This is an excellent contribution that will delight students of natural theology. It raises all the right questions that will be highlighted here. Natural theology is the systemized study of general revelation. We can and should study general revelation. That also means we should refrain from settling for unsound arguments that claim to support natural theology. We may find ourselves spending as much time weeding out such arguments as we do giving sound arguments. In this new book on natural theology based on lectures from Vos, J.V. Fesko gives us a 52-page introduction that takes us through an overview of Christian thinking about natural theology. From there, we turn to 93 pages of lecture notes from Vos. Fesko explains many of the standard problems about reason and faith in natural theology: does it get us past generic theism, how can reason operate after the fall, what is its relationship to scripture, and does everyone know God? But perhaps most importantly, he helps indicate a number of ambiguities that plague the discussion about natural theology and result in unsound arguments which tarnish nature theology as an endeavor.
These ambiguities all revolve around the goal of natural theology, namely, the knowledge of God. Both of those terms remain ambiguous. What is knowledge, and what is God? Vos goes some way to help with the “God” ambiguity by identifying the different world systems, but when he considers the traditional arguments the ambiguity reemerges. The word “know” is largely left undefined, but we have to piece together some contrasts between theology and mysticism. Let us look at each term.
The term “God” is ambiguous. When we define “God,” the Christian natural theologian seeks to distinguish God from all else. The Westminster Shorter Catechism Q4 defines God this way: God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchanging in being, wisdom, power, holiness, goodness, justice, and truth. God, as the Creator, is without beginning, while the material world and the human soul both had a beginning. In proving this, the natural theologian has disproven the systems of Platonism, Aristotelianism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Vedanta, Taoism, etc., etc. Each of these says either that there is no God or that something else (or in addition to) “God” is without beginning. These all deny the eternal power and divine nature.
In each of these belief systems, there are “great thinkers” who ask the same basic questions. Fesko wonders, with Augustine, how Plato could have gotten so close to knowing God without scripture. The answer is that he got no closer than any of these others. Each of them fundamentally denied clear general revelation about God the Creator. They built systems that raised themselves up against the knowledge of God. Plato taught that the material world is without beginning, that the soul reincarnates, and that knowledge is the soul remembering from before it was in the body. He taught that matter is the source of evil and that the highest good is to flee the material world in the journey of the soul to become one with “god.” The Platonic system is opposed to theism, as Vos points out in his outline. The Greek philosophers (who had access to Plato) did not know God when Paul visited Athens. Paul was aware of their systems, and we, too, can study them and learn what each says while not forgetting that these systems are logically opposed to one another.
The apparent tension between the truth about God (that God alone is without beginning) and the reality of unbelief is the transition point from general to special revelation. Genesis 1:1 serves as that handoff. It is both true that it is clear that only God is without beginning and also that humans have not used reason to understand this. That tension creates the problem of redemption. How will God redeem humans lost in unbelief? This is the subject of scripture. Thus, not only is there no tension between general and special revelation, there is a perfect union between them. They both have a Doxological (different from a Soteriological, Theological, or Christological) end, namely, the revelation of the glory of God in all of his works of creation and providence.
We have Fesko reminding us that although Augustine gave some useful arguments to show that God alone has existed without beginning, he nevertheless struggled with Platonic otherworldliness that then affected centuries of Christian thought. And for Aquinas, so well known for giving the five arguments, these same arguments didn’t get us past paganism to God the Creator, who alone is without beginning. And that Aquinas goes on to say that most people are unable to understand natural theology and need just to be told that God exists as fideists. Natural theology is minimized as bare, unclear, and perhaps nice for the intellectuals, but not necessary for the good life. This is the history into which Vos steps.
The outline of Vos’s lectures is very understandable and easy to follow. It proceeds from question to question on the following topics: What is natural theology, and why is it insufficient? Why was the Reformation not favorable to it? What are the religious systems of the world? What are the proofs for God’s existence and notable challenges to them? What is the origin of religion? How do we know of the immortality of the soul? There is much that is very useful here, although it does seem like a shorter version of what you’ll find in Hodge’s Systematic Theology about these same questions. From the beginning, we see some ambiguities that cause troubles throughout.
The term “reason” is ambiguous. When Reformed theologians refer to “reason,” they usually mean “practical rationality” or the individual’s “reasoning process.” A reasoning process can be mistaken or fallen. Reason itself, as the laws of thought like non-contradiction, cannot be mistaken or fallen. We use Reason to distinguish “God” from “not God” and “knowledge” from “not knowledge.” Reason is foundational to natural theology and revealed theology. We use Reason to read/understand both general and special revelation. We use Reason to understand articles of the faith like the Trinity and the dual nature of Christ. Faith is not opposed to Reason. Faith presupposes Reason. The basic things about God and the good must be clear to Reason, or we end in nihilism. Vos presupposes Reason throughout when he asks how to critique various systems or to use logic in analysis, but he does not spend time developing his view of Reason.
Reformed theologians are careful to avoid saying that either Reason or Natural Theology are salvific. Vos notes this right away, and yet this is a category mistake. Natural theology doesn’t claim to be salvific. And in salvation, we are restored to the use of Reason to know God. Humans need salvation from unbelief because they did not seek God as revealed in creation; humans denied what is clear to Reason. But God is fully revealed in creation (we can understand “God” as defined in the WSC Q4 from creation). When we consider the Trinity, we still use this definition of God which is knowable from general revelation (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all God as defined in Q4). Because Vos takes time to think over the world’s religions, he gives us the many competing definitions of “God,” which helps alleviate some of the ambiguity that showed up in Fesko’s history. The essential difference (not the only difference) is the eternal power of God (God alone is without beginning), whereas these other systems deny this. They say either that all is God (there is no creation to have had a beginning) or both God the material world/human soul is without beginning, or that only the material world exists and it is without beginning. But the consequence of emphasizing the “insufficiency” of natural theology in this way is to say it is bare and minimal rather than full and clear. Contrast this with the WCF 1:1 which describes a clear and full general revelation while also upholding that scripture alone reveals God’s redemptive plan.
The ambiguity about “God” affects two more problems. What do the traditional theistic proofs actually prove? These are the ontological, cosmological, and teleological. Consider the cosmological. It says there must be a first cause, which is “God.” That is called an overextension from premise to conclusion. The first cause need not be God, as defined in WSC Q4. It is consistent with the pagan systems. And because of using an overextended argument, natural theology is then blamed for being bare and not getting to God as defined in scripture rather than blaming the theologian for not doing better work. The same thing happens with the other theistic arguments. The solution, not offered in the book, is to put them in the right order and have them prove the right piece (not the whole). The ontological argument shows us that something is without beginning, the cosmological that it is not matter but spirit, and the teleological gives the moral attributes of God. These three together give us a full and clear definition, as found in Q4.
The overextension of these arguments gives the next problem: voluntarism undermines the reality of unbelief as sin. Some in the Reformed tradition say that all humans already know “God.” Therefore, voluntarism isolates sin to the willl. Everyone knows God but acts contrary to that knowledge (voluntarism). A problematic reading of Romans 1:21 is said to support this, but many more verses throughout the Bible affirm that humans do not know God (the fool does not know, “my people do not know me,” none seek, none understand, none do what is right). Sin begins in culpable ignorance about God. This culpable ignorance is due to the failure to use reason to understand general revelation. We get circular arguments about how everyone knows God, and we know this because the Bible says so. Without these truths in place, the need for scripture vanishes.
The term “knowledge” is ambiguous. We can use the claim that “everyone knows God” to illustrate this problem. Vos correctly identifies the mystical approach of Plato, who relies on intuition and direct apprehension. Such intuitions are not yet knowledge because knowledge is propositional. When we know, we link a subject and a predicate. “God is real.” We know that God is real just in case it is indeed true that God is real, and we can give an account (logos). It is demonstrably false that everyone believes “God is real,” and can give an account of this. Instead, theologians like Calvin claim that everyone has a desire for a higher being. They “know” there is something more. That isn’t knowledge. And it has created problems and ambiguities that end up damaging natural theology and undermining the claim that unbelief is a sin for which we need Christ (because if everyone knows God, no one is in unbelief).
Once we have focused on the definitions of “God” and “know,” we can assess whether Vos has demonstrated that there is a clear general revelation of God. In these lecture notes, he has not. He hasn’t really even addressed the need for why there needs to be a clear general revelation. His focus is elsewhere. What he has done is given us an introduction to the various systems. Now we need to get down to work and provide arguments to show that God is real (as defined above), contrary to the monisms (material or spiritual) and dualism (both demiurge and matter are without beginning). The clarity of general revelation is the foundation of redemptive revelation, calling us to repent of the sin of unbelief.
Geerhardus Vos, “Natural Theology,” trans. Albert Gootjes. Reformation Heritage Books, Grand Rapids, 2022. 97 pages, plus index.