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A Language Known To All Peoples: Alsted on Natural Theology (III)

Alsted’s final argument in the preface to his Theologia naturalis concerns the proper heading of natural theology. Is natural theology truly different than philosophy? Is natural theology not a part (or locus) of revealed theology? As is evident from the text, Alsted addresses these questions to those who have brought accusation against his Præcognitorum theologicorum (1614)Alsted’s Præcognitorum is an extended discourse on the nature of revealed theology and the importance and desirability of studying it – following the tradition of orations on the benefits of studying theology in the Protestant schools directed by Philip Melanchthon and Johann Sturm. Why, one might ask, is it necessary to write a separate treatise explaining the necessity of such study? Alsted responds in his the preface to his Præcognitorum that, “with discipline and every opportunity one may acquire a certain foreknowledge (προγνωσκόμενα), which prepares the soul of the student for more fruitfully and easily grasping that which is to be known (τὰ γνωσκόμενα).” Natural theology, on the other hand, is a type of theology rather than an argument for theology. Alsted explains the difference between natural theology, revealed theology, and natural philosophy:

In confesso est apud omnes recte sentientes, quod ethnici non solum fuerint philosophi, sed etiam theologi. Hinc itaque constat Theologiam illorum a philosophia distinctam semper fuisse. Neque hic moror, quod ipsorum Theologia multis maculis fuit aspersa. Notum est etiam illud, Theologiam naturalem differre a philosophia tum fine, tum obiecto, ut ex præcognitis nostris Theologicis videre est. Facit & hoc pro mea sententia. Usus creaturarum duplex est, naturalis & spiritualis, qui & supernaturalis dicitur, sed late accepto vocabulo pro divino & metaphysico, ut quidem loquuntur. Usus naturalis, est qui ad hanc vitam animalem spectat. Spiritualis est, qui ad vitam contemplativam refertur.

Priorem physica monstrat, posteriorem Theologia naturalis, quæ insuper physicum illum refert ad spiritualem; id quod philosophia non facit, nec potest quidem. Quod iam attinet ad illam obiectionem, Theologiam naturalem constituere certum locum communem in Theologia supernaturalis, illa sic diluitur. Mira irrepsit confusio in Theologiæ systema, dum scriptores locorum coummunium non observarunt ordinem præceptorum in titulis digerendis, sed ordine arbitrario illos disposuerunt. At hæc confusio non tollit & evertit rectam methodum. Quod autem methodus, quam nos observamus, recta sit, vel ex eo constat, quod hæc materia de cognitione Dei creatoris adeo sit copiosa, ut quam plurimos titulos & subtitulos contineat. Atque hoc etiam velim notare illos, quo prolixitatem nostram accusatum venirent. Hos iubeo expendere illud; Theologiam esse habitum mixtum ex pluribus systematis, sicut est philosophia itemque istud; Theologiam sic esse proponendam, ut paucissima in illa poßint desiderari: quod ipsum etiam oppono illius, qui præcognita mea prolixitatis accusant. Ego soleo ob oculos mihi ponere illud poetæ: Non sunt longa, quibus nihil est quod demere poßis.


Nunc tibi, lector Christiane, fenestæ & portæ apertæ sunt Scholæ illius amplißimæ, in qua infinitæ Dei creaturæ tibi loquuntur lingua omnibus populis nota. Det Deus, author omnis boni tum in natura tum supra naturam, rectum rerum creaturum usum ad nominis sui gloriam, & nostram salutem. Amen.


It is generally admitted by everyone who rightly perceives [the matter], that the Gentiles were not only philosophers but they were also theologians. Everyone agrees, therefore, based on this observation that their theology was always distinguished from philosophy. I will not here devote attention to the fact that their theology was stained with many blemishes. They also knew that natural theology differs from philosophy in both its end and object as appears in the præcognita to our theology. This will clarify my point: The use of created things is two-fold, natural and spiritual (which is also called “supernatural”), as the widely accepted vocabulary of divine and metaphysical matters indicates. The natural use is for the sake of animal life. The spiritual refers to the contemplative life.

Natural philosophy demonstrates the former and natural theology the latter, referring that which is above the natural to the spiritual. Philosophy does not do this, nor is it able to do so. Now that which pertains to the objection that natural theology constitutes a fixed common place within supernatural theology is resolved. A great confusion creeps into the system of theology when writers of common places do not observe the order of precepts for separating titles but arrange them in an arbitrary order. But this confusion does not destroy or overturn proper method. It follows that we observe the correct method or that our [discourse] depends upon it because the material concerning the knowledge of the creator God is so copious that it contains many titles and subtitles. I also want to respond to those who bring accusation regarding our prolixity. These I bid to think in the following way: Theology is a discipline [habitus] mixed with many systems just as philosophy, so it is to be desired that theology be proposed in the fewest words possible. Now, this I also place before those who accuse my Præcognita of prolixity. I have placed before my eyes only the words of the poet: “Such things are not too long / which one is not able to make shorter.”


Now to you, Christian reader, have the windows and doors of this most distinguished conversation been opened, in which the creatures speak to you of the infinity of God in a language known to all peoples. May God, the author of every good both in nature and above nature, bring about the right use of created things for the glory of his own name and our salvation. Amen.

“Philosophy” for Alsted includes the sciences that treat of natural things, i.e., mathematics, logic, natural philosophy, etc. Natural theology, according to Alsted, is placed above this “natural” philosophy in a way similar to Aristotle’s placement of metaphysics above physics due to the fact that the former treats separable substances, even though the latter treats more than merely the physical world (e.g., four-fold causality). Alsted distinguishes, as Thomas Aquinas had done in the 13th century, between philosophy and divine science. As Thomas argues in the first question of the Summa, revealed theology  differs “secundum genus ab illa theologia quae pars philosophiae ponitur,” that is, natural and revealed theology differ according to their genus. Alsted offers a helpful clarification here. That is, just because natural and revealed theology differ according to genus does not mean that natural theology does nothing to do with the spiritual or supernatural. Rather, as Alsted noted previously and implies here, because there are many titles and subtitles in the knowledge of God, so one may treat certain “titles” of that knowledge separately insofar as the modes of investigation differ. Natural theology differs from revealed theology because it discusses the object of examination as it is discoverable by reason apart from special revelation.

In the remaining installments I will discuss Alsted’s “theorems” (theoremata) of discussion, specifically, the need for natural theology after the fall, natural theology as a preparation for grace, the difference between nature grace, et cetera.


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.