Francis Turretin’s Natural Theology: John Calvin’s Influence | John Sweat

by | Nov 24, 2023 | Apologetics, Historical Theology, Systematic Theology


*Editor’s Note: This is the second 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:


John Calvin’s Duplex Cognitio Dei

There are two pillars on which Turretin constructs his natural theology, the first being Calvin’s duplex cognition dei.[1] The twofold knowledge of God (both as Creator and Redeemer) forms the structure of Calvin’s doctrine of the knowledge of God.[2] Calvin distinguishes between unregenerate and regenerate knowledge of God.[3] Unregenerate men only know God as partially as Creator through corrupted eyes via nature; this knowledge leaves men unfit and incapable in their sin to know God as Father and Redeemer. Man’s knowledge of God as Creator through nature is insufficient for this end.[4]

Calvin notes that all men have an awareness of God via implanted knowledge which he says is “a certain understanding of his divine majesty” that leaves men without an excuse.[5] No nation of men, regardless of their civility or lack thereof, is devoid of this implanted awareness. [6] Although man knows God as Creator, he worships the creature rather than the Creator. Yet, even in this corrupted natural knowledge, Calvin affirms a positive use of general revelation. First, Calvin acknowledges that philosophers can arrive at some true statements about God, but he warns the reader of the philosopher’s “giddy imaginations.”[7] Second, Calvin used natural revelation for apologetics and edification. He follows the apologetical/evangelistic method of the Apostle Paul, who often used natural arguments to point the Gentiles to the one true God.[8] Nevertheless, Calvin is clear that reason cannot lead men to the knowledge of the truth, “who the true God is or what sort of God he wishes to be toward us.”[9]

However, the unregenerate’s natural knowledge of God is plagued with a double problem: it is not sufficient for salvation, and it is not dependable due to man’s corrupted state.[10] Therefore, Calvin emphasized that the knowledge of God as Redeemer can only come through the mediatorial work of Christ via Scripture.[11] The spectacles of Scripture are needed to clearly “show us the true God” who is both Creator and Redeemer. The dull, blurry, and confused nature of man’s knowledge of God as Creator due to his fallen nature is corrected by the lens of Scripture, allowing man to behold God as Father.[12]

Turretin, when discussing natural theology, appears to follow Calvin’s distinction between knowing God as Creator and Redeemer, speaking of the former as “imperfect, corrupt, and obscure,” belonging to natural theology, while the latter is “full, entire, and clear,” belonging to supernatural revelation and faith from the Word alone.[13] Further, Turretin includes in his definition of natural theology an innate natural knowledge of God, and this knowledge is choked out by man’s sin, which is similar to Calvin’s conception of an implanted knowledge.[14]

Eluding to Acts 17:23, Turretin argues that there is a difference between seeking the favor and grace of God through the Word in the promises of Christ and seeking the unknown god through nature. According to Turretin, the objects and the manner of seeking are different, and like Calvin, he states that if man is left to a knowledge of God as Creator via nature alone, he/she will be left with seeking an unknown god.[15] Last, Turretin also employs natural arguments to demonstrate the absurdity of the atheists’ rejection of God.[16] These rational or natural arguments were viewed by Turretin not as a “foundation for faith,” but rather as an “instrument” using sound reason to disarm any attempt of the unregenerate to use unsound reason to deny God’s existence or testimony in nature.[17] In summary, Turretin, like Calvin, maintains both a robust view of God’s self-revelation in nature paired with a recognition of total depravity that conditions the extent, use, and end of a knowledge of God as Creator via nature.[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] Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena to Theology, 1:300.

[2] This doctrine also forms the structure of Calvin’s first two book in The Institutes of the Christian Religion.

[3] Calvin’s distinction of unregenerate and regenerate knowledge of God is consistent with the later Reformed scholastics distinction between true and false theology as will be shown below in Junius and Turretin.

[4] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans by. John T. McNeill, vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 39.

[5] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1:43. Calvin writes in his commentary on Romans 1:20, “It hence clearly appears what the consequence is of having this evidence—that men cannot allege anything before God’s tribunal for the purpose of showing that they are not justly condemned. Yet let this difference be remembered, that the manifestation of God, by which he makes his glory known in his creation, is, with regard to the light itself, sufficiently clear; but that on account of our blindness, it is not found to be sufficient. We are not however so blind, that we can plead our ignorance as an excuse for our perverseness. We conceive that there is a Deity; and then we conclude, that whoever he may be, he ought to be worshipped: but our reason here fails, because it cannot ascertain who or what sort of being God is.” John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, trans by. John Owen (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 71.

[6] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1:44.

[7] He further elucidates this tension in philosophers (truth/giddy imagination) using an analogy of a traveler passing through a field at night during a thunderstorm. When the lightning flashes the traveler can see “far and wide,” but the darkness returns quicker than he can take a step or receive knowledge of the right way. Though philosophers’ books contain “sprinkles of truth,” they are loaded with “monstrous lies.” Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1:277.

[8] John Calvin, Commentary Upon the Acts of the Apostles, trans by. Henry Beveridge, vol. 2 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 12–20, 154. Muller summarizing Calvin’s view of natural theology and use of natural arguments notes that Calvin appears to assume even unregenerate men still possess the capacity from nature and providence to develop “valid teachings concerning God.” Muller, Prolegomena to Theology, 1:276.

[9] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1:53, 66, 278, 341. Muller notes that while Calvin does not directly address theologica naturalis nor is there much room for a positive construction of it in the Institutes, throughout Calvin implicitly assumes it. Muller writes, “Calvin, in fact, consistently assumes the existence of false, pagan natural theology that has warped the knowledge of God available in nature into gross idolatry. Calvin must argue in this way because he assumes existence of natural revelation which in se is a true knowledge of God.” Muller, Prolegomena to Theology, 1:274.

[10] Muller writes, “In view of the problem of human sinfulness, true natural theology must be a natural theology of the regenerate… and an unregenerate natural theology arising outside the church, must belong to the category of theologica falsa.” Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, 361.

[11] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1:40. Muller, Prolegomena to Theology, 1:289.

[12] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1:71.

[13] Turretin, Institutes, 1.4.2, 6-7, 11.

[14] Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1.3.8–9, 14; 1.4.9.

[15] Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1.4.7.

[16] Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 1.8.1, 23; 1.9.6, 10; 1.3.3.

[17] Beeke and Smalley, Revelation and God, 1:260.

[18] Beeke and Smalley, Revelation and God, 1:256,257.

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God is Wise, and Hidden, and Revealed | Tom J. Nettles

God is Wise, and Hidden, and Revealed | Tom J. Nettles

Job mocks the repetitive irrelevance of the presentations of his comforters. He particularly derides the speech of Bildad for his restatement of the obvious that God is more powerful than his creatures. With seething sarcasm, Job quips, “How you have helped him who has no power!” Just telling me that God is stronger than I is neither enlightening nor particularly insightful in expanding our understanding of the ways of God with his creatures.

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