There have existed many theological debates in the history of the Christian church. Some of them have died away and some of them are running strong even until today. But one debate that I was surprised to learn of is that there is conflict over whether or not natural revelation has sufficient authority to explain the existence of God and His attributes.
Natural revelation is what we can learn about God and his attributes outside of any special revelation such as holy texts.
Imagine yourself entering into someone’s office for the first time but that person is not there. You can learn a lot about them based on what furniture they have, what books are on their shelves, pictures of family members, the smell of the room, etc. There is a lot of evidence about who this person might be like based on what you observe.
Now imagine that there is a journal on the desk. As you flip through the pages of the journal, you discover there are many details about who this person is. It doesn’t say everything there is to know about the person, just as the room doesn’t indicate everything there is to know about the person.
Two men then come into the room.
The first man tells you that you cannot trust what you observe in the room to know about what the person in the journal’s writing describes about himself. You must trust only in what the journal says.
The second man disagrees. He says that you can know perhaps even more about the person described in the journal based upon what you observe in the room.
So, who should you listen to?
The early Reformers had a doctrine called Sola Scriptura that, among other things, claims that scripture from the Bible is the only trustworthy source to understand anything there is to know about God. This is a very good doctrine but I find it lacking and I will explain why later in this post.
Men like Thomas Aquinas and C.S. Lewis believed differently than these Reformers and I seem to think that some of the popular Christian apologists today believe similarly to Aquinas and Lewis. They often argue, through reason and extra-biblical evidence, matters of morality, God’s existence, and His attributes.
I unknowingly seemed to fall into this camp by practice. I often observe the world and read about scientific discoveries. I suppose I do this in order to build my faith of what has already been stated in scripture. In the end, scripture has the final authority over what I come to the conclusion on. The Bible is like the theory of everything good. You can believe in it without first experiencing it. But when you experience it and put that theory into practice, that is when your love for it increases dramatically.
In some cases, there is an element of fear in the opposing view that an observation through nature could produce a false or misguided belief about God or anything that has been revealed in scripture that contradicts it. For example, if one were to read any news story today about an archaeological discovery from “millions of years ago”, this obviously would conflict with the view that the earth was created in 6 literal days. These things can get a Christian into trouble without a discerning mind. The natural thought is to trust what everyone believes to be true. Everyone is quick to jump on the old earth bandwagon before they even know how to date fossils on their own. Ultimately their authority for truth lies in the majority which puts its trust on the scientists who may, if I may entertain the thought, have biases and faulty assumptions in their formulas (it’s not uncommon for a widely held scientific formula to found through experimentation to be flawed). Though I don’t understand it all, and don’t have the ability and knowledge to test it experimentally otherwise, I ignorantly trust in the Bible over what this ignorant and arrogant world thinks it knows.
I also find that natural revelation is common ground when discussing your faith with others. This generation is, perhaps more than ever, skeptical about the authority of scripture in how one perceives the world. To believe in something “for the Bible tells me so” is looked upon as being ignorant. Of course, I would argue that calling someone who trusts in Holy Scripture “ignorant” without first adequately knowing the origins of the scripture is ignorant in itself. When someone studies this topic for even a short time, they will come to one of two conclusions: either the Bible is a miraculously attained document, or extremely high coincidence explains its origination. The point is this: If you ask someone the question “What is the meaning of life?”, they can probably be better convinced if you first begin with natural revelation about the world we are in, who we are, and what God appears to be than if you first started off assuming that this person has the same level of trust that scripture is the authority for all claims of truth.
I find it to be an exciting thing to observe nature for the following reasons: a) to discover more about who God is, B) to discover more about what mankind is, and C) to discover more about the environment that He has placed us in. I think that it could be possible to even create a systematic theology based on natural revelation alone. I think the more you study, the more you would observe that natural revelation lines up with special revelation and that we should approach these observations with excitement and without fear.