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On the Necessity of Natural Theology

What is the purpose of it and how does general revelation affect the gospel?

General revelation often refers to the famous opening verses of Paul’s letter to the Romans: “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his 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. So they are without excuse.” (Romans 1:19-20) That is, God is plainly visible and “clearly perceived” through our immediate sense experience, indispensability of objective truth, necessary use of logic and existential reasoning, beauty and aesthetic perception, conscience and moral understanding, and also “in the things that have been made” like plants, animals, the order and law of nature, life-permitting function of lifeless things (i.e., hydrological cycle, plants produce edible fruits and vegetables, etc.) and so on, all of which factor in our implicit knowledge of God, or the highest conceivable Being as Anselm put it. External creation points to, if not, proves the reality of God inwardly. More than just discerning God’s mere existence, but God’s “invisible attributes, namely, His divine nature and eternal power” as a nonmaterial, eternal, immutable, self-sufficient, all-knowing, all-powerful, ever-present, supremely good, sovereign, personal, and holy being, are also perceptible through reason and conscience as well, so that we are all “without excuse” (Romans 1:20). Where did Paul ever get such a radical idea? You don’t have to look far.

Natural Theology in the Old Testament

In Psalm 19, David is one of the first to draw attention to the bridge between nature and theology, that nature declares God’s presence through silent action:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
It rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is deprived of its warmth.
– Psalm 19:1-6, NIV

Nature arouses our implicit awareness of God. What’s more striking about this view is that David uses nature to illustrate a parallel between revelations––world and word, general and special (v.7-9). For instance, when David says, “The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes”, he parallels inward understanding given by God for following His commands to the sun’s light and warmth (v.5-6); a universal, constant, and impartial attribute of the sun, akin to God’s justice of which Christ Himself cites (cf. Matthew 5:45). David does so to draw a deeper relationship: Just looking at the world around us (v.1-6) and taking His word to heart (v.7-9), we fall short (v.10-14). Through the awe and majesty of the created order, God testifies about His divine nature and eternal power over the external world, and that through His intentional word (laws, testimony, precepts, commandment, fear, and decrees) He is more than just a passive, provisional power like the sun, but breaks through the distant, impersonal barrier laid by sin to verify His heart for humanity (v.7-9), that He is Lord of the outward and inward, of physical and spiritual, He is “my Rock and my Redeemer” (v.14). Only a God who is truly so ultimate yet intimate would desire to forgive our “hidden faults” and sins (v.12), to “refresh our soul” and restore us blameless, innocent, and good. It is precisely this inner sense of falling short of true goodness that deepens the subliminal awareness of God inwardly and outwardly, and plays a vital role in perceiving God in creation.

“Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know….therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes..

Job 42:1-6

What is often overlooked is that it’s not just the positive evidence that attests to God, it’s the negative evidence, as well. A closer inspection of God judging Job’s sense of justice (or lack thereof) in Job 38-41 reveals that even our lack of knowledge attests to God’s unfathomable wisdom, divine nature, and eternal power. If you recall, God uses numerous anecdotes from creation – origin of earth, water and light, land formations, water cycle, weather patterns, sunrise and sunset, constellations, animal behaviour – to emphasize how little Job understands. God’s overwhelming use of examples only strengthens the notion that creation itself reduces the threshold for general revelation to just sheer awe and wonder. It is Job’s humble realization of falling short before God’s unfathomable goodness and then eventual repentance that makes this point clear: “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know….therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:1-6, emphasis added).

From subliminal to evidential, basic theology of God is deducible from creation. Indeed, from ancient philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle who deduced an uncaused cause or “Prime Mover” to the late atheist philosopher Antony Flew who led the charge against God yet passed away a theist because of the evidence of modern science, natural theology is a simple fact attested to throughout secular history. Smart or dumb, we are truly without excuse.

The Natural Man

This implicit fact of God, however, does not compel proper faith in God. With creation testifying God through and through, Paul clarifies a critical point. It is not that naturalism or bestial proclivities are the sole leading factors toward false worship, though it indicates the beginning phase toward such, rather it is that we cannot reject, rescind, or ignore our spiritual nature to worship, so we exchange it: the Creator for the things that have been made. When we conflate these attributes of God deserving of worship with things of nature (humanity included), we loosen our nature and bind things “contrary to [our] nature” (Romans 1:26). We substitute the natural order designed by God for bestial, unnatural worship. Having “exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator…. God gave them up to dishonorable passions….” (Romans 1:22-26). When our reasoning and conscience that points to a supernatural God is willfully naturalized, restricted to the observance of the material world, the natural world becomes the dominant frame of reference for moral, rational, and spiritual discernment. Outward looking, not inward. And once the knowledge of God is loosened or reduced, morality follows. Our spiritual nature is likewise reduced to a creaturely juxtaposition, as if it is more natural for us to behave like animals through bestial faculties, passions, and appetites, and less natural for us to be moral creatures designed as image bearers. This view is a common frame of reference in our culture today, and frequently reinforced by proponents of naturalism and scientism whom presuppose human nature is bestial by descent and religious belief/experience is untethered to our nature, floating weightlessly above material existence.

Yet, if the requirements or works of the law is written on our hearts, and our conscience also bears witness to this fact (Romans 2:14-15), then our nature is moral and spiritual by default, and we must desensitize, denormalize, and demoralize our nature to a bestial status. Then, the binding obligation to truth, moral truth, follows soon after: “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done” (Romans 1:28, 32). It is natural to be spiritual. It is normal for us to consciously worship God. It is this unique spiritual-moral quality of humanness that sets us up as ambassadors, image bearers, of God here on earth, to take dominion through the reconciling power of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20; 1 Timothy 4:4; Genesis 1:26-28). The spiritual and natural harmonize by design, just as Christ died and rose again in the flesh and we, too, will be spiritually glorified in the flesh come new creation. And it is precisely this sin-driven rebellion against God that splits the two and produces hardened hearts and those “slow to believe” spoken of throughout Scripture (Exodus 8:19, 32, 9:7, 34; Deuteronomy 15:7; 1 Samuel 6:6; 2 Chronicles 36:13; Job 9:4; Mark 6:52, 8:17; Luke 24:25; Romans 11:25; Hebrews 3:13-15). Our sin condition only worsens when this worship is no longer implicit or innate, when the Spirit is no longer vital to our “breath”. Hence, the need for the gospel.

Hardened Hearts

Paul is appealing to our deeply suppressed nature to worship God. In full spectrum, the Biblical authors do not set out to prove God’s existence against naturalism, atheism, agnosticism, or the like, as if we can truly doubt His existence (Psalm 14, 53)[1]. Rather, God is always assumed self-evident to all people, however subliminal or implicit He may feel. As sin deepens over time, a person’s heart becomes hardened to this fact–––cavalier, apathetic, cynical, abhorrent, indifferent, darkened. (Ephesians 4:17-19) Yet even when God’s existence is reduced to mere possibility by a hardened heart, the possibility of God is still enough for one to cry out for Him as much as it is for God to judge them. Natural theology, then, is about the objectivity of hardened hearts. So, hardened to what, exactly? God’s existence? No. His forgiveness.

We, by nature, have hated repentance (cf. John 15:18). Yet, God commands all people everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30). The gospel is about the Holy Spirit writing the law of God on our hearts and minds through the reconciling power of Christ who fulfilled the Law (Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 11:19, 36:26; Hebrews 8:10, 10:16), to restore our Edenic covenant and relationship with God in rightful worship (Romans 12:1). It splits the sheep from the goats, the light from the darkness (Matthew 25:31-46); and it starts right here, right now. By repenting, thereby devoting our life to His forgiving power, we must submit our breath to God–––repentance is submission, and submission is worship. Committing the gospel to heart, then, wages war against the hearts “hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:7-9, 12-16) and the “present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesian 6:12), the weapons of which are pride, lust, sloth, greed, envy, vanity, et cetera (2 Timothy 3:2-5; Galatians 5:19-21).

Natural theology is the groundwork for the whole gospel, which is why Paul lays it as his foundation at the beginning of Romans. It overviews how human nature has historically responded to the general revelation of God, even when confronted by His special revelation spoken through His prophets (Romans 10:12-21), which predicates Christian expectations for how one ought to personally respond to the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ in the face of sin, death, suffering, evil, and futility (cf. Romans 10:16-18, 13-21). The gospel call to unharden our hearts is only relevant if the instinctual requirements or works of the law written on our hearts, mentioned in Romans, is a hardened remnant, a fragmented impression as fallen image bearers. If humanity is not fallen and our hearts are not hardened by effect, then God need not give us a “heart of flesh” because we already have all we need. The gospel is mute.

Matlock Bobechko is the Chief Operating/Creative Officer of Bible Discovery. He is an eclectic Christian thinker and writer, award-winning screenwriter and short filmmaker. He writes a weekly blog on theology, apologetics, and philosophy called Meet Me at the Oak. He is also an Elder at his local church.

[1] However subtle or saturated this proof of God is truly depends on the (hardened) conscience of each person, of which God is the judge, given that our sin nature separates us from Him (Romans 2:15-16). For this reason, it seems to me at least, that our nature post-Fall rests somewhere along the lines of deism and theism by default (not atheism or naturalism), meaning that we implicitly assume God is real but presume God is unknowable and impersonal. Or we could also say that from our fallen nature we do not attempt, almost out of indifference, to reach out to know God, despite our ability to implicitly deduce from creation that God is (or at least could be) knowable and personal, based on His divine nature and eternal power. We would rather depersonalize Him than worship Him. A bigger topic for another day.