Looking back on the past few years of theology and philosophy in the Christian Church, it is difficult to think of many topics more contentious than natural theology. Innumerable tweets and gallons of ink have been spilled attacking and defending varying definitions of natural theology, its history in Christian thought, and its usefulness for contemporary Christians. While many tend to exaggerate their claims, throwing natural theology out altogether or blurring the lines between general and special revelation, C. Stephen Evan’s Natural Signs and Knowledge of God provides a helpful posture in the conversation. By summarizing the content of Evans’ argument, it is possible to learn three apologetic lessons that will serve the Christian well in our post-Christendom world: lowering our expectations of natural signs, providing confidence in evangelistic conversations, and shaping our heart posture to image the God we believe in.
From the outset, Evans is quick to define what he means by a sign, “a ‘pointer,’ something that directs our attention to some reality or fact and makes knowledge of that reality or fact possible” (2). Signs differ then from formal, philosophical arguments in that while arguments may fail to be coercive or convincing to any reasonable person, “the sign may still point to God” (3). For some, focusing upon natural signs that point to God (rather than “proofs” for God) may seem like the easy way out. On the contrary, Evans argues that signs can serve as a strategic foundation for further apologetic argumentation, making belief in a God like the one in the Abrahamic religions a “live option” and pushing against the notion of atheism as an intellectual default (11).
The second movement of Evans’ book is defending his notion of a natural sign. Interacting with the work of Thomas Reid, Evans clarifies that signs can be broken into two categories, original, or “hardwired”, and acquired (32). For Evans, “theistic natural signs are more like Reidian natural signs in acquired perceptions, where experience plays a role in their development” (37). Therefore, one’s ability to detect and rightly interpret a sign can be strengthened or weakened. To give his reader opportunity to grow in these skills, Evans turns to examining the natural signs that undergird the three primary categories of theistic arguments.
For those who are unfamiliar with cosmological arguments, Evans clarifies the different variations found within cosmological argumentation: part, whole, causal, explanation, temporal, non-temporal, deductive, and inductive. In laying out these types of cosmological arguments, Evans is honest that “because the arguments are different, they are vulnerable in different places and in different ways, but each seems to include some element that some reasonable persons might reject” (56). Yet, this admission does not cause Evans’ confidence in theism to waver. Instead, he argues that there is a natural sign—namely, “cosmic wonder”—beneath each variation of the cosmological argument that both leads to an idea of God and leads to belief in him. According to Evans, in our perception “of the world as contingent, is a grasp of the idea that there could be a different manner of existing, a reality that has a deeper and firmer grip on existence than the things we see around us” (63).
While the natural sign of cosmic wonder does point to a necessary God, necessity, in the words of Evans, “leaves out a good deal of the concept of God that is found in a living religion” (74). In the world of argumentation or “proofs”, this would be problematic. However, for natural signs, Evans explains that beneficial order in creation can lend a hand in acting as a signpost to a good God. While Evans does not shy away from the dialogue around teleological arguments among evolutionary scientists and the likes of Hume and Kant, he does conclude that once again the requirements of a natural sign are met by the beneficial order of creation.
Finally, Evans turns his attention to arguments for God rooted in universal moral obligations. Once again, Evans is honest and thorough in his admission that moral arguments can be objected to by reasonable persons in the fields of biology, psychology, and sociology. In response, Evans points to two theistic natural signs found in our moral experience. “The first lies in our experience of being morally accountable or responsible. The second lies in our perception of human beings as having a special value and dignity” (138). Adding to what was seen in the section on teleological natural signs, these moral signs “point to a God who is essentially good, and who desires a relationship with human persons” (147).
In conclusion, Evans recognizes that some nonbelievers will have significant issues with his approach to natural signs. Primarily, many will argue that the use of natural signs is inconclusive and often operates on theistic presuppositions. In response to these accusations, Evans argues that both of those accusations are not detrimental to his position. Rather, Evans can show that all worldviews have an element of circularity in their fundamental argumentation and that natural signs have met his stated goal, making theistic belief a live option. For the contemporary Christian, this view provides three apologetic lessons.
The first of these apologetic lessons is found at the very center of Evans’ introduction and conclusion. Namely, the goal of being trained in seeing and interpreting natural signs is not to formulate philosophical arguments that are convincing to any reasonable person. In fact, Evans has gone to the length of showing that many of the strongest theistic arguments fall short of that incredibly high bar. Instead, Christians who read Evans and begin to intentionally see and discuss theistic natural signs with their unbelieving neighbor will find that theism is at least a “live option”.
Secondly, Evans’ approach ought to bolster the confidence of both the ordained minister and the layperson by giving them multiple tools in their apologetic tool belt. It is unfortunate that, whether explicitly or implicitly, many Christians have been told that the purpose of pursuing apologetic study is to provide rationalistic certainty and find a silver bullet argument that will stump every reasonable atheist. Unfortunately, when this ever-evasive, silver bullet argument is not found, the apologist is left questioning whether the Christian worldview and theism are true at all. Evans’ clarifications about the limits of theistic arguments provide a middle-way, confident disagreement, providing mutually reinforcing, theistic evidence in the form of natural signs and clarifying that reasonable human beings have the ability to misinterpret natural signs and come to opposing conclusions.
Finally, Evans posits that communicating via natural signs in the world that he created aligns strongly with Christian presuppositions about the character of a triune God who created his image bearers to know and be known by him. To communicate this reality, Evans posits two principles: the “Wide Accessibility Principle” and the “Easy Resistibility Principle”. First, the “Wide Accessibility Principle” is that a God who desires relationship with his creation would make knowledge of himself “widely available, not difficult to gain” (13). However, because God desires true relationship, “not forced on humans”, the signs available to us in nature will be easily resistible or misinterpreted (15). Therefore, the Christian can enter apologetic and evangelistic dialogue with compassion and humility, recognizing that apologetic “opponents” do not need to be treated as enemies but as image bearers who have suppressed the knowledge of God (Romans 1). I think we can all agree, that this posture would go a long way in bringing glory to our Savior who came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10).
- Stephen Evans. Natural Signs and Knowledge of God: A New Look at Theistic Arguments. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Published November 13, 2023