Calvin’s Critique of Natural Theology [Pt. 2 of 2]: Analysis and Conclusion

by | Jul 2, 2020 | Historical Theology, Systematic Theology

This is part 2 of a 2 part series on Calvin’s Critique of Natural Theology. You can read part 1 here. II.) Analysis of Calvin’s Teaching on Natural Theology 1.) Calvin clearly distinguishes between natural revelation and natural theology. For Calvin, there is a substantial difference between the reality of the knowledge of God in the universe and the use of the knowledge of God by sinful man. The reality that God clearly and continually reveals Himself to man as Creator within him and around him is called natural or general revelation. The interpretation and use of that knowledge by men, who in this fallen world are enslaved in sin, is called natural theology. This is their creaturely attempt to interpret and understand general revelation (the knowledge of God in creation) without the help or aid of special revelation (the knowledge of God in Scripture). It is important to highlight the differences if we would correctly understand Calvin’s thought. 2.) Calvin teaches that since natural revelation is so distorted and corrupted by fallen man, natural theology is a futile endeavor that leads one to a throng of feigned gods but never to the true God. God’s revelation of Himself in creation is meant to be a teacher and guide to men to point out the right way (1:5:15). Ideally, all image bearers of God would rightly respond to this knowledge. Yet Calvin is clear that because of sin, man lacks the ability to come to a knowledge of God worthy of the name. With only natural reasoning and common understanding as his guide, sinful man poisons and corrupts natural revelation to such an extent that by itself it only produces the worst possible fruits in him. According to Calvin, no matter if one is chieftain of the whole tribe of philosophers or the worst of the vulgar folk, the best that natural theology can do is lead one to the worship of an unknown god. Therefore, the true knowledge of God cannot be grasped by fallen man on the basis of natural revelation. There must be another way. 3.) Calvin teaches that special revelation, or the Scriptures, is necessary not only to properly understand the knowledge of God in salvation but also to properly understand the knowledge of God in creation. The Bible not only teaches us about God the Redeemer. It also teaches us about God the Creator. In addition to the Book of Nature, the Scriptures are another and better help “which direct us aright to the very Creator of the Universe” and “clearly shows us the true God” (1:6:1). In fact, without their aid and assistance, “the human mind because of its feebleness can in no way attain to God” (1:6:4). In order to do this, we need the spectacles of special revelation (1:6:1). As Calvin says, “We must come, I say, to the Word, where God is truly and vividly described to us from his works, while these very works are appraised not by our depraved judgment but by the rule of eternal truth. If we turn aside from the Word, as I have just now said, though we may strive with strenuous haste, yet, since we have got off the track, we shall never reach the goal. For we should so reason that the splendor of the divine countenance, which even the apostle calls ‘unapproachable’ [I Tim. 6:16], is for us like an inexplicable labyrinth unless we are conducted into it by the thread of the Word; so that it is better to limp along this path than to dash with all speed outside it” (1:6:3). And, “Now, in order that true religion may shine upon us, we ought to hold that it must take its beginning from heavenly doctrine and that no one can get even the slightest taste of right and sound doctrine unless he be a pupil of Scripture” (1:6:2). 4.) Calvin teaches that using evidences apart from Scripture as proofs for God’s existence is unnecessary. Since men do not need to be taught about God in the classroom but are masters of divinity from their mothers’ wombs (1:3:3), and since men suppress any knowledge of God they do possess by nature, the attempt to prove the existence of God from natural theology is unnecessary. We see that no long or toilsome proof is needed to elicit evidences that serve to illuminate and affirm the divine majesty; since from the few we have sampled at random, whithersoever you turn, it is clear that they are so very manifest and obvious that they can easily be observed with the eyes and pointed out with the finger. (1:5:9) What is necessary, however, is faith. It is therefore in vain that so many burning lamps shine for us in the workmanship of the universe to show forth the glory of its Author. Although they bathe us wholly in their radiance, yet they can of themselves in no way lead us into the right path. Surely they strike some sparks, but before their fuller light shines forth these are smothered. For this reason, the apostle, in that very passage where he calls the worlds the images of things invisible, adds that through faith we understand that they have been fashioned by God’s word [Heb. 11:3]. He means by this that the invisible divinity is made manifest in such spectacles, but that we have not the eyes to see this unless they be illumined by the inner revelation of God through faith. (1:5:14) III.) Conclusion from Calvin’s Teaching on Natural Theology After surveying the evidence, Calvin is highly critical of any teaching that ascribes to sinful man sound reasoning concerning the knowledge of God. He cannot be any plainer in his assessment: “Human reason, therefore, neither approaches, nor strives toward, nor even takes a straight aim at, this truth: to understand who the true God is or what sort of God he wishes to be toward us” (2:2:18). Yet the natural theology propounded by the medieval scholastics teaches that human reason can do just that. How biblical this teaching is should be addressed exegetically from the relevant passages of Scripture. But from a historical standpoint, it seems clear from Calvin’s own critique of natural theology that it was not consistent with the views of Reformed theology, especially with the teaching on man’s fallen and depraved state.

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