Coming up today on Renewing Your Mind. Can I learn anything about God from nature?
Now there's a huge controversy about this. Paul says in Corinthians that the natural man does not know God. And it would seem at that point that the apostle is precluding the possibility of anybody getting any knowledge of God by means of nature. Scripture is the supreme source of revelation concerning God.
But the Bible tells us that we can see God's eternal power and divine nature clearly in the created realm. Today on Renewing Your Mind, R.C. Sproul affirms the biblical truth that general revelation and natural theology are sufficient to leave us without excuse.
Some introductory work in our first two sessions. I want to begin with the subject of revelation because as I've said, Christianity is not based upon someone's speculative philosophy, but it stands or falls as a revealed faith. And the fundamental assertion of the Christian faith is that the truth that we embrace as Christians is truth that has come to us from God Himself, God who is hidden from our vision.
We can't see Him with our eyes. Nevertheless, He has removed the veil that hides Himself from us by means of revelation. A revelation is a making plain or clear or unfolding of that which is hidden. Now in the study of theology, we make some distinctions about revelation, about different kinds of revelation.
And one of the most important distinctions we make is the distinction between what is called general revelation and what is called special revelation. Now today I want to concentrate on the first one of these, but the Scriptures tell us that God is the fountainhead or the source of all truth. And if you can think of this in terms of an analogy or a metaphor of the headwaters or the source of a river that maybe is a small spring and yet out of that spring flows a mighty river. Now the idea here is with God's being the source, the spring, or the what they call in the foreign language the Orsprung, the original spring of all truth, the idea that comes from that is that not only is religious truth dependent upon God's work of revelation, but that all truth is dependent upon divine revelation. Now that may seem an astonishing idea to you, but it was an idea that was taught very strongly, for example, by St. Augustine and then later by St. Thomas Aquinas. And the idea was this, that we as creatures couldn't know anything about anything unless God made knowledge itself possible for us.
And the illustration that St. Augustine used was this. He said, here we are equipped with eyes and a brain and optic nerves and all of the physical equipment that is necessary for vision, for seeing. And we go to the eye doctor and he examines us and says, you're not blind. In fact, you have 20-20 vision. But if we are placed in a room where there are all sorts of beautiful objects and we have 20-20 vision, an acute visual perceptive ability, and you turn out the lights, and the room is immersed into total darkness, how much of the beauty will you see of those things that are in the room?
You won't see anything. Because in and of ourselves, though we have the necessary equipment to see things out there, unless those things are set in the light, even our most acute senses are inadequate to perceive them. And Augustine said, just as you need light physically to be able to see anything in this world, so the light of divine revelation is necessary for us to know any truth whatsoever. So for Augustine, and Aquinas then quoted Augustine verbatim on this very point, saying that all truth and all knowledge in the final analysis rests upon God as the source of truth and as the one who makes it possible for us to know anything at all. So at this point when we say that we trust in revelation for the content of our religious faith and somebody who coming from the physical sciences makes fun of that and say, well you people appeal to some kind of supernatural revelation where we don't need that, we just go to our laboratories and we discern truth empirically, what we would say to them is that you can't learn anything in a test tube were it not for the creators revealing to you and giving you the capacity to learn what you learn through a study of nature. Now, this brings us to these two sources of revelation, or two kinds of revelation. When we talk about general revelation, this refers to that unveiling that God gives of Himself that is general in two ways.
The term general has two directions to it. First of all, it's called general revelation because it is knowledge that is given to everybody. Everybody in the world has an availability of divine revelation. God does not simply reveal Himself to specific individuals or mystics or isolated spiritual people, but His self-revelation goes to every human being, to the whole world.
The whole world is His audience. The Bible says, for example, the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows forth His handiwork. So anyone who has eyes and can see walks in that theater and is a spectator of the glory of God that is manifested through the stars and the moon and the sun and all of nature, which is a grand theater.
You say, but what if you're blind? That knowledge doesn't proceed to everybody. Well, also the Bible speaks about God's knowledge that He plants in your souls, that He gives you a conscience, and by nature He reveals inwardly to you. He gives you a sense of right and wrong, which comes from Him. So even if you're blind and can't see the physical universe, you still have that interior knowledge of God that He has planted within your soul.
And I'll talk a little bit more about that later, but for now let's just say this, that the word general means that everyone is in the audience. Every human being is exposed to God's revelation, the general revelation. Now again, we're not talking about the Bible here because there are millions and millions of people who have never seen a Bible, never read a Bible, never heard anybody preach from the Bible.
But they have lived in the theater of nature where God manifests Himself to people. Now the second reason why it's called general is that the content of general revelation is of a general sort. That is, it doesn't give us a detailed account of the atonement of Christ or the resurrection of Christ. You can't study a sunset and see the heavens declaring for us God's plan of salvation. You have to go to the Bible for that.
That has specific information that you can't gain from a study of nature. But it's not that nature reveals nothing about God, but the content is that God is, His eternal power and deity is made manifest through the created order. Now, we'll look at that in a little bit more detail in a few moments. But first, let's make another distinction. We understand now the difference between general and special revelation. General revelation is that revelation that God gives to everybody, and it's of a general sort, gives us a general knowledge of God. It's different from the Bible. The Bible is special revelation, and only those who have access to it get it, and it gives us much more detailed information about the work and the plans of God that you would get from general revelation. Now sometimes, general revelation is called natural revelation. And this is where it gets a little bit confusing, and I should be careful here.
If we use the term natural revelation, what is usually meant in the lingo of theology, in the parlance of the discipline, is that the term natural revelation is a synonym for general revelation, because general revelation is that revelation that God gives to us in and through nature, and so we can call it general revelation or we can call it natural revelation. Is that easy? That's clear?
Okay. Now, here's where it gets tough, and here's where it gets confusing. There's another category that we're interested in here, and it's called natural theology. Now sometimes people confuse the term natural revelation and the term natural theology.
They do not refer to the same thing. I'm going to draw a picture up here on my little blackboard to try to display the difference between natural revelation and natural theology, and we'll take advantage of my vast artistic skill here at this point where we're going to draw a picture of a human being. Isn't that clever? This is a person. We'll make him a happy person.
We'll give him a smiley face. Now, this person is down here in this world, and up here is God. And in between God and this person is the world or the universe or what we'll call nature. Now, when we talk about general revelation, we're not simply saying that God gives us a planet called Earth and then says, okay, you go back and use the naked power of your reason to figure out who I am on the basis of this clue I left here of giving you a created world. Now obviously you can do that with a painting.
You study a painting carefully, and you see the brush strokes, you see the kind of pigment that is used, you see the style that is in it, and you can do some detective work and come to the conclusion, wow, this painting must have been painted by Van Gogh or from Rembrandt or whoever because you know something previously about Rembrandt or about these other painters. And it's not that God just paints the painting and then just allows you to be the detective. The idea of revelation is more than that. It is that this is a medium through which God actively reveals Himself to this person. That nature is not independent of God, but God communicates Himself through the medium of the world.
He communicates Himself through the glory and majesty of the heavens and the stars and all of that. Well, this revelation that comes through nature is what we call natural revelation, and the revelation is something that God does. And the term natural revelation then, simply stated, refers to the work or action by which God reveals Himself in and through nature. So the revelation is something God does. Now the question is, what happens to that revelation? Here I am down here, who I am the target of that revelation. The question is, does that revelation that God gives ever get into my head? Does it ever give me knowledge of any kind?
That's the question. Now, when we talk about natural theology, the distinction between natural theology and natural revelation is natural revelation is something God does, and natural theology is the result of what God does. Theology is the knowledge of God, and we're not talking about God's knowledge of Himself here. We're talking about our knowledge of God. The question is, when God reveals Himself to all of us, does that yield any knowledge to us about God?
Or to put it in another term, can I learn anything about God from nature? Now there's a huge controversy about this that's been going on for quite some time now in the field of theology. There have been vigorous opponents to the idea of man's having any ability to know anything about God apart from salvation. Paul says in Corinthians that the natural man does not know God. And it would seem at that point that the apostle is precluding the possibility of anybody getting any knowledge of God by means of nature, unless the Holy Spirit illuminates him, opens his eyes, and so on. However, in Romans chapter 1, which is the classic location for the doctrine of general revelation and of natural theology, the apostle says something else. And we'll look at that in a minute, but the apostle there says that we do have a knowledge of God.
Now before I look at the text, I want to see if you feel the problem. In Romans 1, he says we do know God by nature. In 1 Corinthians, he says we don't. Now remember, the atomist would come at that and say, well, Paul believed one thing when he wrote Romans, something different when he wrote Corinthians, changed his mind. Another person would look at that and say, well, here's a clear example of a contradiction in the Bible where the apostle says in Romans 1 that people know God by nature, and in 1 Corinthians they don't, so the Bible speaks the fourth tongue.
Well, not so fast. The verb to know in the Greek and in the Hebrew is used in more than one way. There is that knowledge that we would call cognitive knowledge, intellectual awareness of, and then there is that personal, intimate knowledge that is a different kind of knowledge. For example, the Bible speaks of the Old Testament patriarchs of Adam and of Abraham and so on, and when it talks about their bearing children, it'll say Adam knew his wife and she conceived. Now what does that suggest? That Adam and Eve meet in the garden, and he says, Madame, I'm Adam, and as soon as they're acquainted and he has an intellectual awareness of this woman, she's suddenly pregnant?
Not at all. When the Bible uses the verb to know there, it's using that verb to describe the most intimate possible human relationship between a man and a woman. And when Paul is talking to the Corinthians, he's talking about a spiritual discernment of the things of God, and he is saying that in our fallen condition, we don't have that kind of spiritual knowledge of God.
But that's a knowledge that goes beyond mere awareness, mere intellectual cognition. And if we look now at Romans 1, Paul says, he says in verse 18, for the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness. Paul is concerned here to show why it's necessary for us to be saved, and he's bringing the whole world before the tribunal of God. And he's trying to demonstrate that everybody needs the gospel because everybody's judged guilty, not for rejecting Jesus, who they've never heard of in their lives in many cases, but for the universal rejection of God the Father, who has manifested Himself plainly and clearly to every human being, and it is our nature as sinners to do what? To hold that truth in unrighteousness. Various translations here, to repress it, to hinder it, to suppress it, to stifle it. And so Paul's saying God is angry for what human beings do with His revelation.
Let's go on. He goes on and says, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. Now, he uses the word that in Latin is manifestum, in the Greek it's phoneyros, and the idea here is that God has not planted these esoteric clues under rocks and in caves and at the top of the Himalayas where you need some guru to explain to you that God exists, but that this revelation that He gives of Himself is manifestum. It's clear, and He makes it clear, so you can't say if the student didn't learn, the teacher didn't teach, because God teaches us about His own character clearly and plainly.
To what avail? Verse 20, for since the creation of the world, His invisible attributes are clearly seen. That sounds like a self-contradictory statement. How can somebody see what is invisible? The word invisible means can't be seen. And yet Paul here is saying that the invisible things of God are seen, and not only are they seen, but they're seen how? Clearly.
Well, but not directly. We don't see the invisible God. What we see is what?
The visible world that carries to us the revelation of God, because God is revealing His unseen character through the things that can be seen. Listen to what Paul says, for since the creation of the world, His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse. What excuse do you suppose the apostle has in view here? The excuse that everyone who refuses to come to God relies upon. He says, I'm an agnostic. I don't know if God exists.
We can't know for sure. God hasn't made it clear. There's not a good case for the existence of God. And the sinner at the judgment is going to say, if I would have only known you were there, God, I would have been your most devout follower. That's the excuse that God takes away. That's what Paul is saying here.
God has so clearly manifested Himself through nature, and that that revelation is clearly perceived, so that leaves man without an excuse. Now again, because, verse 21, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts and their foolish hearts were darkened. You see what Paul is saying here? He uses the participial form of the verb to know, and he says that they did know Him. So in Romans 1, he says we know Him in one sense.
In 1 Corinthians, we don't know Him in a different sense, but we know this much. His eternal power and deity is made clear to the whole world, and so there is not only a general revelation or a natural revelation, but there is also a natural theology. That natural theology gets all distorted and defective and all the rest, but it does not erase the knowledge of God that God gives to us through nature.
It is a controversial topic, one that's debated today, but the way we've heard R.C. Sproul explain it, it's clear that nature proclaims the glory and existence of God. I'm glad you've joined us for this Saturday edition of Renewing Your Mind. This message is from Dr. Sproul's sweeping series on systematic theology.
It's called Foundations. There are 60 messages on eight DVDs. That's more than 22 hours of teaching, and in it, R.C. answers a multitude of questions about the origin and authority of the Bible, God, the Trinity, man, sin, salvation, and many more topics. So contact us today with a donation of any amount, and we will send this teaching series to you. You can find us online at renewingyourmind.org, and when you've completed your request, we will add the study guide for the series to your online learning library.
That will give you access to message outlines, study questions, and suggestions for further reading. I think you can see how this would be a great addition to your church library, or if you homeschool your children, you may want to consider this as part of your curriculum. So I hope you'll contact us today with a donation of any amount and request, Foundations, an overview of systematic theology. Our web address again is renewingyourmind.org, and on behalf of all of my colleagues here at Ligonier Ministries, let me thank you in advance for your generous donation. Next Saturday we return to this series, and we'll learn about God's specific communication to mankind, His special revelation we call the Bible. I hope you'll join us next week for Renewing Your Mind. you
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