Weekend Extra – Don’t Settle for All-Natural

August 22, 2011 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

In 1802, British Christian apologist William Paley published what has become one of the most famous arguments for the existence of God.  He wrote:

“In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for any thing I know to the contrary, it had lain there forever…But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer which I had given before…For its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose.”[1]

This argument is classically called “the argument from design.”  The argument runs like this:  When we look around at the irreducible complexity of our world, we cannot help but wonder about the origin of our stunning surroundings.  For someone certainly had to knit together this vast and intricate universe!  And that “someone,” Paley argues, is God.

In his argument, Paley appeals to what is known as “natural revelation.”  Natural revelation describes the human ability to discern God’s existence by means of basic reason.  And basic reasons deduces, when confronted with a remarkable creation like ours, that there is indeed a Creator!  Thomas Aquinas explains natural revelation thusly: “There are some truths which the natural reason is able to reach.  Such are that God exists, that He is one, and the like.”[2]  John of Damascus describes natural revelation similarly, but adds that we not only deduce God’s existence by our reason, but know of God’s existence from our very creation: “The awareness that God exists in implanted by nature in everybody.”[3]

Scripturally, the doctrine of natural knowledge is asserted in Psalm 19:

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 display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voicegoes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. (Psalm 19:1-4)

The verbs in verse 1 are striking.  “The heavens declare the glory of God…”  The verb “declare” is often translated as “number.”  The glories of God are infinitely numbered by the heavens!  After all, every star is a testament to its Creator!  “The skies proclaim the work of His hands…”  The verb for “proclaim” in Hebrew is nagad, meaning, “conspicuous.” In other words, God is not hidden by His creation, He is plainly revealed through His creation for anyone who cares to see!  This is natural revelation.

As wonderful as natural revelation is, it only goes so far.  For although natural revelation can tell us there is a God, it cannot tell us who this God is.  Indeed, the Thomas Aquinas quote I cited earlier is only the second half of the quote.  The whole quote reads: “There is a twofold mode of truth in what we profess about God.  Some truths about God exceed all the ability of human reason.  Such is the truth that God is triune.  There are some truths which the natural reason is able to reach.  Such are that God exists, that He is one, and the like.”  Aquinas knows that human reason can only get you so far when it comes to the divine.  In fact, human reason won’t get you very far when it comes to the divine!  Martin Luther explains why:

All heathen known to say that much of God as reason can know from His works, i.e. that He is a creator of all things, and that one should be obedient to Him etc.  We know, however, that they don’t yet have the true God, because they do not want to hear His word, which He has revealed about Himself from the beginning of the world to the holy fathers and prophets, and at last through Christ Himself and His apostles.[4]

Luther here makes a critical distinction between natural revelation and biblical revelation.  Natural revelation can declare the glory of God.  But only biblical revelation can tell someone about Jesus and His sacrifice.  Natural revelation can reveal God’s power.  But only biblical revelation can comfort with God’s grace.  This is why the Psalmist does not leave us stuck in the realm of natural revelation.  He continues:

The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes. The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever. The ordinances of the LORD are sure and altogether righteous. They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb. By them is Your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward. Who can discern his errors? Forgive my hidden faults. (Psalm 19:7-12)

The Psalmist moves from God’s glory in creation to God’s forgiveness in Scriptural revelation.  He asks the Lord to forgive his sins.

The sunny days.  The starry nights.  The majestic mountains.  The gentle breezes.  The lazy rivers.  In all of these we see God.  But only in Scripture do we hear God.  For in Scripture God declares to us His intention for us.  And His intention is one of salvation.  Praise God that we can not only see His handiwork, but read His Word![5]

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[1] William Paley, Natural Theology (London: J. Faulder, 1809) 1-2.

[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 1.3.2.

[3] John of Damascus, De fide Orthodoxa, 1.1.

[4] Martin Luther, WA 51:151 (Roland Ziegler, trans.).

[5] For a nice discussion of natural revelation, see Roland Ziegler, “Natural Knowledge of God and the Trinity,” Concordia Theological Quarterly, vol. 69:2 (April 2005) 133-154. Many of my thoughts in this blog are indebted to this article.

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