Is Natural Revelation Sufficient to Govern Culture? - John Frame

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crhoades

Puritan Board Graduate
Is Natural Revelation Sufficient to Govern Culture?
What creation can and cannot do
John M. Frame

Frame.jpg


The titular question seems to me to be central in the current discussion in the Reformed camp between Kuyperians and Klineans. Kuyperians argue that Scripture governs all aspects of human life, including culture and government.[1] Klineans[2] believe that politics and general culture are governed by natural revelation and common grace.[3] On their view Christians should not urge distinctively biblical principles upon the institutions of the broad society; rather, they should draw people´s attention to the demands of natural law, the ethical implications of natural revelation.

I believe that this position is wrong, for the following reasons:

1. Natural revelation was not sufficient before the fall of Adam. Even in Paradise, as Cornelius Van Til used to say, our first parents learned truth, not only from their senses and reason from God´s revelation in creation, but also from the divine voice itself. According to Gen. 1:28-30, God did not leave it to our first parents to find out God´s will on their own, by scrutinizing natural revelation. Rather, he spoke to them in his own words, giving them the fundamental task of their existence. Indeed, it is this passage, often called the "œcultural mandate," that defines culture for God´s people.

He gave them more divine words in Gen. 2:16-17. Adam and Eve had the responsibility of interpreting natural revelation in accord with the audible words God had spoken to them. God´s spoken words functioned as a criterion for the truth of any interpretations of natural revelation that might have occurred to them.

2. Natural revelation is not sufficient after the fall. Unlike unfallen Adam, fallen man seeks to rule his life by his would-be autonomous knowledge of natural revelation, without obeying God´s audible and written words. But to do this is necessarily to distort the meaning of natural revelation. Rom. 1 tells us that the sinner represses the truth of natural revelation, exchanging it for a lie. So his use of natural revelation leads only to more sin, and worse. Paul mentions particularly the sins of idolatry and sexual uncleanness.[4]

3. Natural revelation is not sufficient for salvation. As Scripture presents it in passages like Ps. 19 and Rom. 1, God´s revelation in nature tells people that God exists, his nature, and his moral standards. But it does not tell them how they can be forgiven of their violations of these moral standards.

4. Natural revelation is not sufficient for pleasing God in any sphere. Since natural revelation does not bring people to salvation, it cannot prevent its own distortion in the human heart. With natural revelation alone, nobody can please God.[5]

5. The only remedy for the distortion of natural revelation is God´s grace. Paul later says, "œ"¦for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 3:23-24).

6. God´s grace comes to us through God´s special revelation, the Gospel of Scripture (Rom. 10:14-17). Saving faith is trusting in that message, that God will save all who come to him through Christ.

7. So we cannot understand natural revelation without distortion, unless we view it Biblically. Calvin says (Institutes, 1.1.6) that Scripture is like a pair of glasses, which brings into sharp focus what is otherwise blurred.

8. God has never authorized any social institutions or activities to govern themselves without the use of his spoken and written words. Kline and others have claimed that God authorized that sort of society between Cain and the Mosaic Covenant, a society he describes as a "œcommon grace" order, governed by natural revelation alone. The Mosaic Covenant began a different kind of society, a "œholy" society, governed by God´s written words. But even during the administration of this covenant, on Kline´s view, nations other than Israel were common grace societies. And when the New Covenant in Christ replaced the Mosaic, there was no longer any provision, even among God´s people, for Scripture to govern society. So all nations today are "œcommon grace" nations, societies to be governed by natural revelation, not the Bible.

I do not believe, however, that Scripture itself ever makes any such distinction. There is no record in Scripture of any nation or society divinely authorized to govern itself by natural revelation alone. God´s arrangement with Cain (Gen. 4:8-16) is by special revelation, God´s own words. Similarly, God´s covenants with Noah (Gen. 8:20-9:17) and Abraham (12:1-3, 15, 17). God authorizes Noah´s family to establish law and order, including the penalty of bloodshed to those who shed blood (9:6). Noah therefore receives this authorization, not by natural revelation, but by supernatural. During the time of the Mosaic Covenant, God´s prophets address, not only Israel, but pagan nations as well, bringing God´s spoken words to them (for example Isa. 10-24) and demanding that they live up to God´s revealed standards. Given the insufficiencies of natural revelation noted above, this fact should not be surprising.

9. Natural revelation is not sufficient for our public dialogue with non-Christians. Some will be surprised at this claim, for it has often been thought that the Klinean position is an advantage to public dialogue. Better appeal to nature, it is said, than to sling Bible passages at people. Certainly, this position has some rhetorical advantages in the present climate of unbelief. Many give a hearing, at least, to natural law ethics that they would not give to Bible exposition. But what we gain in rhetoric, in my view, we lose in cogency.

Romans 1 does say that God clearly reveals his ethical standards in natural revelation. But it doesn´t say how he reveals these. Thomas Aquinas and others thought that God reveals them through our ability to construct arguments, deducing conclusions from natural phenomena. That is unlikely, since Paul considers this clear revelation to be universal (see Rom. 3:10-20), and many people (e.g. small children) are incapable of devising arguments. More likely, the knowledge of natural revelation comes to us in an intuitive manner, though some may be able to develop arguments based on that intuited data.

But arguments actually developed from natural revelation premises ("œnatural law arguments" as they are called) are rarely cogent. Roman Catholics, for example, often argue that birth control is forbidden, because of the natural connection between sexual intercourse and reproduction. That connection obviously exists, but the moral conclusion is not a necessary one. Indeed the argument (like many natural law arguments) is a naturalistic fallacy, an attempt to reason from fact to obligation, from "œis" to "œought."

Cogent and persuasive ethical reasoning presupposes a world view and standards of judgment. It is not easy to argue these from nature alone. For Christians, these standards come from Scripture. So apart from Scripture ethical argument loses its cogency and often its persuasiveness. Nonbelievers, of course, won´t usually accept Scripture as authoritative. But they may at least respect an argument that is self-conscious about its epistemological and metaphysical presuppositions.

10. Jesus Christ rules all spheres of human life (Matt. 28:18), including politics. He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Rev. 17:14, 19:16; cf. 1 Tim. 6:15). The chief confession of the New Testament is kyrios Iesous, "œJesus is Lord" (Rom. 10:9, 1 Cor. 12:3, Phil. 2:11). This confession opposes the slogan "œCaesar is Lord." Although the kingdom of Jesus is different in many ways from earthly kingdoms, the Romans rightly feared Jesus as a rival to Caesar. In time, the empire became Christian, not by the sword, but by the power of the Gospel. So, as in many other ways, the Gospel, written and preached, transformed society.

11. The Gospel will transform the whole creation. This includes even the inanimate creation. The natural order "œwaits with eager longing for the manifestation of the sons of God" (Rom. 8:19). In Christ, all things will be reconciled to God (Col. 1:20). This makes even less likely the view that the word of God governs only the institutional church, and not the general culture.

12. Christians should seek the glory of God in all areas of life (1 Cor. 10:31). Since the Gospel transforms all things, we should also seek that goal, aligning our own responsible actions with God´s sovereign purpose. God intends for all human thoughts to be brought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5).

13. So natural revelation is insufficient in our witness to the lordship of Christ. In our public dialogue on cultural matters, the most important thing is to be true to the Great Commission, exalting Christ before human beings. Our argument should be a witness, or, at the very least, it should not detract from witness. For this purpose, natural revelation is of some use. Paul, for example, appealed to natural revelation when he dealt with Gentiles in Acts 14:15-17 and 17:22-31. But the climax of the Acts 17 sermon[6] was an appeal to the Resurrection of Christ, not a datum of natural revelation.

Too often, in ethical debate, Christians sound too much like unbelievers. They reason as if they and their opponents are both operating on the same principle: human rational autonomy. I believe they almost inevitably give this false impression when they are reasoning according to natural law alone. Only when the Christian goes beyond natural law and begins to talk about Jesus as the resurrected king of kings does his witness become distinctively Christian.

So I conclude that Christian reasoning about ethics, whether public or private, should never be based on natural revelation alone. Natural revelation is important, certainly, in applying the principles of Scripture. And observations of natural facts may make the difference in some cases (e.g., when a public policy choice depends on a statistic). But a complete ethical argument must appeal to the ultimate source of moral authority. And for Protestant Christians that is Scripture and Scripture alone. A further consequence is the conclusion given in the title of this article: natural revelation is not sufficient to govern human society or culture.

This Kuyperian approach should not be taken to imply that state and church should be merged, or that human cultural effort alone brings in the kingdom of God, or that all the arts should devote themselves entirely to evangelism, or that the church should become worldly. A number of people, such as Michael Horton[7], have charged that the Kuyperian view leads to such errors. But all the Kuyperians want to say is that Christian involvement in all cultural areas should be governed by the word of God. Of course, if the word of God says that state and church should be merged, then state and church should be merged. But it doesn´t say that. Some Christians in the past have erred in this respect, as when they have tried to achieve power for the church by wielding the sword. But they have erred, not in seeking to bring Scripture to bear on public life, but in misunderstanding what Scripture requires. And, although the errors of our ancestors should motivate more humility on our part when we try to apply Scripture to society, these errors are entirely irrelevant to the question of whether we should today seek to apply Scripture to culture.

I am thankful that God has led the church to debate these issues again, and I hope that this debate will lead Christians to greater clarity on this important matter. The very lordship of Christ is the issue. We are called to confess that lordship in everything we do, and in every sphere of life that we enter.


NOTES


1. There are some exceptions. The followers of Dooyeweerd in the Toronto Institute for Christian Studies identify themselves with Kuyper, but they believe that Scripture itself does not govern all of culture. Rather (1) it provides the gospel message by which people are regenerated by the Holy Spirit, (2) it gives us a world-and life-view (creation, fall, and redemption) that we should seek to relate to everything in the world, and (3) it gives specific direction in matters of faith, which on the Dooyeweerdian view is sharply distinguished from other spheres of human learning and social organization. In their view, therefore, Scripture does not give us standards for right and wrong. Rather, those standards are to be found from natural revelation under the impetus of regeneration and a general world view (creation-fall-redemption) derived from Scripture. So in fact the Dooyeweerdian movement holds to a natural law position in ethics, politics, the arts and other cultural matters, more characteristic of the Klinean-Lutheran view than of the Kuyperian.

2. See Meredith G. Kline, Kingdom Prologue (downloadable from http://www.twoagepress.org/books.htm .) Kline´s disciples often connect his position with the Lutheran contrasts between law and gospel and between the "œtwo kingdoms." I argue that these views are also similar to the Roman Catholic distinction between nature and grace. See Frame, Doctrine of the Christian Life, forthcoming, chapter 12 and passim.

3. "œNatural revelation" is God´s revelation of himself in the created order, apart from such verbal revelations as Scripture, prophecy, and the divine voice from Heaven. Scripture speaks of this in passages such as Ps. 19 and Rom. 1. "œSpecial revelation" is God revealing himself in words and sentences. The Gospel of redemption through Christ is part of special revelation. "œCommon grace" is non-saving grace, God´s kindness to those who do not believe in him, including his restraint on their sin.

4. Natural revelation is, nevertheless, clear and authoritative, taking away every excuse (Rom. 1:20). Natural revelation declares God´s truth, and sinners continue to know that truth at some level of their consciousness even though they distort it. So their distortion is culpable. They adopt an interpretation of natural revelation that justifies their sin, even though they know better.

5. This is not to say, of course, that unsaved people are as bad as they can be, or to deny that God´s common grace restrains human sin. It is simply to say that apart from grace nobody can please God (Rom. 8:8).

6. I am sure he would have said the same thing in the Acts 14 address had he had enough time. Perhaps he did, and Luke did not record it. But Paul sought in every place above all to preach Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2).

7. See my critique of his position at http://www.christianculture.com/cgi-local/npublisher/viewnews.cgi?category=3&id=1145485285.

From:
http://www.christianculture.com/cgi-local/npublisher/viewnews.cgi?category=3&id=1157227659

[Edited on 9-4-2006 by crhoades]
 

MW

Puritanboard Amanuensis
There seems to be a fluctuation in the article between natural revelation as provided, and natural revelation as understood. This gives the opportunity for equivocation, and to ultimately require something more than natural revelation to govern culture. This is an equivocation which prevails in Van Tillian thought in general.

I think some qualifications need to be made. The civil sphere is governed by natural revelation; but natural revelation must be properly understood; therefore we require special revelation to clarify what natural revelation teaches as normative for the civil sphere. As long as we begin and end with natural revelation governing the civil sphere, we will be kept fairly safe from the Roman dogma of temporal supremacy which subjects the State to the Church.

[Edited on 9-5-2006 by armourbearer]
 

Peter

Puritan Board Junior
I think the answer rests in the balance of both ideas. One problem I see at least in the working out of van tillianism in many adherents is that as the scope of the bible's application gets wider it also gets much shallower. Many of the same people who advocate the use of the bible as a poli sci text book deny the bible's sufficiency as a rule for the polity and the worship of the church.
 

MW

Puritanboard Amanuensis
Good observation, Peter. They start by applying the regulative principle to the State, see that the regulative principle must be broadened in order to do so, and then impose their broadened regulative principle on the Church.
 

ChristianTrader

Puritan Board Graduate
Originally posted by Peter
I think the answer rests in the balance of both ideas. One problem I see at least in the working out of van tillianism in many adherents is that as the scope of the bible's application gets wider it also gets much shallower. Many of the same people who advocate the use of the bible as a poli sci text book deny the bible's sufficiency as a rule for the polity and the worship of the church.

Actually I think the majority of vantillians are Presbyterian's and as far as worship goes, I see no reason to believe that they as a group are any worse than the mainstream of conservative presbyterian circles.

CT
 

ChristianTrader

Puritan Board Graduate
Originally posted by armourbearer
There seems to be a fluctuation in the article between natural revelation as provided, and natural revelation as understood. This gives the opportunity for equivocation, and to ultimately require something more than natural revelation to govern culture. This is an equivocation which prevails in Van Tillian thought in general.

Well if one follows Calvin's example of using scripture as a lense, then it seems that it would be warranted to say that one needs more than the natural revelation to get the job done.

I think some qualifications need to be made. The civil sphere is governed by natural revelation; but natural revelation must be properly understood; therefore we require special revelation to clarify what natural revelation teaches as normative for the civil sphere. As long as we begin and end with natural revelation governing the civil sphere, we will be kept fairly safe from the Roman dogma of temporal supremacy which subjects the State to the Church.

[Edited on 9-5-2006 by armourbearer]

I think most would agree with this statement but the issue is when exactly does special revelation stop having input and natural revelation takes over at the end?

CT
 

MW

Puritanboard Amanuensis
Originally posted by ChristianTrader
Originally posted by armourbearer
There seems to be a fluctuation in the article between natural revelation as provided, and natural revelation as understood. This gives the opportunity for equivocation, and to ultimately require something more than natural revelation to govern culture. This is an equivocation which prevails in Van Tillian thought in general.

Well if one follows Calvin's example of using scripture as a lense, then it seems that it would be warranted to say that one needs more than the natural revelation to get the job done.

Calvin was content to speak of natural law for civil government. He spoke of Scripture clarifying natural law because the natural man distorts it. Of course, what we are witnessing the more society moves away from its medieval basis is that Scripture becomes twisted in the process as well. In actual fact, ethical issues like the homosexuality debate rely more on "nature" to inform Scriptural interpretation, than Scriptural interpretation to clarify nature.
 

Peter

Puritan Board Junior
Originally posted by ChristianTrader

Actually I think the majority of vantillians are Presbyterian's and as far as worship goes, I see no reason to believe that they as a group are any worse than the mainstream of conservative presbyterian circles.

CT

That's a good point. Presbyterianism as a whole has strayed from the path of honoring Christ's kingship over the church so it may be a little harsh to fault the vantillians here. Yet there are some aggravating circumstances on the part of the vantillians that irk me. The majority of Presbyterian's are ignorant of the RPW. Not so of VTs who know it and obstinately reject it or invent RPs of Life to replace it. (The fact there is a "RPL" goes to the heart of what I am talking about) I don't think it is unfair to say that the intellectual basis of opposition to Christ's Crown Rights w/in Reformed circles is from a certain segment of VTism. And when I say they are against the bible's sufficiency in polity I do not mean they are anti-presbyterian, I mean they are anti Presbyterian as the only and exclusive gov't Christ established and approbates. This may be an uncritical generalization, but I believe the same anti-RPW VTers are Presbyterian on the basis of expedience not b/c it is the gov't Christ instituted. And I do believe there is an episcopal tendency too.
 

ChristianTrader

Puritan Board Graduate
Originally posted by Peter
Originally posted by ChristianTrader

Actually I think the majority of vantillians are Presbyterian's and as far as worship goes, I see no reason to believe that they as a group are any worse than the mainstream of conservative presbyterian circles.

CT

That's a good point. Presbyterianism as a whole has strayed from the path of honoring Christ's kingship over the church so it may be a little harsh to fault the vantillians here.

Actually no VanTillian that I know of rejects Christ's kingship over the church, the issue is how his kingship over the church differs from his kingship in other areas.

Let us not fall into the something similar to the liberal tendency to say that someone does not care about the poor if you disagree with them over how to help them.

Yet there are some aggravating circumstances on the part of the vantillians that irk me. The majority of Presbyterian's are ignorant of the RPW. Not so of VTs who know it and obstinately reject it or invent RPs of Life to replace it. (The fact there is a "RPL" goes to the heart of what I am talking about)

They obstinately reject it because they believe it to be wrong. Just as antipaedobaptists obstinately reject paedobaptism because they believe it to be wrong.

The way you write it, someone is conspiring to bring evil to church just for the sake of evil.

I don't think it is unfair to say that the intellectual basis of opposition to Christ's Crown Rights w/in Reformed circles is from a certain segment of VTism.

If you wish to have a crown rights battle, you need to look at the Klineans legacy way before you look at "other" vantillians.

And when I say they are against the bible's sufficiency in polity I do not mean they are anti-presbyterian, I mean they are anti Presbyterian as the only and exclusive gov't Christ established and approbates. This may be an uncritical generalization,

Yep its an uncritical generalization.

but I believe the same anti-RPW VTers are Presbyterian on the basis of expedience not b/c it is the gov't Christ instituted. And I do believe there is an episcopal tendency too.

Actually I see a false dichotomy between expediency and what Christ instituted. If one really thought something would fail then one would really be hesistant to put forward the idea that Jesus said or instutited it.
 

Peter

Puritan Board Junior
No one (Prelate, Papist, Mormon or even infidel) is conspiring to bring evil to church just for the sake of evil. I don't care what their motivations are. Satan always seeks to bring corruptions into the church covertly.

Actually no VanTillian that I know of rejects Christ's kingship over the church, the issue is how his kingship over the church differs from his kingship in other areas.

Let us not fall into the something similar to the liberal tendency to say that someone does not care about the poor if you disagree with them over how to help them.

What certainly is not an issue is that Christ's kingship consists in his sole prerogative to institute the worship and the government of the church. VTs such as Frame advocate and practice forms of worship not any where commanded in scripture and VTs such as the Hornes deny that Presbyterianism is the only form of government of divine right. Conclusion: they reject Christ's Kingship over the church. I realize that they don't out and say that they do but neither will those scurrilous liberals admit that their welfare for the so-called poor destroys the economy. ;)

If you wish to have a crown rights battle, you need to look at the Klineans legacy way before you look at "other" vantillians.

that's exactly what I mean about what is screwed up about many VTs. To them getting Christ's rights is electing a Constitution Party (Republican ?) candidate all the while making the chaste bride of Christ a whore with their human ceremonies. You need to look at the legacy of the Scottish church.
 

ChristianTrader

Puritan Board Graduate
Originally posted by Peter
No one (Prelate, Papist, Mormon or even infidel) is conspiring to bring evil to church just for the sake of evil. I don't care what their motivations are. Satan always seeks to bring corruptions into the church covertly.

I agree but this is completely beside the point, the point was the language that you chose to use. The issue is that your language either explicitly or implicitly said that some VTs flouted the RPW while somehow knowing the truth that what they were doing was evil. That language is/was unwarranted.

Actually no VanTillian that I know of rejects Christ's kingship over the church, the issue is how his kingship over the church differs from his kingship in other areas.

Let us not fall into the something similar to the liberal tendency to say that someone does not care about the poor if you disagree with them over how to help them.

What certainly is not an issue is that Christ's kingship consists in his sole prerogative to institute the worship and the government of the church. VTs such as Frame advocate and practice forms of worship not any where commanded in scripture and VTs such as the Hornes deny that Presbyterianism is the only form of government of divine right. Conclusion: they reject Christ's Kingship over the church. I realize that they don't out and say that they do but neither will those scurrilous liberals admit that their welfare for the so-called poor destroys the economy. ;)

First off do you really think it is warranted to lead everything necessarily back to VanTil (for good or ill). Especially when I can name you other VTs who hold to RPW and that Presbyterian church government is the biblical form of government. But then again there are some baptist VanTillains so one could probably place the blame on Van Til for that as well.

And we do not even have to get into what people who stand in other Calvinistic philosophy traditions have been known to hold to.

So one cannot disagree over what the Bible prescribes for church government without rejecting Christs authority to dictate?


If you wish to have a crown rights battle, you need to look at the Klineans legacy way before you look at "other" vantillians.

that's exactly what I mean about what is screwed up about many VTs. To them getting Christ's rights is electing a Constitution Party (Republican ?) candidate all the while making the chaste bride of Christ a whore with their human ceremonies. You need to look at the legacy of the Scottish church.

Um, when you know more about what you are talking about it might be easier to have a discussion.

CT
 

New wine skin

Puritan Board Freshman
I have enjoyed this post. I began thinking about the following article on Klines Instrusion Ethics after reading Dr Frame above.

http://www.kerux.com/documents/keruxv16n1a1.htm

I believe this article may clairify the "Kernal" of Kline's position. At the very least it has expanded my appreciation for the distinctives of this topic.

Here is a snipet from the article by Jeong Koo Jeon on Kline:

[It is important to recognize in Kline's biblico-covenant hermeneutics that the role of common grace is extremely crucial to the right understanding of the complicated nature of redemptive history after the fall. In other words, a distinction between the covenants of works and grace, and common grace and special grace, are closely connected to the unfolding mystery of the eschatological kingdom which is the ultimate goal of history. In this sense, we may identify Kline's biblical hermeneutics as covenantal eschatological kingdom hermeneutics.

One of the most distinctive contributions of Reformed theology and hermeneutics for the community of Christ's church is the bold recognition that there is a distinction between common grace and saving grace. In his presuppositional apologetics, Cornelius Van Til applied this crucial distinction as one of the essential ingredients of the Christian world view. However Van Til was not clear whether common grace was covenantally arranged after the fall. As a student of Van Til, Kline even correcting and advancing his view on the issue, utilized the distinction between the covenants of common grace and saving grace as one of the key biblical hermeneutical tools. Kline addresses and captures the importance of common grace in his analysis of redemptive history, especially with respect to the proper understanding of the covenant and the eschatological kingdom. Kline notices that after the fall a gracious God introduced the common grace covenant (Gen. 3:16-19) along with the redemptive covenant (Gen. 3:15). The consummated blessings of the eternal kingdom and the curse of an eternal hell are delayed by the principle of common grace introduced after the fall. In this sense, "the delay and common grace are coterminous." Certainly, there is "the positive contribution of common grace" to the redemptive eschatological program. Common grace as God's mercy and grace provides "the field of operation for redemptive grace, and its material too." The delay in relation to common grace provides a solid historical ground for "a consummation involving an extensive revelation of the divine perfections, a glorified paradise as well as a lake of fire." Therefore, the delay is not only "the delay of mere postponement but the delay of gestation." Kline sees the common grace order within redemptive history, and it will be terminated when the ultimate judgment comes. In that respect common grace is "the antithesis of the consummation, and as such it epitomizes this world-age as one during which the consummation is abeyant."6

According to Kline, from the perspective of eschatology, common grace is the means of its delay while from the vantage point of history common grace provides an important background for the continuation of human history as well as the application of salvation to the elect. Thus, the ultimate goal of redemptive history is the execution of divine judgment represented by the dual sanctions of the eschatological blessing and curse. Its delay, due to the divine introduction of common grace as the historical playground of the application of redemption, is the biblical theological background of Kline's 'intrusion ethics.' ]
 
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