Natural Theology & Natural Revelation

Natural Theology & Natural Revelation

With the recent and rapid uptick in discussion revolving mostly around natural theology, it is not uncommon for well-intentioned brothers and sisters to oppose natural revelation to natural theology, as if the former is to be preferred over and against the latter. For example, after describing the historical Reformed view of natural theology, the retort will likely be, “But that’s natural revelation, not natural theology.” The problem? Neither natural theology nor natural revelation were historically understood to be mutually exclusive alternatives to one or the other, e.g. a one-or-the-other situation. Instead, the terms refer to distinct, yet complimentary, ideas—ideas with far-reaching consequences.

The Biblical Distinction

Before moving to some historical source material, I want to point out that Scripture itself makes the distinction between our knowledge and God’s objective revelation. In Psalm 19:1-10, the psalmist offers a litany of revelational realities which exist regardless of whether or not we want to acknowledge it. This is nothing short of natural revelation. But in vv. 11-14, the theological imperative is found, or the necessity of knowing or acknowledging God as Lord of the universe. Moreover, in Romans 1:18-20, God’s revelation which comes through what is made (v. 20) is known, or is the object of knowledge according to v. 21, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made… 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.”

The term for their thoughts in v. 21 could be translated to their reasoning. Now, their thoughts, everyone would hopefully agree, are distinguished from “the things that are made,” through which they “understand” or derive “thought” about God in the first place. The creaturely thought about God is what is often termed natural theology in distinction to God’s revelation of Himself through creation, or natural revelation. The latter serves as the object of the former.

Natural Theology

According to the Protestant Reformed and the Particular Baptists, natural theology refers to natural revelation as it’s apprehended by the mind. Franciscus Junius implies this distinction when he writes, “Natural theology is that which proceeds from principles that are known in relation to itself by the natural light of the human understanding, in proportion to the method of human reason (A Treatise on True Theology, 145).” Natural theology proceeds epistemically, i.e. from known principles, that is, in the intellect. Natural theology is performed “by the natural light of the human understanding,” he says. This is, of course, distinguished from natural revelation when he calls natural theology “knowledge of divine matters.” The former is theology, i.e. science or knowledge; the latter is revelation.

Herman Witsius, the Dutch Reformed Puritan, says, “Besides innate knowledge of God, of which man has the principles in his own mind, there is another argument arising from the consideration of the various other creatures around him (Apostles’ Creed, vol. 1, 78).” For Witsius, there is a distinction, albeit not a separation, between the “consideration” and the object of the consideration, i.e. “the various other creatures around him.”

In the broadest sense of the term, “theology” refers to both being and knowing, as Francis Turretin aptly points out, “So the nomenclature embraces the twofold principle of theology: one of being, which is God; the other of knowing, which is his word.” Yet, he says, “When God is set forth as the object of theology, he is not to be regarded simply as God in himself… but as revealed and as he has been pleased to manifest himself to us in his word, so that divine revelation is the formal relation which comes to be considered in this object (Institutes, vol. 1, p. 16).” The revelation, then, is the object of theology. In terms of natural theology, the object is natural revelation, or that which God has revealed of Himself in man and through creatures surrounding man (aka. innate and acquired species of knowledge).

John Gill writes, “There is a knowledge of God by the light of nature.” The knowledge, we say, is the theology, and the object of that knowledge or theology is the light of nature through the work of creation (A Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity, Primitive Baptist Press, 1976, p. 513).

Natural Revelation

Dr. Richard Muller writes, “Most simply stated, God alone is the subject or material of theology, inasmuch as all theological discourse must be conducted sub ratione Dei, with reference to God as its governing principle.” Quoting Gomarus, he writes, “The material with respect to which, or the object of theology is God openly revealed according to his own goodness, under whom all things that belong to theology are considered, not indeed as parts, species or incidental properties, but as they are either God himself or ordained in some way by God (Post-Reformed Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1, p. 316-317).”

Junius writes, “Theology is wisdom concerning divine matters (p. 99).” Natural revelation serves as the object of our theology. This distinction is vitally important because we do not want to make the mistake of conflating objective revelation (i.e. what is) with our knowledge of it. Our knowledge may be insufficient or incomplete, but this could never be said about God’s objective revelation. The second we identify our theologizing with God’s infallible revelation, both through nature and Scripture, we end up in a world of subjectivism, where revelation becomes dependent upon our knowledge of it.

The “Central Dogma” Approach to Theology

The “Central Dogma” Approach to Theology

Historically, there have been several ways of doing theology. When I say there have been several “ways,” the alternate term “method” ought to come to mind. Method describes the manner in which some goal is achieved. I clearly remember learning English by means of the “Shurley Method” in third grade. A clear understanding of English was the goal, and while there were several ways of achieving that goal, my third grade teacher chose the “Shurley way” or the “Shurley Method.” Why is this important? It is important because theology, like linguistics, is apprehended by way of some method. It is not excluded as the only science without proper method, though mainstream evangelicalism tends to conceive of it as such, at least in practice.

The Central Dogma Approach

The method of theology matters because it will ultimately determine whether or not a person has a true or a false theology. The wrong method will fall short of achieving the goal, i.e. knowing and living unto God. For years, there hasn’t been much unity on theological method. The cancer of subjectivism, as it has with many other things, affected the way in which Christians study God. Individuals come to the study of God in any way they see fit. I always like using Dr. John Frame’s triperspectival theology in contrast to something like John Piper’s Christian hedonism. Notably, both of these doctrines play a formative role in either of Frame/Piper’s conceptions of theology as a whole. Modern complementarians (a la. Bruce Ware and others), want to formulate seemingly everything in terms of the plurality and hierarchical taxis within the Godhead.

The question, then, becomes: Is this the way it ought to be done?

Should all our theology revolve around the Trinity, or should it all revolve and be understood in terms of the incarnation of the Son of God, as seemed to be the case in the earlier church (especially in the East)? If there is a “central dogma” around and in terms of which all theology must be understood, then which dogma should it be? Throughout the lifespan of the central dogma approach, this question has never been definitively answered, leaving a sort of subjectivism at the very helm of how Christians do theology in general.

The Biblicist Approach

There is another approach, the prospect of which may seem quite attractive in view of the arbitrariness and subjectivism noted above: Biblicism. Biblicism, consistently held, denies the validity of extra-biblical terminology, and it also destroys the possibility of good and necessary consequence or inference. An example of the former would be the term trinity, which appears nowhere in the Bible. And an example of the latter is the exegetical inferences leading Christians to conclude a doctrine of the trinity. It is a doctrine, after all, that is never explicitly nor dogmatically stated in Scripture, but must be deduced from several texts.

While Biblicism may eliminate one form of subjectivism, since our only theology book, commentary, and sermon manuscript would essentially be the Bible itself and nothing else, it ends in another form of subjectivism, that of private interpretation. Private interpretation may be understood in two ways, a positive and a negative. Positively understood, private interpretation just intends the liberty of the Christian to conclude the meaning of the text according to his or her conscience; free, that is, from any sort of hierarchical coercion. However, negatively, private interpretation refers to the arrogant and self-important interpretation of the text which tends away from historical commentary and makes the self or the ego the last arbiter of Scriptural meaning. This is “the Bible says it and I believe it” mindset which begs the question of meaning and assumes the individual Bible interpreter to be the final say.

An Alternative Consideration

There is, thankfully, an alternative to both the central dogma and Biblicist approaches. The classical method of theology begins with first principles in what is called the prolegomena. Everyone from the medieval scholastics, a la. Thomas Aquinas, to the Princeton theologians of the 19th century, a la. Geerhardus Vos (and his non-Princeton contemporary Herman Bavinck), understood the importance of beginning with prolegomena in systematic theology. This is a radically objective way to begin our study of God. In prolegomena, first principles, or the assumptions undergirding the rest of our theology, are disclosed, explained, and often defended.

Usually following prolegomena, yet sometimes at least partially included within it depending on the theologian or the nature of the document (e.g. systematic theologies differ from confessions of faith and catechisms), are what we might call the principii or the principles: the principle of knowledge (principium cognoscendi) and the principle of Being (principium essendi). The former answers the question: How do we know God rightly? And the latter: What causes and explains all that is? To the former, we answer: Scripture. Scripture is the way in which we must come to know God rightly and truly. And to the latter we answer: God. God is that which is to be known. Thus, in many confessions of faith, including the Second London Baptist Confession, the first two chapters include these principles. Chapter one is usually Scripture, and chapter two is often God. Many historical systematic theologies begin in much the same way, whether or not these principles are placed within prolegomena is irrelevant to the overall method.

Response to Biblicism In Light of Classical Theology

Contrary to Biblicism, the classical method allows for assumptions prior to coming to the text. A rudimentary knowledge or assumption of who God is, for example, is necessary prior to coming to Scripture. Genesis 1, for instance, begins with a rather unexplained God and thus assumes we, the readers, have some idea of what “God” means. This, of course, is in accordance with the natural revelation described in Romans 1:18-20. The laws of logic and the assumption that our senses are basically reliable are two other presuppositions that must be held prior to coming to studying theology or coming to Scripture. Biblicism is thus rendered obsolete to the classical method because it cannot account for the extra-biblical and pre-requisite tools we must have in our toolbox prior to reading Scripture or doing theology in general.

Response to the Central Dogma Approach In Light of Classical Theology

As noted above, the question, “Which ‘central dogma’ should we use?” has never been definitively answered. For this reason alone, “central dogma” ought to be the subject of suspicion. Another reason for leaving it behind would be the danger of allowing the tail to wag the dog. If we construe all our theology through the lens of a single favored doctrine, like the trinity, then what about the oneness and unity of the divine essence? If we neither grasp nor discuss the divine essence prior to the trinity, then it is possible we might end up in modalism or tritheism. Scripture, also, must figure in sometime prior to the trinity in terms of the logical flow of our theology. If the trinity is known through Scripture, then we need to have a doctrine of Scripture set and confirmed logically prior to presuming any knowledge of the trinity. What if our doctrine of Scripture is neo-orthodox, liberal, or even nil? Would that not effect our thinking of who the triune God is revealed or described therein?

The same could be said about any other suggested central dogma, from Scripture itself to baptism to the incarnation of Christ and eschatology. To make any one of these things central in theology using one or the other as the lens through which we understand everything else will at best end in methodological inconsistency and at worst in a total doctrinal train wreck.


If you take nothing away from this article, I urge you to understand the importance of theological method. Do not beg the question of method. Instead, question your own method. What is it? Do you have one? If you do, is it correct? Is it aimed at the truth? If the question of method goes unanswered, then the whole of theology is put in danger. When doing mathematics or biology, a certain method must be employed. Sometimes the formulation of method is less forgiving a process in some sciences (math or physics) than it is in others (linguistics or sociology). The natural sciences, for example, must always follow the monolith of the scientific method, and there can be no departure from it without catastrophic results. In such terms, theology is no different. There must be a method, and it must be correct in order for Christians to reach the truth in these various and sometimes more advanced areas of the Christian faith.

Thomas Aquinas on Gender

Thomas Aquinas on Gender

The context of this post is an ongoing discussion concerning the identity of the human person. Previously, I’ve made a distinction between the substance of a thing and the accidental properties which accrue to that thing. This “thing,” in this case, is the human person, which I’ve described as the imago Dei in terms of substance, the accidents being those things which do not determine essential or substantive identity yet change from time to time, i.e. black hair turns to grey, skin becomes tan, etc.

If we consider human nature, in general, in terms of the individual man, the above seems somewhat easy to put together. A man can be the same man substantially even though some of his accidents may change. Easy enough, right? But, this simplicity dissolves whenever we consider gender, or the distinction between male and female. As Christians, we would obviously deny that a person would be the same person if they were able to switch from male to female. Gender, after all, is not only accidental, but seems substantially determinative of a person’s identity, more so than eye color, hair color, skin color, life circumstance, etc.

I believe Aquinas can help sort out this difficulty by making the proper distinctions. In ST, 93.4, Thomas “steel mans” (represents to the best of his ability) the following objection—

It would seem that the image of God is not found in every man. For the Apostle says that man is the image of God, but woman is the image (Vulg., glory) of man (1 Cor. xi. 7). Therefore, as woman is an individual of the human species,  it is clear that every individual is not an image of God.

He answers—

The image of God, in its principal signification, namely the intellectual nature, is found both in man and in woman. Hence after the words, To the image of God He created him, it is added, Male and female He created them (Gen. i. 27). Moreover it is said them in the plural, as Augustine (Gen. ad lit. iii. 22) remarks, lest it should be thought that both sexes were united in one individual. But in a secondary sense the image of God is found in man, and not in woman: for man is the beginning and end of woman: as God is the beginning and end of every creature. So when the Apostle had said that man is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man, he adds his reason for saying this: For man is not of woman, but woman of man; and man was not created for woman, but woman for man.

Therefore, we should consider both man and woman under human nature, while at the same time understanding that, individually, man and woman have more specific, individual natures, i.e. male and female. Man is substantially distinct from woman in that sense, and this is predominantly seen in the distinction between the final causes of either. Man’s end, in terms of the male nature, is God; woman’s end, in terms of female nature, is man (1 Cor. 11:9). But when both male and female are considered under, more generally, human nature, their combined end is God (cf. WSC, Q.1).

So, gender introduces more into the equation. Generally, there is one human nature. More specifically, however, human nature might be considered under male and/or female natures, each of which have distinct ends (purposes, roles, etc.). The same cannot be said with respect to skin color, height, etc. Man’s formal and final causes remain the same regardless of height, skin color, eye color, or any other accidental properties. This is not the case with gender.

More on the Atonement

More on the Atonement

In my previous article on the atonement, I offered the following argument:

PI. The atonement has a final cause.

PII. That final cause is redemption.

PIII. But all people are not redeemed.

C. Therefore, the atonement and the redemption it accomplishes are limited in scope.

No one will object to (P1), since all Christians everywhere agree that God does all things with purpose (1 Cor. 14:33; Ecc. 3:1; Is. 53). Some may take issue with (P2), instead understanding the final cause of the atonement of to be an offer to all people. In other words, the purpose of the atonement is to offer atonement or redemption, but is not redemption itself. If this were the case, then the atonement has achieved its goal even if the number of people atoned for is indefinite, since the atonement, it is thought, is only to be offered yet not definitely applied.

There are a few issues with this conception of the atonement. In Isaiah 53:4 we are told, “Surely He has borne our griefs And carried our sorrows…” Who’s sorrows? Who’s griefs? Does Christ’s coming have a purpose? Surely it does, and it is to carry our sorrows. This is not a mere offer, this is a definite action, born or carry (נָשָׂא) being in the perfect tense in v. 4a. In v. 4b, the same is true with the expression, “carried our sorrows.”

If this is something Christ has definitely achieved, has He achieved it for the whole world? If so, is the whole world saved? No. For we are told in Matthew 25:41 and elsewhere (Jn. 5:29) that those who are resurrected unto judgement will be thrown into the everlasting fire. Thus, (PIII) appears to hold true.

In Isaiah 53:5, things become clearer: “But He was wounded for our transgressions…” Was He really wounded for or because of transgressions? If so, who’s transgressions? The transgressions of the whole world? Again, this is not merely an offer of Jesus’ wounds to cover a person’s transgressions. This is a direct statement that tells us Jesus has performed a work for some purpose beyond a mere offer. Verse 5 ends, “And by His stripes we are healed.” Again, healed, as with bore and carried, is in the perfect tense which, in Hebrew, signifies something that has been completed or accomplished.

In Isaiah 53:8b, we learn, “For the transgressions of My people He was stricken.” This ought to be the nail in the coffin. Here is a direct statement, corroborated by others such as Ephesians 5:25, which declares the purpose of Christ’s Sacrificial, priestly work, and that purpose is confined to a people, not people in the abstract. Christ gave Himself for His church. The atonement, while offered to all in evangelism, does not have a final cause of atoning for all people, nor is its final cause to merely serve as an offer. It has achieved something, that is, to “make an offering for sin (Is. 53:10),” or to atone for the people of God (v. 8).

This all amounts to Christ coming for a purpose, that is, to bear our guilt and to bleed for our sins. The question, therefore, becomes, Did He really do this? The Bible declares that He has (Jn. 19:30).

Celebrating the Incarnation

Celebrating the Incarnation

Celebrating the incarnation is an every-Sunday-thing for our church. We don’t believe Christians ought to celebrate Christ’s incarnate work more during some parts of the year than others. This is largely because we believe the Bible directs our worship rather than a liturgical calendar. However, since the surrounding society does celebrate the incarnation more this time of year than anytime else (albeit in a nominal fashion), I’m happy to use it as an occasion to talk explicitly about God with us (Emmanuel).

How Did God Become Man?

The Baptist [Keach’s] Catechism reads:

Q. 25: How did Christ, being the Son of God become man?

A. Christ the Son of God became man by taking to himself a true body (Heb. 2:14, 17; 10:5), and a reasonable soul (Mt. 26:38); being conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and born of her (Luke 1:27, 31, 34, 35, 42; Gal. 4:4), yet without sin (Heb. 4:15; 7:26).

The question itself is paradoxical. God? Becoming man? This seems to run against every grain of our thought concerning who or what God is. God, after all, doesn’t change. He doesn’t move along with His creation. He’s not in a process of any kind. God is not a man. He is God. Right? The question above brazenly stares us in the face. It assumes this as fact: God has already become a man. More than this, Christ confronts us all as we read His own claims in the New Testament along with the testimony of the Old (Mic. 5:2; Jn. 8:58).

How should we understand this? Can we understand this? I am a firm believer that if God reveals something to us, we can understand it insofar as it’s revealed to us. In Scripture, God is presented to us and so is the incarnation of the Son of God. Scripture assumes these two doctrines “fit.” They’re not illogical or contradictory, but complementary—two pieces of the redemptive puzzle which make for a consistent and coherent whole. Yet, paradox will always remain.

Nothing about the above question is distinctly baptist. It’s mere orthodoxy—Nicene Christology at its core. The Son of God became man by taking to Himself a true body. This wasn’t a phantom body. It wasn’t only an apparent body. Everything about it was real—true flesh and blood. Hebrews 2:14a says, “Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same…” The Son of God was human in every way you and I are human, yet without sin. Matthew 26:38 says, “Then He said to them, ‘My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death. Stay here and watch with Me.’” The Son, therefore, took upon Himself a human body and a human soul. Everything about Him was man.

He became like us in every way, even being born of a woman, the virgin Mary, by the power of the Holy Spirit, yet without sin. Hebrews 4:15 says, “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.”

That is the way in which God the Son became man.

The Paradox Understood

True, everything about Him was man. But, everything about Him was also God. Hebrews 1:10 identifies Jesus with God by quoting Psalm 102:25—a Psalm addressed to Jehovah. So, what do we do with this? Do we have the luxury of just punting the question to mystery? Are we to believe a real contradiction exists, throw up our arms and say, “Well, God can do all things”? Absolutely not. Logical contradictions have no place in Christian theology, though paradoxes abound.

We need to review what an actual logical contradiction is. An example of a logical contradiction would be to say something like: “My red car is also blue at the same time and in the same sense.” This, of course, is ridiculous. A car is either red or blue, but it can’t be both. When Christians read of the incarnation, they may be tempted to think that God is God and man at the same time and in the same sense thereby producing a logical contradiction.

The orthodox doctrine of the incarnation, however, fails to produce a logical contradiction of any kind. This is because the doctrine stated is as follows: God the Son took into union with Himself the fullness of a human nature. There’s nothing contradictory about this statement. Difficult to understand? Sure. Contradictory? No. The Person of Christ is God in nature, and man in nature. The Son is God and man—the divine nature being eternal, the human nature being assumed in time.

So, the apparent contradiction may be put to sleep if we rightly understand the doctrine. It is God taking to Himself a human nature. Yes, God is God and man, but God is not God in the same sense He is man. Therefore, there’s nothing formally contradictory about the doctrine of the incarnation.


Of course there will always be questions and objections. Some may say we haven’t successfully escaped the paradox. And that’s okay, since it was never our mission to eliminate the paradox, but to point out how no contradiction actually exists. Part of the problem with the Western mindset is that it’s unable to appropriate paradox. Paradox, not formal contradiction, ought to be embraced by Christians. Paradox merely tells our minds, “You’ve reached the edge of your capacity!”

The glorious truth upon which our faith may rest is this: the Son of the Father took to Himself manhood and dwelt among us. Therefore, we ought to worship this Lord, the Savior, in season and out of season. The God-man ought to be so precious to us that we race to church on Sunday’s fully intending to fall down and worship Him.

— J. S.

The Imputation of Christ’s Active Obedience

The Imputation of Christ’s Active Obedience

Christ’s active obedience is His perfect obedience to the Law of God. Christ’s passive obedience is His taking our sins upon Himself, being nailed to the cross, and suffering the punishment of God’s wrath unto death—the wrath we deserved. Historically, the majority of Protestants have agreed that both Christ’s active and passive obedience is imputed to believers upon the exercise of saving faith. But, some have disagreed.

Some, particularly within the Federal Visionist and Arminian camps (cf. Berkhoff, Systematic Theology, 515), deny the imputation of the active obedience of Christ to the believer. They might claim that forgiveness of sins is all the Christian needs. Then, by virtue of his own righteousness or obedience, he will reach final justification (or something along those lines). The believer only need be rendered innocent of their sin.

This obviously denies the need for an imputed positive righteousness.

The problem, however, is that this denies very clear Scriptural data. For example, Romans 4:11 says:

And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised, that righteousness might be imputed to them also… 

Those who deny the imputation of Christ’s righteousness need to at least admit, in light of Romans 4, that there is a righteousness imputed (counted to) those with faith. The question, then, is whose righteousness is it? It can’t be the original righteousness of the believer. This righteousness is coming from somewhere else and is counted to the believer. That’s what imputation is. It’s an alien righteousness coming to be possessed by someone without their own righteousness.

The objector may claim that v. 12 makes clear that which was lacking in v. 11. Verse 12 reads as follows:

… and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of the faith which our father Abraham had while still uncircumcised.

“Ah,” our pretend objector might say, “you see, this righteousness is imputed because of faith plus walking according to that faith.” This is not what the text says. The person who walks faithfully walks because of faith, a faith which Paul has already claimed is the instrument of this imputed righteousness (vv. 9, 10).

Moreover, there is a distinction between faith on the one hand and the outworking of that faith on the other; otherwise, steps would not be the indirect object with faith being the direct object. If our interlocutor wanted to conflate the steps of faith with faith itself, they would simply need to explain why Paul doesn’t use the adjectival form pistos instead of the noun pistis. Pistos would describe someone who obeys from a heart of faith—a faithful person. It’s used of Epaphras in Colossians 1:7. In that case, verse 12 might read as follows: “… and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who are faithful…” But, as you can tell, not even the immediate context would allow for such a reading since Paul wants to describe the faith that was possessed by Abraham, antecedent to his obedience in circumcision. There is a necessary distinction between faith as something which is possessed, and obedience which is something that is performed as a result of the faith possessed.

Therefore, with Paul, we should conclude that Christ “became for us wisdom from God—and righteousness and sanctification and redemption… (1 Cor. 1:30).”