Natural Theology 2: Calvin’s Conception of the Knowledge of God

Jacob Aitken writes, “Any discussion of the imago-dei (“Image of God” in man) is better served, not by speculating on essences and accidents, but on man’s role as priest-king-prophet in creation and New Creation”.

Down below, you’ll see much the same conclusion from Muller regarding Calvin’s understanding of the imago dei: it must be informed by Scripture (understanding man’s biblical role, as Jacob does here) – not by pagan metaphysics.

Calvin’s conception of the natural knowledge of God

Any discussion of Calvin’s views on natural knowledge of God and the possibility of natural theology must begin by acknowledging that Calvin nowhere uses the term theologia naturalis and, consequently, neither explicitly affirms or denies its possibility. In addition, it must also be recognized that the Pauline underpinnings of the Institutes and the flow of argument found there do not offer much place for a positive elaboration of the ways in which Christians might profit from the use of the knowledge of God that they gain from nature—with the exception of the lengthy discourse on providence.

On the other hand, Calvin’s initial discussion of the human predicament presumes a fundamental seed of religion (semen religionis) in all people, a universal sense of the divine (sensus divinitatis), and in innate function of conscience that can, at least, serve to condemn the most sinful pagan. All people have engrafted in them “a certain understanding of the divine majesty.” The knowledge of God is given, moreover, in the created order, displayed for all humanity to behold. The problem is that sin distorts perception and superstition undermines all right knowledge.

This is where the big difference lies between Calvin and Aquinas.

On the basis of these declarations, Barthian readers of Calvin have gone to great lengths to deny the existence of natural theology, while all that Calvin does is declare such theology useless to salvation. Calvin, in fact, consistently assumes the existence of false, pagan natural theology that has warped the knowledge of God available in nature into gross idolatry. Calvin must argue in this way because he assumes the existence of natural revelation which in se is a true knowledge of God. If natural theology were impossible, idolatrous man would not be left without excuse.

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.

And this is precisely the error that Aquinas introduces, and which Roman Catholicism (at Trent) made mandatory.

Parker’s interpretation of Calvin’s exegesis of Psalm 19:1–9 manifests quite plainly the unwillingness of Barthians to accept the most basic implications of what Calvin says about natural revelation and natural theology—all of which appear to have been quite clear to the Protestant scholastics. Calvin, as Parker notes, identifies two parts of the psalm: “David celebrates the glory of God as manifested in His works; and in the other exalts and magnifies the knowledge of God which shines more clearly in His Word.”

Commenting on the first half of the psalm, Calvin extols the revelation of God in nature. Looking at the second half of the psalm, he argues once again that sinful man is not led to God by natural revelation but is merely left without excuse in his sins. Only by means of the Word can man come to God, and apart from the Word natural revelation avails nothing, “although it should be to us as a loud and distinct proclamation sounding in our ears.”

Brunner was, certainly, incorrect in arguing that Scripture somehow supplements natural revelation—but Barth and Parker are equally incorrect in assuming the “total blindness” of man apart from the Word and in denying natural theology as such. It is clear from the psalm itself and from Calvin’s commentary on it that David is not using “the Word” as a key to unlock the otherwise closed doors of natural revelation, but is rather, as one of God’s children, looking directly at the book of nature, where the knowledge of God is manifest—albeit not as clearly as through the Word.

These impressions are confirmed in numerous other places throughout Calvin’s commentaries: Calvin understood the preaching of Paul and Barnabas in Lystra as containing “natural arguments” for the existence of God—specifically, as the identification of “a certain and evident manifestation of God” in the providential “order of nature.” Similarly, in Paul’s address to the Greeks on the Areopagus, Calvin understands a four-part prologue to the preaching of the Gospel in which Paul, among other things, “shows by proofs (probationes) from nature who and what God is, and how he is rightly worshiped” just prior to condemning the blindness of sinful people who “wander in darkness” rather than confessing belief in “their Creator and Maker.” In neither of these passages is Calvin pointing toward a Scripturally-founded knowledge of God’s handiwork in nature—rather, he assumes that Paul used rudimentary arguments drawn from nature, elements of what later Reformed writers called “natural theology.”

Against the antirational eucharistic arguments of Hesshus, Calvin had distinguished between three kinds of “reason”: “reason naturally implanted” in human beings by God, which “cannot be condemned without insult to God”; a vitiated reason, occurring in “corrupt nature” which sinfully warps God’s revelation; and “reason … derived from the Word of God”—reason that rests on, or to borrow a famous metaphor from the Institutes, that uses the “spectacles” of Scripture and is thus “sanctioned” by “both the Spirit of God and Scripture.”

Calvin’s argument both confirms the possibility of a right understanding of natural revelation and, in its second and third points, adumbrates (foreshadows) Beza’s distinction between a natural theology of the unregenerate and a natural theology of the regenerate. What is also absent from Calvin’s critiques of human rational ability to discern the divine is any attack on the value and trustworthiness of the tools of logic and rhetoric.

Moreover, as Dowey pointed out, when Calvin addresses the issue of what reason ought to find in the created order, he uses arguments “that would do credit to Herbert of Cherbury”: Calvin’s heading indicates that the “knowledge of God” is “conspicuous in the formation and continual government of the world” and his argument in the chapter is fundamentally rational, using Scripture in confirmation of the truths learned by examination of nature. Dowey also notes that Calvin is not speaking merely of an immediate knowledge of God that activates the sensus divinitatis, he is speaking of a ratiocinative process that examines the world order and draws conclusions.

Calvin does not deny that there is or can be a genuine natural theology based on natural revelation. Rather his intention is to declare that no natural theology contributes to salvation. This is as true for the regenerate David as it is for the unregenerate Philistine—but David, as one of the redeemed, can recognize the true God in his natural revelation without fashioning an idol.

The Barthian reading of Calvin, like the Barthian critique of the Gallican and the Belgic Confession, fails to distinguish suitably between natural revelation and natural theology or to note the effect of regeneration on the appropriation of the former and the formulation of the latter. Calvin, therefore, testifies not only to the existence of natural revelation and to the fact of pagan, idolatrous, natural theology, but to the real possibility of a natural theology of the regenerate.

He also appears to have a sense that humanity in general, apart from the issue of sin and regeneration, does have enough logical and rational apparatus to develop some valid teachings concerning God, creation, and providence from examination of the natural order. Yet there is a double problem with natural theology.

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.

Muller, R. A. (2003). Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise And Development Of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 1: Prolegomena To Theology (2nd ed., pp. 273–276). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

It is Aquinas’s consistent and systematic incorporation of naturalistic – really, pagan – metaphysics into his theology that corrupts the whole of it.

The right thing to do is for a commentator to work, line-item by line-item through Aquinas to point this out. Maybe some Protestant commentators have done this? I do not know if such a treatment exists. Turretin, maybe?

Published by John Bugay

"We are His workmanship," His poiema, His "poetry." If you've ever studied poetry, or struggled to write a poem, you understand the care God takes to "work all things together for good" in our lives. For this reason, and many others, I believe in the Sovereignty of God. I have seen His hand working in my life, and I submit myself to His merciful will, with all my being.

3 replies on “Natural Theology 2: Calvin’s Conception of the Knowledge of God”

  1. More a question. What exactly is the error that Aquinas introduced and the Roman Catholic Church made mandatory at Trent? I have been taught that we can know something of God through nature but that God is revealed through the Scriptures. And that salvation is through Jesus. What did I miss? This Inquiring Catholic wants to know.


    1. He fails to take the seriousness of sin into account (not merely wounded but corrupt). As the article says, “The problem is that sin takes the natural revelation of God and fashions, in fact, an idolatrous and sinful theology.” And Rome, in love with its own authority, adopted it all.


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