Which Takes Priority? Natural or Revealed/Historical Theology?

The skeptical issue in our culture mostly enters into the religious dialogue in the following way: “In the case of God, who isn’t some material object but a divine being, what kind of evidence should we expect to find? There is a tendency to forget that the Bible stresses that sin can dampen the cognitive faculties that God has given us to find Him. Therefore, sin has damaging consequences on the knowing process (Is. 6:9-10; Zech. 7:11-12; Matt. 13:10-13). Christianity, Judaism, Islam, are all theistic faiths in contrast to pantheism (all is God), polytheism (many gods), and atheism (without God). Therefore, the God of the Bible is capable of giving a revelation to mankind through a specific medium. One of the most important themes of the Bible is that since God is free and personal, that he acts on behalf of those whom he loves, and that his actions includes already within history, a partial disclosure of his nature, attributes, and intentions. (1)

Hence, the acceptance of revelation, therefore, is, of fundamental importance to the Christian faith. The word “revelation” comes from the Greek word ” apokalupsis” which means “an “uncovering,” or “unveiling.”

When I was in my early 20’s, I was asking questions about the Christian faith. I had been raised in a church but was by no means a committed Christian. I was one of many nominal Christians. The more I look back on it, this is the pattern God used to reach me. By the way, we find this pattern in the Bible itself.

What are the mediums that God chooses to reveal Himself to man?
1. General Revelation: Creation: (external manifestation)
2. General Revelation: Conscience: (internal manifestation)
3. Special Revelation: The Messiah: (external manifestation)
4. Special Revelation: A Messenger: (external manifestation)

Medium #1- The Light of Creation: While God predominately revealed Himself to the Jewish people through specific actions in the course of human history, the Jewish people agree that the Torah was the pivotal moment of God’s supreme revelation to them. But what about the Gentile nations? After all, it is Israel that was given the Torah. The good news is God has also taken the initiative to reveal Himself to Gentiles through general or natural revelation. In the case of God, who isn’t some physical object but a divine, invisible being, we have to use induction. Induction is the method of drawing general conclusions from specific observations. For example, since we can’t observe gravity directly, we only observe its effects.

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known of God is revealed in them, for God revealed it to them. For the invisible things of him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived through the things that are made, even his everlasting power and divinity; that they may be without excuse. Because, knowing God, they didn’t glorify him as God, neither gave thanks, but became vain in their reasoning, and their senseless heart was darkened.” (Rom.1:18-21)

In this passage, God’s knowledge is described as “eternal power and divine nature.” Paul lays out the basic principle of cause and effect. Paul says since God is the Designer (God is the cause), His “everlasting power and divinity” are obvious, “through the things that are made” (this is the effect).

Romans Ch1:18: The word “suppress,” means “to consciously dismiss in the mind,”to “hold down”, or to “hold back by force or to dismiss.” However, that which is “suppressed” is not destroyed. As much as humans try to suppress the truth of God’s existence, the human mind is still aware of their moral accountability to Him. In relation to this passage, Paul says God’s revelation says is not hidden or concealed. The reason this revelation is clear is because God shows it to him.

In other words, God makes knowledge of Himself available to man! The creation gives a cognitive knowledge of God’s existence but not saving knowledge. However, according to Romans 1:18-21, man is not left in ignorance about God.

Theologians, philosophers, and apologists have made significant comments in relation to Romans 1:18-21. Here are a few of them:

1. The revelation of God in nature is mediate, but it is so manifest and so clear that it does not necessitate a complex theoretical reasoning process that could be achieved only by a group of geniuses. If God’s general revelation is in fact “general,” in that it is plain enough for all to see clearly without complicated cosmological argumentation, then it may even be said to be self evident. The revelation is clear enough for an unskilled and illiterate person to perceive it. The memory of conscious knowledge of the trauma encounter with God’s revelation is not maintained in its lucid, threatening state, but is repressed. It is “put down or held in captivity” in the unconsciousness. That which is repressed is not destroyed. The memory remains though it may be buried in the subconscious realm. Knowledge of God is unacceptable, and as a result humans attempt to blot it out or at least camouflage it in such a way that its threatening character can be concealed or dulled. (Sproul, R.C, Gerstner, John and Arthur Lindsey. Classical Apologetics: A Rational Defense of the Christian Faith and a Critique of Presuppositional Apologetics. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing.1984, 46-59).

2. Former atheist J. Budziszewski:

I am not at present concerned to explore Paul’s general claim that those who deny the Creator are wicked but only his more particular claim that they are intellectually dishonest. Notice that he does not criticize nonbelievers because they do not know about God but ought to. Rather, he criticizes them because they do know about God but pretend to themselves that they don’t. According to his account, we are not ignorant of God’s reality at all. Rather, we “suppress” it; to translate differently, we “hold it down.” With all our strength we try not to know it, even though we can’t help knowing it; with one part of our minds we do know it, while with another we say, “I know no such thing.” From the biblical point of view, then, the reason it is so difficult to argue with an atheist—as I once was—is that he is not being honest with himself. He knows there is a God, but he tells himself that he doesn’t. How can a person explain how he reached new first principles? By what route could he have arrived at them? To what deeper considerations could he have appealed? If the biblical account is true, then it would seem that no one really arrives at new first principles; a person only seems to arrive at them. The atheist does not lack true first principles; they are in his knowledge already, though suppressed. The convert from atheism did not acquire them; rather, things he knew all along were unearthed. ( Geisler, N. L. and Paul K. Hoffman. Why I Am A Christian. Leading Thinkers Explain Why They Believe. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House. 2001, 49).

3. Our original knowledge of God and his glory is muffled and impaired; it has been replaced (by virtue of sin) by stupidity, dullness, blindness, inability to perceive God or to perceive him in his handiwork. Our knowledge of his character and his love toward us can be smothered: it can be transformed into resentful thought that God is to be feared and mistrusted; we may see him as indifferent or even malignant. In the traditional taxonomy of seven deadly sins, this is sloth. Sloth is not simple laziness, like the inclination to lie down and watch television rather than go out and get exercise you need; it is, instead, a kind of spiritual deadness, blindness, imperceptiveness, acedia, torpor, a failure to be aware of God’s presence, love, requirements. (Plantinga, A. Warranted Christian Belief. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 2000, 214-215).

Paul says that God’s existence and attributes can be “clearly seen” (Romans 1:18-20) since they have been “shown” to the unbelieving world through “the things that are made” (nature). Notice that Paul never posits that we can view God as a material object. But he does say that people should be able to look at the effects in the world and infer that there is a Creator.

The interesting thing is I always knew from my observations of the natural world that there was a Creator. I knew this before I began to read the Bible. This is why it is called natural theology.

Medium#2: The Light of Conscience

“For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.” (Romans 2:12-15).

The Greek word for conscience is “suneidesis” which means “a co-knowledge, of oneself, the witness borne to one’s conduct by conscience, that faculty by which we apprehend the will of God as that which is designed to govern our lives; that process of thought which distinguishes what it considers morally good or bad, condemning the good, condemning the bad, and so prompting to do the former, and avoid the latter.” This type of natural revelation is called intuitive knowledge. It is instantaneously apprehended. The issue of moral knowledge is what C.S. Lewis discusses in The Abolition of Man. Lewis recalls that all cultures, Greek, Hebrew, Egyptian, Babylonian etc. show that natural revelation is true. In Romans 2:15, “suneidesis” stands alongside with the “heart” and “thoughts” as the faculty that allows the pagan world to live a life that corresponds to the Jewish people who have the written law. (3) Before the time of Jesus, and even after Jesus, the Jewish people viewed the heart as the core of the entire personality.

The Hebrew word for the conscience is “lebad,” which is usually translated as the “heart” in the Old Testament. The conscience is so much of the core of the human soul that the Hebrew mind did not draw a distinction between conscience and the rest of the inner person.

We should also note that natural theology (sometimes called “The Book of Nature”) also shows traces of God’s handiwork in the following areas:

Why does natural theology matter? It matters because many people don’t think the Bible is authoritative nor inspired by God. Hence, for the Christians that are dogmatic about starting with the Bible can run into some roadblocks.Let me also share what Peter May says here in his article called ” Karl Barth and Natural Theology?” May  says:

A few years ago, I organised what I hoped would be a debate on Islam. A leading British Muslim agreed to take part and debate with Professor Gary Habermas.

The Muslim agreed to promote the meeting and promised that many Muslims would attend. In the event, he came alone with his driver and seemingly no other Muslim attended. Gary Habermas spoke first and presented his well known arguments concerning the earliest evidence for Christianity, focussing on the historicity of Paul’s creedal statement in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5. It was a powerful case, tracing the beliefs “of first importance”, concerning Christ’s death and resurrection, on sound documentary evidence back to within three to five years of the events themselves.

How would his opponent respond? Well, he didn’t. He engaged with none of the issues and offered no arguments at all to support his views. He merely stated his Islamic beliefs, interspersed with such phrases as, “We are taught to believe this…”,“We are told that…”. No justification of these Koranic beliefs was made at any point. His presentation was entirely ‘fideistic’, that is, a statement of faith, unargued and unengaged with any contrary opinion. Personally, I found it shocking. This did not even follow the rules of polite conversation, where you respond to what the other person has just said. There was no exchange. It was as if Habermas had said nothing.

The Fideism of Karl Barth

However, fideism is not confined to Muslims. The greatest Protestant theologian of the twentieth-century adopted entirely this approach. Karl Barth did not believe in arguments or evidences to proclaim Christianity, and his influence persists strongly today. Such rational approaches to belief could in his view do nothing to facilitate a personal encounter with Christ. The evidence of nature and apologetic reasoning had no role in bringing people to faith.

In his view, such rational thought could only be of benefit for those who already believed in God, and such belief could only come about by God’s revelation of himself. It cannot justify itself through external criteria. The argument he proposed went entirely one way – from God to the world and not from the world of human thought and experience towards God. Here is the antithesis of dialogue. God’s revelation must be accepted by faith, unaided by reason, whether historical, scientific, cultural, moral, psychological or social. Such fields of discourse do not overlap at any point with Barthian biblical theology.

God has revealed himself in two books, Scripture and Nature

In so doing, Barth broke free from the long Christian tradition that God has revealed himself in two books, Scripture and Nature; in what he has said and in what he has done. Needless to say, his approach plays straight into the hands of the New Atheists, who keep asserting that faith is a blind leap, unrelated to evidence. Endorsing such a view leaves us with no stepping-stones in our common experience. We are left with a take-it-or-leave-it, undiscussable, theological imperialism, whose truth claims must be accepted uncritically, lock, stock and barrel. This leap of faith is, of course, the same for most cults and religions including Islam, whose beliefs are walled off from intellectual enquiry and justification.

It also plays into the hands of Relativists, who maintain that the truth they have found is their personal truth: “it is true for me”. Keith Ward has written that adding those two words “for me”is “a central heresy of our culture”.[1] It is the ultimate denial of ‘public truth’, that reality which is objectively true for everyone, whether or not you believe it. And it plays into the hands of those for whom subjective experience is the final arbiter of truth, leaving them at the mercy of another experience. Such theology is undiscussable and loses all pretensions to be an academic discipline, with a rightful place in university life.[2]

Barth’s Historical Context

Barth’s approach was certainly extreme but, not surprisingly, it had an historical context. Barth was born in 1886 and was initially trained in Protestant Liberalism. He came to see that this human-centred approach to theology was too deeply immersed in German culture and he countered it in his preaching by emphasising Christ-centred, biblical theology. Matters came to a head when his former university teachers declared their support for German warmongering under Kaiser Bill.

The subsequent rise of Nazism between the wars led Barth to draw up the Barmen Declaration of the Confessing Church in 1934, which said:[3]

We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation … as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ … as though the Church were permitted to abandon the form of its message … to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.

These were certainly heady days. An extreme theology came out of extreme circumstances! Natural theology, being linked with German national volk-religion, was set against the revealed religion of Christ in Scripture, and Barth’s theology became all the more extreme in its defence. His biblical theology became isolated from rationality, presupposing its own truth, which needed no justification. He maintained that God in his sovereignty makes himself knowable. Man in his sinfulness cannot otherwise obtain any knowledge of God. A great gulf is fixed, bridged only by God in disclosing himself in Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit. Such knowledge is entirely a work of grace, unaided by human intellect.

Responding to Fideism

What then can one say in response to such biblical fideism? Well, you could say it is self-defeating, as it denies rational justification for its beliefs. Why should anyone believe it? As rational beings, we demand rational justification for what we believe. It is essential to our humanity, a God-like property marking us out from other animals.

As rational beings, we demand rational justification for what we believe. It is essential to our humanity…

We might also say that it is particularly attractive to the intellectually lazy or timid, who cannot be bothered to answer people’s rational objections to faith. Such fragility is common. People justify their belief in Christ through their belief in the Bible, and justify their belief in the Bible through Christ’s teaching. The argument is entirely circular and closed off against further debate. Evangelism is made easy, believing that only God can open blind eyes and that we have no role in this. We can ‘tell’ others about the Gospel, and if they don’t grasp it, we can only tell them again, perhaps more loudly. This may be a caricature of what happens but, I suggest, it is close enough to the truth to be immediately recognisable. For many orthodox Christians, it justifies a ‘simple proclamation’ approach to evangelism, devoid of any need to persuade.

Inference to the Best Explanation

So ‘natural theology’ can only take us so far, but it does point to fundamental realities of our existence and provides a cumulative argument, while exposing the vacuum at the heart of human experience, the nihilism of a world without meaning or value. It points to the balance of probabilities and an inference to the best explanation.

  • Notice May says ” So ‘natural theology’ can only take us so far, but it does point to fundamental realities of our existence and provides a cumulative argument, while exposing the vacuum at the heart of human experience, the nihilism of a world without meaning or value.”
    I agree 100%! And Natural Theology can’t fully disclose the following:
  • The Character of God: we need a concrete communication to establish the exact  nature of God’s character. Who is God and what is He Like?
  • The Origin of Evil/The Fall: Man needs to be educated concerning the reasons for our situation.
  • Man’s Origin: Without a clear revelation, people might think they are the result of a blind, naturalistic process instead of being created in the image of God.
  • Mankind’s Destiny: In the absence of a revelation, we might think that this life is all there is.

Special Revelation/Revealed Theology

Therefore, while natural theology manifests God as Creator, it does not reveal Him as Redeemer. The principle of progressive revelation means that God does not reveal everything at once. In progressive revelation, there are many cases where the New Testament declares explicitly what was only implicit in the Tanakh. One of these truths is the Jesus is the long awaited Messiah who takes away not only the sins of Israel, but the entire world (John 1: 29; 3: 16). Although general revelation shows man is under condemnation, it is not sufficient for salvation. The ultimate special revelation that God has given to mankind is the person of Jesus the Messiah.

As Heb. 1:1–2 says, “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son.” Jesus did comment on how people respond to Him by saying, “This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light and does not come to the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.” But he who practices the truth comes to the light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God” (John 3:19-21).

Furthermore, the New Testament does not reveal Jesus as any ordinary prophet or religious teacher. Rather, it reveals Him as God incarnate (John 1:1; 8:58-59;10:29-31;14:8-9;20-28; Phil 2:5-7; Col 2:9;Titus 2;13; Heb 1:8; 2 Peter 1:1). Furthermore, Jesus is the only possible Savior for the human race (Matt. 11:27; John 1:18; 3:36; 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1 John 1: 5:11-12).

While Christianity is a Jewish story and salvation is from the Jews (John 4: 22), Paul makes it know that there is no distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish people. Both are under sin and must turn to God through repentance and faith through Jesus the Messiah. (Rom. 3: 9; Acts 20:21). For those who have already rejected Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus states that they already under condemnation (John 3: 16, 18).

Paul: The Need for Faith in Jesus the Messiah

“Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).

We see: (1) Paul is urgent in his appeal for repentance; (2) According to Acts 14: 26, Paul states there was “a time in which God allowed the nations to walk in their own ways,” but now Paul states in Acts 17: 30, “The times of ignorance is over” – God has given man more revelation in the person of Jesus the Messiah; (3) Paul uses the same language as is used in the Jewish Scriptures about judgment (Psalm 9:9); (4) The judgment will be conducted by an agent, a man who God has appointed; (5) Paul treats the resurrection as an historical fact and he uses it as a proof of God’s appointment as Jesus as the judge of the living and the dead!

Conclusion:

In the end, Christians are better off appealing to both natural and revealed theology. If someone is open to read the Bible and thinks it is plausible that God has revealed himself through a written text, then we may not have to utilize natural theology. But in other cases, we will have to utilize both natural and revealed theology.

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