The Light of Nature

The Light of Nature

Written by J.V. Fesko |
Tuesday, February 14, 2023

The light of nature denotes three things: (1) natural law, (2) human reason, and (3) God’s natural revelation in creation. In short, the light of nature denotes the book or order of nature written and designed by God—an important tool in defending the Christian faith, a tool forgotten by many in contemporary Reformed theology but regularly used by early modern Reformed theologians.

The Westminster Confession (1647) begins with the statement “Although the light of Nature, and the works of Creation and Providence do so farre manifest the Goodnesse, Wisdome, and Power of God, as to leave men unexcusable yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God and of his Will, which is necessary unto salvation” (1.1). What precisely do the divines intend by the term light of nature? One recent commentary on the Confession claims that the opening statement refers to one of two categories, namely, general and special revelation, or the books of nature and Scripture, and only briefly touches on the issue of humanity’s natural understanding of the book of nature. Two other commentaries bypass the statement altogether and deal entirely with Scripture as special revelation. Older nineteenth-century commentaries, however, devote more attention to the issue of the light of nature and explain it by the claim “God may be discovered by the light of nature, we mean that the senses and the reasoning powers, which belong to the nature of man, are able to give him so much light as to manifest that there is a God.” In line with this older trend, the most recent commentary on the Confession, written by Chad Van Dixhoorn, rightly notes that it begins with the doctrine of Scripture, but the first sentence deals with a different subject: the light of nature. Moreover, this commentary also explains the character of this concept: “There is the ‘light of nature,’ by which is meant the divine imprint which is left on each of us by our Maker. That is, we are made in God’s image and even though we are fallen creatures, God’s image remains stamped upon us. And there are ‘the works of creation and providence.’ The world that we see and the world about which we read tell us of our Creator and Provider.”

But even though Van Dixhoorn’s analysis is correct, he only touches on the character of the light of nature. Namely, general revelation includes both the knowledge connected to the divine image and the works of creation and providence. He correctly acknowledges that the divines were following the apostle Paul’s arguments in Romans 1 and 2 and statements from the psalmist (Ps. 19). But Van Dixhoorn then concludes, “In those chapters the apostle both reminds us of this general revelation and tells us that it leaves every person without an excuse before God. For this reason, both in our evangelism and in our defence of the faith, we should always remember that Christians should never be trying to prove the existence of God to unbelievers. We are reminding unbelievers of what they already know.” Van Dixhoorn’s explanation of the Confession is generally true, but his analysis of its meaning and implication deserves deeper and more precise investigation.

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