In recent years the concepts of natural law and natural theology have seen a resurgence of interest in Reformed evangelical circles. These concepts refer to what can be known about morality (natural law) and God (natural theology) through nature, without the aid of special revelation in Scripture. Accordingly, both rely upon the broader concepts of natural reason and natural knowledge. This “natural renaissance” has gone hand-in-hand with a renewed interest in going back to the sources (ad fontes) of the church’s rich theological heritage in the Fathers, the great medieval theologians, and the Reformed orthodox.
While these developments are embraced with enthusiasm by many, others are skeptical or even adamantly opposed to them. In some quarters charges are made that the concepts of natural law and natural theology threaten the authority, necessity, and sufficiency of Scripture. Elsewhere we hear that these concepts fail to do justice to the Reformed teaching that man is totally depraved in heart and in mind. Some would say that the resurgence of interest in these concepts constitutes a movement away from the truths of the Protestant Reformation and towards Roman Catholicism.
These charges are serious and should be judged on their own merits. This article will not be able to assess all of them; instead, it will address the question of whether the concepts of natural reason, natural law, or natural theology have any place within the Reformed tradition by assessing the concept of the “light of nature” within the Westminster Standards. The Westminster Standards are a series of documents that were drawn up by a council of English divines (theologians) summoned by Parliament to reform the Church of England. The Assembly met between 1643 and 1649, and its documents would comprise the formal doctrinal standards for Presbyterians in England, Scotland, and America. These are documents to which the churches of no small number of Reformed evangelicals subscribe. They are decidedly Puritan in sentiment, and while one can say many things about the Puritans, being too friendly towards Roman Catholicism is not one of them.
The three most significant documents of the Westminster Standards, which are still widely used today, are the Confession of Faith (CF), Shorter Catechism (SC), and the Larger Catechism (LC).
“The Light of Nature” in the Westminster Standards
The Standards frequently refer to “the light of nature.” The phrase is introduced in the first clause of the first sentence of the Westminster Confession of Faith. While the concept appears here in a concessive clause (“Although the light of nature…”), this does not make it negligible. It is mentioned a total of nine times in the Standards and bears significant theological weight.
The Standards do not define this light of nature, but other contemporary documents shed light on its meaning. William Twisse, one of the Prolocutors of the Assembly, says elsewhere that it is a means of understanding: “Never was it said, I presume, that a man regenerate had two understandings in him, by the one to understand things natural, and by the other to understand things spiritual; but that by the same understanding he understands both, but by light of nature the one, by light of grace the other.” Anthony Burgess, another Westminster divine, holds that it involves discursive argument: “Faith therefore, and the light of Nature go to the knowledge of the same thing different ways: faith doth, because of the testimony and divine revelation of God; the light of Nature doth, because of arguments in the thing itself by discourse.” Finally, Jus Divinum Regiminis Ecclesiastici: or, The Divine Right of Church Government, a treatise produced by a number of jure divino Presbyterians of the Assembly, defines it plainly as natural reason: “That which is evident by, and consonant to the true light of Nature, or natural Reason, is to be accounted Jure divino in matters of religion.” This definition is supported by the wording of Answer 2 of the Larger Catechism, which speaks of the “light of nature in man” (emphasis mine), suggesting it refers to an inner faculty.
The first appearance of the phrase in the Confession highlights its connection with natural theology. The light of nature, or natural reason, manifests “the goodness, wisdom, and power of God” (CF 1.1). It declares plainly “that there is a God” (LC A. 2) and that he “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” (CF 21.1).
But the Standards are quick to affirm that the light of nature is not sufficient to give us “that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation” (CF 1.1). More is needed: “His word and Spirit only do sufficiently and effectually reveal him unto men for their salvation” (LC A. 2). What is lacking is not just additional knowledge of essential truths which are not able to be ascertained by natural reason—e.g., the sacred history and divine promises, the person and work of Christ, the Trinity—but also the regeneration of our sinful nature by the work of the Spirit, who grants faith and repentance through the word of the Gospel.
It is sometimes said that general revelation (or the light of nature, to keep Westminster’s wording) is not sufficient to save, only to condemn. Without desiring to be pedantic, I would note that while it is true that it is insufficient to save, it is not the case that its only function is to condemn. The light of nature has other uses beyond saving or condemning, some of which are attested to within the Standards:
- The light of nature helps us order circumstances of worship and church governance. “There are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed” (CF 1.6). This may come as a surprise to some readers who might associate Presbyterians with a strict understanding of the regulative principle. The Confession can indeed be said to teach a kind of regulative principle: “the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will” (CF 21.1). It holds that only God has authority to determine what constitutes his own acceptable worship—and in that regard, we are limited to his revealed will. But it is also the case that not everything that pertains to divine worship is one of the essential forms or elements of worship. Instead, there are various circumstances of worship which God has not determined. Examples might include: service times, seating arrangements, which songs are sung, what Scriptures are preached on, which prayers are used, or what the minister wears. The Confession affirms that we do not need a Bible verse to address these things. Instead, the light of nature and Christian prudence are sufficient to guide to us in these areas. The same holds for church government: God has not determined every detail of church polity; instead there are various circumstances of it that he left for us to order by natural reason and Christian prudence.
- It guides us in our moral reasoning. The Larger Catechism (A. 151) says that one of the aggravations that renders some sins more heinous in the sight of God than others is whether the sin is committed against “the light of nature.” The implication, therefore, is that some sins aren’t committed against the light of nature. The Standards also attest that not all sins committed against the light of nature are against it to the same degree. For example, it is said of the fourth commandment (keeping the Sabbath) that “there is less light of nature for it” (LC A. 121). The Confession explains this further, stating that while it is a law of nature (note well the use of the term law here) that “in general, a due proportion of time be set apart for the worship of God,” the exact proportion of one-day-in-seven is known only by God’s Word (CF 21.7). The Sabbath command is therefore a composite, with some aspects knowable by the light of nature and others depending upon Scriptural revelation. The Confession here uses the language of a “law of nature,” showing support for the notion of natural law. Reason by nature not only apprehends information about things (what to think) but also grasps moral duties and prohibitions (what to do or not do).
- It informs church judiciaries. The Confession states that the church may censure individuals for “publishing of such opinions, or maintaining of such practices, as are contrary to the light of nature, or to the known principles of Christianity” (CF 20.4). The light of nature is here distinguished from the known principles of Christianity. A distinction is not a division, though: some opinions and practices may in fact be against both the light of nature and against the known principles of Christianity, inasmuch as Scripture restates truths that are also ascertainable through natural reason. As William Twisse says, “howbeit some things in Scripture, which are peculiar to the Gospel, are above our understandings, and must without hesitation be believed: yet many things there, have their foundation in nature, and may be apprehended by the light of nature.” According to the Confession, pastors have the ability to censure congregants not just for publishing opinions or maintaining practices that are contrary to the principles of Christianity, but also to natural reason.
The light of nature, then, is an expansive category and has many uses. It is natural reason, and as such it does not refer only to the limited knowledge of God we have from creation, but also to the knowledge of ourselves, of the world, of our family and country, of the moral law, of mathematics, the laws of logic, language, grammar, history, politics, geography, biology, rhetoric, etc. Such knowledge has more functions than merely to condemn unbelievers. Even for unbelievers natural knowledge has a more positive use, in that it is a prerequisite to saving knowledge. It normatively takes a good deal of knowledge to even be able to read and understand the Scriptures or to comprehend the proclamation of the gospel—at a minimum, you need to have knowledge of your own existence, of the existence of the external world, of a language, and of many things in the world to which the Bible refers. The light of nature in this way is preparatory for the light of grace.
To the uses already listed, we may add the following: the light of nature is of use in discussions with atheists who openly reject Scripture but still profess to follow reason. If natural reason (the light of nature) shows that there is a God, then Christian apologists can show it too. The apologist may use natural reasoning to show the inherent folly of atheism and the truth that there is a God who is good, wise, powerful, authoritative, sovereign, beneficent, “truth itself” (CF 1.4), “first Cause” (CF 5.2), and deserving of our fear, love, and worship. This knowledge of God is not in itself sufficient to save; however, it does not stand alone in the apologetic encounter, but takes place alongside gospel proclamation and defense of the truth of Scripture.
The Standards’ teaching on the light of nature is also of use to confirm Christians in the faith by reminding us of the unity of Truth. There is no conflict between what nature teaches and what Scripture teaches—any apparent conflict between them is owing to a misinterpretation of one or the other (or both). Truths known by the light of nature stand in harmony with the known principles of Christianity, and they are mutually supportive and enlightening. The light of nature and the light of grace are two beams from the same Sun—the same God who has revealed himself in his works of creation and providence, and with greater clarity and saving power through the gospel.
To conclude, the Westminster Standards affirm notions of natural theology and natural law through its use of the term “light of nature,” which refers to natural reason. Given the highly negative portrayal that some give of these concepts we might have expected the divines to have referred to natural reason as the “jet-black darkness of nature.” But rather than using this term in a merely negative light, the Standards present natural reason as having wide-ranging positive uses. Though it is fallen and warped by sin, it is still “light.” As another Reformed council put it, there remains yet in man “the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, and natural things, and of the difference between good and evil, and shows some regard for virtue” (Canons of Dort 3.4). Natural reason, natural law, and natural theology are insufficient to save. But that doesn’t make them untrue, unimportant, or unserviceable to the church. It certainly doesn’t make them un-Protestant.
Clayton Hutchins is Pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Coraopolis, PA. You can follow him on Twitter @claytonhutchins.
William Twisse, The riches of God’s love unto the vessells of mercy, consistent with his absolute hatred or reprobation of the vessells of wrath, or, An answer unto a book entituled, Gods love unto mankind, 246. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A64002.0001.001/1:9.2?rgn=div2;view=fulltext. Spelling modernized. ↑
Anthony Burgess, Vindiciae legis, or, A vindication of the morall law and the covenants, from the errours of Papists, Arminians, Socinians, and more especially, Antinomians in XXX lectures. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A30249.0001.001?c=eebo;c=eebo2;g=eebogroup;rgn=main;view=fulltext;xc=1;rgn1=author;q1=burgess. Spelling modernized. ↑
Jus Divinum Regiminis Ecclesiastici, or The Divine Right of Church Government, Chapter 3. https://books.google.com/books?id=_8lsjwEACAAJ&pg=PA8-IA1&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=4#v=onepage&q=light%20of%20nature&f=false. Spelling modernized. Italics and capitalization original. ↑
Twisse, The riches of God’s love, 163. Spelling modernized. ↑
For an example by a Westminster divine, see Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God, Chapter 1. https://www.monergism.com/existence-and-attributes-god-ebook. ↑