- Proofs of God: Classical Arguments from Tertullian to Barth by Matthew Levering
Recognizing that natural theology has always had a place of prominence in Western philosophy, Matthew Levering advances the recent resurgence of publications that seek to demonstrate the existence of God. Surveying “the major responses, pro and contra, in the Christian tradition to the question of whether the existence of God can be demonstrated by human reason,” Levering is primarily descriptive rather than evaluative in presenting twenty-one seminal thinkers from the ancient, patristic, medieval, Reformation, Enlightenment, and modern periods. “Although significant thinkers have unavoidably been left out,” he writes, “I hope to have provided a sufficiently representative sample of the major contributors and positions, so that the present widespread ignorance of this tradition will be overcome.”
Proofs of God helps to clear away misunderstandings about the viability of natural theology in general by showing how each thinker formulated his arguments within the broader cultural, theological, and philosophical contexts in which he lived. Considering that many skeptics, agnostics, and atheists operate from a mindset that is foreign to the great Catholic natural theologians of the past, Levering’s survey prevails in furthering the idea that many arguments for the existence of God are successful when they are properly understood. More importantly, these arguments have implications for revealed theology: “The demonstrations do not resolve the ‘anguish’ or answer the ‘immense riddle,’ but they encourage us to seek the resolution and answer. . . . Far from threatening to make divine revelation redundant, the demonstrability of God’s existence makes revelation all the more desirable and urgent.”
In the first section, Levering discusses the patristic writers (for example, Tertullian, Gregory of Nazianzus Augustine, and John of Damascus) and medieval commentators (for example, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, and William of Ockham) on natural theology. He observes that “[t]he fathers of the church, along with almost all the medieval theologians, held that humans can rationally demonstrate the existence of God.” One noteworthy conclusion is that patristic and medieval [End Page 606] theologians did not see God’s existence as self-evident or as exclusively based in divine revelation. Rather, they employed Aristotelian and/or Platonic philosophies in various ways for demonstrating the existence of a Supreme Creator.
Next, while some might assume that the Protestant reformers and modern academicians (for example, Francisco Suárez, René Descartes, Blaise Pascal, and Immanuel Kant) were associated with fideism and the inability to arrive at natural knowledge of God, Levering shows quite the opposite: “While some figures from these periods have no room for the demonstrability of God’s existence [Michel de Montaigne, David Hume], others strongly insist on human reason’s ability to arrive at knowledge of God.” Unfortunately, although the Aristotelian impetus for doing natural theology remained alive and somewhat influential during the Reformation and Enlightenment periods, its detractors did not seriously engage either patristic or medieval approaches to God: “The Greek and Latin traditions, represented especially by John of Damascus and Aquinas, appear to be rejected largely because they are unknown or known in distorted forms.” Nonetheless, their neglect and forgetfulness provided others with the space to develop ingenious arguments for God’s existence.
In the third and final section, Levering summarizes several representatives from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (John Henry Newman, Maurice Blondel, Pierre Rousselot, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Martin Heidegger, and Karl Barth). While Blondel and Rousselot are known as Catholic philosophers, Levering concludes that their “approaches serve as probable arguments that are on their own insufficient, but . . . repay attention due to the depth of their phenomenological insight into our experience.” A more forceful approach can be found in the writings of Garrigou-Lagrange. He retrieved the Thomistic approach in the face of Cartesian, Kantian, and Humean critiques. Departing from Catholic tradition, Barth was a major theologian who argued against the philosophical approach to God’s existence in order to safeguard the uniqueness of supernatural faith and divine revelation.
Although a revival of natural theology is currently taking place in both Catholic and Protestant circles...