Franciscus Junius, Old Princeton, and the Question of Natural Theology

September 5, 2022

A Response to Shannon's "Junius and Van Til on Natural Knowledge of God"

This article first appeared in the Westminster Theological Journal Vol. 83, No. 2

Franciscus Junius (1545–1602) was one of the most influential theologians in the post-Reformation period. His Treatise on True Theology (1594) established many of the categories, and set in place the basic outline, that later systematicians would use in defining and delineating the nature of theology. Junius did not just shape later Reformed prolegomena, in many ways he established Reformed prolegomena in the first place. Not surprisingly, Junius is considered by some to be the quintessential Reformed theologian in the period of early Orthodoxy.[1]

Given Junius’s influence and stature, Nathan Shannon’s recent article “Junius and Van Til on Natural Knowledge of God” (WTJ 82 [2020]: 279-300) makes an important and provocative claim.[2] According to Shannon, assistant professor of systematic theology at Torch Trinity Graduate University in Seoul, “Junius and Van Til . . . agree that post-fall natural theology, unaided by special revelation, is not theology in any meaningful sense” (279). The singular thesis—and the most important claim of the article—is that for Junius, as well as for Van Til, “relational reconciliation is a necessary condition of true theology” (279). Or to put it even more bluntly: “Since true theology is determined by redemptive relation, natural theology, lacking this redemptive relation is not true theology, not in fact theology at all. Natural theology is in the end anti-theology” (279-80).

This is a bold thesis, as Shannon recognizes. The entire tradition of scholasticism affirmed the existence and importance of natural theology. And yet, according to Shannon, “Junius’s view of natural (as in unregenerate) theology marks a conspicuous point of departure from pre-Reformation scholasticism” (281). More than that, if Shannon’s argument is correct, Junius sounds a different note than virtually every orthodox Reformed theologian to follow in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the tradition of Old Princeton theology that developed in the nineteenth century. Considering the debate in Reformed circles about the legitimacy (or not) of natural theology, to have Junius on the side of nein would be significant—not only for one’s view of the post-Reformation period but for the pedigree of more recent Reformed theology. “This thesis,” Shannon writes, “so far as it is true, enhances the historical credentials of Van Til’s characteristically neo-Calvinist view of natural theology and natural reason.” In other words, if Junius believed that genuine theology is impossible “apart from monergistic establishment of relational restoration” (281), that “the theology of the unregenerate is prolific idolatry” (287), and that “even falsa theologia is charitable nomenclature” for post-fall natural theology (298), then Van Til’s thought has found a significant historical precursor.

My argument, however, is that Shannon’s innovative thesis does not fit the facts. If “the unregenerate must, it would seem, either know God or know nothing at all,” Shannon commends Van Til for betting on the latter (294). But is this the choice early Reformed theologians would have made? For whatever useful elements there may be in Van Til’s apologetic method, his approach to natural theology was a departure from the larger tradition. Mainstream Reformed thought has consistently affirmed that post-fall natural theology can be true theology. The theology of the unregenerate—though marred by imperfections and never saving—cannot be reduced to “prolific idolatry.” Natural theology is, in the end, not anti-theology.

In the first half of this article (Parts I and II), I will focus on Junius, arguing that he did not consider natural theology to be falsa theologia, but rather that natural theology, as a means of divine revelation, could communicate truths about God. In the second half (Parts III and IV) I will focus on Reformed theology after Junius, arguing that the tradition of Old Princeton—from Turretin through to Warfield—also affirmed the possibility of meaningful post-fall, unregenerate natural theology.[3]

I. Reading Junius: A Confusion of Categories

The central problem with Shannon’s thesis is that he has misread Junius, confusing his rejection of the theology of the pagans with a rejection of natural theology itself. A careful reading of Junius demonstrates the opposite conclusion from Shannon’s; namely, that natural theology—while imperfect and unable to save—is nevertheless divine revelation and belongs in the category of true theology.

The first sentences of Shannon’s article lay out his main claim, and they also manifest the main area of confusion. “According to Franciscus Junius (d. 1602),” Shannon writes, “since the fall, true theology is possible only where a redemptive divine-human relationship is established ‘through the communication of grace.’ For Junius this relational reconciliation is a necessary condition of true theology” (279). After Shannon’s first sentence there is a footnote which quotes from the eighth thesis from A Treatise on True Theology. The quotation from Junius reads: “Ectypal theology, whether taken in itself, as they say, or relatively in relation to something else, is the wisdom of divine matters, fashioned by God from the archetype of Himself, through the communication of grace for His own glory.” To be sure, ectypal theology (i.e., the theology God fashions for his creatures) is established through the “communication of grace,” but nothing in Junius’s statement indicates that this language implies redemption or relational reconciliation. For Junius, natural theology is a communication of grace, even though the recipient has not been savingly reconciled to God.[4]

The next two sentences from Shannon are also problematic. He writes, “Outside of this relational establishment, theology—dubiously so-called—may be found, but it is necessarily theologia falsa. There is for Junius no activity of the natural man which may properly be called ‘theology.’” The footnote for this sentence points to pages 95–96, 143, and 145 of Junius’s Treatise on True Theology. But these two sections of the Treatise are not talking about the same thing. The earlier reference (95–96) is about the false theology of the pagans, which is not properly called theology. The latter references (143, 145) are about natural theology, which is not to be confused with the pagan philosophy categorized by Varro and Augustine as superstitious (i.e., mythical), natural (i.e., physical), and civil (i.e., political). Introducing the category of natural theology by revelation, Junius writes, “When we say natural, we do not want it in this passage to be understood by the same meaning as we showed in the first chapter above from Varro and Augustine, but rather by its own sense and taken in itself as we will soon (if God wills) define it.”[5] In other words, Junius uses “natural theology” in two different ways—in a narrow way referring to a branch of pagan philosophy (which is not, strictly speaking, theology at all) and in a more formal way referring to a branch of true theology which is communicated through natural grace as opposed to special grace.[6]

Granted, Junius says about natural theology that “this theology” cannot “be called wisdom according to its genus except equivocally.”[7] But notice, Junius does not say natural theology is not theology; in fact, he explicitly labels it as such. What he posits is that natural theology is not “wisdom” in the same way that supernatural theology is wisdom. The equivocation is not whether natural theology is genuine theology (it is). The equivocation is whether natural and supernatural theology are theology in the same way (they are not).

At the heart of my disagreement with Shannon’s article is his tendency to read Junius’s discussion of pagan theology into Junius’s discussion of natural theology. You can see this confusion in the article’s footnotes which bounce back and forth indiscriminately between page numbers in the 90s (the chapter on false theology) and page numbers in the 140s and 150s (the chapters on natural theology). Shannon collapses two categories that are distinct in Junius—pagan theology and natural theology—and interprets them (like Van Til’s theology does?) as the same thing.

II. Junius on Natural Theology

In order to better understand the confusion at the heart of Shannon’s thesis, we  must understand the basic contours of Junius’s prolegomena. A Treatise on True Theology consists of thirty-nine theses expounded in eighteen chapters. These chapters outline a highly technical, but rather straightforward categorization of true theology.

According to Junius, theology—which can be of God (as its author) or about God (as its subject)—is commonly spoken of in two ways. One theology is true, the other is false and subject to opinion (Thesis 3). False theology is called theology only by equivocation (i.e., it is not genuine theology), for it “rests on opinion alone.” False theology consists of “unalloyed dreams and games in place of the truth, and idols . . .in place of the true God.”[8]

Further, there are two kinds of false theology: “common,” which is not disciplined by the cultivation of reason, and “philosophical,” which is aided by the development of reason (Thesis 4). This philosophical theology, which flourished in the centuries before Christ, was labeled by Augustine, Varro, and Seneca as superstitious, natural, and civil. All of this is labeled “false theology, which is nothing other than opinion and the shadow of wisdom grasping at something or another in the place of divine matters.”[9]

True theology, in turn, is either archetypal or ectypal (Thesis 6).Archetypal theology is the divine wisdom of divine matters (Thesis 7). It refers to God’s knowledge of himself.Ectypal theology is the wisdom of divine matters, fashioned by God from the archetype of himself and communicated by grace for His own glory (Thesis 8). The genus of true theology is wisdom, which includes “all principles both natural and supernatural.”[10] Ectypal theology can be known by the creature because of the capacity of the Creator (Thesis 9). In other words, God makes true theology possible.

Ectypal theology can be communicated, according to the capacity of the creature, in three ways: by union, by vision, or by revelation (Thesis 10). The first is the theology of Christ as God-man. The second is the theology of spiritual beings in heaven. The third is the theology of human beings on earth.[11] This last category is our theology, the theology of pilgrims (Thesis 13).[12]

Continuing with his careful distinctions, Junius posits that the mode of communicating revealed theology is twofold: by nature and by grace (Thesis 14). God is the author of both natural theology and supernatural theology: “The shared principle of nature equally as of grace is God.”[13] To be sure, supernatural theology possesses an entirely different kind of wisdom than natural theology.[14] Even before the fall, natural theology had to be nurtured by reason and perfected by grace (Thesis 17). After human nature was tainted by the fall, those first principles of natural theology remain in us, but they have been corrupted and quite confused (Thesis 18). As such, the light of natural theology after the fall has been rendered more veiled and more imperfect.[15] Natural theology cannot lead to perfection and cannot, in and of itself, be perfected by grace (Thesis 19). Nevertheless, we should not “ignore” or be “ungrateful” for “this grace, although it is natural.”[16]

Natural theology, for Junius, is that which proceeds from principles that are known by the light of human understanding (Thesis 15). Natural theology deals with things that are common (Thesis 16). The knowledge of natural theology and supernatural theology are imparted by the same mode (revelation), but they impart different kinds of knowledge.[17] Supernatural theology, because of its prominence in communicating divine truth, is sometimes called, narrowly, a theology of revelation, even though more broadly speaking natural theology is also given by revelation.[18] The false theology Junius repudiates at the beginning of his treatise refers to the idle musings of the pagans, not to the imperfect theology of the unregenerate man deducing principles from the light of nature.

Junius’s language can be ambiguous—using words like natural, grace, and revelation in different ways at times—but the overall structure of his argument is wonderfully organized. And within this organization we can see clearly that natural theology—though inferior to supernatural theology—is still true theology. Natural theology cannot save; it cannot (post-fall) be perfected; it does not impart the same kind of knowledge or wisdom as supernatural theology. But it is a species of revelation and of grace. In short, natural theology does not belong to the branch theologia falsa. It belongs to the category of true, ectypal theology communicated through revelation by nature.

Shannon’s interpretation of Junius fails to convince because of a fundamental misunderstanding that equates the false theology of speculative pagans with the natural theology of revelation. Writing in the tradition of Junius, Petrus Van Mastricht (1630–1706) insisted that “natural theology must be carefully distinguished from pagan theology as such, because the latter is false and the former is true.”[19] One could try to argue that Junius would have disagreed with Van Mastricht, but we must remember that Van Mastricht borrowed wholesale from Junius’s outline and from Junius’s categories, both of which had become standard Reformed fare by the first half of the seventeenth century.[20] For Van Mastricht to deviate from Junius on such a crucial point would have necessitated a lengthy discussion defending his more sanguine view of natural theology. The simple explanation is to see Van Mastricht’s careful distinction between false pagan theology and true natural theology as the same distinction Junius made at the end of the previous century. Consequently, in so far as Shannon is right that for Van Til true theology is impossible apart from the “monergistic establishment of relational restoration” (i.e., redemption and regeneration), Shannon is wrong to find an antecedent for this idea in Junius. For Junius, natural theology, always imperfect and never saving, is nevertheless a communication of divine grace and a species of true theology.[21]

III. Tracing the Tradition of Old Princeton

If the first half of this article argued that Van Til’s conception of natural theology does not find a precursor in Junius, the second half argues that Van Til’s entirely pessimistic view of post-fall natural theology is not resonant with the tradition of Old Princeton either. I should make clear that I am working from Shannon’s description of Van Til’s theology. In my estimation, Shannon gets Van Til right, but if someone were to argue that Van Til’s thought allows for a robust natural theology that would not undermine the more important point I am trying to make with respect to Old Princeton. My burden is not to repeat Shannon’s exploration of Van Til, but to argue that in so far as Van Til rejected the possibility of post-fall natural theology (as true theology) he is out of step with his own Reformed tradition.

For the purpose of this article, our theological focus must be necessarily constrained. I am not attempting a broad survey of Reformed thinking on revelation, reason, and the development of natural theology. Rather, I want to focus on the specific issue raised in Shannon’s article: Is natural theology true theology? According to Shannon, Van Til does not allow for this possibility: “For Van Til, therefore, natural theology post-fall, as theological reflection without the aid of special revelation, must be understood as unregenerate in principle, or in method or epistemic structure, and it is therefore in neither principle nor character—neither actually nor possibly—true theology” (289). To be clear, the failure of natural theology does not reside in the “endowment or natural grace of the natural principle” itself. The failure is due to the “the mode of creaturely cognition relative to that provision” (288). Van Til believed in natural theology (of a sort). The problem is that the unregenerate man does not have the ability to adequately receive and meaningfully reflect on natural theology. The witness of general revelation does not communicate theological propositions, but only that there is a God before whom the creature must give account (294-295). Thus, for Van Til, “post-fall natural theology, unaided by special revelation, is not theology in any meaningful sense” (279). To put it another way, true theology is determined by redemptive relation, so that “natural theology, lacking this redemptive relation, is not true theology, not in fact theology at all” (279-80). Van Til does not believe that true theology is possible apart from God’s unilateral work to affect regeneration and restore the redemptive relationship (281). In other words, “Natural theology is in the end anti-theology” (280).

Here, then, is the question that I mean to answer: Can the unregenerate man, marred by sin after the fall, come to any knowledge of true theology by natural grace apart from supernatural revelation? My answer is that according to the theological tradition that followed Junius and ran through Old Princeton, the answer is yes.

In making this case, I want to look briefly at seven representative theologians: Francis Turretin, Benedict Pictet, John Witherspoon, Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, A. A. Hodge, and B. B. Warfield. Although different in style and emphasis, these men together form a discernible theological tradition. Francis Turretin taught at the Geneva Academy until being succeeded by his nephew Benedict Pictet, whose Theologia Christiana (1696) was the basis for John Witherspoon’s theological education in Edinburgh.[22] Witherspoon, in turn, became the president at Princeton where he taught William Graham, who instructed Archibald Alexander, who, as Princeton Theological Seminary’s first professor, taught Charles Hodge. Hodge later became the Professor of Didactic and Exegetical Theology at Princeton until he was succeeded by his son A. A. Hodge, who was then followed in the same post by B. B. Warfield.[23] Remarkably, one can trace an unbroken theological tradition (and at many times a familial tradition as well) from Geneva to Scotland to New Jersey.[24] When Machen broke away from Princeton to form Westminster Theological Seminary in 1929, he could make the case, quite plausibly, that he was defending a discernible theological tradition that stretched not just across decades or generations but across the better part of three centuries.

1. Francis Turretin (1623–1687)

Turretin mirrored Junius’s theology closely, making the same distinctions regarding theology of God and theology about God; theology as true and false; true theology as archetypal or ectypal; ectypal theology as by union, by vision, or by revelation; and revelatory theology as either natural or supernatural.[25] Turretin, like Junius, also cites Varro in categorizing pagan theology as mythical, physical, or political. Turretin emphasizes, in opposition to the Socinians, that the orthodox “uniformly teach that there is a natural theology, partly innate (derived from the book of conscience by means of common notions) and partly acquired (drawn from the book of creatures discursively).”[26]

To be sure, the theology of revelation we call “natural” is “highly disordered in corrupted man.” Natural theology is never sufficient for salvation. And yet, it can communicate meaningful truth. “As there is a threefold school of God (that of nature, grace and glory), and a threefold book (of the creature, of Scripture, and of life), so theology has usually been divided into three parts: the first of which is natural, the second supernatural and the third beatific.” The third category belongs to the saints in heaven and the second category to believers in the church, but the first category (which apprehends knowledge from the light of reason) belongs to men in the world.[27]

Crucially, there is no indication that this “school of God,” by which mankind is instructed in divine things, is restricted to the regenerate.According to Turretin, there remains implanted in man, even after the fall, a natural faculty “which embraces not only the capability of understanding, but also the natural first principles of knowledge from which conclusions both theoretical and practical are deduced.”[28] Turretin argues that “the orthodox occupy a middle ground” when it comes to philosophy, neither placing philosophy over theology nor making philosophy opposed to theology.[29] Even though human understanding is dark, there remains in us some rays of natural light and certain first principles which establish the possibility of science, art, and certainty in the nature of things.[30]

2. Benedict Pictet (1655–1724)

Pictet’s influential Theologia Christiania marked a turning point away from the highly refined scholastic method of Turretin to something more widely accessible. By his own admission, Pictet’s aim was not to repeat “the controversial theology drawn up by my revered uncle and most beloved father in Christ, the illustrious Turretine,” but to give the youth “a system of didactic theology in which controversies were left out, and the truth simply and plainly taught.”[31] This means that Pictet does not follow Junius’s categories nearly so explicitly. But we find the same basic categories, with an even more pronounced role for reason and natural theology.

Pictet’s theology does not start with prolegomena but with the existence of God. Although the reality of God’s existence ought to be taken for granted, it can also be proved, so as to refute the arguments of “monsters” who say there is no deity.[32] According to Pictet, all men retain a natural knowledge of God that is both innate and acquired. Although this natural knowledge should lead man “to seek after a clearer revelation,” it is not without value in its own right, for it is “the source from which all civil laws have been derived.”[33] The two systems of revelation (natural and supernatural), far from being opposed to one another, are, in fact, in “strict harmony and render each other mutual service.”[34] Pictet insists that “there is a wonderful harmony between sound philosophy and divinity; for truth is not contrary to truth, nor light to light; only we must not imagine that the former is the rule by which the sense of Scripture must be tried and examined.”[35]

Pictet’s appreciation for natural theology is robust, going beyond what Junius and Turretin affirmed. According to Pictet, the Gentiles were able to ascertain from the “system of natural theology” an impressive list of theological propositions:

That there is a God, and but one God—that God is none of those things which are visible and corruptible, but some being very far superior to them—that he is just, good, powerful, and all-wise—that God is the creator of the universe—that the world is governed by his providence, as Cicero and several others acknowledged—that he is eternal and happy—that he must be worshipped and praised—that rectitude and honesty are to be practiced—that parents ought to be honored, and that we should not do to any one else what we would not have done to ourselves—that all men ought to endeavour to propitiate God’s favour—that the soul is immortal, and that there is a judgment to come (the Druids, according to Caesar, believed in the soul’s immortality, which also was the opinion of Plato)—that those who do evil actions are worthy of death.[36]

Importantly, the doctrines above are only “an abridgement” of the true theology that can be derived “from the dictates of reason and from the work of creation and providence.”[37]Clearly, Pictet does not consider natural theology, even for the unbeliever, to be devoid of knowable and meaningful theological truth.

3. John Witherspoon (1723 – 1794)

Although Witherspoon is remembered today for his political and philosophical contributions, in his lifetime he was considered an expert theologian.[38] And as a theologian, Witherspoon, like most eighteenth-century evangelicals in the Church of Scotland, stood squarely in the tradition of Turretin and Pictet. In his satirical Ecclesiastical Characteristics (1753), Witherspoon remarked tongue-in-cheek that Scotland’s professors of theology should lecture on the system of moderation instead of the “the antiquated systems of divinity, as Pictet or Turretine.”[39] Like his theological mentors, Witherspoon believed natural theology had a role to play in communicating religious truth and defending true religion.[40] Reflection on the natural world can teach mankind important truths about human depravity (because sin is rampant in every society) and about the need for a Savior (because sacrificial systems have been present throughout human history).[41] For Witherspoon, natural theology was first of all an apologetic tool, allowing him “to support the truth from evidence of scripture and reason.”[42] Marred by sin, we can view the faultless frame of nature in faulty ways.[43] And yet, the sciences can be “handmaids to theology” and “turned into a divine channel.”[44]

As president of Princeton, Witherspoon taught the capstone course on moral philosophy, an avenue of intellectual exploration that Cotton Mather derided as “reducing infidelity to a system” but which Witherspoon believed was an important exploration of the principles of natural religion.[45] “I confess it is agreeable to me,” Witherspoon wrote in his Lectures on Divinity, “to shew that the truths of the everlasting gospel are agreeable to sound reason and founded upon the state of human nature; and I have made it my business through my whole life to illustrate this remark.”[46] In his Lectures on Moral Philosophy, Witherspoon explained that there was “a stable foundation” for men to learn about God in nature and reason, even if the way in which, and the terms on which, God shows mercy can only be learned from revelation.”[47] Like Turretin and Pictet, Witherspoon utilized the category for natural theology as a separate (and ultimately subordinate) discipline guided by reason and rational observation. Throughout his ministry on both sides of the Atlantic Witherspoon believed there were meaningful truths that could be learned from natural theology, being convinced that whatever was “certain or valuable in moral philosophy” was “perfectly consistent with the scripture.”[48]

4. Archibald Alexander (1772–1851)

As a student, Archibald Alexander was deeply influenced by Rev. William Graham who had studied under Witherspoon at the College of New Jersey. Alexander attended Graham’s Liberty Hall Academy (later Washington and Lee University), where he was instructed in moral philosophy along the lines of Witherspoon’s curricular interests.[49] This emphasis showed itself in Alexander’s lifelong appreciation for the discipline of moral philosophy and the possibilities of natural theology. In the biography of his father, James Alexander said about Archibald, “While he was far from being a rationalist, he was never satisfied with the tactics of those reasoners who under the pretext of exalting revelation dismiss with contempt all arguments derived from the light of nature.”[50] It is little wonder, then, that Archibald Alexander published his own Outlines of Moral Science (1852).

Alexander’s lecture notes (as taken down by an impressive young student named Charles Hodge) evince an approach to prolegomena fundamentally at odds with the notion that natural theology is theologia falsa or anti-theology. In keeping with the longstanding tradition, Alexander divided the discipline of theology into true and false, true theology into that of vision and that of revelation, and revelatory theology into natural and supernatural.[51] Natural theology “consists in the knowledge of those truths concerning the being and attributes of God, the principles of human duty, and the expectation of a future state derived from reason alone.”[52] For Alexander, natural theology is far from perfect, being defective in certainty, authority, and motives. Furthermore, it cannot teach the true character of God, the method of reconciliation, or our destiny in a future state.[53] At the same time, mankind can learn much from natural theology. The dictates of natural theology demonstrate God’s unity, spirituality, omnipotence, wisdom, omnipresence, and goodness.[54] Natural theology teaches that God should be worshipped, that we should pray, that God is just, holy, and true, and that the wicked will be punished.[55] We can also learn that God exercises a moral government over the world and that the soul is immortal.[56] Of course, the insights from natural religion are not sufficient to save, but the nonbeliever can deduce many fundamental truths—like the existence of God and the infinite perfection of God—from the constitution of man and from the works of God in nature.[57]

5. Charles Hodge (1797–1878)

Not surprisingly, Charles Hodge understood natural theology in much the same way that Archibald Alexander did. At first glance, Hodge seems to limit the domain of theology to Scripture alone, asserting that all “the facts [of divine revelation] . . . are in the Bible.” But in the next sentence Hodge allows that some of these facts are also “revealed by the works of God, and by the nature of man.” Consequently, theology can be examined as “natural theology” or as “theology considered distinctively as a Christian science.”[58]

In examining natural theology, Hodge tries to avoid “two extreme opinions.” The one extreme opinion “is that the works of nature make no trustworthy revelation of the being and perfections of God; the other, that such revelation is so clear and comprehensive as to preclude the necessity of any supernatural revelation.”[59] Concerning the first extreme opinion, “those who deny that natural theology teaches anything reliable concerning God” base their opinion on “sophistical” arguments.[60] As an image bearer of God, man has the capacity, even after the fall, to know true things about God apart from supernatural revelation. This is why “the sacred writers in contending with the heathen appeal to the evidence which the works of God bear to his perfections.”[61] Thus Hodge concludes—just before recommending the works on natural theology by Christian Wolff, Joseph Butler, and William Paley—that it “cannot, therefore, be reasonably doubted that not only the being of God, but also his eternal power and Godhead, are so revealed in his works, as to lay a stable foundation for natural theology.”[62]

6. A.A. Hodge (1823–1886)

When it came to natural theology, Archibald Alexander Hodge walked the same middle path outlined by his father. On the one hand, the younger Hodge can write as if natural theology communicates nothing useful to the unregenerate. “The ultimate ground of our confidence, and source of all our theological knowledge, is solely the word of God, signified in the holy Scriptures.”[63] Moreover, Hodge argues that whatever we learn from natural theology in our modern age has the benefit of the light of revelation which has shaped the Christian world.[64] Hodge does not want to ascribe a potency to natural theology that would in any way detract from the superior revelation we find in Scripture.

And yet, we would be wrong to conclude that the younger Hodge did not affirm the epistemic potential of natural theology. In fact, of all the theologians in this survey, Hodge gives one of the clearest statements regarding the ability of natural theology to communicate theological truth even to the unregenerate. Using the same language as his father, Hodge writes about “an extreme opinion” that “has been held by some Christians, to the effect that no true and certain knowledge of God can be derived by man, in his present condition, from the light of nature in the entire absence of a supernatural revelation; that we are altogether dependent upon such a revelation for any certain knowledge that God exists, as well as for all knowledge of his nature and his purposes.”[65] Hodge “disproved” this opinion by citing “the direct testimony of Scripture,” by noting “the many conclusive arguments for the existence of a great First Cause,” and by observing that “all nations, however destitute of a supernatural knowledge of revelation they may have been, have yet possessed some knowledge of a God.”[66] In short, what Shannon argues is a critical contribution of Van Til’s epistemology—namely, that “post-fall natural theology, unaided by special revelation, is not theology in any meaningful sense” (279)—A.A. Hodge rejected as an extreme opinion that could be disproved by Scripture, by reason, and by observation.

7. B.B. Warfield (1851–1921)

Given the fact that Warfield’s doctrine of revelation is largely ad hoc (he never wrote a formal systematic theology) and polemical (arguing against liberalism’s denial of the supernatural), it is no surprise that the great defender of biblical inspiration emphasized the necessity of supernatural revelation rather than the merits of natural theology. General revelation was fitted for man as man, but special revelation is fitted for man as a sinner. To be sure, there is nothing inherently deficient in natural revelation. The problem is not with God’s communication, but with man’s fallen condition. “Sin,” writes Warfield, “has dulled man’s consciousness and blinded his perception of divine things: a special revelation of God to sinners, therefore, must needs include an immanent movement of God’s Spirit on man’s heart, restoring his capacity for the reception of divine knowledge.”[67] This statement sounds more like Van Til than what we have seen from the rest of the Old Princeton tradition.

And yet, there are good reasons to read Warfield’s doctrine of natural theology in a more nuanced way. For starters, the context of the quotation above is Warfield’s insistence that special revelation is necessary to restore man’s natural communion with God. What Warfield means here by “divine knowledge” is more like saving knowledge than every kind of propositional knowledge about God. That is why earlier Warfield describes natural and supernatural revelation, respectively, as “cosmological” and “soteriological.”[68] Warfield does not believe in the absolute bankruptcy of all natural theology. “There are elements of human thought in the teachings of Christianity,” he writes, “and there are elements of revelation in all religions.” Warfield believed that there was still “discoverable” knowledge of God in the world, and that “however dim or degraded” such knowledge may be, it was still a revelation from God to his fallen creatures.[69]

While the accent for Warfield fell on the inadequacy of general revelation for the needs of sinful man, he nevertheless affirmed the existence of God’s “common grace” whereby “within the limits of Nature” men may be stirred up to accomplish great things and know something about God.[70] By natural revelation “men in the normal use of reason rise to a knowledge of God—a notitia Dei acquisita, based on the notitia Dei insita—which is trustworthy and valuable, but is insufficient for their necessities as sinners, and by its very insufficiency awakens a longing for a fuller knowledge of God and his purposes.”[71] For the fallen man, natural theology may be weak, inadequate, and in need of further revelation, but it can still communicate meaningful truth.[72]

IV. Conclusion

It would be too much to argue that a straight line of Reformed thinkers from Junius to Warfield all taught an identical version of natural theology. And yet, in disagreement with Shannon and Van Til, it can be fairly concluded that the entire tradition of Old Princeton stretching back to Geneva understood natural theology as a species of true theology. The theologians we examined all believed natural theology to be an important, separate, and complementary discipline to supernatural theology. They also expected that the “heathens” could learn important truths from natural theology and that natural theology was a valuable “handmaid” to supernatural theology. They believed in the apologetic and civic potential of natural theology. What’s more, many of them gladly employed the traditional proofs for God’s existence.

Most importantly, there is no indication in the broader tradition that post-fall natural theology for the unregenerate man must, as a matter of course, be nothing but theologia falsa and anti-theology. Over and over, the Reformed tradition makes clear that natural theology is imperfect, insufficient for salvation, and demonstrably less clear than supernatural theology. At the same time, the Reformed tradition reiterates over and over that by looking at the nature of man and by reflecting on the works of creation and providence, even the unregenerate man can come to meaningful and accurate propositions about himself, about the world, and about the existence and character of God. If the unregenerate man must either know God or know nothing at all, the Reformed tradition from Junius through Old Princeton—once all the necessary caveats and qualifications have been put in place—bets on the former instead of the latter.

[1] See Willem J. Van Asselt, Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011), 122-26.

[2] Throughout this piece, Shannon’s article will be cited parenthetically in the body of the text, while all other works will be cited using footnotes.

[3] Strictly speaking, of course, it is anachronistic to lump Turretin (from seventeenth century Geneva) in with Princeton (from nineteenth century America). And yet, as I will show, there is an undeniable intellectual and personal link between the two. I am using “Old Princeton” as shorthand for a tradition of Reformed theology, stretching back to Europe, that was defended and celebrated during the first hundred years of Princeton Seminary.

[4] Franciscus Junius, A Treatise on True Theology, Translated by David C. Noe (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014), 142.

[5] Ibid., 143.

[6] Ibid., 142.

[7] Ibid., 145.

[8] Ibid., 95.

[9] Ibid., 97.

[10] Ibid., 113.

[11] Ibid., 119.

[12] Ibid., 138.

[13] Ibid., 142.

[14] Ibid., 143, 145.

[15] Ibid., 155. Summarizing early Reformed Orthodoxy (and quoting mainly from Amandus Polanus [1561–1610]), Muller argues that natural and supernatural theology differ in seven areas: genus, subject/object, efficient cause, material, form, end, and adjuncts. (Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of the Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725, 4 vols., 2nd ed. [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003]), 1:287-88.

[16] Junius, Treatise on True Theology, 142.

[17] Ibid., 158.

[18] Ibid., 161.

[19] Petrus Van Mastricht, Theoretical-Practical Theology, Volume 1, Translated by Todd M. Rester, Edited by Joel R. Beeke (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018), 78.

[20] Muller remarks: “Althaus correctly points to Franciscus Junius’ De theologia vera (1594) as the first work to employ this distinction [between theologia archetypa and theologia ectypa] and make a threefold division in the theologia ectypa: the theologia unionis, visionis, and viatorum. Junius was certainly the first major thinker to pose these definitions in a Reformed context and it was his treatise that was used consistently by the theologians of his generation and the next several generations of Reformed theology as the model for theological prolegomena” (Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 1:222). Elsewhere, Muller observes that Junius was particularly influential in the Netherlands (1:161).

[21] Summarizing the position of Reformed Orthodoxy, Muller concludes: “Theologia naturalis, despite all the problems inherent in its formulation and elaboration, is properly discussed as a form of theologia vera, under the category of theologia viatorum” (Ibid., 1:282).

[22] For more on the connections between Turretin, Pictet, and Witherspoon, see Kevin DeYoung, The Religious Formation of John Witherspoon: Calvinism, Evangelicalism, and the Scottish Enlightenment (London: Routledge, 2020), 34-38.

[23] For more on this history, see James H. Moorhead, Princeton Seminary in American Religion and Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012); James Garretson, “Introduction” in Archibald Alexander, God, Creation, and Human Rebellion, Edited by Travis Fentiman (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2019), xv-xxxix; Paul C. Gutjahr, Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy (Oxford: OUP, 2011); A.A. Hodge, Evangelical Theology: Lectures on Doctrine (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1990), ix-xli; Fred G. Zaspel, The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 27-59.

[24] And this is to say nothing of the many other connections present in this lineage: that Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology was the primary theological textbook at Princeton Seminary until Hodge wrote his own systematic theology, or that Witherspoon passed on a love for Pictet to his disciple Ashbel Green who helped establish Princeton Theological Seminary in 1812, or that Charles Hodge named his son after his mentor Archibald Alexander and that Hodge was the formative theological influence for Warfield.

[25] Francis Turretin. Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 3 vols., Translated by George Musgrave Giger, Edited by James T. Dennison, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1997), 1:1-6.

[26] Ibid., 1:6.

[27] Ibid., 1:5.

[28] Ibid., 1:6.

[29] Ibid., 1:44.

[30] Ibid., 1:29.

[31] Benedict Pictet, Christian Theology, Translated by Frederick Reyroux (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1834), vii.

[32] Ibid., 17.

[33] Ibid., 22.

[34] Ibid., 24.

[35] Ibid., 60.

[36] Ibid., 22.

[37] Ibid.

[38] After Witherspoon visited Yale in 1773, Ezra Stiles noted in his journal that President Locke of Harvard was the more learned of American college presidents, with the exception, he added, of Witherspoon in theology. See Varnum Lansing Collins, President Witherspoon, 2 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 1925, 1:155.

[39] The Works of the Rev. John Witherspoon, D.D., L.L.D. Late President of the College, at Princeton New Jersey, 4 Vols. 2nd Ed. (Philadelphia: William W. Woodward, 1802), 3:260.

[40] Thomas Ahnert argues convincingly that the “positions of Moderates and the orthodox on natural religion are, essentially, the reverse of what they are usually thought to be” (The Moral Culture of the Scottish Enlightenment 1690–1805 [New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015], 96). Evangelical ministers employed arguments from natural theology more often than their Moderate counterparts. Orthodox Presbyterians like Witherspoon saw reason and general revelation as preparing the unbeliever for the gospel and teaching the unregenerate enough about God to leave him without excuse (50, 94-95).

[41] Witherspoon made this point often in his sermons. See “Man in his Natural State” (Works of the Rev. John Witherspoon, 2:157-66); “All Mankind by Nature Under Sin” (1:273); “Obedience and Sacrifice Compared” (1:485); “The Happiness of Saints in Heaven” (1:555).

[42] Works of the Rev. John Witherspoon, 1:98.

[43] Ibid., 2:44.

[44] Ibid., 2:438. Cf. DeYoung, The Religious Formation of John Witherspoon, 123-26.

[45] Works of the Rev. John Witherspoon, 3:367.

[46] Ibid., 4:47.

[47] Ibid., 3:400.

[48] Ibid., 3:471. For more on Witherspoon’s theological and philosophical commitments, see DeYoung, The Religious Formation of John Witherspoon, 157-63.

[49] See Garretson, “Introduction,” xxiii.

[50] James W. Alexander, D.D., The Life of Archibald Alexander: First Theological Professor of the Theological Seminary, at Princeton, New Jersey (New York: Charles Scribner, 1854), 367.

[51] Alexander, God, Creation, and Human Rebellion, 13.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid., 20-21.

[54] Ibid. 18.

[55] Ibid., 18-19.

[56] Ibid., 19-20.

[57] Ibid., 14-17. For more on Alexander’s views on “the right use of reason in religion” see Archibald Alexander, The Truth, Inspiration, and Authority of Scripture (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2017), 2-9, 25-46.

[58]Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (London, James Clarke and Co., 1960), 1:21.

[59] Ibid., 1:21-22.

[60] Ibid., 22.

[61] Ibid., 24.

[62] Ibid., 25.

[63] Archibald Alexander Hodge, Outlines of Theology, Edited by William H. Goold (London: T. Nelson and Sons, 1877), 43.

[64] Ibid., 41.

[65] A. A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1998), 27.

[66] Ibid.

[67] Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield, 2 vols., Edited by John E. Meeter (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1970, 1973), 1:28.

[68] Ibid., 1:24.

[69] Ibid.

[70] The Works of Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1991), 1:9.

[71] Ibid., 1:45.

[72] For more on Warfield and prolegomena see Zaspel, Theology of B.B. Warfield, 97-108.

This content was originally published on Westminster Theological Seminary

You might also like