Nautral Knowledge vs. Biblicism
Order of Contents
Historical Theology 1
Natural Knowledge vs. Biblicism
How Nature’s Light does Not Direct to a Supernatural End 3
How Nature’s Light & Scripture Interpret Each Other 2
Nature’s Light is Insufficient to Savingly Understand Scripture 2
Willet, Andrew – Hexapla, that is, A Sixfold Commentary upon the Most Divine Epistle of the Holy Apostle, St. Paul to the Romans… (Cambridge, 1611), ch. 2
3. ‘The Questions & Doubts Discussed’
Q. 27, ‘How the Gentiles which had not the law, did by nature the things contained in the law’
Q. 27, ‘How anything can be said to be written in the heart by nature, seeing the mind is commonly held to be as a bare and naked table’
Q. 28, ‘Of the Law of nature, what it is’
Q. 29, ‘What precepts the law of nature contains and prescribes’
Q. 30, ‘What the law of nature was before and after man’s Fall, and wherein they differ’
Q. 31, ‘Whether the light of nature, though much obscured, can altogether be blotted out of the mind of man’
Q. 32, ‘Whether ignorance of the law of nature in man does make any way excusable’
Q. 33, ‘That the light of nature is not sufficient of itself to direct a man to bring forth any virtuous act without the grace of Christ’
5. ‘Places of Controversy’
9, ‘Whether by the light of nature only a man may do anything morally good?’
Alting, Henry – ‘A Disputation on the Light of Nature’ trans. T. Fentiman (1628; RBO, 2022) 2 pp. 16 theses
Alting (1583-1644) was a German, reformed, professor of theology at Heidelberg (1613-1622) and a professor of historical theology at Groningen, Netherlands (1627-1644). He, with Abraham Scultetus,
represented the University of Heidelberg at the Synod of Dort in 1618.
This disputation is of special interest in understanding the background to Westminster’s affirmations regarding the light of nature: WCF 1.1; 1.6; 10.4; 20.4; 21.1; WLC 2, 60, 121, 151.
Gillespie, George – ch. 5, ‘The first argument for the authority of synods and the subordination of presbyteries thereto, taken from the light of nature’ in An Assertion of the Government of the Church of Scotland... (Edinburgh, 1641), 2nd Part, pp. 153-57
Cawdrey, Daniel & Herbert Palmer – Sabbatum Redivivum: or the Christian Sabbath Vindicated… (London, 1645), 1st part, ch. 9
sections 16-20, pp. 157-60
section 27, pp. 165-66
sections 36-39, pp. 173-77
London Presbyterian Ministers – pt. 1, ch. 3, ‘Of the Nature of a Divine Right in particular. How many ways a thing may be of Divine Right. And first, of a Divine Right by the true light of nature’ in The Divine Right of Church Government (London, 1645; 1654; NY, 1844)
“A thing may be said to be of divine right, or (which is the same for substance) of divine institution, diverse ways: 1. By the true light of nature. 2. By obligatory scripture examples. 3. By divine approbation. 4. By divine acts. 5. By divine precepts or mandates. All may be reduced to these five heads, ascending by degrees from the lowest to the highest divine right.”
Burgess, Anthony – Vindiciae legis, or a Vindication of the Moral Law & the Covenants, from the Errors of Papists, Arminians, Socinians, & More especially Antinomians, in 30 Lectures… (London: Young, 1647), pp. 67-84
Lecture 7, on Rom. 2:14
Lecture 8, on Rom. 2:14
Burgess was a Westminster divine.
Burroughs, Jeremiah – pp. 32-42 of Sermon 2 in Gospel Conversation, wherein is showed, I. How the conversation of believers must be above what could be by the Light of Nature… (London: Cole, 1650)
Firmin, Giles – Argument 2, pp. 21-23 in Stablishing against Shaking: or a Discovery of the… Deluded People called, Quakers… (London, 1656)
Firmin was an English clergyman with Independent puritan leanings.
Allestree, Richard – pp. 1-3 of Partition 1, ‘Of the Duty of Man by the Light of Nature, by the Light of Scripture…’ in The Whole Duty of Man Laid Down in a Plain Way… (London, 1659)
Allestree (1621/2–1681) was an Anglican, royalist clergyman.
Poole, Matthew – On 1 Cor. 11:14, ‘Nature’ in Annotations on 1 Cor. 11
Beverley, Thomas – ch. 4, ‘Of Revelation & the Reasons of so Great Miscarriages Against both the Light of Nature & Revelation, with the Means of Cure’ in A Catholic Catechism showing the impossibility the Catholic Religion should be Varied to the Degree of a Thought from the Measures Left Sealed by the Apostles… (London, 1683), pp. 14-23
Culverwel, Nathanael – A Discourse of the Light of Nature 215 pp. in An Elegant & Learned Discourse of the Light of Nature, with Several Other Treatises Nathanael Culverwel (London, 1652) ToC
This work is not necessarily recommended. Culverwel (1619–1651) was the son of an English minister and was a fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He was associated with members of the Cambridge Platonists group.
Wikipedia: “The Cambridge Platonists used the framework of the philosophia perennis of Agostino Steuco, and from it argued for moderation. They believed that reason is the proper judge of disagreements, and so they advocated dialogue between the puritan and Laudian traditions. The orthodox English Calvinists of the time found in their views an insidious attack, by-passing as it did the basic theological issues of atonement and justification by faith.
Their understanding of reason was as “the candle of the Lord”, an echo of the divine within the human soul and an imprint of God within man. They believed that reason could judge the private revelations of puritan narrative, and investigate contested rituals and liturgy of the Church of England. For this approach they were called “latitudinarian”.
The dogmatism of the puritan divines, with their anti-rationalist demands, was, they felt, incorrect. They also felt that the Calvinist insistence on individual revelation left God uninvolved with the majority of mankind. At the same time, they were reacting against the reductive materialist writings of Thomas Hobbes. They felt that the latter, while rationalist, were denying the idealistic part of the universe.
To the Cambridge Platonists, religion and reason were in harmony, and reality was known not by physical sensation alone, but by intuition of the intelligible forms that exist behind the material world of everyday perception. Universal, ideal forms inform matter, and the physical senses are unreliable guides to their reality. In response to the mechanical philosophy, More proposed a “Hylarchic Principle”, and Cudworth a concept of “Plastic Nature”.”
Hale, Matthew – A Discourse of the Knowledge of God & of Ourselves: I. by the Light of Nature, II. by the Sacred Scriptures… (London, 1688) 457 pp.
The Marrow of Theology trans. John D. Eusden (1623; Baker, 1997), ch. 1, ‘The Definition or Nature of Theology’, p. 77
“It [theology] is called doctrine, not to separate it from understanding, knowledge, wisdom, art or prudence–for these go with every exact discipline, and most of all with theology–but to mark it as a discipline which derives not from nature and human inquiry like others, but from divine revelation and appointment. Isa. 51:4, ‘Doctrine shall go forth from Me;’ Mt. 21:25, ‘From heaven… Why then did you not believe him?’; Jn. 9:29, ‘We know that God has spoken to Moses;’ Gal. 1:11-12, ‘The gospel… is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation;’ Jn. 6:45.
3. The principles of other arts, since they are inborn in us, can be developed through sense perception, observation, experience and induction, and so brought to perfection. But the basic principles of theology, though they be advanced by study and industry, are not in us by nature. Matt. 16:17, ‘Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you.’
4. Every art has its rules to which the work of the person practicing it corresponds. Since living is the noblest work of all, there cannot be any more proper study than the art of living well.
5. Since the highest kind of life for a human being is that which approaches most closely the living and life-giving God, the nature of theological life is living to God.
8. Although it is within the compass of this life to live both happily and well, euzoia, living well, is more excellent than eudaimonia, living happily. What chiefly and finally ought to be striven for is not happiness which has to do with our own pleasure, but goodness which looks to God’s glory…
10. Now since this life so willed is truly and properly our most important practice, it is self-evident that theology is not a speculative discipline but a practical one–not only in the common respect that all disciplines have eupraxia, good practice, as their end, but in a special and peculiar manner compared with all others.
11. Nor is there anything in theology which does not refer to the final end or to the means related to that end–all of which refer directly to practice.
12. This practice of life is so perfectly reflected in theology that there is no precept of universal truth relevant to living well in domestic economy, morality, political life or law-making which does not rightly pertain to theology.
13. Theology, therefore, is to us the ultimate and noblest of all exact teaching arts. It is a guide and master plan for our hightest end, sent in a special manner from God, treating of divine things, tending towards God, and leading man to God. It may therefore not incorrectly be called theozoia, a living to God, theourgia, a working towards God, as well as theology.”
Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete & Unabridged in One Volume (Hendrickson, 1994), p. 3
“The holy scripture therefore, designing by revealed religion to maintain and improve natural religion, to repair the decays of it and supply the defects of it, since the fall, for the reviving of the precepts of the law of nature, lays down, at first, this principle of the unclouded light of nature, That this world was, in the beginning of time, created by a Being of infinite wisdom and power, who was himself before all time and all worlds.”
Dictionary of Latin & Greek Theological Terms (Baker, 1985), p. 199
“nature; a term having three primary meanings in scholastic theology and in Protestant orthodox usage: (1) essence; (2) a particular kind or species of essence in its actual existence; (3) the entire physical universe and its phenomenon…
In the third sense, natura simply refers to the order of nature and is used in such terms as lex naturalis (q.v.), natural law, or theologia naturalis (q.v.), natural theology–the law implicit in the order of the phenomenal world and the knowledge of God obtainable from examination of the physical universe.”
On the Puritans
Kevan, Ernest – p. 70 ff. in The Grace of Law: A Study in Puritan Theology Ref (RHB, 2016)
Ames, William – Theological Assertions on the Light of Nature & of Grace, how so far it is sufficient, and this necessary to the understanding of Sacred Scripture in A Scholastic Disquisition on the Pontifical Circle… [with] Theological Disquisitions… (Leiden, 1633), pp. 39-48
Beck, Matthias Friedrich – A Dissertation on the Light of Nature (Jenna: Samuel Krebs, 1676) 34 pp.
This work appears to be Lutheran.
Poole, Matthew – On 1 Cor. 11:14, ‘Doth not Nature teach?’ in The Synopsis of Critics… (Utrecht, 1686), vol. 5, pp. 470-75
Schweizer, Johann Heinrich – A Philosophical Disputation on the Existence of God, so far as is Demonstrable from Natural Light (Zurich: Simler, 1691) 21 pp.
Heidegger, Johann H. – sections 5-8 in Locus 1, ‘On Theology in General’ in A Marrow of the Marrow of Christian Theology, in Favor & in Use in Tyron (Zurich, 1697), pp. 2-4
Lavater, David – A Metaphysical Dissertation setting forth a Brief Delineation of Things which are able to be Drawn of God out of Natural Light (Zurich, 1732) 12 pp.
Lavater (1692-1774) was a reformed professor of philosophy at Zurich.
Clauberg, Johann – A Hundred Exercitations on the Knowledge of God & of Us, howsofar by the Natural Light of Reason, according to True Philosophy, it is able to be Compared (1656; Harling, 1685) 494 pp. ToC
Clauberg (1622-1665) was a professor of philosophy, theology, ethics and politics at Herborn and Duisburg.
Natural Knowledge vs. Biblicism
See also, Contra Biblicism.
“Biblical Interpretation & Natural Knowledge: A Key to Solving the Protestant Problem” in ed. Joseph Minich, Reforming the Catholic Tradition: The Whole Word for the Whole Church (Davenant Press, 2019)
“Richard Hooker & Reformed Natural Theology” (Oct. 2022)
Barr, James – Biblical Faith & Natural Theology: the Gifford Lectures… (Clarendon Press, 1993) 250 pp. ToC
Belschner, Brad & Alastair Roberts – “Is Biblicism Bad?” 6 min. Davenant Institute
“What does the Bible presume that we already know. There are a lot of things that the Bible presumes that we already know… Biblicism is a term that’s often being used in reference to a specific distinctive of evangelicals…
How do you define Biblicism? I define it as that elevation of the Bible to such a high level that it occludes other things that we need to take into account…
And often in circles that emphasize Biblicism you see prudential categores of thought deemphasized; its not about prudence if you have a divinely inspired verse that commands you to do something about it… in addition to that, there’s also the sidelining of philosophical categories, and systematic categories…
We do teach the sufficiency of Scripture, but sufficiency for the task that God has given it. And so its like talking about the sufficiency of a steering wheel for steering a car. We don’t think of the sufficiency of the steering wheel in detachment from the rest of the steering mechanism, or in detachment from the driver; and so we need all of these things together, and Scripture is something that works along with God’s revelation in nature.”
How the Light of Nature does Not Direct to a Supernatural End
A Discussion on the Subject of Predestination between James Arminius & Francis Arminius in The Works of James Arminius… trans. Nichols & Bagnall (Auburn: Derby & Miller, 1853), vol. 3, pp. 149-150
“It is very true, that things subordinate are not at variance. There is a natural end. As nature is subordinate to God, so natural ends are subordinate to those which are supernatural and divine. The end of our nature, so far as it is natural, is this, that it should approach very near to the Divine; so far as it is supernatural, it is that man may be united to God.”
English Popish Ceremonies... (1637), pt. 3, ch. 9, ‘That the Lawfulness of the Ceremonies Cannot be Warranted by the Law of Nature’, p. 200
“The Law of Nature cannot direct us unto a supernatural end, as is acknowledged not only by our divines (Junius, De Politia Mosaica, ch. 1; Paraeus, Commentary on Rom. 1:19), but by Aquinas also (1a, 2a, q. 91, article 4). It only teaches us to seek and to do bonum, velut finem naturae, ‘such a good as is an end proportioned to Nature’ (Junius). All those precepts of the Law of Nature which we have spoken of, could never lead men to a supernatural good (Junius).
It is only the Divine Law, revealed from God, which informs the minds of men with such notions as are supra naturam [above nature], and which may guide them ad finem supernaturalem [to a supernatural end].”
‘David Bentley Hart’s Post-Christian Pantheism’ (2022) at Public Discourse
“What is the purpose of human existence? Both Christianity and classical philosophy in the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions answer that our highest end is to know God. But there is, according to Roman Catholic theology, a crucial difference between the knowledge of God that philosophy makes possible, and the kind that Christian revelation promises. Unaided human reason can establish that there exists a divine first cause of the world. It can infer God’s unity, perfect goodness, omnipotence, omniscience, and many other divine attributes. But it cannot afford us a direct (as opposed to merely inferential) knowledge of God’s very essence or nature. For example, it cannot reveal the Trinitarian inner life of God as three divine Persons.
The direct apprehension of God’s essence is known as the beatific vision, and Catholic teaching holds that it is not something we are naturally capable of. Attaining it requires grace or supernatural assistance in the sense of special divine action to raise us above or beyond (hence the prefix “super-”) what our nature makes possible. Since it is not an end we are naturally capable of achieving, neither is it an end we are by nature made for. Rather, it is a supernatural end (again, in the sense of above or beyond our nature), to which God has graciously raised us. By nature alone we are aimed only toward an incomplete knowledge of God, such as the kind that philosophy provides. By grace we are directed toward the most intimate knowledge of him that is possible for a created thing.
I have left out various nuances and details… On one side [of the 20th century Romanist debate] were Thomist theologians (that is to say, followers of St. Thomas Aquinas) such as Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange (1877–1964), who developed and defended the account just summarized.
…human beings are not, by nature, completely closed off to the beatific vision. They do by nature have what is called an “obediential potency” for it, a built-in capacity to have a supernatural end added to them. But Hart [who is Eastern Orthodox] dismisses this notion as doubletalk. If we really have such a capacity, he says, then this would after all amount to a natural orientation toward the beatific vision; whereas if it would not amount to that, then we are back to the problem that, by raising us to that end, God would be replacing us with some other kind of creature rather than transforming us. The notion of an “obediential potency” is supposed to be a middle ground between these options, but, Hart insists, there is no such middle ground.
Yet that Hart is wrong about this is clear even from simple analogies drawn from everyday modern life. Consider the laptop computer on which you might be reading this. There is an obvious sense in which it is complete all by itself, with its operating system, other software installed in the factory, built-in Wi-Fi capability, and so on. Yet it has the capacity to have added to it all sorts of new software and accessories (via download, or through USB and HDMI ports and the like)—including, if it is old enough, some that had not even been invented at the time the computer was designed and manufactured. Since software and accessories of the latter sort were not even in view when the computer was designed, they cannot be said to be ends for which the computer was made. All the same, they are ends that might be added to it, because it does at least have the inherent capacity to have such ends added to it.
This is analogous to the notion of an “obediential potency,” and it indicates the sense in which there is indeed a middle ground of just the sort Hart claims is impossible. In what Thomists call a state of “pure nature,” human beings would not have the beatific vision as an end to which they are directed, any more than a computer is oriented toward running some application that did not even exist when it was manufactured. But just as a computer does nevertheless have a capacity to have such applications added to it, so too are human beings made in such a way that an orientation toward the beatific vision might be imparted to them.
Hart’s second main objection is that any rational creature would, just by virtue of being rational, desire to know the very essence of the first cause of all things, so that such knowledge would be its natural end. There is a sense in which the premise is true, but the conclusion does not follow. To borrow an example from the philosopher Thomas Nagel, consider that there is an obvious sense in which a human being might desire to know what it is like to be a bat—to fly through the air the way a bat does, to get around via echolocation, and so on. Yet there is also an obvious sense in which it is simply not part of our nature to do these things, so that human beings can live complete lives as the kind of creatures we are without doing them. For that reason, our curiosity about what it is like to be a bat does not entail a sense of deprivation or loss in the way that, say, a missing limb would.
In an analogous way, had human beings been created in a state of “pure nature,” without a divinely imparted orientation toward the supernatural end of the beatific vision, they might in a sense nevertheless wish that they could have a direct knowledge of God’s very essence. But they would also judge that this is simply no more possible for them than it is possible for them to know what it is like to be a bat, and thus they would not feel this impossibility as a deprivation of something they were by nature made for. The indirect knowledge of God that they are capable of would suffice.
Now, like other critics of the Thomist position, Hart insists that an orientation toward the supernatural end of the beatific vision is natural to us. Taken at face value, this is simply incoherent. If an orientation toward a certain end really is natural to us, then it makes no sense to describe it as supernatural (that is to say, beyond our nature). Or, if it really is supernatural, then it makes no sense to describe it as natural.
However, in fairness to Hart, I don’t think he is actually guilty of this particular sort of incoherence. In order to be guilty of it, you have to acknowledge that there really is a distinction in reality between the natural order and the supernatural order. Catholic thinkers like de Lubac do acknowledge this, which is why it is difficult for them to formulate a coherent alternative to the Thomist position. But Hart does not acknowledge it. He insists on collapsing the distinctions between natural and supernatural, between nature and grace, and between God’s creating us and his orienting us to the beatific vision. And this is where his position becomes truly radical—indeed, as I have said, pantheistic.
To understand how and why Hart goes in the extreme direction he does, it is useful to note that one of the motivations for the Thomist position he rejects is the thesis that the vision of God’s very essence is natural only to God himself, and not to any created thing (as Aquinas says in Question 27, Article 2 of De Veritate). This implies that to attribute to human beings a natural capacity to know God’s very essence would be to identify them with God.”
How the Light of Nature & Scripture Interpret Each Other, & How They Don’t
A Christian Directory: a Sum of Practical Theology and Cases of Conscience Buy (1673), pt. 3, Christian Ecclesiastics, Question 159, ‘If we think that Scripture and the Law of Nature do in any point contradict each others, which may be the standard by which the other must be tried?’
[1.] It is certain that they never do contradict each other:
2. The Law of Nature is either that which is very clear by natural evidence or that which is dark (as degrees of consanguinity unfit for marriage, the evil of officious [white] lies, etc.).
3. The Scriptures also have their plain and their obscurer parts.
4. A dark Scripture is not to be expounded contrary to a plain, natural verity.
5. A dark and doubtful point in Nature is not to be expounded contrary to a plain and certain Scripture.
6. To suppose that there be an apparent contradiction in cases of equal clearness or doubtfulness, is a case not to be supposed; But he that should have such a dream must do as he would do if he thought two texts to be contradictory, that is, he must better study both till he see his error; still remembering that natural evidence has this advantage, that it is: 1. first in order, 2. and most common and received by all; But supernatural evidence has this advantage, that it is for the most part the more clear and satisfactory.”
Firmin, Giles – Argument 4, pp. 26-28 in Stablishing against Shaking: or a Discovery of the… Deluded People called, Quakers… (London, 1656)
Beeke, Joel & Todd Rester – ‘Rejection of Copernicanism’ in ‘Preface’ to Peter van Mastricht, Theoretical Practical Theology (RHB, 2021), vol. 3, pp. xxxiv-xxxix
The Light of Nature is Insufficient to Savingly Understand Scripture
Rutherford, Samuel – 12. ‘Whether the light of the Holy Spirit is required for the Scriptures to be savingly understood? We affirm against the Arminians.’ in An Examination of Arminianism (Utrecht, 1668), ch. 1, ‘On the Scriptures & Fundamental Articles’, pp. 82-87
Ames, William – ‘Theological Assertions on the Light of Nature & Grace, how far the Former is Sufficient & the Latter is Necessary to the Understanding of Sacred Scripture’ in A Scholastic Disquisition on the Pontifical Circle… also of the same author, Theological Disquisitions… (Amsterdam, 1658), pp. 21-25