Reformed Natural Theology – Part 3 (Pictet)

Part 1 and Part 2

Our discussion of Reformed natural theology concludes with an analysis of the work of Benedict Pictet (1655-1724). Pictet was Francis Turretin’s nephew and studied theology maxresdefaultand philosophy under him. He was also Turretin’s assistant in the theology department of the Academy of Geneva. He later replaced Turretin as the chair of theology. His most important work, Christian Theology (originally in Latin, Theologia Christiana) was a standard theological text for universities throughout Europe in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

Pictet lived and ministered during a time of theological transition in Geneva. Turretin and other Reformed theologians are responsible for what is often called High Reformed Orthodoxy. It was the apex of doctrinal systemization for the Reformed tradition. But adherence to this High Orthodoxy did not last. From it came Late Orthodoxy. Despite his father’s efforts in constructing the Formula Consensus, which denounced the more rationalist perspective of Moise Amyraut (1596-1664) and was made a subscription requirement for all Genevan clergymen, Turretin’s son, Jean Alphonse Turretin (1671-1737), succeeded in removing it in 1706 as a requirement for pastoral ordination in Geneva. Pictet fought to keep the Formula and maintain Reformed orthodoxy in Geneva, but he failed. Fearing that this relaxing of requirements was only the beginning, Pictet said, “I fear the spirits of this century are extremely given to novelties.”[1] He was correct. In 1725, Geneva’s Company of Pastor removed both the Second Helvetic Confession (a major continental Reformed confession of faith) and the Canons of Dort as subscription requirements for ordination.[2]

Some scholars think that he adopted, with J. A. Turretin, the novelty of rationalism and pursued a natural theology that exceeded the bounds of reason codified by Francis Turretin. There is no question that Pictet did not follow F. Turretin in the scholastic method. Christian Theology is not formatted with questions, extensive clarification, and systematic precision. This is, however, not so much a move toward so-called Enlightened Orthodoxy, but a move back to Calvin and the early Reformers.[3] It is Pictet’s natural theology that has led some scholars to question the degree of his commitment to Reformed Orthodoxy. Martin Klauber, for example, argues that Pictet’s use of natural theology is similar to that of J.A. Turretin’s. Pictet is, therefore, a transitional theologian. Klauber argues that since, according to Pictet, “Reason…is the ally of the believer, and plays an important role in convincing the unbeliever of the validity of Christian faith,” this places Pictet “in between the traditions of scholasticism and enlightened orthodoxy.”[4] But the problem with Klauber’s analysis is that he fails to compare Pictet’s view of natural theology and reason with F. Turretin’s or any other Reformed orthodoxy theologian, for that matter. If he had, he would have recognized remarkable similarities, even clear reliance on their work. Klauber certainly would not have said the following: “He [Pictet] shared Jean-Alphonse Turretini’s conviction that all truth is God’s truth, a stance that was the hallmark of enlightened orthodoxy.”[5] As my previous posts on Calvin and Turretin demonstrated, both affirmed that all truth is God’s truth.

Below I cover the same material that is in Klauber. It will be clear that all of Pictet’s comments on natural theology and reason are consistent with F. Turretin’s. Indeed, it is likely that Pictet directly drew directly from Turretin to construct his text. Part of my argument is an attempt to show Pictet’s consistency with F. Turretin.

Pictet begins chapter II of Christian Theology with a discussion on a “system of natural theology.” Man can construct such a system because “we can, by the power of nature, know God, and that God himself is the author of this knowledge, both by the notion of himself which he has engraven on the minds of all men, and by the excellent works he has done” (21). We have seen all of this in Calvin and Turretin. God the Creator is the author of natural knowledge and is known by it. All men have knowledge of God implanted in their hearts, and knowledge of God is acquired by contemplating his works. Pictet lists five purposes for natural theology. Natural theology, firstly, instructs man that he “might render unto him [God], when known, the tribute of love, praise, and thanksgiving, worship and obedience” (22) God, according to Pictet, is not the God of the deists who would leave creation “altogether without any knowledge of himself.” As we saw with Calvin and Turretin, natural knowledge is adequate for unfallen man to achieve perfect obedience to God. They were required to obey only the “law of nature” in the covenant of nature.[6] Second, natural theology forms a “bond of society, and prevents men from becoming a prey to each other.” From natural theology pagans form natural religions, which, however useless they are to properly worship God, are useful in ensuring civil peace. It is no accident that pagan religion often ensures solidarity. Third, natural theology, in its inadequacy due to the fall, points to the need for a “clearer revelation.” As we saw with Turretin, natural theology is preparatory for the special revelation of the “general knowledge of God” and God the Redeemer. It provided a sense of a need for completeness, which only knowledge of God the Redeemer provides. Fourth, natural theology is “sufficient to leave every one, who abuses his natural light, without any excuse.” This is the negative function of nature knowledge. No person can excuse themselves out of ignorance. Finally, natural knowledge has the positive function of being “the source from which all civil laws have been derived.”

Pictet continues by listing “how much knowledge the Gentiles were able to derive from the dictates of reason, and from the works of creation and providence.” They know that God exists; is one, eternal, incorruptible, superior to humans, happy, just, good, powerful, all-wise, to be worshiped and praised, and the creator of the world; and governs the world by providence (citing Cicero). They know that God demands that we follow the Golden Rule and that “rectitude and honesty are to be practiced, parents are honored.” Finally, they know of the immortality of the soul, that men ought to “to endeavor to propitiate God’s favour,” and that there is a judgment to come. Nothing is new here. Calvin and Turretin recognized this knowledge in pagans. So far there is no indication that Pictet’s system of natural theology is rooted in Enlightened Orthodoxy. The only significant difference is that Pictet has not followed the scholastic method and formatting, but the content is largely the same. In fact, Christian Theology reads like a non-scholastic summary of Reformed Scholasticism.

The pagans also knew that they needed supernatural knowledge to know how to properly worship God. This explains why they “found it necessary to pretend that they had conferences with divinities” (23). They were all “persuaded” that the “right mode of worshipping the Deity must be drawn from a revelation of him,” for their natural knowledge proved insufficient to “comfort the human mind against the fear of death” and they could not determine through nature the proper means of satisfying the wrath and justice of God. He concludes, “A second revelation, therefore, was necessary, in which God might not only cause to be known, in a clearer manner, his own perfection, which he had revealed in the first [i.e., natural knowledge], but also discover new perfections, and especially reveal ‘the mystery of godliness’” (24).[7] These are the threefold revelations of God: God the Creator in nature, God the Creator in scripture (what Calvin called the “general knowledge of God”) and God the Redeemer in the “person of the Mediator.” The “new perfections” do not abrogate the previous or supersede them; they add to and perfect them. The new perfections (e.g., the Trinity, incarnation, etc.) presuppose the old perfections. For this reason, Pictet says, “although the two systems differ from each other in the mode of revelation, in the number of things revealed, in their perspicuity and effects, yet they are in strict harmony, and render each other mutual service” (emphasis added). Pictet, consistent with Reformed orthodoxy, has affirmed that reason and revelation have a harmonious and complementary relationship. Revelation completes and perfects reason. The knowledge of God the Redeemer completes and presupposes the knowledge of God the Creator.

Contrary to the Socinians, the deists and, later, the Unitarians and in agreement with Calvin and F. Turretin, Pictet did not consider natural religion to be sufficient for salvation. He writes in his work Traite contre l’indifference,

There are among those indifferent individual, those who believe that it is sufficient to receive natural religion and thus all those who receive it are agreeable to God….I admit to our indifferent individuals that natural religion is a divine religion. All the light that we have proceeds from the father of lights; but I deny that it is sufficient to receive natural religion because God has revealed to us his will more clearly in the Holy Scriptures. If God had not revealed himself to us other than by his works of nature, and by his providence, or by the light that he has given us, then one would have to admit the truth of natural religion….If it is true that this Scripture is divine, as we believe, we should be persuaded that one must know these things in order to be saved. But natural religion does not at all teach us these truths.[8]

Notice that Pictet considers natural religion or, as he calls it in Christian Theology, a system of natural theology, to be legitimate religion. The practice of religion apart from special revelation is potentially legitimate natural religion. This does not admit that the religion of pagans was ever pure or pleasing to God, but only that it shows some recognition of God the Creator and that he ought to be worshiped. In Christian Theology, he leaves open the possibility that the heathens could worship the “one God,” but “there were far more who worshipped innumerable deities” (23). Pictet’s point is that this natural religion is insufficient, because God has further revealed himself in the Scriptures. The potentially pure natural religion is not abrogated, but made complete in revelation. One must believe and worship in Christ in order to have true, complete and perfect religion.

Concerning the law of God, Pictet affirms, in language reminiscent of Calvin and Turretin, that “the moral law is founded, at least in a very great measure, on the natural right of God; by which we mean that which rests upon the most pure and holy nature of God himself.” Adhering to a more Scotist understanding of the moral law, Pictet distinguishes between what God absolutely cannot change or ordain, such as profaning his name, and that which he can change, such as the right of private property. The latter, however, are not positive commands with no connection to nature, but are “founded on the very nature of things” (228). Sound reason would discover them. The moral law revealed in scripture is the same in substance as the natural law. They are different modes of revelation, and do not conflict in their content.

The most important section in Pictet for our purposes is his section on the relationship of faith and reason. He begins by stating the basic Reformed doctrine of sola scriptura: scripture is the “true and only rule of faith and practice” (58) and there cannot be another. Reason, then, cannot be a rule of faith and practice. A rule is the “standard by which [one] measures the objects proposed” (59). Reason cannot be a rule because the “the mysteries of faith are beyond its sphere” and “cannot comprehend them.” Reason is unsuitable to analyze the mysteries of faith (e.g., the Trinity, the incarnation, predestination, etc.) and cannot serve as the standard by which one judges them. Despite this seeming dismissal of reason, Pictet affirms that “reason has many uses.” It can vindicate the truth against those who “deny revelation altogether….to convince men and to prepare their minds” to receive the Gospel. Turretin agrees (1.8.5). Reason is also useful as an instrument in examining the objects of faith in scripture, but “it is not the rule itself of these objects of faith” (59). This follows Turretin who has a much longer discussion on the matter. He distinguished between propositions and conclusions. The former are solely dictated by scripture and the latter are the results of applying reason to those propositions to construct necessary consequences. Turretin writes, “reason is not the foundation and rule upon which the conclusion rests, but only the means and instrument by whose aid the truth virtually concealed in the other premise is elicited” (1.8.14). Reason is, then, instrumental for, but not the rule of, matters of faith.

Pictet gives three reasons for the limitations of reason, using language that seems to be paraphrasing Turretin’s in Institutes 1.9.6. First, “Reason cannot and ought not to bring forth any mysteries, as it were, out of its own storehouse; for this is the prerogative of scripture only” (59). Reason is neither a rule, nor a source for the mysteries of faith. Second, one should not listen to the complaints of reason for “its incapacities to comprehend the mysteries of faith.” It “offend[s] against reason” to “reject a mystery because it is incomprehensible” (59-60). This are basic limitations in the Reformed tradition, and very similar to Turretin’s.

Consistent with both Calvin and Turretin, Pictet affirms that “reason and faith, though of a different nature, are not opposed to each other” (59) and that “there is a wonderful harmony between sound philosophy and divinity; for truth is not contrary to truth, nor light to light” (60). Given our discussion on the Reformed tradition, this is basic Reformed doctrine.[9] Revelation adds only mysteries and the means of redemption to the natural knowledge of God. It does not replace, supersede, or abrogate it. It presupposes it and completes it. Klauber is certainly in error when he states that Pictet is more in agreement with J. A. Turretin for believing that “all truth is God’s truth.” This is precisely what Calvin and F. Turretin believed. The conflict between Reformed orthodoxy and Enlightened orthodoxy is not the harmony of reason and revelation, but reason’s relationship to revelation. J. A. Turretin was more willing to make reason the rule or principle by which we judge mysteries of faith. Pictet clearly denied this.

Concerning philosophy, Pictet argues that it is useful and permitted, “provided it assume not to itself the power of dictating in article of divinity” (60). For “although there is much darkness in the human mind, yet no one can deny that there remain some sparks of natural light” (59). The fall had serious epistemological consequences; and though God still speaks in nature as much as before the fall, man’s capacity to see it clearly has diminished. Still, reason has not been obliterated. It is the basis of social harmony (the remaining positive function) and it leaves all without excuse (the remaining negative function).

In Klauber’s commentary on Pictet, he concludes, using the following statement from Pictet, that Pictet moved toward J. A. Turretin’s view of reason: “we maintain that we must not admit any thing, even in religious matters, which is contrary to right reason.” Klauber says that this is a sign of Pictet’s move to Enlightenment orthodoxy. In interpreting Pictet’s meaning here we must remember what Pictet has already said: Reason is not a rule from which one can propose objects of faith. Its storehouse does not contain divine mysteries. Divine mysteries transcend reason. Pictet is merely insisting, as F. Turretin says, “that light [not] oppose light, nor truth oppose truth because God is the author of both” (1.9.11). Turretin said that the truth of

certain first principles…is unquestionable: such as, the whole is greater than its parts, an effect supposes a cause, to be and not to be at the same time are incompatible (asystatous)….These first principles are true not only in nature, but also in grace and the mysteries of faith. Faith, so far from destroying, on the contrary borrow them from reason and uses to strengthen its own doctrines….Reason is perfected by faith and faith supposes reason, upon which to found the mysteries of grace” (1.9.5).

Pictet mentions these principles near the statement in question: “No one can deny that there remain some sparks of natural life, and that the mind his in it those principles of undoubted truth, which faith often makes us of for the confirmation of its own doctrines” (59). Again, it appears that Pictet is borrowing from Turretin (1.9.9). We must remember Turretin’s middle-ground between the Socinians and the Roman Catholics: supernatural truth needs no proof from reason, but cannot contradict the first principles of reason (e.g., the law of non-contradiction). So, when Pictet says that we cannot permit any religious matter that conflicts with right reason he is following Turretin’s middle ground, not Enlightenment orthodoxy. This return to Turretin shows that Pictet is perfectly consistent with Reformed orthodoxy. Klauber has failed to make the proper distinctions.

In conclusion, I summarize the main points. (1) Pictet is consistent with Reformed orthodoxy and even borrowed heavily from its chief systematician. (2) He affirms natural theology and has a fairly standard list of real knowledge held by pagans. (3) There is nothing improper with philosophy itself, but it must be kept within the proper bounds. (4) Reason and philosophy are useful to vindicate truth, to convince non-Christians of the faith and to prepare them for faith. (5) Reason and revelation have a harmonious relationship. Divine mysteries do not originate from reason, but cannot contradict the first principles of reason. Hence, revelation completes, perfects, presupposes, and complements reason.

Part 1 and Part 2


[1] Martin Klauber “Reformed Orthodoxy in Transition: Benedict Pictet (1655-1724) and Enlightened Orthodoxy in Post-Reformation Geneva” Later Calvinism: International Perspectives (Missouri: Sixteenth Century Journal, 1994), 98. Klauper, in another essay, argues that Jean-Alphone Turretin moved away from the scholastic method of his father and focused on apologetical approaches using natural theology in violation of Reformed orthodoxy. Klauber writes, Jean-Alphone Turretin’s “system of natural theology attempted to prove as much of orthodoxy as possible without the aid of biblical revelation.” This led him to eliminate “many of the distinctive elements of the Reformed tradition in favour of a rational faith that any reasonable individual would accept without the need for the role of the Holy Spirit.” “Jean-Alphonse Turrettini (1671-1737) on Natural Theology: The Triumph of Reason over Revelation at the Academy of Geneva,” Scottish Journal of Theology Vol. 47, 301-325), 313 Klauber’s analysis might be exaggerated, because the natural theology of J.A. Turretin discussed by Klauber does not appear to be inconsistent with his father’s thought.

[2] James Good. History of the Swiss Reformed Church Since the Reformation (Philadelphia: Publication and Sunday School Board, 1913), 178.

[3] Klauber. Pictet & Enlightened Orthodoxy, 100. “Pictet saw himself as following the model of Calvin and the early Reformers.”

[4] Ibid, 102.

[5] Ibid, 104.

[6] See Pictet, 142. They would also have to obey any positive law given by God, such as those given explicitly in Eden.

[7] See Pictet, 226. “Now this law of nature God was pleased to promulgate again, partly, that it might receive a stranger sanction, and that the ideas of good that remained might not be lost through the vanity and wickedness of mankind; partly, that man’s duty might be more clearly revealed to him; partly, to correct those notions which sin had corrupted; and partly, to revive those which had been obliterated.”

[8] Pictet, Traite contre l’indifference, 169-170. Quoted in Klauper, 103.

[9] See Turretin, 1.9.11.