Ramified Natural Theology in Science and Religion

Moving Forward from Natural Theology

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Rodney Holder
Routledge Science and Religion Series
  • Routledge
    , October
     245 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Though their relationship is still under debate, nature and revelation are traditionally considered as two distinct sources of knowledge of God. Natural theology starts from the world and constructs arguments for God’s existence with assumptions and evidence accessible to everyone. On the contrary, special revelation is viewed as God’s self-disclosure by which humans can know more about God’s attributes and salvific plan, and it can only be accepted by faith. In Ramified Natural Theology in Science and Religion, Rodney Holder has challenged the distinction of natural theology and special revelation by arguing that both need rational argument to convince people. Holder proposes that arguments and evidence are required to let people know that a certain belief of God is true or probable, even if the source of this belief is revelation (67). Therefore, “ramified natural theology is the providing of arguments for the specific claims of Christianity” (1). In this book, Holder develops a cumulative argument, and then applies Bayes’ theorem to formalize it to show that certain Christian particularities are highly probable.

In chapter 2, Holder first defines natural theology as a discipline which aims to provide “arguments for the existence of God which depend only on our common humanity and not on any putative revelation” (9), and argues that natural theology is still viable now. He especially indicates that the theory of evolution does not undermine natural theology. In chapter 3, Holder discusses modern cosmological and design arguments, and proposes that these arguments are successful, by which he paves the way for ramified natural theology. On the one hand, ramified natural theology would be hopeless if the prospect of natural theology is dim. On the other hand, with the high probability of the existence of God ensured by natural theology, ramified natural theology can achieve its goal with less difficulty.

After reviewing natural theology, Holder moves to the topic of ramified natural theology. He then explains why we need ramified natural theology and delineates its development in chapter 4 and 5. Under the situation of religious pluralism, Christian theology must show with evidence and reasons that the particular tenets of Christianity are true or probable. The authenticity of the life and death of Jesus Christ is the crucial point of proof (78–79).

In the rest chapters (6 to 11), Holder constructs a cumulative argument for the Christian claim that Jesus Christ is the incarnated God, and he did die on the cross and then was resurrected. He first establishes that it is rational to believe in miracles. On this basis, he further argues that certain scriptural records of the deeds and words of Jesus are reliable, Jesus has fulfilled many prophesies of the scripture, he is an actual historic figure, and he has been resurrected from the dead. Holder broadly and closely examines relevant historical data, records, and witnesses to deal with the challenges of historical criticism of the Bible and scepticism. He thus concludes that historical evidence strongly suggests that the above claim about Jesus is highly probable.

Though it is highly probable that the death and resurrection of Jesus are true, another difficulty remains: Jesus has to be God who has incarnated rather than a normal human or diving being, such as an angel or a god. Given Jesus’ miracles, words, and prophecies he fulfilled, as well as the existence of an omnipotent and supremely good God (Holder already proves the authenticity of these things in chapter 6 to 10), it is much more probable that Jesus is the incarnation of God than the other alternative hypotheses. In chapter 11, Holder adopts the Bayesian approach to formalize his cumulative argument, and concludes that it is highly probable that Jesus is the incarnated God. He lived, died, and then was raised from the dead on the third day. It is rational to accept Christian religion as a result.

Holder has thoroughly investigated relevant historical evidence and constructed a forceful argument for the core tenets of Christianity. This book is not only helpful in convincing people to seriously consider the Christian religion, but also is beneficial to believers who have some concerns about the rationality of Christian belief. However, Holder’s cumulative argument leads to the following problems.

First, as almost nothing in philosophy is widely accepted, it is fair to conclude that the same goes for ramified natural theology. Almost every doctrine of Christianity has its criticism and counter-arguments. If people should only accept a specific Christian tenet on the basis of evidence, then they should hold their decision before a decisive argument or evidence for this tenet has appeared. If this is the case, people may practically not be able to believe in any Christian dogma. Furthermore, it is doubtful whether ramified natural theology can prove some of the most important Christian doctrines. For example, without first believing that the Bible is God's special revelation, it may be difficult, if not impossible, to argue that the holy spirit is God as well. Finally, Holder’s approach leaves no room for faith. Faith is an essential part of Christianity. If rational arguments and evidence are good enough to make people believe, faith is redundant. Besides, related to this point, Holder’s argument is an argument of probability. It does not argue for Christian tenets’ being true, but for their being probable. How seriously one should take a Christian particularity seems to depend on its probability. However, God commands Christians to wholeheartedly love him and obey his law rather than act according to probability.

Overall, though readers may have the above concerns, Holder has done an excellent job in constructing a rational basis for the particularities of Christian religion. His work has inspired Christian theists to defend and explain the reason for their hope in God (see 1 Pet 3:15). This book is also helpful for readers of all backgrounds in understanding the rationality of Christian belief.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Han Jen Chang is a PhD student in philosophy at the University of Birmingham, UK.

Date of Review: 
September 22, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Rodney Holder was course director of The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, Cambridge, UK, before retiring in 2013, and is a Fellow Commoner of St Edmund’s College, Cambridge. He has published widely in the fields of science and religion and natural theology including the book Big Bang, Big God: A Universe Designed for Life? (2013) and articles in peer reviewed journals such as The British Journal for the Philosophy of ScienceTheology and Science, and Philosophia Christi.


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