The Perspicuity of Natural Revelation

“Finally we turn to the perspicuity of nature which corresponds to the perspicuity of Scripture. We have stressed the fact that God’s revelation in nature was from the outset of history meant to be taken conjointly with God’s supernatural communication. This might seem to indicate that natural revelation is not inherently perspicuous. Then too it has been pointed out that back of both kinds of revelation is the incomprehensible God. And this fact again might, on first glance, seem to militate strongly against the claim that nature clearly reveals God. Yet these very facts themselves are the best guarantee of the genuine perspicuity of natural revelation. The perspicuity of God’s revelation in nature depends for its very meaning upon the fact that it is an aspect of the total and totally voluntary revelation of a God who is self-contained. God’s incomprehensibility to man is due to the fact that he is exhaustively comprehensible to himself. God is light and in him is no darkness at all. As such he cannot deny himself. This God naturally has an allcomprehensive plan for the created universe. He has planned all the relationships between all the aspects of created being. He has planned the end from the beginning. All created reality therefore actually displays this plan. It is, in consequence, inherently rational. It is quite true, of course, that created man is unable to penetrate to the very bottom of this inherently clear revelation. But this does not mean that on this account the revelation of God is not clear, even for him. Created man may see clearly what is revealed clearly even if he cannot see exhaustively. Man does not need to know exhaustively in order to know truly and certainly. When on the created level of existence man thinks God’s thoughts after him, that is, when man thinks in self-conscious submission to the voluntary revelation of the self-sufficient God, he has therewith the only possible ground of certainty for his knowledge. When man thinks thus he thinks as a covenant creature should wish to think. That is to say, man normally thinks in analogical fashion. He realizes that God’s thoughts are self-contained. He knows that his own interpretation of nature must therefore be a reinterpretation of what is already fully interpreted by God. The concept of analogical thinking is of especial significance here. Soon we shall meet with a notion of analogy that is based upon the very denial of the concept of the incomprehensible God. It is therefore of the utmost import that the Confession’s concept of analogical thinking be seen to be the direct implication of its doctrine of God. One further point must here be noted. We have seen that since the fall of man God’s curse rests upon nature. This has brought great complexity into the picture. All this, however, in no wise detracts from the historical and objective perspicuity of nature. Nature can and does reveal nothing but the one comprehensive plan of God. The psalmist does not say that the heavens possibly or probably declare the glory of God. Nor does the apostle assert that the wrath of God is probably revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. Scripture takes the clarity of God’s revelation for granted at every stage of human history. Even when man, as it were, takes out his own eyes, this act itself turns revelational in his wicked hands, testifying to him that his sin is a sin against the light that lighteth every man coming into the world. Even to the very bottom of the most complex historical situations, involving sin and all its consequences, God’s revelation shines with unmistakable clarity. “If I make my bed in hell, behold thou art there” (Ps 139:8). Creatures have no private chambers. Both the perspicuity of Scripture and the perspicuity of natural revelation, then, may be said to have their foundation in the doctrine of the God who “hideth himself,” whose thoughts are higher than man’s thoughts and whose ways are higher than man’s ways. There is no discrepancy between the idea of mystery and that of perspicuity with respect either to revelation in Scripture or to revelation in nature. On the contrary the two ideas are involved in one another. The central unifying concept of the entire Confession is the doctrine of God and his one unified comprehensive plan for the world. The contention consequently is that at no point is there any excuse for man’s not seeing all things as happening according to this plan. In considering man’s acceptance of natural revelation, we again take our clue from the Confession and what it says about the acceptance of Scripture. Its teaching on man’s acceptance of Scriptural revelation is in accord with its teaching on the necessity, authority, sufficiency and perspicuity of Scripture. The Scriptures as the finished product of God’s supernatural and saving revelation to man have their own evidence in themselves. The God who speaks in Scripture cannot refer to anything that is not already authoritatively revelational of himself for the evidence of his own existence. There is no thing that does not exist by his creation. All things take their meaning from him. Every witness to him is a “prejudiced” witness. For any fact to be a fact at all, it must be a revelational fact. It is accordingly no easier for sinners to accept God’s revelation in nature than to accept God’s revelation in Scripture. They are no more ready of themselves to do the one than to do the other. From the point of view of the sinner, theism is as objectionable as is Christianity. Theism that is worthy of the name is Christian theism. Christ said that no man can come to the Father but by him. No one can become a theist unless he becomes a Christian. Any God that is not the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is not God but an idol. It is therefore the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts that alone effects the required Copernican revolution and makes us both Christians and theists. Before the fall, man also needed the witness of the Holy Spirit: Even then the third person of the Holy Trinity was operative in and through the naturally revelational consciousness of man so that it might react fittingly and properly to the works of God’s creation. But then that operation was so natural that man himself needed not at all or scarcely to be aware of its existence. When man fell, he denied the naturally revelatory character of every fact including that of his own consciousness. He assumed that he was autonomous; he assumed that his consciousness was not revelational of God but only of himself. He assumed himself to be non-created. He assumed that the work of interpretation, as by the force of his natural powers he was engaged in it, was an original instead of a derivative procedure. He would not think God’s thoughts after him; he would instead think only his own original thoughts. Now if anything is obvious from Scripture it is that man is not regarded as properly a judge of God’s revelation to him. Man is said or assumed from the first page to the last to be a creature of God. God’s consciousness is therefore taken to be naturally original as man’s is naturally derivative. Man’s natural attitude in all self-conscious activities was therefore meant to be that of obedience. It is to this deeper depth, deeper than the sinner’s consciousness can ever reach by itself, that Scripture appeals when it says: “Come let us reason together.” It appeals to covenant-breakers and argues with them about the unreasonableness of covenant-breaking. And it is only when the Holy Spirit gives man a new heart that he will accept the evidence of Scripture about itself and about nature for what it really is. The Holy Spirit’s regenerating power enables man to place all things in true perspective. Man the sinner, as Calvin puts it, through the testimony of the Spirit receives a new power of sight by which he can appreciate the new light that has been given in Scripture. The new light and the new power of sight imply one another. The one is fruitless for salvation without the other. It is by grace, then, by the gift of the Holy Spirit alone, that sinners are able to observe the fact that all nature, including even their own negative attitude toward God, is revelational of God, the God of Scripture. The wrath of God is revealed, Paul says, on all those who keep down the truth. Man’s sinful nature has become his second nature. This sinful nature of man must now be included in nature as a whole. And through it God is revealed. He is revealed as the just one, as the one who hates iniquity and punishes it. Yet he must also be seen as the one who does not yet punish to the full degree of their ill desert the wicked deeds of sinful men. All this is simply to say that one must be a believing Christian to study nature in the proper frame of mind and with proper procedure. It is only the Christian consciousness that is ready and willing to regard all nature, including man’s own interpretative reactions, as revelational of God. But this very fact requires that the Christian consciousness make a sharp distinction between what is revelational in this broad and basic sense and what is revelational in the restricted sense. When man had not sinned, he was naturally anxious constantly to seek contact with the supernatural positive revelation of God. But it is quite a different matter when we think of the redeemed sinner. He is restored to the right relationship. But he is restored in principle only. There is a drag upon him. His “old man” wants him to interpret nature apart from the supernatural revelation in which he operates. The only safeguard he has against this historical drag is to test his interpretations constantly by the principles of the written Word. And if theology succeeds in bringing forth ever more clearly the depth of the riches of the Biblical revelation of God in Scripture, the Christian philosopher or scientist will be glad to make use of this clearer and fuller interpretation in order that his own interpretation of nature may be all the fuller and clearer too, and thus more truly revelational of God. No subordination of philosophy or science to theology is intended here. The theologian is simply a specialist in the field of Biblical interpretation taken in the more restricted sense. The philosopher is directly subject to the Bible and must in the last analysis rest upon his own interpretation of the Word. But he may accept the help of those who are more constantly and more exclusively engaged in Biblical study than he himself can be.”

(Van Til, Nature and Scripture)

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3 thoughts on “The Perspicuity of Natural Revelation

  1. Pingback: Mid-November 2015 Round up of Presuppositional Apologetics’ Links | The Domain for Truth

  2. Eric Stampher

    “the new light that has been given in Scripture”

    Does not Van Til rather mean the focused or refocused or repeated light that is given in Scripture? For was not the light of Christ given on Day 1 of creation, and has never been blotted out? Does not John say the light has been present from the beginning?

    Is not the Confession at 1.1 in error then when it tries to inform us that the Light which He has given in and through nature is not AS perfectly sufficient as the Light which He gives in Scripture, both of which require the Holy Spirit for efficacy?

    Should not the cry of the reformers have been Sola Spiritu, not Sola Scripturus? For His Light is present and unavoidable wherever we find ourselves, whether in the depths without His written revelation or within a monastic cell — and our polluted minds cannot see that light without His Spirit enabling.

    How can the WCF1.1 possibly make the case that Scripture is necessary for salvation??
    Did Abel need Scripture? Melchisidek? Job? The babies in the womb like John the Baptist?

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