An Essay on Covenantal Natural Theology — (Part VI)

An Essay on Covenantal Natural Theology — (Part VI)

John Owen

Natural Theology Within the Covenant of Nature

John Owen follows Bullinger in a twofold Word of God, the book of nature and the book of Scripture. He maintains, therefore, a natural theology, and like his predecessors on continental Europe, e.g. Francis Turretin, he understands said natural theology under two distinct circumstances. Of prelapsarian natural theology, he writes, “Mankind was created pure and placed with undefiled nature under the laws of creation. In that situation, true theology was also natural and God-given.”[1] Alluding to a relationship between natural theology and covenant, he says, “Adam’s light… was both God-given and capable of increase and strengthening by following the precepts of the divine will, and by prayerful meditation upon the works of the Creator.” Speaking more to the  kind of theology Adam possessed prior to the fall, “That which derives its nature from first principles is not inaptly styled ‘necessary’ or ‘natural.’” Though, Owen certainly maintains this theology should be credited to God since God must ultimately disclose Himself and His will through the object of natural theology.

Owen moves to make an explicit connection between the covenant of nature or works and Adam’s natural theology when he says:

Indeed, obedience by demonstrating the power of the covenant, must have been willing and intelligent to conform with the theology which we have outlined above [sic]. Adam recognized both his own duty and the promised reward by the efficacy of this theology. The covenant was coeval with mankind, but voluntary obedience was a means of signing and sealing it on Adam’s part. The proposed reward of obedience consisted in nothing more or less than the secure and eternal enjoyment of God.

Unquestionable is it that Owen understood there to be a natural theology inextricably connected with the covenant of nature. He does say, after all, “all true theology is based on some form of divine covenant.” Adam’s natural theology was the very means by which he would obey the natural covenant between himself and his Creator. In Owen, as in Turretin, the covenant of works provides the natural if not ontological context for prelapsarian natural theology.

The Insufficiency of Natural Theology

We must now say something about Owen’s view of the insufficiency of natural theology. The insufficiency of natural theology for salvation is affirmed by all the orthodox. However, Owen makes clear the correspondence of natural theology to works of the law—

All such knowledge, however derailed it might become, could only serve the purposes of the first covenant, the covenant of works. From the day on which that covenant was made void by sin, its efficacy has gone and the best that it can do is to work an outward obedience by the terror of threatened punishment.

Quoting Augustine, he says:

A man might “… keep the commandments through fear of punishment and not through any love to righteousness; what he does externally, he does not perform in his heart. Therefore, internally, he is guilty of sin, however innocent he might deem himself to be…”

Owen saw significant interplay between the covenant of works, man’s obedience to it, and natural theology. Natural theology, therefore, emerges in Turretin and Owen’s thinking as most proper to the covenant of works. But what about Owen’s understanding of the present, postlapsarian use of natural theology? It seemed it could be used, perhaps, as a means of common grace, encouraging, as it were, a civil obedience. It is, moreover, assumed and studied in every legal jurisdiction throughout the world, to one extent or another. However, natural theology cannot be correctly appropriate by those who remain in the broken covenant of works, dead in their sin. Speaking of its place in fallen man, he remarks:

Our verdict upon the first, that remnant inner light, must be this—like everything pertaining to fallen man, it is sinful and flawed. Similarly, its teaching is imperfect and it remains, as I remarked earlier, confined within the limits of the law and contains nothing germane to the saving knowledge of Christ. As the sinful minds of fallen men are replete with darkness and blindness, they must, of necessity, be also faulty in their manner of perceiving divine truths; and so the spiritual efficiency of such remnant light must be fatally limited.

Natural theology, in the final analysis, is not of much use to the fallen man beyond that of mere civil obedience and jurisprudence. It will take higher revelation, together with spiritual illumination in order for man to react to natural theology appropriately.

The Renewal and Use of Natural Theology Under the Covenant of Grace

Owen’s method of arrangement leads him from a lengthy discourse on natural theology under total depravity to the renewal of a true theology following the fall of man. Beginning this section, he writes:

Now we must turn our attention to the phase of theological development which succeeded [natural theology] and took its place. This is not to say that natural theology ceased entirely to exist, or that this new phase (on which we are now embarking) simply replaced it bodily. Rather, the strands of the two combine; remnants of the former surviving the inroads of corruption and combining with the latter and, so, progressing onwards through several noteworthy stages which must be examined.

The “phase” mentioned by Owen should be understood to represent a covenantal shift, “In a word, this new phase of theology consisted of the teachings and promises of the covenant.” As mentioned, however, Owen doesn understand natural theology to be absolutely nor entirely displaced by this covenant of grace. Natural theology, being now the object of renewed man, will be used as an instrumental means of understanding and maturing in this new covenant. Muller writes, “In very much the same vein (of Turretin), Owen can indicate that ‘the inbred principles of natural light, or first necessary dictates of our intellectual, rational nature’ provide a ‘rule unto our apprehension’ of all things, even of divine revelation.”[2]

Conclusion

Owen, thus, represents a full-fledged Reformed orthodoxy on this matter. There are others, such as Johann Heinrich Alsted, Stephen Charnock, Herman Witsius, and Petrus Van Mastricht. Yet, any differences between them would be mostly accidental and not relevant to the overall point of the present essay. Owen clearly understands theology in genera within the context of covenant. Natural theology is germane to the covenant of works. And while it remains, the theology of the covenant of grace makes use of natural theology, but moves far beyond it to Trinity, the incarnation, the atonement, the church, etc. This would, in large part, remain the orthodox judgment on the matter up to the 20th century.

Resources

[1] John Owen, Biblical Theology, (Morgan: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1996), 20.

[2] Muller, PRRD, vol. 1, 301.

An Essay on Covenantal Natural Theology — (Part VI)

An Essay on Covenantal Natural Theology — (Part V)

Francis Turretin

Turretin on the “Covenant of Nature”

By the time we reach the 17th century, we find Francis Turretin affirming an express link between what he calls the “covenant of nature” between God and man and natural theology under a correlate, natural law. The natural covenant is nothing less than what the present author has called the covenant of works throughout this essay. He writes, “The covenant of nature is that which God the Creator made with innocent man as his creature, concerning the giving of eternal happiness and life under the condition of perfect and personal obedience.”[1] This covenant, he says, was “founded on the nature of man (as it was at first created by God) and on [man’s] integrity or powers.” Turretin does not exclude either natural or supernatural theology from the covenant of nature, seeing, as it were, a distinction between general and special parts. There was, according to Turretin, a form of special revelation under the covenant of works which consisted of the positive law, i.e. forbidding Adam to partake of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Nevertheless, implied in the creation account, man was to obey God in all moral or natural duties as well. We quote him at length:

[Man’s duty] was partly general, partly special (according to the twofold law given to him: the moral or natural and the symbolic). The general was the knowledge and worship of God, justice towards his neighbor and every kind of holiness; the special was abstinence from the forbidden fruit (in which obedience to the whole law was contained as in a compendium and specimen). The former was founded on the law of nature not written in a book, but engraven and stamped upon the heart (of which Paul says, “All do by nature the things contained in the law, and show the world of the law written on their hearts,” Rom. 2:14, 15). Thus they who are without the written law are not without the engraven law since they (through the dictates of conscience) are a law unto themselves. The latter was founded upon the symbolic and positive law. The former was principal and primary; the latter, however, only secondary. For although he was bound to obey each special precept or that symbolic law given to him, still most especially was obedience to the natural law required of him (for exploring of which this symbolic precept only served, as will be shown hereafter).

The general category subsumes natural religion, either intuitively (innately) derived or acquired through conscience or external nature, respectively. That Adam had this natural theology uninhibited from sin, Turretin affirms “that it was in him… sufficiently.” The covenant of works and natural theology, specifically natural law, were consonant with one another. And natural theology under the unbroken or prelapsarian covenant of works was without corruption. Turretin adds, “[The covenant of works] was made in the state of nature, so it was known by nature and impressed upon the conscience of men.”[2] The special category, according to Turretin, under the prelapsarian covenant of works contained all positive laws, or laws revealed by God in addition to that which was perceivable through nature. Natural theology, and with it natural law, formed a foundational context in which Adam would receive and understand the special or positive revelation of God.

The Remnant of Postlapsarian Natural Theology

In contrast to this prelapsarian state of natural theology, Turretin understands it to remain intact post-lapse, yet not without qualification. Speaking to what sinful man does to natural theology this side of Adam’s blunder, he writes, “the reason for the denial [of natural theology] was not so much an absolute ignorance of God as their corruption and wickedness in choking the implanted knowledge and all but destroying it in order that they might sin more freely.”[3] Natural theology, rather than being altogether removed from the postlapsarian situation, remains. It, however, is now subject to the sinful intellectual acts of mankind whereas prior to the fall sin was no such contender.

Grounding Natural Theology in the Covenant of Works

In terms of the contrast between the covenant of works and covenant of grace, Turretin understands there to be several differences. Discerning some of these differences particularly between the effects of either, he writes:

As to effects, the [covenant of works] gave matter for glorying to man when he observed it; but the [covenant of grace] excludes all glorying of man because it is founded upon the grace of God alone—”boasting is excluded, not by the law of works, but by the law of faith” (Rom. 3:27). The first after the fall became terrible, striking terror into the conscience; but the latter is gracious and saving. The first genders to bondage, the other to freedom. In the first, God from Mount Ebal thunders curses in the ears of sinners, but in the second as it were from Mount Gerizim blessings are promulgated. The first drives men away from God because by it no one can approach him; but the latter calls men back to God and opens a way to the throne of mercy, coming to which with confidence we can find help in every time of need.[4]

There are few observations to be made about what is said here. First, the covenant of works has a postlapsarian continuance. Second, after the fall man’s relationship to the covenant of works, not the covenant in se, has changed. Third, both the covenant of works and the covenant of grace inform the conscience. Fourth, the covenant of works terrifies the conscience, the covenant of grace is gracious, liberating, and saving.

Turretin makes a clear connection between natural theology and the covenant of works. The covenant of works informed man’s conscience, prior to the fall, through natural law along with some positive laws suited to man’s estate in the garden. Even after the fall, this covenant continues to inform man’s conscience in a negative fashion, that is, by way of a law no man can obey. How would this be possible if (1) the covenant of works had been entirely eradicated after the fall, and (2) natural theology no longer exists? If the covenant of works persists, and if it continues to inform man’s consciences, then natural theology remains in man to some extent. Turretin, like Junius before him, would go on to use the distinction between nature and grace in relation to that between the covenant of nature (works) and the covenant of grace. “It is evident,” he writes, “that there is a great difference between nature and grace: the former always mutable, the latter always certain and immutable because in the former man was left in the hand of judgment, but in the latter he is guarded by the power of God.” It is quite telling that he does this within the context of a discussion on effectual calling, regeneration, and conversion, all of which are benefits of the covenant of grace rather than the covenant of works.

Conclusion

Turretin, therefore, no doubt understood natural theology in relationship to the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. According to the covenant of works, which has a present subsistence, man’s conscience is bound by natural law. For Turretin, the covenant of works is nothing less than the ontological basis of natural theology. It explains its continuation and the nature thereof. The covenant of grace brings regeneration and renewal to fallen man. As a result, it causes the regenerate man to rightly appropriate natural theology.

Resources

[1] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 1, (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 1992), 575.

[2] Turretin, Institutes, vol. 2, 191.

[3] Turretin, Institutes, vol. 1, 9.

[4] Turretin, Institutes, vol. 2, 191-192.

An Essay on Covenantal Natural Theology — (Part VI)

An Essay on Covenantal Natural Theology — (Part IV)

Franciscus Junius

Junius on a Twofold State of Man

Franciscus Junius construes the state of man in a twofold manner when he writes that there are “two states of men, namely, the state of integrity when he was created by God and the state of corruption arising from man’s fall by his own choice.”[1] Further, Junius conceives of natural theology as “that which proceeds from principles that are known in relations to itself by the natural light of the human understanding.”[2] And, “The conception of this natural theology in the human understanding deals with things that are common, and it is both veiled and imperfect.” Like both Bullinger and Calvin, Junius maintains a “common knowledge” of God amongst all men. As it existed apart from corruption, Junius conceived of this theology as that which Adam possessed apart from sin. After sin, however, it “was corrupted,” even though it “yet remained in individuals.” Alluding to the corruption of this natural theology in the creature, he says, “they were completely compromised in themselves and quite confused among themselves, as though mere broken fragments of our nature, because of our depravity.” The principles of natural theology, albeit remaining, are perverted by our corrupt sin nature. He goes on:

So from this statement we establish that supernatural theology, which by the sin of man had been, as it were, rejected and most undeservedly spurned, retreated from here to the heavens; and natural theology, as all other things which arise from nature, was corrupted. For how could it have remained uncorrupted in a subject that was corrupted in every part?

Junius, therefore, understands natural theology in a twofold state, in pre-fall and post-fall mankind. Prior to Adam’s fall, natural theology was uninhibited by sin, and though it didn’t constitute all of Adam’s theology, the condescension of God being added to it, i.e. supernatural theology, and though Adam could have added to it, it was yet able to be performed apart from a corrupt nature. After the fall, however, man’s sin nature would corrupt such a theology and “so this theology,” says Junius, “can lead nothing at all to perfection, nor does it ever do so.” That is, natural theology was never intended to lead to perfection. “And it is not even able, in and of itself, to contain the perfection that is added by grace.”

A Nature/Grace Contrast

At this point, Junius contrasts nature with grace which corresponds to a sister distinction, that between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. By “grace,” Junius of course does not mean any and all kinds of grace without exception. There is, to be sure, common grace associated with common or natural revelation, perceived through natural theology. Junius, rather, means “grace” in the special, uncommon or supernatural sense—that grace which comes through the gospel, or the covenant of grace, alone. Digging a deeper trench between natural and supernatural theology, he writes:

Nature does not draw out a disposition except from a preexisting matter, but the Spirit of God works all things in all. And so with regard to natural theology, nature both applies understanding and takes the seeds of the principles for its disposition. But with regard to supernatural theology, the Spirit of God claims all the parts for itself entirely, so that it is with all justice called supernatural.

The observation that natural theology comes naturally and supernatural theology comes supernaturally is further highlighted when considering the nature of the covenant of grace seen in places like Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Hebrews 8:7-12. Implied in Junius’ view of natural/supernatural theology is the federal connection, at the very least in terms of the covenant of grace where man’s understanding is lifted not only beyond nature but beyond his postlapsarian, inborn corruption, i.e. “I will put My laws in their mind and write them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people (Heb. 8:10).”

Junius on Grace-Theology

Junius further identifies the terms “inspired theology” and “supernatural theology,” and they become necessary for man’s redemption after the fall, assuming, of course, a natural theology corresponded to the prelapsarian covenant of works in a unique, sin-free way, “Consequently, it was necessary that inspired theology come to man’s aid. We call this theology supernatural because of its origin, and a theology of revelation from its gracious mode of communication.” Natural theology and supernatural theology are therefore roughly distinguished along covenantal lines implicitly in Junius’ work. They are not distinguished in terms of mutual exclusivity, as if natural theology existed under the prolapse covenant of works only. Rather, they are distinguished qualitatively: natural theology existed apart from sin and was useful to man prior to the fall. After the fall, it remains but is subject to corruption, only to be restored under the covenant of grace—wherein God begins restoration to a punctuated Adamic state through Christ by renewing his mind and regenerating his heart (Rom. 5:15; 8:22ff).

Conclusion

Junius, therefore, represents a rather large step in the development of language reflecting the relationship between natural theology and covenant. Not only does he employ a twofold state of man distinguished along covenant lines, corresponding to which is knowledge, but he also relates the ancient nature/grace distinction to the covenants of works and grace, a distinction Francis Turretin will continue to make. Junius also clearly distinguishes between the species of revelation proper to either covenant by making “inspired theology” a distinctive of the covenant of grace.

Resources

[1] Franciscus Junius, “Theses Theologicae” in Opuscula Selecta, ed. by Abraham Kuyper, 183.

[2] Franciscus Junius, A Treatise on True Theology, (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014), 145.

An Essay on Covenantal Natural Theology — (Part VI)

An Essay on Covenantal Natural Theology — (Part III)

John Calvin

Calvin on Twofold Knowledge

Calvin speaks of a twofold knowledge: knowledge of God prior to the fall, and knowledge of God after the fall.[1] Prior to the fall, “man possessed freedom of the will, by which, if he chose, he was able to obtain eternal life.” He relates this freedom to the mind of man when he says, “At first every part of the soul was formed to rectitude. There was soundness of mind and freedom of will to choose good.” Speaking of the natural man’s knowledge after the fall, Calvin writes, “Although they are forced to acknowledge that there is some God, they, however, rob him of his glory by denying his power.” Interestingly, Calvin adds the possibility of the natural man pondering the true God against his will, “When they do think of God it is against their will; never approaching him without being dragged into his presence, and when there, instead of the voluntary fear flowing from reverence of the divine majesty, feeling only that forced and servile fear which divine judgment extorts…”

Natural Revelation & Natural Theology

Speaking more clearly to natural revelation in se, he writes:

[God’s] essence, indeed, is incomprehensible, utterly transcending all human thought; but on each of his works his glory is engraved in characters so bright, so distinct, and so illustrious, that none, however dull and illiterate, can plead ignorance as their excuse.

Muller, commenting on words such as these, says, “Calvin must argue in this way because he assumes the existence of natural revelation which in se is a true knowledge of God. If natural theology were impossible, idolatrous man would not be left without excuse.”[2] Calvin offers a stronger, albeit still implicit, affirmation of natural theology:

In attestation of his wondrous wisdom, both the heavens and the earth present us with innumerable proofs, not only in those more recondite proofs which astronomy, medicine, and all natural sciences are designed to illustrate, but proofs which force themselves on the notice of the most illiterate peasant, who cannot open his eyes without beholding them.

Speaking of the means by which this natural theology becomes distorted in natural man, he says, “they cannot but know that these are proofs of his Godhead, and yet they inwardly suppress them.” Calvin also appears to understand a measure of natural theology common to both non-Christians and Christians when he writes, “I only wish to observe… that this method of investigating the divine perfections, by tracing the lineaments of his countenance as shadowed forth in the firmament and on the earth, is common both to those within and to those without the pale of the church.” Speaking to the theistic proofs, he says, “We see there is no need of a long and laborious train of argument in order to obtain proofs which illustrate and assert the divine majesty. The few which we have merely touched, show them to be so immediately within our reach in every quarter, that we can trace them with the eye, or point them with the finger.”

The State of Man’s Knowledge Before & After the Fall

Calvin hardly works out in detail a covenant of works between God and man according to man’s prelapsarian state. However, Calvin does outline the elements of that first covenant. Writing on Genesis 2:16, “Moses now teaches, that man was the governor of the world, with this exception, that he should, nevertheless, be subject to God.”[3] Connecting Adam’s probation with his knowledge or theology, he says, “Therefore, abstinence from the fruit of one tree was a kind of first lesson in obedience, that man might know he had a Director and Lord of his life, on whose will he ought to depend, and in whose commands he ought to acquiesce.” Describing the state of man’s knowledge of God after the fall from Genesis 3:8, he writes, “Moses here relates nothing which does not remain in human nature, and may be clearly discerned at the present day. The difference between good and evil is engraven on the hearts of all, as Paul teaches, (Rom. ii. 15;) but all bury the disgrace of their vices under flimsy leaves, till God, by his voice, strikes inwardly their consciences.”

Conclusion

Calvin, therefore, acknowledges a difference not in natural theology in se between pre- and post-fall man, but in what man does with that theology once he has obtained it. This distinction between man’s behavior prior to the fall and after the fall will serve as a fundamental article in later formulations of the same distinction within a covenantal context. Thus, as with Bullinger, Calvin relates man’s knowledge of God to his pre- and post-fall state, and while Bullinger uses the explicit language of league in direct connection to man’s knowledge of God, Calvin makes the same connection albeit more implicitly than Bullinger does. Yet, it may be said that Calvin has a seminal doctrine of the relationship between natural theology and both the covenant of works and the covenant of grace.

Resources

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008), 104.

[2] Muller, PRRD, vol. 1, 274.

[3]  John Calvin, Commentary Upon the Book of Genesis, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1998), 125.

An Essay on Covenantal Natural Theology — (Part VI)

An Essay on Covenantal Natural Theology — (Part II)

Henry Bullinger

Let the reader understand that in the language of the earlier Reformers, among whom were men like Henry Bullinger, John Calvin, and John Knox, there does not exist covenantal language as clear as we might find in the post-Reformed puritans such as Herman Witsius and John Owen. However, there was most certainly a theology of covenant in the earliest era of Reformation, albeit more implied than explicit. And the covenants, sometimes referred to as leagues, are mostly understood as contexts for revelation. Willem J. van Asselt, commenting on two pieces in which Franciscus Junius focuses on federal theology, writes, “Although Junius did not develop a full-blown federal system within these pieces, he did mention the divine covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Israel, and the church and further argued that God’s revelation in various times and periods took place in the context of covenant.”[1]

Bullinger on the Context of Natural Theology

Henry Bullinger, an English contemporary of John Calvin and influencer of the English Reformation, connects the significance of natural theology to God’s revelation in Scripture. Muller writes, “Bullinger, like Calvin, appears to have distinguished between the reception of natural revelation by pagans and unbelievers and the reception of natural revelation by way of the testimony of Scripture.”[2] Bullinger himself understands natural theology within the context of God’s Word, which he understands to be in nature and Scripture, “Now since this God doth in his word, by the workmanship of the world, by the holy scriptures, and by his oracles uttered by the mouth of the patriarchs, prophets, and apostles, ye, and the very minds and consciences of men, testify that he is…”[3] Speaking on the first and chiefest way by which man knows God, he begins with the names of God. And he understands these names to be specially revealed within the context of God’s league or covenant.

Bullinger also makes a distinction between two ways in which God’s works may be understood. First, there are those things “laid before us to be beheld in things created for the behoof of men, as in heaven and in earth.” Secondly, the works of God we may “behold in man,” which the present author takes to be a reference to man’s intuitive awareness of the goodness and kindness of God toward him. This twofold understanding of the works of God comes to Bullinger’s readers within the context of how we may know God, a la., natural theology. But, throughout this particular sermon, Bullinger establishes the primal way in which to know God is Jesus Christ, “For the most evident and excellent way and mean to know God is laid forth before us in Jesu Christ, the Son of God incarnate and made man.” And, “But I do humbly beseech the most merciful Lord, that he will vouchsafe of his inestimable goodness and liberality to enlighten in us all the understanding of our minds… through Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.”

Conclusion

Though not well-developed, there are three things most certainly related either explicitly or implicitly in Bullinger’s work. First, there is a natural theology to one extent or another. Second, the concept of league or covenant most certainly comes into Bullinger’s thought, and is even linked to the quality of knowledge man has about God, i.e. through His covenant name. Third, man’s knowledge of God is connected to revelation through both nature and Scripture, but a regenerated knowledge through Scripture, inasmuch as it bestows the knower with Christ and His gospel, is superior to the former.

Resources

[1] Willem J. van Asselt in introduction to Franciscus Junius’ A Treatise on True Theology, (Grand Rapids: Reformation heritage Books, 2014), xvi.

[2] Richard Muller, Post-Reformed Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 272. (PRRD henceforth)

[3] Henry Bullinger, Decades, vol. 2, (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, reprint of 1849-1852 edition), 125.