Natural Theology | Herman Witsius

Natural Theology Herman Witsius

Herman Witsius
Economy of the Covenants
Vol. 1, pp. 345-351.

VII. But this [effectual] calling is given, partly externally, by a persuasive power, called moral suasion; partly internally, by a real supernatural efficacy, which changes the heart. The external call is, in some measure, published by the word of nature, but more fully by that of supernatural revelation, without which every word of nature would be insufficient and ineffectual. The internal comes from the power of the Holy Spirit working inwardly on the heart; and without this every external revealed word, though objectively very sufficient, as it clearly discovers every thing to be known, believed, and done, yet is subjectively ineffectual, nor will ever bring any person to the communion of Christ.

Nature Teaches That We Should Seek Eternal Things.

VIII. Nature itself is not silent, but many ways calls on man to lay aside his too eager care and pursuit of earthly things, and of this animal life, and to endeavour after the far better things of heaven and eternity. For when, with attentive eyes, he surveys that glittering canopy on high, bespangled with so many constellations, and sparkling with so many stars, above which, according to the general belief of mankind, the throne of the Supreme Being is placed, he feels a certain strong desire excited in his breast, that, when he leaves this earthly dross, he may, hereafter, ascend on high, be admitted into the inmost recesses of nature, and received into fellowship with God. And when his thoughts pursue the several beauties of the starry heavens, he then takes a secret pleasure to look down with contempt on the pavements of the rich, nay, on this whole earth, with all its gold, not only that which it has already produced, but that which still lies concealed for the avarice of posterity. And when he further traverses the whole universe, he learns to despise the most stately porticoes, ceilings inlaid with ivory, woods formed by art, and rivers conveyed home, and looking down from on high on this small terrestrial globe, a great part of which is covered with the sea, and much of what remains greatly uncultivated, many places being either scorched with heat, or frozen with cold, he thus says to himself, “Is this that insignificant spot, which so many nations divide among themselves by fire and sword? When thou hast been engaged in the contemplation of these things truly great, then, as oft as thou shalt espy armies with banners displayed, and, as if some great event was in agitation, the horse now advancing to gain intelligence, again pouring forth from the flanks, it may remind thee of the excursion of ants, toiling within a scanty compass. Whereas there are vastly extensive regions above, into the possession of which the soul is admitted; and thus, although it has suffered some inconvenience from the body, yet if, by being content with little, it has dropped all its dross, it is now light and ready to depart: unless, then, I be admitted into these regions, my birth has been in vain. For why should I rejoice for being numbered among the living? Without this inestimable good, life is not of such value, that I should sweat and fatigue myself therein. O! how contemptible is man, unless he is advanced above what is human!” Thus the book of nature, thus the contemplation of the heavens, taught Seneca both to think and speak. In Præfat. Quest. Natur.

By the voice of nature men are invited “to seek God” (Acts 17:27).

IX. But seeing the same nature teacheth us, that God is far more excellent than those very heavens, which are his throne and the work of his hands, that he is both the creator and ruler of the heavens; the same works invite man to seek after the communion of God himself above all things. For happiness cannot consist in barely dwelling in heaven, unless one enjoys the fellowship and communion of God there. Thus by the voice of nature men are invited “to seek God, if haply they might feel after him,” Acts 17:27. “He left not himself without witness, in that he did good;” Acts 14:17; and that by discovering himself to be the fountain of all good, both the greatest and the best of Beings, whose communion alone can render any perfectly blessed. It is therefore an old saying, and handed down from our ancestors to mankind, “that all things were both framed by God and in him consist; and that no nature can be sufficient for its own safety, which is only entrusted with its own preservation, without God.” Thus the author of the book “de mundo,” extant among Aristotle’s works, c. 11, and who concludes with these excellent words: “Whoever would attain to a blessed and happy life, must partake of the Deity from the very beginning.

By the Light of Nature God Gives Hope of Enjoying Him.

X. But God not only invites men by the light of nature to seek him, but also gives some hope of enjoying him. For why else should he forbear sinners, with so much long-suffering, unless he had decreed to take pity on some of them? Would it be worthy of the most pure Deity to have preserved now for so many ages, the world subjected to vanity by the sins of men, unless there were some of mankind to whom he was willing to show himself glorious in their happiness? “The Lord is long-suffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance,” 2 Pet. 3:9. And as this consideration of the Divine patience and forbearance, shining forth in the whole government of the world, yields some hope of salvation, “and the long-suffering of our Lord ought to be accounted salvation,” ib. ver. 15. “so this goodness of God should lead every one to repentance,” Rom. 2:4.

XI. For nature also teaches, that it is not possible any one can enjoy converse and familiarity with God, who does not sincerely endeavour after purity and holiness, and, as the emperor Marcus Antoninus speaks, lib. ii. §. 5, labours not “to live a life resembling God.” For like delights in like, and rejoices to communicate itself thereto. Plato, de Legibus, lib. iv, says well, “What practice is it that is agreeable to, and in imitation of God? This, and that ancient one, that like delights in like.” Thus man is invited to the practice of the strictest purity, by the voice of nature herself, in order to the enjoyment of God. I cannot forbear adding the gradation of Agapetus, which is really fine, and strictly true. Thus he says to the emperor Justinian: “For he who knows himself shall know God. But he who knows God, shall be made like to God. He shall be like God, who is worthy of God. He shall be worthy of God, who does nothing unworthy of God, but meditates on the things of God, and what he thinks he speaks, and what he speaks he acts.

XII. All these things the royal Seer, Ps. 19:1–4, has exhibited in a concise but very strong manner. “The heavens declare the glory of God;” for as they are his throne, curiously framed, so they display his power, majesty, greatness and holiness, before which the heavens themselves confess they are not clean: however their very excellence invites men to endeavour, within their circuit, to the utmost, after the enjoyment of communion with the great and good God. “And the firmament showeth his handy-work,” proclaiming, that by his word only, it was framed together. “Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night showeth knowledge.” These vicissitudes of light and darkness mutually corresponding in so exact and constant an order, prove a most wise Director. And there is no day nor night but speaks something of God, and declares it to the next, as the scholar of the preceding and the master of the following. “There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard.” If they were words, the instruction would cease with their sound; but now what the heavens declare, they do it always, and in the same manner. If speeches, and sentences deduced with much subtlety from their reasons and causes, they would labour under obscurity; if their voice was heard, it would stun us with its noise. But now the heavens instruct both constantly, clearly, and sweetly. For though their voice is not heard, yet they have a voice, no less strongly adapted to strike the mind, than the sound of a trumpet, or of thunder; seeing they exhibit to the eyes of all the magnificence of their Creator so clearly, as to escape the observation of none but the wilfully blind. Or possibly this may be the meaning: “There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard.” Though people differ in languages, and the Greek understands not the barbarian; yet the heavens have a common language adapted to the instruction of all alike and nothing but a culpable carelessness can hinder the most distant people from improving by the instruction, as it were, of one teacher. “Their line is gone out through all the earth.” The instruction of the heavens resembles that of school-masters, who teach children their letters by drawing their strokes before them. Thus the heavens draw lines or strokes with their rays, and as it were letters of the alphabet, from which, combined and variously joined together, an entire volume of wisdom is formed. This is the signification of קו, as Isa. 28:10, “line upon line:” from which the Greek φθογγος, which the apostle uses, Rom. 10:18, does not differ much, denoting not only a sound, but also a letter of the alphabet, as Plutarch, in fabio, notes, as Scapula has observed in his lexicon. Nor is it necessary to say, that the test is here corrupted, or that the Septuagint read קולם their voice. And this line “is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” All mankind, whether in a habitable or desert country, are taught by this master. There is no corner of the world, where the figures of the heavens, as so many arguments of the divine perfections, are not to be seen. And this is the reason why I have just now proposed the reasonings of those (if you except the quotation from Agapetus, a deacon of the church of Constantinople) who had no other master but nature.

Natural Theology is Not Sufficient For Salvation.

XIII. But though the invitation, which nature gives to seek God, be sufficient to render them without excuse who do not comply with it, Rom. 1:20; yet it is not sufficient, even objectively, for salvation. For it does not afford that lively hope, which “maketh not ashamed;” for this is only revealed by the gospel; whence the Gentiles are said to have been “without hope in the world,” Eph. 2:12. It does not show the true way to the enjoyment of God, which is no other than faith in Christ. It does not sufficiently instruct us about the manner in which we ought to worship and please God, and do what is acceptable to him. In short, this call by nature never did, nor is it even possible that it ever can, bring any to the saving knowledge of God; the gospel alone “is the power of God unto salvation, to every one that believeth.” Rom. 1:16.

XIV. We cannot agree with those, whether they be ancients, a list of whom Casaubon, Exercit. I. ad Apparat. Annal. Baronii, and after him Vossius, Histor. Pelag. lib. iii. p. 3. Thes. 11, have drawn up; or whether they be moderns, who maintain, that good men, among the Gentiles, were brought to salvation by this call of nature, without the knowledge of Christ. And we think some of our brethren ascribe too much to nature, who tell us “that men, if not wilfully blind, could, by what is known of God, have attained to some knowledge of the divine mercy, by which they might obtain salvation, in a manner perhaps unknown to us; though destitute of the distinct knowledge of some mysteries, which they could no way discover of themselves,” Amyraldus, Specim. Animad. in Exerc. de Gratia. Univ. P. 2. p. 133. For we are persuaded, there is no salvation without Christ, Acts 4:12: no communion of adult persons with Christ, but by faith in him, Eph. 3:17: no faith in Christ, without the knowledge of him, John 17:3; no knowledge, but by the preaching of the Gospel, Rom. 10:14: no preaching of the Gospel in the works of nature. For it is that “mystery, which was kept secret since the world began.” Rom. 16:25.

The Light of Nature Prepares the Way for the Call of the Gospel.

XV. To what purpose then, you will say, is this call by the light of nature? Not to speak of the being without excuse, just now mentioned, which, indeed, may be the end of him who calls, though not of the call itself: that calling serves to prepare the way for a further, a more perfect, and a more explicit call by the Gospel, and as a prelude of a fuller instruction. For as grace supposes nature, and makes it perfect, so the truths revealed in the Gospel are built on those made known by the light of nature. When a person, under that glimmering light, has discovered that there is a God; that happiness consists in communion with him, and that in comparison of him all things are nothing; and that he is the rewarder of those who seek him; and that, if he is sought in a proper way and manner, he is not sought in vain; he has now a foundation laid, on which to build the gospel, which declares what that God is, in what manner he becomes propitious to men in Christ, how he is to be sought, and in what method he will certainly be found. And thus the knowledge he learns from nature being sanctified by the Spirit, better prepares the mind for embracing those truths which, though they surpass, are yet so far from destroying, that they perfect nature. And it is very expedient for believers, who live under the Gospel, to have always the book of nature before their eyes: which furnishes them with useful instructions, and lashes the conscience with continual reproaches, unless they love, worship, and celebrate the Deity, who is every where present. Which the heathens themselves, as Epictetus and others, have represented in their own way.

The Necessity of Supernatural Revelation.

XVI. We must therefore add the other call by the word of God, supernaturally revealed, either immediately from God’s own mouth, as was formerly done to the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and others; or mediately by the ministers of God, whether they preached it by word of mouth, or consigned it to writing. Thus Paul says, Rom. 10:14, “How shall they believe in him, of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” And here indeed both parts of the word are to be made use of; thus the law convincing man of sin, Rom. 3:20, awakens him to a sense of his misery, drives the sinner out of himself, stirs him up to desire deliverance, and makes him sigh in this manner, “O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of death!” Rom. 7:24. Therefore the law ought certainly to be preached, in its full vigour and force, that “knowing the terror of the Lord, we may persuade men.” 2 Cor. 5:11. But yet the principal part is performed by the Gospel, which revealing Christ, and the fulness of all grace and salvation in him, allures, by its endearing sweetness, awakened and concerned sinners to communion with God. Nothing more powerfully sinks into the inmost soul, than that most alluring invitation of Jesus, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” Matt. 11:28. “Let him that is athirst come, and whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.” Rev. 22:17. This word is “the power of God unto salvation, to every one that believeth,” Rom. 1:16. If the law only was preached, it would, by its horrors, harden souls, driven to despair, into a hatred of God, as a severe avenger of sin. But by adding the Gospel, which makes a bright hope of grace to shine, even on the most abandoned and wretched sinner, if, displeased with himself, he heartily desires it: obstinate hearts come to relent, and to be melted down into a love of God, and of his Christ. And therefore, nothing ought to be more sweet and dear to us than the most delightful word of the Gospel, in which are rivers of honey and butter. Job 20:17.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s