Reason, Revelation, and Calvin’s View of Natural Theology

Jim Cassidy and Camden Bucey discuss theological methodology in light of Calvin’s view of natural theology. As a starting point for the discussion, they turn to Thiago M. Silva’s article, “John Calvin and the Limits of Natural Theology,” Puritan Reformed Journal 8, 2 (2016): 33–48.

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Christ the Center focuses on Reformed Christian theology. In each episode a group of informed panelists discusses important issues in order to encourage critical thinking and a better understanding of Reformed doctrine with a view toward godly living. Browse more episodes from this program or subscribe to the podcast feed.

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2 years ago

Excellent discussion!
I appreciate you guys discussing Silva’s article as a way to consider the possibility of a third way between Barth and an overly robust doctrine of natural theology. That being said I have always struggled with the way that reformed forum has engaged with Thomas’ thought.
I have always walked away from reading Thomas thinking that the way his thought was presented through Van Tillian eyes was distorted and inaccurate.
Needless to say, the Van Tillian view of Thomas seems to be the position of reformed forum.
So my comment/question/wish for reformed forum would be threefold:
1) is it possible that Van Til overexagerated the degree to which Thomas believed that fallen creatures would in fact come to an accurate understanding of God apart from the Holy Spirit’s guidance?
2) Could you guys have a real Thomist on the show to engaged with you on Thomas’ views of natural theology? Someone like Peter Kreeft, who knows the reformed tradition as well as Thomas.
3) isn’t there a way to read Thomas that attempts to reconcile his views with reformed orthodoxy, which would leave a robust area for natural theology, while at the same time emphasizing the need for divine assistance in reasoning to genuine knowledge about God?

I do appreciate the time.

Jim Cassidy

2 years ago

Barrett, you ask some great questions. I still think VT got TA right. Its really about the dualism in TA’s epistemology. There are two sources of knowledge. That is clear in the early pages of the Summa. Everything else flows from there. As for having a “real” Thomist on the show, I think that is a good idea. You might see it sooner than you think….

Terry Chi

2 years ago

How would Calvin theology work for people who are mentally incapacitated due to brain trauma or for people with autism, intellectual disability, and/or dementia. This would be a question for both people who are believers or who are not yet in the fold of Christ? One concern I have, especially in the 1st chapter of Institutes about knowledge of self and knowledge of God. This is also seen in the “Old Princeton” apologetics, the prominent role of mind and reason. I’d say the same even with Van Til’s presuppositionalism, maybe even more so.

I’m not talking about salvation for those who were already saved, but their Christian experience AND for those who cannot be reached by reason alone. Yes, I know in the WCF Ch. 10, there was something about the elected who die in infancy or those who do not have the capability to be moved by the Word, but I’m still curious.

Jim Cassidy

2 years ago

Great question, Terry. All humans are made in the image and likeness of God. Their being image bearers does not depend on their level of mental capacity. As image bearers they know God. As fallen, they also suppress that knowledge in unrighteousness. And by grace that image is being renewed in them. Even if it is all on a scale much less than most of us. I think that is about as far as we can take it.

Brad Harrell

2 years ago

Camden & Jim,

Great program. This discussion brought a question to mind. How do we, from a reformed perspective, view and explain the relationship of general revelation (creation, stuff, etc) to special revelation (direct personal communication, the scriptures, etc)? Is it just that God has provided general revelation as the means for special revelation? Is there any way that special revelation is dependent on the “stuff” of general revelation?

I may be mixing categories (or worse), but I am curious what your take(s) would be on this. Thanks!

Jim Cassidy

2 years ago

Good question Brad. Camden can speak for himself. But I would say reading Van Til on this, whether in his Nature and Scripture article or in Intro to ST would benefit you tremendously. Your question is a good one, but would entail quite a treatise here to answer. Read VT and see if that doesn’t help.

Ben Smith

2 years ago

Barth is just wrong to attribute anything like the univocity of being to Thomas’s theology. Thomas’s natural theology is not based on the idea that God and creatures fall under a univocal notion of being. This is true of theology Duns Scotus, but not Thomas. Indeed Thomas explicitly states that God does not properly belong to the philosophical science of metaphysics.

According to the Thomist commentary tradition, the formal object of metaphysics is being qua being and the material object is ens commune (common being). The philosopher explores and develops an idea of reality that is separated (abstracted) from individuating and changeable attributes. In doing so he acquires a deeper understanding of common being, that is, being as experienced, which does not properly include God. We do not have any ordinary, direct sense experience of God, so God cannot fall under the notion of metaphysics. Whatever one may think of this approach it should be conceded that Thomas does not intend for God to be covered under a notion of being that includes God and creatures. The philosopher may come to recognize the existence of God, but only on the basis of realizing the inadequacy of common being to account for itself. But even at this point, the affirmation of God is not based on a deduction from God’s essence or any universal idea shared by God and creatures.

I agree with other scholars, who recognize some maturation in Thomas’s view of analogy, which we would only expect of someone who wrote and taught as much as Thomas. I believe that in Thomas’s mature view, he uses the analogy of attribution rather than the analogy of proper proportion. We may attribute “terms” to God taken from experience (good, mighty, wise, etc.) analogously. We attribute wisdom to God because wisdom is something like God; note, God’s essence is not like creaturely wisdom.

Proper perfections like wisdom are limited, particular, divided, and incomplete similitudes of what God is mysteriously, simply, perfectly, without division, and superabundantly. The divine essence is a simple, superabundant, and transcendent reality that immeasurably exceeds all creatures; nevertheless His effects in creation may be said to be like Him. Notice, it is not said that “wisdom” is said of God and creatures because wisdom is a universal notion that may be applied to God and creatures equally. Rather God is the immeasurable and incomprehensible archetype (exemplar cause) of creation. And for this reason, terms like “wisdom” may be said to be like God.

Whether or not Thomas adequately handled this difficult matter well is open to debate. However, univocity should not be attributed to his doctrine.

Jim Cassidy

2 years ago

Hey Ben, thanks for this! I would be glad enough to have TA on our side here. I think the Reformed have and can continue to benefit from TA. There is nothing I would love more than to discover Thomas, Calvin and Van Til were all on the page after all.

My question is this, however. Can the cosmological argument really work without some notion of the analogia entis?

Norman Reategui

2 years ago

Hi! I’m still halfway through the podcast, but I have a question: if, as per Calvin’s view, natural revelation can only produce a correct or true theology in regenerate believers, how must we understand Romans 1 (specifically, the part where it says that the invisible attributes of God are “clearly perceived from the things that are made”)? Is the unbeliever’s notion of God not correct, in this context? But if this is the case, how can Paul say that they “knew God” (“although they knew God…”)? Thanks! And great podcast so far!

Jim Cassidy

2 years ago

Hi Norman, its both true and not true. It is true in that God is really and truly revealing himself to man – and man gets the message. But precisely as he receives the message he is suppressing that truth in unrighteousness. He gets it, and as he gets it he distorts it, turning the truth into lie.



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