Does Natural Theology Violate Sola Scriptura?

Person observing natural theology

Where do we go to discover who God is and what he cares about?

In his book Nature’s Case for God, theologian and philosopher John Frame shows that the Bible isn’t God’s only revelation. Does that seem scandalous? In the following excerpt adapted from the book, Frame sets up his case for natural theology (learning about God through general revelation) using Scripture itself, tackling the objection that it violates the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura: Scripture alone.

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[Natural theology] traditionally denotes the attempt to learn about God through revelation outside the Bible.

Although natural theology has been an important discipline historically, as in the writings of Thomas Aquinas, its prestige more recently has fallen considerably. When Emil Brunner wrote a rather mild defense of the discipline, Karl Barth answered him with a thundering reply, named simply “NO.”
Since then, anyone approaching this subject has had to give an argument for its legitimacy. This requirement bears especially on apologists of the presuppositional school of apologetics, the school I am associated with.

Now there are good reasons for objecting to natural theology.

Barth’s objections arise out of his unique conception of the christological focus of all revelation, but a Protestant who is more traditional and orthodox than him might also reject natural theology. Those who are committed to the Christ of Scripture ask how we can seek to know anything without the aid of Scripture, let alone try to know God without it. That would be like a student who ignores the entire reading list for a course in chemistry and seeks to answer the exam questions out of his own head.

Not only does Scripture provide important knowledge about God, but in one sense, Protestant theologians have always said that Scripture is sufficient to tell us what we need to know about him. Hence the Reformation motto sola Scriptura.

It might seem, therefore, that for Protestants, natural theology is a violation of that principle. But in fact, the principle does not forbid us to seek knowledge of God from creation. Rather, Scripture itself tells us that God is revealed everywhere and that human beings are therefore under obligation, not only to hear God’s word in Scripture, but to obey his revelation in all creation.

Natural theology and apologetics

This objection to natural theology, and the reply to it, has a particular application to presuppositional apologetics. Apologetics is the activity of Christians as they respond to unbelief (“always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you,” 1 Pet 3:15). As developed by Cornelius Van Til, presuppositional apologetics is particularly concerned to be subject to Scripture in its reasoning. The revelation of God in Scripture is the “presupposition” of all human reasoning, so that when reasoning violates Scripture it loses its own basis for validity. But again, it is Scripture itself that tells us to look at the created world to see the imprint of its Creator. Our presupposition urges us to look at the world God has made, and to look at ourselves, his image (Gen 1:27).

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So my defense of natural theology is a simple one. The Bible says that God is revealed in everything he has created, not only in the Bible. This is especially evident in Psalm 19 and Romans 1.

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. (Ps 19:1–4)

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 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. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their hearts were darkened. (Rom 1:18–21)

These passages teach us that it is impossible to escape the evidence for God, indeed to escape his presence with us. The Creator has left his mark on his creation. The second passage, of course, is very negative, for it is directed to those who rebel against God. But that fact increases its force: even rebels know God clearly, so that their unbelief and rebellion is their own fault. Note that their knowledge is not only a knowledge of facts about God. Verse 21 puts it in personal terms: they actually know God; they have a personal knowledge of God, of course as enemies rather than as friends. So their knowledge is intimate and profound, as well as correct.

These passages describe a universal knowledge of God. Even people who don’t read the Bible know God and are responsible for their unbelief.1

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Learn more about natural theology in John Frame’s book, Nature’s Case for God, available now from Lexham Press. Or explore the concept more in the following resources:

Related resources:

Book Study Course: Paul's Letter to the Romans

  1. Frame, John M. Nature’s Case for God. Lexham Press, 2018.
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