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Reason and Revelation Volume 16 #4

Philosophical Naturalism and Theology

by  Garry K. Brantley, M.A., M.Div.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a major intellectual shift occurred, leaving deep philosophical wounds on the body of academia that as yet have not healed. This period, known as the Enlightenment, introduced a novel way of thinking about our world that can be characterized as anthropocentric—humankind became the central arbiter of truth. While capable philosophers and theologians have attended to the injuries caused by this intellectual trauma, those wounds appear to have resisted treatment and have begun to fester.

As human reason nudged its way to the epistemological center, God’s revelation, the Bible, was driven to the periphery. Once privileged and “enlightened” intellectuals jettisoned the biblical world view that embraced the concept of a sovereign, transcendent God, rationalism began to rule and the period known as modernism emerged. Guided in large measure by the empiricism of Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), modern scientists were optimistic that humans could exercise “power over nature by means of the discovery of nature’s secrets” (Grenz, 1994, 30[1]:25). The seismic intellectual shift of the Enlightenment eventually produced the philosophical tidal wave of naturalism that largely has washed away supernaturalism from the field of science (see Johnson, 1995, pp. 8-9,97-101).

Briefly put, philosophical naturalism is the idea that nothing exists beyond “the spatio-temporal world of physical entities that we can investigate in the natural sciences” (Wilkins and Moreland, 1995, p. 8). In other words, the natural universe occupying space and time is exhaustive of reality, and should be explained by purely naturalistic theories. From this perspective, nothing beyond the Universe (i.e., the supernatural or transcendent God) exists, except as an unsubstantiated “belief ” in people’s minds.

In this way, philosophical naturalism has strangled scientific investigation, and now has biblical/theological studies firmly in its grip. The current maelstrom within Jesus’ studies created by the fellows of the now-famous Jesus Seminar is a popular example of the extent to which naturalism has influenced theology (see Strimple, 1995, pp. 1-11; van Biema, 1996; Woodward, 1996). Committed to naturalistic presuppositions, this panel of biblical scholars has surgically removed with their critical scalpels the miraculous dimension from the biblical text. In so doing, they have denied, among other essential doctrines, the deity of Jesus, and His bodily resurrection as a historical event (see Bromling, 1994; Brantley, 1995, pp. 15-30).

While Christians likely are both astounded and perplexed by such dogmatic pronouncements of critical scholars, we need to understand exactly what is at work. Such scholars have adopted the “scientific” world view dominated by philosophical naturalism, which has colored their historical interpretations. These naturalistic assumptions adopted generally by the fellows of the Jesus Seminar dismiss from the realm of historical possibility the idea of a transcendent God’s breaking into our world and, therefore, reject the occurrence of miracles at any time in history. Yet, this reasoning is incurably circular. It says, in essence, we know that Jesus did not perform miracles or rise from the dead, because we know that such events cannot occur. Hence, while they profess to be objective in their research, critical scholars prove to be in the grips of their own naturalistic dogmatism, which has influenced their historical reconstructions of the Man from Galilee.

Contrary to Enlightenment thinking, the biblical world view is one in which God, not humanity, is at the center. We must be careful, therefore, to bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5)—not the distorted Christ reconstructed by theological naturalists, but the incarnate Son of God as presented in the Scriptures.


Brantley, Garry K. (1995), Digging for Answers (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press).

Bromling, Brad T. (1994),“A Look at the Jesus Seminar,” Reason and Revelation, 14:81-87, November.

Grenz, Stanley J. (1994), “Star Trek and the Next Generation: Postmodernism and the Future of Evangelical Theology,” Crux, 30[1]:24-32.

Johnson, Philip E. (1995), Reason in the Balance (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity).

Strimple, Robert B. (1995), The Modern Search for the Real Jesus (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R).

Wilkins, Michael J. and J.P. Moreland (1995), “Introduction: The Furor Surrounding Jesus,” Jesus Under Fire (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).

Woodward, Kenneth L. (1996), “Rethinking the Resurrection,” Newsweek, pp. 60-70, April 8.

van Biema, David (1996), “The Gospel Truth?,” Time, 147[15]:52-59.

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