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  • From the Forbidden to the Familiar:The Way of Natural Theology Leading up to and beyond the Long Eighteenth Century
  • Stuart Peterfreund (bio)


Natural theology is a meta-scientific discourse. As such, it seeks to reconcile and harmonize the truths discovered by that discourse which, in a given age, performs the function of scientifically explaining the natural world with the revealed religious truths of the Bible. The rhetorical foundation on which natural theology has always rested is the argument from design, which ascribes the perceived order of the natural, material world to God, the creator of that world, according to Genesis (1–2) and other pertinent biblical texts, such as the Book of Job (38–41). While the rhetorical basis of natural theology has remained constant, precisely what the source of the design in question is has not. Prior to a breakthrough that was made by Robert Boyle near the beginning of the long eighteenth century, the design in question was that of the creature: a personate, passionate God manifested himself in the ways of his animate, living creations.

But such design did not account for the operation of inanimate phenomena in such scientific discourses as those of chemistry and physics. In order both to save the phenomena and keep the faith, Boyle and others of the age, such as Isaac Newton, identified the design in question as that of the mechanism, which could be equally manifest in the anatomy of a creature, [End Page 23] in the behavior of a gas under pressure, or in the regular motion of a clockwork universe. A somewhat distant and dispassionate artificer, Boyle's God manifested himself in the ways of his mechanisms. For Boyle, the world and all the creatures in it are like the great clock of the Strasbourg cathedral.

But when the focus of scientific inquiry shifted back in the late eighteenth century from the study of the mechanism to the study of the creatures, with the goal of moving from a contemplation of anatomy and physiology to an understanding of how life itself is possible and how it occurs, the design of the mechanism lacked the necessary explanatory power, and the design of the creatures was seen for the fanciful variant of the bestiary tradition out of which it arose. For a time the argument from design became both fanciful and strained as scientists who were also religious apologists struggled to devise a designer-God with whom a burgeoning catalogue of scientific lore could be reconciled. Ironically enough, Charles Darwin—who in his middle and later years was, to say the least, estranged from the practices of the Anglican Christianity that Boyle had embraced—offered a solution, applying the demographic analysis of Thomas Malthus to devise the concept of natural selection and relocating the site of design from the mechanism to the system. To this very day, the argument from design, as mobilized by advocates for intelligent design, finds its locus in the design of the system.

In the essay that follows, I shall lay out each of the three phases of the argument from design in order to show how each of the loci was used to mount the argument from design and to focus in on the moment of transition from one locus to the next.

The Design of the Creature

By the time that modern science became the focus of concerted intellectual interest and inquiry in England in the last third of the seventeenth century, natural theology was already a concept familiar to English thinkers. As Barbara J. Shapiro notes, "beginning in the mid-1650s, John Wilkins and Seth Ward at Oxford, the Cambridge Platonists, and a number of others developed a rational or natural theology that repudiated the anti-intellectualism which characterized so many of the enthusiasts." As it evolved, according to Shapiro, natural theology steered the middle course between such enthusiasm, on the one hand, and atheism on the other.1

But the natural theologians of the mid-seventeenth century were hardly the first in England to be familiar with or espouse the concept, and an understanding of some of the thinking that preceded the mid-seventeenth [End Page 24] century may help...


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