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Natural Theology Defined

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
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April 23, 2022 12:01 am

Natural Theology Defined

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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April 23, 2022 12:01 am

God has revealed Himself through the world He has made. But does nature reveal enough about God to bring us to saving faith in His Son? Today, R.C. Sproul answers this question by defining the importance and the limits of natural theology.

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We understand that the stars and the moon and the sun and all of that, they're not God, but yet they display something of the glory of their Maker.

Just as a great painter leaves his own mark on the paintings that he creates. So the universe itself proclaims something about the nature of God. One of the great hymns of the church declares, This is my Father's world. The birds their carols raise. The morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker's praise. Welcome to Renewing Your Mind.

I'm Lee Webb. Those lyrics echo Romans chapter 1, which tells us that the heavens declare the glory of God. He has revealed Himself through all He created. But does nature provide enough information for us to come to a saving knowledge of God?

That's the question Dr. R.C. Sproul will address today from his series, Defending Your Faith. We recall that what we've been looking at in the last few sessions, some of the epistemological principles or principles of knowledge that are critical for our understanding of the defense of the faith. And we looked at the law of non-contradiction, the law of causality, the basic reliability of sense perception, and the analogical use of language.

And then from there, we went to those concepts that are so often confused in our day, particularly the idea of contradiction, the idea of paradox, and the idea of mystery. And now having finished that segment of our series, I want to turn our attention in a slightly different direction today, looking at a very important idea that is central to the historic defense of Christianity, which is called the principle of natural theology, natural theology. And I say that this is a critical issue because in the 20th century, the whole idea of natural theology that had been so carefully developed throughout church history has come under severe attack. And many theologians and apologists in our day reject the whole idea of natural theology. Now, usually when we talk about natural theology, immediately the name that is associated with it among theologians is that of St. Thomas Aquinas. And some people labor under the misunderstanding that the science of natural theology was invented by St. Thomas.

But actually, when St. Thomas developed his natural theology in a very large measure, he stood on the shoulders of St. Augustine who had come before him. And St. Augustine, of course, in the development of his idea of natural theology, was indebted to the teaching of the Apostle Paul himself. So, as we look at this, let me begin by giving a simple definition of the term natural theology and then look at some historical principles that have developed with it. The idea of natural theology simply refers to a knowledge of God. Remember, this is what theology is, a knowledge of God that is gained from nature.

That is, in addition to and distinct from the knowledge of God that we receive from sacred Scripture is another source of knowledge of God, which is nature itself. Now, as I get into this, I have to say at the outset that there have been many different views of natural theology, many different kinds of natural theology, and that partly explains the controversy that attends the very Word. But, historically, natural theology within the Christian tradition is seen to be based on something else, which we call general revelation.

In fact, sometimes people confuse these two concepts. General revelation refers to something that God does. Natural theology refers to something that we do. Natural theology is the result of general revelation.

Now, let me take again a few moments for definitions. When we talk about revelation that is general, the word general is distinguished from the word special. So, in theology, we talk about general revelation and special revelation.

Now, again, if I can allow the plot to thicken, general revelation is called general for two reasons. The first reason it is called general revelation is that because it refers to a revelation from God that is given to all human beings. That is, the audience of general revelation is universal.

Every human person in the world receives general revelation. Now, not everybody in the world has had the benefit of hearing special revelation as it's found in the Scriptures. We know that there are tribes and peoples in this world who have never had a word of the Bible translated into their language.

They've never heard a word of the content of the Bible. And so, that vehicle of revelation that we call special, the word of God in Scripture, is not as yet been made available to every human being. But general revelation does go to all people. Now, the second reason why general revelation is called general revelation is because of its content. What general revelation reveals is a knowledge of God in general. We do not receive in general revelation a clear understanding of the Trinity or of God's plan of redemption, but only some basic substantive information about the character and existence of God is revealed in general revelation.

Alright, so since we like to make distinctions, I'll make one more for you. Again, when we talk about general revelation, we talk about two different kinds of general revelation, and those different kinds are called mediate and immediate. So, we can speak of mediate general revelation, or we can speak of immediate general revelation.

Here's the difference. Mediate general revelation is that revelation that God gives to all people through some medium. It's not direct, but it's indirect. Let me explain an example of it when the psalmist says, the heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows forth His handiwork.

The psalmist is saying that by looking at nature, by looking at the earth, by looking at the stars and the moon and the heavens, when we see those things, we understand that the stars and the moon and the sun and all of that, they're not God, but yet they display something of the glory of their Maker, just as a great painter leaves his own mark on the paintings that he creates. So, the universe itself is a medium that proclaims something about the nature of God, and that's why this is called mediate general revelation, that revelation that God makes of Himself in and through nature. Immediate revelation would be a direct revelation.

Immediate here does not mean quick or sudden, but it means without an intervening medium. For example, Romans chapter 2 tells us that God has written His law on our hearts, and every human being is born with a conscience. There is an innate internal sense of God that God plants immediately in the soul of every creature, so that by virtue of just being human, we have an internal sense of the reality of God that He plants upon the conscience or in the mind of every creature.

It's not a deduction from nature. It's planted directly into the soul. This is what John Calvin called the sensus divinitatis, or the sense of the divine that is within each one of us. That would be a case of immediate general revelation. And so, we see that God reveals Himself in two different ways to all people, through the medium of nature and directly through the imprint of a sense of Himself in the soul. Now, when the discussion comes up about general revelation, particularly among Christians, the question is, well, what does the Bible say about that?

And if Christians are convinced, for example, that the Bible is true, and if the Bible says that in addition to the Bible there's another source of revelation, then obviously Christians for that reason will embrace these two different kinds of revelation. And, of course, the classical location in Scripture for the doctrine of general revelation and the idea of natural theology is found in the first chapter of Paul's epistle to the Romans. In chapter 1, verse 18, the apostle writes as follows, for the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.

Now, let me just pause there quickly. This is sort of striking and jolting because just a couple of verses earlier, Paul has introduced the glorious revelation of the gospel of Christ, and the whole purpose of this epistle is to unfold for his readers the content of the gospel, which is good news. And so one would expect after he introduces the gospel that he would then move immediately to an exposition of that gospel, and instead, as it were, Paul backpedals and talks about a different revelation. He speaks here of the revelation of God's wrath. Now, I think it's clear why he does it because he's trying to show his readers why the gospel is necessary in the first place, why it was necessary for our salvation that Christ come. And so he goes back to show why it is that everybody in the world is brought before the tribunal of God and is found guilty. And what Paul concludes in the third chapter is that all of sin falls short of the glory of God and that everybody needs the gospel, not because they've rejected Jesus, of whom they've never heard, but because of what human beings do to the knowledge of God that they do have.

So let's look at this. He says, God's wrath is revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. And I'll just quickly in passing saying that in the structure of this, literally, the terms ungodliness and unrighteousness both refer to one thing. There's a single sin in view here that can be deemed both ungodly and unrighteous, and Paul goes on to explain what it is, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness. Again, let me pause and say that the one primary universal sin of fallen humanity is the suppression of truth. But it's not simply the suppression of truth in general, but it is a particular truth that is in view here, that is being suppressed.

And let's see what it is. Because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. Now, do you see what Paul is saying here? Paul is saying that God is revealing His wrath against the human race because the human race is guilty of suppressing truth about God. Initially, he says, that may be known. So, so far he's talking about the suppression of potential knowledge of God. And this knowledge that may be known, may be known why? Because, as Paul says, God has manifested it to them.

It gets worse. He goes on to say, 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. Ever since creation, God has so clearly, the word there is phoneros, which means clear and manifest, plain. It's not that God hides little clues behind the bushes that the alert and intelligent seeker can maybe discern if he's clever enough and conclude that God exists.

No. This revelation that he's talking about is so plain, so manifest, that everybody sees it. It's clearly perceived by the things that are made in and through creation.

We all see it, and it leaves us without excuse. Now, obviously, the excuse that the apostle has in view here, that he realizes people will try to appeal to on the day of judgment when they stand before God, people are going to say, oh Lord, if I only knew that You were there, my life would have been different. I would have been Your loyal disciple. I would have obeyed You. I would have worshiped You. I would have adored You.

God said, no, no, no, no. That excuse won't fly because You did know that I was here. You knew my eternal power. You knew my very deity because I showed it to You, and I showed it to You plainly. You see, the reason why You didn't follow me is not because of ignorance. It's not because You didn't know me.

It's because You hated me, and You wouldn't have me in Your thoughts. This is the indictment that the New Testament gives to the whole world. Now, he goes on to say this, because although they knew God, they did not glorify Him, they did not glorify Him as God, neither were they thankful, but they became futile in their imaginations.

Now, I'm going to erase these things that I have on the board and put another picture up here, if I may. There's first of all what we call the revelation of God, which I'm going to look at lines radiating from the sun as an analogy of the light that is shining, and we'll let that represent what God does. He does the revelation, and here we are down here in this circle below these rays, and we'll call that mankind. Now, some people look at it this way, and they say, well, here's what the human sin is. God reveals Himself clearly and manifestly, but there is a barrier between God and man, and that barrier is human sin and human corruption, and so as a result of that sin and corruption, this revelation hits this barrier and bounces back and never pierces the mind of the creature.

That is to say there is an objective revelation here above the line, but the revelation never gets through to the subject. Now, that's not what the apostle is saying here. The apostle is not saying that the judgment of God is revealed because God has revealed Himself, and people refuse to allow that revelation to get in their heads.

That's not the basis of this indictment, as he goes on to say, because knowing God, they refused to honor Him as God, neither were they grateful. And so what we have to see here in Romans 1 is that this revelation that comes from God gets through. It pierces the mind of man, and then we continually distort it, exchange the truth for a lie, become idolaters, and all the rest. We suppress it.

We hide it. We exchange it for the lie, but only after the knowledge has gotten in there. And so the point that the apostle is saying is not only is there a divine revelation in nature, not just natural revelation, but that that natural revelation produces what? A natural theology.

Which natural theology is the foundation for the universal guilt of man? One of the questions I hear more often than any other question is, what happens to the poor innocent native in Africa who's never heard the gospel? And my answer is somewhat glib to that.

And it always throws people for a loop. I said, nothing happens to the poor innocent native in Africa who's never heard the gospel. The poor innocent native in Africa doesn't need to hear the gospel. The poor innocent native in Africa goes straight to heaven when he dies.

He doesn't pass go. He doesn't collect his $200. You know, there's nothing to worry about. And I wouldn't spend five cents in a missionary endeavor to reach innocent natives in Africa or Australia. Or New Zealand or South America or anywhere else. Innocent people, beloved, don't need the gospel. The real question is, how many innocent natives are there in Africa or in South America or on Australia? If we understand Paul properly here, he's saying there are no innocent natives in Africa. That people in Africa and Australia, people all over the world, have received this clear revelation of God the Father. And every last one of them has repressed that knowledge, exchanged that knowledge for a lie, and has chosen idolatry rather than the worship of the only true God. And it's to a world that is already under indictment that God sends Christ to be our Savior. But the point is, Christ comes to a world that is already under the indictment of the Father because of the natural revelation that He has given of Himself so clearly and so plainly.

He has given of Himself so clearly and so plainly, and which revelation gets through. And so what we mean here, natural theology in its most rudimentary sense, is that knowledge of God that every human being has as a direct result or consequence of general revelation. It's the knowledge of God that we have from nature. Now again, when Augustine talked about natural theology, he went immediately to Romans 1. And when Aquinas centuries later developed his system of natural theology, he went not only to Romans 1, but also to the writings of Augustine and cites Augustine in many passages and says, yes, because of Romans 1 and because of general revelation, there is a universal knowledge of God. Now many people think that what St. Thomas was saying was that man, through his unaided reason, without any assistance from divine revelation, has the intellectual capacity to ascend into the heavens and arrive at a knowledge of God. That is not what Thomas taught, by a long shot, or what Augustine taught. Both of them said the way we have natural theology is through divine revelation, that revelation that God makes of Himself in nature. Now, the consequences of this idea are massive for the science of apologetics, as I hope we will see in the coming sessions. When we understand natural theology, it helps us see that none of us has an excuse. The reason people don't follow Christ is never because of ignorance.

It's because they are at enmity with God. The New Testament indicts the whole world with this truth. We've heard a powerful message today by Dr. R.C.

Sproul. This is from his series Defending Your Faith, and you're listening to Renewing Your Mind. Thank you for being with us today.

We're making our way through this entire series each Saturday on the program. With 32 messages, it is a comprehensive treatment of classical apologetics. We'd like for you to have the 11-DVD set. Just contact us today with a gift of any amount, and we will send it to you.

You can reach us by phone at 800-435-4343, or if you prefer, you can make your request and give your gift online at The study of apologetics is important not just in defending the faith, but in bringing comfort to our own souls. Believing what God says helps us in every area of our lives. Ligonier's free app is another great source for your study on the topic of apologetics. You can search through thousands of resources from Dr. Sproul, our Ligonier teaching fellows, and other trusted Bible teachers. Download it to your phone or tablet when you search for Ligonier in your app store.

in your app store. Next Saturday, we'll continue our look at natural theology, and he'll expose some of the errant teaching that has arisen through the centuries. I hope you'll join us next Saturday for Renewing Your Mind. you
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-04-28 11:12:33 / 2023-04-28 11:20:23 / 8

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