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William Paley's Natural Theology: An Anglican Classic?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 January 2009

Graham Cole


This article pursues the question of whether William Paley's Natural Theology is an Anglican classic. I place Paley's natural theology project in its historical context of skepticism about Christianity's truth claims and in the context of Paley's ‘system’. His teleological argument is briefly explained and four challenges, past and present, to its thesis are considered. The question of what makes a work a classic is explored in terms of its enduring interest, especially in the light of the controversy concerning Intelligent Design Theory, and its enduring value. It is argued that because of its enduring interest and value Paley's Natural Theology may be judged a classic but not of a peculiarly Anglican kind.

Research Article
Copyright © SAGE Publications (Los Angeles, London, New Delhi and Singapore) and The Journal of Anglican Studies Trust 2007

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1. On Paley in general see Clarke, M. L., Paley: Evidences for the Man (London: SPCK, 1974)Google Scholar and LeMahieu, D. L., The Mind of Paley: A Philosopher and His Age (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1976).Google Scholar

2. Clarke, , Paley, p. 129Google Scholar, explains that ‘Little-go’ was the popular name for the examination that all undergraduates took in their second year.

3. Clarke, , Paley, p. 134.Google Scholar

4. Eddy, M. D., ‘The Rhetoric and Science of William Paley's Natural Theology’, Literature and Theology, 18.1 (03, 2004), pp. 122.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

5. Paley, William, Natural Theology: Evidence of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006)Google Scholar. Although a reprint, the volume does have two editors: Matthew D. Eddy and David M. Knight.

6. Butler, Joseph, The Analogy of Religion, To the Constitution and Course of Nature: Also, Fifteen Sermons, On Subjects Chiefly Ethical (London: The Religious Tract Society, n.d.), p. xiv.Google Scholar

7. Paxton, J. (ed.), The Works of William Paley (5 vols.; London: T. Tegg, 1845), II, p. 310Google Scholar. This unlikely place — a discussion entitled ‘Reverencing the Deity’ — contains the best summary of Paley's perception of the challenges facing the Christian apologist by infidelity and free-thinking in the second half of the eighteenth century.

8. For Paley's response to Gibbon see my ‘“Who Can Refute a Sneer?” Paley on Gibbon’, Tyndale Bulletin, 491 (05 1998), pp. 5770.Google Scholar

9. Barker, E., Traditions of Civility (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1948), p. 209.Google Scholar

10. Paxton, , Works, IV, pp. vivii.Google Scholar

11. Paxton, , Works, IV, p. vii.Google Scholar

12. Paxton, , Works, II, pp. 4142.Google Scholar

13. For a defense of this reading of Paley, see my, ‘Ethics and Eschatology — Paley's System Reconsidered’, The Reformed Theological Review, XLVII.2 (1988), pp. 3343.Google Scholar

14. Paxton, , Works, IV, p. 1.Google Scholar

15. Paxton, , Works, IV, p. 1Google Scholar. The argument from a clock to a clock maker is very ancient. See Cicero's The Nature of the God (45 BCE) and the discussion in Case-Winters, Anna, ‘The Argument from Design: What Is at Stake Theologically?’, Zygon, 35.1 (03 2000), p. 70.Google Scholar

16. Paxton, , Works, IV, p. 1.Google Scholar

17. The substance of this paragraph is taken from Paxton, , Works, IV, pp. 25.Google Scholar

18. His later extended discussion of the problem of evil is further evidence of Paley's awareness that not all the appearances of nature clearly favoured his position and of the limitations of his argument, Paxton, , Works, IV, pp. 323–37Google Scholar, ‘Of the origins of evil, no universal solution has been discovered; I mean, no solution which reaches all cases of complaint’, p. 323.

19. Paley became ill in 1800 and suffered considerable ill health during the writing of the Natural Theology and finally succumbed to the complaint in 1805, LeMahieu, , Mind, p. 28Google Scholar. He knew the problem of pain personally.

20. Paxton, , Works, IV, pp. 4950.Google Scholar

21. Eddy, , ‘Rhetoric and Science’Google Scholar, convincingly argues that Paley was intentionally seeking to ‘play on the heart-strings of empirically minded readers’, p. 1.

22. Paxton, , Works, IV, p. 50.Google Scholar

23. Paxton, , Works, IV, p. 290.Google Scholar

24. Hume, David, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (New York: Hafner/Collins, 1948), p. 18.Google Scholar

25. Hume, , Dialogues, p. 47.Google Scholar

26. Hume, , Dialogues, p. 23.Google Scholar

27. Hume, , Dialogues, p. 41.Google Scholar

28. Hume, , Dialogues, p. 79.Google Scholar

29. Hume, , Dialogues, p. 79.Google Scholar

30. Hume, , Dialogues, p. 40.Google Scholar

31. For example, Kessler, Gary E. (ed.), Voices of Wisdom: A Multicultural Reader (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1992), p. 322Google Scholar, ‘Paley seems unaware of his [Hume's] work.’ However, see Paxton, , Works, IV, p. 336Google Scholar, ‘Mr. Hume, in his posthumous dialogues, asserts…’ Kessler also maintains that Paley was ‘a defender of the Christian evangelical cause’, p. 322. Astonishing!

32. Quoted in LeMahieu, , Mind of Paley, p. 178.Google Scholar

33. There is a judicious account of Darwin's religious views in Alister McGrath, Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005), pp. 7276Google Scholar. Also see Futuyama, Douglas J., ‘The Growth of Evolutionary Science’, in Angeloni, Elvio (ed.), Annual Editions: Physical Anthropology 06/07 (Dubuque, IO: McGraw Hill, 15th edn, 2006), p. 5.Google Scholar

34. Alters, Brian J. and Alters, Sandra, ‘Why Should Students Learn Evolution?’Google Scholar in Angeloni, , Annual Editions, p. 24.Google Scholar

35. Alters, and Alters, , ‘Why Should Students Learn Evolution?’, p. 24.Google Scholar

36. Alters, and Alters, , ‘Why Should Students Learn Evolution?’, p. 24.Google Scholar

37. Futuyama, , ‘Growth of Evolutionary Science’, p. 8.Google Scholar

38. Dawkins, Richard, ‘The Blind Watchmaker’Google Scholar, in Kessler, , Voices, p. 329.Google Scholar

39. Dawkins, , ‘Blind Watchmaker’, p. 330Google Scholar. For a fine critique of Dawkins' attempt to draw atheistic conclusions from Darwinian theory see McGrath, , Dawkins' GodGoogle Scholar. McGrath is in complete sympathy though with Dawkins' critique of Paley.

40. Methodological naturalism may or may not carry with it a metaphysical naturalism. For example, a theist may employ methodological naturalism in writing a history of taxation in Britain, which simply means that ‘God’ is not a term used for historical explanation. I prefer to call this, ‘observing methodological subsidiarity’. See my ‘Scripture and the Disciplines: The Question of Expectations’, Zadok Paper S142, (Summer 2005).Google Scholar

41. Dawkins, , ‘Blind Watchmaker’, p. 331.Google Scholar

42. Halverson, William H., A Concise Introduction to Philosophy (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 4th edn, 1981), p. 9.Google Scholar

43. McGrath, , Dawkins' God, pp. 6063.Google Scholar

44. McGrath, , Dawkins' God, p. 65.Google Scholar

45. McGrath, , Dawkins' God, p. 65Google Scholar. This is extreme overstatement and anachronism. For a more balanced view of how Paley was typical of his era in his use of earlier sources, see Eddy, , ‘Rhetoric and Science’, p. 14Google Scholar. Also see Paxton, , Works, IV, p. 226Google Scholar, where Paley explicitly shows his indebtedness to Ray.

46. McGrath, , Dawkins' God, p. 65.Google Scholar

47. McGrath, , Dawkins' God, p. 71.Google Scholar

48. McGrath, , Dawkins' God, p. 71.Google Scholar

49. McGrath, , Dawkins' God, pp. 6768.Google Scholar

50. McGrath, , Dawkins' God, p. 69.Google Scholar

51. McGrath's harshness is excessive. He fails to appreciate the nature of Paley's systematic effort over his four main works. Paley was aware that the appeal to Christian evidences begged a question of God's existence and he did his best to meet the objection in his Natural Theology. This is hardly ‘adventurism’. I applaud Paley in this insight although, like McGrath does, I find Paley's own natural theology leaves me decidedly cold.

52. See Niebuhr, H. Richard, Christ and Culture (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), p. xiii.Google Scholar

53. Watson, Francis, ‘The Scope of Hermeneutics’, in Gunton, Colin E. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 65.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

54. For example, Paley, William and Paley, Edmund, The Works of William Paley: With Additional Sermons, and a Corrected Account of the Life and Writings of the Author (Bristol: Thoemmes, 1998).Google Scholar

55. Kessler, , Voices, pp. 323–27.Google Scholar

56. Pojman, Louis P., Classics of Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003, 2nd edn, 2003), pp. 273–75.Google Scholar Extraordinarily, he describes Paley as ‘a leading evangelical philosopher’. Paley, however, was ‘Latitudinarian’ in approach. See Searby, Peter, A History of the University of Cambridge, Volume III, 1750—1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 302303.Google Scholar

57. Even so, despite the claims of its supporters, on my reading of the controversy Intelligent Design seems more like a philosophical theory than a strictly scientific one, metaphysical rather than physical.

58. Behe, Michael, Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (New York: The Free Press, 1996), p. 211.Google Scholar

59. Behe, , Black Box, p. 213.Google Scholar

60. Behe, , Black Box, pp. 214–16.Google Scholar

61. Behe, , Black Box, p. 217. Sober's book is Philosophy of Biology (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993).Google Scholar

62. Behe, , Black Box, p. 213.Google Scholar

63. Dembski, William, Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science & Theology (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1999), p. 71.Google Scholar

64. Dembski, , Intelligent Design, pp. 71, 273–75, especially.Google Scholar

65. Dembski, William, The Intelligent Design Movement’, Cosmic Pursuit (Spring 1998)Google Scholar, reprinted online accessed 19 April 2005. This article also contains a brief useful history of the Intelligent Design movement by one of its advocates.

66. Dembski, , ‘The Intelligent Design Movement’.Google Scholar

67. Hence the enormous controversy in the USA as to whether Intelligent Design should be in the science curricula of schools. Intelligent Design is not creation science by another name, despite some of its critics. For one such critic see Jack Rennie, who argues that ‘Opponents of evolution want to make a place for creationism by tearing down real science’ in his ‘15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense’, in Angeloni, , Annual Editions, p. 16.Google Scholar In this article he refers to both Behe, and Dembski, , pp. 2122.Google Scholar However, both Behe and Dembski think that Intelligent Design is compatible with some theory of macro-evolution – Behe, , Black Box, p. 5Google Scholar: ‘I find the idea of common descent (that all organisms share a common ancestor) fairly convincing, and have no particular reason to doubt it’; and Dembski, , Intelligent Design, p. 252.Google Scholar For a good brief and balanced statement of the issues involved in the North American debate see ‘Intelligent Design Rears its Head’, The Economist (30 07 2005), pp. 3031.Google Scholar

68. Dembski, , Intelligent Design, pp. 271–75.Google Scholar

69. Dembski, , Intelligent Design, p. 276.Google Scholar

70. Dembski, , Intelligent Design, p. 276.Google Scholar

71. Dembski, , Intelligent Design, p. 252.Google Scholar

72. Halverson, , Concise Introduction to Philosophy, p. 166.Google Scholar Does the Pauline use of the vaguer theiotés in Rom. 1.20 rather than the theotés of Col. 2:9 support Halverson's point?

73. Paxton, , Works, IV, chs. XXII–XXVI.Google Scholar

74. Paxton, , Works, IV, p. 355.Google Scholar

75. Heidegger, Martin, An Introduction to Metaphysics (trans. Manheim, Ralph; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964), p. 1.Google Scholar As an anonymous reviewer of this article pointed out, Heidegger was following Leibniz in this.

76. The distinction between the two questions and the different natural theology arguments that arise from it is well stated by Case-Winters, ‘The Argument from Design’, pp. 6970.Google Scholar

77. Some recent philosophical proposals suggest that analogy between the universe and works of art is a better way forward than one between mechanisms and the universe. See Garcia, Laura L., ‘Teleological and Design Arguments’, in Quinn, Philip L. and Taliaferro, Charles (eds.), A Companion to Philosophy of Religion (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2000), p. 339.Google Scholar

78. Paxton, , Works, IV, pp. 356–57.Google Scholar

79. For an anthology, as an example see Kessler, , Voices, pp. 322–27Google Scholar and for an introductory text on the philosophy of religion, as an example see Peterson, Michael, Hasker, William, Reichenbach, Bruce and Basinger, David, Reasons and Religious Belief: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2nd edn, 1998), pp. 100102Google Scholar in a section titled, ‘The Analogical Teleological Argument’.

80. Sober, , Philosophy of Biology, pp. 3435.Google Scholar

81. See Garcia, , ‘Design Arguments’, pp. 339–44Google Scholar, especially p. 344.

82. Le Mahieu, , Mind of Paley, p. 49.Google Scholar

83. Paxton, , Works, IV, p. vii.Google Scholar

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