Part 1: The Authority of Natural Revelation
Part 2: The Necessity of Supernatural Revelation
Part 3: The Consequences of Spurning Nature
The previous article attempted to show the awful and deleterious consequences of rejecting the authority of natural revelation, demonstrating that its rejection leads to a denial of natural religion, natural theology, and theonomy, in addition to all ethics and all science. But the reductio ad absurdum can be extended even further. Due to the various ways in which God has decreed His natural revelation and supernatural revelation to be intertwined, the consistent biblicist must reject all access he might claim to God’s own Word. Cutting off God’s voice in nature, the consistent biblicist must likewise cut off His voice in Scripture.
Our Sensory Faculties’ Role in Apprehending Special Revelation
From the beginning of time, God’s revelation of Himself has often been delivered in some way that presupposes our cognitive access to nature. Even in Eden, Adam used his audial faculties to hear God’s voice. In a similar way, we today must read the words in Scripture to discern what God speaks about a given topic, the same basic way in which we read other literature. Our sensory faculties—the same ones we utilize to come to treasures of scientific truth—are necessary to properly access God’s special revelation. Nature and Scripture are thus powerfully connected, and any claim that we cannot have access to a natural revelation which provides data independently of Scripture would crush our own access to the Word.
The Calvinist philosopher Gordon Clark would deny that we know revelation at all through our senses, since he denies that we can have any knowledge through the senses at all. Instead, he would claim that God immediately imprints propositions upon our minds on the occasion that we read Scripture. That is, he holds that there is not a causal relation between our reading the printed words on a page (or our hearing the spoken words from a preacher) and our apprehending the notions contained in Scripture. He might offer some verse like Matthew 16:17, which teaches that God Himself, not “flesh and blood,” provides revelation to us. I lack the space to engage in a full refutation of this notion, but I would contend that common sense is sufficient to show its inadequacy.
A second and important sense in which nature and Scripture are connected consists in the proper way of interpreting the Bible, known as the historical-grammatical hermeneutic. This hermeneutic seeks to establish the objective meaning and intention of the author in the particular time and circumstances of his writing, and it therefore depends upon a number of details of natural revelation. Without going into any type of scholarly detail (of which I am incapable, anyway), consider how much this truly depends upon nature. When we read that Adam and Eve were permitted to eat the fruit of some trees, but not of one peculiar tree, how do we know what the Bible means by “tree”? How do we read that word and have an idea produced in our mind? We can do so only because we already know what a tree is. That is to say: the Bible makes reference to many objects to which we must have cognitive access through nature; the Bible’s reference to trees sparks in our mind experiences which we have elsewhere had of trees.
Similarly, if we were going to try to understand the meaning of an original Greek word in one of Paul’s writings, we would go to a lexicon, which is itself partly based on what those words objectively meant in the time and culture in which they were used. And as a third example, part of the proper interpretation of the book of Revelation requires knowing the date at which it was written, which can involve extra-biblical factors.1 To know the meaning of the Bible via the historical-grammatical hermeneutic depends inevitably upon an antecedent knowledge we possess of natural revelation. Therefore, if the biblicist in principle rejects natural revelation as an independent source of legitimate claims, he must go all the way and dispose of any possible knowledge of God’s Word. Far from exalting His Word, he is forced by his principles to despise it.
This interconnection of nature and Scripture also shows how God Himself is authoritative in demanding the right interpretation of a text. A certain degree of extra-biblical information is needed to properly interpret Scripture, and that extra-biblical information must also have the seal of God’s own authority, not man’s foolishness. This explains why the historical-grammatical hermeneutic, affirmed by Protestants, retains God’s authority in true interpretation. Roman Catholics, seeing the degree of indeterminacy with which one can interpret Scripture, assume that some man must ultimately provide the correct interpretation: this is why one of their apologetical arguments against sola Scriptura is, “By what authority do you know your interpretation to be true?” Catholics assume that the indeterminacy of interpretation must be resolved by appeal to some person’s testimony—their church’s infallible teaching authority, the Magisterium—rather than by appeal to what the text must mean according to God’s revelation in nature.2 Only Protestants, therefore, properly retain the divine authority of the written Word, and it is because orthodox Protestantism respects the authority of God in the deliverances of nature.
Basic Definitions of Terms
In the first article, I made the point that a greater knowledge of natural revelation serves to expand the authority of Scripture rather than diminish it. This is because it provides much more content upon which God’s Word can authoritatively commentate. This fact is demonstrated much more fully by the necessity of natural knowledge unto a proper interpretation of Scripture. We cannot know what a very basic sentence in Scripture says, unless we have some antecedent knowledge of nature. Even though Scripture defines its own terms to some extent, it cannot just be a huge circle of words, but must at some point branch out to our experience of nature.
For example, consider the word “tree” again. Let us assume for the sake of the argument that the Bible elsewhere defines “tree” to be “a plant with a trunk and branches made of wood, often having leaves.” (That the Bible does not explicitly define “tree” only strengthens the point I am making.) Let us also assume that the reader is a biblicist, repudiating all knowledge of natural revelation in his desire to exalt Scripture. After having asked what a tree is, this reader might observe this new definition and ask what is meant by “plant,” “trunk,” “branches,” “wood,” and “leaves,” not to mention the non-nouns of the definition. He could try to find some perfectly explicit definition of those words too, but, since they would be definitions, all they would provide him is more words—more words which he could ask to be further defined, and even more words beyond that, ad infinitum. Eventually, in order to genuinely know what some term is defined to be, the reader would need to have some basic knowledge of the term’s meaning by means of natural revelation: to understand what the propositions mean, they would need to be linked with certain experiences he remembers (namely, the experiences of sensing and contemplating trees, plants, trunks, etc.).3 If supernatural revelation were entirely isolated from natural revelation, then we could not understand even the most basic of terms, since Scripture would merely serve as a great mass of words with no connection to reality. But, because God has given us His authoritative natural revelation, by means of which He makes a multitude of crucial data known to us, we can understand Scripture.4 The consistent biblicist cannot.
To reinforce a previous point, God could have constituted us differently. He could have made us in such a way that we do not use natural revelation at all to come to knowledge of Him. Just as He could have made us so that the only knowledge we receive is supernatural revelation, He also could have made us so that, although we possess knowledge of natural revelation, our knowledge of supernatural revelation would be entirely divorced from and independent of our knowledge of natural revelation, immediately imparted to and imprinted upon our minds. That is to say, God is free to use natural means in conveying His supernatural revelation as He so wills, and in fact has employed such means. More particularly, since the Lord has not constituted us to operate only by supernatural revelation, nor to understand special revelation independently of natural revelation, to say that He has is a form of the ancient heresy of gnosticism. The consistent biblicist, therefore, is a heretic.
It should be obvious at this point that a presumptuous request for a Bible verse to prove what is already obvious from nature—namely, that race is real and relevant—is a path no Christian should dare to tread. It is a path which incipiently includes the full-blown rejection of fundamentals of the Christian religion, obliterating the authority of divine revelation and so wiping out the law and the gospel. This undercutting of scriptural authority is perhaps the worst consequence of the nature-denying component of biblicism.
Besides the errors our modern church has on the issue of race, this biblicist heresy leads to other practical problems as well, as the church delves far too much into the different possible interpretations of some particular verse in the psalms while neglecting any practical knowledge of world issues. Moreover, ironically, the same people who find certain biblical passages on race unconvincing—largely because they lack a knowledge of race from natural revelation, and so have an unlawfully high bar for evidence—will also think that somewhat unclear or figurative Scriptures are perspicacious in teaching what the biblicist thinks them to be saying, of which Galatians 3:28 is a common example. (As I mentioned in my response to Sproul, Jr., biblicists will engage in one extreme or the other: rote prooftexting or requests for impossibly specific Bible verses.) Though this is quite irrational, it is a logical course of action for the biblicist, who unduly exalts special revelation and therefore would expect it to be extremely clear on all possible matters on which it comments.
But, of course, biblicism is false. God has designed us to utilize both natural and supernatural revelation in coming to a proper knowledge of Himself. This is the faith of our fathers, and it ought to be proclaimed for God’s glory and the good of our people.
- See Ken Gentry, Before Jerusalem Fell, where he argues that Revelation was written before A.D. 70. ↩
- Catholics could properly rearticulate their doctrine of the Magisterium’s infallible interpretation to retain God’s authoritative natural revelation in interpretation. This rearticulation would be internally consistent, although it would then not allow for a valid objection against the Protestant teaching about scriptural interpretation. ↩
- This is due to the fact that God has created us not only to grasp and contemplate propositions, but additionally to undergo non-propositional experiences; and by His wise design, He has interrelated the two of these according to the structure of our cognitive faculties. For instance, try to describe (or even to define) “what the color blue looks like.” Inevitably you will not be able to describe it to someone who does not know what it is like to have some non-propositional experience of blueness. It is an experience which can be referenced, but which cannot be itself fully circumscribed, by words or propositions. God has created us to grasp nature partly by means of experiences like this. ↩
- It is very important to acknowledge that this form of dependence by supernatural revelation upon natural revelation does not prohibit Scripture from helping to provide an authoritative and determining interpretation of nature. It could be (and is) that we need knowledge of nature to have knowledge of Scripture in some sense, and also that certain aspects of our interaction with natural revelation is determined more by our antecedent knowledge of Scripture. ↩