Natural Theology and Protestant Orthodoxy

This article first appeared in the May 2017 edition of Ad Fontes (Issue 1.9).


The last century has seen quite a bit of discussion amongst Protestants concerning the orthodoxy of Natural Theology. Some recent thinkers, such as Karl Barth and Cornelius Van Til, have, either explicitly or implicitly, denied natural theology.[1] In what follows we wish to ask a very simple, yet very important, question: “What place, if any, does natural theology have in orthodox Protestant theology?” To answer this question, we must first explain what we mean by “natural theology” and by “orthodoxy.” Once we have explained these notions, we will attempt to answer the proposed question. Let us begin with the question of orthodoxy.

Orthodoxy: Definitions and Nuances

The word orthodoxy comes from two Greek words which signify, respectively, “right” and “opinion or teaching”. As such, the general notion of orthodoxy can be summarized as follows: A thinker is considered orthodox in any one domain of thought when he possesses right or true beliefs about the object studied in that domain of thought. Concerning theological orthodoxy, Richard Muller says that, “Orthodoxy consists in the faithful acceptance both of the fundamental articles and of those other, secondary doctrines, that sustain and serve to secure the right understanding of the fundamental doctrines.”[2] Thus, a Christian thinker would be considered orthodox when he accepts as true those doctrines which are both true, and are taught by true Christianity. When discussing orthodoxy, we also need to keep in mind that it is possible to be partially orthodox. A person would be partially orthodox when he adheres to a portion (greater or smaller) of those doctrines which are necessary for true Christian belief, but deny a portion of those same doctrines. The question we must now ask is, “how can a Protestant determine what is, and what is not, orthodox belief?”

Standards of Protestant Orthodoxy

There are, we propose, four ways in which Protestants can discern orthodoxy.[3] They are: (1) Via the all-but-undebatable interpretation of some biblical text(s), such that other possible interpretations are either demonstrably false or overly strained, and a clear doctrine can be drawn out of the passage(s) in question; (2) Via the all-but-unanimous teaching by the great theologians about a doctrine, whether this be throughout the entire history of the church or just since the Reformation; (3) Via confessions, catechisms, and creeds, which purport to represent the doctrinal claims which are proposed as orthodox for certain denominations of Protestantism; and (4) Via all-but-unambiguous interpretation of some natural truths, such that other possible interpretations are either demonstrably false, overly strained, incoherent, or otherwise fallacious, and such that a true conclusion can be drawn out of the observations in question. We will use these standards to test the orthodoxy of natural theology.

Testing the Orthodoxy of Natural Theology

Natural theology, broadly defined, is that part of philosophy which explores that which man can know about God from nature (his existence, divine nature, etc.), via man’s divinely bestowed faculty of reason, unaided by any divinely inspired written revelation from any religion, and without presupposing the truth of any one religion. So, can natural theology pass the test of orthodoxy?

When we consult the Scriptures, we find several verses that have, throughout the history of the church, been understood as saying that all men (regenerate and unregenerate) can know something of God by their observations of the universe. These verses include, but are certainly not limited to, Psalm 19:1-5; Acts 14:16-17 and 17:26-27; and Romans 1:19-20, and 2:14-15. John Calvin, commenting on Romans 1:19-20, says “When he says that God made it [His own existence, power and eternal nature] manifest to them: the meaning is, that mankind was created to this end, that he be the contemplator of this excellent work, the world: that his eyes were given to him in order that seeing such a beautiful image, he would be brought to know the author himself that made it.”[4] As such, natural theology passes the first test of orthodoxy—close to undebatable biblical interpretation.

When we consult the teachings of the greatest church theologians throughout the centuries, we discover that they have almost unanimously affirmed the possibility of natural theology.[5] Indeed, so many important Christian theologians affirm natural theology that it would be impossible to name them all in this brief article, though we might mention Tertullian,[6] Gregory of Nyssa,[7] Gregory of Nazianzus,[8] Thomas Aquinas,[9] John Calvin,[10] Francis Turretin,[11] and J. Gresham Machen.[12] Natural theology, therefore, passes the second test—nearly unanimous agreement amongst church theologians.[13]

When we turn to the third test of orthodoxy—authoritative confessions and creeds—we discover that several the most important Protestant confessions also affirm that natural theology is a necessary part of orthodox Protestant theology. Examples include: (1) the French Confession of Faith, apparently written by John Calvin himself and approved by Theodore Beza;[14] and (2) the well-known and widely accepted Westminster Confession.[15] The Westminster Confession states, for example, that “Although the Light of Nature, and the works of Creation and Providence do so far manifest the Goodness, Wisdom, and Power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God and of his Will, which is necessary unto salvation.”[16] In case there is any doubt about the meaning of these confessions, the Westminster Greater Catechism,[17] and many commentaries on these documents, confirm this point.[18]

Turning to the fourth and final test of orthodoxy—close to undebatable interpretation of the created universe—we discover that some of the most important divine attributes (such as simplicity, immutability, and impassibility) are only known through natural theology, and can only be affirmed through the interaction of natural and biblical theology. In rejecting natural theology, we must also at the same time reject that which allows us to affirm these divine attributes. Reject one of these attributes, and we no longer have the God of traditional Christianity. As such, we might say, our rational observations of the created universe are necessary for orthodoxy  – in relation, at least, to theology proper.


Our investigation shows that by the application of all four Protestant standards, natural theology is a necessary element for complete orthodoxy. Though affirming the possibility of natural theology may not be necessary for salvation, it is necessary in order to be considered fully orthodoxy. We have seen that the Bible clearly teaches this doctrine, that the greatest theologians of the history of the church (both pre- and post-reformation) clearly teach this doctrine, that the most important creeds and confessions of the Protestant church clearly teach this doctrine, and that the traditional doctrine of God requires it. It follows, then, that to be considered fully orthodoxy, according to the Protestant standards for measuring orthodoxy, one must affirm natural theology.

Dr. David Haines (PhD, Université Laval), is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Theology at Bethlehem College & Seminary, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at VIU, a Visiting Fellow at Davenant Hall, and a lecturer in philosophy at Université de Sherbrooke. He has previously co-authored Natural Law: A Brief Introduction and Biblical Defense and edited Without Excuse: Scripture, Reason, and Presuppositional Apologetics, both with The Davenant Press.

[1]Cf. Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, vol. 5 of In Defense of the Faith (1974; Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing Co., 1982), 12, 13, 44, 54, 57, 61, 63, 66, 69, 71, 84, 197. Karl Barth claimed that, “The possibility of a real knowledge by natural man of the true God, derived from creation, is, according to Calvin, a possibility in principle, but not in fact, not a possibility to be realised by us. One might call it an objective possibility, created by God, but not a subjective possibility, open to man. Between what is possible in principle and what is possible in fact there inexorably lies the fall. Hence this possibility can only be discussed hypothetically: si integer stetisset Adam (Inst., I, ii, I). Man does not merely in part not have this possibility; he does not have it at all. (Karl Barth, NO!, in Natural Theology, ed. John Baillie (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2002), 106. Cf. Ibid., 108.)”
[2]Richard A. Muller, Scholasticism and Orthodoxy in the Reformed Tradition: An Attempt at Definition (Grand Rapids, MI: Calvin Theological Seminary, 1995), 21.
[3]We will not be debating, here, their relative importance.
[4]Jean Calvin, Commentaires sur l’épîstre aux Romains, dans Commentaires de Jehan Calvin sur le Nouveau Testament (Paris : Librairie de Ch. Meyrueis et co., 1855), 3:26. My translation. In French we read, “Quand il dit que Dieu le leur a manifesté : le sens est, que l’homme a esté créé à ceste fin qu’il fust contemplateur de cest excellent ouvrage du monde : que les yeux luy ont esté donnez afin qu’en regardant une si belle image, il soit amené à cognoistre l’autheur mesme qui l’a faite.” One might also consult the interpretations of almost every single Christian thinker from the beginning of the church to the early 1800s. Even today, Douglas Moo, one of the most important contemporary interpreters of Romans states clearly, in his academic commentary (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1996), 96-98.), that Paul teaches that unregenerate man can know something of God from nature.
[5]It is only in the last 200 years that some church theologians have begun rejecting natural theology.
[6]Cf. Tertullian, Apologeticus, in The Writings of Tertullian, vol. xi of Translations of the Writings of the Fathers, ed. Rev. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clarke, 1869), 1:86-87. Tertullian, De Anima, in The Writings of Tertullian, vol. xii of Translations of the Writings of the Fathers, ed. Rev. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clarke, 1869), 2:412-413. Though Tertullian states very clearly that most men mix so much error into their reasoning as to render it almost useless, they still arrive at knowledge of truths about God via their reasoned observations of the universe. See also, Everett Ferguson, “Tertullian,” in Early Christian Thinkers: The Lives and Legacies of Twelve Key Figures, ed. Paul Foster (Downer’s Grove, IL: InverVarsity Press, 2010), 89-90. Cf. Justo L. Gonzalez, “Athens and Jerusalem Revisited: Reason and Authority in Tertullian”, Church History 43, no. 1 (Mar. 1974): 18.
[7]Gregory of Nyssa, The Great Catechism, in Series 2 of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ed. Philip Schaff (NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1892), 5:474.
[8]Gregory of Nazianzus, On Theology, in Five Theological Orations, trans. and ed. Stephen Reynolds (Toronto, ON: Trinity College, 2011), 13-44.
[9]Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I, q. 1-26.
[10]John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (2007; repr., Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2012), 4-20. Note, for example, this very telling quote from the Institutes, “I only wish to observe here that this method of investigating the divine perfections, by tracing the lineament of his countenance as shadowed forth in the firmament and on the earth, is common both to those within and to those without the pale of the church” (Ibid., 20).
[11]Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elentic Theology, trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T Dennison, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992-97), 1:6. Turretin, in the first couple pages of his Institutes of Elenctic Theology, writes that “The orthodox, on the contrary [contrary to the Socinian heretics], uniformly teach that there is a natural theology, partly innate (derived from the book of conscience by means of common notions [koinas ennoias]) and partly acquired (drawn from the book of creatures discursively)” (Ibid.). He later notes that this knowledge is obtained even by fallen, unregenerate, men (Ibid.).
[12]J. Gresham Machen, The Christian Faith in the Modern World (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1965), 15-17.
[13]We could also consider the thoughts of, for example, Pietro Martyr Vermigli, Loci Communes, caput 2, section 1, where he says that Paul talks about that which is known of God, in Romans 1:19-20 “because many are the divine mysteries, to be attained naturally by anybody with small ability.” (My translation. Pietro Martyr Vermigli, Loci Communes [Genevae: Petrum Aubertum, 1624], 2.) Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, “The Idea of Systematic Theology,” in Studies in Theology, vol. 9 of The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield (1932; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2000), 49-87. Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, “The Task and Method of Systematic Theology,” in Studies in Theology, vol. 9 of The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield (1932; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2000), 91-114. As well as, Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (1940; repr., Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003). See especially the first 30 pages of volume 1. See also the Calvinist Baptist Theologian, A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology, 3 vols in 1 (1907; repr., Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1979). Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Abridged in one volume, ed. John Bolt (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 159. I suppose we could go on for a long time, mentioning such Christian theologians as Aristides, Anselm, Boethius, Norman Geisler, R. C. Sproul, C. S. Lewis, etc.
[14]Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1877), 3:356.
[15]Other protestant confessions that also explicitly affirm Natural Theology include, the Baptist confession of 1689 (which was accepted and promoted by men such as Charles Haddon Spurgeon and Andrew Gifford, along with all of the leaders of the Reformed Baptist Churches of London), the Belgic Confession, or La Confession de Foi des Églises Chrétiennes Évangéliques de Belgique (which was also approved by, and used by, Theodore Beza), the Confession of the Waldenses of 1655, A short Baptist confession of Faith from the Baptist churches of Amsterdam, one of the first General Baptist Confessions from 1651.
[16]Schaff, CC, 3:599, 600. This claim is supported, as in the other confessions, by reference to Romans 2:14-15, 1:19-20, Ps. 19:1-3, etc
[17]Ibid., 3:675.
[18]See, for example, John Macpherson, The Westminster Confession of Faith with Introduction and Notes, in HandBooks for Bible Classes, ed. Marcus Dods and Alexander Whyte (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clarke, 1881), 29-30. According to Macpherson, the purpose of the above noted statement in the Westminster Confession is to keep the believer from following into two equally unorthodox positions: (1) denying the reality of Natural Theology, and (2) Making Natural Theology the be-all and end-all of Christian Revelation—only Natural Theology being necessary (Ibid.). Thomas Rigdley, A Body of Divinity, ed. John M. Wilson (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1855), 1:9-10.


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