Turretin, Natural Theology, and the Knowledge of God

Before proceeding to consider Turretin, I want to draw your attention to a theological problem I have long mused over. In the first chapter of Paul’s epistle to the Romans, wherein he describes the status of the presumably gentile world, he states that God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness “suppress the truth.” The apostle goes on to state that the knowledge of God is “clear to them” because He has revealed it to them, “in the things that have been made.” Paul then reiterates his initial point about the heinousness of men; they knew God, but did not honor him as God. They chose instead to exchange His glory and worship the creation instead of the Creator. Therefore, God chose to hand them over to all manner of worthlessness, including a debased mind. 

The second chapter of Romans contains a condemnation of “every one of you who judges.” This refers, seemingly, to Jewish possessers of the law. Paul reiterates that God will judge each man according to his works (both Jew and Gentile) without partiality. Indeed, Gentiles without the law and Jews with the law will all perish if they sin: “For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (2:12-13). Then he goes on to make his famous statement which is pertinent to our purposes here. He says that when Gentiles who do not have the law by nature do what they law requires, “they are a law to themselves…” They show that the work of the law is “written on their hearts…” (2:15) In other words, just as the Israelites received the moral law of God in the ten commandments, externally, upon stone; so too does humanity, as humanity, receive the “work of the law” inscribed on their hearts in creation (footnote 1). 

In summing up my examination of Paul, there are three phenomena which work toward our overall doctrine of knowledge as derived from Romans 1 and 2 (our doctrine of “Epistemology” – the word episteme means knowledge). In the first (1), there is a universally given external revelation from God “in the things that have been made.” According to this text, God reveals himself to human beings through the birds, the bees, the rocks, and the trees in a way such that, from the beginning of the world, he, pertaining to his existence and power, has been “clearly perceived.” In the second (2), there is a particular focus in the second chapter on the instantiation of the moral law of God on all of humanity – the work of the “law of God” is written onto their hearts. Human beings are morally conscious, and thus conscious of God the giver of the law to whom they’re accountable. And (3) man in sin is a suppressor of the truth of the knowledge of God. And thus, the expression of (1), (2), and (3) together results in various degrees of idolatry. Religious idolatry is the sum compilation of (1), (2), and (3) differing according to various factors of context (which will be discussed below). 

The question(s) I have for the text (which I hope Turretin will help answer), are (1) how do we account for the different expressions, historically, of theological suppression? Some men are pagans, others are Deists, others are Atheists, some agnostics; what accounts for the differences and are they honest differences? How can they all know the one true God and yet furnish religious conceptions in so many different ways? To state it another way, what do we do with the seeming contradiction between Romans 1 and the history of religious experience. Romans 1 says that men “clearly” perceive the existence and power of the God of Christianity, whereas the history of religious experience seems to indicate that humanity has an inward religious sense which expresses itself in a myriad of different ways? If the revelation is so clear and perspicuous, why are there so many different religious expressions? Wouldn’t they be uniform, given a uniformly given natural law and external revelation in the cosmos? And (2) What is the nature of the knowledge of man regarding God in natural theology? Is it innate? Is it acquired? Is he born with it? Does he know it intuitively? Does he know it through rational analysis? Is what Paul refers to here as “knowledge” what Aristotle would call knowledge (that which is received by rational reasoning)? Or is it more like what Calvin called the implanted sense of the divine (semen religionis)? In other words, what is our epistemology of divinity as we consider post-fall humanity, particularly with regard to the depth of their knowledge of God – especially given the seemingly manifold different expressions of man’s religiousness in history? In order to attempt an answer at these problems, we’ll now enter into Turretin’s doctrine of Natural Theology derived from section I: Theology, question 3, pgs. 6-9.

Turretin on Natural Theology

The third question of Turretin’s Institutes is “Whether a natural theology may be granted.” He begins by specifying that the natural theology he inquires about is not that of Adam before the fall, but as it remains in humanity after the fall. He further specifies that his question is not whether man is born with innate knowledge, “For it is certain that no actual knowledge is born with us and that, in this respect, man is like a smooth tablet (tabulae rasa).” Rather than speaking of fully formed knowledge in infants, Turretin inquires about the universal knowledge of God which is acquired by relatively healthy rational adults.. Turretin maintains that this universal knowledge among rational adults, via general revelation, is a reality. This is what he means when he maintains that there is a “natural theology” – men are in possession of knowledge (footnote 2). Thus he maintains a strong natural theology – a theology based upon the universal revelation of God in creation.  

Like the tradition before him, he affirms that this natural theology is not “perfect” or “saving.” Rather, it is “obscure” as to the nature of the knowledge and “insufficient” as to salvation. Positively, though, as to man, the natural theology is sufficient to, “…lead him to believe that God exists and must be religiously worshiped.” Indeed, Turretin’s qualm is with a group of unorthodox theologians called “Socinians” who refer the seemingly universal knowledge of God to the initial revelation which God gave to Adam and subsequent revelations of himself in history, which are passed down by tradition and merely “appear” to be naturally revealed. In other words, the Socinians “traditionalized” the knowledge of God – they said that we only believe it because someone “told us” about it – and thus they rejected a natural theology revealed by God, generally, through the created order. 

Turretin rebuts this doctrine with the statement that, “The Orthodox, on the contrary, 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)” (pg. 6).  In other words, there is knowledge of God derived from our “moral consciousness” and there is knowledge of God derived through reasoning about what we see with our eyes in experience (including the moral constitution of humans in the world). 

For Turretin, this law of God written on the heart of man expresses itself in what we observe in the world and also in our own consciousness. He argues that Paul’s words would not make sense if “…conscience did not dictate to each one that there is a deity who approves of good actions and disapproves and punishes evil deeds” (Pg. 7). In other words, moral consciousness implies God consciousness because the law which is “inscribed” on the heart of man is the law of God. It is not some bare law, but a law which is given by the particular lawgiver: the Lord of the cosmos. 

Turretin’s next section is absolutely pertinent for our purposes: he posits that the mind of man is not a blank slate absolutely but only with regard to fully formed rational, conscious knowledge (drawn by deductions – what Aristotle would call knowledge). It’s not as though man has, in his mind at birth, clear and distinct ideas fit with rational arguments for why to believe them – no. Rather, man has at birth an apprehensive and intuitive knowledge; he is, as it were, fashioned in such a way as to naturally come to believe in God consciously. Yet man, in Romans 1, is also a fallen being who is simultaneously affected by the law of sin. Turretin writes, “Hence is a twofold inscription upon the heart of man: the one of God in remains of his image and the natural law; the other of the devil by sin” (Pg. 9). 

To my mind, this is why Turretin posits that natural knowledge of God is both ever present, but ever obscure. Man is constantly a division between two principles contained within his nature: he has remnants of the image of God and the knowledge of God and he is a sinner who seeks everywhere to distort and suppress that knowledge. This internal and universal enmity is part of the answer to the problem of the plurality of religious opinions. 

Turretin next answers the question as to why some men have a more fully formed natural theology than others. He writes, “What is natural, subjectively and constitutively, always exists in the same manner, but not what is such qualitatively and consecutively (for qualities admit of increase and dimunition). Natural theology is so called not in the first, but in the second sense. Hence it is not surprising that it should vary as to degree in relation to its subjects, who differ in intellectual acumen.” To state this plainly, according to Turretin, one of the reasons as to the myriad of differences pertaining to individuals relative the extent of their natural theological knowledge is directly related to the inequality of intelligence among the human race. Some men are smarter than others and their intelligence effects their formulations.

Answering the Questions

So, given that the general revelation of God is clear (in his giving of it) and universal, how do we account for the many different manifestations of theological conceptions through the history of religious experience? In the first, Turretin noted that man is, in his constitution, at war with himself – he has the principles of divinity and the principle of sin in his one person. Thus, due to this suppression of his lying nature, he expresses his “religiousness” in a variety of distorted ways. If God wills to grant an individual more common grace, that individual may be more honest in his formulation of the nature of God. Thus, his moral grace influences his theological expression. Some men have more grace, thus some men are more honest (this, in part, answers to the question of plurality). Secondly, the nature of the institutions he’s interacting with affect an individuals conception of God. If one is raised in a fundamentalist Islamic context, the likelihood that he conceives of God, externally and consciously, in an Islamic manner, is high. Finally, his own intellectual ability will affect the strength of his natural theology. If he is not apt in deduction, how will he produce an Aristotelian form of knowledge? He won’t. And so these three: morality, intellectual acumen, and institutional exposure provide a sufficient explanation for the great plurality of religious expressions in the history of mankind. Natural theological knowledge is therefore obscure and varied not because of the clarity of God who gave it, but because of the corruption of our lying nature, our own intellectual incapacities, and our tendency to believe other men who are also liars. 

Secondly, what is the nature of the knowledge of God which man attains of God through the created order? Well, I believe Turretin provides a persuasive account of knowledge when he states that the mind of man is a not a blank slate absolutely. Rather, he is created such as to have an apprehensive and intuitive knowledge of God. He has a “God consciousness,” a seed of the divine. And though there are “barren seeds” in the history of religious experience which seem to admit of no doctrine of God, this is due to their reflexive suppression, not to the clarity of the revelation of God. Thus in a true sense they know “deep down” of God, and are held accountable for that knowledge and it’s suppression. Though differing in degrees, man can come to an experiential, logical, and explicative doctrine of the God whom he intuitively knows by nature and has therefore the potential to draw out, logically, a fully formed natural theology. 

To state my whole point in a different way and in a word: Man in sin is born with two principles at the core of his being: the one of the intuitive and apprehensive knowledge of God. The other is that of sin. This results in the attempted suppression of the knowledge of God. The result of this internal enmity in the history of religious experience is a myriad of formulations regarding the nature and existence of God. These different conceptions are directly related to the morality, intellectual acumen, and institutional experience of the subject or society making the claims about divinity and also their relative success in the suppression of the divinity, the seeds of which they possess in the deepest recesses of their being. 


(1) I understand that there is a different interpretation of Romans 2 from New Testament scholars today and that, accordingly, it is the popular interpretation of today even though it is an unpopular opinion given Reformed exegetes in history past. I write this footnote only to let the reader know that there is a significant disagreement and he would do well to study that disagreement in order to know whether or not he believes in the universal, inward, divinely instantiated law of God on the heart of humanity as humanity. Neither Turretin nor I are infallible and in cases of serious disagreement it is the right thing to let others know that said disagreement exists!


(2) Turretin’s conception of natural theology as the possession of knowledge of God may differ a bit from more contemporary conceptions of natural theology. Some tend to make natural theology a theology of what can be rationally explicated regarding God apart from divine revelation. I think Turretin would agree that this knowledge is knowledge independent of specially divine revelation. I’m not sure he would agree that the only form of knowledge that natural theology considers is that which is “rationally explicated.” 

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