Nature and Theology

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Semper Fidelis

2 Timothy 2:24-25
Staff member
I just finished reading The Infallible Word, which was a symposium of the WTS faculty in 1946.  There are several excellent articles within it.  I particularly enjoyed Van Til's contribution entitled Nature and Scripture I found it online here: http://thirdmill.org/magazine/hof/ST12006/Nature And Scripture by Van Til.pdf

3. The Authority Of Natural Revelation

So far we have found that the Confession’s conception of the necessity of Scripture
requires a corresponding conception of the necessity of revelation in nature. It is not
surprising, then, that the Confession’s notion of the authority of Scripture requires a
corresponding notion of the authority of revelation in nature. Here too it is well that we
begin by studying the situation as it obtained before the entrance of sin.

In paradise, God communicated directly and positively with man in regard to the tree
of life. This revelation was authoritative. Its whole content was that of a command
requiring implicit obedience. This supernatural revelation was something exceptional. 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. Man was given permission by means of the direct voice of authority to
control and subdue the powers of nature. As a hunter bears upon his back in clearly
visible manner the, number of his hunting license, so Adam bore indelibly upon his mind
the divine right of dealing with nature. And the divine right was at the same time the
divine obligation. The mark of God’s ownership was from the beginning writ large upon
all the facts of the universe. Man was to cultivate the garden of the Lord and gladly pay
tribute to the Lord of the manor.

Man’s scientific procedure was accordingly to be marked by the attitude of obedience
to God. He was to realize that he would find death in nature everywhere if he
manipulated it otherwise than as being the direct bearer of the behests of God. The
rational creature of God must naturally live by authority in all the activities of his
personality. All these activities are inherently covenantal activities either of obedience or
of disobedience.

Man was created as analogue of God; his thinking, his willing and his doing is
therefore properly conceived as at every point analogical to the thinking, willing and
doing of God. It is only after refusing to be analogous to God that man can think of
setting a contrast between the attitude of reason to one type of revelation and the attitude
of faith to another type of revelation.

By the idea of revelation, then, we are to mean not merely what comes to man
through the facts surrounding him in his environment, but also that which comes to him
by means of his own constitution as a covenant personality. 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. The
meaning of the Confession’s doctrine of the authority of Scripture does not become clear
to us till we see it against the background of the original and basically authoritative
character of God’s revelation in nature. Scripture speaks authoritatively to such as must
naturally live by authority. God speaks with authority wherever and whenever he speaks.

At this point a word may be said about the revelation of God through conscience and its
relation to Scripture. Conscience is man’s consciousness speaking on matters of directly
moral import. Every act of man’s consciousness is moral in the most comprehensive
sense of that term. Yet there is a difference between questions of right and wrong in a
restricted sense and general questions of interpretation. 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.

4. The Sufficiency Of Natural Revelation

Proceeding now to speak of the sufficiency of natural revelation as corresponding to
the sufficiency of Scripture, we recall that revelation in nature was never meant to
function by itself. It was from the beginning insufficient without its supernatural
concomitant. It was inherently a limiting notion. It was but the presupposition of
historical action on the part of man as covenant personality with respect to supernaturally
conveyed communication. But for that specific purpose it was wholly sufficient. It was
historically sufficient.

After the fall of man natural revelation is still historically sufficient. It is sufficient for
such as have in Adam brought the curse of God upon nature. It is sufficient to render
them without excuse. Those who are in prison and cannot clearly see the light of the sun
receive their due inasmuch as they have first abused that light. If nature groans in pain
and travail because of man’s abuse of it, this very fact—that is, the very curse of God on
nature—should be instrumental anew in making men accuse or excuse themselves.

Nature as it were yearns to be released from its imprisonment in order once more to be
united to her Lord in fruitful union. When nature is abused by man it cries out to her
creator for vengeance and through it for redemption.
It was in the mother promise that God gave the answer to nature’s cry (Gn 3:15). In this
promise there was a two-fold aspect. There was first the aspect of vengeance. He that
should come was to bruise the head of the serpent, the one that led man in setting up
nature as independent of the supernatural revelation of God. Thus nature was once more
to be given the opportunity of serving as the proper field of exercise for the direct
supernatural communication of God to man. But this time this service came at a more
advanced point in history. Nature was now the bearer of God’s curse as well as of his
general mercy. The “good,” that is, the believers, are, generally, hedged about by God.

Yet they must not expect that always and in every respect this will be the case. They must
learn to say with Job, be it after much trial, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him”
(Jb 13:15). The “evil,” that is, the unbelievers, will generally be rewarded with the natural
consequences of their deeds. But this too is not always and without qualification the case.
The wicked sometimes prosper. Nature only shows tendencies. And tendencies point
forward to the time when tendencies shall have become the rules without exception. The
tendency itself is meaningless without the certainty of the climax. The present regularity
of nature is therefore once again to be looked upon as a limiting notion. At every stage in
history God’s revelation in nature is sufficient for the purpose it was meant to serve, that
of being the playground for the process of differentiation between those who would and
those who would not serve God.

5. The Perspicuity Of Natural Revelation

Finally we turn to the perspicuity of nature which corresponds to the perspicuity of
Scripture. 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. And this
fact again might, on first glance, seem to militate strongly against the claim that nature
clearly reveals God. Yet these very facts themselves are the best guarantee of the genuine
perspicuity of natural revelation. The perspicuity of God’s revelation in nature depends
for its very meaning upon the fact that it is an aspect of the total and totally voluntary
revelation of a God who is self-contained. God’s incomprehensibility to man is due to the
fact that he is exhaustively comprehensible to himself. God is light and in him is no
darkness at all. As such he cannot deny himself. This God naturally has an allcomprehensive
plan for the created universe. He has planned all the relationships
between all the aspects of created being. He has planned the end from the beginning. All
created reality therefore actually displays this plan. It is, in consequence, inherently
rational.

It is quite true, of course, that created man is unable to penetrate to the very bottom of
this inherently clear revelation. 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. When on the created level of existence man thinks God’s
thoughts after him, that is, when man thinks in self-conscious submission to the voluntary
revelation of the self-sufficient God, he has therewith the only possible ground of
certainty for his knowledge. When man thinks thus he thinks as a covenant creature
should wish to think. That is to say, man normally thinks in analogical fashion. He
realizes that God’s thoughts are self-contained. He knows that his own interpretation of
nature must therefore be a reinterpretation of what is already fully interpreted by God.

The concept of analogical thinking is of especial significance here. Soon we shall
meet with a notion of analogy that is based upon the very denial of the concept of the
incomprehensible God. It is therefore of the utmost import that the Confession’s concept
of analogical thinking be seen to be the direct implication of its doctrine of God.
One further point must here be noted. 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. Even to the very
bottom of the most complex historical situations, involving sin and all its consequences,
God’s revelation shines with unmistakable clarity. “If I make my bed in hell, behold thou
art there” (Ps 139:8). Creatures have no private chambers.

Both the perspicuity of Scripture and the perspicuity of natural revelation, then, may
be said to have their foundation in the doctrine of the God who “hideth himself,” whose
thoughts are higher than man’s thoughts and whose ways are higher than man’s ways.
There is no discrepancy between the idea of mystery and that of perspicuity with respect
either to revelation in Scripture or to revelation in nature. On the contrary the two ideas
are involved in one another. The central unifying concept of the entire Confession is the
doctrine of God and his one unified comprehensive plan for the world. The contention
consequently is that at no point is there any excuse for man’s not seeing all things as
happening according to this plan.

In considering man’s acceptance of natural revelation, we again take our clue from
the Confession and what it says about the acceptance of Scripture. Its teaching on man’s
acceptance of Scriptural revelation is in accord with its teaching on the necessity,
authority, sufficiency and perspicuity of Scripture. The Scriptures as the finished product
of God’s supernatural and saving revelation to man have their own evidence in
themselves. The God who speaks in Scripture cannot refer to anything that is not already
authoritatively revelational of himself for the evidence of his own existence. There is no
thing that does not exist by his creation.

All things take their meaning from him. Every witness to him is a “prejudiced”
witness. For any fact to be a fact at all, it must be a revelational fact.

It is accordingly no easier for sinners to accept God’s revelation in nature than to
accept God’s revelation in Scripture. They are no more ready of themselves to do the one
than to do the other. From the point of view of the sinner, theism is as objectionable as is
Christianity. Theism that is worthy of the name is Christian theism. Christ said that no
man can come to the Father but by him. No one can become a theist unless he becomes a
Christian. Any God that is not the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is not God but an idol.
It is therefore the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts that
alone effects the required Copernican revolution and makes us both Christians and
theists. Before the fall, man also needed the witness of the Holy Spirit: Even then the
third person of the Holy Trinity was operative in and through the naturally revelational
consciousness of man so that it might react fittingly and properly to the works of God’s
creation. But then that operation was so natural that man himself needed not at all or
scarcely to be aware of its existence. When man fell, he denied the naturally revelatory
character of every fact including that of his own consciousness. He assumed that he was
autonomous; he assumed that his consciousness was not revelational of God but only of
himself. He assumed himself to be non-created. He assumed that the work of
interpretation, as by the force of his natural powers he was engaged in it, was an original
instead of a derivative procedure. He would not think God’s thoughts after him; he would
instead think only his own original thoughts.

Now if anything is obvious from Scripture it is that man is not regarded as properly a
judge of God’s revelation to him. Man is said or assumed from the first page to the last to
be a creature of God. God’s consciousness is therefore taken to be naturally original as
man’s is naturally derivative. Man’s natural attitude in all self-conscious activities was
therefore meant to be that of obedience. It is to this deeper depth, deeper than the sinner’s
consciousness can ever reach by itself, that Scripture appeals when it says: “Come let us
reason together.” It appeals to covenant-breakers and argues with them about the
unreasonableness of covenant-breaking. 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. It is only the Christian consciousness
that is ready and willing to regard all nature, including man’s own interpretative
reactions, as revelational of God. But this very fact requires that the Christian
consciousness make a sharp distinction between what is revelational in this broad and
basic sense and what is revelational in the restricted sense. When man had not sinned, he
was naturally anxious constantly to seek contact with the supernatural positive revelation
of God. But it is quite a different matter when we think of the redeemed sinner. He is
restored to the right relationship. But he is restored in principle only. There is a drag upon
him. His “old man” wants him to interpret nature apart from the supernatural revelation
in which he operates. The only safeguard he has against this historical drag is to test his
interpretations constantly by the principles of the written Word. And if theology succeeds
in bringing forth ever more clearly the depth of the riches of the Biblical revelation of
God in Scripture, the Christian philosopher or scientist will be glad to make use of this
clearer and fuller interpretation in order that his own interpretation of nature may be all
the fuller and clearer too, and thus more truly revelational of God. No subordination of
philosophy or science to theology is intended here. The theologian is simply a specialist
in the field of Biblical interpretation taken in the more restricted sense. The philosopher
is directly subject to the Bible and must in the last analysis rest upon his own
interpretation of the Word. But he may accept the help of those who are more constantly
and more exclusively engaged in Biblical study than he himself can be.
 
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