theology

John Owen on Natural Theology

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Natural theology seems to have become somewhat of a naughty word over the last century or so in Protestant Reformed circles. Men like Cornelius Van Til, Gordon Clark, Francis Schaeffer and others––though well meaning––have villainized the timeless principle of natural theology. The questions we must ask, as Christians concerned about the truth, is whether or not this way of thinking is consistent with the historical Protestant system and whether or not it there is any warrant for departing from the historical consensus if indeed modern thought is at variance with historical theology.

I cannot survey every Reformed theologian in this article. I can however mention some names and spend time on one particularly important person, John Owen. Before we survey his view of natural theology, I will say that Owen agrees with a chorus of men who lived prior to him. Francis Turretin would agree with Owen’s words below. Turretin, for example, says, “Our controversy here is with the Socinians who deny the existence of any such natural theology or knowledge of God and hold that what may appear to be such has flowed partly from tradition handed down from Adam, and partly from revelations made at different times (Faustus Socinus, Praelectiones theologicae 2 [1627], pp. 3-7; Christopher Ostorodt, Unterrichtung… hauptpuncten der Christlichen Religion 3 [1612], pp. 23-28).”

The Socinians, according to Turretin, were denying natural theology outrightly. This practice was condemned by major Protestant thinkers of the day, like Turretin. Not even John Calvin nor Martin Luther denied natural theology. (Cf. Luther’s Lectures on Genesis (8 volumes in length). John Owen, following their lead, writes at some length concerning natural theology. For Owen, all creatures have the faculty required for knowing God. he refers to this as a sense, just as Calvin did (cf. sensus divinitatus in his Institutes…). Owen writes:

Almost all men acknowledge, as we shall also prove, that there is still a native awareness in the human heart of God as the Creator, the Ruler, and the Judge, and also that there remains an ability to distinguish between what is honorable and what is disgraceful, and, moreover, that this knowledge is implanted, natural to the species, and indestructable. The Apostle explains this factor in Romans 2:14-15. Sinners who are in possession of sound intelligence still experience joy in the contemplation of God’s works of creation (Biblical Theology, 30).

There is this implanted ability to discern right from wrong, good from evil, perfection from imperfection. This corresponds, obviously, to natural law which is a component of natural theology. All people have this faculty according to Owen, and he uses Romans 2:14, 15 to justify his position. It reads, “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.” He continues:

Note well that I do not say that men are born with some innate knowledge of God––they have none––but I do say that they are born with the faculty of knowing God and, further, that this potential, although a part of our constitution, is yet not a logical necessity of our nature, but is rather an implanted sense, universal in our species, by which each individual retains an indwelling urge to know God, and which spontaneously stimulates him to attempt some offering to God, some worship of God, and, further, that in adults of sound mind this principle is as natural as the exercise of reason itself (Biblical Theology, 30, 31).

Siding with Turretin here, Owen does not think men are born with an innate knowledge of God. He thinks, pace Turretin, that babies are blank slates of sorts (tabulae rasaeInstitutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. 1, p. 6). Rather, all men are born with the potential (notice the Aristotelian & Thomistic language) to know God, but it is not a necessary component of the human essence to know God. This faculty he describes as an implanted sense. All men have a sense of God nudging them to worship and recognition of a Creator. In adults, he writes, this sense is as natural as the process of reason itself. He goes on:

It is from such grounds that Aristotle forbids any discussion with those who would deny that gods are to be worshipped, as such matters should be beyond controversy and the idea of denial beyond the confines of sound reason (Aristotle. Topica, Book I, Ch. 9). Indeed, he considered that they should be coerced with chastisements, rather than that reasoned argument should be wasted upon them. The fact is that the whole chorus of wise men in all ages feel and say the same thing in this matter; the philosophers enjoin worship of gods, and respect for parents, which matters all are agreed are foundational necessities of human nature. Justin calls these concepts “Seeds of truth within us all.” (Justin Martyr. Apology. Book II). Tertullian, writing on the nature of the soul, says that no one may live without blame, for the seeds of truth are within us all (Biblical Theology, 35).

How could Owen do such a thing?! He cited a pagan in favor of his position! This is often looked down upon in presuppositional circles, but pay no mind. Owen is in good company here; utilizing pagan words rhetorically in order to prove a point is to reason to the glory of God (cf. Acts 17). But, what’s he saying here?

Owen is saying that God has so obviously revealed Himself in creation that it is folly to reject the truth about God. Aristotle, Paul, and Owen all agree on this one point. Owen further states that the “whole chorus” of intelligent men have recognized this and that it is, therefore, ridiculous to deny such a thing as the existence of God. Citing Justin Martyr, an early church father, he calls this the “seeds of truth” embedded within the human mind.

If natural theology is simply the work of apprehending God’s natural revelation, as Dr. R.C. Sproul says, then we must not deny a natural theology altogether. All men make use of natural revelation in their lives, it is impossible not to do so. Anytime we invoke the laws of logic, utilize the scientific method, or assume the uniformity of nature in our daily experience we make use of God’s natural revelation and therefore, in some way, perform natural theology.

Let’s stand firm, lock-step, with those who have gone before us in affirming a natural theology to the glory of God. Far be it from us to be found, instead, lock-step with the heterodoxical Socinians on this matter.

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