Francis Turretin’s Natural Theology: Clearing the Historical Record | John Sweat

by | Nov 17, 2023 | Apologetics, Historical Theology, Systematic Theology

*Editor’s Note: This is the first installment in a six-part series called “Francis Turretin’s Natural Theology.” As more installments are released, each part of the series will be linked to each post.

To read part 1 of 6, click here:

To read part 2 of 6, click here:

To read part 3 of 6, click here:

To read part 4 of 6, click here:

To read part 5 of 6, click here:

To read part 6 of 6, click here:


Natural theology has been confessed throughout the history of the church, it has not been used or understood monolithically.[1] To use the recurring phrase of Turretin, many have “erred in excess” or “erred in defect” in their conception of natural theology.[2] The first error treats natural theology as a pre-dogmatic conception, which leads to rationalism.[3] Stephen Gabrill defines rationalism as a term that “generally signifies that reason functions either as a foundation upon which theological doctrines are built or as the first principles by which they are authenticated.”[4] This approach to natural theology results in the bifurcation of reason and faith; reason becomes autonomous and is divorced from God and independent of supernatural theology.[5]

The second error rejects natural theology. There are various reasons and degrees for this rejection,[6] one of which is a concern that natural theology is antithetical to sola scriptura.[7] However, a primary reason why many Protestants reject natural theology is due to a faulty reading of Reformed scholasticism. They mistakenly attribute to the Reformed scholastics a pre-dogmatic natural theology. This faulty reading stems from a misunderstanding of the Reformed scholastics’ natural theology in light of their archetypal/ectypal distinction.[8]

In light of this confusion, this blog series uses Turretin as an exemplary representative of the Reformed orthodox tradition[9] to promote a positive model of natural theology distinct from a pre-dogmatic model. It is argued that Turretin’s natural theology is dogmatically conceived as revealed ectypal theology founded upon Calvin’s and Junius’s paradigm. In making this argument, first, Turretin’s natural theology will be situated historically, and second, Turretin’s natural theology will be expanded and formally evaluated.


Clearing the Historical Record

Francis Turretin is a Reformed scholastic and is thought to be a “codifier of Reformed orthodoxy who wrote as a defender of the Reformed consensus.”[10] Prominent misreadings of the Reformed scholastics have resulted in a misunderstanding of their natural theology; these misreadings must be cleared before Turretin’s dogmatic conception of natural theology can be expanded.

The faulty historical thesis comes in two separate but related views. The first view argues for a “discontinuity” between the medieval period and the Reformed scholastics on the one side and the Reformers on the other. The second view argues for a “negative continuity” from the Middle Ages through the Reformers to the Reformed scholastics.[11] In the first view, the Reformers are “rescued” from the “perceived rationalism” from the medieval period, which the Reformed scholastics pick up. The second view recognizes there was continuity from the medieval period to the Reformers but see this as an unfortunate infection which fully blooms in the Reformed scholastics. These two theories have dominated historical scholarship and have played a significant role in later Protestant’s rejection of the supposed “rationalistic natural theology” of the Reformed scholastics.[12]

Richard Muller, William Van Asselt, and others countered this reading arguing for a “positive continuity.” This view recognizes continuity in the Reformed scholastics with the medieval scholastics and the Reformers, yet the Reformed scholastics were not copies of either.[13] The Reformers initiated the Reformation, but the Reformed scholastics perpetuated the Reformation through the systematization of doctrine through confessions and scholastic education in the universities.[14] The theological formulations and distinctions of the Reformers and the Reformed orthodox arose out of the exegesis of Scripture not a rational theology; they were not founded on a central dogma thesis nor an uncritical “Christian Aristotelianism.” Further, the Reformed scholastics “uniformly maintained” the priority of revelation over reason and the secondary nature of philosophy.[15] A pre-dogmatic or rationalistic natural theology will only be found in Reformed scholasticism if it is read backwards into the tradition from the rationalist of the Enlightenment.[16] In reality, the Reformers and Reformed scholastics consistently maintained a “Christian ‘dogmatic natural theology’”[17] constructed in light of their Christian faith.[18]


About the Author

John Sweat is a marine veteran who serves as one of the pastors at Covenant Community Church in Lake Butler, Florida. He is a husband to Heather and a father to four girls. John has received an MA in biblical studies and an MA in Christian Thought at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary.



[1] Beeke and Smalley give a historical overview of natural theology in the history of the church from the ancient church to the Reformed tradition. Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley, Reformed Systematic Theology Volume 1: Revelation and God, vol. 1 (Wheaton, ILL: Crossway, 2019), 1:244–263. Oxford’s handbook in the first seven chapters lays out in further detail the variety of historical perspectives on natural theology throughout different periods of the church. Manning, Russell Re, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Natural Theology, Russell Re Manning. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). Turretin, in opposition to the Socinians, states that the “orthodoxy” uniformly teach that natural theology exists, being partly innate and partly acquired. Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed by. James T. Dennison, trans by. George Musgrave Giger (Philippsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 1997), 1.4.4.

[2] Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1.8.2.Many have stopped using the term “natural theology” due to the errors of excess and defect, along with the historical diversity of defining and using natural theology. Beeke and Smalley write, “We believe that the best approach to these matters is to affirm general revelation and yet avoid natural theology, at least in its classic sense of a system of beliefs about God built entirely by human observation of the natural world and logical reasoning.”  Beeke and Smalley, Revelation and God, 1:236. The key phrase in that definition of classic natural theology is “entirely built by human observation.” Beeke and Smalley will go on to promote the “natural theology” of Calvin, Junius, and Turretin, but in order to avoid being confused with a medieval, Roman Catholic, or pre-dogmatic conception of natural theology, they forgo the term properly speaking.

[3] A pre-dogmatic natural theology is mediated through pure reason via observing the natural world, subjugating revelation to reason. This natural theology functions independently and isolated from the supernatural revelation of the Triune God and is the first principle or foundation on which supernatural theology must be built. Authority is shifted from God’s revelation to man’s reason. Beeke and Smalley, Revelation and God, 1:254.

[4] Stephen J. Grabill, “Natural Law and the Noetic Effects of Sin: The Faculty of Reason in Francis Turretin’s Theological Anthropology,” Westminster Theological Journal Vo. 67 (2) (2005): 261.

[5] The medieval scholastics, Jean A. Turretin, and the Wolffian theologians of the eighteenth century are examples of this pre-dogmatic conception.  Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmataics: Prolegomena to Theology, vol. 1, Second Edition. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 174–175. Beeke and Smalley, Revelation and God, 1:238, 254. An example of this error is seen in Jean-Alphonse Turretin. Jean-Alphonse Turretin was influenced by Cartesian philosophy and argued that natural theology was a “system of pure rational truths” apprehended by pure reason apart from supernatural revelation, rendering natural theology an “autonomous system” apart from God.”  Michael Sudduth, “Revisiting the ‘Reformed Objection’ to Natural Theology,” European Journal for Philosophy of Religion Vol. 1 (2) (2009): 55. Martin Klauber notes that Jean-Aphonese Turretin’s theology that of the Socinians and the Remonstrants rather than the theology of Calvin and the Reformed scholastics. Klauber argues in his work that Jean Alphonse Turretin’s “form of enlightened orthodoxy” was a significance departure from Reformed orthodoxy and led to its downfall of it, especially in Geneva. Martin I. Klauber, Betweeen Reformed Scholasticism and Pan-Protestantism: Jean-Alphonse Turretin (1671-1737) and Enlightened Orthodoxy at the Academy of Geneva (London and Toronto: Associated University Press, 1994), 14–15.

[6] Karl Barth is a significant figure in modernism whose doctrine of revelation has impacted many evangelicals today. Further, his stated objections to natural theology are parroted by many Protestants today. Russell Re Manning, The Oxford Handbook of Natural Theology, 198-200. Millard Erickson aptly summarized Barth’s doctrine of revelation in his Christian Theology, Third Edition. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 132-134. Alvin Plantinga, “The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology,” Proceedings of the American Catholic Association 54 (1980): 49–63. Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, Second Edition. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, n.d.), 131, 137 footnote 13.

[7] Manning, The Oxford Handbook of Natural Theology, 197.

[8] Manning, The Oxford Handbook of Natural Theology, 205–209. Willem J. Van Asselt and Eef Dekker, eds., Reformation and Scholasticism: Texts and Studies in Reformation and Post-Reformation Thought (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 28–34. Willem J. Van Asselt, “The Fundamental Meaning of Theology: Archetypal and Ectypal Theology in Seventeenth-Century Reformed Thought,” The Westminster Theological Journal, no. WTJ64 (2002): 320.

[9] For a fuller treatment on the terms “orthodox” and “scholastic” as it related to the Post-Reformation era see Richard A. Muller, After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[10] Mark Beach, “Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology,” in Oxford Handbook of Reformed Theology, ed by. Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020, 2020), 291.

[11] Van Asselt and Dekker, Reformation and Scholasticism, 28–34. Muller writes, “In the approach that offered a humanistic, christocentric Calvin clearly set apart from an increasing scholastic, rationalistic, and predestinarian orthodoxy, the proposed end product of a doctrinal return to Calvin’s Reformation has often been neoorthodoxy. Of course, a neoorthodox Calvin stands in discontinuity with the later sixteenth-century and with seventeenth-century Reformed thought: but the neoorthodox Calvin also stands in discontinuity with the historical Calvin.” Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Triunity of God, vol. 4, 2nd ed. edition. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2003), 384.

[12] Grabrill notes that much of the scholarship on Reformed orthodoxy in the nineteenth and twentieth century repeat the conclusions of Schwizer, Heppe, Althaus, and Weber, who claimed that the Reformed orthodox’s theological systems of the sixteenth and seventeenth century are rationalistic. Stephen J. Grabill, “Natural Law and the Noetic Effects of Sin,” 261. See also, Van Asselt, “The Fundamental Meaning of Theology’” 319–320.  Jeffrey K. Jue, “Theologia Naturalis: A Reformed Tradition,” in Revelation and Reason: New Essays in Reformed Apologetics, ed by. K. Scott Oliphant and Lane G. Tipton (Phillipsburg, NJ, 2007), 170–176.

[13] Van Asselt and Dekker, Reformation and Scholasticism, 28–34.

[14] Richard A. Muller, Prolegomena to Theology, 1:27–28.

[15] Muller, Prolegomena to Theology, 1:28, 38–39, 67–73, 301.

[16] The Protestants of the Reformed and Lutheran tradition did not “presume the exposition of a positive natural theology as a foundation on which supernatural theology or sacred doctrine needs to build,” writes Muller. This was a clear separating point from the natural theology of the Reformed scholastics from the latter development of a Cartesian and Wolffian model. Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology, Second edition. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 358, 364.

[17] A definition of natural theology will be given at this point in order to give a clear reference point to what is indicated in the use of the term in contrast to a pre-dogmatic definition. This definition will be further laid out later in the paper. Natural theology is that which can be known about God from natural revelation both through innate and acquired knowledge.

[18] Manning and Asselt argue similar points here. Manning, The Oxford Handbook of Natural Theology, 207. Van Asselt, “The Fundamental Meaning of Theology: Archetypal and Ectypal Theology in Seventeenth-Century Reformed Thought,” 333–334. Van Asselt, after eviscerating this faulty historical reading, notes ironically that the Arminians’ rejection of the scholastic distinction of archetype and ectype theology is what opened the door to rationalism not the Reformed tradition’s commitment to it. Van Asselt, “The Fundamental Meaning of Theology: Archetypal and Ectypal Theology in Seventeenth-Century Reformed Thought,” 334.

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