Is Natural Revelation Sufficient to Govern Culture?1
by John M. Frame
The titular question seems to me to be central in the current discussion in the Reformed camp between Kuyperians and Klineans. Kuyperians argue that Scripture governs all aspects of human life, including culture and government.2 Klineans3 believe that politics and general culture are governed by natural revelation and common grace.4 On their view Christians should not urge distinctively biblical principles upon the institutions of the broad society; rather, they should draw people’s attention to the demands of natural law, the ethical implications of natural revelation.
I believe that this position is wrong, for the following reasons:
1. Natural revelation was not sufficient before the fall of Adam. Even in Paradise, as Cornelius Van Til used to say, our first parents learned truth, not only from their senses and reason from God’s revelation in creation, but also from the divine voice itself. According to Gen. 1:28-30, God did not leave it to our first parents to find out his will on their own, by scrutinizing natural revelation. Rather, he spoke to them in his own words, giving them the fundamental task of their existence. Indeed, it is this passage, often called the “cultural mandate,” that defines culture for God’s people.
He gave them more divine words in Gen. 2:16-17. Adam and Eve had the responsibility of interpreting natural revelation in accord with the audible words God had spoken to them. God’s spoken words functioned as a criterion for the truth of any interpretations of natural revelation that might have occurred to them.
2. Natural revelation is not sufficient after the fall. Unlike unfallen Adam, fallen man seeks to rule his life by his would-be autonomous knowledge of natural revelation, without obeying God’s audible and written words. But to do this is necessarily to distort the meaning of natural revelation. Rom. 1 tells us that the sinner represses the truth of natural revelation, exchanging it for a lie. So his use of natural revelation leads only to more sin, and worse. Paul mentions particularly the sins of idolatry and sexual uncleanness.5
3. Natural revelation is not sufficient for salvation. As Scripture presents it in passages like Psm. 19 and Rom. 1, God’s revelation in nature tells people that God exists, his nature, and his moral standards. But it does not tell them how they can be forgiven of their violations of these moral standards.
4. Natural revelation is not sufficient for pleasing God in any sphere. Since natural revelation does not bring people to salvation, it cannot prevent its own distortion in the human heart. With natural revelation alone, nobody can please God.6
5. The only remedy for the distortion of natural revelation is God’s grace. Paul later says, “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:23-24).
6. God’s grace comes to us through God’s special revelation, the Gospel of Scripture (Rom. 10:14-17). Saving faith is trusting in that message, that God will save all who come to him through Christ.
7. So we cannot understand natural revelation without distortion, unless we view it biblically. Calvin says (Institutes, 1.1.6) that Scripture is like a pair of glasses, which brings into sharp focus what is otherwise blurred.
8. God has never authorized any social institutions or activities to govern themselves without the use of his spoken and written words. Kline and others have claimed that God authorized that sort of society between Cain and the Mosaic Covenant, a society he describes as a “common grace” order, governed by natural revelation alone. The Mosaic Covenant began a different kind of society, a “holy” society, governed by God’s written words. But even during the administration of this covenant, on Kline’s view, nations other than Israel were common grace societies. And when the New Covenant in Christ replaced the Mosaic, there was no longer any provision, even among God’s people, for Scripture to govern society. So all nations today are “common grace” nations, societies to be governed by natural revelation, not the Bible.
I do not believe, however, that Scripture itself ever makes any such distinction. There is no record in Scripture of any nation or society divinely authorized to govern itself by natural revelation alone. God’s arrangement with Cain (Gen. 4:8-16) is by special revelation, God’s own words. Similarly, God’s covenants with Noah (Gen. 8:20-9:17) and Abraham (12:1-3, also chapters 15 and 17). God authorizes Noah’s family to establish law and order, including the penalty of bloodshed to those who shed blood (9:6). Noah therefore receives this authorization, not by natural revelation, but by supernatural. During the time of the Mosaic Covenant, God’s prophets address, not only Israel, but pagan nations as well, bringing God’s spoken words to them (for example Isa. 10-24) and demanding that they live up to God’s revealed standards. Given the insufficiencies of natural revelation noted above, this fact should not be surprising.
9. Natural revelation is not sufficient for our public dialogue with non-Christians. Some will be surprised at this claim, for it has often been thought that the Klinean position is an advantage to public dialogue. Better appeal to nature, it is said, than to sling Bible passages at people. Certainly, this position has some rhetorical advantages in the present climate of unbelief. Many give a hearing, at least, to natural law ethics that they would not give to Bible exposition. But what we gain in rhetoric, in my view, we lose in cogency.
Romans 1 does say that God clearly reveals his ethical standards in natural revelation. But it doesn’t say how he reveals these. Thomas Aquinas and others thought that God reveals them through our ability to construct arguments, deducing conclusions from natural phenomena. That is unlikely, since Paul considers this clear revelation to be universal (see Rom. 3:10-20), and many people (e.g. small children) are incapable of devising arguments. More likely, the knowledge of natural revelation comes to us in an intuitive manner, though some may be able to develop arguments based on that intuited data.
But arguments actually developed from natural revelation premises (“natural law arguments” as they are called) are rarely cogent. Roman Catholics, for example, often argue that birth control is forbidden, because of the natural connection between sexual intercourse and reproduction. That connection obviously exists, but the moral conclusion is not a necessary one. Indeed the argument (like many natural law arguments) is a naturalistic fallacy, an attempt to reason from fact to obligation, from “is” to “ought.”
Cogent and persuasive ethical reasoning presupposes a world view and standards of judgment. It is not easy to argue these from nature alone. For Christians, these standards come from Scripture. So apart from Scripture ethical argument loses its cogency and often its persuasiveness. Nonbelievers, of course, won’t usually accept Scripture as authoritative. But they may at least respect an argument that is self-conscious about its epistemological and metaphysical presuppositions.
In public discussion, it may sometimes be desirable to argue a position without directly referring to Scripture. We may, for example, point to the cultural consequences of China’s one-child policy, or to the general indifference to human life encouraged by legalized abortion, or to the societal consequences of secularized education. Arguments like these will be persuasive to some non-Christians. They appeal to that knowledge of natural revelation that they are unable fully to suppress. But when someone presses us to ask, for example, why we think that indifference to human life is a bad thing, we must in the end refer to Scripture, for that is the ultimate source of our values.
10. Jesus Christ rules all spheres of human life (Matt. 28:18), including politics. He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Rev. 17:14, 19:16; cf. 1 Tim. 6:15). The chief confession of the New Testament is kyrios Iesous, “Jesus is Lord” (Rom. 10:9, 1 Cor. 12:3, Phil. 2:11). This confession opposes the slogan “Caesar is Lord.” Although the kingdom of Jesus is different in many ways from earthly kingdoms, the Romans rightly feared Jesus as a rival to Caesar. In time, the empire became Christian, not by the sword, but by the power of the Gospel. So, as in many other ways, the Gospel, written and preached, transformed society. We should not adopt a theory that limits the social effects of the gospel in our own time.
11. The Gospel will transform the whole creation. This includes even the inanimate creation. The natural order “waits with eager longing for the manifestation of the sons of God” (Rom. 8:19). In Christ, all things will be reconciled to God (Col. 1:20). This makes even less likely the view that the word of God governs only the institutional church, and not the general culture.
12. Christians should seek the glory of God in all areas of life (1 Cor. 10:31). Since the Gospel transforms all things, we should also seek that goal, aligning our own responsible actions with God’s sovereign purpose. God intends for all human thoughts to be brought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5).
13. So natural revelation is insufficient in our witness to the lordship of Christ. In our public dialogue on cultural matters, the most important thing is to be true to the Great Commission, exalting Christ before human beings. Our argument should be a witness, or, at the very least, it should not detract from witness. For this purpose, natural revelation is of some use. Paul, for example, appealed to natural revelation when he dealt with Gentiles in Acts 14:15-17 and 17:22-31. But the climax of the Acts 17 sermon7 was an appeal to the Resurrection of Christ, not a datum of natural revelation.
Too often, in ethical debate, Christians sound too much like unbelievers. They reason as if they and their opponents are both operating on the same principle: human rational autonomy. I believe they almost inevitably give this false impression when they are reasoning according to natural law alone. Only when the Christian goes beyond natural law and begins to talk about Jesus as the resurrected king of kings does his witness become distinctively Christian. At that point, of course, he is reasoning from Scripture, not from natural revelation alone.
So I conclude that Christian reasoning about ethics, whether public or private, should never be based on natural revelation alone. Natural revelation is important, certainly, in applying the principles of Scripture. And observations of natural facts may make the difference in some cases (e.g., when a public policy choice depends on a statistic). But a complete ethical argument must appeal to the ultimate source of moral authority. And for Protestant Christians that is Scripture and Scripture alone. A further consequence is the conclusion given in the title of this article: natural revelation is not sufficient to govern human society or culture.
This Kuyperian approach should not be taken to imply that state and church should be merged, or that human cultural effort alone brings in the kingdom of God, or that all the arts should devote themselves entirely to evangelism, or that the church should become worldly. A number of people, such as Michael Horton,8 have charged that the Kuyperian view leads to such errors. But all the Kuyperians want to say is that Christian involvement in all cultural areas should be governed by the word of God. Of course, if the word of God says that state and church should be merged, then state and church should be merged. But it doesn’t say that. Some Christians in the past have erred in this respect, as when they have tried to achieve power for the church by wielding the sword. But they have erred, not in seeking to bring Scripture to bear on public life, but in misunderstanding what Scripture requires. And, although the errors of our ancestors should motivate more humility on our part when we try to apply Scripture to society, these errors are entirely irrelevant to the question of whether we should today seek to apply Scripture to culture.
I am thankful that God has led the church to debate these issues again, and I hope that this debate will lead Christians to greater clarity on this important matter. The very lordship of Christ is the issue. We are called to confess that lordship in everything we do, and in every sphere of life that we enter.