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Johann Heinrich Alsted: Natural Theology in the Reformed Tradition

The works of Johann Heinrich Alsted (1588-1638) have recently been the subject of research into the nature of theology and philosophy in the Early Modern period, specifically regarding the reception of Ramist and Lullist logic (cf. Howard Hotson’s work for example). Descartes read Alsted’s Encyclopaedia and, though he thought it was a rather curious work, commended the abilities of its author who had attempted to catalogue every aspect of the known universe within seven volumes(!). It seems fitting, as Walter Ong relates, that the popoular term sedulitas (“hard work”) was given to Alsted for his encyclopaedic work based on an anagram of his name Alstedius (Ong, Ramus, 299).

Alsted was also known for publishing one of the first systematic works of natural theology, his aptly titled Theologia naturalis (1615). I hope to dedicate a few posts to translations of this work because natural theology has been the subject of much debate and confusion amongst theologians and historians.The very conception of a natural theology distinguished from revealed theology has been repudiated by many modern theologians as a rationalistic enterprise that inherently bases the truths of revelation on the foundation of human reason.This may have been the case for those 17th and 18th century theologians influenced by either Descartes or Wolff. I think that Richard Muller definitively shows, however, that this is not the case with Alsted. Muller explains:

Alsted assumes, with Aquinas, that “grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it” and that “grace is not contrary to nature.” Nor does he develop an isolated, purely philosophical natural theology: “the foundation (fundamentum) of natural theology is threefold, reason, universal experience, and Holy Scripture” (Theol. nat. I.i). The model is significantly in continuity with the Reformation era perception that the knowledge of God is not merely two-fold, as Creater and Redeemer, but threefold: God the Creater known from nature, God the Creator known through the glass of the scriptural examination of the natural order, and God the Redeemer known only through Scripture. Indeed, despite Alsted’s seemingly more optimistic view of the task of philosophy and logic, his assumption that natural theology rests on both rational examination of nature and the biblical presentation of the created order stands in a certain degree of continuity with Calvin’s sense that the natural knowledge of God is corrected and completed in the biblical Word (Muller, PRRD I:303).

Alsted’s natural theology, in other words, is “nonsoteriological in character” and is an “essay in apologetics designed to refute the ‘Atheists, Epicureans, and Sophists of the present day'” in their own terms (Muller, ibid.). The following are my notes on the “preface” of Alsted’s Theologia naturalis with a translation of his explanation of his method. I will devote further posts to translating pertinent sections of this work in order to understand Alsted’s rationale for natural theology and how this might contribute to current debates on the relationship between faith and reason in Reformed theology as well as contemporary historiography on Early Modern philosophy and theology.

Alsted, in the preface to Theologia naturalis, sums up the rationale for natural theology in four heads:

I. Natural theology is commended in Scripture, specifically Psalm 19 which obliges believers to seek God using the two modes of knowing (duplicem viam cognoscendi), that is in the “book” of nature and in the book of the Scriptures.

II. Natural theology commends the dignity of sacred scripture and does not repudiate it. When we understand that non-believers across the whole Earth have a knowledge of God we are stirred up to praise God and to seek him especially in the books of Scripture.

III. Natural theology is prior to supernatural theology. As the Apostle’s Creed begins with the general knowledge of God the creator and proceeds to higher articles, so the investigation of natural theology, containing the stoichea (elementary principles) of cognition, gives one a fuller understanding (pleniorem intelligentiam) of sacra scriptura. There are many things in the books of Moses, Job, the Psalms etc. that are unclear and may be explained by means of the book of nature. Because God himself (in passages such as Psalm 19) proposes the fullness of the created world as a guide to further understanding, so the foundation of natural theology should lie, not in reason alone, but in sacra scriptura. This does not mean for Alsted that natural theology pertains only to Christians. He argues, rather, that it is by natural theology that we are able to dispute with non-believers and profane individuals. Faith and the Scriptures are the foundation of natural theology, but natural theology, because it makes use of philosophical principles that are common to believer and non-believer alike, is persuasive to both, although put to different internal use by Christians.

IV. Natural theology is a sort of theology that follows the rules of Logic and is thereby capable of defending theology proper. Alsted notes, “we are not capable of convincing atheists and pagans if we condemn the language of the heavens, of the sun and the stars and the rest of created things.” But, one may object, how does natural theology persuade and what use is this persuasion if it is not capable of causing salvation? Alsted answers in two responses: (1) “The law of humanity, no less than Christian charity, commands us to be concerned with looking after the salvation of non-believers who have not yet been called to the visible church. Paul shows an example of this in Acts 14 & 17.” (2) “Naturaly theology directs one to salvation (conferat ad salutem), not as a cause but as a medium, and as a certain partial medium, proceeding from and taking its perfection (as lowest to highest) from the Scriptures.”

But, how does this medium direct one to salvation in the scriptures when the “book of nature” has been used by so many to promote idolatry and false worship of various sorts by pagan and Christian alike? Alsted responds that we should use the pagan authors whose use of natural theology has revealed the truth against idolatry to shame idolatrous non-Christians and Christians alike. The greatest of these pagan authors include Plato, Aristotle, Galen, and Cicero. Furthermore, Alsted does not base natural theology solely on philosophical authorities but also on the writings of the church fathers. Theologians such as John Chrysostom, Augustine, Basil of Caesarea, and others explain in a more pure way how Christians are able to discern the vestigia of God within creation. After giving specific examples from the writings of the church fathers, Alsted goes on to give a synopsis of some of the divine attributes that may be discovered solely by examining nature, such as Wisdom, Goodness, and Power. Finally, Alsted describes the method that he intends to use in his system of natural theology. I offer here the Latin text with an English translation below:

I. Lex homogeniae flagitat, ut illa duntaxat tradantur in systemate Theologiæ naturalis, quae ex libro naturæ demonstrari possunt. Itaque mysteria, quæ ex libro Scipturæ petuntur, Theologo naturali non sunt attingenda in præceptis & regulis. Diserte dico in præceptis & regulis quia in commentariis incidenter, ut loquuntur, potest fieri mentio istorum mysteriorum, quatenus in natura est imago quædam illorum, quæ non demonstrandi, sed declarandi vim obtinet. Nam nos per Dei gratiam ita sumus Theologi naturales, ut etiam simus tincti cognitione Theologiæ arcanæ.

II. Lex generalitatis imperat in Theologia naturalis progressum a cognitione & cultu Dei generali ad specialem. Itaque primo oportet disserere de Deo & eius operibus, quatenus illa faciunt ad opificis manifestationem, in communi, unde pars prima deinde in particulari, quatenus hæc & illa opera Dei faciunt ad cognitionem & cultum Dei.

III. Lex brevitatis imperat, ut ne pars aliqua necessaria doctrinæ desit, neque non necessaria supersit in Theologia naturali.

Has leges multis modis a me violatas esse clamabunt nonnulli, ut auguror.


I. The law of homogeneity requires that no more be declared in the system of natural Theology than what can be demonstrated from the book of nature. Therefore mysteries which are sought from the book of Scripture should not be arrived at in precepts and rules by means of natural Theology. I say specifically “in precepts and rules” because in commentaries mention of these mysteries may happen incidentally, as they say, since there is a certain image of [these mysteries] in nature, which obtain their force not by demonstration but by declaration. For we are natural theologians by the grace of God, in such a way that we are permeated by the knowledge of hidden Theology.

II. The law of generality demands progression in natural Theology from the general knowledge and worship of God to the special. Therefore, firstly, it is necessary to distinguish concerning God and his works, insofar as they bring about the revelation of the worker in common (from which is the first part) then in particular, insofar as both common and particular works of God bring about the knowledge and worship of God.

III. The law of brevity demands that no necessary doctrines should be wanting, neither should any necessary thing be superfluous in each part of Natural Theology.

I predict that some will exclaim that I have violated these laws in many ways.

Here Alsted anticipates objections that his proposal of natural theology inherently breaks all three of these rules. Some may say that natural theology brings about a needless excess of words (perissologiam). If natural philosophy already covers these topics, why add another science for investigating nature? Secondly, some say that natural theology is a tautology. That is, since hidden or revealed theology (Theologia arcana) includes the same things concerning creatures, God, and man as natural theology, then why cause needless repetition? Finally, Isn’t natural theology included within philosophy? Why the need for another discipline to investigate what philosophy already treats? I will treat Alsted’s answers to these questions in the next installment.

By Eric Parker

Eric Parker (PhD McGill University) is the editor of the Library of Early English Protestantism (LEEP) at the Davenant Institute. He lives in the deep South with his wife and two children, where he is currently preparing for ordination to the diaconate in the Reformed Episcopal Church.