Saturday, August 20, 2022

Alistair McGrath on Natural Theology

 The contemporary theologian Alistair McGrath has written an entry on natural theology for the new resource "St. Andrews Encyclopedia of Theology," which will attempt to do for theology what the Stanford encyclopedia has done for philosophy.

I have written on the topic as well recently (see the first blog entry of the year), so I have a few points of criticism.

One is that McGrath makes no mention of Christian Wolff, who wrote a natural theology that was quite influential on the continent. Indeed, McGrath is focused on the English understanding of natural theology as closely allied with natural philosophy and the physical sciences.

This means that McGrath makes no mention at all of Nicolas Bonetus, the first person to write a Theologia naturalis and assign it a place among the system of sciences inherited from Aristotle. But perhaps, since this the encylopedia is electronic, the author will update it later. 

More of an oddity than anything else, McGrath treats the natural theology of Raymond Sebonde under the heading of 'Renaissance and Reformation', though he notes that it is from the late fiftheenth century, surely part of the medieval era. And again, Sebonde was writing a hundered years after Bonetus.

We come to Duns Scotus. McGrath devotes only a paragraph to Scotus, and, given that the English discussion of natural theology and natural philosophy is predominate, the only doctrine of Scotus that is singled out is the notion of Haecceity.

A further development of importance to natural theology was due to the Franciscan theologian Duns Scotus and his successors. The concept of haeccitas (‘this-ness’) emerged during the fourteenth century as a means of capturing and preserving the distinct identity of any particular aspect of the natural order. Although this concept was important for the philosophy of religion, it was adopted in the nineteenth century by the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who used it as the basis of a heightened attentiveness to the individual aspects of nature (Boggs 1997), which is particularly evident in his 1877 poem ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’.


So no mention of univocity of being, or Scotus' proof for the existence of God, or the nature of metaphysics and theology. the former doctrine, as is well known, is treated under the rubric of natural knowledge of God. 


In the end it makes an interesting contrast with Milbank and his school, for whom Scotus is of cosmic catastrophic significance. For McGrath, it seems Scotus is mainly of interest because of the poetry he inspired.

1 comment:

Matthew Guertin said...

Lol, when you are so British that the most contact you've had with a continent-traveling major thinker of your very commonwealth is through some homegrown Victorian poet.