Wednesday, October 24, 2012

How Has God Revealed Himself? (Part 2)

In Part 1 we introduced our topic and gave a brief historical account of the Westminster Standards. In Part 2 we will begin to explore how the Westminster Standards answer the question "How has God revealed himself?"

Westminster Confession of Faith 1.1a reads:
Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far 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.
Larger Catechism 2a reads:
Q. 2a. How doth it appear that there is a God? A. The very light of nature in man, and the works of God, declare plainly that there is a God.
Here we have the totality of the Westminster Standards' teaching on the doctrine of natural (or general) revelation. Natural revelation is defined positively (i.e. what it is and does) and negatively (i.e. what it isn't and doesn't do).

What Natural Revelation Is and Does

The Westminster Standards teach that there are two distinct but unified ways of natural revelation: (1) "The light of nature," which the LC further describes with the prepositional phrase "in man" and (2) "the works of God," which the WCF further describes as "the works of creation and providence" (cf. WCF 3-5; LC 14; SC 8).

This raises an important question. Isn't the light of nature itself a work of creation? And if so, why do the Standards distinguish between them? It appears that the Westminster divines are distinguishing these ways with respect to their relationship to man. The light of nature is that aspect of natural revelation which resides  within man as God's special image bearer. 

Natural Revelation Within Man 

The locus classicus for this doctrine is Romans 2:14-15. The text reads, "For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them." Here the Apostle teaches that the Gentiles who do not have the law (i.e. the special revelation of God) nonetheless do what the law requires "by nature." He calls this aspect of human nature "conscience" (con "with," science "knowledge"). It is located within man (i.e. the immaterial part). It is "on their hearts" and in their "thoughts."

The "light of nature in man" is that aspect of human nature that is commonly called conscience. To be human is to have knowledge of God by nature. This knowledge is one sphere of natural revelation.

Natural Revelation Without Man

"The works of God," which are his "works of creation and providence," are natural revelation that resides without man. Both works are the execution of God's eternal decree (cf. SC 8).

Ps. 19:1-4a teaches, "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world." Further, Rom. 1:19-20 teaches, "For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse."

In these two passages we see that the creation reveals the God who made it. The psalmist says, "the heavens declare," and "the sky above proclaims." Moreover, the Apostle teaches that God's invisible attributes are revealed "in the things that have been made."

We also see that God reveals himself in the work of providence (i.e. his upholding, directing, disposing, and governing his creation). So the psalmist says, "Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge."

This natural revelation of God, both within man and without man, declares "plainly that there is a God" (LC 2). But lest we think that it only declares some generic concept called God, WCF 1.1 teaches that it manifests specific attributes of the one true and living God, namely "the goodness, wisdom, and power of God." 

What Natural Revelation Isn't and Doesn't Do

Natural revelation has its limits. It teaches all humanity that the one true and living God exists and should be obeyed and worshiped. Moreover, since we don't do this, it teaches us that we are sinners who justly deserve his wrath (cf. Rom. 1:18ff.). But it doesn't teach us what God has done to save sinners (cf. Rom. 3:21ff.). To put it another way, natural revelation teaches us about the law but not the gospel. It teaches us about God's justice but not his mercy. It teaches us about the covenant of works but not the covenant of grace (cf. WCF 7; LC 20, 22, 30-36; SC 12, 16, 20). Only supernatural (or special) revelation teaches us about the covenant of grace. Therefore, WCF 1.1 teaches that natural revelation is sufficient "to leave men unexcusable" for their sin, but it is "not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation."

But natural revelation doesn't just condemn. It is also temporarily preserves humanity through the restraint of civil evil. WCF 19.6a reads: "Although true believers be not under the law, as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified, or condemned; yet is it of great use to them, as well as to others; in that, as a rule of life informing them of the will of God, and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly."

In Part 3 we will begin to look at what the Westminster Standards teach about the supernatural revelation of God.

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