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Self-Knowledge as “Foundation” and “Preparation” for Grace?

Although Martin Luther rejected the Roman Catholic notion of “preparatory works” for justification he did not reject the language of preparation altogether. Rather, he writes of the torments of the Law which “shows sin, terrifies, and humbles; thus it prepares us for justification and drives us to Christ” (Luther’s Works, 26:126). For Luther, it is essential that God must reveal the guilty conscience to the sinner and make his sins apparent in order for belief in the promises of forgiveness of sins to occur. The “true meaning of Christianity,” argues Luther, is that “a man first acknowledge, through the Law, that he is a sinner, for whom it is impossible to perform any good work […] Then he really sees the greatness of his sin and finds in himself not one spark of the love of God” (ibid.). “Thus,” he concludes, “the first step in Christianity is the preaching of repentance and the knowledge of oneself” (ibid.). These preparations are made possible for Luther by the principle that “nature with its own light is disposed toward the light of grace, just as darkness is disposed toward light and formlessness toward form” (Luther’s Works 29:149). The Italian reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli also spoke of the accusations of the Law and sinful conscience as a preparation for salvation and spoke of the “illumination of reason” that makes this possible. The Law, he affirms, does not merely condemn sinners but it is the means by which God works to convert the mind and the whole person to Christ:

For in the reprobate, after sinne was by the law increased, sorrow and griefe which come thereby, engendreth desperation. For these are not the full causes of salvation, but instruments, by which God useth to deliver his. And the nature of instrumentes is, that if a man remove from them the power of the principal agent, of themselves they bring to passe nothing. God doth in dede use the law, the feeling of sinne, and terrors of paynes, wherby to prepare a way to iustification. And although before our conversion the same be sinnes, yet by them he prepareth our minds: but yet not with that kinde of preparation which the Sophisters have fayned. For they affirme, that a man by these meanes deserveth grace … of congruency, which thinge we have … declared to be repugnant to the holy scriptures (Commentary on Romans, London: 1558, 136.)

Like Luther, Vermigli holds that the act of repentance depends upon the ability to know oneself as sinful and this knowledge depends upon natural revelation as the precondition for divine illumination.

Reformers such as Luther, Melanchthon, and Vermigli argued that unbelievers are capable of understanding and knowing the first table of the Decalogue solely by the natural light of reason. In his commentary on Acts 17:22 John Calvin, speaking of Paul’s Areopagus address, confirms that Paul uses the correct method in his confrontation with the Athenians, that is, he began by discussing what all men may know by the observation of nature before he proceeded to discuss the elements of faith, and as Calvin argues in the first book of the Institutes, self-knowledge is necessary for one who wishes to know God. Furthermore, Protestant educational leaders such as Philip Melanchthon, Johann Sturm, and Theodore Beza spoke of the necessity of training the youth in the art of Logic not only for the use of right judgment in matters related to one’s civic duties but primarily for upholding the unity of the Church and its teachings (on Melanchthon see here). Johann Heinrich Alsted, as I have pointed out in my series of posts on his Theologia naturalis, clarified the importance of natural theology by referring to it as a “medium” that works as a channel through which God works in converting the unbeliever. Rational arguments for the truth of the Christian faith are not convincing in and of themselves but they are one of God’s chosen media for converting the mind to himself by a special act of illumination. When one sees oneself as participating, by means of reason, in God’s Intellect, one increases one’s own capacity for seeing the truth of Christ the eternal Logos.

Wallace Marshall points out in his dissertation, “Puritanism and Natural Theology” (Boston College, 2007), that many of the most influential Puritans of the 16th and 17th centuries spoke of natural theology as a “preparation” or even “foundation” for special revelation. William Perkins says that “the light of nature serveth to give a beginning and preparation [to the] light of grace” (Marshall, 48). Perkins is followed by Puritans such as Stephen Charnock, Increase Mather, John Howe, and Richard Baxter in referring to natural theology as a preparation for grace. Puritans such as Charnock, Samuel Lee, and others spoke of the preparation of rational arguments as a “foundation” upon which special revelation is built. As I have pointed out before, Jonathan Edwards argues that nature is a “substratum” of grace because God does not destroy the mind in his renewing and converting it but uses its natural powers both to reveal sin and to point the mind to Christ. Marshall quite helpfully explains what the use of “preparation” or “foundation” language did and did not mean for the Puritans:

In speaking of natural theology as foundational to revelation, Puritans did not mean that before people could profitably read the Bible or be converted it was first necessary for them to master the intricate details of the theistic proofs and be well studied in the apologetical arguments for the divinity of Scripture. What they meant was that human awareness of the existence of God came naturally rather than supernaturally, through rational reflection rather than through faith. The task of natural theology was not to introduce its recipients to a line of reasoning to which they were utter strangers but to articulate and reinforce what had on a less conscious level already been deduced from the created order. All Puritans held that true believers encountered God experientially through the Spirit and the Scripture, and that the Bible was itself strong evidence for the existence of God. This latter point was occasionally expressed in the circular style of Capel and Gurnall, though a closer reading of these remarks shows that what was usually intended was not the question-begging argument, “The Bible is the Word of God-The Bible says God exists-Therefore God exists,” but rather that the Bible’s transformative power as well as its prophecies and record of miracles-the historical factuality of which could be confirmed by rational arguments demanded a belief in God, since none of these things would be possible without some divine power in existence. Thus in an indirect way, the Bible demonstrated the existence of God, since it was a phenomenon that could not be accounted for on the supposition of atheism” (Marshall, 54, 55).

As Increase Mather put it, “except men give Credit to the principles of natural, they will never believe the Principles of revealed Religion.” Mather did not mean by this that one may merit salvation by means of rational arguments, rather that natural theology is a fruitful means by which God works salvation upon unbelievers. Furthermore, as Marshall notes, rational arguments for the truth of Christianity were seen as preparations for salvation only because the Puritans believed, as did the Reformers, that the belief in God (or gods) is a phenomenon that unites all nations and creed of human being. The “consent of the nations” argument was a key motivating factor for Puritan missionaries to the American Indians. For missionaries such as Abraham Pierson (1608-1678), the use of rational arguments for the existence of God and other foundational arguments were seen as essential to converting the American Indian population because, having had no exposure to philosophical education, the preaching of the Gospel would first need to prepare their minds by the clearing away of any errors in the native’s habits of thought. Pierson’s Some Helps for the Indians; Shewing them how to Improve their Natural Reason, to know the true God, and the Christian Religion was a catechetical primer on natural and revealed theology and was translated into the Alqonquian dialect for the express use of Puritan missionaries in the Massachusetts Bay area (Marshall, 52).

Of course not all of the the Puritans were so keen on natural theology and evidences for the truth of Christianity. Marshall notes, however, “the one Puritan exception to this preparational use of natural theology I have been able to find is in William Pemble” (ibid., 53, footnote 29). Though not all of the Protestant Reformers of the 16th century promoted natural theology with as much vehemence as later divines, their upholding of the principle that “grace does not destroy but perfect nature” coupled with their doctrine of natural law and God’s use of natural preparations for salvation were essential for the use of natural theology by theologians of later generations.

Fittingly, I think, does John Davies (1569-1626) remark in his great poem on the immortality of the soul:

For how may we to other things attain,

When none of us his own Soul understands?

For which the Devil mocks our curious Brain,

When Know thy Self, his Oracle commands.


That Pow’r which gave me Eyes the World to view,

To view my self infus’d an inward Light,

Whereby my Soul, as by a Mirror true,

Of her own Form may take a perfect Sight.

But as the sharpest Eye discerneth nought,

Except the Sun-beams in the Air do shine;

So the best Soul, with her reflecting Thought,

Sees not her self, without some Light Divine.

~ John Davies, Nosce Teipsum, 6.

By Eric Parker

Eric Parker (PhD McGill University) is the editor of the Library of Early English Protestantism (LEEP) at the Davenant Institute. He lives in the deep South with his wife and two children, where he is currently preparing for ordination to the diaconate in the Reformed Episcopal Church.

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