Puritan Theology and the “Two Lights”

The very first statement (1.1) of the Confession sums up Puritan views on natural and special revelation, the two “lights” I will address in this post.

“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.” As a result of needing something more, the Lord revealed himself in special ways to his people (e.g. speech and acts) “and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, . . . to commit the same wholly unto writing: which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people being now ceased.” 

 

Back in November 2017 I did a review of Wallace Marshall’s Puritanism and Natural Theology (Pickwick, 2016) in which he argued for a robust natural theology in the Puritans and one foundational to their doctrine of supernatural theology. Marshall identifies natural theology for them as “all religious knowledge that is accessible through the use of reason independently of supernatural revelation.” Such an approach used rational (not rationalistic) arguments to “demonstrate the existence and attributes of God” to Christians with remaining unbelief, unbelievers in general, and skeptics (e.g. atheists) more narrowly.

The Puritans in general regarded natural theology as sufficient for life unto God before the fall, after which time it still clearly though not savingly revealed God to alienated man. Thus, the written Word of God (the permanent record of special revelation) was necessary to overcome deficiencies of fallen reason regarding certain truths such as the Trinity and the essentials of the gospel. Interestingly, as seen in the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), the Puritans employed natural theology to manifest or “abundantly evidence” (WCF 1.5) the Scriptures as special revelation, which were never received with “full persuasion and assurance” as divine truth apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. Likewise, “for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word” (WCF 1.7), the Puritans believed that “the inward illumination of the Spirit of God” was most necessary.

The very first statement (1.1) of the Confession sums up Puritan views on natural and special revelation, the two “lights” I will address in this post: “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.” As a result of needing something more, the Lord revealed himself in special ways to his people (e.g. speech and acts) “and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, . . . to commit the same wholly unto writing: which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people being now ceased.”

While the Confession begins with an emphasis on special revelation, it actually starts the discussion with natural revelation. The Westminster Larger Catechism (1647) gives what we could call an apt summary of this section in answer to the second question (which more explicitly focuses on natural revelation!), “How doth it appear that there is a God?”: “The very light of nature in man, and the works of God, declare plainly that there is a God; but his word and Spirit only do sufficiently and effectually reveal him unto men for their salvation.” Clearly, we can know God through the light of nature, but savingly only through the light of special revelation.

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