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Early Greek Philosophy and the Early Church

Forms of the argument go way back in western classical tradition. Perhaps we should begin where it all begins - with the early Greeks. The pre-Christian Stoics believed that the order and harmony of the cosmos demanded explanation (Emerton 1989, p. 129). In 45 BCE the Roman lawyer Cicero in his book The Nature of the Gods presented both sides of the argument. Speaking for the Stoic's who favored a teleological view he posed the question, "When we see a mechanism such as a planetary model or a clock, do we doubt that it is the work of a conscious intelligence? So how can we doubt that the world is the work of the divine intelligence?" (2.97)

The Atomists (who were in the Epicurean camp) disagreed. Cicero presents their view as well, "The world is made by a natural process, without any need of a creator...Atoms come together and are held by mutual attraction." No intelligent designer need be postulated. And if there were an intelligent designer, the atomist Lucretius adds, the world in some respects is really badly designed (Emerton, p. 130). When we read of these two contesting points of view from all the way back in 45 BCE (!) today's conversations feel like déjà vu - all over again!

The early church eagerly took up the idea of nature as a witness to God, Tertullian even spoke in terms of a double revelation in "God's two books" the book of nature and the Bible (Emerton, p. 131). Nature's design - as seen in the order and beauty of the heavens, the anatomy and physiology of living creatures, and the suitability of the environment to support life - became and has continued to be for Christian theology a pointer to God.

Contributed by: Dr. Anna Case-Winters

Cosmic Questions

Was the Universe Designed? Topic Index
The Argument from Design: What is at Stake Theologically?

Early Greek Philosophy and the Early Church

The Middle Ages: Classic Formulation
The Scientific Revolution: Challenges and New Forms
18th and 19th Centuries: New Form and New Challenges
20th Century: New Forms and New Challenges
Contemporary Forms: Intelligibility and Suitability for the Emergence of Life
Conclusion: What is at Stake Theologically?


Anna Case-Winters

A revised version of this paper was published in Zygon, March 2000, vol. 35, no. 1, pp. 69-81.

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