Why were the Puritans so interested in natural theology? What motivated them. Marshall answers: “Puritans did not simply embrace these rational arguments on a theological level but employed them in a surprising variety of pastoral, evangelical, and polemical contexts.”
One of the privileges of working at a place like Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary is getting to know the Puritans and Reformers better and better. They constantly surprise me and frequently demolish the caricatures that have grown up about them over the years. Last week, I experienced perhaps my biggest surprise yet when reading Wallace Marshall’s book on Puritanism and Natural Theology, and especially what I learned about their use of extra-Biblical sources of knowledge in pastoral counseling.
Until Marshall’s research into this subject, the general scholarly consensus was that the Puritans weren’t interested in natural theology, evidentialism, science, and reason. No, they were “sufficiency of Scripture” men, men of The Book, and so on.
Marshall highlights a number of reputable scholars, including Richard Muller, who have advanced this anti-natural theology, anti-evidences, anti-reason, anti-science narrative about the Puritans. He quotes Mark Noll’s assertion that “Puritans expected divine revelation to provide the starting point for all forms of thought.”
But, after an exhaustive study of the primary sources, including over seventy Puritans, Marshall concludes that this view is “entirely mistaken.” He asserts:
“The overwhelming majority of Puritan theologians were firm believers in the legitimacy of natural theology and evidentialism. Even the small minority of dissenters did not categorically reject natural theology but merely expressed reservations about its usefulness.”
Definitions, Categories, and Sources
So, what is natural theology and evidentialism? Wallace defines natural theology as “all religious knowledge that is accessible through the use of reason, independently of supernatural revelation.” The four main categories of natural theology were the existence and attributes of God, divine providence, immortality, and natural law (especially the two great commandments). The four sources of this natural theology were the innate knowledge of God, conclusions derived from reason, contemplation of human existence, and consideration of the works of nature. The related discipline of evidentialism, is “the attempt to prove the divine origin of the Bible through rational arguments.”
“Puritans were persuaded that the existence and attributes of God, the creation of the world, the immortality of the soul, as well as the divine origin of the Scriptures, could be proved by rational arguments made without any a priori appeal to special revelation…The Puritans forged a firm consensus on the subjects of natural theology and evidentialism.”
So, why were the Puritans so interested in natural theology? What motivated them. Marshall answers: “Puritans did not simply embrace these rational arguments on a theological level but employed them in a surprising variety of pastoral, evangelical, and polemical contexts.”
It was the pastoral counseling angle that surprised me most. I can understand natural religion and evidences being used evangelistically and apologetically, but pastorally? How so?
Perhaps the most common spiritual problem that the Puritans addressed in their writings was the existence of religious doubt among believers, or “practical atheism” as they often described it. They saw this in every Christian and found it frequently in themselves as well. So, how did they counsel such unbelieving believers? Here’s Marshall’s answer:
“For many Puritans, devotional exercises such as prayer and the reading of Scripture were only one half of the solution to this practical atheism. The other half was rational argumentation for the truths in question…By strengthening this foundational conviction, natural theology could prove a tremendous aid to holiness.”
And just in case we suspect that this paragraph slipped into the book by mistake, Marshall sums up his analysis of the Puritans again:
“Could natural theology be of any help in overcoming practical atheism, and could the rational evidences for Christianity be of parallel assistance in resolving a Christian’s doubts about its legitimacy? With a few exceptions, Puritans answered with a resounding affirmative.”
Powerful and Useful
Marshall provides numerous examples of the way the Puritans appealed to and used natural revelation for pastoral purposes. Some, like John Preston, Matthew Henry, and Increase Mather even went so far as to say that natural revelation was necessary, a vital foundation for revealed religion.
Baxter “believed not only that natural theology was a useful preparative to special revelation, but that failing to inculcate it in one’s parishioners was positively detrimental to faith in the Bible.” Their varied and frequent use of it “clearly shows that they believed them to be not only powerful but extremely useful.” It should also help us contextualize our reading of the Westminster Confession of Faith, which Marshall calls “that quintessential Puritan document.”
Tomorrow I’ll highlight how this commitment to natural theology expressed itself in the Puritans’ unusual interest in and appreciation for science.
David Murray is Professor of Old Testament & Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. This article first appeared on his blog, Head Heart Hand, and is used with permission.