Bible — June 9, 2022 at 9:00 am

Biblicism and Natural Theology: A Way Forward

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The label biblicist can refer to a couple of different views. The first is to describe those who deny the use of dogmatic formulations and philosophical distinctions in the name of a “pure systematic theology,” attempting to only use the language of Scripture. Biblicism in this sense is a theological method that is unsystematic and unsuccessful in its goal.

However, the label of biblicism today is often applied simply to those who are convinced that all observations made from nature should be measured and judged by the lens of Scripture. The term biblicism has been used in recent debates as a bludgeon against Reformed theologians that have expressed disagreement or concerns over a particular species of natural theology. I recognize that this discussion on natural theology has actually exposed many men in Reformed circles as biblicists of the first sort mentioned above. But part of the problem in this debate is that it has been framed in terms of the Confessionalists vs. the Biblicists.

Yet there is a third group of men who are confessional and who affirm a positive use of philosophy and natural theology in dogmatics, yet they are arguing for a more nuanced version of natural theology that is rooted in the Reformation, not medieval Roman Catholic scholasticism. In light of this, leaning heavily on Herman Bavinck, I would like to offer four important points of discussion that can helpfully move the conversation forward.

Blank Slates and Lens

It is important to remember that men do not interpret Scripture from a blank slate. The interpretation of Scripture from a blank slate or an empty mind is a great lie of modernism. Evacuating all tradition, secondary means, philosophical commitments, etc. before reading Scripture is impossible. Men are not blank slates or empty tablets. We are formed by our traditions, philosophical commitments, and theological systems. Those who deny this are like a man who claims he can live without breathing, all the while continuing to be supported by the air taken in by his lungs. Affirming that these presuppositions and pre-commitments exist does not destroy the objectivity of God’s revelation in Scripture, but rather highlights the need to ensure we have the right pre-commitments. We must recognize that we have pre-commitments and seek to refine them according to God’s revelation.

It is important to remember that men do not interpret Scripture from a blank slate. The interpretation of Scripture from a blank slate or an empty mind is a great lie of modernism. Evacuating all tradition, secondary means, philosophical commitments, etc. before reading Scripture is impossible. Men are not blank slates or empty tablets. We are formed by our traditions, philosophical commitments, and theological systems. Those who deny this are like a man who claims he can live without breathing, all the while continuing to be supported by the air taken in by his lungs. Affirming that these presuppositions and pre-commitments exist does not destroy the objectivity of God’s revelation in Scripture, but rather highlights the need to ensure we have the right pre-commitments. We must recognize that we have pre-commitments and seek to refine them according to God’s revelation.

Doxa SubscriptionBut blank slate hermeneutics is not only an impossibility for Scripture, it is also an impossibility for nature. The unregenerate man cannot reason from nature abstractly apart from his sinful condition, and the Christian must reason from nature in light of his Christian faith and Scripture. God did not reveal himself in nature and Scripture so that the theologian can reason from nature apart from Scripture. The theologian must not divest himself of his Christian faith grounded in Scripture to construct a rational theology of God and man from nature that is only latter supplemented by Scripture. Bavinck, making a similar point, is emphatic that the Christian faith, in context relating to the knowledge of God and man, must be drawn, “solely and alone from special revelation, i.e., from Scripture.”1 Certainly, Bavinck would not disparage the usefulness of nature or philosophy in helping us understand God, but his point is that the Christian goes to nature as a Christian informed by Scripture.

The unregenerate man cannot reason from nature abstractly apart from his condition, and the Christian must reason from nature in light of his Christian faith and Scripture.

Further, strictly speaking nature does not supplement or add any new content to Scripture. All that is found in nature concerning God is contained explicitly or implicitly in Scripture.2 Bavinck is helpful again here,

Even Christian believers would not be able to understand God’s revelation in nature and reproduce it accurately had not God himself described in his Word how he revealed himself and what he revealed of himself in the universe as a whole. The natural knowledge of God is incorporated and set forth at length in Scripture itself. Accordingly, Christians follow a completely mistaken method when, in treating natural theology, they, as it were, divest themselves of God’s special revelation in Scripture and the illumination of the Holy Spirit, discuss it apart from any Christian presuppositions, then move on to special revelation.3

The content of both revelations, not that of the special only but that of the general also, is contained in Holy Scripture. General revelation, although derived from nature, is nevertheless taken up in Scripture, for, without it, we human beings, because of the darkness of our understanding, would never have been able to read it out of nature.4

Nature and Scripture are not two isolated books of revelation that are mutually exclusive. Nature is the realm, the means, the playground in which special revelation is given. Nature and Scripture are mutually dependent on one another. Natural revelation complements, supports, and presupposes special revelation. Natural revelation is clear, authoritative, and sufficient because it is one of God’s forms of his self-revelation, but Scripture is the interpretive lens given to the image of God in order to rightly interpret natural revelation. Christ provides us with the spectacles of faith via the Word of God; why then would we play in nature without them? Bavinck instructs Christians how to do theology when he writes,

Even when Christians do theology, from the very beginning they stand with both feet on the foundation of special revelation. They are Christ-believers not only in the doctrine of Christ but equally in the doctrine of God. Standing on this foundation, they look around themselves, and armed with the spectacles of Holy Scripture, they see in all the world a revelation of the same God they know and confess in Christ as their Father in heaven.5

Both forms of revelation (nature and Scripture) function like a man with two hands. Both hands work together, supplementing and depending on one another for various tasks, lifting objects, grasping items, but the man is right handed. Therefore, there is a priority given to his right hand that sets it in first place before the left hand. This is the relationship between Scripture and nature/ special revelation and natural revelation. They cannot be severed, and both are equally God’s revelation. However, Scripture, is first among equals and the interpretive lens of nature.

Severing nature from Scripture is like severing the law from the gospel or justification from sanctification. While we distinguish between law and gospel and justification and sanctification, to sever them from one another will result in an error that impacts the gospel. Likewise, when we sever nature and Scripture, we cut the wires that make both forms of revelation to function in dependence upon one another. All natural theology must be chastened and interpreted through the lens of Scripture, for it is through the “spectacles of Scripture” that we see God and his works more clearly in nature and by which we judge all things we “think” we see in nature.6

Immediate and Mediate Knowledge

Second, recent debates have focused on man’s capacity to know God via reason in nature (mediate knowledge) and has ignored the reality that man does know God innately (immediate knowledge) as a result of being created in his image. Adam was created in natural religious fellowship with God. Adam was created with a perfect knowledge of God. In other words, Adam was not created with merely the ability to know God via observation from creation. He knew God immediately upon being created. The creation of man and natural religious fellowship are inseparable.

John Calvin in the Institutes speaks of this innate knowledge of God as an “awareness of the divinity” that is within the mind and instincts of man. It is an implanted knowledge of God in all men that robs man of all excuses of ignorance.7 John Gill in his commentary on Romans 1:18–20 says that even after the Fall, all men have the light of nature within them that reveals to them that God exists. The light of nature pervades man’s mind and conscience, whereby God is revealed to him “by infusion or inspiration.”8 And Bavinck says, clarifying what this implanted knowledge is, that man knows God without any need for “scientific input” or rational observations from creation.9

Man, as image of God, is created in and for natural religious fellowship with God with an inbuilt longing for eternal, immutable, and consummate fellowship, and God offers that fellowship through covenant. Image of God without covenant (special revelation) is blind, and covenant without image (natural revelation) is empty. Creation and special providence, natural and special revelation go hand and hand. Even in the garden before the Fall, nature provides the realm and special providence provides the destination. The special revelation of covenant explains the destination of man’s nature.

The image of God’s telos and the natural implanted knowledge and fellowship with God in the garden must temper and shape any discussion of natural theology and mediate knowledge of God. Both immediate (implanted) and mediate (acquired) knowledge must be affirmed. God reveals himself both outside of man in creation and within man.10 However, the Christian must remember as he considers what he knows of God through nature, “We are indebted to Scripture for both implanted and acquired knowledge of God.”11

The danger comes when we deny that man has a natural innate and con-created knowledge of God that is immediate. This would mean that man made in God’s image is created only with the ability to reason to God and not with implanted knowledge of God. To concede this ground is to abandon what Vos calls the deeper protestant conception for Rome’s deeper conception.12 Second, a rejection of immediate knowledge opens the door for a version of natural theology that is severed from revelation, built up on reason alone, undermines the noetic effects of the fall, is not interpreted by Scripture, and creates a dualism between nature and grace.

Autonomy and Reason

Third, a biblically faithful epistemology must account for the noetic effects of the fall upon the image bearer’s minds (noetic refers to the mind), and we must situate reason properly within its relationship to faith and revelation. Scripture reveals that the believer’s mind has been renewed (Rom. 12:2; Eph. 3:23-24), and the unbeliever’s mind is warped and distorted by the corruption of sin (Rom. 1:18-32; 8:7; 1 Cor. 2; Eph. 4:17-19).

The unregenerate man does not reason from nature abstractly apart from his fallen condition nor his commitments to reality, knowledge, or ethics.

Mediate knowledge of God can be attained through reason/observation of God’s work of creation, but man in his fallen state cannot read nature consistently nor rightly. The unregenerate man does not reason from nature abstractly apart from his fallen condition nor his commitments to reality, knowledge, or ethics. This is not to say that the unregenerate man is unable to know anything true. Certainly the history of philosophy, the field of science, and the construction trade are all filled with unregenerate men who have observed, learned, and possess knowledge of true things. God’s common grace restrains the noetic effects of sin in man, allowing him to attain true knowledge of things despite his rejection of the triune Creator.

However, the unregenerate man breathes and lives in the atmosphere of God’s revelation and must live in consistent contradiction, arriving at a true knowledge of things in creation while at the same time fundamentally undermining the basis for this knowledge because of his rejection of the triune God. Even the best philosopher who seeks to reason from creation to God will at best arrive at an idol because of his sin. He already knows that God exists. He has an ethical problem, not a knowledge problem. His depravity strives for autonomy rather than being under subjection to his Creator. Because he is made in God’s image, he searches for the ultimate Good, True, and Beautiful (common grace), but in his sin he desires idols and not the one true and living God (antithesis). This is why Bavinck would say that only the eye of faith can see God in creation.13

Further, even when Christian men make observations about God and acquire natural mediate knowledge of God, how do we know if their conclusions are correct? How do we measure the philosopher and theologians claims from nature? When reason is emancipated from faith and revelation, it is given autonomy to function above God. For example, if you have to interpret Scripture through a particular philosophical lens because it is normative for interpretation, at what point could you actually challenge that lens with Scripture? If we have deemed a particular philosophical system as the system that is necessary to understand the metaphysics of Scripture, we have unintentionally undermined Scripture as the norm of norms. Scripture must regulate our metaphysical commitments, not vice versa.

Any natural theology that is a product of reason apart from revelation is unbiblical.

Any natural theology that is a product of reason apart from revelation is unbiblical. Bavinck writes, “There is no such thing as a separate natural theology that could be obtained apart from any revelation solely on the basis of a reflective consideration of the universe. The knowledge of God that is gathered up in so-called natural theology is not the product of human reason.”14 Reason is a tool given by God to his image-bearer in order to enable him to think God’s thoughts after him. The image of God is to submit, depend, and trust God’s revelation and use the tool of reason to interpret and understand the atmosphere of revelation that God has placed him in. Reason is applied to both natural and special revelation. Reason is in service to faith. Reason apart from faith ceases to be a tool that enables man to think God’s thoughts after him and turns into the stumbling block of rationalism.

Select Your Natural Theology  

Last, many have assumed a monolithic system of natural theology throughout the history of the church (similar to the way the doctrine of divine simplicity in historical theology has been made monolithic). In the first two volumes of his Reformed Dogmatics, Bavinck makes several statements about natural theology that help give us a more nuanced understanding of what a biblical natural theology is and how this natural theology is distinguished from Rome’s.

Bavinck makes a distinction between the natural theology of Rome and the natural theology of the first period of the Reformation.

Bavinck explains that the Reformation adopted and affirmed a natural theology. However, this natural theology was not a preamble to the Christian faith but rather was incorporated as a doctrine of the Christian faith. In the Reformation, natural theology lost its “rational autonomy.”15 Reason was tethered to faith and revelation. Bavinck notes that the Belgic Confession in article two affirms that God can be known by two means—nature and Scripture. But the Reformers did not see nature and Scripture as “two detached and independent entities.” In explaining how this is the case, Bavinck alludes to Calvin’s analogy of Scripture being the spectacles by which the Christian reads nature. The Christian stands on the ground of faith and as a Christian he looks at nature.16 This point has been explained above.

Bavinck notes a shift in Reformed theology from this chastened view of natural theology to rationalism.

Sometime, after that first point in the Reformation, Bavinck notes that there came a shift in some Reformed theologians whereby natural theology shifted to the “road of rationalism.” Bavinck writes that, “natural theology was initially an account, in the light of Scripture, of what Christians can know concerning God from creation; it soon became an exposition of what nonbelieving rational persons could learn from nature by the power of their own reasoning.”17 Bavinck explains more explicitly in volume 1 that this shift was an abandonment of the reformational position of the starting point of faith and a return to “Roman Catholic theology.” In this return, Bavinck explains that the Roman Catholic conception of natural theology emancipates reason from faith, resulting in reason standing apart from and above (if consistent) faith and revelation.18

Here Bavinck offers us some distinctions and nuances to consider in this discussion concerning natural theology. Not all versions of natural theology are biblical or faithful. Even worse, some versions of natural theology undercut the authority of Scripture. The key in this discussion is first to recognize that there isn’t a monolithic concept of natural theology. After that, we need to wrestle with which versions uphold the authority of Scripture and complement Scripture’s doctrines of God and man.

Conclusion

My hope is that the four points above would aid us evaluating and discussing natural theology and that we would be wary of the equally dangerous ditches of biblicism and rationalism or rationalism and experientialism. Let us be on guard against allowing the faith of our forefathers in the seventeenth century become simply our orthodoxy and not our faith. My point is not to pit the two against one another, but Bavinck offers us a sober warning of rationalism and experientialism.

The faith of the sixteenth century became the orthodoxy of the seventeenth. People no longer confessed their beliefs, but they only believed their confessions. Among most of the people this orthodoxy prepared the road for rationalism . . . the certainty of faith became confused with rational insight. On the other hand, within the small circles of the faithful it evoked another reaction; they . . . sought salvation in experience.19

Rationalism and bare experientialism are both issues that do not understand communion with God. They have different fruit, but the same root. As we wrestle together, may we remember that our theological labors must be oriented towards the glory of God, the adornment of his bride, and our growth in communion with him.

References

References
1 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids.: Baker, 2003), 1:320
2, 16 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1:87.
3 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:74.
4 Bavinck, The Wonderful Works of God (Glenside, PA: Westminster Seminary Press, 2019), 22.
5 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:75.
6 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 70.
7 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 43.
8 John Gill, An Exposition of the New Testament, vol. 2, The Baptist Commentary Series (London: Mathews and Leigh, 1809), 420.
9 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:71.
10 Bavinck, The Wondeful Works of God, 26.
11 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics  2:54.
12 Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, Anthropology, trans. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2012), 12-15.
13 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1:321.
14 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:74.
15 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1:305; 2:78.
17 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:78.
18 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1:105.
19 Herman Bavinck,  Certainty of Faith, 28-29.

 


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Author

  • John Sweat is a Marine Veteran and a bi-vocational pastor at Covenant Community Church in Lake Butler, FL. He is an individual member of the Reformed Baptist Network and holds two MA degrees from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. John is the co-host of Pilgrim Talk. John and his wife, Heather, have four girls. They are proud Florida natives but rabid Georgia Bulldog fans.

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