Holy Scripture Teaches Natural Theology
The heavens declare the glory of God,
And the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
And night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
Whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
And their words to the end of the world. (Ps. 19:1-4a)
With these words, David begins a Psalm which elegantly describes two ways in which God is revealed to man: Nature (Ps. 19:1-4) and Word (Ps. 19:7-14). But what do these words mean? The sky proclaims, the day speaks, the night reveals knowledge; but, without speech, words, or voice, “their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” One of my sons asked me this very question the other night. I pointed him to the heavens, and we talked about how the very existence of our universe, the beauty of the night sky, of the forest, of even little plants like mushrooms that grow under the foliage, all point to the glory of God. Their very existence, beauty, and goodness, are like words joyfully proclaiming, “We are His creation. He made us, and He made you.” Without words, without language, without any articulate sounds, the Cosmos says, “God is a great, almighty, and provident Creator.” Commenting these verses, John Calvin says,
There is certainly nothing so obscure or contemptible, even in the smallest corners of the earth, in which some marks of the power and wisdom of God may not be seen; but as a more distinct image of him is engraven on the heavens, David has particularly selected them for contemplation, that their splendour might lead us to contemplate all parts of the world. When a man, from beholding and contemplating the heavens, has been brought to acknowledge God, he will learn also to reflect upon and to admire his wisdom and power as displayed on the face of the earth, not only in general, but even in the minutest plants.
For Calvin, all of creation, from the heavens to the smallest plants, display that God is, and that God is powerful and wise. Not just creation in general, but each part of creation, reflects, is engraved with, and displays divine power and wisdom. That Nature displays the existence, power, and wisdom of God is a truth that all Christians have consistently affirmed as the clear teaching of Scriptures. This truth is what the term “Natural Revelation” points to. But, can man understand this revelation? Can man through his reasoned observations of the Cosmos, come to know something of God? This, the question of whether a “Natural Theology” is possible, is a question which has been hotly debated in Reformed circles over the past century, and it is this question that we will seek to answer through a historically grounded interpretation of a number of key Bible passages. In this article, we have two goals, first, to consider what the Bible teaches about Natural Theology, and, second, to consider the purposes of Natural Revelation and Theology. For Calvin, all of creation, from the heavens to the smallest plants, display that God is, and that God is powerful and wise. Click To Tweet
Holy Scripture Teaches Natural Theology
In this section, we will briefly defend the historic Christian interpretation of Scriptures, by which the Scriptures affirm not only that God is revealed in Nature, but that man is able to understand that revelation and acquire a natural knowledge of God. There are a number of Scripture passages, from both Testaments, which could be cited to support the doctrine of Natural Theology, however, we will limit ourselves to two groups of texts: (1) Psalm 19:1-6 and Romans 1:19-20, and (2) Psalm 104, Acts 14:15-17, and Acts 17:24-28. These texts are grouped together because of common themes found in the two groups. The first group of texts emphasizes a natural knowledge of God’s existence, power, and divine nature. The second group puts the accent on a natural knowledge of God’s goodness to man through his provident ordering of the Cosmos.
Naturally Knowing the Divine Nature
Psalm 19:1-6, as we saw above, suggests that the Universe reveals God’s glory and greatness. However, as James Barr has rightly pointed out, “some would say, [adhering to a Barthian or Van Tillian denial of Natural Theology] the heavenly bodies indeed declare the glory of God, but the declaration that they make is one unintelligible and inaccessible to humans.” That is, Natural Revelation is possible but not Natural Theology. Such an interpretation, however, runs into a problem that we could call “the goose and the gander problem.” As noted above, Psalm 19 is composed of two main parts: (1) Nature’s revelation of God—Psalm 19:1-6, and (2) God’s self-revelation in divinely revealed Scriptures—Psalm 19:7-11. What is true of the first part must be taken as true of the second part. That is, if man can obtain no knowledge of God from Natural Revelation, though it clearly reveals God, then man can obtain no knowledge of God from Special Revelation. The inverse would also be true: If Special Revelation reveals truth about God that man can and does know, then so does Natural Revelation. That which Natural Revelation reveals about God—that He is, that he is powerful and wise, and so on—is known as Natural Theology. According to this passage, we know that God is the glorious creator of the Cosmos; there is, therefore, a Natural Theology. If man can obtain no knowledge of God from Natural Revelation, though it clearly reveals God, then man can obtain no knowledge of God from Special Revelation. Click To Tweet
Calvin, in fact, goes further in his explanation of this passage. He notes not only what we know of God, but also how we know it. He says,
David shows how it is that the heavens proclaim to us the glory of God, namely, by openly bearing testimony that they have not been put together by chance, but were wonderfully created by the supreme Architect. When we behold the heavens, we cannot but be elevated, by the contemplation of them, to Him who is their great Creator; and the beautiful arrangement and wonderful variety which distinguish the courses and station of the heavenly bodies, together with the beauty and splendour which are manifest in them, cannot but furnish us with an evident proof of his providence. Scripture, indeed, makes known to us the time and manner of the creation; but the heavens themselves, although God should say nothing on the subject, proclaim loudly and distinctly enough that they have been fashioned by his hands: and this of itself abundantly suffices to bear testimony to men of his glory. As soon as we acknowledge God to be the supreme Architect, who has erected the beauteous fabric of the universe, our minds must necessarily be ravished with wonder at his infinite goodness, wisdom, and power.
Calvin appears, in this section, to be appealing to the well-known classical theistic argument from the ordered structure and beauty of the Cosmos. The particular form of the argument which he is referring to is what I have called, elsewhere, the “Ciceronian argument from Beauty,” found in Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods. Continuing his commentary, Calvin notes that though the philosophers may have a better understanding of how the stars are ordered, “to the ignorant and unlettered, the continual succession of days is a more undoubted proof of the providence of God.” For Calvin, then, one of the key points of this passage is that though it may be possible to delve into the fabric of the cosmos and to construct elaborate arguments about it, the very wondrous and beautiful existence of the Cosmos is itself sufficient to prove that God is.
Concerning the language “spoken” by the heavens, Calvin notes that “Different nations differ from each other as to language; but the heavens have a common language to teach all men without distinction, nor is there any thing but their own carelessness to hinder even those who are most strange to each other, and who live in the most distant parts of the world, from profiting, as it were, at the mouth of the same teacher.” Not only is God revealed in the heavens, but He is revealed in a way that is readily understood by all humans, regardless of culture, language, or education. It is so manifest, and obvious to even the uneducated, says Calvin, that we are without excuse for not worshipping this powerful and wise creator.
Perhaps we might conclude this discussion of Psalm 19 by pointing out that if we read it as culminating in David’s prayer for purity (Ps. 19:12-14), it seems that we must understand the knowledge of God’s glory and justice, revealed in Nature and in Scripture, as that which brings David to his knees in worship and in prayer, and creates a desire for holiness.
Turning from the Old to the New Testament, we turn to Romans 1:19-20, which has been traditionally understood as teaching that God is not only revealed in the Cosmos, but that through this natural revelation man is able to know that God is, and something of the divine nature, such as His power. Natural Theology flows naturally from Natural Revelation. This natural knowledge of God is so obvious “in the things that have been made (Rom. 1:20)” that man is without excuse for suppressing this knowledge and for his idolatrous worship of anything and everything other than God. In these verses, Paul is so clearly thinking of Psalm 19:1-6 that we could read Romans 1:19-20 as a New Testament commentary on this passage. Not only is God revealed in the heavens, but He is revealed in a way that is readily understood by all humans, regardless of culture, language, or education. Click To Tweet
As clear as such a verse may appear, not all interpreters have read this passage to be teaching Natural Theology. Some Twentieth Century interpreters, such as Cornelius Van Til and Karl Barth, have argued that though humans may have once been able to know something of God through Nature, this ability was lost with the Fall. Both Van Til and Barth also seem to suggest that this is Calvin’s own interpretation of Romans 1:19-20. This is, however, neither Calvin’s, nor the traditional, nor even the proper, interpretation of Romans 1:19-20.
Rather, that Paul is here teaching that there is a Natural Theology is made evident by (1) the relation of these verses to Psalm 19. (2) The very argument of Romans 1:19-3:23 requires us to understand Romans 1:19-20 as teaching that there is a Natural Theology. These verses mentioned conclude that all men are responsible for and guilty of sin (both idolatry and immorality), and, therefore, are rightly judged by God. Paul’s appeal to Natural Theology in Romans 1 is used to prove that even the pagans, without special revelation and divine oracles, are responsible for worshipping God and guilty for not doing so. Finally, (3) the very language used in these verses, to support this argument, points to a Natural Theology which is as present to man now as it was before the Fall. Douglas Moo reminds us that, “Scholars have long recognized that the Greek aorist tense does not, in itself, indicate ‘one-time’ action; it can depict action of all kinds, including continuous and repeated action. Some grammarians would go even further and claim that the aorist (even in the indicative mood) has, in itself, no indication of time of action either.” Why is this important? Because, as Moo rightly suggests, though the Barthian/Van Tillian interpretation of this passage
has certain undeniable strengths …[it] cannot finally be accepted. The tense Paul uses in vv. 19-31 need not indicate a single past experience; and, more important, this view fails to explain the heart of this passage: the characterization of all those upon whom the wrath of God falls as those who possessed the truth of God but turned from it. Paul says more than that all people experienced the consequences of an original turning away from God, or even that all people shared such an original turning away. He insists that those who turned were also those who knew better, and who are consequently deserving of God’s wrath. This, coupled with the obviously universal thrust of vv. 18 and 32, make clear that this foolish and culpable rejection of the knowledge of God is repeated in every generation, by every individual. Every person is ‘without excuse’ because every person—whether a first-century pagan or a twentieth-century materialist—has been given a knowledge of God and has spurned that knowledge in favor of idolatry, in all its varied manifestations. All therefore stand under the awful reality of the wrath of God, and all are in desperate need of the justifying power of the gospel of Christ.
Paul is teaching, in this passage, the same truth which is taught in Psalm 19:1-6: (1) the Cosmos clearly manifests, so clearly that one can almost hear words of their song, that God is, and that God is the eternal, all-powerful, all-wise, good and provident Creator; (2) this revelation is given to, and can be understood by, all men everywhere; and, (3) Natural Theology rightly leads to worship. Paul adds to these truths the equally clear consequence, that (4) the clarity of the message coupled with man’s suppression of it is the grounds for the just judgment of God on all men everywhere. Paul’s use of Natural Theology is evangelistic—that is, designed to turn men towards the Creator God who not only provided for man’s bodily needs, but who, by sending his Son, also provided for man’s spiritual needs. Click To Tweet
Naturally Knowing Divine Goodness
We turn, now, to another selection of passages which can be grouped together because of the emphasis that they put on the fact that the goodness and providence of the Creator are revealed in the beauty, structure, and order of nature. Psalm 104:5-24, for example, emphasizes the provident goodness and wisdom of God towards all creatures, extending to all men, the good and the bad. The Psalmist praises God for his providence towards man by saying “You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man’s heart” (Ps. 104:14-15). Furthermore, the days and seasons are ordered for the good of man and beast (Ps. 104:19-23, 27-30), revealing divine providence. Through his many works God’s wisdom is seen (Ps. 104:24). Recognizing God’s goodness, providence, and wisdom in the ordering of creation drives the Psalmist to worship God (Ps. 104:31-35).
In Acts 14 and 17, we find two records of two of Paul’s sermons to the pagans. In both passages Paul points the pagans to the goodness and providence of the Creator. In Acts 14:8-18, the people of Lystra see Paul perform a miracle, and recognize that this can only be done by the divine. However, in their ignorance, they attribute this miracle to two of the Greek gods. When Paul corrects this grievous error, he points the pagans to Nature. He says, “Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them … Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:15, 17). In words that closely resemble the main point of Psalm 104, Paul uses Natural Theology to correct the pagan idolatrous beliefs about the divine, pointing them to the one true God who is the good and provident Creator of all. We see that God is, by the “witness” of Nature, because he never ceases to satisfy us and make us happy by providing for our needs.
Paul uses the exact same tactic in Acts 17, with the Greeks in Athens, when he says “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man…he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him” (Acts 17:24, 26-27a). Note, here, that Paul again points to the structure and ordering of the Cosmos, and God’s provision of life and all that man needs, as signs which were established so that mankind would seek and find God. As with Psalm 104, and the sermon to the Laodiceans in Acts 14, Paul here uses Nature to turn men to God. That is, Paul’s use of Natural Theology is evangelistic—that is, designed to turn men towards the Creator God who not only provided for man’s bodily needs, but who, by sending his Son, also provided for man’s spiritual needs. In so doing, he again notes that Natural theology should cause man to worship their Creator.