A Response to Dr. Sam Waldron

A Response to Dr. Sam Waldron

It is never a good day to disagree with Dr. Sam Waldron. In spite of our disagreements, I have leagues-worth of respect for this man, and have no desire to enter into any unnecessary disputation, especially by bringing up an article from 2019 on the Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary website. However, Waldron republished the article and, apparently, shared it in light of the current debate centered around natural theology. This debate revolves around two distinct subjects which must remain distinct however related they most certainly are. The preeminent issue is the doctrine of God. The second is natural theology. Waldron’s article largely addresses the latter. Though, I am concerned because it seems as if the contemporary rejection of natural theology has more to do with some of the persons by which it was taught, a la., Thomas Aquinas. Such a vein of rejection tends to rot other concepts and categories, and the doctrine of God seems to be the first victim of the disease. Eventually, the attributes of Scripture, the Person and natures of Christ, the work of Christ, and ecclesiology will likewise fall under the revisionist blade—perhaps in the next generation or two.

In this article, I am going to interact with Thomas extensively, but only because this is the target of Waldron’s article, and also because there is some undue identification of Thomas with the issues at hand. Thomas is not the face of classical theism. But contemporary discussion appears to be leveling criticism at classical theism for Thomas’ sake. And this is no bueno. As I’ve said before, if I had to choose between giving someone Thomas or giving someone Francis Turretin, I’d give them the latter. I also would not give the young Christian a copy of the Summa Theologiae. For this reason, it is unfortunate that critics of classical theism have come at this issue because of and through Thomas Aquinas. Because now the debate revolves around a historical person and not the facts of the matter. And as such, defense of the facts are misunderstood to be defense of the persons who teach them. It’s a mess.

It appears there are three main building blocks holding up Waldron’s article. They are:

  • Thomas’ alleged rejection of God’s self-evident existence
  • Thomas’ “imperfect” view of total depravity
  • Irreconcilable differences between Calvin and Aquinas

I want to say at the outset that Thomas is not my object of defense. But unfortunately, the person and the concepts he represents have become so tightly intertwined that it would be almost irresponsible to avoid using his name. He is not “he-who-shall-not-be-named” after all, though some may think so. And there are some misunderstandings of Thomas (understandably so) which lead Waldron to oppose Calvin and Thomas in places they perhaps should not be opposed. I want to make it clear that I am not trying to cop-out by accusing Waldron of “misunderstanding.” Nor am I trying to gaslight the man. Thomas is not 200, not 400, but 800 years removed from us, and his writings are translated out of Latin. So, there are cultural, linguistic, and philosophical chasms to overcome; not only between us and him, but even between him and Calvin—who lived almost 300 years after.

With that said, we should all approach the evidence circumspectly.

Thomas’ Alleged Rejection of God’s Self-Evident Existence

Waldron writes: 

I procured and then scoured the relevant sections of his Summa Contra Gentiles and Summa Theologica.  This reading caused considerable expansion of that lecture.  It actually—in fact—expanded it into two lectures. What it did not do, however, was significantly change my understanding of Thomas Aquinas “Classical Apologetics” at all.  I concluded that basically Van Til’s presentation of Thomas was right.

Here’s one of the first issues with the article, one that may account for some of the wrong assumptions made later on about what Thomas actually believed. It is very difficult to read “relevant” sections of Aquinas and come away with an accurate characterization of what he believed on any one particular topic. This is because Thomas was in the habit of making distinctions—something emphasized in the scholastic milieu he found himself in. So, what he affirms in one place may be distinguished into two or more senses or species in another, some of which he might affirm. It is, to that effect, not a reference work. While his 13th century students would have expected this feature of his work, we less so today. One such place Waldron runs into trouble relates to the notion of “self-evidence.” He writes:

Aquinas denies that the existence of God is self-evident in both his Summa Theologica and in his Summa Contra Gentiles and rejects the above arguments. The five proofs are built, then, upon the denial of any innate knowledge of God.

I have no idea what Waldron did and did not read, but as mentioned above Thomas makes distinctions. And “self-evidence,” for Thomas, must be distinguished into two senses. In his article, Waldron attempts to understand Thomas’ thought by looking at Thomas’ characterization of objections instead of exploring how Thomas answered those objections; and then, he defers to Gordon Clark—a spurious secondary source at best. I will not deal with Clark here because that will do nothing but complicate the discussion. We are trying to understand classical theism, and now we’re trying to understand Thomas’ articulation of it—it would be a shame if we now had to try and understand Gordon Clark’s understanding of Thomas!

Waldron apparently confuses the notion of self-evidence with innate knowledge, claiming that Thomas, in denying self-evidence, automatically(?) denies innate knowledge of God. But this largely takes for granted a definition of what self-evidence even is.

As mentioned, Thomas believed there are two ways in which a thing can be “self-evident.” “A thing,” he says, “can be self-evident in either of two ways: on the one hand, self-evident in itself, though not to us; on the other, self-evident in itself, and to us (Summa Theologiae, I, Q. 2, At. 1).” But we have to remember what Thomas thought self-evidence was. By way of explanation, he says, “No one can mentally admit the opposite of what is self-evident; as the Philosopher states concerning the first principles of demonstration. But the opposite of the proposition ‘God is’ can be mentally admitted: ‘The fool said in his heart, There is no God’ (Ps. 52:1). Therefore, that God exists is not self-evident.”

When Thomas speaks of “self-evidence” he speaks of linguistic propositions, i.e. “God exists,” which may or may not be understood, but he does not subsume all knowledge under “propositional.” Much like one may reject an articulation of the formal laws of logic, they nevertheless “know” those laws through everyday employment of them. They know logic through implication, but not necessarily through inference (because they cannot be demonstrated). In that sense, the laws of logic are not “self-evident” to us, because we may not understand them propositionally. But that does not mean the laws of logic are not “self-evident” in themselves. Liberty is said to be “self-evident” in our Declaration of Independence. But it is not self-evident in that it cannot be rejected as a mental proposition (just look at our government!), but it is self-evident in and of itself.

For the medieval (and Reformed) scholastics, the knowledge situation wasn’t reduced to mental propositions. And this is why Thomas can say in the next two paragraphs, “To know that God exists in a general and confused way is implanted in us by nature, inasmuch as God is man’s beatitude.” Interestingly, he also admits of the corruption of this knowledge when he says, “for many there are who imagine that man’s perfect good which is happiness, consists in riches, and others in pleasures, and others in something else.” Thus, man has a confused knowledge of God implanted in them because though they see the contours, they apply those contours to idols instead of glorifying God as God (Rom. 1:21).” Concerning the exegesis of Romans 1, Waldron further notes:

Listen to his argument in Summa Theologica Question 2, Article 2: “The Apostle says: ‘The invisible things of Him are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made’ (Rm. 1:20). But this would not be unless the existence of God could be demonstrated through the things that are made; for the first thing we must know of anything is whether it exists.” Thomas takes (and the surrounding context of his assertion simply emphasizes this) Romans 1:20 to mean that the existence of God is not self-evident or implanted in man, but can be demonstrated.

We have to understand Thomas’ project. He’s writing what amounts to a systematic theology which means it proceeds discursively by nature. His proofs are largely in service of that effort. Thus, there is language in Thomas regarding the need to “demonstrate” God’s existence. But he did not think anyone and everyone needed to demonstrate God in order to know God. The simple, he thought, were justified in knowing Him through faith alone. And even the wicked, as we’ve seen, has an imperfect knowledge of God in and through the world—not because they performed an argument, but because they’ve inferred God’s existence through what has been made, both in himself (innately) and through the world (acquiescently). Francis Turretin and others would later term this “innate/acquired” knowledge.

In Romans 1:18-20, there are two types of knowledge mentioned, one innate (intuited) and another acquired through the works of God. Both Francis Turretin and Thomas Watson include both of these general “ways” of knowing God in their work. And many more names could be added to that duo (cf. Stephen Charnock). This is because they saw a twofold natural knowledge (theologia naturalis) of God in Romans 1:18-21 and elsewhere. The text reads:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened.

Notice the phrase, “what may be known of God is manifest in them.” It is here we find biblical precedent for an innate knowledge. However, we should be careful not to confuse innate knowledge with the notion of immediate knowledge. Instead we should understand it as intuited knowledge. This knowledge is, of course, not justifiable to the outside world and cannot, in that sense, be “demonstrated” to others. For demonstration, the works of God must be considered. It is from these works derive acquired knowledge of God. Precedent for this acquired knowledge of God is found in the phrase, “being understood by the things that are made.” Another word for “understood” is “perceived.” And, the term “by” or “through” is an instrumental dative, signifying discursus—a process which, when made explicit through formal representation, we call demonstration or argument. Even so, demonstration is not how a person comes to this acquired knowledge absolutely. They infer it internally, sometimes nearly instantaneously—putting this or that together to form a conclusion. In some ways, it’s no slower than hearing the coffee timer beep only to conclude, “the coffee is done!” Demonstration is the art of taking that implicit process and making it explicit for the sake of justifying to others its truth.

Thomas’ “Imperfect” View of Total Depravity

There is much Dr. Waldron has to say about Thomas’ reception of Augustine. But I am not going to delve into that conversation because I think with the above clarification, one could go back and see there is a great deal of reception of Augustine in Thomas. Thomas did not reject every sense of implanted knowledge, but would have rejected the Platonic “pre-downloaded” propositions. Francis Turretin departs from this idea as well, when he goes so far as to call man a “tabulae rasae” from birth, without relative or propositional knowledge, though not without knowledge absolutely (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 1, 1.3).

Waldron further contends that Thomas rejects, or at least has an “imperfect” view, of total depravity when he writes:

Similarly, Aquinas also seems to have held confused and imperfect views of total depravity.  Sin, in fact, does not seem to occupy an important place in Thomas’s writings.  In Gilson’s index there is no entry for sin, depravity, the fall, or folly.  For a discussion of Thomas’s view of sin, one must consult his doctrine of free will and grace. It is not surprising, then, Thomas argues that natural light is sufficient for natural knowledge. Consequently, human nature is not altogether corrupted by sin.

Sin appears well over 1,000 times in Thomas’ Summa Theologiae, and figures heavily into his theology. So, I am not certain why Waldron thinks otherwise. One possible reason could be the somewhat alien terminology employed by Thomas to discuss original sin and its effects. Chances are, most reading this have no clue what the term fomes means (and neither did I). Fomes literally renders to “fuel,” and is sometimes called “concupiscence (cf. Calvin).” It is the effect of original sin, and whilst grace works to mortify it, it will never be totally removed in this life.

The term concupiscence is a term shared by both Aquinas and John Calvin. Calvin himself says:

For which reason Aristotle truly taught, that in the appetite there is a pursuit and rejection corresponding in some degree to affirmation and negation in the intellect, (Aristot. Ethic. Lib. 6 sec. 2.) Moreover, it will be seen in another place, (Book 2 c. 2 see. 12-26,) how surely the intellect governs the will. Here we only wish to observe, that the soul does not possess any faculty which may not be duly referred to one or other of these members. And in this way we comprehend sense under intellect. Others distinguish thus: They say that sense inclines to pleasure in the same way as the intellect to good; that hence the appetite of sense becomes concupiscence and list, while the affection of the intellect becomes will (Institutes, 15.7).

The final part of the above quotation is Calvin’s basic articulation and agreement with the metaphysics underlying Thomas’ own view of fomes. For Thomas, the lower appetites of the soul, which included concupiscence as that faculty of pursuing desire, e.g. inclination of sensuality, conflicts with the higher powers, namely man’s intellect and will—enslaving both (we become brutes in our sin). This is more foundational to Thomas’ model of depravity, but in terms of depravity itself, Thomas is very clear:

The prudence of the flesh cannot be subject to the law of God as regards action; since it inclines to actions contrary to the Divine law: yet it is subject to the law of God, as regards passion; since it deserves to suffer punishment according to the law of Divine justice.

According to Thomas, a thing may be subjected to the eternal law in one of two ways: by way of knowledge and by way of action. But he says:

Both ways, however, are imperfect, and to a certain extent destroyed, in the wicked; because in them the natural inclination to virtue is corrupted by vicious habits, and, moreover, the natural knowledge of good is darkened by passions and habits of sin. But in the good both ways are found more perfect: because in them, besides the natural knowledge of good, there is the added knowledge of faith and wisdom; and again, besides the natural inclination to good, there is the added motive of grace and virtue (Summa Theologiae, I-II, Q. 93, Art. 6).

This is a clear expression of depravity, and man’s desperate need for grace. Now, I do not want to be misunderstood. Thomas did not hold to forensic justification, but only mystical and sacramental justification wherein a person is ontologically made righteous or good through infused “charity.” Justification, for Thomas, was not a legal declaration, but a metaphysically “analytic” reality. Instead of God seeing us in and with His Son and on that basis declaring us to be righteous (synthetic justification), God, thought Thomas, judges us to actually be righteous in ourselves as the result of infused, sacramental grace (analytic justification). This is a massive dividing wall between us and him—and on this Dr. Waldron and I can heartily agree. Nevertheless, Thomas believes man is wicked and inclined to all sorts of evil, such that he’s comfortable using words like “destroyed” in terms of man’s ability to submit to God. Though there are nuances, one should not make the mistake of assuming Thomas was altogether discontinued from later Reformed thinkers on this issue.

Irreconcilable Differences Between Calvin and Aquinas

Of course there are vast differences between Calvin and Thomas. This is not in dispute. But Waldron locates those differences in odd places owing largely, I believe, to an anachronistic application of Van Tillianism (idealism) to their thought.

First, I would urge that we do not fall into the trap of making Calvin the measure of all Reformed orthodoxy. He is not. Second, what Calvin and Thomas actually disagree on are not necessarily what Waldron concerns himself with in his article. We have already seen there are some significant marks Waldron is missing which limits how effective he might be in contrasting these two thinkers. For example, he writes:

First, Calvin identifies himself with a theological tradition in regard to the knowledge of God which Thomas rejects.  Thomas rejects the notion that the knowledge of the existence of God is naturally implanted. He argues, as we have seen, that strictly speaking the knowledge of God is not self-evident. He admits: “To know God exists in a general and confused way is implanted in us …” Yet he says that this is “not to know absolutely that God exists, just as to know that someone is approaching is not to know that Peter is approaching, even though it is Peter that is approaching.” He goes on in the next article to assert: “Hence, the existence of God, in so far as it is not self-evident to us, can be demonstrated from those of His effects which are known to us.”

“Calvin identifies himself with a theological tradition in regard to the knowledge of God which Thomas rejects.” This is simply not true, as we’ve seen. Could there be varying degrees to which Calvin and Thomas view implanted or innate knowledge, respectively? Of course. But it cannot be said the former accepts implanted knowledge while the latter altogether rejects it. Waldron himself notes the area in question, but he then implies this isn’t enough. Why? Does not even Cornelius Van Til understand the relationship between his proximate and ultimate epistemological starting points this way? As soon as man has knowledge of himself, he has knowledge of God. As soon as man grips his own beatific purpose in a general way, which all rational men do throughout their whole lives, they know something of God—the outer contours, we might say. What are the contents of innate knowledge? If Thomas’ seminal and imperfect implanted knowledge is not enough, what would be? A full-fledged doctrine of the Trinity?

No matter the nuances between Calvin and Aquinas on this point, they both confessed models of an inner natural knowledge (innate natural theology according to Turretin). An unfortunate feature of Waldron’s survey is his total lack of interaction with Thomas’ biblical commentaries. And this was a defect in Jeffrey Johnson’s recent work as well. For example, in his commentary on Romans, Thomas says, “what can be known about God by men through reason, is manifest in them, i.e., is manifest to them from something in them, i.e., from an inner light (Commentary on Romans, C. 1 L. 6).” In his Commentary on John, he says, “He was the true light, which enlightens every man coming into this world (L. 5).” Thus, he did affirm the inward revelation of God. This is not in dispute (or shouldn’t be). The question is what Thomas believed that knowledge was. But I think that question equally applies to Calvin.

There is one last important point I would like to consider before closing. Waldron implies Thomas believed that “long or laborious” arguments were necessary in order to know God. This is a popular caricature. Waldron notes this while once more contrasting Thomas with Calvin. He quotes Calvin favorably:

We see that there is no need of any long or laborious argumentation to obtain and produce testimonies for illustrating and asserting the Divine Majesty; since, from the few which we have selected and cursorily mentioned, it appears that they are every where so evident and obvious, as easily to be distinguished by the eyes, and pointed out with the fingers  (Calvin, 1:5:9).

Allegedly opposed to what Calvin said, Thomas is then quoted as saying:

Now, among the inquiries that we must undertake concerning God in Himself, we must set down in the beginning that whereby His Existence is demonstrated, as the necessary foundation of the whole work. For, if we do not demonstrate that God exists, all consideration of divine things is necessarily suppressed (Aquinas, SCG, ch. 9, par. 5).

Here, Thomas is speaking of his Work, i.e. the Summas. There is another place where Thomas says, “The Apostle says: ‘The invisible things of Him are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made’ (Rom. 1:20). But this would not be unless the existence of God could be demonstrated through the things that are made; for the first thing we must know of anything is whether it exists.” 

It would be a mistake, however, to take Thomas as saying, “The only way God is clearly seen through what He has made is through demonstration.” In point of fact, he’s arguing just the reverse. If this knowledge were not demonstrable, it would not be perceivable, and if not perceivable, then it would not be “clearly seen,” as the text teaches. Rather than God being clearly perceived only after demonstration (as many take him to mean), he means it is because these things are clearly seen that accounts for why they can be demonstrated. This becomes apparent when Thomas says, “there is nothing to prevent a man, who cannot grasp a proof, accepting, as a matter of faith, something which in itself is capable of being scientifically known and demonstrated (Summa Theologiae, I, Q. 2, Art. 2).” For Thomas, these things can be known apart from demonstration.

Conclusion

Again, I want to be very clear: This is not a personal slight toward Dr. Sam Waldron. It is not intended to show any sort of disrespect. My desire here is for truth to prevail. I fear that, in a zeal to escape a personality and even that person’s methodology, good and true things, essential things even, are being rejected, e.g. the doctrine of the Trinity with EFS, immutability, and simplicity. These are staggeringly important doctrines without which the Christian faith falls flat. For this reason, I do hope articles like this one serve to clarify rather than stir the pot.

Natural Theology in the Puritan, Thomas Watson

Natural Theology in the Puritan, Thomas Watson

Thomas’ five ways are well known. But fewer know that another Thomas had even more.

Thomas Watson was born in England in 1620. Cambridge-trained (Emmanuel College), he eventually became the vicar of St. Stephen’s Walbrook. But he was a nonconformist and was eventually ejected from licensure around 1660. He would be reinstated in the 1670s before retiring, probably in the early 1680s just before his death in 1686. 

He was beautifully eloquent. Not only was he theologically surpassing, but his literary skill hardly found a match. My wife and I have a running jest that he was the “theologian of breasts.” Not for any perverted reason, but because he always seems to find a place to work in the nurturing Spirit of God through that particular analogy. God’s grace, abundance, benevolence, and love are often the targets of his bosom analogies. To give you an idea, he says, “Mercy pleases him. It is delightful to the mother, says Chrysostom, to have her breasts drawn; so it is to God to have the breasts of his mercy drawn (Works, Loc. 1964).”

Thomas Watson’s Natural Theology

He is an easy and wondrous author to read. But his theological skill and precision continue to be seen, even through the flowers and vines of his gentle ink-strokes. Located in ch. 2 of his Body of Divinity, Watson takes to developing seven ways through which we might come to a knowledge of God. They are—

  • By the book of nature
  • By His works
  • Conscience
  • Consent of the nations
  • Prophecy
  • His power and sovereignty
  • The devils

By the book of nature, Watson intends the engraving of God’s law upon the hearts of men (Rom. 2). “The notion of a Deity is engraven on man’s heart; it is demonstrable by the light of nature.” But by God’s “works” Watson intends the world surrounding the rational person. “We will begin,” he says, “with the creation of the glorious fabric of heaven and earth. Sure there must be some architect or first cause. The world could not make itself. Who could hang the earth on nothing but the great God (Loc. 913)?” And, “The wise government of all things evinces there is a God… Providence is the queen and governess of the world.” Toward the end of the section, he says, “Understanding, Will, Affections are a glass of the Trinity, as Plato speaks. The matter of the soul is spiritual, it is a divine spark lighted from heaven; and being spiritual, is immortal, as Scaliger notes; anima non senescit; ‘the soul does not wax old,’ it lives for ever (Loc. 939).”

By way of proof through the conscience, he writes, “Conscience is a witness of a Deity. If there were no Bible to tell us there is a God, yet conscience might.” And, “it is observable, the nearer the wicked approach to death, the more they are terrified.” The nations also consent to the existence of God, he says, “by the universal vote and suffrage of all men (Loc. 952).” This is notable, seeing how Watson was a nonconformist. Through prophecy, God is proved, “He who can foretell things which shall surely come to pass is the true God… God himself uses this argument to prove he is the true God, and that all the gods of the heathen are fictions and nullities. Isa 41:23.” The sixth line of proof is God’s power and sovereignty. “He who can work, and none can hinder, is the true God… he acts according to his pleasure, he doth what he will (Loc. 965).”

Finally, Watson presents an argument for God from the existence of devils. “There are devils, therefore there is a God.” And, “Socrates, a heathen, when accused at his death, confessed, that, as he thought there was a malus genius, an evil spirit, so he thought there was a good spirit.” These are precious arguments for the existence of God because, though we may think little of them today, they evince a period in time when the supernatural world was taken for granted, even by the heathen, and not suppressed by rationalism, idealism, and materialism. I think it is time we stop granting the latter in favor of the former.

Conclusion

In the whirlwind of recent discussion, I thought it would be calming to sit down with an old, yet familiar voice. Watson has been my friend. I know him, though he may not know me. He has been helpful to me as friends usually are. Agree or disagree, one has to at least ask the question, “Why did he think like this, and why was he not out of league with the rest of his peers?” Such questions, I’ve found, are humbling when answered. We may relegate his time and intellectual milieu to an irrelevant, bygone era. But is that the case? I do not think it is. I think they knew something we’ve allowed to slip away under pressure from the world. And I think that something is worth rekindling, keeping, and defending.

How Sola Scriptura Presupposes Natural Theology

How Sola Scriptura Presupposes Natural Theology

Very few things surpass the importance of a correct understanding of sola Scriptura (Scripture alone).

I’m currently teaching a church history series in Sunday School at my church. The sobering fact is that many faithful men were murdered at the hands of zealots whose religion derived not from Scripture but from a tradition defined by men. We’ve come to realize, throughout the course of that series, that the mere effort to make Scripture understandable to the general population fell under a high level of ecclesiastical and political scrutiny. Men such as John Wycliffe, Jan Hus, William Tyndale, and all who found themselves influenced by them, felt the heavy load of governmental pressure in one way or another for simply desiring to know the Word of God.

The question of sola Scriptura, then, is no mildly important matter. It must be understood, not only that we might prevent history from repeating itself, but also for the sake of knowing God and His will correctly. Unfortunately for us today, we live downstream from the massive ideological change of the 17th-18th centuries—namely, from rationalism and idealism—both of which play large roles in modern assumptions. We are all subject to these assumptions because this is the philosophical milieu we’re all born into. Many of these ideas are no less common than the 8-5 workday, or the need for internal combustion in our regular transportation. As with the latter, we give the former hardly any thought at all.

These oft-assumed and unquestioned ideas make for much difficulty when defining the term sola Scriptura. These influential ideas span from Descartes’ critical and rationalistic epistemology to Immanuel Kant’s idealistic separation of the phenomena from the noumena in response to David Hume’s skepticism. We live in an age largely characterized by assumptions finding much of their genus in the minds of these men, but we’re rarely conscious of them.

Sola Scriptura Has Friends

Chances are, if you don’t today, you’ve once assumed the definition of sola Scriptura to be something like the following: “the Bible is the ultimate authority by which we know God.” This is not an altogether wrongheaded definition if we understand it within its proper context. But because such a definition is rarely understood within its rightful place, it is taken to mean that one’s only authority and source of divinely-related knowledge is Scripture. Or, at the very least, Scripture is the best source, and any other alleged source—natural or otherwise—ought to be viewed with a skeptical eye.

This was not the understanding of sola Scriptura during nor immediately after the time of the Reformation. Phil Johnson, of Grace to You Ministries, helpfully notes:

“Sola Scriptura” is not the same as “Solo Scriptura”. A proper understanding of “Sola Scriptura” will not lead to an individualistic, “me and my Bible in the woods” approach to Bible interpretation. Because of Christ’s gifts to the Church through the centuries, we have the privilege of standing on the shoulders of giants (https://reformedontheweb.wordpress.com/tag/phil-johnson/).

Here, Johnson rightfully makes room for help—that is, from the traditional interpretation of Scripture. But he does so without making tradition itself a coequal authority with Scripture. The tradition is subjected to Scripture concerning everything Scripture reveals. But that doesn’t mean the tradition can’t be helpful. And if it is correct, it carries with it the authority of Scripture—all truth is God’s truth, and thus all truth is equally authoritative coming from the same source. We must understand man’s authority to be entirely dependent upon Scripture, since he is not God and since he is often wrong. Scripture, then, is man’s norm, as it were. And even though man can speak with the voice of Scripture, i.e. when he proclaims God’s truth, he himself is not Scripture and thus does not, in himself, carry the same authority. Man may speak with the authority of Scripture, but that authority is derivative not from himself, but from the Word of God. This is why we can say, “If this or that person rejects the Nicene Creed, they are heretics,” not for the authority of the Creed itself, but for the authority it accurately reflects, i.e. Scriptural doctrine.

Thus, there is a place for tradition when it comes to interpreting the text of Scripture. If this is the case, no Christian should abstract themselves from the tradition altogether (solo Scriptura) under a pretense of sola Scriptura. But what about principles of thought? If we give place to tradition as a handmaiden, helping us to rightly interpret Scripture. Surely, then, it would seem there should be a place made for nature to give assistance as well. More directly, if other men can help us understand the Bible, how much more ought God’s voice through nature help us understand it?

My argument here, and it certainly isn’t original to me, is that the Bible’s context is nature. Not only is it itself creaturely (having been created by God and given to us), but it is contextualized by God’s creation. We live, move, and breathe in this creation prior to ever coming to the text of Scripture. We assume natural life, principles of thinking, principles of ethics, and even possess a rudimentary understanding of who God is prior to turning even one page of the Bible. Scripture itself makes this assumption when it begins in Genesis 1:1 with, “In the beginning God…” Not only must we assume some functionality of reason in order for that line to be intelligible to us, but we must also have some idea of what God is. In other words, the very first line of Scripture cannot be understood apart from principles God gives us through nature—not only logic, but also the basic revelation of Himself as “that Being than which nothing greater can be conceived,” to borrow the words of Anselm.

It would seem, then, genuine sola Scriptura has made friends out of both tradition and natural revelation. And these friendships are, to one extent or another, required for a proper understanding or interpretation of Scripture.

A Brief Defense Natural Theology Against False Definitions of Sola Scriptura

What I’ve just described, in short order, is the Bible’s presupposition not only of natural revelation but also of natural theology (which man’s study of natural revelation). It is, however, all the rage to vocally deny the first principles of natural theology, or at least the knowability of them, and such a denial is often said to be in service to sola Scriptura. Man, it seems, must come to Scripture as a tabulae rasae (blank slate), and from there begin his work of interpretation. It’s as if the modern denial of natural theology is but a veiled Lockean empiricism inconsistently combined with fideism. This, it is thought, is sola Scriptura. We can’t leave place for reason, philosophy, natural theology, tradition, et al., because Scripture stands alone… in a vacuum. I doubt many would admit such a thing if put to them in more or less similar terms, but it most certainly seems to be the prevailing assumption of what sola Scriptura implies.

Richard Muller, in his work Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (vol. 2), gives a rather precise definition of sola Scriptura when he writes:

The logical priority of Scripture over all other means of religious knowing in the church—tradition, present-day corporate or official doctrine, and individual insight or illumination—lies at the heart of the teaching of the Reformation and of its great confessional documents. Indeed, it is the unanimous declaration of the Protestant confessions that Scripture is the sole authoritative norm of saving knowledge of God (p. 151).

There are some heavy qualifications made here. Scripture is not the sole authoritative norm for all knowledge, but saving knowledge. Also, neither tradition, corporate interpretation, or individual interpretation are ruled out entirely, though subordinated in terms of, again, the rule of saving knowledge. Moreover, this is a logical priority, that is, it is to come first in the order of religious thought, once more, in terms of saving knowledge.

Scripture does not outfit the Christian with the general laws of thought necessary for intelligibly apprehending Scripture, or anything and everything else we can know for that matter. All people are furnished with such principles prior to ever coming to the text through natural revelation, and they are assumed if not expressly known as natural-theological articles. Later, speaking of Scripture as the principium cognoscendi (principle of cognition, knowing), Muller states:

Of course, the act of creation itself is a movement of holy God toward the creature which, in its completion or result, provides a basis for knowledge of God. We can, therefore, speak of a first form of revelation whereby God makes himself known “in his works, in their creation, as well as in their preservation and control.” God’s universe is set “before our eyes as a beautiful book, wherein all creatures, small and great, serve as signs to lead us to contemplate the invisible things of God, namely, his eternal power and Godhead.” This revelation cannot, however, save mankind from sin—it can only convince sinful mankind of the existence of God and leave the unrepentant world without excuse (p. 153).

Interacting with the Dutch Puritan, Herman Witsius, Muller also says:

Witsius can even declare that the faint glimmerings of the natural light provide a “foundation” on which the gospel can build: “for as grace supposes nature, which it perfects; so the truths revealed in the gospel, have for their foundation those made known by the light of nature.” Although Witsius here addresses calling and, specifically, the character of the natural knowledge that seems to call human beings to God, only to leave them without excuse in their sins, he also, like Turretin and Owen, raises the issue of the positive relationship of natural reason and the truths it knows to revelation and supernatural theology (PRRD, vol. 1, 301).

Along these same lines, Francis Turretin writes:

We grant that in natural theology by the light of nature some such [first principles] do exist upon which supernatural theology is built (for example, that there is a God, that he must be worshipped, etc.) (Institutes, vol. 1, 10).

Conclusion

Sola Scriptura must be defined correctly, not only to avoid subjecting Scripture to the dictates of men, but also that we might retain the requisite tools (assumptions) and categories needed in order to make sense of the Scriptures in the first place. The laws of logic, the existence of God, God’s creation, God’s law, and the felt need of redemption (a need which only Scripture and its gospel can meet) provide pretext not only for the interpretation of Scripture, but also for the necessity of Scripture in man’s great need of redemption. Why is the Bible important? Because it is the voice of the God everyone knows (Rom. 1), and it offers salvation from the transgression of the law everyone knows (Rom. 2).

The Failure of ‘The Failure of Natural Theology’—A Review (Chs. 1-3)

The Failure of ‘The Failure of Natural Theology’—A Review (Chs. 1-3)

Jeffrey Johnson’s new book, The Failure of Natural Theology: A Critical Appraisal of the Philosophical Theology of Thomas Aquinas (FNT, henceforth), has made no little splash both prior to and following its publication. As I work my way through Johnson’s book, I am pleased to read some interesting historical tidbits of Aquinas’ life. And I am also grateful for the opportunity to think about the relevant issues in a deeper way than I have previously. That said, as far as it goes, there is very little I can commend concerning the attitude and subject-matter of this volume. Considering this book in proportion with what it claims to achieve should lead the careful thinker to judge The Failure of Natural Theology quite the failure itself.

From obviously selective quotation, not only of Thomas, but also of John Calvin, John Owen, and others, to blatant denial of Christian orthodoxy, this book doesn’t so much represent a nuance within the orthodoxy of Reformedom, but a departure from the first principles of Christianity altogether. I will elaborate upon these concerns throughout the remainder of this review.

An Alleged Dilemma

Chapter 1 of Johnson’s book is titled, ‘Natural Theology’s Dilemma’. Up to this point, readers should be able to see some categorical confusion as early as the introduction. “As this book will seek to demonstrate,” he says, “Thomas added to God’s simple and immutable nature and additional attribute not taught in the Scriptures: divine immobility (FNT, 5).” A red flag, to be sure. “What is motion but change?” many, like myself, may ask while reading this. “And if God changes, then is He not mutable?” No doubt, an explanation for what appears to be a denial of the law of identity is in order. But further study of this volume reveals such vindication is hopeless. Monkeying with analytical propositions at the outset is no way to begin an academic treatment of natural theology (i.e. a denial of motion inheres in the very meaning of the term immutability because motion is but a species of change).

Johnson, in ch. 1, becomes concerned with the confusion of natural theology with natural revelation, which is not altogether unwarranted. But here he makes a mistake fatal to his own credibility by launching a volley of indemonstrable accusations against other theologians. He even names R. C. Sproul among those who confuse natural theology with natural revelation, “R. C. Sproul made this mistake when he attempted to justify Aquinas’s natural theology by appealing to verses in the Bible that affirm natural revelation.” This is the most embarrassing instance, because in the very same book sourced by Johnson, Sproul, in point of fact, makes a very careful distinction between natural theology on the one hand and general/natural revelation on the other:

“Natural theology” is discourse about God informed by our knowledge of nature. It is a knowledge of God gained through an understanding of the external world, in addition to and distinct from the knowledge of God available to us in the Holy Scriptures. Natural theology traditionally has been based on what theologians call general revelation. General revelation is God’s self-disclosure in his created universe. This revelation is an objective act of God that does not rely on our perception of it in order to be true. Natural theology is the human response to general revelation. Natural theology is a human act, a way for us to understand God’s revelation of himself in creation. General revelation is what God does; natural theology is what we do with that revelation.

He also makes claims like, “Natural theology is the philosophy of religion, and the philosophy of religion is limited to what can be known about God through reason and our empirical senses (FNT, 11).” The question, then, becomes, “If our reason is not the instrumental means for knowledge, how do we know anything?” For we can’t even apprehend awareness of our own existence apart from consciousness, which resides in the intellect.

Just as he misrepresented Sproul, he misrepresents Aquinas, when he says, “Natural theology, at least for Aquinas, begins on the false notion that man is ignorant of God.” This is patently false given Thomas’ words in the Summa Theologiae, I, Q. 2, Art. 1. There, he says, “To know that God exists in a general and confused way is implanted in us by nature, inasmuch as God is man’s beatitude.” And Thomas’ view of innate or implanted knowledge is further evinced in his commentary on Romans 1. Commenting on v. 19, he says, “what can be known about God by men through reason, is manifest in them, i.e., is manifest to them from something in them, i.e., from an inner light (Commentary on Romans, C. 1 L. 6).” And speaking to the divine Logos in his commentary on John, he says, “He was the true light, which enlightens every man coming into this world (L. 5).”

The most troubling part of ch. 1, and that which no doubt shows an underlying confusion affecting the whole of the work, arises when Johnson attempts a definition of natural revelation. He says, “Natural revelation is the knowledge of God revealed to us by God in nature. Through natural revelation, we know that God is both absolute and personal (FNT, 13).” Pay careful attention to Johnson’s identification of revelation with knowledge. This is a subtle, but important, confusion of the order of being (what objectively is regardless of our knowing it) and the order of knowing (our knowledge of what objectively is). Is natural revelation knowledge, or is it that through which we know? It cannot be both, because then revelation would be one and the same thing with the human act of knowing. Subjectivism, or relativism, would be the result.

He makes this subtle confusion again on p. 16, “Natural revelation, therefore, extends and is limited to the infallible knowledge of God, which is revealed universally, effectually, immediately, and consistently.” Paired with his assertion that all people apprehend this natural revelation which, in his words is infallible knowledge, Johnson implies pagans not only have inerrant (does not err) knowledge of God but infallible (cannot to err) knowledge of God.

For Johnson, natural theology’s dilemma is its alleged inability to apprehend truth about God. Natural theology, since it involves the operation of man’s reasoning through the created order, cannot reach a transcendent Creator, or so it is thought. But by defining natural theology as a failed alternative to natural revelation, he separates the act of knowing (science, theology) from the object to be known. In trying to escape any affiliation with human reason, Johnson has opted to exile reason altogether in favor of what he terms immediate natural revelation. Criticizing natural theology once more, he says, “the conclusions of natural theology take time to reason through. Syllogisms are a process. The mind doesn’t see the conclusion of the syllogism immediately, but it has to connect the dots. Therefore, natural theology is not immediate (FNT, 20).”

Apparently, the implication is a non-discursive natural revelation instead of discursive natural theology. But in order to exile reason altogether, Johnson has to put natural revelation in us in “immediate” terms such that there is no formal distinction between our knowledge on the one hand and God’s revelation on the other. Amidst all the problems we could speak of at this juncture, one that stands out to me is the confusion concerning argumentation or syllogisms. The design of syllogisms is to make that which is already implicitly in the mind explicit. Syllogism is but a formal regurgitation of the natural process of human reason. According to Johnson, such argumentation takes time. To organize thought into a formal argument? Sure. But it takes virtually no time at all for our minds to naturally do the same in an involuntary and near-instantaneous act. Syllogizing an argument only attempts to systematize the already-natural mode of human thinking. Descartes knew he existed prior to concluding, “Therefore, I exist.” His cogito ergo sum was but his way of making explicit what was already in his intellect implicitly.

The unfortunate byproduct of Johnson’s immediacy is the absurd rejection of the necessity of consciousness. “The mind,” he says, “doesn’t see the conclusion of the syllogism immediately…” but, in the strictest sense, creatures see nothing immediately. Inasmuch as they depend on this or that to know, they see mediately. Consciousness is a bare minimum requisite to seeing anything beyond it. But, according to Johnson, this connecting of dots, from consciousness to that which lies beyond it, seems wholly forbidden when it comes to knowledge about God. True knowledge of God is had immediately or not at all. Johnson does tip his hat to consciousness, but in an unexplained sort of way, “The knowledge of God that comes through natural revelation is not the conclusion of a syllogism rooted in science. Rather, it is the immediate awareness of God that comes with the awareness of self and nature.” If he means there is an awareness of God chronologically consonant with knowledge of self that is one thing, though I would argue the point in another place. But there continues to be a causal relationship. I could not know God apart from knowing myself. Self-consciousness is causally requisite to our knowledge of God. But again, Johnson is trying to avoid anything that would imply God is a conclusion in our thinking rather than the presupposed starting point, a la., Cornelius Van Til.

Philosophy & Theology: A Marriage Not to Last?

The most baffling aspect of this book is the juxtaposition between the creature’s act of knowing, or process of reasoning, versus his apprehension of natural revelation. He writes, “According to the Bible, God’s existence, transcendence, and immanence are clearly manifested (without argumentation or logical proof) in natural revelation… Instead of building on the foundation of natural revelation… Aquinas built below that foundation by claiming that the knowledge of God needs to be rationally demonstrated from sense experience (FNT, 48-49).” But if by “rationally demonstrated” Johnson understands Aquinas to mean explicit and formal “argumentation or logical proof,” then he does not understand Aquinas. Aquinas, on the demonstration of God’s existence, says:

The existence of God and other like truths about God, which can be known by natural reason, are not articles of faith, but are preambles to the articles; for faith presupposes natural knowledge, even as grace presupposes nature, and perfection supposes something that can be perfected. Nevertheless, there is nothing to prevent a man, who cannot grasp a proof, accepting, as a matter of faith, something which in itself is capable of being scientifically known and demonstrated (ST, I, Q. 2, Art. 3).

According, therefore, to Aquinas, those incapable of understanding or construing rational, formal proofs may still have knowledge of God through faith. Johnson falsely claims Aquinas rejected the notion of simple-minded apprehension of natural theology when he writes, “For Aquinas, only those who can sensibly understand the proofs and rational arguments of philosophy are able to properly accept its logical conclusions (FNT, 39).” I had expected better from someone who claimed at the outset of his work “years of studying the life and works of Aquinas (FNT, 3).”

Another issue that becomes quite apparent in this chapter, and only grows worse from here on out, is Johnson’s selective quotation of historical works, not only from Aquinas, but also from Calvin and Owen. In ch. 2, he repeatedly quotes from John Owen’s Biblical Theology, but, as far as I can tell, never interacts with Owen’s own view of natural theology. For example, Owen, speaking of the continuance of natural theology, says:

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.

Though, as Johnson notes, Owen rightly believed natural theology could not help the natural man (only adding to his condemnation), he nevertheless conceived of its continued existence. Owen, it should be noted, did not believe natural theology harmed the natural man because it was untrue, but precisely because it was true (contra Johnson), and the natural man perverts it in his ethical rebellion against God. Why doesn’t Johnson ever engage the natural theology of the Reformed and post-Reformed, a la., Junius, Turretin, Van Mastricht, and/or Owen? Would it not have been more academically responsible to show where the Reformed and post-Reformed aligned with Thomas and also where they differed from him? This question, I suppose, the judicious reader should decide.

The Natural Theology of Aristotle

Chapter 3 is one of the least sourced chapters in the book, and its quality reflects accordingly. After characterizing Aristotle’s argument from motion, on p. 66, Jeff Johnson rejects orthodox theology proper by touting, “Actus purus (pure actuality) is not the God of the Bible.” In the same place, he writes, “the cosmological argument does not lead to the God of the Bible.” Here, Johnson’s confusion of the order of being with the order of knowing comes to a fore. Due to the nature of the argumentation, especially as Thomas frames it, Johnson needs to show one or more of the premises to be false. If he cannot do this, the conclusion necessarily follows. If the conclusion necessarily follows, it cannot be denied with any more consistency than a denial of the formal laws of logic. This is how syllogistic modal argumentation (modus tollens/ponens) works. So, if the cosmological argument ends with a true conclusion, it must conclude at the God of the Bible, since it would be logically impossible for the conclusion to be false.

Trying to explain why a God who is actus purus cannot be the God of the Bible, Johnson says, “According to the logic, actus purus can’t be the efficient cause of the universe because an efficient cause requires movement (FNT, 68).” Johnson does not believe a God that is pure actuality could create since motion is altogether removed from Him. But he has already noted Aristotle’s definitive characteristic of motion, that being the joining of form and matter (FNT, 57). Thomas rightly notes that since God, as I’m sure Johnson would agree, brings both form and matter into existence, there is no motion required in Him, nor must it be presupposed in His work of creation (ST, I, Q. 46, Art. 1). Is this difficult to understand? Sure. Is it illogical? Absolutely not. Is it necessary to affirm? Yes, without hesitation. The only other option would be to opine form and matter in God, a formal and material cause in Him, as it were.

Johnson, at this point, would want to reply, “What is true of the phenomena is not true of the noumena,” or, “What is true of the physical world we experience, is not true for the metaphysical world, per se (FNT, 65).” However, this can’t be the case because the Bible, which is creature, communicates true things about God via creaturely (finitely intelligible) means. If the phenomena cannot tell us anything about the transcendent reality of God, it would follow that the Bible could not communicate anything true about God.

Johnson’s biggest mistake in ch. 3 occurs when he says:

This jump from the study of the cosmos (physics) to the study of God (metaphysics) is based on a single, unfounded premise—that what is true concerning finite objects in motion in the physical realm must be true concerning motion (if mobility were possible) for God in the metaphysical realm (FNT, 65).

 

Functionally, Johnson has just adopted Immanuel Kant’s idealistic worldview based on a fundamental separation between the phenomenal realm (physical, experienced) and the noumenal realm (God, heaven, cannot be known through the phenomena). This single assumption would destroy the fundamental assumption of Christianity that God has indeed revealed Himself through creaturely means, both nature and Scripture. If the material world cannot tell us about God, or if it is unreasonable to assume that it does, it follows that Scripture cannot tell us about God.

Moreover, motion is precisely what is denied of God in Aristotle and Thomas. And it is denied not because, as Johnson claims (FNT, 58), they assume it to be an imperfection, but predominantly because it would entail contingency in the divine essence. The reason motion is seen as a privation of perfection is because it requires composition and thus dependence. In terms of creation, which is what Johnson seems most concerns with, if God needs movement in order to actuate the universe, then God needs something He did not have before, i.e. motion. But this is contrary, of course, to places like Acts 17:25, “Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things.” Johnson reveals this assumption when he asks the question, “But if Aristotle’s god cannot move, how will he actively move anything inside or outside himself?” For Johnson, God needs something, i.e. motion, in order to bring about His effect. He is a contingent God.

Conclusion

There are two ways to evaluate an argument. One can judge an argument by looking at what it claims/concludes. Or, one could judge an argument by looking at its implications. So far, Johnson’s book isn’t only a non-starter, it is heterodoxical to the core. The argument is, thus far, not only incoherent, but it leads to heretical implications concerning who God essentially is. Also, the supporting subject-matter has been selectively quoted and misrepresented throughout these first three chapters. So, I want to close this first part of my review by saying the following:

Jeff, you have departed from Christian orthodoxy in this book. 

Hear me carefully and clearly, I do not think this means you’re not a Christian. I think that, with time, review, and admonishment, you will end up either changing or revising your views to fit within the biblical and orthodox parameters, not only on natural theology but also on the doctrine of God. This is my hope and my prayer. Also, I make this rebuke public since your work in question is quite public already.

Please. Please. Please walk backwards, brother.

May the Lord bless you.

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.