Eikon is a journal of biblical anthropology. This means, among other things, that Eikon is fundamentally written by and for Bible people, to those who are committed to the Reformational principle of sola Scriptura. In his excellent introduction to this doctrine, Matthew Barrett argues that sola Scriptura means that Scripture alone, because it is God’s inspired Word, is our inerrant, sufficient, and final authority.¹
Scripture is inspired by God. It is, in Paul’s words, God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16). What Scripture says, God says. And because Scripture is God-breathed, it is inerrant. It is true and trustworthy in all that it affirms. It is without error or fault in all its teachings.
What’s more, because Scripture is God-breathed, it is sufficient. The Westminster Confession of Faith expresses the sufficiency of Scripture in this way: “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.” The last line about “good and necessary consequence” enables us to reason from Scripture to doctrines like the Trinity, or the hypostatic union of Christ’s two natures, which are not expressly set down in Scripture, but are taught by Scripture. Finally, sola Scriptura means that Scripture alone is our final authority. It is not our only authority. Scripture nowhere claims to be the Christian’s only authority. But, as the inspired Word of God, it is the ultimate authority on all matters upon which it speaks. Here’s the way that the Bethlehem Elder Affirmation of Faith says it:
We believe that God’s intentions, revealed in the Bible, are the supreme and final authority in testing all claims about what is true and what is right. In matters not addressed by the Bible, what is true and right is assessed by criteria consistent with the teachings of Scripture.²
Scripture doesn’t speak directly to every area of reality. It doesn’t speak exhaustively about many of the things that it does address. But in these areas, it still functions as a final authority by establishing the parameters within which we must do our thinking about what is true and right.
During the Reformation, sola Scriptura was forged in conflict over the relationship of Scriptural authority to the church’s authority, expressed in the tradition of the church and in the Roman Catholic magisterium. Luther’s famous quotation at the Diet of Worms expresses the Reformational principle clearly.
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in the councils alone, since it is well known that they err and contradict themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God.³
Popes, councils, and creeds may speak truth. But they do not speak only truth. They are not inerrant. They may have authority, but they are not final authorities. Tradition has a ministerial authority as a servant of Scripture, but it does not have a magisterial authority alongside Scripture as a second infallible and inerrant source of divine revelation. In this way, tradition and councils are useful, but they are not necessary for us and our salvation in the way that Scripture is. Scripture alone, as the inspired Word of God, is our inerrant, sufficient, and final authority.
Now, while this doctrine was forged in conflict with Rome over the authority of the pope and councils, in this essay I want to explore the relationship between Scripture and another authority—the authority of nature. To do so, we need to reflect upon the passage of Scripture which sets these two authorities next to one another most clearly—Psalm 19.
The psalm begins with a celebration of God’s glory as revealed in nature—in the heavens (v. 1), in the sun’s course across the sky (v. 4, 6), in the similarities between the sun and a warrior and a bridegroom (v. 5). This revelation has gone out to the entire world so that there is no place where God’s revelation is not heard (vv. 2–4). We call this general or natural revelation. Creation itself is revelatory, and this revelation is not sporadic, occasional, or limited to one segment of creation. Rather, God’s revelation of himself in creation is pervasive and constant. As C.S. Lewis said, “We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito.”⁴
The celebration of general revelation then moves to a celebration of special revelation—the Word of God, the law of the Lord, which revives the soul, makes us wise, delights our hearts, enlightens us, and endures for us (vv. 7–11). So general revelation is God’s revelation of himself in creating, sustaining, and governing the world. And special revelation is God’s particular revelation through the inerrant and inspired Scriptures. Reflect with me on the relationship between these two forms of revelation.
1. General revelation is the first and foundational revelation upon which all subsequent revelation is built. Special revelation is “special” because it presupposes the existence of general revelation.
2. General revelation has an ontological and epistemological priority over Scripture.⁵ The existence of created reality and experiential knowledge of created reality are both necessary in order for Scripture to be intelligible. For example, “the heavens declare the glory of God” is unintelligible apart from the existence of the heavens (ontological priority) and our knowledge of the nature and existence of heavens (epistemological priority). Psalm 19, as special revelation, doesn’t mean anything unless the sun blazes up out of the east and moves across the sky, and we’ve seen it do so.
3. Special revelation has linguistic priority over general revelation.⁶ The Scriptures, because they use human words, are more direct and therefore more intelligible to us than the revelation of God in nature. In saying that Scripture has a linguistic priority, we are not saying that nature is obscure or unclear. It is clear. The heavens clearly declare the glory of God. Paul tells us that “what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived ever since the creation of the world in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:19-20). The obscurity we may feel about what God is declaring in nature is owing first to the way that God reveals himself in nature. God doesn’t issue direct, linguistic commands through nature. Instead, he creates a natural order that is designed, that has purposes, trends, trajectories. All of creation is governed by God’s fixed and established laws and principles. Then, human beings, through the use of their minds, reflect on this fixed natural order and its trends and trajectories and draw conclusions which they express in human language. So general revelation includes both the fixed natural order as well as human minds to discern and express the import and implications of that order. But that process takes time and effort and maturity, and therefore, Scripture, by giving us God’s revelation in human language, is more direct, even if both Scripture and nature are clear.
Let me illustrate through Jesus’ words about anxiety in Matthew 6. Jesus doesn’t want us to be anxious, so he exhorts us to “consider the birds of the air,” how God provides for their basic needs despite their lack of barns (Matt. 6:26-27). The birds of the air are crystal clear in their witness to God’s provision. But it takes time and effort and maturity to stop and think about the birds and how their needs are met, and how valuable we are relative to them, and to therefore, draw the conclusion that God will provide for us, and to therefore draw the conclusion that we ought not be anxious. It’s all there in nature, in general revelation, but it remains obscure because of our immaturity and creatureliness.
4. Not only does Scripture have a linguistic priority over general revelation owing to our relative immaturity and creatureliness, it has a redemptive priority owing to our sinfulness.⁷ The obscurity of general revelation which we experience is not only owing to the fact that it takes time, effort, and maturity to comprehend God’s revelation in nature; it’s also owing to the Fall. Because of our truth-suppressing rebellion, in our natural state we are deaf to God’s voice and blind to his beauty. Again, Romans 1: even though we know God (through nature), we suppress what we know and we refuse to honor God as God and give thanks to him (Rom. 1:21). The Holy Spirit restores man’s sight through the new birth by means of special revelation. Or, in the words of Psalm 19, it is the law of the Lord which revives the soul and enlightens the eye. Thus, special revelation has both a linguistic priority and a redemptive priority in giving us knowledge of God.
5. Both general and special revelation are sufficient, but for different things. General revelation is sufficient to condemn us. The authority and clarity of general revelation leaves us without excuse. But it is not sufficient to save us. Only special revelation is sufficient to save, since through it alone, God causes the new birth. He has caused us to be born again through the living and abiding Word of God (1 Pet. 1:23).
6. Thus, Scripture and nature are mutually interpreting for each other. They are mutually meaningless without each other and mutually fruitful with each other. You can’t understand the Bible rightly without some general revelation. You can’t understand nature rightly without the illumination of the Bible. Again Psalm 19 illustrates this point. “More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold. Sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb” (Ps. 19:10). You can’t know the meaning of that verse unless gold and honey exist, and you’ve experienced a desire for gold and the sweetness of honey. And you can’t experientially make the connection between desiring the Word of God more than gold and honey unless God causes you to be born again through special revelation.
In sum, in Scripture and nature, God speaks with one voice. Both general revelation and natural revelation are necessary for us. They are authoritative, clear, and sufficient for different purposes. One is sufficient to condemn. The other is sufficient to save. But they both work together to give us true knowledge of our Creator and Redeemer.
Natural Revelation and Natural Law
I’ve written a book trying to outline how general and special revelation work together in the Christian life.⁸ In this essay, I want to briefly talk about the importance of rightly coordinating nature and Scripture in our ethics and discipleship. In particular, I want to commend the need for a robust understanding of natural law and its proper relationship to Scripture.⁹ Often, when people commend natural law, they do so for what they perceive to be its apologetic value. They think, “Modern people reject the Bible, so let’s use natural law arguments in our reasoning in the public square.” And while there may be truth in this use of natural law, in this essay I’m not commending natural law because of its potential persuasive power in a post-Christian society. Instead, I want to commend its necessity for Christian discipleship. Let me begin with a quotation from Chesterton about the nature of insanity.
There is such a thing as a narrow universality; there is such a thing as a small and cramped eternity; you may see it in many modern religions. Now, speaking quite externally and empirically, we may say that the strongest and most unmistakable mark of madness is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction. The lunatic’s theory explains a large number of things, but it does not explain them in a large way. I mean that if you or I were dealing with a mind that was growing morbid, we should be chiefly concerned not so much to give it arguments as to give it air, to convince it that there was something cleaner and cooler outside the suffocation of a single argument.¹
One of the real dangers in exalting the authority and sufficiency of Scripture is that we would fall into a cramped and narrow sufficiency, a spiritually contracted biblical authority. There is a real danger that we would appeal to Scripture to explain a large number of things, but our appeal would not explain them in a large way. In other words, as those who wish to commend a vision of biblical anthropology, it’s important that we not only exalt the authority of Scripture, but that we also give it air. And a robust understanding of general revelation and natural law can give it that air.
Let me get concrete. Often in our moral reasoning, we attempt to ground our ethical teaching in the gospel. We rightly believe that the grace of God in the gospel of Jesus is incomparably relevant to our understanding of ethics and morality. So we lift up the spiritual mystery of marriage—that it is a picture of Christ and the church. However, there are ways of exalting the spiritual meaning of marriage that unintentionally lose sight of the natural meaning of marriage, and thereby hamper, not just Christian apologetics, but Christian discipleship and formation. Sometimes we seek to ground our ethics and obedience in the gospel, not because of our confidence in God’s power, authority, and goodness, but because of our own insecurity. We do so because we think we’re losing the argument in the church or in the wider culture, and therefore we resort to gospel roots as a last-ditch effort to salvage the truth. We’re like the pastor who wrote in the margin of his sermon manuscript, “Argument weak, shout here.” For my own part, I sometimes think that I pick up this retreat-to-gospel-centeredness or insecure-appeal-to-biblical-authority in arguments from complementarians. And I recognize them because I feel this sort of insecurity myself. I think (though I don’t know) that I detect it (or, this kind of argumentation) in others because I’m alert to it in myself.
When we do this, when we adopt a narrow and cramped sufficiency, or an insecure appeal to the gospel—one that is subtly divorced from a robust understanding of God’s revelation in nature—we unwittingly buy into the social constructivism that is the hallmark of modern ethical reasoning. Modern people—whether they have thought through it or not—believe that reality is fundamentally plastic and malleable.¹¹ It’s like play-dough. And they claim that Christians or conservatives or the patriarchy have, in the past, molded the play-dough of reality in an oppressive and self-serving way, and now they want to free people to mold reality in whatever way they choose. We ought to be free to construct our identity and our sexuality. And this way of thinking about malleable reality is so pervasive that even faithful Christians can be subtly catechized into it. We begin to think that ethical reasoning is a fight for who controls the play-dough. Sexual progressives want to mold it in a progressive way. Christian egalitarians want to mold it in an egalitarian way. And we, as conservative evangelicals, want to mold reality in a biblical or complementarian way. But the unstated and implicit assumption is that reality is play-dough. And the insecurity comes because we think we’re losing the fight for control of the play-dough.
And this is where a robust understanding of natural law and its proper relationship to Scripture is so important, and where my argument that Scripture speaks with “one voice” all the more important. Christians might live within divided ages, but we do not live in a divided reality. Reality is not play-dough. Nature is not infinitely malleable and plastic. God is the Almighty Maker of Heaven and Earth, and he made a cosmos, an ordered and structured world with a determinate character. Nature is stubborn. By virtue of God’s creating and sustaining acts, nature has an integrity, unity, harmony, and design. There is an immutable givenness to reality that is unavoidable and inescapable despite the best efforts of rebellious humans to subject it to their will.
And this givenness is such that we need not always appeal to Scripture directly to justify Christian ethical teaching. Christian ethical teaching is universal, normative, creational, and natural. There are some things that we need the Bible for. Nature will not tell you that Christ died for sinners and calls you to repentance and faith. You need a Bible for that. But you do not need a Bible to know what a man is, and what a woman is, and what marriage is, and what sex is for. Such things are a part of natural revelation and are sufficiently clear to all men everywhere that our refusal to acknowledge them will condemn us on the last day.
So then, if we don’t need a Bible to know what a man is, and what a woman is, and what marriage is, and what sex is for, then why has God graciously given us a Bible which speaks to these issues, and a gospel which addresses them directly? In other words, how does the Bible or the gospel or special revelation relate to this revelation of God in the natural order? Here’s what I think we can say:
1. The gospel does not create a new sexual ethic.
2. Instead, the gospel ratifies and clarifies the natural, creational sexual ethic.
3. It further grounds the natural, creational sexual ethic in the work of Christ (“Honor God with your body, because you were bought with a price;” 1 Cor. 6:20). But this new grounding doesn’t overthrow the original grounding of sexual ethics in the natural order.
4. The gospel provides the power to live in accord with the way that God made us. We might put it this way: Scripture confronts what we are by (fallen) nature (Eph. 2:3: “by nature, children of wrath”) by pointing us to what we are by (created) nature (Rom. 1:26: in our rebellion we do things that are contrary to nature) and by being the means of renewing us in our (redeemed) nature (Eph. 4:22-24: put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness), all in anticipation of our future (glorified) nature.
In my judgment, one of the crying needs of the hour is for Christians to know in their bones that our view of men and women and marriage and sexuality is not simply the product of Bible verses, but is itself natural, normative, and universally binding on all people because we live in the world God made.¹² It’s incumbent upon pastors and teachers to instruct the church of God, not only what the Scriptures require, but to point to the reasons beneath the rules that make God’s written laws intelligible and reasonable.¹³ Our social context—what we often call the World—can easily deceive us here. Because the World is moving in one direction, we begin to feel that we are the weird ones. We are the outliers. We begin to believe the propaganda that we are the last holdouts on the wrong side of history. But we’re not the weird ones. Not just God in his Word, but all of heaven and earth testifies to God’s design for men and women and marriage and sexuality.
There is a kind of humble and settled confidence that comes from knowing that, when you embrace the biblical teaching on any subject (and especially sexuality), you are cutting with the grain of created reality, not against it. As we continue to commend to the world a vision of biblical anthropology, we must do so, knowing deep down, that Scripture and nature speak with one voice, the voice of the living God, the Almighty Maker of Heaven and Earth.
¹Matthew Barrett, God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 23.
²The Bethlehem Elder Affirmation of Faith is the governing affirmation of faith for Bethlehem Baptist Church and Bethlehem College & Seminary, where the author teaches. It may be found at https://bethlehem.church/elder-affirmation-of-faith/
³As quoted in Barrett, God’s Word Alone, 45.
⁴C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2017), 101.
⁵For these categories, I’m indebted to Vern S. Poythress, Redeeming Science: A God-Centered Approach (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006), 44.
⁴C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2017), 101.
⁵For these categories, I’m indebted to Vern S. Poythress, Redeeming Science: A God-Centered Approach (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006), 44.
⁶Poythress, Redeeming Science, 45–46.
⁸Joe Rigney, The Things of Earth: Treasuring God by Enjoying His Gifts (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014).
⁹Recent years have seen a wonderful resurgence in work on natural law from a Protestant perspective. Excellent historical studies may be found in Stephen J. Grabill, Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006); David VanDrunen, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009). Van Drunen offers his own constructive presentation in David VanDrunen, Divine Covenants and Moral Order: A Biblical Theology of Natural Law (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014). An excellent example of early Protestant reflections on natural law may be found in Niels Hemmingsen, On the Law of Nature: A Demonstrative Method, trans. E. J. Hutchinson, Sources in Early Modern Economics, Ethics, and Law, Second Series (Grand Rapids: CLP Academic, 2018). Additionally, Davenant Press has attempted a multi-volume modernization of Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, which contains a clear articulation of natural law reasoning. Current volumes include Richard Hooker, Radicalism: When Reform Becomes Revolution: The Preface to Hooker’s Laws: A Modernization, ed. Bradford Littlejohn, Brian Marr, and Bradley Belschner (Lincoln, NE: The Davenant Press, 2017); Richard Hooker, Divine Law and Human Nature: Book I of Hooker’s Laws: A Modernization, ed. W. Bradford Littlejohn, Brian Marr, and Bradley Belschner (Lincoln, NE: The Davenant Press, 2017); Richard Hooker, The Word of God and the Words of Man: Books II and III of Richard Hooker’s Laws: A Modernization, ed. Bradford Littlejohn et al. (Lincoln, NE: The Davenant Press, 2018); Richard Hooker, In Defense of Reformed Catholic Worship: Book IV of Richard Hooker’s Laws: A Modernization, ed. Bradford Littlejohn, Brian Marr, and Bradley Belschner (Lincoln, NE: The Davenant Press, 2018). Finally, a popular-level introduction and defense of natural law may be found in David Haines and Andrew A. Fulford, Natural Law: A Brief Introduction and Biblical Defense (New York: The Davenant Press, 2017).
¹⁰G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (GLH Publishing, 2016), 13–14.
¹¹In this section, I’m indebted to the excellent work of Alastair Roberts, “Natural Complementarians: Men, Women, and the Way Things Are,” The Calvinist International (blog), accessed February 8, 2019, https://calvinistinternational.com/2016/09/13/natural-complementarians-men-women/.
¹²For example, even those outside the church are able to recognize the fact of male headship in every society. See Steven Goldberg, Why Men Rule: A Theory of Male Dominance (Chicago: Open Court, 1999).
¹³See G. Shane Morris, “Rules Without Reasons: Why the Culture Is Eating Evangelicals for Lunch,” accessed February 8, 2019, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/troublerofisrael/2018/06/rules-without-reasons/. One practical effect of recognizing the “reasons beneath the rules” is that we clearly ground a complementarian ethic in a complementarian description of reality. In my own teaching on the subject, I will often say something to the effect of, “The Bible does not teach that the husband should be the head of his home. The Bible teaches that the husband is the head of his home, whether he wants to be or not (Ephesians 5:25). Masculine headship is a given. The question is whether it will be unfaithful headship (like Adam) or faithful headship (like Christ).”
You, too, can help support the ministry of CBMW. We are a non-profit organization that is fully-funded by individual gifts and ministry partnerships. Your contribution will go directly toward the production of more gospel-centered, church-equipping resources.