In recent days we have seen some spirited discussion on the place of natural law and natural theology in the life of the church. One figure who stands out as an important member of the discussion about such matters, at least in Presbyterian circles, is Cornelius Van Til, especially in his essay “Nature And Scripture.” In the course of that essay, Van Til discusses two kinds of “natural theology”: that of the Westminster Confession (which he takes to be identical with scripture’s), and the kind supposedly finding its origin in Greek philosophy. In the following, I will discuss his comments on the first kind, and more particularly, his scriptural argument for his position.
I’ll begin my discussion by noting some important comments Van Til makes about natural revelation. In connection with the “necessity” of natural revelation, Van Til says things such as the following:
To be recognized for what it was in its exceptionality, a contrast was required between it and God’s regular way of communication with man. Ordinarily man had to use his God-given powers of investigation to discover the workings of the processes of nature. Again, the voice of authority as it came to man in this exceptional manner was to be but illustrative of the fact that, in and through the things of nature, there spoke the self-same voice of God’s command…
The revelation that comes to man by way of his own rational and moral nature is no less objective to him than that which comes to him through the voice of trees and animals. Man’s own psychological activity is no less revelational than the laws of physics about him. All created reality is inherently revelational of the nature and will of God. Even man’s ethical reaction to God’s revelation is still revelational. And as revelational of God, it is authoritative…
Now if man’s whole consciousness was originally created perfect, and as such authoritatively expressive of the will of God, that same consciousness is still revelational and authoritative after the entrance of sin to the extent that its voice is still the voice of God. The sinner’s efforts, so far as they are done self-consciously from his point of view, seek to destroy or bury the voice of God that comes to him through nature, which includes his own consciousness. But this effort cannot be wholly successful at any point in history. The most depraved of men cannot wholly escape the voice of God. Their greatest wickedness is meaningless except upon the assumption that they have sinned against the authority of God. Thoughts and deeds of utmost perversity are themselves revelational, revelational, that is, in their very abnormality. The natural man accuses or else excuses himself only because his own utterly depraved consciousness continues to point back to the original natural state of affairs. The prodigal son can never forget the father’s voice. It is the albatross forever about his neck.
Further, in relation to the “clarity” of natural revelation, he writes:
We have stressed the fact that God’s revelation in nature was from the outset of history meant to be taken conjointly with God’s supernatural communication. This might seem to indicate that natural revelation is not inherently perspicuous. Then too it has been pointed out that back of both kinds of revelation is the incomprehensible God…
But this does not mean that on this account the revelation of God is not clear, even for him. Created man may see clearly what is revealed clearly even if he cannot see exhaustively. Man does not need to know exhaustively in order to know truly and certainly…
We have seen that since the fall of man God’s curse rests upon nature. This has brought great complexity into the picture. All this, however, in no wise detracts from the historical and objective perspicuity of nature. Nature can and does reveal nothing but the one comprehensive plan of God. The psalmist does not say that the heavens possibly or probably declare the glory of God. Nor does the apostle assert that the wrath of God is probably revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. Scripture takes the clarity of God’s revelation for granted at every stage of human history. Even when man, as it were, takes out his own eyes, this act itself turns revelational in his wicked hands, testifying to him that his sin is a sin against the light that lighteth every man coming into the world.
So far, then, we could sum up Van Til’s position on natural revelation:
1. Created reality as a whole, and human nature in particular, speak with God’s voice to human beings.
2. This remains true even after the fall, and the sinful suppression of this revelation is never wholly successful.
3. The fact that natural revelation is not the totality of revelation does not mean it is unclear, for human beings can see clearly without seeing exhaustively.
At this point, Van Til has said nothing that would depart from the classical Christian view on natural theology and natural law. However, he makes a few other points that may be in some tension with the position:
The natural must therefore by contrast reveal an unalleviated picture of folly and ruin. Nor would the Confession permit us to tone down the rigid character of the absolute contrast between the grace and the curse of God through the idea of “common grace.” Common grace is subservient to special or saving grace. As such it helps to bring out the very contrast between this saving grace and the curse of God. When men dream dreams of a paradise regained by means of common grace, they only manifest the “strong delusion” that falls as punishment of God upon those that abuse his natural revelation. Thus the natural as the regular appears as all the more in need of the gift of the grace of God…
And it is only when the Holy Spirit gives man a new heart that he will accept the evidence of Scripture about itself and about nature for what it really is. The Holy Spirit’s regenerating power enables man to place all things in true perspective.
Man the sinner, as Calvin puts it, through the testimony of the Spirit receives a new power of sight by which he can appreciate the new light that has been given in Scripture. The new light and the new power of sight imply one another. The one is fruitless for salvation without the other. It is by grace, then, by the gift of the Holy Spirit alone, that sinners are able to observe the fact that all nature, including even their own negative attitude toward God, is revelational of God, the God of Scripture. The wrath of God is revealed, Paul says, on all those who keep down the truth. Man’s sinful nature has become his second nature. This sinful nature of man must now be included in nature as a whole. And through it God is revealed. He is revealed as the just one, as the one who hates iniquity and punishes it. Yet he must also be seen as the one who does not yet punish to the full degree of their ill desert the wicked deeds of sinful men. All this is simply to say that one must be a believing Christian to study nature in the proper frame of mind and with proper procedure.
Here Van Til makes the following claims:
4. After the fall, nature must only reveal an “unalleviated picture of folly and ruin,” and common grace only serves to maintain this revelation of ruin, not to restrain ruin.
5. Only through the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit will human beings accept the evidence about nature for what it really is.
6. Because regeneration is a prerequisite for the acceptance of special revelation, only regenerate human beings can observe that all nature is revelational of God, the God of Scripture.
The first thing to note about these claims is that none of them are quotations of scripture. Nor do they come with proof-texts appended. So we can only guess, based on the evidence of this essay, what texts he might have in mind. However, a few further comments can be made about these arguments.
A) The fourth point seems to contradict the second. If nature only reveals unalleviated folly and ruin, and if common grace does nothing to moderate the effects of sin after the fall, how is it that the suppression of truth is not fully successful? The fourth point seems to suggest a doctrine of utter depravity, where the unregenerate are wholly without wisdom in every possible way (“unalleviated folly”), but the second point denies this is so, and affirms that the unregenerate cannot in fact blot out all wisdom (they still retain knowledge of God). So Van Til’s position seems to have a serious problem even on its own terms. In addition, however, it is difficult to imagine where this peculiarly Van Tilian version of the doctrine of common grace is taught in scripture. A doctrine of utter depravity would imply unregenerate people never do anything good in any way. They never tell the truth, they never refrain from murder, theft, adultery, or whatever sin could be imagined. But this is manifestly false, and we are uncharitable to the writers of scripture if we imagine they believed obvious falsehoods.
It is possible that Van Til was being rhetorical and exaggerating at this point, and that he would, in a more sober moment, harmonize points 4 and 2 by saying that this “unalleviated folly” is actually alleviated at various times and places. If this possibility was what he really meant, then Van Til remains within the classical tradition on this matter. However, it seems more probable, given Van Til’s own self-declared relation to the classical tradition, that he was indeed confused and self-contradictory at this point. This will be explored more below.
B) On the fifth point, Van Til seems to suggest that regeneration is necessary for acceptance of natural revelation. Now, there are two possible ways this idea could be interpreted. Firstly, Van Til could mean that unregenerate people need regeneration in order to understand all the facts of nature the way Christians do, i.e., as an order created by the God who became Incarnate in Jesus Christ, etc. This would mean that regeneration was necessary for people to attain the more detailed picture of nature that Christianity presents. It would not, however, necessarily entail that unregenerate people could have no true knowledge about nature. But in this case unregenerate people could know, for example, that nature has a Creator, even if they do not also know, for example, that that Creator became incarnate in a small town called Bethlehem. On the other hand, Van Til could mean that unregenerate people need regeneration to know any facts at all about nature. This would be a much more radical claim. It is also something never taught in scripture, and once again a manifest falsehood. Unregenerate people plainly do know some facts about nature like, e.g., that objects fall when they are dropped. And in light of this fact, there is no a priori reason to suggest they could not know that nature had a Creator, even if they do not know that that Creator was incarnated in Bethlehem. Nor is there a specifically scriptural reason to deny this; in fact Romans 1:20-21 suggests the opposite, by noting that the unregenerate do know that nature has a Creator.
C) The sixth point comes in an elaboration on a fifth point, but seems to provide a different argument. It suggests that the necessity of regeneration for the acceptance of special revelation entails the same necessity for the acceptance of natural revelation. Van Til’s statement that “It is by grace, then…” appears to suggest he was reasoning this way. There is, unfortunately, no such entailment. That is, unless Van Til is making a more restricted claim when he adds the relative clause later in that sentence: “that all nature … is revelational of God, the God of Scripture.” If Van Til here means that unregenerate people will come to accept that the Creator revealed in nature has performed the deeds recorded in scripture only by the grace of regeneration, then his entailment follows. This claim would obviously follow from his point about regeneration, because it is only by regeneration that individuals come to believe the uniquely scriptural claims about the Creator. But such a view would not require anything about what unregenerate people could know based on the facts nature entails about God. However, if Van Til is making the stronger claim, that unregenerate people can know nothing of God from nature until they already accept special revelation (by means of regeneration), then Van Til is simply reasoning fallaciously.
Van Til also makes an extended argument regarding the Greek philosophers and their heritage on this topic, but we will leave this issue to one side, to be addressed by others when appropriate. From the above, however, we can see that Van Til in part supports the classical tradition of natural theology and natural law, and in part departs from it. However, when he does so, he either (a) does so in a way that contradicts what he says elsewhere, or else (b) does so in an ambiguous way, which may in fact ultimately cohere with the tradition if interpreted in a certain manner. When he does appear to depart from the tradition clearly, he also is at his least biblical and rational (in appearing to affirm a doctrine of utter depravity regarding the unregenerate). In closing, I would like to repeat the words of one who is arguably Van Til’s greatest student, Prof. John Frame, who has this to say on his teacher’s problems on this subject (emphasis mine):
Van Til’s view of the “ethics of knowledge” is an area of both strength and weakness. Certainly he is right to insist that non-Christians know, but suppress, the truth of God’s revelation. In Romans 1, scripture makes that assertion quite explicitly. But Van Til seems to search for words in order to express how the unbeliever can in one sense know, and in another sense be ignorant of, the truth of God. In certain moods, he uses the language of “extreme antithesis,” suggesting that the unbeliever has no knowledge at all, that he “knows nothing truly,” and therefore no area of agreement with the believer. Other times, however, Van Til describes various senses in which the unbeliever can and does have genuine knowledge. He says, for example, that although the unbeliever seeks to think according to atheistic principles, he is not always successful in thinking according to those principles. At times, “in spite of himself,” or by ”borrowed capital,” he finds himself thinking in terms of Christian principles instead of non-Christian ones. This and other formulations produce a deep tension in Van Til’s thought. Uncharacteristically, he did admit that this was a problem in his system, one for which he did not have an adequate answer.
While it is true that all the unbeliever’s actions and thoughts are in service of his would-be autonomy, the language of extreme antithesis is highly misleading and confusing to the practical work of apologetics. It is better to say that the unbeliever’s depravity manifests itself in many varied forms, and that the non-Christian can and does utter either truth or falsehood for his purposes.
The doctrine of common grace deals with the question of how God can give good gifts to the non-elect, to the reprobate. More specifically, the question arises of how God can present the promises of the gospel to the reprobate, to those whom he has foreordained not to benefit from those promises. Van Til’s doctrine of common grace gets off to a good start, insisting on the importance of historical process. God gives blessings to the reprobate because the final judgment has not arrived. After human beings are assigned to their final destinies, there will be no more common grace. The elect will be blessed; the non-elect will be punished; and there will therefore be no blessings in common between them.
However, Van Til adds to this account the unhistorical and unbiblical notion that the free offer of the gospel is directed toward a “generality” of people, rather than actual persons. Then Van Til compounds the confusion by postulating, without biblical warrant, a continuous process in which unbelief becomes worse and worse over time.
As a positive contrast, I will cite comments from another article, where Prof. Frame gives some suggestions as to how knowledge of natural law can be used apologetically (emphasis mine):
Therefore we can expect the unbeliever’s knowledge of God to bubble up at times through his consciousness, despite his attempts to repress that knowledge. How does that happen? In several ways: (a) Unbelievers may sometimes display explicitly quite a lot of knowledge of the true God, as the Pharisees did. (b) The non-Christian must assume that the world is not a chaos, but that it is orderly and relatively predictable, even though this assumption in turn presupposes God. (c) In ethics, non-Christians often reveal a knowledge of God’s law. Apologists like C. S. Lewis and J. Budziszewski have pointed out that principles like “Play fair,” “Don’t murder,” “Be faithful to your spouse,” and “Take care of your family” are universally recognized. Although many people violate these principles, they show they know them by making excuses or rationalizations, and by accusing others of violating the same principles.
In other words, they treat the moral law as law. Although some theorize that moral principles are mere feelings, conventions, or instincts, no one really believes that, especially when injustice is done to them. When someone treats us unfairly, we regard that unfairness as an objective wrong. But objective wrongs cannot be derived from mere instincts, feelings, conventions, evolutionary defense mechanisms, etc. Moral rights and wrongs are based on personal relationships, specifically relationships of allegiance and love. And that means that absolute moral standards must be derived from an absolute person. So develops the “moral argument for the existence of God,” q.v. But that argument is based on conscience, a sense of objective right and wrong that is universal, that exists even in those who do not formulate it as an argument. Budziszewski also points out the terrible consequences that result from violating one’s conscience. Apologists should draw on the data of the unbeliever’s conscience to lead him to that greater knowledge of God, which is eternal life in Christ.
Beyond agreeing with Prof. Frame’s (and apparently Van Til’s own) verdict that Van Til had a real problem on this subject, and agreeing with his positive suggestions for the uses natural knowledge can be put to, I am grateful for his example in thinking through these issues independently. It seems, in truth, there is no other option. For all his good intentions, Van Til left his theological descendents with a “deep tension,” a problem without an answer; he left it precisely in the place where he departed from the classical tradition on these matters, and it remains there for his more extreme followers today.
The Calvinist International is a forum for research, resourcement, and renewal of Christian wisdom.