The Larger Catechism, #2

The Larger Catechism

Question 2

2.         Q. How doth it appear that there is a God?

A. The very light of nature in man, and the works of God, declare plainly that there is a God;[3] but his word and Spirit only do sufficiently and effectually reveal him unto men for their salvation.[4]

Scriptural Defense and Commentary

[3] Romans 1:19-20. Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath showed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse. Psalm 19:1-3. The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night showeth knowledge. There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard. Acts 17:28. For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring. [4] 1 Corinthians 2:9-10. But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. 2 Timothy 3:15-17. And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works. Isaiah 59:21. As for me, this is my covenant with them, saith the LORD; My spirit that is upon thee, and my words which I have put in thy mouth, shall not depart out of thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of thy seed’s seed, saith the LORD, from henceforth and for ever.

Regarding the letter to the Romans, Shedd says this: “It is sometimes forgotten that the introductory part of this Epistle contains the fullest and clearest account ever yet given, of man’s moral and religious nature, and his innate knowledge of God and law. There is no deeper psychology, and no better statement of natural religion, than that in the first and second chapters.”[1] He rightly recognized that Romans teaches us that a knowledge of God is clearly available to us. The first two chapters teach us much about the kind of theological knowledge all men possess.

The Bible teaches us that both internally and externally, the created world declares that God exists. Internally, that is, in our constitution, God has written a knowledge of Himself.[2] In Rom. 2:14-16, we are taught that God’s righteous requirements are written in our hearts: “the work of the law is written on their hearts” (v. 15).  Also, Rom. 1:19 states “that which may be known of God is manifest in them” (KJV).[3] Calvin and most of the traditional interpreters have taken it to be “in them.” However, the two verses are not the same. In Rom. 2:15, it suggests that God’s moral law is within them and in 1:19, the knowledge of God is in them because of the knowledge of God evident around them (“within them…to them,” NASB).[4] It is in us because it is evident around us. God’s created order plainly manifests His being.

Several things can be observed from Rom. 1 and 2. First of all, the knowledge of God is universal (v. 18). Verse 18 clearly has in mind all of humanity “all ungodliness and unrighteousness.” It is not for the few and the intelligent; all human beings are given this knowledge. The pagan, in a remote part of Africa, as well as the pagan in an extremely secular region of America, are both recipients of this knowledge. Secondly, it is God-authored. “God” has made it known (v. 19): “because God has shown it to them” (ὁ θεὸς γὰρ αὐτοῖς ἐφανέρωσεν). God is the subject of this sentence and the dispenser of this knowledge—He ensures that it gets to us. “The clause guards against any notion that people have access to true knowledge of God through their natural capacities.”[5] Thirdly, it is perspicuous or clear/plain (v. 19). We are told that God made it “plain” (φανερόν) to or in us and that He has manifested or shown (ἐφανέρωσεν) it to us (the same word translated differently). God is not playing a game here; the knowledge of God is clearly before us. This knowledge of Himself is not murky or cryptic; we may have shut our eyes against it but that does not lessen its clarity. This is more forcefully seen in v. 20 when Paul says that the things of God “have been clearly perceived” (νοούμενα καθορᾶται). Fourthly, it is accurate or true (vv. 18, 25). The knowledge man suppresses is the “truth” (τὴν ἀλήθειαν, v. 18). What is known is true; it is not a false general knowledge of a god— it is the unmistakable knowledge of Himself. In v. 25, we are told that humanity once again exchanged “the truth of God” for a lie. What is known or perceived is the genuine truth.  Fifthly, it is the real God and not a god (or, it is theistic and not deistic) that is known and suppressed. God is making HIMSELF known (v. 19); He is not declaring a knowledge of a “god” that is vague. Our God is impressing a knowledge of Himself into the very fabric of His creation.    Sixthly, it is more than mere existence (v. 20). It is not a bare existence of the true God that is known. Enough is made known to recognize His “invisible attributes.” Paul lists God’s “eternal power” (by the sheer vastness and extensiveness of the creation) and His “divine nature” (only a God could have created this universe). Evolution (the theory without God) is the deliberate attempt to hide this simple fact—viz., that the complex created world somehow sprang into existence by chance. Only God could have created such a complex world.  We must also notice what Paul teaches us regarding the true God. God’s attributes (what some call, his involuntary attributes) are evident (power, justice [from God's wrath, v. 18], etc.) but not his attribute of mercy (his voluntary attributes).  Seventhly, it is authoritative (v. 19, 2:15, 16).[6] God is the one revealing Himself and God is the one addressing our consciences.  His clear declaration and conviction in our consciences are authoritative, that is, He binds men to what He has so clearly revealed. The revelation is not a suggestion but an authoritative declaration of His person, character, and will.  Lastly, it is sufficient (v. 20).  God has made enough of Himself known to hold men inexcusable. Man cannot presume to play the pseudo-intellectual game, “Well, I do not think there is sufficient evidence to prove one way or the other. I am agnostic.” It is not sufficient enough to save man but sufficient enough to condemn him.

In Rom. 2:15, 16, the moral aspect of man serves as further “evidence.” Paul speaks of two aspects working jointly in our constitution. One is the “work of the law” in our hearts. The second is our “conscience.” God has written His specific demands into our hearts and our conscience bears witness to it. One is declarative and the other is responsive.

Conscience must not be identified with ‘the work of the law written in their hearts’ for these reasons: (1) Conscience is represented as giving joint witness. This could not be true if it were the same as that along with which it bears witness. (2) Conscience is a function; it is the person functioning in the realm of moral discrimination and judgment, the person viewed from the aspect of moral consciousness. The work of the law written in the heart is something ingenerated in our nature, is antecedent to the operations of conscience and the cause of them. (3) The precise thought is that the operations of conscience bear witness to the fact that the work of the law is written in the heart. Not only does the doing of the things of the law prove the work of the law written in the heart but the witness of conscience does also. Hence the distinction between the work of the law and conscience. [7]

One may wonder why Paul made this distinction. If the conscience is the same as the written law in our hearts, then, a seared or callous conscience is less culpable. However, God’s ethical demands ring true, though the conscience may suppress the sounds of it. The heart’s written code, as it were, simply sounds out what a man is to do; the conscience may concede, resist, stifle, override, etc. In a sense, the heart is like a compass—it tells us which way to go. “The conscience is not itself the source of moral norms but functions as a reflective mechanism by which people can measure their conformity to a norm. If, then, the ‘law’ is that norm, the conscience of individual Gentiles reveals within each of them the extent to which that norm is being followed.”[8]

Paul does not emphasize merely the theoretical side — the end result of God’s revelation is found in v. 16. In the end, God will judge the secrets of men and women through/by (διὰ) Christ Jesus.

The Bible declares plainly that this “general” revelation merely makes men inexcusable; it condemns. Paul draws a very significant conclusion about the Gentiles and Jews, “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin” (3:9). The general revelation did not save the Gentiles and the Law in the OT did not save the Jews—all have sinned. There was a need for further special revelation.

This is very different from the way conservative political men talk in our generation. There are many conservative talk show hosts who believe in a “god” and believe everyone is accountable to God. They teach and encourage good moral behavior. This does not make them any better. That knowledge they believe in will be used against them because they have not repented and turned to Christ. General revelation cannot be denied. If unbelievers recognize it, then they should also see how fallen they are but this is where the perversion and confusion come in.  They seem to think just because they believe in God, they are better off and that all is well. Millions of people believe in God but it has not turned them to Christ. Has this knowledge led them to Jesus Christ? Remember what Jesus said, “If God were your Father, you would love me…” (Jn. 8:42; cf. vv. 54-55). He also said, “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me…” (Jn. 6:45).

Paul demonstrates that the revelation of the Gospel alone saves (Rom. 1:16-17; 3:21ff.). General revelation cannot save; it can only show us how we have fallen. We need special revelation from God to declare to us His salvation. “When mankind fell into sin, his spiritual need changed. He now needs more than he did when he was created. Man now needs salvation from sin by divine grace through a Mediator. But the light of nature and the works of God have nothing to say about salvation from sin. They reveal no gospel suited to the sinner’s need.” (Vos, 6)

We are taught that the Scriptures reveal Christ. The Pharisees believed that by merely studying Scripture they would receive eternal life. But our Lord teaches that without a knowledge of Him, the Scriptures alone would not profit them.  “You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is these that bear witness of Me” (NASB, John 5:39).[9] We need both the Word of God and the Spirit of God. We need the Author of the Word to open up His written Word. The Ethiopian eunuch needed someone to teach him the meaning of Scripture. The Spirit of God brought Philip to him (Acts 8:29) and eventually the Good News about Jesus (εὐηγγελίσατο αὐτῷ τὸν Ἰησοῦν) was conveyed to him (8:35). As Paul preached the Gospel, the Lord opened up Lydia’s heart to respond to Paul’s message (Acts 16:14 And a certain woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul.).

In these passages, we see that Christ is central to Scripture and that the understanding of Scripture does not come to us by human effort. In order to respond to the truths of Scripture, we need the Spirit to open our hearts to His Word. The Word of God will make us wise unto salvation (τὰ δυνάμενά σε σοφίσαι εἰς σωτηρίαν)—yet, it makes us wise unto salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (διὰ πίστεως τῆς ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ —2 Tim. 3:15 and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.). This faith in Jesus Christ is a gift of God (Eph. 2:8); to understand who Jesus is, His significance and our faith is the work of God’s grace on our hearts (cf. Mt. 11:27; 16:17). God reveals the rich matters of His Word by/through the Spirit (διὰ τοῦ πνεύματος, 1Cor. 2:9, 10).

We must remember, the Scriptures are sufficient to lead us unto salvation but the Spirit alone makes the truth effectual unto salvation. In addition, we need to recognize the nature of the Spirit’s work.  “The Holy Spirit, in his illuminating work, does not reveal any truth in addition to what is revealed in the Bible, but only enables the sinner to see and believe the truth already revealed in the Bible.” (Vos, 7)

 

Commentary

1. Innate knowledge. The Larger Catechism and the Confession both speak of the  “light of nature” (WCF, 1:1, 6). Yet the LC alone seems to focus on the innate knowledge or the “light of knowledge in man.” A. A. Hodge says that there is the “presence of God in the works of nature and providence, and in the inward workings of their own souls” (Confession, 26).  He believes it is predominantly a conscience issue (27). Vos takes the “light of nature in man” to be “the natural revelation of God in the human heart and mind” (5). Shaw agrees with Pearson’s comments in taking the light of nature to be the sense of divinity in man (2). Men like Polanus taught that each one of us has “special knowledge, naturally innate in us, that God exists.”[10] Ridgeley, on the other hand, believed that the “light of nature in man” is predominantly reason and that it pertained to a knowledge of God “without the help of special revelation” (1:10).

Though there may be debate as to how this knowledge is innate (e.g., an idea, a sense, a faculty, etc.),[11] all are in agreement that the conscience serves as an internal organ with which to infer the knowledge of God. This knowledge is natural to us in the sense that the Bible can say, “The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.”” (Ps. 14:1) It is neither irrational nor unnatural for man to believe in God. All theologians support the view that our constitution is fitted to know God; we are religious by nature.

This “knowability” of God assumes that the knowledge we have of God in our human constitution or in the created world is the effect of God—we know God because He has revealed Himself. “Religion and the knowledge of God can have their origin only in revelation.”[12] If there are distinct, innate ideas of God in our souls, then God is the one making them known.

2. External evidence. We have seen that “the works of God” declare plainly that there is a God. In addition, the external works declare God’s goodness, wisdom, and power. Goodness, because of the bounty we so richly receive; wisdom, because of the complex and incomprehensible nature of all that He has made; power, because it would take a powerful deity to create this world.

Theologians have offered various arguments for the existence of God, the Cosmological, Teleological, Moral, and the Ontological. The Cosmological is dependent upon the created world. Someone must have created this world (cause and effect). Everything is dependent upon something; something must have started it all. The Teleological teaches us that the universal order and harmony necessitates an intelligent being who created it. The Moral argument teaches us that our moral consciousness assumes a moral law giver. We cannot escape our sense of duty and moral responsibility. The Ontological is that our idea of a perfect God assumes the existence of such a deity (namely, existence is a perfection).

These are helpful but not conclusive. In the end, they argue for a deity but not necessarily for the existence of the God of the Bible. Islam, Mormonism, Hinduism, etc. could all benefit from these arguments.  They may aid us in the area of reason, but cannot lead a man to Christ. They may support and edify a believer, but they will not savingly convert an unbeliever.

3. Scripture. When we speak of the Bible, we are speaking of something more than information. It is the revelation of God and His method of salvation.  The Bible tells us what the light of nature does not.  “The light of nature proves, indeed, that there is a God; but the word of God discovers him to us as a reconciled God and Father to all who believe, and is also accompanied in their experience with internal convictions of this truth which are produced by the influence of the Holy Spirit, and with evidences of it which consist in his peculiar gifts and graces.” (Ridgeley, 1:19)

4. The Holy Spirit. “Here we do not assert the sufficiency of this knowledge exclusive of the aids of divine grace, so as to oppose the word to the Spirit….The word is a sufficient rule, so that we need no other to be a standard of our faith, and to direct us in the way to eternal life; but it is the Spirit that enables us to regard, understand, and apply this rule, and to walk according to it. These two are not to be separated. The Spirit doth not save any without the word; and the word is not effectual to salvation, unless made so by the Spirit.” (Ridgeley, 1:20)

 

Applications

1. Let us be thankful that God has not left us to our own vain imaginations. We have long denied God’s clear general revelation.

2. Let us realize that no amount of argument will convince a person if the Holy Spirit does not apply His truth in the heart of the unbeliever.

3. We are no better than the pagan if we do not recognize the wisdom, power, and goodness of God in creation. Remember how God argued against Job.

4. Scripture. Let us realize that we cannot read Scripture without the aid of the Holy Spirit. Also, we must not trust that our “Bible reading” will get us to heaven if we are not Christians, nor may we believe that we are Christians if we neglect the Word that saved us.

 

Excursus

There is debate over the innate knowledge of God among Reformed divines. Malebranche believed in the some sort of vision of God (direct intuition) while others believed that the Logos of God imparted knowledge to man (some of the early church fathers like Justin Martyr). Reformed divines deny every form of innate knowledge that suggests that man can reach up to God through their intellect.

Auguste Lecerf has argued that only a “god” was available through general revelation but not the God of the Bible.[13] There may be something to this but it falters at one critical point. The God who created the world and left His imprint in the creation did not leave an imprint of a “god” but an imprint of Himself.  It is the true God man suppresses, though he may not truly know Him.

Immanuel Kant taught that ethics, one’s sense of oughtness, implied the existence of God. He did believe it proved the existence of God but he argued that ethics did not make sense or have any force unless God existed. This idea has some weight but it cannot help us because Kant has always denied man’s need for revelation. It will not take us to the God of the Bible.

Karl Barth denied general revelation all together. Another dialectical theologian argued against him (Emil Brunner). Both were resistant to any perspective that might suggest access to God without an “encounter.” Schleiermacher believed man knew God via the feeling of absolute dependence.  Tillich believed God was the ground of all being. Rudolph Otto believed that man sensed the “Otherness” of God (mysterium tremendum). All these denied the authority of Scripture and thus were left to their own vain speculations.


[1]W. G. T. Shedd, Commentary on Romans (repr., Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), viii.

[2]“Man’s own psychological activity is no less revelational than the laws of physics about him” Van Til, “Nature and Scripture,” in The Infallible Word, 3rd. ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1946), 274. Joseph Caryl says this of God’s being and existence, “This notion lies uppermost, or riseth up in every heart; it is a principall that lives in, and cannot be blotted out of a naturall conscience; thousands deny God, but all…acknowledge there is a God” (J. Caryl, An Exposition Upon the Book of Job [London, 1644-1666; reprint, Berkley, Michigan: Dust & Ashes Publications, 2001], 4:57). A knowledge of God is “imbedded in his make and constitution, and utters itself in every energy which wakes to activity from the profoundest depths of the soul” (Girardeau, “Theology as Science,” in Life and Work, 406).

[3]Some translations (NIV, ESV) do not translate the phrase evn auvtoi/j to be “in them” or “within them” but rather “to/among them.”

[4]This is John Murray’s interpretation (a happy medium between the two phrases).

[5]D. Moo, Romans, 1-8, The Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1991), 99.

[6]I am dependent upon Van Til for this, The Infallible Word, 272-275.

[7]J. Murray, Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959-1965), 1:75.

[8]Moo, Romans, 1-8, 148.

[9]Both NASB and NIV interprets it in the indicative (Ἐραυνᾶτε) as opposed to the imperative (KJV) — “Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.”  The context suggests the indicative is the better rendering (the word can be used either way).

[10]Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics, 49.

[11]There is debate over the innate and immediate knowledge of God.  A “direct vision of a truth, seen in its own light” is denied by A. A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology, 31. Men like Shedd may differ; he gives a lengthy account of “innate knowledge” in his chapter on “The Innate Idea and Knowledge of God” (see his Dogmatic Theology, 1:195ff.).  Bavinck also argues against certain kinds of innate ideas, see The Doctrine of God, 48ff.

[12]Bavinck, The Doctrine of God, 41.

[13]“Through a consideration of the creation, preservation and government of the world, the light of nature by itself is sufficient to lead man, even in his fallen state, to the certainty that God exists and has a right to his trust and worship. But, by the aid of this light alone, he cannot attain in the slightest degree knowledge of the true God. A god, indeed, he may envisage but not God” (A. Lecerf, An Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics, translated by André Schlemmer [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1981], 37ff.).

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