Friday, November 13, 2015

Reprise: Calvin, the natural knowledge of God, and confessionalism

There’s not been a post on John Calvin on Helm’s Deep for some time. So here goes.

Do you ever review what you’ve come to think about a particular matter?  I’ve  been taking a brief reprise on what I have come to think, little by little, about Calvin and  natural theology.  Like many I initially imbibed  a view of Calvin that was fideistic. That is, it allowed little or no place for the reason and the senses in the way that Calvin commended the Christian faith, and everything or almost everything to the will. I opined that according to Calvin becoming converted was first and foremost a response brought about by a regenerated will. The intellect and the senses have a place in understanding the faith once it has been received, but the heavy lifting - becoming a Christian - is brought about by the secret work of the Spirit on the heart.

But now I realise that to skip the place of senses and reason and evidence  is to neglect much of the first chapters of the Institutes, and half of what scholars call the two-fold character of the knowledge of God. That is, the first half, in which is situated Calvin’s attitude to natural theology; the created order and human nature. And with this neglect was another, that of what Calvin thought Paul was doing in his preaching in Lystra and Athens. (Acts 14 and 17)

Creation, and then redemption

What do these neglected or misinterpreted chapters of the Institutes say? They say that nature witnesses to God, that this witness is recognised really but not fully or immaculately by the reason, the senses and the conscience of the human race. Particularly the conscience, perhaps. Even the public atheist cannot silence the witness of his conscience. Further, that given these witnesses is planted in the human, the race is therefore culpable, accountable. Consider the titles of some of the chapters in Book I: ‘The Knowledge of God Naturally Implanted in the Human Mind’ (I.3); ‘The Knowledge of God Stifled or Corrupted, Ignorantly or Maliciously’ (I.4); ‘The Knowledge of God Conspicuous in the Creation, and Continual Government of the World’ (1.5). Only then, with these positions in place, does Calvin introduce special revelation, the Scripture.

I now see that for Calvin the order matters. He does not start with Scripture, ‘presupposing’  as some would have it. Instead, he starts with the human race, made in the image of God and then fallen, in God’s creation. Grace, particular grace, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, presupposes nature, human nature, the natural order.

Or take Calvin’s expression ‘common proofs’ in Inst. I.6.I The opening paragraph of this chapter is a transition from the treatment of nature in previous chapters to Calvin’s presentation of Scripture. ‘Common proofs’ is Calvin’s term for the regard of those factors which ‘mirror’ his Deity in nature. It is suggestive of proofs of the existence of God of a broadly cosmological character that people discussed then,  as they do now, testifying from the wonders of nature, including  human nature. There is no reason to think he means formal proofs such those offered by Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae, but to considerations that have some persuasive force in the minds of people. Calvin says that such common proofs God are of some use, but that they need supplementing (Calvin’s word) ‘by the addition of his word’. Not antithesis between nature and the word of redeeming grace, or ‘dichotomy’, but coherence. Remember what  Calvin understood Paul to be doing when preaching to Gentiles in Lystra and Athens.


This has a knock on-effect upon the nature of Reformed Confessionalism. There are those who are firm confessionalists, prepared to dot the ‘i’s and cross the ’t’s of its wording, yet have inhaled the vapours of the ‘presuppositionalism’ of Cornelius Van Til, or even the ‘Nein’ of Karl Barth, to any theological appeals to nature. But it can’t be done. At least it can’t be consistently done. Because the great Reformed Confessions, such as the Westminster Confession, inhabit the same climate of thought as Calvin’s. There is the witness of conscience, the universal religiosity of the human race, the recognition of the elements of natural law in society, and so on. The continued working of these factors in a fallen word is the result of the goodness and grace of God. So this is rightly said to be the result of common grace. But ‘common grace’ does not supplant the supposed ‘dichotomy of nature and grace’ that the medieval world allegedly foundered on. ‘Common grace’ is not the name of a new category. It is simply the theological term for why, following the Fall, things are not as bad as they could be. ‘Common grace’ is a two-word answer to that question, or as Calvin puts it later on in the Institutes, such common grace is due to the non-regenerating influence of the Holy Spirit. As also in this passage from his Commentary on Genesis:

Let us then know, that the sons of Cain, though deprived of the Spirit of regeneration, were yet endued with gifts of no despicable kind; just as the experience of all ages teaches us how widely the rays of divine light have shone on unbelieving nations, for the benefit of the present life; and we see, at the present time, that the excellent gifts of the Spirit are diffused through the whole human race. Moreover liberal arts and sciences have descended to us from the heathen. We are, indeed, compelled to acknowledge that we have received astronomy, and the other parts of philosophy, medicine, and the order of civil government, from them.  (Genesis 4.20)

 If we ask, ‘Why are things not as bad as they may be?’ the answer is a list of factors including the operation of conscience, reason, the natural order, human talents, and so on. If we ask what keeps such things from becoming inoperative, the answer is ‘common grace’. The Lord in his goodness sustains the world, provdiding daily evidence of his goodness. Or to think anthropologically for a moment, it is the fact that the imago dei in its wider sense has in the goodness of God survived the fall.

With this in mind reflect a little on the Confession. There are a number of references to natural law and its epistemic effects there, as well as significant statements regarding the interaction between nature and grace. The opening words of the Confession Ch.1, ‘Of the Holy Scripture’, are ‘Although the light of nature….’, XIX.VI. II  That is, this light provides to all people rudimentary evidence that God exists, reflecting Romans 1.19-20.  In Ch. XIX, II and III it is stated that the law given to Adam, is a perfect law of righteousness, the moral law. The natural law is the replication of the moral law. According to Ch. XXI, ‘Of Religious Worship, and the Sabbath Day’ it is a deliverance of the law of nature  ‘that, in general, a due proportion of time set apart for the worship of God’. (VII). And so on. Where is the chapter on 'presuppositionalism'?

Nature and grace and the 'system of doctrine'

Furthermore, the historic Reformed position on the relation between nature and grace, that grace builds on nature and does not supplant it, is hardly in the league of crossing t’s and dotting i’s. It is part and parcel of the ‘system of doctrine’ of that Confession (and of course its sister or daughter confessions, the Savoy Declaration of 1658 and the Baptist Confession of 1689). It is integral to the ‘system of doctrine’ that these documents hold in common.

I do not think that it is possible intelligently to adhere to the Confession without adhering to these sentiments about natural law and so forth. They are not simply 17th century packaging that we can discard and replace with ‘presuppositionalism’ which is as much twentieth-century American invention as are transistors and Salk vaccine. It seems odd in the extreme – don’t you think? – that there are places which take the same name as the Westminster Confession but which require adherence to a way of thought that subverts important parts of that document.

[By the way, For those interested in historical theology, and particularly the theology of the Reformed Orthodox, the Junius Institute [] has a programme of Colloquia. The latest to be streamed is a lecture by Richard Muller on William Ames and divine ideas. Follow the recording  at:

[For those interested in historical theology, and particularly the theology of the Reformed Orthodox, the Junius Institute [] has a programme of Colloquia. The latest to be streamed is a lecture by Richard Muller on William Ames and divine ideas.  Follow the recording  at: