God’s Storehouse of Givens: Kuyper on Nature

In the first volume of his trilogy on the kingship of Christ, Abraham Kuyper devotes a chapter to the relationship between the kingdom and science. Following the Belgic Confession, which states that creation is a beautiful book by means of which God reveals Himself to man, Kuyper underscores the importance, authority, and necessity of knowledge drawn from nature:

“Nowhere does Scripture suggest that all of our knowledge about nature and the world should be derived from Scripture. It posits that there are things that we can only come to know from nature, from the world, and from the course of the world; and that there are other things, about which nature tells us nothing, that can only be known from revelation. Rather than pulling down the knowledge of nature, Scripture instead expresses that God’s great power and divinity can from the very outset be understood and comprehended from creation. It is the height of folly if you imagine that, with Scripture in front of you, you should be able to know from Scripture about nature, the life of the world, and its history without ever actually investigating nature or the life and composition of the world.

You can only know the body by studying the body. You only gain knowledge of the earth’s crust by digging in it. The plant world must be known from the plant world, the animal world from the animals; and similarly the history of the human world must be known from the past. Scripture does lead the way, of course; but aside from it we have, as sources for our knowledge, the entire kingdom of nature, the entire course of history, and the entire course of the development of capacities in human life. God is honored not by those who close the second book of nature to ponder Scripture alone, but by those who in quiet obedience zealously study the two books of Scripture and nature. Nature and human life in this world supply us with a storehouse of givens that God himself lays bare for us, and it would be a sin of omission to delight in Scripture while closing the other book of nature and human life and pushing it aside.”

—Abraham Kuyper, Pro Rege: Living under Christ’s Kingship: Volume 1, pp. 201-202

Cross-posted at Kuyperian Commentary


Hodge, Systematics, and Scripture

“Theology, therefore, is the exhibition of the facts of Scripture in their proper order and relation, with the principles or general truths involved in the facts themselves, and which pervade and harmonize the whole.”

This statement by Charles Hodge in the first volume of his Systematic Theology (pg. 19) has proven controversial. What does Hodge mean here, especially by the phrase “proper order?” Is he implying that the canonical order of revelation in Scripture is “improper” and needs to be tidied up by theology? Is he claiming that systematic theology gives us a superior arrangement of truth than the form given by Scripture?

Hodge’s statement seems to confirm the popular perception of systematic theologians as logic-chopping rationalists who are insensitive to the organic form of Scripture, ignorant of narratival and historical considerations, and who treat the text as a mine from which nuggets of truth are extracted and arranged according to categories alien to Scripture.

My purpose is not to debate the relative merits of biblical and systematic theology, but to vindicate Hodge against the charge that he believes Scripture’s natural, organic order is inferior to the order of systematic theology. To discern Hodge’s oft-misunderstood meaning here, we must back up and ascertain his understanding of the task of theology in general (all quotations below are from the three-volume Hendrickson edition).

Hodge begins his systematic theology by observing that theology is a science, and as such, does not set out to simply restate the bare facts of Scripture, but aims to “embrace an exhibition of the internal relation of those facts, one to another, and each to all.” (pg. 1, emphasis added). Scripture itself, Hodge readily acknowledges, “is no more a system of theology, than nature is a system of chemistry or of mechanics… the Bible contains the truths which the theologian has to collect, authenticate, arrange, and exhibit in their internal relation to each other.” (pg. 1).

However, Scripture is not given to us in the form of a “system of theology,” so why bother to develop such a system in the first place? Is this really necessary? “Why not take the truths as God has seen fit to reveal them, and thus save ourselves the trouble of showing their relation and harmony?” (pg. 2).

There are several reasons such a task is necessary and beneficial, but one reason Hodge gives is that true knowledge involves discerning relations, causes, and so on. We shouldn’t be satisfied with “a mass of undigested facts”—whether we are studying Scripture or any other subject. It follows that “we cannot know what God has revealed in his Word unless we understand, at least in some good measure, the relation in which the separate truths therein contained stand to each other.” (pg. 2).

Furthermore, as God himself “wills that men should study his works and discover their wonderful organic relation and harmonious combination, so it is his will that we should study his Word, and learn that, like the stars, its truths are not isolated points, but systems, cycles, and epicycles, in unending harmony and grandeur.” (pg. 3).

Note that Hodge says that the truths of Scripture possess an inherent organic and harmonious relation to each another. Theology is a process of discovering the harmony already embedded in Scripture, not a process of constructing an abstract system, or pressing the truths of Scripture into an alien form. Given that Scripture contains an implicit harmony, it follows that there are improper and proper ways of arranging the truths of Scripture. Not every theology is a valid, faithful transcription of the symphony of Scripture.

How then do we arrive at a Scripturally faithful theology? Hodge examines the suitability of different theological methods, and vindicates an inductive method against mystical, rationalist, and speculative approaches (pp. 3-14). Significantly, Hodge’s basic objection to these methods is that they are fundamentally unmoored from Scripture—the speculative method with its a priori nature, and the mystical approach with its priority of experience. By contrast, true theology is inductive and thus a receptive, not constructive enterprise. The business of the theologian is “not to set forth his system of truth (that is of no account), but to ascertain and exhibit what is God’s system” (pg. 13, emphasis added).

Returning to the nature and task of theology, Hodge again compares Scripture and nature as organic entities: “as the order in which the facts of nature are arranged cannot be determined arbitrarily, but by the nature of the facts themselves, so it is with the facts of the Bible. The parts of any organic whole have a natural relation which cannot with impunity be ignored or changed… the facts or truths of the Bible… cannot be held in isolation, nor will they admit of any and every arrangement the theologian may choose to assign them. They bear a natural relation to each other, which cannot be overlooked or perverted without the facts themselves being perverted.” (pg. 18, emphasis added).

It is only after laying this careful groundwork, cautioning the theologian to “know his place,” and noting the actual impossibility of his constructing a system to “suit his fancy” in variance with the true order of things, that Hodge pens the infamous statement: “Theology, therefore, is the exhibition of the facts of Scripture in their proper order and relation, with the principles or general truths involved in the facts themselves, and which pervade and harmonize the whole.” (pg. 19).

For Hodge, the “proper order and relation” of Scriptural truths that theology presents is set in contrast not to the canonical shape of Scripture, but to improper theological order which violently arranges the truths of Scripture into an unnatural shape. Far from countenancing a subordination of Scripture to systematics, Hodge envisions the task of theology as a journey of wonder and discovery, a faithful exhibition of the rich, harmonious order embedded in God’s holy word.

Was the Reformation a Failure?

The nail in the door of Wittenberg was a nail in the coffin of Christendom.

So goes the popular account of the 16th century Reformation. The fact that fragmentation in church and society followed in the wake of the Reformation is indisputable, of course. Parsing the ways in which the reformers were complicit in the division of Christendom and assessing the legacy and effects of the Reformation is a more complex and controversial task. Roman Catholics judge the Reformation a brash rebellion and grave scandal. Many Protestants today also feel ambivalent toward the Reformation. However well-intentioned, judged in light of a church still fractured after half a millennium, it seems like an ultimately tragic event.

The ecclesial environment which provoked the prophetic jeremiad of the magisterial reformers was not tidy and uniform. The problems are well-known: financial corruption, clerical profligacy, heterodox theology, and other ills. These were amply documented by the reformers, acknowledged by many in the church of Rome, and addressed (to some extent) in the counter-Reformation. Yet crucial doctrinal differences remained and reform came at great and painful cost: the church was divided as never before. Surely this reality should entail a posture of lament, not celebration.

But what if the division in Christendom was not the work of man, but of God? What if the Reformation was not a revolution, but a revelation?

Above all, the Reformation was a sweeping proclamation of the word of God, carried far and wide by the printing press and zealous preachers. When God’s word comes to men, it comes as a light and sword, exposing and dividing. Whenever the word is proclaimed (whether in pretense or in truth), a response is called forth. Those who have ears to hear receive the word with joy — the word falls onto fertile soil. Others hear but do not understand — the word falls on stony ground. In each case, God’s word is effective for His purposes. The division wrought by the word is not a tragedy which should scandalize us, but part of an inscrutable and wondrous divine plan.

Human words also effect division (of a fleshly kind), and this should chasten both our evaluation of the Reformation and our efforts at ecumenism. If the Reformation was merely the exaltation of the words of men, it should be considered a failure, and all such future attempts will also fail. But if it was an unprecedented unleashing of the word of God, it was a success, because God’s word never fails, and never returns to Him empty.

Reformation Day Round Up

Here are several excellent articles published on this 500th anniversary of the Reformation:

Why the Reformation Should Make You More Catholic (Fred Sanders)

What the Reformers Thought They Were Doing (Timothy George)

How to Celebrate the Reformation (Jake Meador)

On Still Being a Protestant ‘From a Protestant Point of View’: Contra Hauerwas (Derek Rishmawy)

Which Henry Caused the Reformation? (Carl Trueman)

Five Misconceptions of Reformation Day (Tim LeCroy)

How Lutherans View the Reformation Differently (Gene Veith)

Gregory of Nyssa on Answering Heresies

“It may indeed be undignified to give any answer at all to the statements that are foolish; we seem to be pointed that way by Solomon’s wise advice, ‘not to answer a fool according to his folly.’ But there is a danger lest through our silence error may prevail over the truth, and so the rotting sore of this heresy may invade it, and make havoc of the sound word of the faith. It has appeared to me, therefore, to be imperative to answer, not indeed according to the folly of these men who offer objections of such a description to our Religion, but for the correction of their depraved ideas. For that advice quoted above from the Proverbs gives, I think, the watchword not for silence, but for the correction of those who are displaying some act of folly; our answers, that is, are not to run on the level of their foolish conceptions, but rather to overturn those unthinking and deluded views as to doctrine.”

Gregory of Nyssa, On the Holy Spirit

Augustine, Beauty, and the Body

In the concluding sections of The City of God, Augustine marvels at the wonders found in creation and culture—the blessings God has bestowed in the midst of transient and fallen life. Praising God’s providence in fashioning the human body, Augustine makes several interesting comments (XXII.24):

Even apart from its adaptation to the work required of it, there is such a symmetry in its various parts, and so beautiful a proportion maintained, that one is at a loss to decide whether, in creating the body, greater regard was paid to utility or to beauty. Assuredly no part of the body has been created for the sake of utility which does not also contribute something to its beauty. (853)

There are some things, too, which have such a place in the body, that they obviously serve no useful purpose, but are solely for beauty… I think it can readily be concluded that in the creation of the human body comeliness was more regarded than necessity. In truth, necessity is a transitory thing; and the time is coming when we shall enjoy one another’s beauty without any lust—a condition which will specially redound to the praise of the Creator, who, as it is said in the psalm, has “put on praise and comeliness.” (854)

All the members and organs of the incorruptible body, which now we see to be suited to various necessary uses, shall contribute to the praises of God; for in that life necessity shall have no place, but full, certain, secure, everlasting felicity. (864)

Notable here is how Augustine understands the beauty and utility of the body. This is related to his distinction between enjoyment and use of things (cf. XI.25). The body has been made not merely as a tool, but as a work of art. Beauty has priority over utility, for utility has to do with temporal life. Yet beauty is something which is made for and will endure into eternal life. Indeed, resurrection life will entail praising God through the enjoyment of the beauty of transfigured creation, including the human body. We will enjoy God by praising Him in the body and in enjoying the body we will praise God.