Natural Theology 1: Toward Clarity and Apologetics

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.

23 thoughts on “Natural Theology 1: Toward Clarity and Apologetics

  1. Wow. I left a comment earlier on your Thomas Aquinas article, and have to say you piqued my interest. If I had much more time I would engage you directly. Just briefly examining the general approach of your articles, I find you commit many common errors that for some reason just keep getting passed down the line by Reformers. The root of these errors is a gross misunderstanding of the entire Thomistic corpus, largely (I suspect) due to a failure to read it and more importantly, understand it. As I do not have the time to devot to a line by line repudiation, (nor would that really help you in any way) I will suggest something that I’m sure you are aware of, namely the Protestant paradigm of “either-or.” When I glanced at your biography and your comment to the priest in the confessional I couldn’t see a clearer example of it: if grace is utterly unmerited by persons, then we have no role in receiving it. Either/or. This is way to simple thinking. Some where in your past someone must have mentioned this to you, find that person out and talk to him/her. in the meantime read this: The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism by Louis Bouyer, an oldie but a goodie. Even if you think I’m full of it, read it, what do you have to lose?

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    1. “Either-or” is not the whole of the Protestant paradigm. Muller works hard to correct mis-conceptions, and it is you, in fact, who are guilty of spreading them. It is the Roman “both-and” concept that makes allowance not only for synergism where God acts sovereignly, but for syncretism that imports all sorts of foreign (and specifically ancient Roman-pagan) concepts into the church and then calls them Christianity.

      I have actually read Bouyer’s work — he in fact may be accused of “common errors” that came up in 16th century Roman polemics and have been passed along ever since.

      From my perspective, here is a place to start:

      http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2011/10/whatever-else-definition-of-word-church.html

      You do not need to help me: I would suggest that you are the one who has devoted his life to an organization that is morally bankrupt and miscreant in history. May God help you, sir.

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    1. 2K thought relies on “natural law” to provide an adequate underpinning for civil law and government. Hays’s piece shows the shortcomings of that.

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      1. It does rely on natural law but to say that he show the problems in doing that assumes that his interlocutor was a good instance of a high level understanding of natural law and its defense. Such simply wasnt the case.

        Next, the people in the past most associated with natural law would be Aristotle and Aquinas. Neither one would have said, “Just do whatever you want” when asked the same questions. Now one could agree or disagree with their argumentation, but to say that all one could do is throw up ones hands is silly.

        Next, Mr. Hayes pointed out to “Sean” that Mr. Irons believed that grounding 2k ethics in natural theology leads to a version of theocracy (which I believe that it does) but Sean really needed to reject that. Given such, how can anyone say that this conversation in question is an instance of high level natural theology reasoning?

        Lastly, Steve Hays repeated made the claim that appealing or quoting from special revelation was a self-defeating way to argue for the adequacy of general revelation. Such is simply false. A person can point to Romans 1 and its claim that the light of natural (general revelation) is sufficient to leave all without excuse without being guilty of some self contradiction.

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        1. I see what you are objecting to. But really, I did not portray this as an interaction with “a good instance of a high level understanding of natural law and its defense” — but it certainly is a popular one, and one that is encountered frequently. I offered it as an example. Twice you mentioned “high level” and while such things may take place in academia, and if you are interested in engaging them, you can engage them there.

          I clearly stated that I had no intention of getting into a two-kingdoms debate. I just wanted to show where things end up.

          Lastly, Steve Hays repeated made the claim that appealing or quoting from special revelation was a self-defeating way to argue for the adequacy of general revelation. Such is simply false. A person can point to Romans 1 and its claim that the light of natural (general revelation) is sufficient to leave all without excuse without being guilty of some self contradiction.

          It seems as if you have fully missed the point of what Muller is saying. Did you read Part 2? Certainly “the light of nature” is sufficient to render all “without excuse”; but the point is, as is articulated in Part 2, “the problem is that sin takes the natural revelation of God and fashions, in fact, an idolatrous and sinful theology. The theology exists and man is to blame because it is sin and sin alone that stands in the way of a valid natural theology”.

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          1. John,
            I dont care about 2k much, but you simply used this 2k discussion to denigrate the natural law position.

            Next, as far as Romans 1 goes, one cannot push fallenness to the extent that one has an excuse for idolatry etc due to one being born in a state of fallenness.

            Next, is it your position that rebellious unregenerate man cannot twist special revelation? If not, then the problem is the rebellious and unregenerate man not the lack of special revelation.

            Next, for rebellious and unregenerate man to be responsible for his rebellion, he must be able to know better than to twist the revelation that he has. According to your position here, one can only know better if given special revelation. If such is the case, then Romans 1 is turned upside down.

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            1. you simply used this 2k discussion to denigrate the natural law position.

              I am simply saying that “natural law is inadequate” and “here is an example of how”. The larger point is that the Reformers and the Reformed Orthodox (in Muller’s view) seemed to say the same thing.

              Next, as far as Romans 1 goes, one cannot push fallenness to the extent that one has an excuse for idolatry etc due to one being born in a state of fallenness.

              I am not saying “there is an excuse for idolatry”. What I am suggesting is that natural theologies that rely on natural law become corrupted, simply because of the nature of fallen man. And to get to the larger point that I am making, Aquinas relied far too heavily on Aristotelian metaphysics, and that led to Roman Catholicism becoming what it became at Trent.

              This is not a position that is unique to me, either. It is the notion (which Aquinas’s near contemporary Scotus rejected) in which Aquinas affirms that “sacraments work because they intrinsically contain and convey their effects (as Ozment reports) — this in turn is based upon Aristotle’s notions of “forms”, and it leads to the Roman sacerdotal system in which only priests of Rome (or EOs) can effect the sacraments.

              Now, that is greatly simplified, and there is much to it, and this is one reason why I believe I must slowly work through some of these antecedent concepts as well. But this is the “idolatry” toward which natural theology leads.

              Next, is it your position that rebellious unregenerate man cannot twist special revelation?

              This is a silly question.

              Next, for rebellious and unregenerate man to be responsible for his rebellion, he must be able to know better than to twist the revelation that he has. According to your position here, one can only know better if given special revelation. If such is the case, then Romans 1 is turned upside down.

              Your generalities here are unclear; they seem to be based on your silly question above, and the rest of it is fairly muddled as well.

              “My position” is going to end up fairly close to what Muller is saying all along.

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  2. “Second, it is not dependable in its religious result and contains errors concerning God and his work that can only be corrected through the use of Scripture. ”

    As far as this is true, then one would have an excuse if one held to such a belief or the implications of such a belief, correct?

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    1. Here is the larger paragraph:

      First, such theology is not saving: it exists as praise rather than as proclamation.

      Second, it is not dependable in its religious result and contains errors concerning God and his work that can only be corrected through the use of Scripture. Here again, the problem of natural theology reflects the problem of the imago Dei: it is not utterly lost, but it provides no basis for man’s movement toward God.

      In context, “natural theology” is the theology that’s based on Aristotle’s “theology”, which Aquinas carries too far. Aquinas certainly does allow some correction by Scripture, but not nearly enough, and not nearly early enough in his thinking.

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      1. John,
        I didnt include the first part, simply because I agree with it. Do you think it somehow gives context to better understand it/agree with the second part?

        The problem is simply, as far as natural theology is inherently erroneous, one has excuse for one’s actions. But Romans 1, says that the information given by the light of nature renders one without excuse. I dont see how to hold your position but also hold to Romans 1.

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        1. Hermonta, I think the distinction is a fine one — yes, “natural theology” is sufficient to render one “without excuse”, but no, it is not sufficient to rely on “natural theology” in order to arrive at a proper theology of God (or Christ or salvation or sacraments, etc.).

          This is not merely my position; it is the position that Muller (following the Reformed Orthodox) is seeming to arrive at.

          However, please keep in mind that Muller spends the next 200 or so pages to analyze the various writers from that period, many of whom did not align perfectly with the particular understanding of it that I’ve articulated here.

          Depending upon time and events, Lord willing I’ll be able to show more of how all of this looks in the writings of the various Orthodox writers. But I’ve got my own opinions, too, and I’ve expressed them here, probably without giving the fuller analysis.

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          1. Saying that there is certain knowledge about God, (such as the gospel) that is not in natural theology is nowhere close to saying that natural theology is inherently erroneous.

            To believe that one is without excuse due to the light of nature seems to imply all errors about God and what He wants us to do are eliminated if we follow the light of nature. If we still fall into error, it is due to our having rejected natural theology instead of following it properly.

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            1. First of all, it is Calvin who said that “natural theology is inherently lacking”. That is the case, from his perspective, because of the effect of sin. Thus, the case of “following it properly” is just simply not a thing we are capable of doing without the further revelation of Scripture.

              So unfallen Adam would have been capable of “following it properly” — but fallen man is not able to do so.

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    2. As far as this is true, then one would have an excuse if one held to such a belief or the implications of such a belief, correct?

      If you are asking me (hypothetically, in context) whether those who followed Aquinas’s “natural theology” “have an excuse”, I’m sure that God hold’s each individual’s beliefs and motives in mind when he makes that judgment.

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  3. I can’t speak for Plantinga nor for your author’s reading of Plantinga.

    Your author’s statement that “Inexcusability requires that it be clear that God exists so that everyone participating in the argument is without excuse in not understanding” is an attempt to force God into a box — it is an attepmt to tell God what he should or should not be doing.

    It is clear from the book of Romans, that “unrighteous men … by their unrighteousness suppress the truth”. Such a thing does not happen to the same degree in all, because everyone are different. “What can be known about God” — not everything that can be known about God — “is plain to them, because God has shhown it to them”. Again, this is not some “clear knowable standard”. It is God interacting individually with individuals.

    This is not a claim that God has given the same measure of knowledge to all — merely that he has shown them what they need to know in order that He can claim, “you are without excuse”. The attempt to quantify this is wrong-headed.

    Colin Cruse, in his Commentary on Romans, affirms this:

    From the earliest Christian centuries the following three steps in Paul’s argument in 1:20 have been identified: (i) since the creation of the world God’s nature has been clearly seen; (ii) it is to be understood through what he has made; and (iii) this is the reason humanity is without excuse for its failure to honor God as God. Instead of honoring God, Paul goes on to explain, they gave themselves over to idolatry (1 21-23).

    Kruse, Colin G. (2012-07-01). Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Pillar New Testament Commentary) (p. 92). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Kindle Edition.

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    1. I am confused here as to your objection?

      Romans 1 states that the foundation of the “without excuse” claim is the clarity of general revelation. The claim that those for whom general revelation is not clear, would have an excuse is a straight forward implication of the text.

      That God either is (or at least could be) more clear to some over and above others, does nothing to attack the claim made.

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      1. Let’s take this out of the hypothetical realm. For Paul (and the Reformed writers whom Muller is citing), there is a distinction: yes, they are without excuse because they know they are breaking the law, and yet they rebel. This is true for all unredeemed, including Aristotle. They are “without excuse”.

        But that is “without excuse” insofar as knowing they owe worship to the Living God. “although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him”.

        Aristotle is among those. He built a “natural theology”. And yet Paul, in the first century, would have been aware especially of someone like Aristotle, who still is”without excuse” because although he “knew God exists” he “neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him.”

        Aquinas’s “natural theology” was corrupt insofar as he carried Aristotle too far.

        That is the point of what I am writing.

        Back to the hypothetical realm, fallen men are “without excuse”. You seem to want to say that some among fallen man do have excuses because God has not somehow provided “a clear standard knowable to all human beings”. What’s “clear” to you (or what you’d consider to be “clear” may not be “clear” to the next person, and it may be more than adequately “clear” to someone else.

        That is the problem with Roman Catholicism. It treats sin far too lightly, far too inconsequentially, and it gives “fallen man” far too much credit.

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        1. I dont believe anyone has an excuse. My issue currently is digging into the implications of what “without excuse” are and how your seeming need to insert special revelation in order to get clarity defeats Paul’s claim of everyone being without excuse due to general revelation.

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