Miscellenies on Natural Theology in Acts 7, Romans 1, and the Late Post Reformed Orthodox

I am in the book of Acts in my Bible reading right now, and something just hit me, even though I’ve read it literally hundreds of times, that in Stephen’s speech in chapter 7 we have a perfect example and intertextual (i.e. canonical) link between what the Apostle Paul wrote of in Romans 1, and what Stephen articulates as he is recounting the history of Israel with particular focus on  Moses and the Exodus. We pick up Stephen mid-way through his speech to the religious leadership here:

39 Our fathers were unwilling to be obedient to him, but repudiated him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt, 40 saying to Aaron, ‘Make for us gods who will go before us; for this Moses who led us out of the land of Egypt—we do not know what happened to him.’ 41 At that time they made a calf and brought a sacrifice to the idol, and were rejoicing in the works of their hands.42 But God turned away and delivered them up to serve the host of heaven; as it is written in the book of the prophets, ‘It was not to Me that you offered victims and sacrifices forty years in the wilderness, was it, Ohouse of Israel? 43 You also took along the tabernacle of Moloch and the star of the god Rompha, the images which you made to worship. I also will remove you beyond Babylon.’[1]

And then the Apostle Paul famously writes this in Romans 1:

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.24 Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. 25 For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.26 For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural,27 and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.28 And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer,God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, 29 being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips,30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 without understanding, untrustworthy,unloving, unmerciful; 32 and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.[2]

Often the Pauline passage is referred to, at least by some within the classical Calvinist tradition (or even with someone like Emil Brunner), as a kind of exegetical defense and apparent prima facie illustration and maybe even prescription for a natural theology. But I’d like to suggest that given Paul’s own Hebraic-Jewish psyche and milieu as he wrote to the Roman church (a mixed church of both Gentiles and Jews, cf. Acts 28:16-17), he would have had what we see Stephen (ironically a Hellenistic Jew) referencing in mind, I would argue, in regard to the knowledge of God that people had available to them in creation. It wouldn’t be an abstract or purely discoverable knowledge of God, but instead one grounded in the fact and reality that God had personally revealed Himself to His covenant people the Jews as we see it most explicitly disclosed in Exodus 3:15 and the famous tetragrammton or the ‘I am that I am’ passage, where God names Himself for His covenant people as YHWH. I would want to argue that the universe that the Apostle Paul inhabited was so saturated with this background reality that it would be like tacit knowledge that fueled even what he pens in Romans 1; i.e. that there is no abstract knowledge of the true and living God, but instead an concrete and particular knowledge of God revealed to Moses and His covenant people as the prefigural mediators of God’s salvation to all nations [ethnos] (cf. Gen. 15 and the ‘Abrahamic Covenant’).

Interesting, at least to me, that we see the same progression Paul writes of in Romans as we see Stephen reference in his biblical theologizing of the history of salvation as embedded in the Torah (or Latinized Pentateuch). God freely and graciously gives Himself to His covenant people, who in fact, I would argue along with TF Torrance, are simply prefigural of the true Mediator, the second and greater Moses, the second and greater Adam, Jesus Christ. Without a revealed knowledge of God there is no true God to deny or rebel against; I think this is the backdrop of the Apostle Paul’s writing in Romans 1, and I think Stephen’s speech (as recorded by Luke, the author of Acts) helps provide further context and substantiation for how prevalent this background context was in the period of Second Temple Judaism.

Essentially, what I’m suggesting is that there is no ground for natural theology provided for in Romans 1. I actually think Richard Muller agrees with me, which you can read about in his Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Volume Three as he highlights how the early and high Post Reformed orthodox theologians didn’t actually have a full-frontal natural theology at play in theology; Muller shows that it wasn’t until the 18th century where a naked type of natural theology became prominent for the Post Reformed orthodox in its late iteration. It was those who followed after Christian Wolff, known as the Wolffian’s who really argued for a natural theology as the basis and prolegomena for theological endeavor in late Post Reformed orthodox theology. Note Muller as he comments on how and when this shift happened; here he is referring to the “proofs of God,” which were used by the early and high orthodox theologians only in apologetic discussion and not as the basis for actual theologizing:

… The proofs now lose their purely apologetic function and become a positive prologue offered by reason to the system of revelation. Here, for the first time in the development of Reformed theological system, natural or philosophical theology provides a foundation on which revelation can build: we have lost the inherent fideism of the seventeenth century Protestant scholastics.[3]

I find this very interesting. Often you will hear contemporary Reformed theologians who believe they are simply re-iterating what their orthodox forefathers first iterated in founding their theological endeavor upon a natural theology. Clearly the early and high orthodox theologians of the 16th and 17th centuries were not Barthians by any stretch of the imagination, but they did have much more in common with Barth and Torrance in some ways than is often acknowledged; at least insofar as they had a lively fideism at play, and a staunch stance upon revelational Word-centered theology and theologizing.

Conclusion

This post actually needs a conclusion to tie some of the loose links together, but I’m not going to. I just think Barth and Torrance might well have had more in common with the early and high orthodox theologians than many think; at least in regard to the issue of natural theology. Yes Barth and Torrance radicalize things, but they never would have gotten there without the rigorous (in principle) Word based theology found in the early and high Post Reformed orthodox theologians. That’s interesting to me.

[1] Acts 7:39-43, NASB.

[2] Romans 1:18-32, NASB.

[3] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: Volume Three, The Divine Essence and Attributes (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), 194.

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4 Responses to Miscellenies on Natural Theology in Acts 7, Romans 1, and the Late Post Reformed Orthodox

  1. Pingback: Miscellenies on Natural Theology in Acts 7, Romans 1, and the Late Post Reformed Orthodox | The Evangelical Calvinist | Talmidimblogging

  2. Hi Bobby, not related to this post (which is great, by the way), I just wanted to let you know that I saw your recent health update on Twitter and am praying for you.

    Like

  3. Bobby Grow says:

    Hi Jonathan,

    Thank you! And I continue to pray for your health as well, brother.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks to you as well! Still battling various issues, but God has been good, and I’ve found a doctor here in Italy that for the first time has actually been able to help me. Looking forward to EC vol. 2!

    Liked by 1 person

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