We have already considered the way in which a number of important reformed theologians approach the question of Natural Theology. We turn now to Francis Turretin, a great reformed theologian of the 1600s, and author of the well-known and widely read Institutes of Elentic Theology. Turretin approaches the question of Natural Theology, in scholastic fashion, in two questions near the beginning of the Institutes. The first question is: “Whether natural theology may be granted”; the second, “Is natural theology sufficient for salvation; or is there a common religion by which all promiscuously may be saved?” In this short article we will consider Turretin’s understanding of Natural Theology by explaining the following elements. First of all, what, according to Turretin, Natural Theology is and isn’t (as well as the contents of Natural Theology). Secondly, whether humans (fallen or regenerated) are able to engage in Natural Theology, and how. Thirdly, the relationship between Natural theology and the articles of faith. Fourthly, the uses and limitations of natural theology. Fifthly, the effect of Natural Theology. For more posts on how different calvinists view Natural Theology, see (Charles Hodge and A. H. Strong) here, (B. B. Warfield) here, (John Calvin) here, and (Herman Bavinck) here.
What is Natural Theology (its nature and object)?
Turretin opens up the first question by noting that which Natural Theology is not, or, what is not meant by Natural Theology in the discussion that follows. His negations are as important for a proper understanding of Turretin’s views of Natural Theology as are his affirmations. He notes, negatively, that the question of whether Natural Theology is possible (which is what he means by may it be “granted”) “does not concern theology in general” (by which he means, the sum of Christian doctrines). By this Turretin declares that the question is not concerned with Christian theology in general, but with one element of Christian theology. As such, we must avoid any notion that the claims of Natural theology extend to cover all of Christian theology. This is simply not the case. Postively, Turretin notes that the question of the possibility of Natural Theology deals with a precise element of Christian theology, “natural theology in particular.” From this first distinction (both the negation and affirmation) we learn, first, that Turretin will not be discussion any of the following types of theology: Biblical, Systematic, Practical, Historical or Dogmatic. Second, we learn that Turretin sees Natural Theology as a particular element of theology in general, with its own object, procedure, conclusions and contributions to theology in general.
The second precision that Turretin adds is that natural theology does not concern knowledge of God that man had prior to the fall, “Nor does it concern this as it was in Adam before the fall”. This negation is particularly interesting as some later Calvinists, notably Cornelius Van Til, have claimed that man prior to the fall was able to know God through nature, but that, due to the fall, they are no longer able to know God through nature. For Van Til, when the Bible says that man is able to know God through nature it is referring to pre-fall humanity. On this point, then, Van Til is in fundamental disagreement with Francis Turretin, as is evident from the affirmation that Turretin goes on to make, “rather it concerns this as it remained after the fall.”Therefore, for Turretin, Natural Theology, as he understands it, is knowledge of God that can be obtained by fallen humans in their fallen, unregenerate, state.
The third precision that Turretin adds is that he rejects the notion of some innate idea of God that is actually in man from birth by denying that man’s knowledge of God is that “which is such by act as soon as a man is born, as the act of life in one living or of sense in one perceiving as soon as he breathes.” Rather Turretin, rejecting the neo-platonic notion of innate ideas, sides with the thomistico-Aristotelian notion that man is born, in a sense, as a blank slate, “For it is certain that no actual knowledge is born with us and that, in this respect man is like a smooth tablet (tabulae rasae).” Man is not born with actual knowledge of God, but with the potential to gain knowledge, of God and of other things.
The fourth precision that Turretin adds is that the question is not about whether this natural knowledge of God can save man, but of whether it is “knowledge” that is sufficient to lead man to the conclusion that God exists and is worthy of some sort of worship.
From these four precisions we are able to get a brief idea of what Turretin means when he talks about Natural Theology. Natural Theology, for Turretin, is that knowledge about God (not equivalent to knowledge from sacred scripture or the other types of theology) that fallen man is able to gain, not from actually innate ideas, but through reasoning (from “a natural faculty implanted in man”) that begins with what man can observe in nature and leads to some knowledge of God. This knowledge cannot save man from the just judgment of God against sinners. However, the content of this knowledge includes that God exists, that God is worthy of worship, as well as the attributes of God, such as the fact that God is the creator and providential preserver of all of creation.
Turretin states that, understood as such, in opposition to the heresies of the Socinians (“who deny the existence of any such natural theology or knowledge of God”), “The orthodox, on the contrary, uniformly teach that there is a natural theology, partly innate (derived from the book of conscience by means of common notions [koinas ennoias]) and partly acquired (drawn from the book of creatures discursively).” It is interesting to note that Turretin calls the denial of the possibility of natural theology a heresy, and notes that in order to be orthodox – in order to be truly reformed and in line with the teaching of the historic Christian church – one must teach that natural theology (as defined above) is both possible, useful, and a source of knowledge about the true God.
Whether Humans can do Natural Theology?
This question has already been partially answered in the previous discussion. As we noted above, Turretin states that he is not concerned with man’s knowledge of God prior to the fall, but with what fallen man can know about God from creation, through the natural faculty of reason that is part of his very nature. Turretin states, quite clearly, that fallen man can know something of God from creation, through the natural faculty of reason, and that to deny this truth is to side with the heretics. So it is clear that, for Turretin, Humans (both fallen and regenerate) can know something of God through nature – Natural theology is possible.
In support of this claim he presents three arguments. First of all, Scriptures clearly attest to the fact that fallen humans can attain to some knowledge of God from nature through the natural light of reason. He first points to Romans 2:14-15 and states that it proves that men can know something of God from nature. Turretin, after quoting Romans 2:14-15, notes that “This could not be said if conscience did not dictate to each one that there is a deity who approves of good actions and disapproves and punishes evil deeds.” He then points to all the classic verses that are understood to support the notion of a natural knowledge of God, “God has given to man both an innate and acquired knowledge of himself as the following passages prove: Ps. 19:1; Acts 14:15-17; 17:23; Rom. 1:19, 20.” He goes on to defend the position that these verses apply to God’s fallen creation. The second argument that he presents to prove that humans (fallen or regenerate) can indeed know something of God from nature through reason is that of the universal experience of religious desires. All men, states Turretin, have a desire for eternity, a spiritual desire to worship some “divinity”. Finally, Turretin notes that “The institution of religions in the world most clearly proves natural theology. For whence that hidden propensity of men towards religion which induced Plato to call man the most religious animal…unless from the sense of deity whom they ought to worship.”
For Turretin, then, all of humanity is able to come to some knowledge of God, through the natural light of reason, as they consider the things that God has made – both the universe without, and “the universe within”. It is also clear that for Turretin humans arrive at this knowledge of the one true God when they reason (think, deduce, derive) from nature to God.
The relationship between Natural theology and the articles of faith
In a short section near the end of the first question about Natural Theology Turretin notes, in a very thomistic comprehension of the sciences, that “It is not repugnant that one and the same thing in a different relation should both be known by the light of nature and believed by the light of faith; as what is gathered from the one only obscurely, may be held more certainly from the other. Thus we know that God is, both from nature and from faith…The special knowledge of true faith…does not exclude, but supposes the general knowledge from nature.” There are two points that should be brought out here.
First of all, it is, according to Turretin, entirely possible for one truth to be known by two different sciences, and this in ways that are proper to those sciences. This principle is used to point out that it is entirely possible for the same truth to be stated in natural theology (arrived at through the reasoning process) and in that theology that begins with inspired scriptures (revealed by God. Thomas Aquinas says essentially the same thing when he says that, “Sciences are differentiated according to the various means through which knowledge is obtained. For the astronomer and the physicist both may prove the same conclusion: that the earth, for instance, is round: the astronomer by means of mathematics (i.e. abstracting from matter), but the physicist by means of matter itself. Hence there is no reason why those things which may be learned from philosophical science, so far as they can be known by natural reason, may not also be taught us by another science so far as they fall within revelation. Hence theology included in sacred doctrine differs in kind from that theology which is part of philosophy.”
Secondly, it is interesting to note that in the above quote Turretin seems to claim that that theology which is based upon faith (based upon inspired scriptures) presupposes the truths of Natural theology (i.e., that God exists, is able and willing to communicate with man, has communicated, etc.). As such, Natural theology serves to support and strengthen the truths that are known through divinely inspired scriptures.
The uses and limitations of natural theology
In the second question concerning natural theology Turretin first of all notes that Natural Theology is limited in that it does not provide saving knowledge of God.
Though natural theology is limited in its capacity to save, Turretin notes that it is still quite useful and important. He lists five reasons why it is important and useful: “(1) as a witness of the goodness of God towards sinners unworthy of even these remains of light (Acts 14:16, 17; Jn. 1:5); (2) as a bond of external discipline among men to prevent the world from becoming utterly corrupt (Rom. 2:14, 15); (3) as a subjective condition in man for the admission of the light of grace because God does not appeal to brutes and stocks, but to rational creatures; (4) as an incitement to the search for this more illustrious revelation (Acts 14:27); (5) to render men inexcusable (Rom. 1:20) both in this life…and in the future life…” As such, natural theology is useful in reaching fallen men with the Gospel—it is God’s witness to fallen men that prepares them for the truth of salvation in Jesus-Christ.
The effect of Natural Theology
Finally, the effect of natural theology, as Turretin has already alluded a number of times, is that men would turn to God, or that they be condemned as rejecting God in spite of the evidence of his existence and attributes.
We see then, from this short survey of Turretin’s understanding of natural theology, that Turretin things that natural theology is possible and useful; is actually engaged in by fallen men; allows men to attain to knowledge of the true God; and that those who would deny these facts are unorthodox and side with the heresies of Socinus rather than with the true teaching of the reform and the historic Christian church.
Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elentic Theology, trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T Dennison, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing: 1992-97), 1:6, 9.
Cf. Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, vol. 5 of In Defense of the Faith (1974; repr., Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1982), 100. “Accordingly, it must now be added, as Calvin points out so fully on the basis of Paul’s words, that God is displayed before men in the works of his hands. This means that God, not some sort of God or some higher principle, but God, the true God, is displayed before men. That is the fact of the matter, whether men recognize it or not. Paul does mention the power of God in particular as the attribute that comes most prominently to the foreground, but he also says that men have the divinity (Theiotes) displayed before them. This does not mean that God is as fully displayed in nature as he is in the gospel of Christ…All too often it has been argued that on the basis of nature or by natural theology man should be able to establish the existence of a God, while it is only by Christ and through grace that we can know anything more fully about the nature of this God. Now it is true that we have the fullest revelation of the nature of God in Christ. On the other hand, it is also true that when man was created in paradise, he knew not merely of the existence of God, but he knew the nature of God as far as it had been revealed to him. It is for the loss of this actual knowledge of the nature of God that man, when he became a sinner, must be held responsible. If this is not done, men will be looked upon merely as unfortunates who have not had the good fortune of having had the right information about God.” This interpretation runs aground on a number of points, including, first of all, the fact that the tense of the terms used in this chapter are almost entirely aorist, which signifies a past condition that continues to exist (Cf. Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, MI : Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1996), 98fn21. “Scholars have long recognized that the Greek aorist tense does not, in itself, indicate ‘one-time’ action; it can depict action of all kinds, including continuous and repeated action. Some grammarians would go even further and claim that the aorist (even in the indicative mood) has, in itself, no indication of time of action either.”); secondly, Romans 1:20 is a universal statement that is not stated of the past, but applies to all times; thirdly, Van Til imposes his philosophical system of interpretative schemas on the text, and interprets the text in light of this system; fourthly, Van Til’s interpretation goes against the purpose of Romans 1:18-32 in which Paul is seeking to shows why anyone, not just pre-fall man, but any human observer, is guilty before God (that is, Paul is not saying, in Romans 1:18-32, that man is guilty because of what happened in the garden, but because of what man is currently doing). Moo explains why Van Til’s interpretation is unacceptable when he notes that, “The tense Paul uses in vv. 19-31 need not indicate a single past experience; and, more important, this view fails to explain the heart of this passage: the characterization of all those upon whom the wrath of God falls as those who possessed the truth of God but turned from it. Paul says more than that all people experienced the consequences of an original turning away from God, or even that all people shared such an original turning away. He insists that those who turned were also those who knew better, and who are consequently deserving of God’s wrath. This, coupled with the obviously universal thrust of vv. 18 and 32, make clear that this foolish and culpable rejection of the knowledge of God is repeated in every generation, by every individual. Every person is 'without excuse’ because every person—whether a first-century pagan or a twentieth-century materialist—has been given a knowledge of God and has spurned that knowledge in favor of idolatry, in all its varied manifestations. All therefore stand under the awful reality of the wrath of God, and all are in desperate need of the justifying power of the gospel of Christ. (Moo, 98.)”
Turretin, IET, 6.
A question that he will later answer in great detail.
Ibid. Note that in this section Turretin seems to mean, by « innate » knowledge that is gleaned from consideration of one’s own conscience; not the innate ideas of Plato or Descartes and the rationalist philosophers. This is evident from the fact that this “innate” knowledge is “derived” from the conscience. If it is derived, then it is not innate (properly understood).
Ibid. On Turretin’s use of “innate” see fn. 18.
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I, A. 1, Q. 1, Reply to objection 2. This quote is from the translation by Fathers of the English Dominican Province
He later states the same thing when he says, “For we grant that in natural theology by the light of nature some such [principles] do exist upon which supernatural theology is built (for example, that there is a God, that he must be worshipped, etc.). (Turretin, IET, 10.)”