This distinguishes it from revealed theology, which is based on scripture and/or religious experiences, also from transcendental theology, which is based on a priori reasoning. It is thus a type of philosophy, with the aim of explaining the nature of the gods, or of one supreme God. For monotheistic religions, this principally involves arguments about the attributes or non-attributes of God, and especially the existence of God, using arguments that do not involve recourse to supernatural revelation.
The ideals of natural theology can be traced back to the Old Testament and Greek philosophy. Early sources evident of these ideals come from Jeremiah and The Wisdom of Solomon (c. 50 BC) and Plato's dialogue Timaeus (c. 360 BC).
Marcus Terentius Varro (116-27 BCE) established a distinction between political theology (the social functions of religion), natural theology and mythical theology. His terminology became part of the Stoic tradition and then Christianity through Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas.
Besides Hesiod's Works and Days and Zarathushtra's Gathas, Plato gives the earliest surviving account of a natural theology. In the Timaeus, written c. 360 BCE, we read: "We must first investigate concerning [the whole Cosmos] that primary question which has to be investigated at the outset in every case, -- namely, whether it has always existed, having no beginning or generation, or whether it has come into existence, having begun from some beginning." In the Laws, in answer to the question as to what arguments justify faith in the gods, Plato affirms: "One is our dogma about the soul...the other is our dogma concerning the ordering of the motion of the stars".
Varro (Marcus Terentius Varro) in his (lost) Antiquitates rerum humanarum et divinarum (Antiquities of Human and Divine Things, 1st century BCE) established a distinction between three kinds of theology: civil (political) (theologia civilis), natural (physical) (theologia naturalis) and mythical (theologia mythica). The theologians of civil theology are "the people", asking how the gods relate to daily life and the state (imperial cult). The theologians of natural theology are the philosophers, asking about the nature of the gods, and the theologians of mythical theology are the poets, crafting mythology.
From the 8th century CE, the Mutazilite school of Islam, compelled to defend their principles against the orthodox Islam of their day, used philosophy for support, and were among the first to pursue a rational Islamic theology, termed Ilm-al-Kalam (scholastic theology). The teleological argument was later presented by the early Islamic philosophers Alkindus and Averroes, while Avicenna presented both the cosmological argument and the ontological argument in The Book of Healing (1027).
Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225 - 1274) presented several versions of the cosmological argument in his Summa Theologica, and of the teleological argument in his Summa contra Gentiles. He presented the ontological argument, but rejected it in favor of proofs that invoke cause and effect alone. His quinque viae ("five ways") in those books attempted to demonstrate the existence of God in different ways, including (as way No. 5) the goal-directed actions seen in nature.
Raymond of Sabunde's (c. 1385-1436) Theologia Naturalis sive Liber Creaturarum, written 1434-1436, but published posthumously (1484), marks an important stage in the history of natural theology.
John Ray (1627-1705) also known as John Wray, was an English naturalist, sometimes referred to as the father of English natural history. He published important works on plants, animals, and natural theology, with the objective "to illustrate the glory of God in the knowledge of the works of nature or creation".
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) established another term for natural theology as theodicy, defined exactly as "the justification of God". He viewed the science in a positive light as it supported his personal ethical belief system.
William Derham (1657-1735) continued Ray's tradition of natural theology in two of his own works, Physico-Theology, published during 1713, and Astro-Theology, 1714. These later influenced the work of William Paley.
In An Essay on the Principle of Population, published during 1798, Thomas Malthus ended with two chapters on natural theology and population. Malthus--a devout Christian--argued that revelation would "damp the soaring wings of intellect", and thus never let "the difficulties and doubts of parts of the scripture" interfere with his work.
William Paley, an important influence on Charles Darwin, gave a well-known rendition of the teleological argument for God. During 1802 he published Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity collected from the Appearances of Nature. In this he described the Watchmaker analogy, for which he is probably best known. However, his book, which was one of the most published books of the 19th and 20th century, presents a number of teleological and cosmological arguments for the existence of God. The book served as a template for many subsequent natural theologies during the 19th century.
Professor of chemistry and natural history, Edward Hitchcock also studied and wrote on natural theology. He attempted to unify and reconcile science and religion, emphasizing geology. His major work of this type was The Religion of Geology and its Connected Sciences (1851).
The Gifford Lectures were established by the will of Adam Lord Gifford to "promote and diffuse the study of Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term--in other words, the knowledge of God." The term natural theology as used by Gifford means theology supported by science and not dependent on the miraculous.
William Lane Craig (1949-present) continues to show further interest in natural theology via his ongoing work at Houston Baptist University and Talbot School of Theology. Specifically, he explores through his work, exactly what natural theology has evolved into, in more modern terms.
Debates over the applicability of teleology to scientific questions continued during the nineteenth century, as Paley's argument about design conflicted with radical new theories on the transmutation of species. In order to support the scientific ideas of the time, which explored the natural world within Paley's framework of a divine designer, Francis Henry Egerton, 8th Earl of Bridgewater, a gentleman naturalist, commissioned eight Bridgewater Treatises upon his deathbed to explore "the Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation." They were published first during the years 1833 to 1840, and afterwards in Bohn's Scientific Library. The treatises are:
In response to the claim in Whewell's treatise that "We may thus, with the greatest propriety, deny to the mechanical philosophers and mathematicians of recent times any authority with regard to their views of the administration of the universe", Charles Babbage published what he termed The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, A Fragment. As his preface states, this volume was not part of that series, but rather his own considerations of the subject. He draws on his own work on calculating engines to consider God as a divine programmer setting complex laws as the basis of what we think of as miracles, rather than miraculously producing new species by creative whim. There was also a fragmentary supplement to this, published posthumously by Thomas Hill.
The theology of the Bridgewater Treatises was often disputed, given that it assumed humans could have knowledge of God acquired by observation and reasoning without the aid of revealed knowledge.
The works are of unequal merit; several of them were esteemed as apologetic literature, but they attracted considerable criticism. One notable critic of the Bridgewater Treatises was Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote Criticism. Robert Knox, an Edinburgh surgeon and major advocate of radical morphology, referred to them as the "Bilgewater Treatises", to mock the "ultra-teleological school". Though memorable, this phrase overemphasizes the influence of teleology in the series, at the expense of the idealism of the likes of Kirby and Roget.
The ideals of natural theology did not come without criticism. Many opposed the idea of natural theology but some philosophers had larger influences on the population. The ideals became widely discredited under the influences of David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Søren Kierkegaard, and Charles Darwin. Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics also heavily opposed the entirety of natural theology.
David Hume's Dialogue's Concerning Natural Religion played a major role in Hume's standpoint on natural theology. Hume's ideas heavily stem from the idea of natural belief. It was stated that, "Hume's doctrine of natural belief allows that certain beliefs are justifiably held by all men without regard to the quality of the evidence which may be produced in their favour". However, Hume's argument also stems from the design argument. The design argument comes from people being labeled as morally good or evil. Hume's argument claims that if we restrict ourselves to the idea of good and evil, that we must also assign this to the designer as well. Hume states, "I will allow that pain or misery in man is compatible with infinite power and goodness in the Deity...A mere possible compatibility is not sufficient. You must prove these pure, unmixt, and uncontrollable attributes...". Hume argues for the idea of a morally perfect deity and requires evidence for anything besides that. Hume's arguments against natural theology had a wide influence on many philosophers.
Immanuel Kant and Søren Kierkegaard both had similar ideals when it came to natural theology. Kant's ideals focused more on the natural dialect of reason while Kierkegaard focused more heavily on the dialect of understanding. Both men suggest that, "the natural dialect leads to the question of God". Kant heavily argues for the idea that reason leads to the ideas of God as a regular principle. Kierkegaard heavily argues that the idea of understanding will ultimately lead itself to becoming faith. Both of these men argue that the idea of God cannot solely exist on the idea of reason, that the dialect and ideals will transcend into faith.
Charles Darwin's criticism on the theory had a broader impact on scientists and commoners. Darwin's theories showed that humans and animals developed through an evolutionary process. The idea of this argued that a chemical reaction was occurring, but, it had no influence from the idea of God. However, Darwin's ideas did not erase the question of how the original ideas of matter came to be.
Karl Barth opposed the entirety of natural theology. Barth argued that "by starting from such experience, rather that from the gracious revelation through Jesus Christ, we produce a concept of God that is the projection of the highest we know, a construct of human thinking, divorced from salvation history". Barth argues that God is restricted by the construct of human thinking if He is divorced from salvation.  Barth also acknowledges that God is knowledgeable because of His grace. Barth's argument stems from the idea of faith rather than reason.
usually assigned to the late first century BCE
The Bridgewater Treatises