One of my major passions in life is theology. I have enjoyed taking Systematic Theology this past year. I loved taking it in my undergrad and I loved it now. I hope this is an area that the Lord will allow me to continue studying, even though I believe my calling to be counselling.
Some of my friends were interested in reading my first Major Research Paper for systematic theology. I wrote it on Natural Revelation (also known as General Revelation or Natural Theology). I am sharing it with you here. I hope it is educational and can help you grow somehow.
I will admit that I have a terrible style of academic writing. I apologize for the dryness of it and it it's hard to follow. I got a decent mark on it, so I'm hoping it's not heretical or that hard to follow. Also, for my friends who are picky with Turabian...I'm sorry; this paper must be your worst nightmare! lol. I apologize.
Calvin and Company Versus Barth on Natural Revelation
The question “Does God reveal himself through nature?” has come with many answers throughout theology’s history. This paper will explore two answers to this question: yes and no. The latter was a position taken by Karl Barth, while the former was a position formed by John Calvin. The title of this paper indicates that along with Calvin, a company of other theologians who have agreed with his position will also be revealed throughout this discussion. The position of this paper is in agreement with Calvin and will thus attempt to argue Barth’s beliefs of natural revelation. The first section of this paper will reveal Calvin and other theologians who agreed with him on natural revelation. This section will define natural revelation, provide a brief history and also address how natural revelation is limited to come a knowledge of God. The second section of this paper will reveal Barth’s position on natural revelation. In addition, a personal response to Barth’s objection will be discussed. In conclusion, having the foundation and arguments for natural revelation, the last section will provide an application of natural revelation for Christians, not unbelievers.
Calvin and Company on Natural Revelation
Based on Biblical passages like Psalms 19, Acts 17 and Romans 1, the doctrine of natural revelation has been developed. According to some theologians like Augustine, Calvin, Emile Brunner and Wayne Grudem, such passages are interpreted to mean that humans can come to knowledge of God’s existence through the impact of nature. Grudem in particular believes that the intricacy of the human body bears witness to God’s character. In the same sense, not only humans, but also the rest of the universe gives glory to God and bears witness of His existence. Thus the impact of nature communicates to all humans that there is a superior being that must have designed this universe. “All persons everywhere have a deep, inner sense that God exists, that they are his creatures, and that he is their Creator.” Calvin stated that all humans hold a sense of deity, which is engraved in their heart. As a result, God prevents men and women from being completely ignorant of His existence by giving them a sense of deity. This sense of deity is also known as the sensus divinitatus (SD). The SD is a-if not the- major aspect of natural revelation. Natural revelation is universal, or in other words, general for all people. Calvin stated that the SD is universally distributed to all humans throughout history. For this reason, natural revelation is also known as general revelation.
Some believe that Calvin’s theory on the SD derived from Hellenistic philosophical teaching of the ‘preconception’ (prolepsis) of God. “Preconception” was created by Epicurus, but was more developed by the Stoics. It is believed that Calvin adopted “preconception” from
“On the Nature of the Gods”. Cicero defined
“preconception” as “a sort of preconceived mental picture of a thing, without
which nothing can be understood or investigated or discussed”. For
the Stoics, preconceptions were common to all humans. Some ‘preconceptions’
could be considered to be traits, like justice and honour. Therefore, in
relation to the Stoic theory and according to Calvin, the SD is a preconception
that God places in the hearts of all humans.
Of course, the latter is merely an idea of where Calvin would have originated the SD concept. Calvin was not merely a philosopher, but a theologian who derived his ideas from interpreting the Scriptures and not so much concerned with remoulding ancient philosophical ideas. Throughout history, the concept of natural theology has taken on different forms, but it continues to reappear outside the church (ex. Philosophy) and inside the church (ex. Augustine using it against paganism). Finally, in the middle ages, there was a resurfacing of Aristotelianism and thus, natural theology was more developed.
As already discussed, Calvin believed that the SD is common to all humans. The SD gives an awareness of God’s existence. In his Institutes, Calvin states: “Therefore, since from the beginning of the world there has been no region, no city, in short, no household, that could do without religion, there lies in this a tacit confession of a sense of deity inscribed in the hearts of all”. By “heart”, Calvin meant to say the place where reasoning is found. Actually, Calvin stated that the SD is located in the mind. Edward Adams explains: “The sensus is not simply a gut feeling, intuition or vague impression, but a cognition, an intellectual consciousness of God the creator. Calvin describes it as a ‘deep-seated conviction that there is a God’ and a ‘certain understanding of his divine majesty’”.
Some theologians like John Calvin, Paul Helm and Edward Adams believe that the SD already existed before the Fall. In his Institutes’ of Christian Religion, Calvin begins his discussion of natural revelation by stating that if Adam would not have sinned, the SD would have served as witness to humanity of God’s existence and consequently would have compelled us to worship Him. Thus, the SD could have been sufficient to establish communion with God.
However, the SD does not function now in the way that God probably intended it to in the beginning. Because of sin, the SD has been smeared and corrupted. According to Paul Helm (not Calvin), the SD was supposed to lead us to believe that one is made in the image of God and that He owns us and this world. However, because the SD is now corrupt, it can no longer take one to a full knowledge of God. Aquinas explains:
Our knowledge starts from sense-perception and reaches only as far as things so perceived can lead us, which is not far enough to see God in himself. For the things we can sense, though effects of God, are not effects fully expressing his power. But because they do depend on him as their cause, they can lead us to know that he exists, and reveal to us whatever is true of him as first cause of all such things, surpassingly different from all of them. By God’s grace, we can know him better than by natural reason alone…
Because Aquinas was before Calvin’s time and before the term SD was coined, the SD was not mentioned in the latter quote, nevertheless, Aquinas is still addressing the knowledge of God that one receives from nature. Natural revelation cannot give humanity a full knowledge of God; only special revelation can. Michael Horton explains that nature is only a witness to God’s existence, but it is not a redemptive revelation. Natural revelation only gives us an awareness of God’s existence but it does not give us knowledge of who God is and what He has done for us. Natural revelation is given to all humans throughout history, but special revelation is particular in that it is only given to a small percentage of individuals throughout history. More about special revelation will be discussed later in this paper. For now, more about the SD’s corruption needs to be addressed.
The Fall did not erase the SD but it did corrupt it. Even though the SD is corrupt, it still works to lead people to know there is a supreme being that is superior to them. Unfortunately, because the SD is corrupt, it can also lead people to skewed acts, like idol worship. The SD helps to lead people to acknowledge an existence of God but it also condemns them because it does not take them to a full knowledge of God, but rather to idolatry. In order to appease their consciences to worship a supreme being, people will create idols to worship and religions to follow. Calvin noted that our SD was corrupt and thus misguided. Consequently, the individual would fall into idolatry and worship creation rather than the Creator. Due to this, Calvin concluded that idolatry actually proves the SD exists. Calvin also believed that the SD was also proved in Atheists. Wayne Grudem explains the latter by drawing his answer from Romans 1. Grudem says that Paul taught that Gentile unbelievers recognized God’s existence through nature, yet they did not honour Him as God. Thus, people are able to deny their inner sense of God and His existence. So, although people many deny or suppress the SD, it is still engraved in their hearts. At the same time, because the SD is corrupt and leads people to idol worship, it also condemns them. However, the SD is not completely hopeless and unnecessary. Like Calvin, his successor, Theodore Beza never declares that natural revelation is a route to true knowledge of God because special revelation is needed. “So, while it is possible to have a true natural theology, special revelation builds on natural revelation. That which is dimly sensed in nature is more clearly seen in supernatural grace.” Now, before providing more information on special revelation, we will now turn to Karl Barth’s objections to natural revelation. In turn, this paper will counter Barth’s arguments by expanding special revelation.
Karl Barth on Natural Revelation
A very well known opponent to natural revelation is Karl Barth. Barth did not deny the existence of natural revelation, but his objection was that it gave too much autonomy to the sinner to come to know God. How could God allow the sinner to seek him and come to know of His existence if the very problem that made humans a sinner was their autonomy? This seems to be the problem in Barth’s mind. Thomas Torrance, who was Barth’s interpreter and translator, explained that the main aspect that Barth considers invalid in natural theology is “its independent character”, which meant there could be no self-disclosure of the Triune God in nature. Barth did not believe that humans can come to the knowledge of God with mere natural revelation because humans are too corrupt to come to the revelation of the Gospel on their own. Only God is able to reveal a saving truth; humans cannot achieve or understand it by themselves and without God or His grace. Allister McGrath describes Barth’s objections to natural revelation as an “anxiety” which fears that natural revelation gives too much autonomy and control to the individual to know God. In addition, other sources have commented how Barth believed that grace would be absent if an individual could truly come to know anything about God from nature. This “anxiety” is what made Barth disagree with natural revelation.
The interesting fact about all of this is that Barth was actually in somewhat of an agreement with Calvin and company! To explain this agreement, we need to remember that Calvin and company actually did not believe that natural revelation could actually bring someone to a full knowledge of God. They believed that God bears witness to Himself through His immense and complex creation. However, His witness in creation is insufficient to bring someone to the truth because special revelation is needed. Calvin and Barth agreed that only with special revelation can one come to a full knowledge of God. Barth agrees with the Church Fathers: “we cannot know God except through God”. However, the division came when Barth stated that revelation of God’s existence cannot come through nature, but only through God’s revelation. Once again, what Barth does not appreciate about natural revelation is that humanity seems to be in somewhat of a control of understanding God. However, Calvin and company were not saying that God could be known fully through nature; for this reason they affirmed that special revelation was needed.
Barth’s agreement with Calvin and company of how a full knowledge of God can only be known through special revelation still did not bring them together on this point. Barth rejected all natural theology because he believed that the only revelation of God comes from the Word through the Holy Spirit.
Calvin and company were not claiming that the way of the Pelagian’s; that natural revelation offers a way of salvation to sinful humans. Now, just as Calvin’s position was not based on heresy (Pelagianism), neither was Barth’s position. Thomas Torrance made it clear that Barth’s objection to natural revelation did not have Deism as its basis. Barth did not believe that God was removed from His creation, but he did believe that God did not reveal himself through it. Rather, Barth’s “anxiety” of natural revelation came from his belief that that God’s grace was not as present as human autonomy was.
To be fair, it would be important to acknowledge the environmental background in which Barth’s objections were formed. Horton explains:
As Protestant liberalism increasingly assimilated revelation to the imminent development of human potential for morality and progress, the door opened for placing a natural theology alongside God’s revelation in Christ. In the aftermath of the First World War, the German Christian movement argued that God had spoken most fully to our highest spiritual aspirations in Christ and to our highest cultural aspirations in German culture- specifically, in the fuhrer. It was against this backdrop that Karl Barth lodged his protest-his famous nein!- against natural theology.
Unfortunately, some Christians had placed natural revelation with Christ’s revelation in that time. Christianity began believing in their own abilities because they felt that they had been given the ability to reach their highest potential through revelation. This belief took some Christians to very destructive actions played out in the First World War. It appears that Barth wanted to bring Christianity back to truth by exposing the depravity of human nature. Thus, Barth’s objections to natural revelation become obvious as he was trying to state that humanity was not as moral as they thought they could be; for we are still corrupt. Because we are corrupt, Barth believed that humans were unable to desire to seek God and furthermore, they could not come to a knowledge of God through nature. Human depravity did not allow such revelation. Barth’s reasoning in the midst of his environment makes sense.
Even though Barth’s objections are understandable, it does not make them right. Calvin and company were not declaring that humans are able to come to know God fully. Rather, we are powerless to come to know God by ourselves. In a way, this puts humanity in an awkaward position: we cannot be ignorant that God exists because he has provided the SD, yet we cannot come to know Him by our own revelation- we need Him.
It was during the backdrop of war that Christians depended so much on themselves that Barth made his objections of natural revelation well known. Barth wrote his objections to oppose Emile Brunner, who actually was on Calvin’s side when it came to natural revelation. Brunner’s arguments only strengthen natural revelation’s position because they declare that it did not believe humanity could come to a knowledge of God through the
but just an acknowledgement of God’s existence. In his debate against Barth,
Brunner stated that natural theology does not give us the full truth “because
sin has perverted human reason”.
Brunner also explained that part of natural revelation’s belief was that God
gave humans reasoning. This reason is only enough to convict human conscience
to recognize God’s existence and treat people well. However, human reason is
not enough to understand redemption.
Brunner says: “General revelation displays God’s power, wisdom, righteousness,
goodness, and justice as well as human responsibility, “but there it stops: it
has no saving power”. Despite
Brunner’s reasoning, Barth continued to disagree.
A Personal Response to Barth’s Objections
Barth was a solid theologian; however, I feel that Barth did not understand what Calvin and company were trying to communicate about the knowledge of God’s existence which can come through nature. I do not wish to be disrespectful or jump to conclusions by stating that Barth did not understand the concept of natural revelation, but it is clear that Barth felt that God’s grace was not present in the SD theory because it gave humans too much autonomy to come to a knowledge of God. Yet, God’s grace and goodness does seem to be present in natural revelation. God was not obligated to give humans a God-shaped void in their heart that would draw one to believe in His existence. Yet, in His goodness, he provides that for humanity so that they will search him. Acts 17: 27 says: “God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us”. Part of God’s goodness and grace is that he provides things in order for humanity to seek Him, reach Him and find Him by His grace. Horton says: “No one finds God, but God finds us”; I fully agree with this statement. The things that God uses to bring individuals to Him do not imply that He or His grace is uninvolved. Yet Barth seemed to believe that natural theology implied that humanity could get to know God without the grace of God. Barth said that humanity is an enemy to grace, therefore it was impossible to come to a knowledge of God through nature. For this reason, I feel that Barth did not understand what Calvin was trying to say about natural revelation; because Barth believed that grace was uninvolved in natural revelation. Once again, I do not mean to be disrespectful by stating that Barth did not understand Calvin’s defence of natural revelation. It seems to me that grace is so obvious in natural revelation. I must then agree to disagree with Barth in this matter. To conclude my personal response, I would like to agree with Calvin: God leads us by giving us a sense of divinity, but it only takes us so far. We need the scriptures to reveal who God is. Beyond merely understanding what the Scriptures say about God, we need the Holy Spirit to penetrate our hearts with the word and also seal our hearts. On this note, the next section on special revelation will commence. The following section will also be used to counter Barth’s objections to natural revelation.
Natural revelation can only bring one to an awareness of God’s existence. Helm states that a good-functioning SD should bring one to believe there is a Creator and we are His creation. However, after the Fall, no SD would be considered to be functioning as it should because it is corrupt. Therefore, the SD only brings one to attempt to appease their conscience and compel them to worship a deity by leading them to idolatry. Due to our depravity, all natural theology is a form of idolatry. According to Romans 1:18, human depravity causes a suppression of the truth; Therefore, humans do not need a deeper revelation found in nature, but a different revelation; the Gospel. Therefore, natural revelation is not sufficient for the knowledge of faith; special revelation is needed. Horton says: “Both for our finitude and for our sinfulness, our reconciliation with God requires revelation in the form of divine initiative and condescension”.
Natural revelation demonstrates God as Creator, Lawgiver and Judge, but not as Saviour. God is the only one who can enable humans to believe in Him. It is only through God drawing one through His Holy Spirit’s that one can come to understand their need of Jesus Christ. This truth can only come from the Words of God Himself. Grudem explains:
Therefore, we need Scripture to interpret natural revelation rightly. Hundreds of false religions in the world are evidence of the way sinful people, without guidance from Scripture, will always misunderstand and distort the revelation about God found in nature. But the Bible alone tells us how to understand the testimony about God from nature. Therefore, we depend on God’s active communication to us in Scripture for our true knowledge of God.
Even though God reveals His existence through nature, human interpretation of God’s identity will be distorted because we are depraved. Therefore, the truth is needed which can only come from the Bible. Nature is not able to tell us that we are depraved and that we need God. Nor is natural revelation able to communicate the Gospel of Christ. Only special revelation is able to reveal the full truth.
For this reason, Calvin and company believed that special revelation was like an extension of natural revelation. Calvin explained that Natural revelation is a priori knowledge and special revelation is a posteriori knowledge. In other words, natural revelation is primary in that it is knowledge built on experience, and special revelation is secondary because it is built on facts (the Gospel). Calvin believed that both revelations reinforced each other. Both revelations recognize God as the one revealing Himself. Barth believed that natural revelation communicated that the individual would have been in control of coming to a knowledge of God, but this is not what Calvin is saying.
Research on this topic shows that following a discussion on natural revelation, special revelation is always present because knowledge of God cannot be obtained without it. J. I. Packer states that salvation cannot occur without special revelation. General revelation is not able to communicate the redemptive works of God throughout history; but this is only known through the Scriptures. This fact affirms that Calvin and company did not take away God’s sovereignty, involvement or grace from humans coming to know Him. God is always involved; whether through natural or special revelation.
Application of Natural Revelation in the Believer
I understand that this section was probably unnecessary for this paper. However, I chose to write about the application of natural revelation in the believer because I believe there is a benefit of it to the Christian. Allow me to explain.
“It is wrong to treat natural theology and revealed theology as being opposed to each other, provided that nature is construed in a trinitatiran manner as the creation of the self-revealing God”. Natural and special revelation reinforce one another as the last section explained. Of course, the two revelations can only reinforce each other in a person if he/she becomes a believer. Therefore, this quote indicates when one knows God, he/she sees nature as creation and God as its Creator.
There have been Christians throughout history that have demonstrated with their devotional reflections that they are lead to know God more through nature. According to Psalm 19, nature proclaims the glory of God. In addition, the psalmist invites us to discover the glory of God and His character, beyond his saving actions to
“None of this [creation] includes any narrations of God’s saving purposes to
fallen creatures, but it does testify to God’s attributes expressed in his
creative work and moral claim in creation in the original covenant.”
Unlike the Psalmist, Aquinas did not emphasize the beauty of creation, he
believed that the character of God’s own beauty, goodness and truth were seen
in His creation.
C.S.Lewis was another believer who was able to benefit from God revealing
Himself through the beauty of His creation. Lewis believed that the beauty of
creation reflected the beauty of God. Like
Lewis, “Augustine of Hippo argued that there was a natural progression from an
admiration of the beautiful things of the world to the worship of the one who
had created these things, and whose beauty was reflected in them”.
Not only did Augustine feel lead to worship God due to His beautiful creation, but he was also lead to delve deeper in understanding God. Augustine explained the Trinity with the analogy of love and knowledge. Augustine believed there to be traces of the Trinity in nature and that as the peak of creation, humans should seek those traces. This is one of the ways that natural theology is a benefit to the Christian. Since the Christian has the knowledge of who the Creator is, they are then able to appreciate creation more and discover parts of God’s character through it.
The believer benefits more from natural revelation and natural theology because they have special revelation. Because the believer knows the object of the revelation, namely Christ, they are lead to worship God and understand Him more.
Calvin and company held that God has engraved a sense of deity in human beings which gives them an awareness of His existence. However, the SD is corrupt and thus leads humanity to worship creation rather than the Creator. Thus, special revelation is needed. Barth did not believe in the SD because he did not believe people could come to a knowledge of God by themselves because they are depraved. Thus, he only believed that a knowledge of God could only be obtained through special revelation. Calvin and company agreed that people could only come to a full knowledge of God through special revelation. However, unlike Barth, they believed that God was involved in natural revelation; for He is the one who implanted the SD. Calvin and company also believed that special revelation was built on natural revelation whereas Barth would not have believed that. Lastly, I provided an application for believers by giving an example of how a few Christians throughout history were able to benefit from natural revelation; because they know the Creator of nature, they are lead to worship Him and understand Him deeper.
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London: Marshal, Morgan & Scott, 1982. pp. 27-28
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1994. pg. 141
 Ibid. pg. 141
 Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion.
Hendrickson Publishers, 2008. pg. 10 Peabody, MA
 Ibid. pg. 9
 Helm, Paul. "John Calvin, the Sensus Divinitatis, and the Noetic eEffects of Sin." International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 43 (1998): pg. 90
 Adams, Edward. "Calvin’s View of Natural Knowledge of God." International Journal of Systematic Theology 3, no. 3 (November 2001): pp. 284-285.
 Ibid, Edwards. pp. 284-285.
 Ibid, Edwards. pp. 284-285.
 Bouillard, Henri. The Knowledge of God.
Burns & Oates Limited, 1969. pg. 14.
 Ibid, Helm. pg. 89.
 Ibid, Edwards. pg. 284.
 Ibid, Edwards. pg. 284.
 Ibid, Edwards. pg. 291
 Ibid, Edwards. pg. 291
 Ibid, Helm. pg. 93-94
 Ibid, Helm. pg. 293
 Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologiae: A Concise Translation.
Christian Classics, 1989. pg. 29. Westminster, MD
 Horton, Michael. The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way.
Grand Rapids: Zondervan,
2011. pp. 141-142.
 Ibid, Helm. pg. 90.
 Ibid, Calvin. pg. 12
 McGrath, Allister E. A Scientific Theology: Nature. Volume 1.
Scotland. T&T Clark Ltd., 2001. pg. 270
 Ibid, Calvin. pg. 9.
 Ibid, Edwards. pg. 286.
 Ibid, Grudem. pg. 141.
 Ibid, Grudem. pg. 141.
 Ibid, McGrath. pg. 277.
 Ibid, Horton. pg. 141.
 McGrath, Allister E. The Christian Theology Reader.
Oxford. Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1995. pg.
 Ibid, McGrath, 1995. pg. 69.
 Ibid, McGrath, 2001. pg. 277.
 Ibid, Calvin. pg. 24
 Bouillard, Henri. The Knowledge of God.
Burns & Oates Limited, 1969. pg. 28.
 Ibid, McGrath, 2001. pg. 269
 Ibid, Bouillard. pp. 7, 13.
 Ibid, Horton. pg. 150.
 Ibid, McGrath, 1995. pp. 85-86.
 Ibid, Horton. pg. 146
 Ibid, Calvin. pg. 25
 Ibid, Horton. pg. 147.
 Ibid, Horton. pg. 147.
 Ibid, Horton. pg. 149.
 Ibid, Horton. pg. 51.
 Ibid, Bouillard. pg. 15.
 Ibid, Calvin. pg. 26.
 Ibid, Calvin. pp. 33-34.
 Ibid, Horton. pg. 142.
 Ibid, Bouillard. pg.29.
 Ibid, Horton. pg. 51.
 Ibid, Horton. pg. 149.
 Ibid, Grudem. pg. 144.
 Ibid, Grudem. pg. 149.
 Ibid, Horton. pg. 141.
 Ibid, Edwards. pp. 288-289.
 Ibid, McGrath, 1995. pg. 85
 Ibid, McGrath, 2001. pg. 296.
 Ibid, Horton. pg. 140.
 Ibid, Grudem. pf. 140.
 Ibid, McGrath, 2001. pg. 236
 Ibid, McGrath, 2001. pg. 235.
 Ibid, McGrath, 2001. pg. 234.
 Ibid, McGrath, 1995.