Natural Theology and the Uneasy Conscience of Modern “Calvinism”

It’s been over seventy years since Carl Henry wrote of the uneasy conscience of modern fundamentalism. Today, we could very well write of the uneasy conscience of modern “Calvinism” (or more appropriately, the pop-Calvinism of the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” movement)—especially as it relates to so-called natural theology. There is a great anxiety that theological use of concepts outside of Scripture will inevitably corrupt the faith and leave behind the stench of the Tiber.[1] But this anxiety is often grounded in a confused understanding of natural theology. As the great theologian Gandalf the Grey wisely warned us, “some things that should not have been forgotten were lost.” Indeed. Natural theology is part of our God-given heritage—Catholics and Protestants alike. Yet it has been largely forfeited over the years by Protestants. We have traded the classical Protestant tradition for an anemic Americanized pop-Calvinist novelty. This ought not be. For those that seek a robustly Protestant theology—especially as heirs of the confessional stream of the Reformation—we must recover what should never have been forgotten.

The cure for this existential dread isn’t merely providing proper definitions. It also requires a deep appreciation for the confessionally Protestant tradition, including those giants they stood upon, and a grand narrative that makes sense of all the various theological pieces and how they properly fit together. Most of all it needs a serious respect for and understanding of Scripture itself. In other words, I think a well-formed defense involves at least three things: (1) clear definitions and distinctions, (2) Scripture as the norming norm of all theology, and (3) theological and historical construction. And each of these ought to be presented in a way that constructs a captivating narrative. Such an approach requires all three transcendentals: goodness, beauty, and truth. Without each of them, a persuasive defense of natural theology will ultimately be unconvincing. But when we have these, I think much of the worry about natural theology disappears. Thus, I will attempt to construct such an argument herein.

1.      Definitions: A Philosopher’s Best Friend

It is crucial to begin with a definition of what natural theology is but also what it isn’t. Too often what is rejected as “natural theology” isn’t natural theology at all. It’s a straw man. I think if we did this ground-clearing from the start, many of the apparent disagreements would melt away. It’s a tale as old as time: Oh! You mean X when you say natural theology? I thought natural theology meant Y! Maybe you aren’t so bad after all.

So, I’ll begin with what natural theology isn’t before defining what it is.

  1. Natural theology isn’t identical to the arguments for the existence of God (e.g., the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, etc.)[2]
  2. Natural theology isn’t a means of understanding God in contradiction to supernatural theology (Scripture)
  3. Natural theology isn’t a means of understanding God completely apart from the norming norm of supernatural theology (Scripture)[3]
  4. Natural theology isn’t required to begin apart from Scripture
  5. Natural theology isn’t a foundation from which supernatural theology is built
  6. Natural theology isn’t a project of natural salvation apart from Scripture

I could list more faulty (or at least incomplete) definitions, but I think these get the idea across. Some of them may be surprising to you, but that’s part of the point. I hope to show that the boogeyman under the bed really isn’t all that scary. Natural theology is not intended to be an isolated means of salvific knowledge that rules over Scripture. It’s not some hyper-speculative enterprise designed to insulate oneself from God’s divine revelation in Scripture. And anyone who claims as much isn’t defending natural theology as classical Protestants have understood it.

Now that we have a firm grasp of what natural theology isn’t, let’s explore what it is. Herman Bavinck defines it as theology that is “through” the natural order compared to supernatural theology (Scripture) that is “from beyond” the natural order.[4] Both natural and supernatural theology are truly revelations of God. The main difference is in the manner of revelation.[5] Therefore, natural theology should be understood as knowledge of God the Creator through his creation. It is knowledge through the natural order, whether by way of human cognitive capacities like intuition or the socially mediated summary of sound doctrine in tradition (e.g. creeds, confessions, and the many theological giants—both those that write tomes that stand the test of time and those that pass on the faith from one generation to another like unknown pastors and grandmothers).[6]

Bavinck’s style of thinking is replete throughout the Protestant and Reformed tradition. We need only examine two confessional documents to prove the wide-ranging affirmation of natural theology. The Belgic Confession in Article 2 argues that we know God by two means:

First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, since that universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God: God’s eternal power and divinity, as the apostle Paul says in Romans 1:20. All these things are enough to convict humans and to leave them without excuse. Second, God makes himself known to us more clearly by his holy and divine Word, as much as we need in this life, for God’s glory and for our salvation.

As is quite clear, the confession affirms knowledge via nature, though knowledge via divine revelation in his Word is more clearly revealed to us and is the only means of salvation. The Synod of Dort captures these same general sentiments quite well in article 4 on the inadequacy of the Light of Nature:

There is, to be sure, a certain light of nature remaining in all people after the fall, by virtue of which they retain some notions about God, natural things, and the difference between what is moral and immoral, and demonstrate a certain eagerness for virtue and for good outward behavior. But this light of nature is far from enabling humans to come to a saving knowledge of God and conversion to him—so far, in fact, that they do not use it rightly even in matters of nature and society. Instead, in various ways they completely distort this light, whatever its precise character, and suppress it in unrighteousness. In doing so all people render themselves without excuse before God.

What you see here again is a vehicle of revelation that is not Scripture. It is part of the natural world and reveals aspects about God—but not in a salvific sense. It is this light of nature—God’s revelation in creation and our reception of it—that is what the classical Protestant tradition has understood natural theology to be.

But there is a twofold sort of natural theology that is functioning within these confessional documents. One aspect of the light of nature (i.e., natural theology) is for everyone regardless of salvific status and one is specifically for Christians. Everyone, even the demons, can know Gods eternal power and that he is one. But natural theology as a positive discipline is primarily a Christian task. And it is this second version which I seek to primarily explicate herein.

Natural theology for the Christian does not have a goal to supersede or overthrow supernatural theology but to assist it as a handmaiden. And, for the Christian, natural theology is not intended to exist apart from the context of faith but obtains its life from it. It is a faith that seeks understanding.[7] Given these explanations, I define natural theology this way:

Natural theology: The task of utilizing natural means via our renewed reason (i.e., the light of nature) in service of theological construction under the authority of Scripture, the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and the context of the church.

Obviously, this definition is not the first sort of natural theology that I mentioned above. It is not one that anyone can attain to—whether redeemed or not. It is a distinctively Christian natural theology that utilizes renewed reason. It is a continued process of explicating the faith once for all delivered to the saints. It is the task of building up and constructing a robust and coherent system of theology to the worship of the Triune God. Natural theology for the non-Christian, on the other hand, is like dumping of a 5,000-piece jigsaw puzzle on the table without letting them see the picture on the box. They can recognize some patterns and find pieces that match but a Christian is enabled through the power of the Holy Spirit to view the image on the front of the box and then return to the pieces to work the puzzle.[8]

2.     Holy Scripture: The Norm that Norms

But is such a definition consistent with Scripture? As Protestants, we must always seek submission to Scripture as our chief duty. If natural theology as explained conflicts with Scripture, we ought to reject it. There is absolutely no way around this. No confessional position, no matter how widely confessed and affirmed can critique Scripture. But if we look to Scripture, we end up finding the same consensus that is found within the confessionally Protestant tradition. It too validates the use of means external to Scripture as divine sources of revelation. It too gives license for renewed reason to use natural means in service of theological construction.

Psalm 19:1 exclaims that “the heavens declare the glory of God” and Romans 1:20 claims that God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” Therefore, as Steven Duby suggests, “In light of Romans 1, it is not just reason but faith itself . . . that compels us to affirm the reality of a natural knowledge of God.”[9] These twin pillar texts of Scripture divide revelation into natural and supernatural and suggest that even the unredeemed can come to a rudimentary knowledge of God the creator. They stand as impenetrable proofs for natural theology. Those that denigrate natural theology do so at the cost of denigrating Scripture’s own claims.

Repeatedly Scripture speaks of humanity knowing God through creation itself. We can know God as Creator, as Basil, suggests “through what he has made.”[10] Calvin echoes these sentiments, saying, “This skillful ordering of the universe is for us a sort of mirror in which we can contemplate God, who is otherwise invisible.”[11] Therefore, while Scripture may not offer a robust account of the necessary and sufficient conditions for natural theology—it certainly affirms theological construction from natural means. And it is by the renewing of our minds that we take captive every thought to Christ. There is no aspect of God’s creation through which we fail to find the treasures of wisdom and knowledge in Christ since by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, through him and for him (see Colossians 1:15-16; 2:3-4).

3.     A Reformed Cloud of Witnesses to Natural Theology

The Reformed tradition has numerous resources on the promise and perils of natural theology that serve as excellent examples.[12] I seek to focus on a large swath of these thinkers—spanning several centuries, including: Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499–1562), John Calvin (1509–1564), Franciscus Junius (1545–1602), Francis Turretin (1623–1687), Petrus Van Mastricht (1630–1706), John Gill (1697–1771), Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), William Shedd (1820–1894), Augustus Strong (1836–1921), Herman Bavinck (1854–1921), and Geerhardus Vos (1862–1949). My investigation will not be exhaustive (each of these thinkers could have an article dedicated to the logic of their own thought) but illustrative to show the breadth of agreement over the sort of natural theology I have defined. What I canvas here is only the tip of the iceberg.[13] While there are differences, I seek to focus on the primary areas of agreement.

There are two reasons I’ve chosen to summarize these Reformed thinkers. First, I love the Reformed tradition and happen to think it’s right on these matters (and many others!). Second, those rejecting natural theology often claim the mantle of Reformed theology. But since they reject Reformed theology on this point, they stand outside the Reformed tradition. As David Haines has argued quite persuasively, natural theology is a necessary element of Reformed orthodoxy.[14] This is why I have used the adjective “Calvinist” rather than “Reformed” at certain points earlier in this essay. It is not proper to bestow the label of Reformed on those that repudiate the Reformed faith. This is no quibble or skirmish over mere labels that amount to little more than academic chest-beating. For those seeking to inhabit and propagate a confessional tradition there is a real danger of being undermined from within by those that seek to knock down certain key pillars of the tradition itself while claiming to maintain the spirit of the confessions. The Protestant and Reformed confessional tradition has a logic that requires a robust natural theology to remain vibrant.

3.1  Early Reformers: Vermigli, Calvin, and Junius

Peter Martyr Vermigli is a superb example of early Reformed defenses of natural theology. Trained as a Thomist, he certainly owes much to “the dumb Ox” but is robustly Protestant despite his previous training. Vermigli argues, like the later Reformed confessions, that there is a natural knowledge of God, though it is “quite tenuous and obscure.” Yet even the philosophers can “know God through reason” though “not equal to his dignity, power, and faculties.” Natural unredeemed philosophers (and others) are given the light of nature to ascribe goodness, justice, beauty, wisdom, and other attributes to God apart from supernatural revelation.[15]

Therefore, Vermigli distinguishes between revealed and acquired knowledge. “Revealed knowledge” is properly called Theology whereas “acquired” is called Philosophy.[16] He goes on to define Philosophy “as a capacity given by God to human minds, developed through effort and exercise, by which all existing things are perceived as surely and logically as possible, to enable us to attain happiness.”[17] God “endowed our minds with light, and planted the seeds from which the principles of all knowledge arose.”[18] It is from true philosophy—true acquired knowledge—that we can derive knowledge from created things and from those propositions we reach “many conclusions about the justice and righteousness that God implanted naturally in human minds.”[19]

Calvin isn’t as scholastic as Vermigli in his style or nearly as interested in “philosophy,” yet he echoes much the same distinctions as Vermigli. He too argues that even the unredeemed can know some elements of God as Creator. In fact, his concept of a universal sensus divinitatis is incredibly influential. He explains this sense of the divine as God himself implanting “in all men a certain understanding of his divine majesty” which he repeatedly places before the eyes of all men. God “daily discloses himself in the whole workmanship of the universe.” His creation is engraved with “unmistakable marks of his glory, so clear and so prominent that even unlettered and stupid folk cannot plead the excuse of ignorance.” Even more, “There is no spot in the universe wherein you cannot discern at least some sparks of his glory.”[20] Over and over again Calvin expounds on the incredible power of God’s revelation in nature and human ability—both unredeemed and redeemed—to comprehend at least some aspects, such as the fact that there is a God and he is eternal and all-powerful.

For Calvin, even Hebrews 11:3 suggests that the ordering of the universe is a mirror in which we can contemplate God.[21] But it also teaches the dual aspect of natural theology that Vermigli explicated: unless we are given eyes to see by the inner revelation of God through faith, the spectacles of nature remain ultimately useless for achieving the ultimate telos of right worship of God.[22] While God does reveal himself in his works with incredible beauty and clarity, the unredeemed man is unable to comprehend of God as Redeemer and truly worship. While Calvin ever so often complements Plato as “the most religious of all and the most circumspect,” he too, lacking supernatural theology, “also vanishes in his round globe.”[23] Calvin is clear that if men were taught only by nature they would know nothing clearly or certainly. They would be so confused that the best they could do is worship an unknown god.[24]

Finally, I must mention the incredible Reformed luminary Franciscus Junius. Junius’ influential work A Treatise on True Theology waxes at length between the various distinctions of revelation and senses of theology in true scholastic fashion. And for Junius, natural theology follows the definition I offered above. It is “that which proceeds from principles that are known in relation to itself by the natural light of human understanding, in proportion to the method of human reason.”[25] But he, with the rest of the Reformed, argues that natural theology is veiled and imperfect due to sin.[26] Supernatural theology is different, not because natural theology should be consigned to the dumpster heap, but because it has a different mode of grace—it is not efficacious like supernatural theology is.[27]

It is important to note the context from which some of these negative statements regarding natural theology are made. The Reformed are not attempting to suggest natural theology is entirely futile. When natural theology is critiqued in its fullest sense, it is because the Reformed are seeking to show the necessity of Scripture for knowledge of God as Redeemer. Further, they are seeking to show the disastrous effects of sin on the unredeemed and redeemed alike. Even though the redeemed have further knowledge made available, they too are under the power of clouded vision until the final consummation.

3.2  The Reformed Orthodox: Turretin, Van Mastricht, and Gill

Francis Turretin, the Genevan born and trained theologian, is a vital source for Reformed thought on natural theology. His analysis is clear and penetrating and requires a careful listening ear. A useful starting place is his discussion on the Socinians who deny any sort of natural theology. Turretin answers in response to this skirmish quite pointedly: “The orthodox, on the contrary, uniformly teach that there is a natural theology, partly innate (derived from the book of conscience by means of common notions) and partly acquired (drawn from the book of creatures discursively).”[28] Turretin argues from Psalm 19:1, Acts 14:15–17, 17:23, Romans 1:19–20, universal experience, and the institution of religions in the world.[29] Here we find Turretin making the common Reformed distinction between innate and acquired natural theology. While Calvin may have a dimmer view of acquired natural theology (depending on the section of his work!), Vermigli, Junius, and the orthodox uniformly teach it.

For Turretin, there is a unanimous consensus that confessional Protestant and Reformed theology affirms the existence and validity of natural theology. All affirm that certain first principles are common to all men and that in natural theology, by means of the light of nature, conclusions can be arrived at (e.g., God exists, he must be worshipped, etc.). However, the Reformed also affirm that these first principles are inadequate and improper to true religion.[30] Supernatural theology through faith is necessary for a “full, entire and clear knowledge of God as redeemer and of the lawful worship due him” whereas natural theology can only arrive at an imperfect, corrupt, and obscure knowledge of God as Creator and preserver.[31]

While natural theology is not able to produce salvation, the Reformed, according to Turretin remain resolute in affirming various ends and uses:

(1) as a witness of the goodness of God towards sinners unworthy even of these remains of light (Acts 14:16, 17; John 1:5); (2) as a bond of external discipline among men to prevent the world from becoming utterly corrupt (Romans 2:14–15); (3) as a subjective condition in man for the admission of the light of grace because God does not appeal to brutes and stocks, but to rational creatures; (4) as an incitement to the search for this more illustrious revelation (Acts 14:27); (5) to render man inexcusable (Rom. 1:20) both in this life, in the judgment of an accusing conscience (Rom. 2:15) and, in the future life, in the judgment which God shall judge concerning the secrets of men (Romans 2:16).[32]

And for the redeemed, the light of nature has manifold use in theology. For example, illustration, comparison, inference, and argumentation all arise from the light of nature and are critical for robust theological construction. When reading and understanding the logic of the Reformed it is necessary to keep this in mind. As Turretin comments:

The question is not whether reason is the instrument by which or the medium through which we can be drawn to faith…. Rather the question is whether it is the first principle from which the doctrines of faith are proved; or the foundation upon which they are built, so that we must hold to be false in things of faith what the natural light or human reason cannot comprehend. This we deny.[33]

So, the Reformed confess the validity and use of natural theology but are consistent in locating its use as the handmaiden—or as Turretin has illustrated, the Hagar and not the Sarah. At no point does it become the foundation of faith.[34]

Not only does the methodical Francis Turretin argue in such ways, but so too does the warm-hearted Petrus Van Mastricht. He argues that there are errors on “both sides” of the natural theology discussion. For some, reason has too much power (Socinians) and for others it has too little (Anabaptists, Lutherans, and papists).[35] For the Reformed, both innate and acquired natural theology have positive uses.[36] Van Mastricht defines these chief uses as to: (1) render the impious without excuse, (2) refute atheists and unredeemed, (3) confirm revealed theology, and (4) lead to applause of God the revealer. But it also has three chief abuses. It can attempt to: (1) replace revealed theology as foundation and norm, (2) suffice for salvation, (3) save by help of reason apart from Christ.[37] None of these abuses are affirmed by the confessional Reformed tradition. They all seek to situate natural theology as universal—innate and acquired—for both redeemed and unredeemed alike. Although, natural theology differs in its uses for the redeemed and unredeemed.

But Van Mastricht also describes natural theology as a smaller quantity within a larger one—like how one of the states (say, North Carolina) within America is a smaller land mass inside a larger one. He argues that “natural theology does not include anything that Scripture does not include” since natural theology is “revealed theology” too—just of a different sort.[38] Such a description may be confusing to some not well familiar with the confessional Reformed and Protestant tradition. It may sound like the very scope of natural theology thus far defended is wrongheaded. In such a description, it may appear that natural theology reveals nothing but what is quite literally inscribed in the words of Scripture. But this would be an improper understanding of natural theology (and downstream, the sufficiency of Scripture too).

Francis Turretin and John Gill are wise guides at this juncture. Turretin distinguishes between the form or substance of Scripture and the absolute content of Scripture. Only the specific literal words on the page are absolutely contained in Scripture.[39] So, the absolute content of Scripture is the literal chapter and verse. But even these are not the absolute content of Scripture if they are translated. Only the original manuscripts are truly the absolute Scriptures (see 2LCF 1.8). And while the absolute words of Scripture deserve our highest esteem, are clothed with majesty, and have a unique energy in them that is lacked by man’s words, many things are not recorded absolutely in the words of the Bible. Further explication and inference are necessary. In fact, the acceptance of only the absolute content of Scripture is sure to destroy all exposition and interpretation of Scripture.[40] This is where the form and substance of Scripture comes in. While some naturally generated words (e.g., Trinity) and concepts (e.g., divine simplicity) are external to Scripture (e.g., not absolutely contained—there is no chapter and verse for these), they are contained in its form or substance.[41] They are consistent with the explicit content of Scripture and the overarching narrative of Scripture. But such theological practice is properly understood as natural theology. Therefore, natural theology as described by Van Mastricht is not inconsistent with the above definitions. The point is simply that God reveals the same truth in all areas, though some lack all the specific absolute content.

John Gill likewise considers theology as either natural or supernatural wherein natural theology is attained through the use and exercise of the light of nature whereas supernatural comes directly by divine revelation.[42] Like his Reformed predecessors, he too is careful to note the destruction of sin on the light of nature and our ability to do natural theology. Moreso, there is no knowledge of God as Redeemer apart from Christ. The light of nature is insufficient for salvation.[43] However, men can and do arrive at knowledge of God the Creator by means of the light of nature.[44]

3.3  The Early Modern Reformed: Edwards, Shedd, Strong, Bavinck, and Vos

Summarizing the thought of Jonathan Edwards on any subject is nearly impossible. But I’ll give it my best college try anyway. One of his most famous sermons is A Divine and Supernatural Light wherein he argues for the traditional Reformed understanding that God is the author of all knowledge whatsoever.[45] Underneath this umbrella he offers the distinction between common and special knowledge (or natural and supernatural as has been used thus far). But Edwards also suggests that the Holy Spirit aids in both common and special—rather than just via special revelation. The distinction between the two is that special revelation involves a further step from the Spirit—that of regeneration.[46] Therefore, the redeemed have access to special knowledge but also an enhanced assistance to understand common knowledge “more freely and fully.”[47] The Christian has a “sanctified reason.”[48] Yet the unredeemed remain wholly destitute of the special knowledge that is necessary for salvation. No amount of natural theology could ever attain to the knowledge of God as Redeemer.[49] They lack not only this knowledge but also the affective apprehension.[50]

William Shedd and Augustus H. Strong offer much the same when it comes to natural theology. Shedd describes natural theology (or general revelation for him) as a wide discipline that includes any species of knowledge of which God is the source and cause.[51] Strong also uses the twofold distinction underneath the broad umbrella of God’s self-revelations in nature and Scripture.[52] He argues that “The universe is a source of theology” and that “the systematic exhibition of these facts, whether derived from observation, history or science, constitutes natural theology.”[53] Moreover, Strong suggests that “natural theology not only prepares the way for, but it receives its stimulus and aid from, Scriptural theology.”[54]

Herman Bavinck explains natural revelation as a different of manner of revelation. As noted before, natural theology is that which is through or beyond the natural order.[55] Natural theology develops “apart from any alien power or influence, solely in terms of its own internal forces and laws.”[56] In fact, “humans in the course of a normal development arrive at a certain knowledge of God without compulsion or effort.”[57] But Bavinck makes several important clarifications. First, natural theology presupposes a divine initiative. Natural theology should not be construed as self-sufficient or self-initiated. It is God who seeks humans both in nature and supernature.[58] We are all indebted to God’s special revelation in his Word for the knowledge of God we have derived from nature.[59] For the redeemed “everything in nature speaks of God.”[60] Second, it is a “completely mistaken method” to attempt natural theology apart from Scripture, Christian presuppositions, and the illumination of the Spirit.[61] Third, Bavinck makes a distinction between natural and rational theology. Natural theology is what Christians can know of God from creation in the light of Scripture whereas rational theology is what the non-Christian rational person can know by nature through their own reason.[62] These distinctions mirror my own separation of unredeemed and redeemed natural theology.

Geerhardus Vos teaches along the same lines. For him natural theology is teaching about God “that takes its content and method from nature.”[63] In his lectures on natural theology he asks: “Does Scripture teach that there is a natural knowledge of God?” He answers in a typical straightforward manner: “Yes, in passages like Psalm 19:1–4; 94:8–10; Acts 14:15–17; 17:24–29; Romans 1:19–21.”[64] Moreover, natural theology directly teaches “many things that Scripture does not so much explicitly teach or assume.” For example, “it teaches us to adore the wisdom of God in nature, His ways and His works.”[65]

4.     What’s the Use?

Maybe I’ve convinced you that this is the traditional Protestant—especially Reformed—way of thinking about natural theology. But you are still wondering why it’s necessary. Those of us in the Protestant tradition are a Word-centered people. We believe the church is constituted around the Word and sacrament. So why focus energy on tasks that are not simply exegetical work? Can’t I find everything I need in Scripture? Suffice to say, natural theology remains an essential part of our classical Protestant heritage and our God-given task to take every thought captive to Christ. Here are some reasons why:

First, for those of a confessional persuasion, natural theology is necessary given its confessional status. If you seek to stand in the line of classical Protestants and confess one of the main Reformed confessions, you will be bound to confess its utility. Of course, this is only persuasive for those already in a confessional tradition or at least seeking to embody its ethos. Second, natural theology offers us more reasons to worship God. Renewed reason in the light of nature assists in filling out a robust doctrine of God. It assists with understanding God as all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, and more. It provides frameworks and rational defenses for them. It fills out our understanding of Scriptural texts like Psalm 50 and God’s complete self-sufficiency. As Turretin explained, not everything about God or the world is literally contained in Scripture. It requires the light of nature to understand it in its depth and breadth. Third, natural theology assists us with the shifting culture. It provides us with ways to understand and think about numerous topics like gender, sexuality, substance abuse, transhumanism, and more. Without a robust use of the light of nature we would offer very little for a well-functioning society. And my sense is that most intuitively agree with this. They just don’t realize it is natural theology. Fourth, natural theology as defined here is nothing more than a contemplative ascent to thinking God’s thoughts after him. Therefore, even meditation on the implications of Holy Scripture count as natural theology! Our rational deliberations among the church—both historically and locally—are natural theology for the glory of God.

5.     Conclusion

Given this tour through Scripture and the classical Protestant and confessional Reformed tradition, I argue that natural theology is both validated by Scripture and the Reformed tradition. While Scripture is underdetermined as to the necessary and sufficient conditions of natural theology, the general outline is consistent with classical Protestant and Reformed theology. And there is a Reformed and Protestant consensus on the nature and scope of natural theology as well. It is expounded in the Reformed thinkers and codified in the Reformed confessions. There is no need to worry that such a practice is either inconsistent with classical Protestant thought or the doctrines they so prized like sola scriptura. Rather than being anxious that we are trading the Scriptures for a golden calf in natural theology we should gleefully accept God’s gift of revelation in all of life. Therefore, you are welcome to reject natural theology as confessed throughout our heritage—it’s not a matter of saving faith—but do so at your own risk. You will have chosen to abstain from one of God’s good gifts as a divinely sanctioned aid to knowing him. Natural theology is designed to work in tandem with all of God’s other means.


[1] For those unfamiliar with the colloquial phrase regarding the Tiber, the idea has been that those who “swim the Tiber” are converting to Rome.

[2] David Bradshaw, “Introduction,” in Natural Theology in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition, ed. David Bradshaw and Richard Swinburne (St Paul: IOTA Publications, 2021), 1; Contra Alvin Plantinga, “Reason and Belief in God,” in Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God, ed. Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983), 63.

[3] Contra David Haines, Natural Theology: A Biblical and Historical Introduction and Defense (Landrum, SC: The Davenant Press, 2021), 12. He claims natural theology is “that part of philosophy which explores that which man can know about God (his existence, divine nature, etc.) from nature alone, via man’s divinely bestowed faculty of reason, unaided by special revelation from any religion, and without presupposing the truth of any religion.” Haines is right in some respects but wrong in the neutrality of natural theology. It is not alone. Indeed, no such natural theology is even possible for the Christian given their previous acquaintance with supernatural theology.

[4] Jordan L. Steffaniak, “The God of All Creation: A Critique of Evangelical Biblicism and Recovery of Perfect Being Theology,” Journal of Reformed Theology 14, no. 4 (December 1, 2020): 360, https://doi.org/10.1163/15697312-bja10008; Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 1:307.

[5] Bavinck, RD, 1:307; Thomas H. McCall, An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 41; Franciscus Junius, A Treatise on True Theology, trans. David C. Noe (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014), 160.

[6] Steven J. Duby, God in Himself: Scripture, Metaphysics, and the Task of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019), 71.

[7] Alister E. McGrath, A Scientific Theology (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 2003), 1:266.

[8] Thanks to Garrett Walden for this illustration.

[9] Duby, God in Himself, 68.

[10] Basil, Against Eunomius, trans. Mark DelCogliano and Andrew Radde-Gallwitz (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2011), 1.14.

[11] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006), I.5.1.

[12] Elsewhere I’ve expounded at length from various sources ranging from Turretin to Bavinck to Augustine. See Steffaniak, “The God of All Creation”; Jordan Steffaniak, “Everything in Nature Speaks of God: Understanding Sola Scriptura Aright,” Modern Reformation 31, no. 3 (June 2022).

[13] For an extensive treatment of the Post-Reformation Reformed see Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725, 2nd ed (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 1:270-310.

[14] Haines, Natural Theology, 143.

[15] Peter Martyr Vermigli, Philosophical Works, trans. Joseph C. McClelland (Moscow, ID: The Davenant Institute, 2018), 150.

[16] Vermigli, 6.

[17] Vermigli, 7.

[18] Vermigli, 7.

[19] Vermigli, 14.

[20] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.3.1.

[21] Calvin, I.5.1.

[22] Calvin, I.5.14.

[23] Calvin, I.5.11.

[24] Calvin, I.5.12.

[25] Junius, A Treatise on True Theology, 145.

[26] Junius, 147.

[27] Junius, 160–61.

[28] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison, trans. George Musgrave Giger (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1994), 1:6.

[29] Turretin, 1:7.

[30] Turretin, 1:10.

[31] Turretin, 1:11.

[32] Turretin, 1:10.

[33] Turretin, 1:24.

[34] Turretin, 1:25.

[35] Petrus van Mastricht, Theoretical-Practical Theology, ed. Joel R. Beeke, trans. Todd M. Rester (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018), 1:24.

[36] Mastricht, 1:83.

[37] Mastricht, 1:78.

[38] Mastricht, 1:77.

[39] Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 140.

[40] John Gill, A Body of Doctrinal Divinity (London: George Keith, 1769), 7.

[41] Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 140.

[42] Gill, A Body of Doctrinal Divinity, 13.

[43] Gill, 14.

[44] Gill, 15.

[45] Jonathan Edwards, “A Divine and Supernatural Light,” in Sermons and Discourses: 1730-1733, ed. Mark Valeri, vol. 17 (Jonathan Edwards Center: Yale University, 2008), 409.

[46] Edwards, 410.

[47] Edwards, 411.

[48] Edwards, 414–16.

[49] Jonathan Edwards, DISSERTATION I: Concerning the End for Which God Created the World, ed. Paul Ramsey, vol. 8, Works of Jonathan Edwards Online (Jonathan Edwards Center: Yale University, 1749), 419–20.

[50] Jonathan Edwards, “A Spiritual Understanding of Divine Things Denied to the Unregenerate,” in Sermons and Discourses: 1723-1729, ed. Kenneth P. Minkema, vol. 14 (Jonathan Edwards Center: Yale University, 2008), 70–74.

[51] William G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, 3rd ed (Phillipsburg, N.J: P&R, 2003), 85.

[52] Augustus Hopkins Strong, Systematic Theology (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2009), 25.

[53] Strong, 26.

[54] Strong, 29.

[55] Bavinck, RD, 1:307.

[56] Bavinck, 1:356.

[57] Bavinck, 2:73.

[58] Bavinck, 2:74.

[59] Bavinck, 2:75.

[60] Bavinck, 1:308.

[61] Bavinck, 2:74.

[62] Bavinck, 2:78.

[63] Geerhardus Vos, Natural Theology, trans. Albert Gootjes (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2022), 3.

[64] Vos, 5.

[65] Vos, 5.

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