A Biblical Case for Natural Theology

Natural theology remains a probable argument in contrast to Scripture which provides infallible and divine truth.

Nature provides sufficient evidence to know God, morality, and providence exist. It also means that people can acquire practical wisdom and use common notions to discern right from wrong. Everyone affirms the law of non-contradiction (a first principle of reason) and that murder is wrong (a first principle of morality). Everyone can further acquire knowledge of the world and of wisdom, reasoning back to their causes. 

 

Christians have traditionally affirmed natural law or theology. The Belgic Confession (1561) represents one of the three from of unity for reformed churches and affirms, “We know God by two means”: creation and revelation (Art 2). This confession represents the opinion of a diverse group of Reformers (Richard Hooker, Franciscus Junius, Girolamo Zanchi, Peter Virmigli, Anthony Burgess, Francis Turretin, Petrus van Mastricht, and others).

But some 20th-century theologians have challenged this common notion (pun intended!). Karl Barth wrote his (in)famous response to Emil Brunner in which he said Nein! to natural theology. Elsewhere he wrote: “Christian theology has no use at all for the offer of natural theology, however it may be expressed.” (CD, 1.2 168). In the same century, Cornelius Van Til heavily qualified the prospects of natural theology. 

In light of these recent challenges, ought we to affirm natural theology today? And how should we understand natural theology? I believe the answer to the first question is Yes. And the answer to the second question appears in Scripture because Scripture itself affirms the reality of natural theology.  

Defining Terms

By natural theology, I mean that humans can discern God’s existence, his moral law, and traces of his providential reign from nature. Unregenerate people, therefore, ought to know God and to will to serve him but do not will to do so because of sin (Rom 1:19–21). Regenerate people ought to know God and to will to serve him and can do so by the Holy Spirit. 

Whatever nature teaches, Scripture teaches more clearly and with ultimate authority. And only God’s revelation in Christ can save. 

God’s existence

The following biblical arguments for natural theology primarily make sense for believers since they can discern reality rightly (1 Cor 2:15). Yet Scripture affirms that natural people know God although they sadly exchange his glory for idols made in their image (Rom 1:21). These arguments still hold true for them in terms of what they ought to affirm. 

Nature makes God’s invisible attributes known (Romans 1:19–20)
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his 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.

Nature proclaims God’s glory (Ps 19:1–6)
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
In them he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them,
and there is nothing hidden from its heat.

God orders nature so that people should seek him (Acts 17:26–28)
And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for 

‘In him we live and move and have our being’;
as even some of your own poets have said,
‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ 

Each passage cited indicates that God through creation reveals certain truths about himself. First, his invisible attributes are clearly perceived in nature. Second, nature “reveals knowledge” such that through the effects of nature we can know that God is glorious (cf. Ps 94:9). Third, God’s providence (the effects of it) aim to bring people to God. 

God’s moral law

God has implanted his moral law into creation by writing it on the tablet of the human heart. The conscience discerns the heart to judge between right and wrong. Beyond this innate knowledge, it is possible to acquire further knowledge about morality through nature since nature comes from God. 

God imprinted his moral law on the hearts of humans (Romans 2:14–15)
For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.

A traditional reformed interpretation of this passage involves God’s post-Fall work of inscribing the law on the hearts of fallen people. For this reason, people have the ability to discern right from wrong. Due to sin, however, people sin despite their conscience convicting them of the wrongness of actions. Hence, God’s moral law functions to prove the guilt of humanity (Rom 1:18; Rom 3:19). 

Nature teaches us moral lessons (Proverbs 6:6–11)
Go to the ant, O sluggard;
consider her ways, and be wise.
Without having any chief,
officer, or ruler,
she prepares her bread in summer
and gathers her food in harvest.
How long will you lie there, O sluggard?
When will you arise from your sleep?
A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest,
and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
and want like an armed man

Biblical authors sifted through Egyptian wisdom (Proverbs 22:17-24:22)
Proverbs 22:17-24:22 borrows the language and thought of the Instruction of Amenemope, which dates to around or after 1,300 BC (Robert Alter 2019: 3:340, 346). Now, Proverbs does not borrow Amenemope like a direct citation. But the pattern of wisdom, the similarity of language, and overall overlap suggest a close connection. 

Likely, this commonality simply means that Solomon and his court had international ties to Egypt. They heard common wisdom and recast it for faithful Israelites in ways appropriate to biblical wisdom. The point here is that Solomon (or his wise men) found it beneficial to discern what is true and good in ANE wisdom literature. They neither adopted it wholesale nor rejected it outright. They recast it into a believing frame. 

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