Natural Revelation: Is Natural Theology Reliable?

Natural theology, to be contrasted with Revealed Theology, is that human response to divine revelation where truths about God, or arguments for his existence, are discerned from the created order without aid of special revelation.

In a sense, natural theology does not take special revelation into view, rather it looks to natural revelation, that which is revealed by God to man through created things, including the whole natural world and man himself as image of God. Thus, natural theology is necessarily asserting a place for man’s capacity to reason apart from Scripture and Spirit.    

Among the first questions then to be asked of natural theology is the question of reliability. Can a theology which excludes special revelation effectively reveal God to man? The one living and true God?

It is most accurate to answer by saying natural theology is both reliable and unreliable. It is reliable in that God declares it to be so in scripture, thus yoking revealed theology to natural. It is unreliable, however, in that man’s ability to reason aright is ruined by sin.

Let us first consider the reliability of natural theology.

Romans 1 says, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them” (v. 18). The apostle then states what can be known, God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (v. 19). This knowledge of God from the works of creation is so “clearly perceived” by man, God justly holds man to be “without excuse” for his unbelief (v. 20), for “although they knew God, they did not honor him as God….” (v. 21).

Here then is the reliability of natural theology: it emerges from God’s infallible revelation of himself in his created works and from God giving man the awareness of divinity, that clear perception. Calvin, speaking of all men, said: “whether they want to or not, they are repeatedly brought up short by this thought, that there is a divinity by whose decision they stand or fall” (from Calvin’s 1538 Catechism, Art. 2).

The reliability of natural theology is especially underscored by another work of God - his wrath. God’s just wrath toward sinful men “who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18) is further testimony that our knowledge of the one God, to whom all honor and worship is due, has not been totally erased even by the fall. Sin makes our reason unreliable, but not God’s revelation. In this sense alone, natural theology maintains its reliability.

How then is natural theology unreliable? It is unreliable in that through Adam’s fall the reasoning capacity of all his posterity has suffered great ruin. The ruin in man ruins man’s work in natural theology.

Scripture has nothing flattering to say about the unregenerate mind of sinful man in properly formalizing implanted knowledge of God: “every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5); “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot” (Rom. 8:7); “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers” (2 Cor. 4:4); “you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind,” (Col. 1:21).

K. Scott Oliphant summarizes the biblical testimony of this hostility quite well: “In Adam, we convince ourselves that what we know to be the case is actually not the case” (“Is There a Reformed Objection to Natural Theology,” WTJ, Vol. 74, p. 190).

God still succeeds in revealing himself in man and to man through creation, but now man fails utterly to make honorable use of what is infallibly revealed. Unregenerate man actively refuses to let it lead him where it ought. Even after massive effort by pagan philosophers to describe the omnipotence and omniscience of a divine being, they refuse to come to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is reason ruined and reason in rebellion.

Wonderfully, natural theology does not end in a pile of ruins. By divine grace the reliability of natural theology is returned to us, but only when we are returned to God, regenerated by the Holy Spirit. “[You] have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col. 3:10). In union with God reason finds its only restoration. But it is not restored reason which recovers the reliability of natural theology, but reason restored and subdued to the foundation of divine revelation – by the book of scripture we can read the book of nature.

So, we hear Paul at Athens quoting pagan poets (Acts 17:27-31), but not without his own significant re-calibration. After summoning the poetry of Aratus who was writing of Zeus – “for indeed we are his offspring” – Paul says the only God of whom we are offspring is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (v. 31). This is natural theology recovered and reliable, in service to the great commission, simultaneously exposing the idolatry of a rebellious natural theology while summoning ruined sinners to the redeeming knowledge of Revealed Theology.

John Hartley has been pastor of Apple Valley Presbyterian Church since 2010, having previously been a pastor for 10 years in Vermont. He is a Wisconsin native and a graduate of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as well as Dallas Theological Seminary. John lives with his wife Jen and their five children.

John Hartley