Muller goes on at some length about distinctions among archetypal and ectypal theologies, and I may or may not return to that topic, but next in his queue is the question of “natural theology”.
Commenting on “Calvin’s view of general and special revelation”, Stephen cited Warfield “that while fallen man continues to receive natural revelation (such that everyone knows that there is a God), they cannot produce a sound natural theology from it. This is the source of all false religion.”
Earlier, I had cited another writer, saying, “For Calvin, … , there is no natural theology on the part of an unbeliever that serves to do anything but render him without excuse. Every unbelieving attempt to construct a true natural theology will inevitably lead to condemnation.”
With that said, I’ll continue with Muller on, generally, how the Reformers viewed “natural theology”:
1. Preliminary considerations: the problem of natural theology as an index to the movement from Reformation to Orthodoxy. The question of continuity or discontinuity between the Reformers and the orthodox is raised quite pointedly by these definitions of natural and supernatural theology. According to one line of argument (represented by Althaus and Bizer), the gradual development of the discussion of natural theology and of the positive use of reason represents a turn toward rationalism and, in the view of Althaus in particular, toward a Thomistic model of the relation of reason and revelation.
More recently, under the impact of neoorthodoxy and the Barth-Brunner debate, there has been a tendency among other scholars to argue against any legitimate place for natural theology in Calvin’s version of Reformed theology and to view seventeenth-century discussions of the subject as a deviation from the perspective of the Reformers.
Echoing Althaus and Bizer but from a fully neoorthodox perspective, Otto Weber goes so far as to claim that the mere introduction of “reason” into Reformed theology, even in the form of “reason illuminated by the Word of God,” was enough to produce in the century after the Reformation an increasingly rationalistic theology in which a purely rational natural theology belonged to “the interior structure” of theology itself. This occurred, Weber alleges, because the question of the extent of reason was ultimately “one of quantity,” not quality, given the “continuity” of the purely rational with “illuminated reason.”
These approaches to the problem of Calvin’s views on natural theology [have] not gone unchallenged. Several studies have examined Calvin’s views on the natural knowledge of God and have found them more positive than indicated by Barth but more clearly within the bounds of Christian doctrine and biblical revelation than indicated by Brunner.
This revised understanding of Calvin—viz., the understanding of his thought without reference to the neoorthodox paradigm grafted onto it by the Barth-Brunner debate—in turn indicates a greater affinity between Calvin’s teaching and that of the Reformed orthodox at the same time that it recognizes in Calvin (as will also be found in the later Reformed) a firm distinction between pagan natural reason or fallen reason and a Christian application of reason to the examination of the created order.
The right application of reason to the natural order, moreover, would issue in a cogent natural philosophy, in the outlines of which Calvin concurred with his contemporaries. The latter point stands directly counter to Hans Emil Weber’s theory of an ineluctable slide into rationalism the moment that reason is acknowledged in theology.
As with virtually all of the developments belonging to the rise of orthodoxy, however, the elaboration of a Reformed doctrine of natural theology cannot be represented simply as a manifestation either of continuity or of discontinuity—nor can it be argued that the mere use of reason ineluctably moved Reformed theology toward rationalism. Indeed, contra Althaus, Bizer, and Weber, the Reformed tradition searched, as had many of the medieval scholastics, for a middle path between rationalism and fideism.
Several formal observations are in order. First, Calvin, Bullinger, Vermigli, and Musculus all discuss the naturally available “knowledge of God,” but they nowhere construct a “natural theology” and nowhere discuss either the advisability or inadvisability of constructing one. Calvin and Viret proposed a twofold knowledge of God as Creator and Redeemer, while Musculus addressed the issue of natural and revealed knowledge with a threefold division of the subject, into the general revelation in nature, the special revelation in Scripture, and the gracious witness of the Spirit that renders Scripture authoritative.
Bullinger, like Calvin, appears to have distinguished between the reception of natural revelation by pagans or unbelievers and the reception of natural revelation by way of the testimony of Scripture. Bullinger also, again like Calvin, had a well-developed view of the conscience as having [an] innate or implanted knowledge of the natural law—albeit one that could not motivate the unregenerate sinner to do the good.
It was the Thomist-trained Vermigli, though, who of all the early Reformed codifiers of doctrine, produced the most extended treatment of the problem of the natural knowledge of God in relation to theology.
Second, the Reformed orthodox do use the term “natural theology,” and several of the Reformed orthodox writers—notably Alsted at the beginning and Van Til at the end of the era—wrote works entitled Theologia naturalis.
Alsted ultimately included his natural theology within the outline of his larger Methodus. The orthodox writers do not typically mingle natural theology with the theology based on biblical or “supernatural” revelation: their systems of catechetical, scholastic, or positive theology remain expositions of the supernaturally grounded body of Christian doctrine that rest on Scripture.
Once, however, natural theology had been admitted to the “encyclopedia” of theological study, differences did arise among the Reformed orthodox concerning its purpose and its relationship to the other forms of theological discourse. In the eighteenth century, moreover, natural theology was used as a preliminary step toward supernatural theology, particularly by Wolffian theologians like Wyttenbach and Stapfer, as well as by less philosophical writers like Klinkenberg—this development, however, proves the point by contrast: it was not at all the Reformed approach in the early or high orthodox eras to build supernatural theology on a rational, natural foundation.
Recent studies have shown, moreover, that the natural theology and metaphysics of the early orthodox were not dogmatically framed by constant warnings concerning the radical limitation of fallen human reason, but rather argued that, given the problem of the fall, the proper study of philosophy was an exercise intrinsic to the reparation of the image of God in human beings.
I think this is one of the most important things that Muller has said here. Given my propensity to think that “Aquinas is the problem”, I still think that it’s important to understand what might be said to be “the proper role of philosophy” (in a way that we might talk about “the proper role of calculus” or “the proper role of literature” in our thinking).
Arguably, it was one of the academic burdens of early orthodox writers like Keckermann, Alsted, Heereboord, and Burgersdijk to develop a philosophical curriculum, including metaphysics and natural theology, in the Reformed academies and universities—and that, in so doing, they broadened not only the curricular interest of the Reformed but also Reformed interest in the ability of the rational faculties to discern truth in their examination of the rational and logical orders.
According to Alsted, natural theology could have both a [propaedeutic] and an apologetic function: on the one hand it might lead toward the higher truths of revealed theology; on the other it might be the basis for debate with pagans and atheists.
I don’t intend to get into the two-kingdoms debate here, but for a treatment of the ways that “natural law” (and “natural theology” following it) is not a good foundation for some apologetics, for the limits of this notion see this treatment by Steve Hays.
Muller also shows how this fits with Reformers such as Calvin and Vermingli:
This perspective may clash with the impression given by the introductory chapters of Calvin’s Institutes, albeit not with the broader view of Calvin’s thought that can be gleaned from the Institutes in conjunction with the commentaries and sermons—while in the broader context of the thought of the Reformers, notably writers like Vermigli and Hyperius, there are also a series of significant antecedents.
In addition and more importantly, the context of the early orthodox writers was different from that of the Reformers: whereas Calvin arguably understood the debate over reason, natural revelation, and philosophy as a battle against the causes of excesses and mistakes in the theology of the later Middle Ages, Keckermann, Alsted, and their contemporaries surely saw the issue in the context of the establishment of a Protestant and Reformed theology in the institutional context of academies and universities, specifically the academies and universities in lands where the Reformation had been successful and the abuses for the most part set aside.
And certainly, the institutionalization of Reformed thought implied the appropriation in a more thorough and overt manner of the best of the older Christian tradition both patristic and medieval. In brief, we shall be able here, as on the other topics investigated, to identify continuities and discontinuities in the development of Reformed teaching.
Muller, R. A. (2003). Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise And Development Of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 1: Prolegomena To Theology (2nd ed., pp. 270–273). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.