Natural Theology & Ethics

rembrandt-the-return-of-the-prodigal-son-the-hermitage-st-petersburg-prodig26   The age-old argument goes like this-“Just look around… The glory of god is there for all to see… Nature is speaking… So just pay attention… Reason things out and you can discern what is right and good and true…”  This is the conventional wisdom about nature, right and wrong. The case for natural reason as the source of ethics is gaining support these days from advances in the biological sciences and derivative ideas such as “evolutionary psychology”.  Brain researcher V. S. Ramachandran has predicted that, “mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology.”[1]  The evidence of mirror neurons suggests that certain neurons contribute the property which enables higher primates to say “I feel your pain”, because the mirror neurons are “fired” by observing another person suffer.  This could theoretically provide evidence of an evolutionary link to traits like compassion-and hence, ethical behaviors such as altruism.  This new line of inquiry is called “evolutionary psychology.”   

 Is this what it means to be ethical?  Do ethics reduce to deterministic responses to brain wiring?  These are really just new variants of the same old questions regarding “natural theology” that have been around forever (well, at least since persons had enough brain wiring to ask them).  But do we really discover the source of morality in nature? 

The most commonly cited Bible passage with respect to this question is Paul’s meditation in the opening section of Romans-

 …since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.  For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities-his eternal power and divine nature-have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. [Rom. 1:19-20 (NIV)]

 Some interpreters take this as support for “natural theology”, because it might suggest that natural reason is capable of acquiring knowledge of God.  And a few paragraphs later, we find this-

 (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.) [Rom. 2:14-15 (NIV)]

 This can also be used to argue for “natural theology”, because the “Gentiles” are not the God-knowers (those are the Jews), yet they still have the law written on their hearts.

 What are we to make of this?  Is Paul the first Natural Theologian?  No, I don’t think so.  First of all, Paul is saying that nature shines by God’s eternal power and his glorious being.  These things are even self-evident, and plain to anyone who looks for them.  Thus there’s no denying that nature gives evidence of this divine power.  But this is not the same thing as knowing God.  Obviously so, or else there would be no point to Paul’s entire argument. These words immediately precede this passage and thus set the context:

 I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”  The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness  [Rom. 1:16-18]

 Paul states it plainly-God is known by faith, and he is revealed by the Gospel, and this applies to both Jews and Gentiles.  Knowing God is obviously not the same thing as observing his power at work in nature.  As further evidence of the difference between natural theology and faith, Paul explains that one of the natural consequences of not glorifying God  is the following:

 their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. [Rom. 1:21b-23]

This is the peril of natural theology-it leads not to God, but to any and every possible conception of God that human beings have ever been able to conceive.  It leads not then to the God who is known through his self-revelation in Jesus, but rather to the many and various gods who may be argued as reasonable theories based on the human powers of observation, applied to nature.

 Eberhard Jüngel writes insightfully on the effort of natural theology to discern God.  He considers the possibility of knowing God without benefit of the revelation of the Gospel, and comes to this conclusion that while it might be possible to know a lot about God’s creation from natural theology, it is not possible to know God, or what it means to be in relationship with God, through natural theology.  What happens in the attempt to know these things through natural theology, is that

 every such statement thereby changes from a statement of the gospel to a statement of the law, from an unequivocally beneficial statement to one which is ambivalent.[2]

 In other words, whatever knowledge is derived from natural theology fails to convey the significance of the gospel, and thus becomes inevitably a law unto itself.  This would seem to be the same conclusion Paul came to.  We may by nature do the things the law requires, but will amount to nothing more than to make up a law for ourselves.  There’s no grace in it if we do not know and glorify God [cf. Rom. 2:14-15].

 This is the ultimate problem with all natural theology, whether based on mirror neurons or any other naturalistic theory.  Mirror neurons may reflect the glory of the God, and shine by the power of the Gospel, but they are incapable of reflecting the imago Dei as revealed in Christ.


[1] Malcolm Jeeves quotes Ramachandran as an example of the “current excitement [over] the discovery of so-called mirror neurons, since they form a natural link between neuroscience and an aspect of evolutionary biology-namely, evolutionary psychology.” Jeeves, “Mind Reading and Soul Searching in the Twenty-first Century”, in What About the Soul? Neuroscience and Christian Anthropology, ed. by Joel Green (Abingdon, 2004), p. 24.

[2] Eberhard Jüngel, “Extra Christum Nulla Salus-a principle of natural theology?”, in Jüngel, Theological Essays, translated by J. B. Webster, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989), p. 186.


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