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C.S. Lewis once wrote that old books carry the fresh breeze of the past, which blows through our minds to remind us of truths long forgotten. Reading old books, therefore, helps the church recover the classic Reformed approach to defending the faith, or apologetics. Classic Reformed theologians say some different things than many of our contemporaries do in the present day. Karl Barth, for example, said that there is no point of contact between the believer and unbeliever; thus, apologetics is unnecessary. Conservative Reformed apologist Cornelius Van Til wrote in a letter to Francis Schaeffer that no form of natural theology speaks accurately of God. Yet, historic Reformed theology reveals something different. This difference of opinion between contemporary and classic Reformed theology warrants a brief investigation to understand why we should read old Reformed theological books for defending the faith.
Reformed works of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries regularly speak of two ideas that few contemporary Reformed theologians mention: common notions and the order of nature. First, what are common notions? Common notions are those ideas that all human beings possess innately by virtue of being created in the image of God. Historically, Reformed theologians have typically appealed to common notions in their interpretations of several passages from Romans.
For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them. (Rom. 2:14–15)
The Apostle Paul writes of those unbelieving gentiles who did not receive the specially revealed law of God at Sinai. Even so, these unbelievers have the works of the law written on their hearts. Unbelievers know right from wrong, as we see from Paul’s statement that their “conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.”
There are a number of other passages to which classic Reformed theological works appeal, such as when pagan Abimelech showed greater morality than Abraham. Abimelech admonished Abraham for lying about his relationship with Sarah (Gen. 20:9–11). Classic Reformed theologians also appealed to Jonah’s interaction with the pagan sailors, who at first refused to throw him overboard during the storm because they knew it was wrong (Jonah 1). Appeal is also made to 1 Corinthians 5:1, where Paul rebukes the Corinthians for approving of a kind of sexual immorality not even tolerated among pagans. In other words, unbelievers in some cases had higher moral standards than the Christian Corinthians.
Second, classic Reformed theologians believed that common notions were one part of a greater whole, namely, the order of nature. The order of nature is the way in which the creation reflects who God is. God designed human beings to fit within His broader creation in an integrated fashion. The knowledge of the works of the law that is innate to all human beings is connected to the larger creation. A typical passage to which theologians appeal is Romans 1:19–20:
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
Another is Psalm 19:
The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. (vv. 1–3)
People can look at the creation and see the brush strokes and signature of the Master Artist. Whether one looks on the creation in general and discerns God’s eternal power and divine nature or studies particular things in the world such as insects and sees reflections of God’s wisdom (Prov. 6:6), the entire created order and human beings reflect the God who made them both.
In classic Reformed theology, you can find references to common notions and the order of nature in the writings of Heinrich Bullinger, Martin Bucer, John Calvin, Francis Turretin, Girolamo Zanchi, Richard Baxter, John Owen, Franciscus Junius, and more. But the most prominent place where these concepts appear is in the historic Reformed confessional tradition. The French Confession (1559), written chiefly by Calvin, states: “God reveals himself to men . . . in his works, in their creation, as well as in their preservation and control” (article 2). Many people know that the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) begins with a chapter on Scripture. But we should note that the opening line of that chapter refers to something different: “Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God . . .” (1.1). The light of nature is an overarching rubric for common notions and the general revelation of God in the creation. In fact, the Westminster Confession makes four more references to the light of nature as something by which the church orders certain aspects of worship (4.6), as that which enables unbelievers morally to frame their lives (10.4), and as a witness alongside of Scripture that reveals whether certain conduct is moral or immoral (20.4). The fifth reference to the light of nature in the confession’s chapter on worship is one of its fullest statements on the natural knowledge of God:
The light of nature showeth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and doth good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might. (21.1)
One of the more memorable similes for the light of nature comes from the Belgic Confession (1561):
We know God . . . by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, since that universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God. (article 2)
This scriptural and confessional data leads to two key points: (1) the importance of the book of nature, and (2) the necessity of using the books of nature and Scripture in tandem in defending the faith. In the twentieth century, Reformed theologians have made vigorous use of the book of Scripture, and this is commendable. But at the same time, God’s good book of nature has been left sitting on the shelf and has collected a thick layer of dust. Since God has written two books, Scripture and nature, should we not use them both when we defend the faith? Why would we leave half of God’s revelatory arsenal sitting on the shelf? Contemporary theologians have defended their unwillingness to use the book of nature with a battery of justifications: God is above proof; appealing to natural theology subjects truth to the judgment of sinful reason; no amount of evidence or argumentation can convert the unbeliever. This is where the second point comes into play; namely, we must always use general revelation and Scripture in concert. The psalmist extols the beauty and revelatory power of the creation and then segues to the specially revealed law of God (Ps. 19:7). When Paul engaged the unbelieving philosophers at Mars Hill, he connected with his audience through their natural, albeit distorted, knowledge of God and corrected their understanding with the specially revealed gospel of Christ and His resurrection (Acts 17:23, 28, 30). Scripture and historic Reformed theology convey the idea that the God that we read about on the pages of holy writ is the same God who has created the world around us.
As we use the two books of God, we must recognize their distinct functions. Only the special revelation of Scripture speaks of the person and work of Christ and the salvation that comes through the gospel. Moreover, only the sovereign regenerative power of the Holy Spirit can convert sinners and transfer them from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light; only through the Spirit-given gift of faith can people lay hold of the gospel of Christ. As Paul writes: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). This does not mean that the book of nature is superfluous. Rather, from the foundation of the authoritative Scriptures, we can appeal to the book of nature as a divinely authored corroborating witness. We can interact with unbelievers and know that we can communicate scriptural truth because God has made all people in His image and written His law on their hearts.
Pick up old Reformed books of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and let the fresh breeze of the past remind you of truths long forgotten. Use God’s books of nature and Scripture to defend the faith once delivered to the saints.