Calvin’s Critique of Natural Theology [Pt. 1 of 2]: Summary

by | Jun 30, 2020 | Historical Theology, Systematic Theology

This is part 1 of a 2 part series on Calvin’s Critique of Natural Theology. You can read part 2 here.

What was Calvin’s view of natural theology? That is an important question to ask today, especially in light of the discussions and debates taking place concerning the legitimacy of natural theology within Reformed epistemology and apologetics.

One of the clearest places in the Institutes where Calvin’s evaluation of natural theology can be found is in Book 1, Chapter 5, Section 12. There he states, “Yet hence it appears that if men were taught only by nature, they would hold to nothing certain or solid or clear-cut, but would be so tied to confused principles as to worship an unknown god [cf. Acts 17:23].”

John T. McNeill, the editor of Ford Lewis Battles’ translation of the Institutes, makes this noteworthy remark in a footnote after Calvin’s words: “Natural theology (human reasoning about God, under the conditions of sin, unaided by special revelation) has been the subject of this chapter through section 12. All scholars agree that the above words present Calvin’s verdict upon it, held consistently in all his writings.”

In this brief essay, I will attempt to lay out Calvin’ critique of natural theology by first summarizing his teaching on the subject from the first six chapters of Book 1, second by analyzing his teaching, and third by offering a concluding thought. As “the theologian” of the Reformation, Calvin gives us a pivotal perspective concerning natural theology that aligns with his teachings on the doctrines of God, man, sin, Scripture, and grace. Therefore, his evaluation needs to be carefully read and understood.

I.) Summary of Calvin’s Teaching on Natural Theology

1.) Calvin states that natural revelation is unmistakably and unfailingly clear to man.

Calvin argues that natural revelation, or the knowledge of God as Creator, Governor, and Judge of the world, is both inscribed on man’s heart and proclaimed throughout the universe.

First, Calvin says that all men have an awareness of divinity, seed of religion, sense of deity, sort of divinity, and signs of immorality implanted and inscribed by God in their souls. This is the innate, inward, undeniable, and indelible knowledge of God as Creator. All men undoubtedly know Him as such and have no excuse to claim ignorance.

There is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity. This we take to be beyond controversy. To prevent anyone from taking refuge in the pretense of ignorance, God himself has implanted in all men a certain understanding of his divine majesty. (1:3:1)

And they who in other aspects of life seem least to differ from brutes still continue to retain some seed of religion. (1:3:1)

Therefore, since from the beginning of the world there has been no region, no city, in short, no household that could do without religion, there lies in this a tacit confession of a sense of deity inscribed in the hearts of all. (1:3:1)

Men of sound judgment will always be sure that a sense of divinity which can never be effaced is engraved upon men’s minds. (1:3:2)

.  . . that there is some God, is naturally inborn in all, and is fixed deep within, as it were in the very marrow. (1:3:3)

From this we conclude that it is not a doctrine that must first be learned in school, but one which each of us is master from his mother’s womb and which nature itself permits no one to forget, although many strive with every nerve to this end. (1:3:3)

As experience shows, God has sown a seed of religion in all men. (1:4:1)

Yet that seed remains which can in no wise be uprooted: that there is some sort of divinity. (1:4:4)

From this, my present contention is brought out with greater certainty, that a sense of divinity is by nature engraven on human hearts. (1:4:4)

These are unfailing signs of divinity in man. (1:5:5)

What ought we to say here except that the signs of immortality which have been implanted in man cannot be effaced? (1:5:5)

Second, Calvin states that all men are constantly confronted with the knowledge of God as Creator from the dazzling theater of His glory (1:5:8) that He has placed them in as spectators (1:6:2).

The final goal of the blessed life, moreover, rests in the knowledge of God [cf. John 17:3]. Lest anyone, then, be excluded from access to happiness, he not only sowed in men’s minds that seed of religion of which we have spoken but revealed himself and daily discloses himself in the whole workmanship of the universe. As a consequence, men cannot open their eyes without being compelled to see him. . . . But upon his individual works he has engraved unmistakable marks of his glory, so clear and so prominent that even unlettered and stupid folk cannot plead the excuse of ignorance. (1:5:1)

Yet, in the first place, wherever you cast your eyes, there is no spot in the universe wherein you cannot discern at least some sparks of his glory. (1:5:1)

There are innumerable evidences both in heaven and on earth that declare his wonderful wisdom; . . . Even the common folk and the most untutored, who have been taught only by the aid of the eyes, cannot be unaware of the excellence of divine art, for it reveals itself in this innumerable and yet distinct and well-ordered variety of the heavenly host. It is, accordingly, clear that there is no one to whom the Lord does not abundantly show his wisdom. (1:5:2)

Therefore, however fitting it may be for man seriously to turn his eyes to contemplate God’s works, since he has been placed in this most glorious theater to be a spectator of them, . . . (1:6:2)

2.) Calvin states that natural revelation should teach man to fear, love, trust, and hope in God.

Calvin is clear that the knowledge of God in creation has a purpose, and that purpose is to greatly benefit man.

For this sense of the powers of God is for us a fit teacher of piety, from which religion is born. I call “piety” that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces. (1:2:1)

Rather, our knowledge should serve first to teach us fear and reverence; secondly, with it as our guide and teacher, we should learn to seek every good from him, and, having received it, to credit it to his account. . . . Again, you cannot behold him clearly unless you acknowledge him to be the fountainhead and source of every good. From this too would arise the desire to cleave to him and trust in him . . . (1:2:2)

Knowledge of this sort, then, ought not only to arouse us to the worship of God but also to awaken and encourage us to the hope of the future life. (1:5:10)

3.) Calvin states that natural revelation is unprofitable for sinful man.

Although the knowledge of God as Creator in creation should greatly benefit man, Calvin states that in a fallen world it does no such thing because of man’s sinfulness and blindness to the truth. Instead, with it man falls into superstitions, deserts God, or lives hypocritically. No matter the person, fallen man’s interpretation and response to natural revelation “corrupt by vanity the pure truth of God” (1:5:11) and “seduce[] his mind from rightly seeking him” (1:2:2).

But although the Lord represents both himself and his everlasting Kingdom in the mirror of his works with very great clarity, such is our stupidity that we grow increasingly dull toward so manifest testimonies, and they flow away without profiting us. (1:5:11)

Besides while some may evaporate in their own superstitions and others deliberately and wickedly desert God, yet all degenerate from the true knowledge of him. And so it happens that no real piety remains in the world. (1:4:1)

They see such exquisite workmanship in their individual members, from mouth and eyes even to their very toenails. Here also they substitute nature for God. (1:5:4)

Finally, they entangle themselves in such a huge mass of errors that blind wickedness stifles and finally extinguishes those sparks which once flashed forth to show them God’s glory. Yet that seed remains which can in no wise be uprooted: that there is some sort of divinity; but this seed is so corrupted that by itself it produces only the worst fruits. (1:5:4)

Sometimes we are driven by leading and direction of these things to contemplate God; this of necessity happens to all men. Yet after we rashly grasp a conception of some sort of divinity, straightway we fall back into the ravings or evil imaginings of our flesh, and corrupt by our vanity the pure truth of God. In one respect we are indeed unalike, because each one of us privately forges his own particular error; yet we are very much alike in that, one and all, we forsake the one true God for prodigious trifles. Not only the common folk and dull-witted men, but also the most excellent and those otherwise endowed with keen discernment, are infected with this disease. In this regard how volubly has the whole tribe of philosophers shown their stupidity and silliness! (1:5:11)

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 speaks, but before their fuller light shines forth these are smothered. (1:5:14)

Therefore, although the Lord does not want for testimony while he sweetly attracts men to the knowledge of himself with many and varied kindnesses, they do not cease on this account to follow their own ways, that is, their fatal errors. (1:5:14)

But, however that may be, yet the fact that men soon corrupt the seed of the knowledge of God, sown in their minds out of the wonderful workmanship of nature (thus preventing it from coming to a good and perfect fruit), must be imputed to their own failing; (1:5:15)

For at the same time as we have enjoyed a slight taste of the divine from contemplation of the universe, having neglected the true God, we raise up in his stead dreams and specters of our own brains, and attribute to anything else than the true source the praise of righteousness, wisdom, goodness, and power. Moreover, we so obscure or overturn his daily acts by wickedly judging them that we snatch away from them their glory and from their Author his due praise. (1:5:15)

4.) Calvin states that natural theology is useless for sinful man.

Calvin argues that sinful man can never attain the true and pure knowledge of God with his depraved understanding. In other words, natural theology, or the ability of man to truly know and positively respond to God’s natural revelation, in a fallen world leads only to confused principles and a diversity of opinions about God, none of which are correct.

But among the philosophers who have tried with reason and learning to penetrate into heaven, how shameful is the diversity! (1:5:12)

. . . but no mortal ever contrived anything that did not basely corrupt religion. (1:5:12)

But since all confess that there is nothing concerning which the learned and the unlearned at the same time disagree so much, hence one may conclude that the minds of men which thus wander in their search after God are more than stupid and blind in the heavenly mysteries. (1:5:12)

Yet hence it appears that if men were taught only by nature, they would hold to nothing certain or solid or clear-cut, but would be so tied to confused principles as to worship an unknown god [cf. Acts 17:23]. (1:5:12)

In short, even if not all suffered under crass vice, or fell into open idolatries, yet there was no pure and approved religion, found upon common understanding alone. For even though few persons did not share in the madness of the common herd, there remains the firm teaching of Paul that the wisdom of God is not understood by the princes of this world [I Cor. 2:8]. But if even the most illustrious wander in darkness, what can we say of the dregs? (1:5:13)

But although we lack the natural ability to mount up unto the pure and clear knowledge of God, all excuse is cut off because the fault of dullness is within us. (1:5:15)

In the next post, I will present some analysis of Calvin’s teaching on Natural Theology.

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