Authors Eric Parker Natural Law Nota Bene

The Threefold Foundation of Natural Theology: Alsted on Natural Theology (VIII)

It has been a while since my last post on Alsted, so those of you who may be unfamiliar with this series can find the earlier posts here. In this series, I have been translating and offering brief commentary on Johann Heinrich Alsted and his book Theologia naturalis, the full title of which (when translated) reads: Natural Theology, exhibiting the most august school of nature, in which is utilized the common language of God’s creatures for teaching all equally: Against the Atheists, Epicureans, and Sophists of our age, (Antonius Hummius, 1615). Even if you have not read the previous posts, however, you might read this one on its own. In this post we see the heart of Alsted’s natural theology. Here, in his 6th and 7th theorems (and 8th and 9th, but we’ll talk about them next time), Alsted explains in more detail the role that reason plays in natural theology. Reason is not the foundation of natural theology. Rather, for Alsted, reason is a foundation, or more accurately, reason is part of the threefold foundation of natural theology. Some will recall from my first post  and my fifth post that Alsted does not consider natural theology to be the foundation of revealed (or supernatural) theology, but rather natural theology is a medium or an instrument that God uses to clear away prejudices that stand in the way of faith, and thus prepare one for the school of grace. Putting the pieces together we can see that Alsted considers reason to be one of the threefold parts of this medium.

Translation: Alsted on the Threefold Foundation of Natural Theology1

VI. The foundation of natural Theology is threefold: Reason, Empirical knowledge,2 & Holy Scripture.

In all of the faculties of an excellent man, those that have the most certain principles excel all [others]. Furthermore, principles are said to be what other [things] depend upon; and they are either of things or of knowledge. In the schools they are called “principles of being” or “principles of understanding.” The principles of things are those from which other things are produced. So, God is the principle of principles, from whom, through whom, and in whom are all things, as Romans 11 says.3 Those [principles] on which the knowledge of every other thing depends are called “principles of understanding.” Also, they are either simple, like reason, empirical knowledge, or (generally) like Holy Scripture; or [they are] complex, like complete propositions that are composed from simple principles. For example, “God exists,” “one should love good things,” [and] “the Sun shines.” It follows from this that these simple [principles] are the foundation of complex ones. But, how reason, empirical knowledge, and Holy Scripture are the foundations of natural theology will be explained in the following [theorems].

VII. Reason is the foundation of natural Theology, not insofar as [it is] “this man’s” [reason], but insofar as [it is] man’s.

Just as by the nomenclature of philosophy we do not understand whatever it pleases us to think, of any absolutely worthless pretense coming from the haughty dreams and absurdities of the pompous; so, by the name “Reason” we do not understand what comes by way of Plato’s, Aristotle’s, or Epicurus’s reason, but [we understand] the reason of man, that is, [reason] itself, what remains [of it] and which is untouched and uncorrupted by the rust of sin, [that is] its sharpness and brightness, which is also aided by study, persistence, exercise and by the use of things; and which, finally, by means of a certain little flame of truth is made to shine by the Father of Lights himself. If anyone should call this light “darkness”, he is able to support [his claim] if he accepts [it] (by comparison) with respect to the supernatural light. It is not unqualifiedly true, unless one would call the image of God “darkness.” Pious men explain this by means of an apposite similitude: They say, just as the sunlight does not put out the [light] of the stars but makes their lesser light yield to a more abundant light, so the light of Grace does not put out the light of Nature but makes it yield. And again, just as the stars yield to the Sun so that they do not fall from the sky, so reason yields to faith so that it does not fall from the sky of the microcosm. Let [faith] cease, if you will, and [reason] falls. The little torch of reason acknowledges its inferiority to grace coming forth from the celestial chamber as to the Sun, the superior of the stars. But, [the soul] does not cast away a power innate to it with the arrival of [grace], any less than the stars do not cast away their own power of shinning with the arrival of noon.

Let the enemies learn, therefore, the unspeakable things of reason [ἄλογοι τοῦ λογοῦ], which is the better part of man. Let them learn, I say, that reason is not pulled down by faith but is rather stabilized and propped up by its support. Let them learn that right reason is like the Moon, which some accurately call the student of the Sun because it is increased by the light of the Sun. Let them learn to express that faith is entirely a cloud in the mind [nubilum in ratione], just like a fog in the air. Let them learn that the eyes are not to be plucked out with foolish Democritus when we gaze upon that which is higher and greater than the mind. Let them learn, finally, that there is none of that discord of which they dream in the works of God, but these [are] the drunken cerebral Bacchic revelries [βακχεύματα] of insane men. What if, with reason (or rather, against reason) these fools, or as I call them, the “Un-reasoners” [Alogiani], persist insanely not only with Claudius to transform the patricians into the plebeians but also [transform] the people and their precinct, where the men cast the vote, into an animal precinct (if only those who solemnly swear off reason no less than the senses were worthy to be numbered among the animals); [what if they persist] at last to remove us from the tribe of sane men, and we chose to lose our right to vote rather than to submit voting tablets [ceritorum tabulas],4 but we state accordingly that no one becomes a participant in divine mysteries unless by way of a gift?

For the sake of marking the limits [of natural Theology], one can only agree with the measure that has been stated, [namely], that one may not only make use of reason in natural theology but also in supernatural theology, if the following is observed: We believe supernaturally, in order that we might understand. We do not understand in order that we might believe. Likewise: Faith in supernatural things precedes reason, not the contrary. Therefore the same Reason which we follow in natural things like a leader or a lord, we will employ in the mysteries of grace like a servant or a handmaiden. Furthermore, by means of this covenant a companion will unite and stand Sarah together with Hagar 5 (which [is a] comparison the fathers use); that is, if Hagar does not reject Sarah as unequal, does not ridicule [her] as sterile, but attends to her as the mistress of the house, looks up to [her] as a superior. Also, it was necessary that this [topic] be disputed at length, that in this way it might be demonstrated even to the blind [τοῖς τυφλοῖς] that the more obscure light of natural Theology should be subjected to and conjoined with the most clear light of supernatural Theology. [Supernatural Theology] should not destroy [natural Theology]. Neither should [natural Theology] be placed in front of, but carried together with [supernatural Theology], not equally, but unequally.

  1. Alsted, Theologia naturalis… (Antonius Hummius, 1615), 5, 6.
  2. I translate experientia universalis as “empirical knowledge” in order to simply state the Aristotelian import of ἐμπειρία ἡ καθ᾿ ὅλου as an inductive generalization regarding the relations of several particulars.
  3. Rom. 11:36 Vulgate: quoniam ex ipso et per ipsum et in ipso omnia ipsi gloria in saecula amen.
  4. in ceritorum potius quam Cæritum tabulas nos referri non patiemur. This curious phrase refers to the inhabitants of Cære, who did not permit voting, so that “Cæritum tabulas referre” became an idiom for denying someone their right to vote. See another use of this phrase in Livy, History of Rome, 45.15.
  5. Atq; hoc pacto coibit constabitque par inter Saram & Agaram.

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.

One reply on “The Threefold Foundation of Natural Theology: Alsted on Natural Theology (VIII)”

Comments are closed.