Skip to content

The Light of Nature and the Knowledge of God

Stephen Charnock on Natural Theology

In my Christian life, one of the most important insights in repenting of sin is to see how my various sins are all traced back to atheism in one form or another. In order to fully repent, I must understand the sin for which I am repenting. This is what David said in Psalm 51, “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest.” And this is an insight that Stephen Charnock’s The Existence and Attributes of God helps expound to us. Because he explains how we know God through His works by reason, Charnock is able to show how our failure to know God as we should (atheism) is the cause of other sins.

The Laws of Thought

Arguably the most crucial subject that remains ambiguous for Reformed theologians is “reason.” Confusions and disagreements abound concerning the nature of reason and its pre- and post-lapsarian operation in man and the relationship between reason and soteriology. It also remains unclear how reason relates to man’s highest good. What is the beatific vision, and how does it relate to the use of reason to know God through his works?

During the Reformation, the emphasis was on soteriology and the ordo salutis. This meant that the answer to “How do you know God” was cast in soteriological categories: you must be elect and regenerated to know God. After the fall, men are alienated from God and can do nothing on their own to be reconciled to God. Post-Reformation challenges called this entire narrative into question. Theologians influenced by the Scottish Reformation, such as those at Old School Princeton, defended the Reformed view by arguing that there is a clear general revelation of God’s eternal power and divine nature knowable by reason. However, VanTillians replied that in their fallen condition, mankind could not use reason to understand general revelation, and Plantingians argued that men know God because God made men to know Him. Little progress has been made about reason.

Classically, reason is called the laws of thought. These laws, such as identity and non-contradiction, make thought and meaning possible. Click To Tweet Nevertheless, Stephen Charnock gave us the tools to solve these problems and understand the role of reason in the life of man. Reason in itself is a law by which man makes distinctions such as “good” and “evil.” Classically, reason is called the laws of thought. These laws, such as identity and non-contradiction, make thought and meaning possible. We distinguish “God” from “not God,” and “good” from “not good.” Charnock tells us that without such laws we could not know good and evil and, therefore, could not sin.

It hardly needs to be stated that the existence and nature of God is the central concern of all religion. Charnock calls it the foundation: “The existence of God is the foundation of all religion. The whole building totters if the foundation be out of course: if we have not deliberate and right notions of it, we shall perform no worship, no service, yield no affection to him.”  The idea of a foundation is important. The foundation consists in the basic truths on which all else rests. The other truths presuppose truths about God, and our knowledge of God presupposes our rationality and God’s revelation. We can glean from this that as we study the various religious and philosophical systems, we begin by looking at their foundation. What do they say is eternal? Charnock gives arguments to show both that only God is eternal and also to demonstrate the nature of God. These arguments are examples of using reason to know God. Such arguments show us that reason applies to God as well as to the creation. Charnock explains reason as a law this way:

Man in the first instant of the use of reason, finds natural principles within himself; directing and choosing them, he finds a distinction between good and evil; how could this be if there were not some rule in him to try and distinguish good and evil? If there was not such a law and rule in man, he could not sin; for where there is no law there is no transgression. If man were a law to himself, and his own will his law, there could be no such thing as evil; whatsoever he willed, would be good and agreeable to the law, and no action could be accounted sinful; the worst act would be as commendable as the best. And this is universal, the same in one man as in another, the same in one nation as in another; they are born in every man, and inseparable from his nature.

Reason is natural in man. It is the same in all. And the use of reason is the source of man’s greatest good in knowing the glory of God.

General and Special Revelation

If there is no natural revelation, there can be no sin. And if there is no sin then there is no need for redemption. Click To Tweet Charnock gives us the relationship between general and special revelation. The redemptive message of Scripture presupposes general revelation in the creation. If there is no natural revelation, there can be no sin. And if there is no sin then there is no need for redemption. Thus, while natural revelation does not provide the means of redemption, it does point to the need of redemption and redemptive revelation. He explains the relationship between faith and reason this way:

God in regard of his existence is not only the discovery of faith, but of reason. God hath revealed not only his being, but some sparks of his eternal power and godhead in his works, as well as in his word (Rom. i. 19,20), “God hath showed it unto them,”–how? In his works; by the things that are made, it is a discovery to our reason, as shining in the creatures; and an object of our faith as breaking out upon us in the Scriptures: it is an article of our faith, and an article of our reason. Faith supposeth natural knowledge, as grace supposeth nature. Faith indeed is properly of things above reason, purely depending upon revelation. What can be demonstrated by natural light, is not so properly an object of faith.

The failure to use reason is the root of the failure to know God. It is the root of all other sins. Charnock explains that behind all sin is atheism. Atheism is due to the denial of reason as the laws of thought in us. And then, he shows how the various sins are all related back to atheism:

All sin is founded in a secret atheism. Atheism is the spirit of every sin; all the floods of impieties in the world break in at the gate of a secret atheism . . . In sins of omission we own not God, in neglecting to perform what he enjoins; in sins of commission we set up some lust in the place of God, and pay to that the homage which is due to our Maker. In both we disown him . . . We deny his sovereignty when we violate his laws; we disgrace his holiness when we cast our filth before his face; we disparage his wisdom when we set up another rule as the guide of our actions than that law he hath fixed; we slight his sufficiency when we prefer a satisfaction in sin before a happiness in him alone; and his goodness, when we judge it not strong enough to attract us to him.

Charnock grounds his understanding of reason and general revelation in Scripture and contrasts it with heretics like the Socinians. If there is no general revelation, there can be no knowledge by which man needs redemption. He says,

I have spoken the more of this place, because the Socinians use this to decry the natural knowledge of God, and that the existence of God is only to be known by revelation, so that by reason any one that lived without Scripture hath no ground to believe the being of a God. The Scripture ascribes a knowledge of God to all nations in the world (Rom. i.19); not only a faculty of knowing, if they had arguments and demonstrations, as an ignorant man in any art hath a faculty to know; but it ascribes an actual knowledge (ver. 10) “manifest to them;” (ver. 21) “Thy knew God;” not they might know him; they knew him when they did not care for knowing him. The notions of God are as intelligible to us by reason, as any object in the world is visible; he is written in every letter.

Charnock often recalls our minds to Romans 1:18-21. This verse has, oddly enough, been used to deny the need to study general revelation and what it reveals about the glory of God. Some read it as saying that everyone already knows God. This view claims that “suppression” means they know God but won’t admit it. This reading contradicts Charnock’s quotes from the Psalms which say that none seek or understand (Ps 14). Instead, we are to use reason to discover what is clearly revealed in nature about God. They knew God but did not retain this knowledge. They exchanged it for idolatry and did not worship God. They then suppress the truths of God by replacing them with lies (which they believe are true) and working to keep the truths of God from being known.

Charnock sees in Romans 1:18-21 the foundational truth about culpable ignorance. No one can deny the creation. It is seen by all. All humans acknowledge the sun, the earth, and the creatures. And yet, while having these, they neglect the revelation of God and do not seek to know Him. They are defined by a culpable ignorance:

The apostle doth not say, the invisible things of God are believed, or they have an opinion of them, but they are seen, and clearly seen. They are like crystal glasses, which give a clear representation of the existence of a Deity, like that mirror, reported to be in a temple in Arcadia, which represented to the spectator, not his own face, but the image of that deity which he worshipped. The whole world is like a looking-glass, which, whole and entire, represents the image of God, and every broken piece of it, every little shred of a creature doth the like; not only the great ones, elephants and the leviathan, but ants, flies, worms, whose bodies rather than names we know: the greater cattle and the creeping things (Gen. i. 24); not naming there any intermediate creature, to direct us to view him in the smaller letters, as well as the greater characters of the world. His name is “glorious,” and his attributes are excellent “in all the earth;” in every creature, as the glory of the sun is in every beam and smaller flash; he is seen in every insect, in every spire of grass. The voice of the Creator is in the most contemptible creature. The apostle adds, that they are so clearly seen, that men are inexcusable if they have not some knowledge of God by them.

The Idea of Eternity

What about the innate knowledge of God? Is not eternity written on our hearts? While all persons begin in unbelief after the fall, it is also true that all persons have the idea of eternity. Given our finitude and our rebellion, this is a surprising truth. And yet when we survey the religions and philosophies of the world, we find that all of them have the idea of eternity and attempt to offer their own explanations. This does not mean that all humans have the idea of God as defined above by Charnock (or WSC4). God the Lord is knowable from general revelation, not merely as an uncasued cause of Greek Dualism or the absolute being of pantheism. Thus, the truth that all humans have the innate idea of eternity also leads us to the truth that all humans begin in the sin of unbelief and need redemption. They attribute eternity to something other than, or in addition to, God. General revelation reveals not only God but also our own sin and death. God the Lord is clearly revealed to all.  Charnock says,

The apostle resolves it (Rom. i. 19,20), “The invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood from the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.” They know of, or might know, by the things that were made, the eternity and power of God . . . The apostle doth not say, the invisible things of God are believed, or they have an opinion of them, but they are seen, and clearly seen. They are like crystal glasses, which give a clear representation of the existence of a Deity . . . The whole world is like a looking-glass, which, whole and entire, represents the image of God, and every broken piece of it, every little shred of a creature doth the like . . . Where Scripture was not revealed, the world served for a witness of a God; whatever arguments the Scripture uses to prove it, are drawn from nature (though, indeed, it doth not so much prove as suppose the existence of a God).

Even those who say of themselves that they are living a life of wisdom and reason are held responsible for knowing God. The best of the philosophers, working in the tradition of Plato and Aristotle, were guilty of not knowing God the Lord clearly revealed to them.

And among the philosophers of Athens (Acts xvil, 27, 29), such arguments the Holy Ghost in the apostles thought sufficient to convince men of the existence, unity, spirituality, and patience of God. Such arguments had not been used by them and the prophets from the visible things in the world to silence the Gentiles with whom they dealt, had not this truth, and much more about God, been demonstrable by natural reason: they knew well enough that probable arguments would not satisfy piercing and inquisitive minds.

The folly of atheism is evidenced by the light of reason. Click To Tweet Our knowledge of God is mediated through reason and argument and inferred by reason and argument. Demonstrating such arguments is one of Charnock’s distinctive contributions. “I shall further premise this, That the folly of atheism is evidenced by the light of reason. . . There is a natural as well as a revealed knowledge, and the book of the creatures is legible in declaring the being of a God, as well as the Scriptures are in declaring the nature of a God; there are outward objects in the world, and common principles in the conscience, whence it may be inferred.” We know God by his works rather than by denying his works, as if we can comprehend the divine essence itself. The knowledge of God is mediated to us through His works, and we infer from those works truths about God. We use reason to form arguments that give us the knowledge of God. In this, there is no tension between faith and reason.

All of this is found in Job, which was the inspiration for my own A Philosophical Commentary on Job. There we find God directing Job’s attention to the creation in great detail. When God questions  Job, it is about general revelation. Charnock says: “In Paul’s account, the testimony of the creatures was without contradiction. God himself justifies this way of proceeding by his own example, and remits Job to the consideration of the creatures, to spell out something of his divine perfections.”

Although God is clearly revealed to all, there is still atheism behind every sin. Charnock goes so far as to say that after the fall we are all atheists in heart and try to hide it. This atheism is a denial of God the Lord and can come in various forms, such as Materialism, Greek Dualism, or Pantheism. Each of these denies what is clear and ends up in folly. Upon knowing God, we should worship God, but instead, we are in folly and do not praise the glory of God. We neglect the “chiefest dictate of reason” by neglecting to worship God. Our highest good is to know God the Lord who is revealed in all of His works.

What is the conclusion of the matter? It is to know God in all that by which He makes Himself known. This is our chief end or highest good.

Study God in the creatures as well as in the Scriptures. The primary use of the creatures, is to acknowledge God in them; they were made to be witnesses of himself in his goodness, and heralds of his glory, which glory of God as Creator “shall endure forever . . . The world is a sacred temple; man is introduced to contemplate it, and behold with praise the glory of God in the pieces of his art. As grace does not destroy nature, so the book of redemption blots not out that of creation. Had he not shown himself in his creatures, he could never have shown himself in his Christ; the order of things required it.

Owen Anderson

Dr. Owen Anderson is professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Arizona State University, and serves as adjunct faculty at Phoenix Seminary. He has been a visiting scholar at Princeton Seminary, as well as a fellow at both Princeton University and University of Colorado, Boulder. He is the author of several books, including The Natural Moral Law: The Good After Modernity (Cambridge University Press, 2012), The Declaration of Independence and God: Self-Evident Truths in American Law (Cambridge University Press, 2015), and Job: A Philosophical Commentary (Logos Papers Press, 2021). Dr. Anderson holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Arizona State University.

Back to Top