Natural Theology for the Post-Reformed orthodox, for Christians in General, and for Bobby Grow in Particular

Staying on the recent theme we will continue to think about ‘natural theology’ ‘natural revelation’ ‘revealed theology’ etc. Full disclosure, the reason I’m focused on this at the moment is that I am currently reading through Richard Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 1. The section I have been in orbits around this particular issue; although I just finished that section and jesuscreationam moving on to other issues and developments within Post-Reformation orthodoxy. That said, let me close this consideration with this post. I will quote what Muller has to say in regard to a late Post-Reformed orthodox theologian, Cloppenburg, and then with a summary of how, in general all Post-Reformed orthodox thinkers approached natural theology (or maybe should have according to Muller). Here is Muller’s index on Cloppenburg’s ideas about knowledge of God from nature:

Indeed, comments Cloppenburg, the existence of God is known in five ways: (1) from the interconnectedness of all things (compages); (2) from their motion; (3) from the order of causes in the world; (4) from the governance of all things, which points toward the necessary existence of a prime Mover and first efficient cause; and equally so, (5) from the sole rule (monarchia) of the entire universe understood as “the procession of all causality, of secondary causes from the first efficient cause to the final and ultimate cause,” inasmuch as it indicates the existence of infinite being (ens infinitum). All of these conclusions, as Cloppenburg’s subsequent statements indicate, conform to the teachings of Scripture: the necessary existence of God, apart from a prior principle or cause is witnessed by Isaiah who identifies God as “the first and the last,” before whom there is no God” (Is. 44:6, 7; 43:10). Indeed Cloppenburg appears to understand the testimonies of Scripture to the existence and attributes of God as consistently mirroring the logic of the attributes that can be developed from the proofs, pointing positively to the existence and attributes where the proofs had indicated a more negative way, by the removal of imperfection.[1]

Cloppenburg sounds pretty standard fare if we are going to use Thomas Aquinas’ axiom of ‘grace perfecting nature.’ The idea of the interconnectivity of all things back to their Primary Cause, God for the Christian, is pure and unadulterated Thomas Aquinas. My guess is that most people, most Christians would read this and go: “well, yeah, duh!”

Here is how Richard Muller summarizes his development of how natural theology worked, or didn’t, in various prominent voices in Post-Reformation orthodox theology (i.e. there was a range of ways among them to engage with this topic):

The final paradox of the Reformed treatment of natural theology is that the theologia naturalis regenitorum, because it is not saving, can never become a locus of theological system. Although they argue pointedly that the regenerate can look to natural revelation and discern the true God, the Reformed orthodox recognize that this discernment so rests upon the grace of God and the clearer vision of the opera Dei made possible by the general revelation in Scripture that it can never become the basis even of the doctrine of creation. At very best, the theologian naturalis regenitorum belongs to the church’s exercise of praise and to the ancillary tools utilized by theology in its arguments. It can never serve as the basis of an argument or the reason for a conclusion. Therefore, natural theology stands at the edge of Christian thought or, to put the case positively, it exists as a result rather than as a basis for Christian doctrine. The truths of natural theology are not excluded from supernatural theology — they are included in the body of revealed doctrine — not because natural theology is the rational foundation of the system but because its truths belong to the higher truth — in Maresius’ words, “as a greater number includes the lesser.” Natural theology can, in its discussion of divine essence and attributes, gain some knowledge of what God may be (quid sit Deus). It cannot, however, learn who God may be (quis sit Deus), that is, the triune personal God. The system itself rests entirely upon scriptural revelation for its primary content.[2]

What this really can be reduced to is someone’s broader informing theory of revelation, and that is related to someone’s theological anthropology. For me, personally, I hold that the noetic effects of the Fall are total; as such, I hold that for the natural human there is no access to an accurate knowledge of God apart from God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. The only way someone might hold that the natural human might have access to God in nature without the light of Christ is if they hold to an intellectualist anthropology wherein they further posit that at some level, even post-lapsum the imago Dei has retained some intellectual light that remains connected to God by its nature itself (and of course this presupposes something about what said person thinks about knowledge of God and imago Dei pre-lapsum or pre-Fall).

My view is that every aspect of humanity’s connection to God, pre-Fall, is dead; i.e. that there is no connection and that apart from Christ we live sub-image of God. I further hold that because creation is Christ conditioned proleptically (meaning that creation was created for Christ, not Christ was created for creation, or simply came to save creation), that even pre-lapsum knowledge of God was always already mediated through the One mediator between God and man, the Man, Christ Jesus (I Tim. 2:5-6). The implicate of this is that genuine knowledge of God in creation has always already been exclusively through Jesus Christ (who is the prototypical imago Dei cf. Col. 1:15ff); i.e. that creation itself has no reality or telos without Christ. As such it is a non-starter and non-sensical to try and gain any knowledge of God and His Divine attributes through reflection upon nature. In Christ I believe developing a theology of nature is possible, but this is different than what we see from Cloppenburg, but could have some corollary with some of the Post-Reformed orthodox thinking on ‘natural theology’ sub-revelation.

My view, of course, implicates how I approach the locus classicus for those who want to argue for a natural theology of the sort that Cloppenburg exemplifies (along with Thomas Aquinas and others through their theory of causality etc.). The locus classicus of course is Romans 1:18ff, and it is this pericope that I read theologically-exegetically; but so does everyone else. As I just noted Cloppenburg’s approach is heavily weighted by a sense of Aristotelian causality, with the Primary Mover etc. I think it remains post hoc (no necessary causal correlation between ideas) to assert (like Muller commentates on Cloppenburg) that just because we have ‘language’ in Scripture that seems to ‘sound’ like what we get from the classical Philosophers does not necessarily mean they are talking about the same things. At the most, I believe that the grammar the philosophers have developed can potentially be evangelized and retexted in non-correlative ways, such that the grammar itself (like ousia ‘being’ etc.) can be so weighted by the pressure of God’s Self-revelation that it can be used in fitting ways toward articulating a doctrine of God (i.e. what happened in the main at the so called ecumenical councils).

Okay, then.

[1] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725. Volume One, Prolegomena to Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 304.

[2] Ibid., 307-08.

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12 thoughts on “Natural Theology for the Post-Reformed orthodox, for Christians in General, and for Bobby Grow in Particular

  1. I’m curious as to what you make of Barth’s statements about the lights of creation and secular parables. Some have interpreted this as Barth introducing natural theology through the back door (I believe both Brunner and Moltmann interpret(ed) it as such).

    To be honest I’m still not entirely sure of my views on natural theology. I do agree though that every human not reborn in Christ will only reject genuine knowledge of God or use it in the service of idols due to their bondage to sin. I never really understood why anyone would want to start with natural theology unaided by Christ especially since it could only lead to an impersonal God.

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  2. I think Ivan, that Barth’s thought on secular parables needs to be interpreted within his doctrine of creation which is framed beforehand by his doctrine of election and covenant. So the inner reality of the covenant (of grace) for Barth is God’s life for us in Christ of which creation is its external reality or expression. So when we think ‘secular’ in Barth it is really hard to ever get away from ‘sacred’. But yeah, I’ve heard some people make the claim about this maybe leaving Barth open to the idea of natural theology, but we never see that used in the development of his major theological corpus.

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  3. Speaking of which, what works would you recommend for Torrance’s approach to a theology of nature? I have some interest in seeing how he approaches nature.

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  4. So I’ve done some further thinking on Romans 1. It now appears plausible to say that what Paul is saying is that nonbelievers have rejected the light of Christ and not knowledge of God. Verses 18-23 would be referring to prefall humanity rejecting God and verses 24-32 would be referring to the consequences of that rejection.

    But even if that is what Paul is saying, how could it be that in verse 32 Paul could say that nonbelievers still know God’s moral truths and that violating these moral truths leads to condemnation? Of course it is possible that they don’t know the source of these moral truths, but it still seems to suggest that nonbelievers still retain the ability to arrive at God’s moral truths independent of Christ.

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  5. Well there is the issue of the imago Dei and how that impacts this. I hold that Jesus is the imago Dei (Col 1.15ff) as such there is a common sort of grace that underwrites reality but remains hidden to those w/o eyes to see and ears to hear. There is a restraining impact to God’s work in His world, and knowledge of that comes not from an innate source but outside of all of us in Christ and mediated as witness and prophecy to the rest of the world through Christ’s body. Something like that.

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  6. Yeah, I’m not sure if I yet agree with the idea that there is no natural knowledge of God, but it makes sense in light of John 1:18, Romans 3:10-11, and 1 Cor 2:6-16. The question becomes which verse frames which. Assuming that natural knowledge of God is possible. we would have to say that John and Paul in the above verses are only referring to knowledge of God as redeemer. That being said, there do seem to be hints which suggest that they believe no knowledge of God is possible apart from Christ.

    If no natural knowledge of God is possible, would it still be possible for one to say that Paul in Romans 1 is saying that nonbelievers know God the Creator, but not God as Creator (and redeemer) due to the hardness of their hearts? The hardness of their hearts would explain why they can’t comprehend the evidence for God’s existence which they see. However, since God has made his existence as Creator plain to them in his creation, they cannot claim to not know God the Creator.

    A comparison would be how in the Gospels, the Pharisees know Jesus the Son of God but not Jesus as the Son of God due to the hardness of their hearts. The hardness of the their hearts prevents them from comprehending the fact that Jesus’s works points to his divine sonship. But since they saw Jesus’s works, they can’t claim they don’t know Jesus the Messiah.

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  7. Ivan,

    Yeah, I see what you are doing there in a creative fashion. It seems that the hurdle you are working to overcome is the language of “w/o excuse” in Romans 1; correct? Theologically, and so theologically-exegetically I see Jesus taking reifying the creation theme and reality in Himself as John does that for us in Jn 1.1. In other words, I see the world as one that was created for Christ, as one whose Creator was slain for it before its very foundation. And so I don’t think it is right to think of Creation, ever, as an abstract apart from Christ in any way. As such when Paul appeals to the Creation theme in Romans 1, to read that through a Christologically-canonically-conditioned lens, the reason people won’t have an excuse before God will be because as the disciples said to Jesus on the Emmaus road (paraphrase): ‘What Jesus did was not done in a corner.’ In other words, the reason people won’t have an excuse as they stand before the White Throne is because they lived in a world that stood in the face of the blood-stained throne of Jesus’ cross, not because they failed to discern God’s attributes in creation.

    That’s my take 🙂 on the fly.

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  8. Yeah, you’re correct. I’m trying to overcome the language of Romans 1 in a creative manner. Of course one could call it strained exegesis, but everyone “strains” the text at one point or another. It’s all a matter of whether we’re approaching the text through the framework which Scripture provides.

    I’m guessing what you’re saying is that creation can never be thought of apart from the redemptive work of Christ, not just his creative work. Your interpretation of Romans 1 definitely works if one holds to a Barthian framework of election and creation but not for someone like me who is more classical, though I think I’m moving away from a federal conception of two covenants towards a single covenant of grace conceived from day 6 (or 1) of creation.

    I think I’m already somewhat convinced though that Christ is the ground of creation based on John 1:1-4 and Col 1:15-17. John 1:4 also seems to imply that Jesus is the ground of our humanity.

    Now if only I can overcome the exegetical hurdles to Barth’s reformulation of election…

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