Authors Eric Parker Natural Law Nota Bene Philosophy

Natural Theology as Preparation for Grace: Alsted on Natural Theology (V)

As I mentioned in this post last week, the idea of “preparations” for grace or justification was not completely rejected by the Reformers. Rather, they insisted that God uses certain preparations as his instruments to bring the unbeliever to self-knowledge, particularly the condemnation of the Law – this causes one to reflect on one’s own sin and rebellion against both God and self and leads to the desire for God’s presence – and the revelation of the Gospel. Alsted presents another example of this principle of “preparations” for grace.

II. Theologiæ naturalis usus est duplex, videlicet reddere hominem inexcusabilem, & illum preparare ad scholam gratiæ.

Qui vociferantur, nullam esse Theologiam naturalem, inter alia, quibus hanc suam sententiam stabiliunt, argumenta, etiam hoc adferunt, nullum esse illius usum. His oppositum volumus modo positum theorema, quod probabimus per partes I. Apostolus ait Rom. I.19.20 & seq. Quoniam id, quod de Deo cognosci potest manifestum est in ipsis. Deus enim eis manifestum fecit. Ipsius enim invisibilia, dum ex rebus conditis intelligunt, ex creatione mundi perspiciuntur, æterna videlicet eius tum potentiarum divinitas: ad hoc ut ipsi sint inexcusabiles. Huius loci explicationem vide lib. 1. præcogn. cap. 3. Hic igitur est primus usus Theologiæ naturalis. Secundum, eadem nos præparat ad Scholam gratiæ. Si quis enim erret in primo Symboli Apostolici articulo, qui est de creatione, nunquam poterit in 2 parte Symboli, quæ est de redemtione, rite progredi. Nam sicuti vitium primæ concoctionis emendari non potest in secunda; & sicuti discipulus e classe inferiori ad superiorem promotus non facile potest emendare vitium, quod in classe inferiori non potuit, ita homo si erret in primo limine articulorum, de sequentibus bene sentire non potest. Non tamen hic loquor de extraordinaria via, qua Deus hominem supernaturaliter illustrat sine ullis mediis. Cæterum tribus modis Theologia naturalis præparat hominem ad legendum librum gratiæ; primo dum gentiles & pagani ad fidem adducunt, deinde cum Deus & ipsius maiestas Christianis velut depictus ostenditur in operibus naturæ; denique cum imperfectionem naturæ agnoscimus, & ita inflammamur ad expectendam gratiam. Accedit & hoc, quod gravissime tentationes, quasi nullus sit Deus, nullaque providentia, facilius depelluntur, si quis magnum illud naturæ volumen recte sciat evolvere.


II. The use of natural theology is two-fold: to render man inexcusable, and to prepare him for the school of grace.

Those who cry out that there is no such thing as natural theology, among other arguments with which they support their opinion, propose that there is no use for it. We desire to place this theorem in opposition to them now, which we will prove throughout part 1. In Romans 1:19-20 and following the Apostle says “Because that which can be known about God was made known to them. For God made it known to them. For his invisible attributes, while they knew them from the foundation of things, were perceived from the creation of the world, his eternity,” as is evident, “and divine powers, in order that they might be without excuse,” (for an explanation of this locus see book 1, chapter 3 of our Pæcognitorum). This therefore is the first use of natural theology. The second is that natural theology prepares us for the subject of grace. If anyone errs in the first article of the Apostle’s Creed, which is about creation, he will never be able to correctly progress to the second part of the Creed which is about redemption. For just as a defect of the first digestion cannot be mended by a second, and just as the student who progresses from an inferior to a superior class cannot easily correct an error which he could not correct in the inferior class, so if a man errs in the first doorway of the articles, then he cannot think well about the following [articles]. Nevertheless, I am not speaking here about the extraordinary way in which God supernaturally illuminates [the mind] without any medium. Otherwise, natural theology prepares man for reading the book of grace in three ways: (1) when it leads gentiles and pagans to faith, (2) the next is when God demonstrates his majesty to Christians as if it were painted in the works of nature, and finally (3) when we acknowledge the imperfection of nature and are consequently inflamed by the hope of grace. It can also be added that the most burdensome temptations, [such as the thoughts that] there is no God or no providence, are easily dispelled if one knows [how] to rightly unfold and read the book of nature.

Here Alsted argues that a proper “reading” of the book of nature is able to lead unbelievers to faith, though he does not assume that natural theology necessarily imparts faith. Rather, since he is dealing with natural and not supernatural theology, Alsted speaks about God’s use of various media without denying the need for the supernatural work of God upon the mind. It  may help to think of natural theology in the 17th century terminology of archetype and ectype. With regard to the ectype – that is from a temporal perspective – natural theology is one of the God-appointed means to lead unbelievers (and believers) to Christ by disposing of any errors regarding the first article of the Creed, “I believe in God the Father Almighty…” In terms of the archetype – that is from God’s perspective – there is no need for mediation but God is free to illuminate the mind in any way he so chooses. Of course the preaching of the Gospel is another medium that God uses and the revealed Word is also one of the foundations of natural theology, as Alsted will explain later.

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.