Natural Theology in Reformed Orthodoxy (or Dangerous Junius)

by Jonathan Tomes

We observed a few weeks ago that, for Franciscus Junius, a Reformed Orthodox scholastic and humanist, supernatural grace elevates nature, perfecting nature beyond its natural capacities, even from the beginning. Such seemed an appropriate beginning, as this is a sometimes controverted point between Protestant and Roman Catholic theologians, even from the early modern period in to the present day. Naturally, the next step is to consider Junius’ natural theology. As with our first entry, we will begin with a few thoughts from a modern Reformed theologian.

Michael Bird summarizes Cornelius Van Til on natural theology:

American Presbyterian theologian Cornelius Van Til rejected natural theology chiefly from the motivation that it was a Roman Catholic doctrine that underestimated sin and overestimated the human ability to perceive God apart from special revelation. The Reformed faith, as Van Til wanted it expressed, could give no ground to natural theology without surrendering divine sovereignty to human autonomy as far as the necessity of divine revelation was concerned. In terms of his precise arguments against natural theology, Van Til held that since theistic arguments are restricted to probabilities, they are insufficient to yield knowledge of God, and the natural man rebels against that knowledge. Yet God’s revelation of himself is always clear, lucid, cognitive, and propositional. Knowledge of God is based on facts expressed in propositions. The only way that one could ascertain facts about God from the created order is to begin first with God’s propositional self-disclosure in Scripture. (1)

For Van Til, according to Bird’s account, natural theology underestimates sin and overestimates human ability. Natural theology, therefore, compromises divine sovereignty and the need for external revelation in favor of a crass human autonomy. Against natural theology, for Van Til, God’s revelation is always ‘clear, lucid, cognitive, and propositional.’ Also, and with some qualifications, man in Paradise ‘would be able to reason correctly from nature to nature’s God’ (2). It is not nature but sin that prevents such a movement of human reason toward the knowledge of God. How does this revisionist account line up with Reformed Orthodoxy? Some of that summary clearly contradicts natural theology as it actually was from Medieval theology through to the Reformed. For our part, Junius demonstrates a position that is both catholic and Reformed, and one which contradicts recent revisionist thought.

What is natural theology?

Natural theology concerns divine matters in an improper and equivocal sense, an important point against modern criticism of medieval and early modern natural theology, and one which is regularly ignored in criticism of the tradition. Nature and the natural light of our understanding are its efficient cause, and the formal cause that ‘this theology proceed from those principles according to the mode of human reason’ (p. 146). The limits of natural theology are fixed by nature.

Though nature is that principle in which natural theology rightly and primarily consists, as Junius notes, ‘that common starting point acts in individuals in such a way that it applies to its own individual functions certain definite tools, just as though supplying parts to the whole of nature, for this reason human intellect as the proper subject of this theology is subordinate’. Natural theology arises from – and is known by – this process and these principles according to its own ‘proper order of nature’.

Such fundamental principles are also known immediately by the light of nature, and ‘from these principles the faculty of reason deduces fixed processes, like rivulets from springs’, comparing or separating natural principles with the ‘truth of reality’, and ‘joining causes with effects and from these [forming] conclusions’. Natural theology, finally, orders its conclusions to acquired knowledge of all those things which natural man can know.

Human reason is restrained, even from the beginning, by the weakness of our intellect, which is not to say that Adam was naturally flawed and imperfect, as we observed previously, but that innocence and natural perfection do not equate necessarily to super-human faculties. Our orientation is toward the visible and sensible phenomenon of creation. We reason from the more known to the less known, from the clear to the obscure. Thus this core argument: ‘if human reason is so unreliable not only in human affairs but even in things of nature, then much more narrow limits must be imposed on our faculty of reasoning in those areas which go beyond nature’ (p. 147). Such an observation is a humbling affirmation of creatureliness. It does not belong to human nature to ascend, according to the mode of reason, to ‘topics so lofty that the glory of God shines forth most brilliantly in their hiddenness (as the wise man once taught)’, whether in the condition of innocence or of sin. For Junius, this saying is universally true ‘such that no one equipped with even an average understanding will deny it, because both our shared precepts, generated by nature, teach it, and the experience of all men of every age proves it fully.’

The simple intuition of the mind, which is ‘the pure, unspoiled seat of those natural principles’, is ‘so internal by nature that it usually anticipates every other instance of intuitive knowledge. And so it underlies that intuitive knowledge as a sort of common foundation.’ These intuitions are shared, veiled, and imperfect:

For three things are necessary for an accurate understanding of the world: that we comprehend the subject under consideration truly, clearly, and completely. If we should take something false or conjectural as a true subject, as it generally happens that we indeed acknowledge the truth in something common but stray from the truth in some particular, it is a false application of principles. If by the light of these principles we should not see well enough the subject or the qualities that pertain to it, the intuition is veiled. But if we are not able to examine except in a partial way those things which we must consider, the intuition is imperfect. (p. 148)

Junius uses the example of the right to private property to illustrate this extension of our natural principles into human experience and moral affairs: ‘it is a natural principle that one’s own should be allotted to each’’ We destroy this principle with exceptions, and obscure the principles and common intuitions by individual conclusions, as well as by methodological obscurity and ‘the imperfection of our judgment’ (p. 149). In this way, our natural intuitions are shared, veiled, and imperfect.

Likewise, the command to worship God is a natural principle that is shared, veiled, and imperfect. This shared intuition does not point God out with the finger, nor does it show Him to us clearly, and we are not shown God fully (See Acts 14:15-17 for these principles demonstrated).

The evidences of nature ‘are no more than the most slender traces of the true and living God, which give witness not to the fact that God is in relationship with the human race from the beginning, but rather that these gifts are of God.’ Nature’s testimony is imperfect and ‘very far removed from His perfection’ (remember: natural theology speaks equivocally and improperly of divine matters). On the other hand, what is known by ‘the faculty and order of nature’ is evident in man from the principles of nature (Rom. 1:19-20). Natural theology, though shared, veiled, and imperfect, is real in man.

Also of note, and reminiscent of both Thomas and Calvin (3):

“[…] just as the shared reasoning of these principles, again also veiled and imperfect, is recognized in the investigation of the truth of reality, especially of matters divine, so if any of the truth about God is searched out through reason, it is known only by a few, and after a long time, and comes to man with an admixture of multiple errors.” (p. 150)

Therefore, human reason, though ordered to divine matters according to the power of nature, is not naturally and properly equipped for ‘surveying and perceiving those things that God has set above nature.’ If it were so naturally able, then it would not be human nature. Or, with Herbert McCabe: ‘These are things that we cannot know any other way expect [sic] by having faith in the teacher, God, who tells us about them. They are not things we could find out for ourselves. They are not the kind of things we could naturally know. Our knowledge of them is super-natural.’ Not even unspoiled man could be perfected by natural principles, for, Junius says, ‘reason itself could not but work from obscurity and imperfection, since it possessed the material for producing knowledge from no other source than these principles’ (p. 153). Natural theology, or natural law, etc., is only perfected by supernatural participation.

This brief summary has demonstrated a continuous and typically Thomistic account of natural theology, an account obviously at odds with Van Til. The influence of the Greek philosophers, Thomas, and other significant medieval theologians, bears in this treatise in very many places, some of which will be demonstrated in subsequent posts. Next, we will consider man’s natural theology in the condition of sin.


 

  1. Bird, Michael F. Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 185.
  2. Van Til, Cornelius. An Introduction to Systematic Theology: Prolegomena and the Doctrines of Revelation, Scripture, and God (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2007), 133,
  3. ‘Even as regards those truths about God which human reason could have discovered, it was necessary that man should be taught by a divine revelation; because the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors.’ – Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologiae, I.1.1) ‘But because most people, immersed in their own errors, are struck blind in such a dazzling theater, he exclaims that to weigh these works of God wisely is a matter of rare and singular wisdom [v. 43], in viewing which they who otherwise seem to be extremely acute profit nothing. And certainly however much the glory of God shines forth, scarcely one man in a hundred is a true spectator of it!’ – John Calvin (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.5.61)

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