Is natural revelation God’s word?Â OrÂ does Scripture only qualify for such a title?Â In other words, when nature speaks clearly about something can we say that this represents the voice of God to the same degree as Scripture?
Natural revelation is God’s communication through creation. It is seen in the vast expanse of the universe and in the minute details of the human cell. It is found in the very consciousness of humanity and in our capacity for rational and analytic thought.Â Nature tells us much about the attributes and character of God. While, without the Scriptures we would lack an understanding of God’s ultimate plan of redemption and Christian living, we would still have quite a bit of theological understanding.
Paul tells the Romans:
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 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.” (Romans 1: 18-20)
Notice a few things:
1. “Revealed from heaven . . . being understood through what has been made.” This is what can be know about God without the Scriptures. It is God’s revelation through creation.
2. Against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. This tells us that natural revelation is evident to all. This is sometimes referred to as “general revelation” because it has a general audience that is not limited to a particular people, nation, or time.
3. God has shown it to them. This tells us it is from God. God is the author of this revelation.
4. Invisible attributes . . . eternal power and divine nature. This lets us know that we can understand many of the characteristics of God through natural revelation. His “eternal power” (aidios autou dunamis) has to do with not only ultimate power and ability, but the necessity of its eternality. His divine nature (theiotes) speaks of his divinity, or the nature that divinity necessary must encompass, including attributes and characteristics.
5. They have been clearly seen. The word for “clearly” (kathoratai) is in the present indicative telling us that this is an ongoing occurrence.Â The wordÂ carries the idea of inward perception coming from our reasoning, not simply seeing with the eye. BADG suggests this translation:Â “Godâ€™s invisible attributes are perceived with the eye of reason in the things that have been made.” In other words, natural revelation is evidently evident!
6. They are without excuse. This is very important to understand. The word hereÂ for “without excuse” (anapologetous) has a judicial feel to it. Josephus uses the word in the sense of being “without a defense.” Dio Chrysostom uses this to describe Alexander’s aid to Homer saying that he will not let Homer go “undefended.” This verse is telling us that these characteristics of God are so clear thatÂ people are leftÂ without a defense of any sortÂ for unbelief.
About natural revelation’s voice, the Psalmist writes:
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. Their measuring line goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. (Psalm 19:1-4)
In other words, both these passages teach that we are held accountable for hearingÂ through creation the authoritative voice of God. So much so that we will be without excuse if we ignore what it has to say.
Now, we are evangelicals and biblicists, so we have to make Scripture more authoritative than creation, right? But the problem is How can God’s word (Scripture) be more authoritative than God’s word (creation)? If they are both God’s word speaking with His voice, then they both have the same authority, right?
Some may say, “Yes, but what about Sola Scriptura?” Don’t we believe that the Scriptures are the final and only infallible norm in matters of faith and practice? But this assumes that we have interpreted the Scripture correctly, which is, many times, a rather large assumption.Â However, creation is the same isn’t it? If we interpret its voice correctly, doesn’t it carry the same authority? This is the key question that I think we need to wrestle with.
Here are some implications:
The acknowledgment of the validity of Natural theology. Natural theologyÂ (the theologyÂ derived from natural revelation) becomes a primary source of studyÂ in whichÂ Christians need to engage more often.Â While natural theology is not emphasized in many of the more fundementalistic Protestant circles,Â this has not always been the case. Great philosophers and theologians of the past have seen the importance letting God’s voice come through creation. Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover,” Justin Martyrs “God of the Philosophers,” Anselm’s “Necessary Being,” Aquinas’ “Five Proofs,” and John Calvin’s “sensus divinitatis“Â all evidence an understanding of the authority of creation’s voice. We need acknowledge and engage in the study of God’s voice through creation with more confidence.
Issues of faith and science become less dichotomized. Once we recognize thatÂ science is simply the interpretation of God’s “book of nature,” it willÂ no longer be seen as a threat. The scientist can give valuable information to the theologian in the same wayÂ theÂ exegete does.Â Seeming conflict will no longer present the dilemma of having to chooseÂ which source is more authoritative, but which source speaks to the issue more clearly.Â Rhetoric between theÂ ones who study human origins from God’s word in Scripture and those who studyÂ God’s word in creation will tamed. Both sides will see that we are ultimately on the same team, even if we may sometimes interpret each source of God’s voiceÂ differently.
Current issues about the nature of God will be put into perspective. Open theists who claim that the Bible never speaks about certain attributes of God held to by traditional theists such as asiety, immutability, and necessary eternality can recognize that even ifÂ ScriptureÂ did not speak of such things (which I do not concede), nature does have an authoritativeÂ voice to contribute.Â This means that philosophy and science do matter. This means that the old adage “If it is not in the Bible, I don’t believe it” is not only irresponsible, but unbiblical! If nature says that God must be an Unmoved Mover, the Necessary Being, the Uncaused Cause, or the creator of time, then we must incorporate this into our theology, even if the Bible did not speak on it.
What I am not saying (just so I don’t have to deal with misconceptions)
- I am not saying that natural revelation is sufficient for salvation. I don’t believe it is. Natural revelation does not present the Gospel.
- I am not saying that Scripture is not as important as we once thought. Without the Scriptures we would not know about God’s plan of redemption. As well, Scripture speaks much more clearly in most areas of faith and practice. Its interpretation is not as difficult and, because of this,Â its message is more exhaustive andÂ louder.
- I am not saying that Sola Scritura is not correct. Sola Scriptura has to do with special revelation, God’s mediating voice through human agencies, not natural revelation. Otherwise, what do we do with Romans 1 and Psalm 19? How would we say that God’s word is more authoritative than God’s word? Scripture is the final and only infallible authority in the sense that no human institution or authority can rise to its level.
In the end, I propose that natural revelation is just as much God’s word as Scripture (AHhhh!). Both have to be interpreted and both speak to different areas. Most importantly, both are authoritative and should be taken seriously. We will be without excuse if we close our ears to the voice of either.