After having asserted the authority of God’s natural revelation in the first installment of this series, I wish to provide a qualification. Skeptical readers, seeking to honor the authority of God’s Word, may be suspicious of any potential over-exaltation of nature. They might observe such an emphasis as perhaps covertly seeking to establish deism or materialism (i.e., naturalism), since Christians are ordinarily known for their extolment of Scripture. Usually infidels are the ones celebrating the powers of human reason and scientific investigation; Christians are to be the countervailing force, proclaiming the wisdom of God over the foolishness of this world (1 Cor. 1:20-25). Consequently, an account of the necessity of supernatural revelation ought to supplement and clarify this display of biblicism.
We can apprehend Scripture’s necessity best by understanding the various limits of natural revelation. One of these limits subsists in what can be called natural religion. Natural religion essentially includes all the religious facts and duties towards God which we can ascertain through nature, that is, through natural revelation. Since the first table of the Ten Commandments describes man’s duties toward God, and since the Decalogue is itself a summary of the moral law delivered to all mankind, it follows that these duties will in some sense be published in nature as well as in Scripture. All men, even the most unreached of tribes, are morally obligated to follow these religious duties, and therefore they must have some kind of cognitive access to them. The only alternative to this is (1) to deny that the moral law is universal or necessary to mankind, (2) to deny that moral duties need to be accessible in order to generate guilt in transgressors, or (3) to deny that unreached peoples are culpable for their violations of first-table commandments. But (1) is a complete repudiation of the very nature of morality, which is a reflection of God’s holy nature and therefore applicable to all rational creatures; (2) is likewise a repudiation of morality, for men cannot be justly punished for duties of which they are not aware1; and (3) leads to the preposterous claim that idolaters are entirely exonerated in their idolatry, which is not only counterintuitive but contradicted by Scripture (Rom. 1:18-21).
Regarding (3), a qualification is here important. To an extent, the guilt of unreached people’s idolatry can be mitigated by ignorance. As an obvious example, unreached peoples cannot be blamed for rejecting a gospel they have never heard. (They will still be punished with hellfire for their sins, but the tally of their sins will not include the rejection of a gospel they never heard.) The optimal and true worship of God requires knowledge of His special revelation, and therefore the idolatrous guilt of unreached peoples can to a certain degree be justly exonerated. This is why St. Paul says at the Areopagus that God previously “overlooked”—or, as the KJV says, “winked at”—past idolatry, but now commands all men everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30). The relevant conceptual distinction here is the distinction between objective and subjective duties (or obligations), with objective duties consisting of all those duties a fully informed human would recognize, and subjective duties taking into account man’s ignorance on various morally relevant facts and circumstances. As an example: Christian Sabbath-observers would argue that it is the objective duty of man to reserve Sunday as a day of rest and worship; but those who are (innocently) unaware of the New Testament practice moving the Sabbath to the first day of the week would lack the subjective duty to observe Sunday as the Sabbath. Objective duties are therefore fixed for us, independent of our particular knowledge or ignorance; but our subjective duties become graver and weightier as we increase in knowledge.2 (Therefore, please note: when I use the term “subjective,” I do not mean that morality is subjective in the sense that it is contingent on a person’s preferences. Rather, I use the term to indicate that the true, binding, and genuine moral obligations on an agent must take into account various subjective factors about him, such as his ignorance. Scripture itself presupposes this distinction, e.g. in Rom. 14:14-23.)
If we properly understand the distinction between objective and subjective duties, the argument for natural religion becomes clearer. While the objective duty to worship God in the fullness of truth cannot be fulfilled by peoples without special revelation, nevertheless we would never wish to state that unreached peoples have no scintilla of a subjective duty to worship the true God (and indeed, this is supported by mankind’s universal religious disposition). But if they possess a subjective duty to obey the first table of the law, then it follows that they must have access to those duties in nature. This is what motivates natural religion: a desire to exalt God’s sovereignty and God’s law in the created order, not merely in Scripture.
I will not here enter into some full or exhaustive codification of the doctrines and duties existing in the realm of natural religion, but a brief summary might still be helpful. The tenets of natural religion generally include the existence of God, His providence and moral governance of the world, His perfect or “omni” attributes, and a multitude of fundamental moral duties, such as the prohibition on murder, theft, and adultery, in addition to the aforementioned obligation to worship God. Natural religion was often accompanied by natural theology, the attempt to deduce certain facts about God, especially His existence, from premises obtained via natural revelation.3 A very important detail about natural religion, especially as Christians have professed it, is that there is some kind of relation or analogy between natural religion and the Christian religion; or, in other words, the God who reveals Himself in nature is the same one who reveals Himself in Scripture. His fingerprints cover both. (Contrast this with the deists, whose acceptance of a purely natural religion, without any special revelation, shows immense dishonor towards the Trinity.) It was on this basis that Bishop Joseph Butler penned his treatise The Analogy of Religion4: to provide evidence that nature’s God is Jesus Christ. Butler saw nature as pointing to the God back of it, pointing also to His special revelation in Scripture; natural religion leads the properly functioning mind to (specially) revealed religion.
Though it is not as popular today, this idea of natural religion was widely held by Christians in the past. For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith5 has many references to the “light of nature.” In reference to the damnation of unbelievers, it states:
[M]uch less can men, not professing the Christian religion, be saved in any other way whatsoever, be they never so diligent to frame their lives according to the light of nature, and the laws of that religion they do profess (10.4).
Here, the Westminster divines refer to the perdition which awaits unbelievers, since even the most moral and upstanding of unbelievers lacks the righteousness of Christ needed to overcome his great guilt. Their point is that even moral unbelievers, who live according to the light of nature, will be damned: they presuppose that the light of nature provides us some degree of moral guidance. They believed this because they believed in the Lawgiver back of such a natural law. Beyond this, with respect to the grounds of our moral duty to worship God, they said:
The light of nature shows that there is a God, who has lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and does good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might (21.1).
This teaches explicitly that nature provides us with religious and moral doctrine and duties, to some degree at least.6 The teachings of natural religion, even though they may have not always been called “natural religion,” used to be more popular among Christians. They were never intended to denigrate scriptural authority, nor did they do so. Natural religion simply teaches that the God of nature is sovereign over and has published His law within the created order. It augments man’s responsibility and subjection under the King of kings.
The Necessity of Supernatural Revelation: Salvation
While Christians have often affirmed natural religion and natural theology to be true and valid, they are nonetheless insufficient unto important ends. The American theologian and philosopher R.L. Dabney explains:
But man needs more than this for his soul’s well-being; and we assert that Natural Theology is fatally defective in the essential points. We might evince this practically by pointing to the customary state of all gentile nations, to the darkness of their understanding and absurdities of their beliefs, the monstrous perversions of their religious worship, and the blackness of their general morals, their evil conscience during their lives, and their death-beds either apathetic or despairing. . . . But to specify. One fatal defect of Natural Theology has been already illustrated. Man knows himself a sinner in the hands of righteous Omnipotence, and has no assurance whatever of any plan of mercy. An equally fatal defect might be evinced . . . in its lack of regenerating agency. [He goes on to list more.]7
Charles Hodge concurs:
Others take the higher ground of theism, or of natural religion, and bring in considerations drawn from our relation to God as an infinitely perfect being, our creator and preserver and father, who has rightful authority over us, who has prescribed the rule of duty, and who rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. All this is true and good in its place. But it is like persuading the blind to see and the deaf to hew. This is not the gospel. Christ is the only Saviour from sin, the only source of holiness, or of spiritual life.8
B.B. Warfield also agrees.9 What men can glean from general revelation, whether immediately or inferentially, is insufficient for anyone’s salvation. Knowing that God exists and ought to be worshiped, as well as knowing that men ought to frame their lives according to His law, displayed by the light of nature, men will garner only some cognizance of their own sinfulness and of their need for atonement.10 The previously-cited Westminster Confession makes this explicit point in its opening lines: “Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of His will, which is necessary unto salvation” (1.1).
The Necessity of Supernatural Revelation: Clarity
In addition to this soteriological point, the clarity of God’s moral law revealed in nature can be more easily doubted, suppressed, and obfuscated than His law as revealed in Scripture. Since God’s natural law is not conveyed in a strictly textual form as His scriptural law is, it is more liable to the misinterpretations of fallen man. But it should be noted that these misinterpretations are misinterpretations: sinners twisting God’s natural law misinterpret the objective moral content which truly is embedded in God’s natural revelation. The misinterpretation of natural law is not simply some innocent projection of human preference on reality; it is a culpable perversion of the law implicit in the created order—just as professing Christians’ perversion of the law explicit in the Bible is damnable. It takes a more seared conscience to twist scriptural law than it does to twist natural law, since the former is clearer and more resplendent in its claims upon us, but it does not follow that the latter possesses no binding authority in itself.11
Nonetheless, while God has revealed many moral duties through natural revelation, special revelation heavily aids us by confirming the proper interpretation of it, since men are so sinful as to distort it the first instant they can. Natural revelation does not assert the same clear and definite moral claims which special revelation does, but does so in a more veiled and intuitive manner. This pliability lends natural law to be more liable to sinful misinterpretation, but the presence of Scripture in a land guides the proper interpretation of nature with its greater light. The Lord’s revelation of Himself in nature can supply us with a great deal of important information and obligations, but He intended us to live also by the light of His Word. “Your word is a lamp to my feet/And a light to my path” (Ps. 119:105).12
By God’s Design
A better way of stating this is to say that we are naturally fitted or designed to utilize both supernatural revelation and natural revelation for our flourishing as humans. God has materially and spiritually constituted us in such a way that, to best develop as image-bearers of Christ, both individually and societally, we ought to live according to the dictates of His twofold revelation. This is an important point: humans as humans—not merely as sinners—ought to depend upon special revelation for their flourishing as image-bearers. Though our need for a specially-revealed Redeemer was made all the more earnest by Adam’s fall into sin, we are additionally dependent upon God’s special revelation for our flourishing as human beings. The most inexorable argument demonstrating this point is that God created Adam and conveyed a special revelation to him prior to his great fall.
This is not to say that God has delivered His general and special revelations to rule over entirely different and strictly demarcated spheres of man’s life—as, for instance, the radical two-kingdom crowd believes13—but there still is a sense in which the content of one mode of revelation will be more important for certain affairs. As I mentioned in my previous article, when a rock climber is belaying down a cliff, he is not going to seek some Bible verses in order to locate a stable anchor point; instead, he will use his senses to observe natural factors and discern such a suitable point. Contrarily, when one tries to discern the proper instrument of justification (which Scripture teaches is faith alone), natural revelation might provide some minimal guidance, but on the whole the answer must be derived only from Scripture. Other spheres will benefit from a sizable contribution from both modes of revelation, just as our views on civil government can be enlightened by a study of history, Scripture, or both. (Our study of natural and supernatural revelation is even interconnected, as the final article in the series will show.) All this is to say that God has designed us to use both sources of revelation, and to use them with regenerate wisdom. Both are necessary for our properly living in the world in which God has placed us and for which He has created us.
Recall an important doctrine from the previous article, the contingency of the modes of revelation. Man’s nature as a user of both natural and supernatural revelation is contingent on the way God has designed us to function. God could have created us in such a way that our only source of information was natural revelation, and He could have created us in such a way that our only source of information was special revelation. But as He has in fact wisely decreed us to be, we ought to utilize both. This should help us to appreciate the design plan with which God has endowed us.
More specifically, the contingency of the content and modes of revelation also demonstrates that supernatural revelation is a contingent necessity. It is not an absolute necessity: God was not forced or compelled by anyone or anything to supernaturally reveal Himself. He freely revealed Himself and freely created us to flourish in the context of supernatural revelation. But due to the (contingent) way in which He has revealed Himself in nature, supernatural revelation becomes a necessity for our flourishing and for our redemption. It is in this sense that supernatural revelation is a necessity. This is an unbelievably gracious act of God for our benefit and for His glory, to disclose His very thoughts to us. He was not obliged to save any, nor was He obliged to reveal Himself to any—but He has done both (and more!) for us, mere creatures.
To relate this to the issue at hand: the dual mode of God’s revelation demonstrates the folly of biblicism, and the necessity of special revelation does not counteract that demonstration. If a certain Christian holds a very informed view on racial issues, an interlocutor does not necessarily have the right to demand scriptural support for his beliefs, as they could have emerged from an analysis of God’s revelation in nature. This is not deism; this is not materialism; this is not racism: it is Christianity. It would be gnosticism or Manichaeism to suppose that nature is so worthless and devoid of content. Certainly Scripture is to be exalted as guiding souls on the path to salvation in Christ, but biblical exaltation does not preclude a properly informed understanding from nature of such crucial history-determining factors as race.
More importantly, if we reject the witness of nature on the topic of race, we beg for destruction. God designed us to flourish in this world according to both modes of His revelation, and we will be surely punished for cutting off His voice as it resounds through nature (cf. Ps. 19:1-4), just as we clearly would be for rejecting His voice in Scripture. We cannot reject that our Lord is nature’s God, lest we cede all of nature to race-denying and God-hating antichrists.14
- Some, seeking to revere God’s unlimited sovereignty in the realm of ethics and justice, will say that God does not need to provide men any cognitive access to a duty in order to punish them for it. God can use His power as He wills. But while it cannot be argued that God can use His power to harm or help His own creation as He so pleases—see the book of Job, for instance—there certainly seem to be limits of justice in how He would use His own power. (That is, the limit would arise from His own perfect, just nature.) For example, the Lord cannot justly punish a human for an act which the human did not actually do (leaving aside for the moment the biblical doctrines of original sin and imputation). He can inflict harm on sinners as He wishes, but such harm could not be punishment for actions which the recipients of the harm never performed. Likewise, it should seem obvious that He cannot justly punish a human for an act which the human innocently lacked good reason to believe was sinful. That is utterly fundamental to the entire nature of morality, and we attest to it over and over again in our own lives when we exonerate people for being innocently unaware of bad actions they might carry out. ↩
- Incidentally, this is one reason why God-haters often hate knowledge. ↩
- Though natural theology has been a project of Christian scholars for most of church history (including many of the Reformers and their posterity), recent Reformed thinkers have made many criticisms of natural theology, e.g. saying that “God cannot be proved because He is the foundation of all proof.” Although there is a helpful principle motivating these criticisms—namely, that we do not need to study natural theology to justify our faith in God or His Word—I do not find the arguments convincing. However, I cannot enter into a full-fledged defense of natural theology here. ↩
- http://www.ccel.org/browse/bookInfo?id=butler/analogy ↩
- http://reformed.org/documents/wcf_with_proofs/index.html ↩
- Other sections of the Westminster Confession referencing the light (or law) of nature are 1.1, 20.4, and 21.7. ↩
- R.L. Dabney, Systematic Theology, p. 76: http://dabneyarchive.com/Systematic%20Theology/Lecture%207%20-%20Immortality%20of%20the%20Soul%20and%20Defects%20of%20Natural%20Religion.pdf ↩
- Charles Hodge, “Christianity Without Christ”: http://homepage.mac.com/shanerosenthal/reformationink/chnochrist.htm ↩
- B.B. Warfield, “Christianity and Revelation”: http://www.theologue.org/Revelation-Warfield.htm ↩
- This is why so many false religions in this world feature some kind of propitiatory sacrifice to a deity. For more on this, see R.L. Dabney’s Christ Our Penal Substitute, ch. 6: “The Witness of Human Consciousness and Experience”: http://dabneyarchive.com/ChristOurPenalSubstitute/Chapter%206%20-%20The%20Witness%20of%20Human%20Consciousness%20and%20Experience.pdf ↩
- Some would still object to the idea of a law which we can ascertain in nature, given that law seems to need to be explicitly propositional. They might ask how exactly natural law works: are we supposed to observe some rock formations and come to moral conclusions? Are we supposed to observe animal behavior and come to moral conclusions? How do we arrive at moral conclusions from nature, given that so much of nature is purely descriptive, and not prescriptive—and especially given that nature is fallen? But the answer to these questions is quite simple: God has equipped us to recognize certain acts as wrong by their nature. For instance, when we read the Bible and see the prohibition on theft, we understand what kind of act theft is: we understand what the nature of theft is, and we read God’s condemnation of that act; we already know what constitutes the act of theft, and we label such acts as sinful. That is, Scripture presupposes that we can recognize these acts by their nature outside of Scripture, and then Scripture deems such acts sinful, that we might, in our daily lives, identify certain acts as theft and also condemn them as sinful. But certainly God could equip us to do this without special revelation. He could equip us to witness certain acts and immediately perceive such acts to be sinful by their nature—to perceive the moral quality of immorality inherent in such acts. And it should be evident that God has in fact constituted us in such a way: this is why so many unbelievers can act morally in certain ways, for they frame their lives according to the “light of nature” mentioned above. This is also why unreached peoples are actually punished for their multitudinous sins, for they could not be guilty of disobeying a special revelation they could not know. ↩
- It could also be said that supernatural revelation is necessary in terms of its perspectival transformation for the Christian. After receiving regenerating grace, new believers generally view all of life (nature) in a different way. It is not strictly as if the knowledge of Scripture is added to the knowledge of nature; the former also tends to sanctify and transform the latter. We see how the various things of nature give glory to God, inspiring thankfulness and reverence in our hearts. The knowledge of God through His Word imbues our natural knowledge with a greater meaningfulness. ↩
- These “R2K” theologians hold that the church is governed by special revelation and all other spheres by general revelation. Doing so, they effectively deny that God’s moral law as revealed in Scripture is applicable to spheres outside the individual and the family, conceding the rest of society to antichrists to do as they please. This position is truly insane: they must either deny that Scripture contains God’s moral law, or maintain that God’s moral law is not applicable to all of life, both of which positions are severely anti-Christian. This error is a perversion of the true doctrines of natural revelation and natural law, spurning the greater clarity of special revelation by demanding that natural law alone be the basis for civil and societal order and law. ↩
- I am not implying that all who deny race are unbelievers—many are surely deceived—but racial egalitarianism, nonetheless, is characteristically leftist and unbelieving. ↩