Reformed Natural Theology – Part 1 (Calvin)

This is part 1 of a series on natural theology and reason in the Reformed tradition. See Part 2.

Before directly discussing Calvin’s thinking on natural theology and reason, we must lay some theological groundwork. In particular, we will have to discuss what is called the duplex cognitio Dei. In Calvin, there is a twofold knowledge of God—knowledge of God the Creator and knowledge of God the Redeemer. He writes, “The Lord first appears, as well in the creation of the world as in the light_landscapes_nature_wood_1920x1080_26870general doctrine of scripture, simply as Creator, and afterwards as a Redeemer in Christ” (1.2.1).[1] The knowledge of God the Creator (which includes both the knowledge of divine attributes and natural law) is precisely the natural knowledge accessible to man concerning man’s duty to God (first-table precepts) and duty to his fellow man (second-table precepts).[2] This knowledge was sufficient, apart from special revelation, for pre-lapsarian (that is, pre-fall) Adam and his progeny to achieve blessedness (i.e., eternal life). Humankind, in other words, did not need redemption—did not need God the Redeemer— to achieve their end. So there was no need for the knowledge of the Trinity, the incarnation, redemption, etc. If Adam had continued without sin, he would have achieved blessedness apart from salvific or renewing grace or knowledge of God the Redeemer. As Calvin affirms, commenting on Romans 1:20, “[T]he manifestation of God by which he makes his glory known among his creatures is sufficiently clear as far as its own light is concerned.”[3] As a 19th century interpreter of Calvin, Benjamin Warfield, stated, “Calvin is perfectly clear as to the objective adequacy of the general revelation of God.”[4]

The natural knowledge of God extended to worship and to a hope for eternal life. He writes, “By the knowledge thus acquired [from contemplating God’s works], we ought not only to be stimulated to worship God, but also aroused and elevated to the hope of future life” (1.5.10). Notice that the knowledge that God ought to be worshipped and of the hope of a future life arises naturally. In other words, it is part of the created order, not known only by special grace. Natural knowledge also includes the principles of ethical living. God, as God the Creator, invites humankind to contemplate his works—“the divine perfections…delineated as in a picture”—and from this contemplation we are allured to acquire knowledge of God (an allurement that is natural). Upon acquiring this knowledge one achieves “true and complete felicity” (1.5.10). Hence, knowledge of God the Creator—the natural knowledge accessible to pre-lapsarian man in contemplation—is rather robust. It includes the desire for knowledge, the desire to worship, the attributes of God (excluding those associated with those revealed by God the Redeemer), that God ought to be worshiped (viz. man’s duty to God), and a natural moral law (viz., man’s duty to man). And, most importantly, nature sufficiently contained what was required for Adam to achieve the end of creation and man.

But Adam fell, and the natural knowledge of God became insufficient, not because of anything inherently deficient in it, but because of humankind’s “blindness” caused by sin. As quoted above, natural knowledge is “sufficiently clear; but that on account of our blindness, it is not found to be sufficient.”[5] He writes, “In vain for us, therefore, does Creation exhibit so many bright lamps lighted up to show forth the glory of its Author. Though they beam upon us from every quarter, they are altogether insufficient of themselves to lead us into the right path” (1.5.14). What is needed is a “surer and more direct means of discovering God.” This comes from “the addition of his Word” (1.6.1). Scripture both clarifies the knowledge of God the Creator and reveals God the Redeemer (1.6.1):

It was necessary, in passing from death unto life, that they should know God, not only as a Creator, but as a Redeemer also; and both kinds of knowledge they certain did obtain from the Word. In point of order, however, the knowledge of first given was that which made them acquainted with the God by whom the world was made and is governed. To this first knowledge was afterwards added the more intimate knowledge which alone quickens dead souls, and by which God is known, not only as the Creator of the world, and the sole author and disposer of all events, but also as a Redeemer, in the person of the Mediator.

This is the duplex cognitio Dei. God revealed himself sufficiently in nature for man to worship him and live in righteousness. But the fall deformed man, bringing about a certain subjective epistemology blindness, obscuring this natural knowledge. The human race could not achieve righteousness without some type of additional divine action. The new revelation, deposited in scripture, both clarifies the natural law (serving as “spectacles” through which one can see the Creator and his precepts)[6] and adds to revelation: the means of redemption in the “person of the Mediator.” There are, then, three forms of divine self-disclosure: nature, the general knowledge of God in scripture (which differs from natural knowledge only in its mode of delivery, not substance), and the additional revelation of the means of redemption. All three are legitimate source for Calvin, though knowledge of God via nature is obscured to “blindness.” Richard Muller Summarizes:

God is manifest as Creator both in the workmanship of the universe and in “the general teaching of Scripture” but as Redeemer only in Christ. Although Christ speaks of a twofold knowledge of God, he points to three forms taken by that knowledge—a corrupt, partial, and extrabiblical knowledge of God as Creator, a biblical knowledge of God as Creator, and a knowledge of God in Christ as Redeemer.[7]

The fall of the human race, however, did not obliterate natural knowledge of God, nor the natural law, for there must be some degree of natural knowledge left to leave men inexcusable.  This is why Calvin insisted that post-lapsarian (i.e., post-fall) man has adequate knowledge of God and his law, not to achieve righteousness, but to be left without excuse. The law is “implanted by nature in the heart of men.” Non-Christians can “distinguish between vice and virtue.” They have the “natural light of righteousness.” The law is “imprinted” and “engraven” on their hearts. The Gentiles clearly had “some seeds of what is right implanted in their nature.” Calvin writes,

All the Gentiles alike instituted religious rites, they made laws to punish adultery, and theft, and murder, they commended good faith in bargains and contracts. They have thus indeed proved, that God ought to be worshipped, that adultery, and theft, and murder are evils, that honesty is commendable. It is not to our purpose to inquire what sort of God they imagined him to be, or how many gods they devised; it is enough to know, that they thought that there is a God, and that honor and worship are due to him. It matters not whether they permitted the coveting of another man’s wife, or of his possessions, or of any thing which was his, — whether they connived at wrath and hatred; inasmuch as it was not right for them to covet what they knew to be evil when done.

There is “a sense of Deity…inscribe on every heart.” For “there never has been, from the first, any quarter of the globe, any city, any household, even, without religion” (1.3.1). They are “forced to acknowledge that there is some God” (1.4.2). The drive to construct religious worship, as seen in all of human history, is clear evidence that “a sense of Deity is indelibly engraven on the human heart. And that this belief is naturally engendered in all, and thoroughly fixed as it were in our very bones” (1.3.3). Calvin recognized a semen religionis (1.4.1) in the human race that has endured in man after the fall, which explains the abundance of forms of religious observance. Though Calvin does dismiss this worship as “fictitious” and “delirious fancies,” it is rooted in a real knowledge of God arising naturally. And all of it is discovered by natural reason: “that apprehension of the conscience that distinguishes sufficiently between just and unjust, and which deprived men of the excuse of ignorance, while it proves them guilty by their own testimony” (2.2.22). No one can plead ignorance; they know God’s law and have fallen short of it

It is clear, then, that for Calvin, even apart from the special revelation of scripture, non-Christians have knowledge of God and his law. Saving knowledge can come only from a special and additional revelation (since God the Redeemer is revealed only in scripture), but all, without exception, have real non-salvific knowledge of God. As Grabill writes, “Calvin repeatedly affirms that humans know God salvifically only through the person of the Mediator…..Calvin even goes so far to say that apart from Christ there is a legitimate, non-saving knowledge of God.”[8] Contrary to the later Socinian doctrines, this natural knowledge is not adequate for fallen man to construct a true, salvific and adequate religion, but, in agreement with Socinians, Calvin affirms that fallen man has real knowledge of God.

The fact that all have knowledge of God does not directly say much about Calvin’s view of reason. Before directly discussing this, we must first understand Calvin’s twofold division of knowledge given at the creation of the world. This division is not the same as the creator/redeemer discussed above. Calvin follows Augustine in distinguishing between natural and supernatural gifts. Both were present prior to the fall. The latter set of gifts are supernatural, because they were directed toward eternal life and were necessary for that end. These gifts are “the light of faith and righteousness, which would have been sufficient for the attainment of heavenly life and everlasting felicity” (2.2.12). God’s intention for the world was not, according to Calvin, for it to remain as it is, even after populated by humans. The time prior to blessedness was, what many theologians call, Adam’s probationary period. Upon achieving Adam’s divinely instituted end in the world, Adam’s race would be elevated and blessed. But when “man…withdrew his allegiance to God…[he] was deprived of the spiritual gifts by which he had been raised to the hope of eternal salvation” (2.2.12). The supernatural gifts were “withdrawn.” But the “natural gifts, which pertain to matters of this “present life,” were not withdrawn, but only “partly weakened and partly corrupted” (2.2.12). Indeed, “since reason, by which man discerns between good and evil, and by which he understands and judges, is a natural gift, it could not be entirely destroyed.” So, that which was necessary for the attainment of eternal life—the supernatural gifts—were almost obliterated, but that which pertains to natural reason still remains, though seriously diminished.

Calvin continues with a rather disparaging view of the state of reason. He says that it is like “groping in darkness” and gets “completely bewildered” (2.2.12). While a “desire for investigation” and a “naturally influenced…love of truth” remains, “this love of truth fails before it reaches the goal, forth with falling into vanity.” It seems, at this point, that Calvin has dismissed reason entirely. But he continues: “Still, however, man’s efforts are not always so utterly fruitless as not to lead to some result, especially when his attention is directed to inferior objects. Nay, even with regard to superior objects, though he is more careless in investigating them, he makes some little progress” (2.2.13). The circumstances related to this present life, viz., that which does not pertain to eschatological rewards or eternal life, can lead to “some result.” Even in superior or supernatural matters, there is some “progress.” In a crucial passage, Calvin distinguishes these “two classes of objects”:

The distinction is, that we have one kind of intelligence of earthly things, and another of heavenly things. By earthly things, I mean those which relate not to God and his kingdom, to true righteousness and future blessedness, but have some connection with the present life, and are in a manner confined within its boundaries. By heavenly things, I mean the pure knowledge of God, the method of true righteousness, and the mysteries of the heavenly kingdom. To the former belong matters of policy and economy, all mechanical arts and liberal studies. To the latter…belong the knowledge of God and of his will, and the means of framing the life in accordance with them. As to the former, the view to be taken is this: Since man is by nature a social animal, he is disposed, from natural instinct, to cherish and preserve society; and accordingly we see that the minds of all men have impressions of civil order and honesty. Hence it is that every individual understands how human societies must be regulated by laws, and also is able to comprehend the principles of those laws. Hence the universal agreement in regard to such subjects, both among nations and individuals, the seeds of them being implanted in the breasts of all without a teacher or lawgiver.

Civil order and honesty is not accidental when it arises in human societies. For Calvin, it is rooted in reason. The instinct for civil order is so universal that it provides “ample proof that, in regard to the constitution of the present life, no man is devoid of the life of reason” (2.2.13). The “liberal arts,” present in Calvin’s list above, includes the discipline of ethics.[9] Hence, Calvin has affirmed that man is not so fallen that the exercising of reason as a principle must be dismissed as futile. Universal experience proves that humankind is capable of ordering this world to a certain, yet limited, degree in conformity with nature, as it pertains to earthly matters. This shows that, for Calvin, natural law continues to have a positive function, as Grabill states: “[T]he nonsaving, natural knowledge of God still functions competently in the earthly sphere of law, society, politics, economics, and ethics.”[10] As for the “heavenly” matters, there is much less success. The ability to live in light of the promise of eternal life was almost completely obliterated. [11] But it important to notice that Calvin recognizes significant successes in the use of reason apart from revelation.[12]

God did not, according to Calvin and contrary to Barth, remove the traces of the Creator from creation due to the fall. The natural revelation of God, as God the Creator, remains. The obscurity of God’s natural self-disclosure is due only to man’s sinfulness. As Grabill states, “Calvin argues that God is revealed in nature but that humans misperceive this revelation because of sin, which ultimately leads them to suppress, distort, and abuse the knowledge God has placed at their disposal.”[13] The created order, apart from grace and special revelation, is not one in which God is distant, as in the deistic conception. The traces of the Creator are as present and as intimate as before. It is the fault of man alone for not seeing it.

To put this in terms of the duplex cognitio Dei, the heavenly and earthly knowledge of God is part of the original created order, a revelation of God the Creator. This explains why non-Christian authors, such the “profane authors” mentioned above can have such great insight and why there is a drive or instinct in all people to offer worship to a divine being and hope for some type of future blessedness, eternal life. The duplex allows Calvin to construct a unity of knowledge, as E. Davis Willis states, “The two facets of our knowledge of God are not creatoris et Christi but creatoris et redemptoris, because for Calvin Christ is not only the redemptive Word of God but also the creative Word of God, just as the Spirit is not only regenerative but also creative. And, equally important, Calvin for the same reasons does not envisage a cognitio redemptoris that does not presuppose the cognitio creatoris.”[14] For Calvin, though he does not put it in these terms, revelation completes reason, and revelation presupposes reason. Reason and revelation are harmonious and complementary. We will see similar statements by Turretin and Pictet in parts 2 and 3.

The takeaway from this discussion on Calvin is the following. For Calvin, the created order sufficiently reveals God (which includes certain attributes, his deserving of worship, and man’s duties to God and man) and that man could have met the requirements to be granted blessedness apart from renewing, added, or salvific grace. Sinful man, however, obscures God’s self-disclosure in creation and therefore it was necessary that God revealed himself in the form of God the Redeemer in the person of the Mediator. But this revelation did not replace the self-disclosure of God in creation. It completes it. So, though non-Christians are not part of the eschatological and spiritual kingdom of God promised by God the Redeemer, they still live within the creation in which the traces of God the Creator have not departed (nor could depart). And since, as Calvin, said the “essential properties of [humankind] is reason,” (2.2.17) the capacity to reason was not obliterated by the fall. So even non-Christians have objective knowledge of natural theology and natural law. And it does not function merely negatively, as in preventing any excuse-making, but serves as a positive good for human societies, since “all men have impressions of civil order and honesty.”

Calvin and the Calvinists

Calvin does not develop a natural theology/law theory to the level of sophistication found in some of the medieval and later Reformed scholastic systems, but he does, as Grabill says, “not deny the formal possibility of developing subsidiary doctrines of natural theology and natural law on the basis of God’s reliable but obfuscated natural revelation within creation, design of the human body, and conscience.”[15] Put differently, Calvin laid the groundwork for further development, but he is not the codifier of the Reformed position. He is not the final word, nor ought to be the chief source for the Reformed view of natural theology and natural law.

There is a tendency for scholars of many disciplines to make this error, namely, that Calvin is the codifier of all Reformed doctrine. But this is highly problematic. Calvinist theology developed after Calvin, and not every development has its source in Calvin. As Muller writes, “The view of the twentieth century, which has selected Calvin as the chief early codifier, must be set aside, particularly in those instances when the formative influence toward the development of a specific doctrinal position came not from Calvin but from one of his contemporaries. Orthodoxy must be understood not as a result of or a defection from the work of a single thinker but as a doctrinal development resting on a fairly diverse theological heritage.”[16] It is also important to keep in mind that Calvin made no attempt to systematize his doctrine. He did not write a systematic theology. Nor did he write in the scholastic method or care to address in detail many of the controversies found in medieval scholastics. This came later, as Muller argues:

Where the Reformers painted with a broad brush, their orthodox and scholastic successors strove to fill in the details of the picture. Whereas the Reformers were intent upon distancing themselves and their theology from problematic elements in medieval thought and, at the same time, remaining catholic in the broadest sense of that term, the Protestant orthodox were intent upon establishing systematically the normative, catholic character of institutionalized Protestantism, at times through the explicit use of those elements in patristic and medieval theology not at odds with the teachings of the Reformation.

The next two posts show this development in the thought of Francis Turretin and Benedict Pictet.


[1] I cite Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, Translated by Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989) parenthetically. The first number refers to the book number; the second, the chapter number; the third, the section number.

[2] The First and Second Tables refer, respectively, to the first four and the last six commandments of the Ten Commandments. The former are typically considered man’s duty to God and the latter are man’s duty to fellow man.

[3] Commentary on Romans 1:20

[4] Warfield. “Calvin and Calvinism,” Vol. 1 of The Works of Benjamin Warfield, 43.

[5] Commentary on Romans 1:20

[6] Calvin writes, “Just as old or bleary-eyed men and those with weak vision, if you thrust before them a most beautiful volume, even if they recognize it to be some sort of writing, yet can scarcely construe two words, but with the aid of spectacles will begin to read distinctly; so Scripture, gathering up the otherwise confused knowledge of God in our minds, having dispersed our dullness, clearly shows us the true God” (1.6.1).

[7] Quoted in Stephen Grabill Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics, 84.

[8] Grabill, 84.

[9] See Grabill’s discussion, 71.

[10] Grabill, 84.

[11] It is important note, however, that, as Grabill says, “For Calvin, it seems that natural revelation can only be drawn on reliably by the regenerate—albeit still not salvifically. The problem with idolaters, however, is not that that they disavow God’s existence, but that they latch onto superstitions or simply revolt from [God’s] sovereign rule.”

[12] Calvin even praises the works of non-Christian authors: “Therefore, in reading profane authors, the admirable life of truth displayed in them should remind us, that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator” (2.2.15).

[13] Grabill, 81.

[14] Grabill, 86. On this point, Grabill states, “Calvin’s use of the duplex cognition Dei, which yields the knowledge of the one God in his twofold revelation as Creator and Redeemer, is the mechanism that enable Calvin to integrate his ‘separate treatment of the two species of knowledge’ into a unified act of knowing.”

[15] Grabill, 96.

[16] Quoted in Grabill, 6.

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