Authors Eric Parker Natural Law Nota Bene Philosophy

Is Natural Theology an Exercise in Neutrality? Alsted on Natural Theology (IV)

Alsted does not directly address the issue of “neutrality” in apologetics, that is, the question of whether one may or should use rational principles in an effort to neither promote nor refute the truth claims of religion, thus establishing a sort of “public space” in which to debate the importance of religion on non-religious grounds. The issue of “neutrality” is a modern question but the problem is an old one and Alsted was surely familiar with some of those who thought of human nature as naturally directed to its own separate end apart from grace, such as Albert Pighius and Robert Bellarmine to name just two. The following passage  from Theorem I of Alsted’s Theologia naturalis sheds light on this particular issue, however, insofar as Alsted was familiar with the basic division between natural and supernatural knowledge yet seeks to uphold the unity of the essence of natural theology in both of these fora. 

I. Theologia naturalis post lapsum, una est quoad essentiam, varia & modificata pro ratione subiectorum, quibus inest.

Theologia naturalis; ut & omnis alia facultas, considerari debet duobus modis, videlicet ratione essentiæ, & graduum sive accedentium. Si quis spectet essentiam Theologiæ naturalis, illa est simplicissima & uno modo se habens, uti prolixe a nobis probatum est part I. præcognitorum. Res autem longe aliter habet, si quis gradus & accidentia ipsius perpendat. Cum enim insit variis subiectis, determinationem & modificationem variam subeat oportet. Nihil autem hic elicam de individuis, quibus inest (cum enim illa sint infinita, omnis opera ludetur) sed de duobus principibus, ut ita dicam, truncis, quibus communicat Theologia, tanquam anima vegetans, succum & vitam. Trunci isti sunt homo qua homo, & homo qua Christianus. In homine, qua talis est, consideratur Theologia naturalis veluti nuda, & sibi relicta. In homine, qua Christianus est, consideratur Theologia naturalis tanquam vestita & exaltata. Nos posteriori modo considerabimus, sed ita, ut priorem non simus seposituri. Rem hanc, quia est magni moment, sic accipe. Deus reliquit in homine lapso igniculos quosdam & velut rudera suæ imaginis. Hos igniculos homo vel sopire, vel fovere & accendere conatur. Si homo istos sopine & extinguere, quantum in se est, conatur, quam proxime accedit ad bestias. Si fovere & accendere nititur, hoc fit auxilio Dei vel generali, vel speciali. Si fit auxilio Dei generali, homo sibi relictus, multa de Deo, rebusque divinis cognoscere potest. Si fit auxilio Dei speciali, homo regeneratus, lumen rationis non amittit, sed retinet, verum ita ut collustretur superiori lumine. Quæ cum ita sint, de Theologia naturali non debemus iudicium ferre e naturis Cyclopicis & monstrosis, quæ id egerunt ut suffocarent pro virili sua semen illud cognitionis Theoloigæ, post lapsum adhuc reliquum: sed e moribus ethnicorum, itemque; Christiani nomini hominibus, qui adiuti supernaturali gratia lumen naturæ habuerunt illustrius quam alii.


I. Natural theology after the fall is one with respect to essence but manifold and measured with regard to the subject in whom it dwells.

Natural theology, as every other discipline, ought to be considered in two ways, that is, with regard to essence and scale or accident. If anyone examines the essence of natural theology [one will see that] it is most simple and unmixed as we proved at length in part I of our Præcognitorum. The case is quite different if one considers its scale or accidents. Because it dwells in various subjects it necessarily comes under different boundaries and modifications. But I say nothing here of the individuals in whom it dwells (this would be a waste of time since they are infinite) rather concerning two principles, or as I shall call them, “trees”, to which theology imparts [itself], just as the vegetative soul [imparts] sap and life. These trees are man insofar as he is man, and man insofar as he is a Christian. With regard to man insofar as he is man, natural theology is examined as it were disrobed and left to itself. With regard to man insofar as he is a Christian natural theology is examined as it were clothed and exalted. We will examine it in the latter way but so as not to disregard the former. Hear this, for it is a very important point. After the fall God left in man certain “sparks” and as it were “fragments” of his image. These little flames man either snuffs out or he tries to fan and kindle them. If man tries to snuff out and extinguish these little flames, so much as are within him, then he comes to resemble very nearly the likes of a beast. If he depends upon himself to fan and kindle them then this occurs by the help of God, either general or special. If it occurs by the special help of God, then man is regenerated and he does not lose the light of reason but retains it in such a way that it is illuminated by a superior light. These things being the case, we should not pass judgment regarding natural theology from a Cyclopic or monstrous nature, which directs it in order to suffocate the vigor of its own seed of the knowledge of theology that now remains after the fall. Rather, let us pass judgment from the morals of the heathens as well as men by the name of “Christian,” in whom the light of nature shines brighter than in others because they have been aided by supernatural grace.

Here Alsted lays part of the groundwork for his treatise by distinguishing between two ways of speaking of “man”: natural theology treats man either as ex puris naturalibus (as was the common Scholastic lingo), that is man considered hypothetically as merely a “rational animal” apart from grace or man considered as a Christian. This shows that Alsted did not consider natural theology to be a purely “neutral” exercise in which two parties agree to create a purely “secular” space in which to reason about religious matters. Rather, natural theology speaks “philosophically” from a theological perspective. Though Christians make use of the common light of reason, Alsted makes it clear that there are two “trees,” which are both put to good use in natural theology. The first does not really exist but is used in philosophical discourse for the sake of determining what man can know by reason alone if reason is used properly (i.e., “hypothetical” pure nature) and the other is reason made Christian. Actually, neither “accident” exists on its own, Christian or purely natural. Rather, both are accidents of  the “natural theology” that lies behind them. Because one uses both “pure” reason and “Christian” reason one is both free to rationally investigate nature and is also able to limit one’s rational inquiries to the bounds of faith and for the purpose of faith in order to avoid the error of sophistic speculation. The corrupted reason of man’s “Cyclopic” fallen nature should be avoided. Alsted will explain this more fully in the following theorems.

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.