be helpful when seeking greater clarity in philosophical-theological doctrines. Though Scripture’s sufficiency permeates most theological categories bringing substantial clarity, one must rely on reason to tease out the details to which Scripture does not speak. In such areas, philosophy may be a maidservant to theology (e.g., the divine timelessness of God).
Secondly, Sudduth’s clarity in conceptual distinctions is very helpful and leaves fewer excuses for people talking past each other in apologetic discussions. So often the project of natural theology is written off as invalid because either a particular theistic argument is bad, or it is assumed that it is the foundation for revealed theology or that the intent or function of such an argument is to convert the unregenerate. Such misconceptions may be clarified by considering natural theology in one of three model-specific categories: pre-dogmatic, apologetic, or dogmatic. Each model has different intentions behind its use of natural theology.
I have two modest and guarded criticisms of Sudduth’s work. First, it would have been helpful had Sudduth done some substantial exegesis of the relevant texts foundational to the whole discussion (e.g., Ps. 19, Rom. 1:19-20; Acts 14, 17). I understand that his discipline is not biblical studies, but it is quite possible that tracing the context of such passages, both immediate and canonical, would have clarified some issues directly. At the same time, it was not within Sudduth’s particular scope to do so.
Secondly, some committed Van Tilians will take issue with Sudduth’s treatment of the noetic effects of sin. Sudduth sees the noetic effects of sin as metaphysically affecting the scope of knowledge in unregenerate man. That is to say, Sudduth wants to see unregenerate knowledge as being impaired. What he may truly know about God is less reliable because of sin, but it is not unreliable. Van Tilians will object that the scope of knowledge is not the main issue when considering the noetic effects of sin. Rather the main issue is the ethical hostility that the unregenerate mind has towards God, such that he/she actively suppresses the truth that he/she does have. Van Tilians will argue that the fundamental, moral, absolute antithesis is missing in Sudduth’s analysis. But even if Van Tilians are right on this score (I’ll leave it for the readers to decide), such an understanding of the noetic effects of sin would still only constitute a model objection to ntb and not a project objection. Having said this, Sudduth must be commended for even dealing with the noetic effects of sin since many, if not most, epistemological analysis of natural theology does not address the bearing it has on the Reformed doctrine of sin.
Joshua B. Henson