Monday, December 06, 2010

Paul Helm on Nature and Grace

Some notes on the second of Paul Helm's talks at the recent Pastors' Forum.

In talk two Helm focused his attention on different aspects of natural theology. He stressed that "the natural" is not neutral in a secular sense. Twentieth century Reformed theologians often had a negative attitude towards natural theology, but that was not necessarily the case among the Reformers.

We considered the image of God and the fall, what is lost and what remains.

1. The image of God was in some sense lost at the fall, but it is renewed in redemption, Colossians 3:9-10. Human nature disordered was by loss of image. This was the typical view of both the Reformers and medievals such as Aquinas.

2. Loss of the image left human nature entire, in a state of "pure nature". This was the later Roman Catholic view, but was opposed by Augustinian Jansenists such as Paschal.

The Westminster Confession speaks of the "light of nature". Natural law is not on a track that is independent of revelation, but by the light of nature all human beings, have a sense of right and wrong. Loss of the image in the fall has to be qualified by Genesis 9:6 and James 3:9. Nevertheless, even if the image is not totally lost in the fall, the image as distorted by sin is restored in Christ.

Reformed attitudes towards the natural


His Christocentric approach left no room for natural theology. Witness his "Nien!" to Brunner's proposals on natural theology.


After the French revolution Western culture became overtly anti-God. In Kuyper's world and life view  there is an antithesis between Christianity and culture. The idea of "pure nature" is an aberration.

Van Til

Natural theology means autonomy from God and is Arminian.


The fall did not erase the knowledge of God, who reveals himself in both general and special revelation. Each human being has a sense of God. But the sensus divinitatis, perverted in false religion, still exists in every human heart. The light of nature is spoilt by sin, but it is not erased.

There is the earthly kingdom of this life and the kingdom of God. In the earthly kingdom, we have civil order and gifts of common grace such as the arts and sciences. The earthly kingdom has to do with temporal matters and the kingdom of God with eternal realities. The Christian lives in the kingdom of this world, subject to God's providential care, but he belongs to the heavenly kingdom. The Christian benefits from the gifts of common grace bestowed by God upon all humanity; music, medicine, maths, logical argumentation etc. In accordance with his negative view of nature, Kuyper set up Christian Universities in Holland and led the Christian Anti-Revolutionary Party. But there is no need for "Christian maths". For believer and unbeliever alike, 1 + 1 = 2. There can be no such thing as "the Christian view of politics", as politics belongs to the earthly kingdom, which is governed by the light of nature. 

Amongst other things, a retrieval of Calvin's theology of nature will help to prevent believers ghettoising themselves by, if possible, solely using  educational services, enjoying arts and studying sciences that are explicitly Christian in orientation. While only the special grace of God can save us and fit us for the heavenly kingdom, we have cause to be grateful for the rich gifts of common grace and the light of nature, which still shines in the heart of every human being.


Emerson Fast said...

That last paragraph is particularly intriguing. The more I read Karl Barth, the more I come to sense his profound interaction and admiration of culture. From the philosophy of Sartre to the poems of Goethe to the music of Mozart, he enjoyed the world about him.

Seems a little bit odd to think that being opposed to natural theology would prevent one from appreciating the society he was brought up in.

Exiled Preacher said...

In the final paragraph I was thinking of traditional evangelicalism rather than KB.