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.