Catholic Theology (Part 1): pizza and natural theology

Dr. John Cavadini

Wheaton PhD students are required to take one external course as part of the program. The idea is to expose us to ideas “not typical of Wheaton College.” I’ve just finished mine: a 3-week course at Notre Dame on Christian Doctrine. In our first class together, Dr. Cavadini pointed to a key difference between Catholics and Protestants. It has to do with the answer to this question:

How much can we know about God without the help of Scripture?

The fancy name for this is “Natural Theology” (theology is ‘the study of God’ and by ‘natural’ we mean ‘without divine intervention’). In short, Catholics tend to be more optimistic than Protestants about how well Natural Theology works (or at least about its potential). Some Protestants reject it completely. Before I lay out the differences, an illustration may help.
Imagine you arrive home from work one day and find a pizza on your kitchen counter. You are thrilled, because you are hungry after a long day of work, but you are also puzzled because you live alone (if you don’t, just pretend) and you have no idea who brought you pizza. You look around for clues, but see nothing. The kitchen is clean, as if no one has been there, but when you open the oven you notice it is still very hot. Whoever left the pizza cooked it in your kitchen and did a very good job cleaning up! You take a closer look at the pizza. It has your favorite toppings! Whoever made it knows you well, and their sense of timing is exquisite. It’s hot and ready. How did they know when you would be home? Then you notice something else—this is no frozen pizza. It has a homemade crust, hand-tossed by the looks of it, with sauce carefully spread and lots of gooey cheese, but none of it spilling over onto the pizza pan. Whoever made this pizza was an artist!
You decide that they evidently wanted you to eat it, so you grab a couple of slices and sit down to eat. While eating, you keep thinking about who it could have been. You have a growing list of words that you could use to describe this person, but no name and no face, just a big question mark. You have that warm and tingly feeling, knowing that you are loved, but you can’t get the question mark out of your mind. You just have to figure out who it was!
So far, the story illustrates Natural Theology. You have been using the powers of human reason to figure out the identity of the pizza-maker. You are certain that the pizza didn’t show up by chance. It was intentional, and someone did it. You’ve figured out certain qualities of that person: he or she is loving, kind, careful, conscientious, timely, creative, and thoughtful. But you still don’t know who it is. Dr. Cavadini follows early Christian writers (Justin Martyr, Origen and Augustine) who point to Socrates as the ideal example of someone engaged in the search for truth using human reason, that is, Natural Theology. Socrates is open and proceeds from one question to another to see what he can discover, but the quest is never-ending. At the end of Natural Theology there is some certainty, but also still a big question mark. Who made this pizza for me?
Imagine, then, that you finish eating, put the leftover pizza in some Tupperware, and head to the fridge. When you get there you find a note on the door that you missed earlier. It reads:
Hi hon!
I hope you liked the pizza!
Sorry I couldn’t stay to eat it with you.
I had a dinner appointment with friends,
but I wanted you to know that I love you.
Love, Mom 
(p.s. just because)
Suddenly it all makes sense. Mom has a key to your house. Why didn’t you think of that before? She knows your favorite toppings and what time you get off work. You were right: she really is loving, kind, careful, conscientious, timely, creative, and thoughtful. Now you have a person to link with that list, and now the knowledge you gained without the note contributes to a stronger relationship with someone in particular: your mom.
The note on the fridge is like Scripture (revelation). In Scripture God reveals to us his name and his intentions for us. Natural Theology only gets us so far. If we’re thinking well, we can figure out a lot of things about God, but we still can’t really enter into a relationship with him until we know who he is. A Catholic would say that Natural Theology gives us certainty, but not completeness. You were certain that someone made you pizza. You knew a number of things to be true about that person, but you didn’t have complete knowledge. You didn’t know who made it or why. After you read the note, those things became clear.
Natural theology prepares us for revelation. And though God gave all of us the gift of reason (§159*), the proper use of it is up to us. Catholics do not think that this faculty is totally damaged by sin. It has the potential of working properly, though without revelation it never works perfectly. If in our quest for God we are truly open to him and don’t close off the search prematurely, then we will attain understanding. This knowledge can be certain (under the right conditions), but not exhaustive (§46–47). Many (most?) versions of Protestant theology have little place for Natural Theology. The Reformed doctrine of ‘total depravity,’ for example, sees our reason as totally corrupted by the Fall, unreliable and guaranteed to lead us astray. But on one thing Protestants and Catholics agree. Both groups believe we won’t have saving knowledge of God until we encounter special revelation (i.e. the Bible). In spite of the value they place on Natural Theology, then, Catholics still recognize that our reason can only get us so far. We cannot know God fully or intimately without revelation. We can think about pizza all day and never know who to thank for it.
Hopefully this vignette has given you a (pizza-flavored) taste of what I learned at Notre Dame. My goal for this course was to understand more clearly what Catholics believe from their perspective. Too often we rely on caricatures of each other’s believes without really stopping to listen. Our assignments for the class are to re-explain parts of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) to a particular audience, and I picked readers of my personal blog (who are mostly Evangelicals). I thought readers of the Wheaton blog may be interested as well. Stay tuned for more posts on Catholic Theology from an Evangelical perspective. I should warn you from the outset, though,  that I’m far more comfortable in biblical studies than theology. These explanations of Catholic Theology will be pretty basic, but hopefully helpful in some way to the non-specialist and specialist alike.
*section numbers in parentheses refer to the relevant section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church

About Carmen Imes

I entered Wheaton's doctoral program in 2011 with an Old Testament concentration under Dr. Daniel Block. I have an MA in Biblical Studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (Charlotte campus), and a BA from Multnomah University in Portland, Oregon. My husband, Danny, and I are missionaries with SIM and we have 3 great kids: Eliana, Emma, and Easton. You can find my personal blog at I'm passionate about the Word of God, both written and incarnate, and I long to see our generation transformed so that we can truly know God and reflect Him to the world.
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5 Responses to Catholic Theology (Part 1): pizza and natural theology

  1. Pingback: Catholic Theology (Part 1b): a follow-up question « For Christ and His Kingdom

  2. Pingback: Catholic Theology (Part 2): Do Catholics Have True Faith? « For Christ and His Kingdom

  3. Pingback: Catholic Theology (Part 3); Are Science and Scripture Compatible? « For Christ and His Kingdom

  4. Pingback: Catholic Theology (Part 4): Heaven, Hell, and “in between” — The Catholic Doctrine of Purgatory « For Christ and His Kingdom

  5. Pingback: Catholic Theology (Part 8): Of Popes and Bishops — Catholic Ecclesiology « For Christ and His Kingdom

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