Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Wittman about natural theology.
Topics of conversation include:
- The knowability of God
- The distinction between general revelation and special revelation
- The role of natural theology and special revelation in the book of Romans
- The usefulness and limitations of natural theology
- Resources for further reading on this subject
Dr. Tyler Wittman holds a PhD from the University of St. Andrews and serves as assistant professor of Theology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He co-authored Biblical Reasoning: Christological and Trinitarian Rules for Exegesis (Baker Academic, 2022), and is the author of God and Creation in the Theology of Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth (Cambridge University Press, 2019).
Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.
Brian Arnold (00:15):
One of my favorite things about Arizona is that you can see the glory of God through some of the most magnificent vistas on the planet. In Phoenix, there’s a beautiful desertscape that has things found only here, like the saguaro cacti. And just a few hours north, we have the grand canyon, a wonder of the world, and Flagstaff, which has the highest peak in Arizona. The scenery is breathtaking, and it leads my heart to worship. And when our family goes camping in Northern Arizona, we sleep under a canopy of stars that leaves us speechless. And it’s there that David’s words from Psalm 19:1 come to life—”the heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” But how much do the heavens tell us about God? What can we know about God from nature? Can we be saved by beholding nature? Well, to help us understand these questions today, we have with us Dr. Tyler Wittman. Dr. Wittman holds a PhD from the University of St. Andrews, and serves as assistant professor of Theology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, where his research interests include the doctrine of God, Christology, and the doctrine of creation. He recently co-authored Biblical Reasoning: Christological and Trinitarian Rules for Exegesis with Bobby Jamieson, and is the author of God and Creation in the Theology of Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth. Dr. Wittman, welcome to the podcast.
Tyler Wittman (01:30):
Thanks for having me.
Brian Arnold (01:31):
So we ask our guests one big question, today the question is this—what does nature reveal about God? So I think even to just kind of set the groundwork for a question like that, I think we have to ask the knowability of God—can God really be known? Or is he ultimately mysterious? And then kind of make our way from that into what nature then does reveal truthfully about who God is.
Tyler Wittman (01:56):
Yeah, a really good question. Just to approach it in order of how you asked it, you know, God is certainly knowable, because God makes himself known. And God is knowable, also, because God is just intrinsically full of light and full of reason. So, you know, he’s not nonsense, in other words, right? He’s the source of what we know of his reason, and rationality, and truth, and everything. So of course he’s knowable, right? The question is—to what extent is he knowable, and, you know, under what conditions, and so forth. So the way I usually tell students is that God is perfectly intelligible. Like he can be understood to the extent that he’s revealed himself. But that doesn’t mean that we can comprehend him.
Tyler Wittman (02:46):
If we think of comprehending different from understanding, in the sense that to comprehend something is to kind of wrap your mind around it, to exhaust everything that there is to know about it. Well, obviously, in that sense we can’t comprehend God, because there’s always more to know about God. But also because we can only comprehend things, relatively speaking, when they are themselves kind of finite, right? They are exhaustible kind of things in the world. And God isn’t something that can be exhausted, right? He’s not finite. He’s infinite. So yes, he can be known right? To the extent he reveals himself. But he certainly can’t be exhaustively known. Right? We can’t comprehend him.
Brian Arnold (03:30):
What a beautiful truth that is—to think that even in eternity future, we will never fully exhaust God. God doesn’t somehow become fully comprehensible to us in the eternal state, because that would be to put limits on him. If he is truly infinite, and we are finite—that’s a glorious reality of what our eternity can even be for us.
Tyler Wittman (03:54):
Oh, it’s exactly right. Yeah, one of the church fathers, Gregory of Nyssa, has this great thought where in eternity, right, in the resurrection, in the new creation and new heaven, new earth, we will know God, and we will forever be growing in the knowledge of God, and forever be growing in our enjoyment of God. And I’ve always found that very compelling as a kind of vision of the future life.
Brian Arnold (04:19):
It is. Yeah. And to know him is to love him more. And then to love him more is to desire to know him more. And so even our love for God increasing over knowing him better and deeper in the future state. Well, let’s now kind of back up and ask some big kind of theological kinds of questions. We talk about, as theologians, natural revelation and, you know, specific revelation, right? General revelation and special revelation. So how do you define these kinds of terms? If we’re going to be talking about natural theology today, let’s kind of set that stage by kind of differentiating the different types of ways that God reveals himself.
Tyler Wittman (04:57):
Yeah. That’s a good question. So, broadly, what people mean when they try to distinguish between general revelation and special revelation…well, we’re revealing something when we’re showing something that people didn’t know prior to that, right? Beforehand. We’re showing them something, revealing it to them, making known something. So general revelation is just how God makes himself known, generally, right? In all of creation to everyone, right? Whereas special revelation is how God makes himself known at a particular time and place and to particular recipients. And the content of what is revealed is a little bit different, even though God is revealing himself in general revelation, right? He reveals himself kind of with insider knowledge, right? You kind of get insider knowledge with special revelation. He’s revealing truth that surpassed what can be accessed by us through general revelation.
Tyler Wittman (05:59):
So, for instance, that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, right? The doctrine of the Trinity, that would be something that we only gain access to in special revelation. Right? The good news itself, right? The gospel that we proclaim as Christians—that Christ died for our sins and was raised again on the third day. He’s given us his Spirit as a pledge of our inheritance from our Father—you know, that right there, that’s special revelation. It’s not something you can figure out by, you know, a jaunt in the woods.
Brian Arnold (06:35):
<laugh> Right. Yeah, you’re not walking on a hike and say—there are, you know, there’s one essence in three persons in the Holy Trinity! This is a beautiful thing.
Tyler Wittman (06:45):
Brian Arnold (06:45):
And to be even really specific about what we’re talking about—when we’re talking about special revelation, we’re talking about Scripture. We’re talking about the Bible. We’re talking about God’s self-disclosure to his people of who he is. And not just that, right? But Christ. Christ coming into this world. He’s revealing who God is to us. And then, of course, in Scripture. And then on the natural theology side, you have in general revelation…I like how Immanuel Kant talked about “the starry skies above, and the moral law within.” Where, you know, we look at God’s handiwork in creation as revealing, but there’s also something about natural law inside the human heart, the conscience of the person, that reveals who God is. So kind of walk us through those pieces specifically, in, you know, that natural theology kind of way.
Tyler Wittman (07:40):
Yeah. So natural theology is a kind of term that just…you know, it depends on who you’re asking what they mean by it, right?
Brian Arnold (07:51):
Well, we’re asking Dr. Wittman today. So you get the pleasure of…you just define it. You just tell us.
Tyler Wittman (07:56):
I mean, it’s…obviously it’s different from what we would call revealed theology, right? It’s different from special revelation. It works upon the assumption that God has revealed something about himself in the workings of nature. So in the things that he has made, right? In creation, in the human person, in…yes, the, you know, the kind of standards of truth, and goodness, and even beauty. Which you’re gesturing towards when you’re talking about natural law. Well natural theology in that sense, you know, would really have been possible. Think about it this way—it would’ve really been possible before the fall. Like, before the fall, Adam and Eve probably would have been able to figure out and to learn a lot about God from the things that he’s made.
Tyler Wittman (08:52):
Sin complicates that, though. So with the fall, we have turned away from God’s Word, and turned away from God’s Wisdom and his Lordship. And we try to order the whole of the world and ourselves in it. And conduct ourselves in this world—we try to do so according to our own wisdom and word. And as we do so, it really, I think, compromises our ability to know God, because, you know, the things that he’s put before us, the object lessons he’s put before us about his goodness, and his wisdom, and his righteousness that we see in creation, we twist those things. And we turn them into lessons about other things. And we turn them into tools to, you know, kind of execute our own designs, right? And our own will in the world. To satisfy the desires of our flesh. This is something that Paul talks about in Romans one, right?
Brian Arnold (09:47):
Yeah. Can I just even read that text right now so that it gives some context for people?
Tyler Wittman (09:51):
Brian Arnold (09:51):
So in Romans, chapter one, verse 20, Paul says—”For his [God’s] 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. So they are without excuse.” And then, yeah, in the broader context, Paul’s talking about how—I like how you said it—they’re twisting what God has made and revealed to their own end, to their own shame. Things meant for glory, they’re turned into human shame.
Tyler Wittman (10:20):
Yeah. So it’s, you know, it’s clear in the context of Romans one, that God has revealed enough of himself to leave people without excuse. But boy oh boy, right? We definitely have distorted what he has revealed of himself and we have no problem at all becoming idolators, okay? Just like plunging headlong into idolatry. So after the fall, you know, the possibility of, like, what we call natural theology, knowing God’s attributes, for instance, or his work and his wisdom from the things he’s made—that’s really complicated. That’s hard to do. And I think that even extends to the natural law. It’s a bit complicated to kind of sort out some of these things, because what one…I mean, you know, in our own day and age, what people consider to be natural is really a point of dispute and debate.
Brian Arnold (11:12):
Well it’s entirely perverted and twisted. I mean, it’s been flip-flopped.
Tyler Wittman (11:16):
Yeah. That’s exactly right. And we shouldn’t be surprised by this. There’s a whole <laugh>…you know, the whole history of the people of Israel is full of, you know, syncretistic-kind of diversions—they’re going off and serving other gods and so forth, alongside Yahweh, and this and that. And then Paul’s narrating it for us in Romans one. So, you know, when we think about it in terms of the creation and fall…well, you know, natural theology would’ve been possible in our created state before the fall. After the fall, it’s harder. That doesn’t mean it goes away, though. It’s still there in some sense, but it needs to be sorted out. So you’re going to have some bad fruit and some good fruit, but in order to tell the good from the bad, right? In order to separate the wheat from the chaff, you’ve got to have some kind of winnowing fork.
Tyler Wittman (12:02):
You’ve got to have something to separate everything out. And I think that’s what special revelation helps us to do. It helps us to show…it helps us to see, rather, the things in creation that we can learn, that we can demonstrate, using rational thought that has been made alive by the Word of God. We can show people reasonably—hey, there is a God, and here are some reasons why, you know, you should believe that. Here are some things we can kind of show about God, based upon reason. But the ways that we do that, you know, the kind of attributes that we would talk about being true of God, and the kinds of things that we could point out as being true, you know, what is moral, right? The natural law and so forth, and what nature is, and what is natural, and what’s unnatural. Those kinds of things, we need special revelation to help us sort out some of those things. But then we can point back to creation and we can say—actually, you can actually see a lot of this in the things that God has made. But now we really do, I think, need special revelation to kind of help, you know, steer our attentions in the right direction.
Brian Arnold (13:17):
So there’s a phrase at the end of Romans 1:20 that, if people are new to this text, might really strike them harshly. And that is, “So they are without excuse.” And so you’ve made a beautiful case, I think, for what kind of that natural revelation is. That general revelation is that God has given to his people, but also saying—but we need special revelation, because of sin in the fallen world. We distort what God has created, and that’s distorted inside of us, because of even original sin. But we need special revelation. So why are they without excuse? So it seems like Paul is saying there that those who do not come to salvation in Christ will be condemned, even if they’ve never heard his name before, because of the revealed nature of God in the world. So how do you reconcile those two things?
Tyler Wittman (14:14):
Well, I think that he’s…I don’t think he’s actually claiming a whole lot, right? In terms of the knowledge that they’ve gained. I think he’s, you know, look at how he described it. He says, “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. So they are without excuse.” Well, you know, his invisible attributes, his eternal power and divine nature. Essentially, I think what Paul is saying here, he’s saying that there is something which people call God—right—is evident. If you just give enough thought to the fact that you exist. Right? And that there’s a world around you.
Tyler Wittman (15:01):
The fact that things tend towards certain ends, right? They tend to, you know, cows tend to produce cows, and they tend to do cow things, right? Humans do the same. Birds do the same. Right? You know, things tend in certain directions. They have a teleology, right? They’re bent on certain directions. The fact that there is something rather than nothing. You know, Thomas Aquinas, when he’s reflecting on these very themes, he says—if you just compile the best wisdom from all the best philosophers, you know, across history, you’d find a lot of truth, but it would be mixed up with so much error. And I think what he’s pointing to here, Paul is saying, you know, people are going to stumble upon truth. But as he goes on to show, this is obviously mixed with a lot of error. But the fact that they stumbled upon the truth, namely, that there is some kind of God, right? They owe their existence to something outside of themselves. And ultimately, that’s true. Not only of just me individually, but of my family, and of everyone I know, and everyone on the planet, and of the planet itself, and of the whole cosmos, right? You just kind of keep going on and on, not getting into the philosophical details of these arguments. He’s just saying there is a God, right? Although who that God is—that remains really unknown, apart from special revelation.
Brian Arnold (16:23):
But there’s accountability, even, to this God.
Tyler Wittman (16:25):
There’s what, now?
Brian Arnold (16:26):
There’s accountability to this God.
Tyler Wittman (16:29):
Well, yes. I mean, that would be the first question, right? It’s like, yeah, you find out—okay, well there is a God. Well then, who is he? And what does he want from me? Right? Or she, right? <Laugh> Because you don’t know who they’re—
Brian Arnold (16:44):
You don’t know. That’s right, exactly.
Tyler Wittman (16:45):
Yeah. You don’t know. And then you’re like—well, who is God? And why did they make me?
Brian Arnold (16:51):
Well, and there’s even this— go ahead.
Tyler Wittman (16:52):
That would be really important to figure out.
Brian Arnold (16:53):
Yeah, there’s this ancient Near Eastern text, where this person, this author, is wrestling through this about “the god who I know or do not know” and all the sacrifices they want to make. And just saying—I know I’ve offended a god out there, and I’ve got to make amends for this somehow. I think that’s in us to know that we are in a broken world, but there’s still order in the world. So what caused that? That things aren’t quite the way that they should be? Well, why is that? Right? And it kind of backs into that place of—okay, well then I must have offended a god out there. I mean, this is Anselm’s project, right? Like, how do we get to the knowledge of special revelation, in many ways, from general revelation? Like how can we almost think our way there?
Brian Arnold (17:36):
Which is, I think, an interesting approach. But, you know, if we keep reading, even in the book of Romans, Paul talks about the conscience in Romans chapter two as being another thing. So I talk to my students about creation and conscience being these kind of two wings on the general revelation plane of what God has given. So yes, we do have the natural world. And like you said—birds being birds, and dogs being dogs, and also the conscience, which tells us—I’ve done things wrong. I have actually sinned. And then Paul, you know, as he unfolds the gospel before his readers there in Rome, he gets to Romans chapter 10. And he does say, “how beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news.” It’s going to take people taking the gospel to these places, to people who have an awareness of who God is, but do not know the name of Jesus Christ. To share the gospel and see the Holy Spirit work. So it’s beautiful how Paul begins there, but he makes the move towards the gospel.
Tyler Wittman (18:34):
Yeah. And, I mean, I think that’s ultimately one of the classical functions of the law itself. Right? I mean, we see it echoed in our conscience. We have a kind of inborn sense of when we’ve done something wrong. Right? We don’t need much help encountering shame. Right? We <laugh>, we kind of stumble upon this pretty easily. And we know—yeah, I’ve done wrong. But we also know that there’s a kind of glory and a kind of goodness to our lives. But in order to know the real depths of that wrongness—right, when we have done something wrong, and in order to…especially to know the real depths of our goodness and our glory—we must know the God, right? In reference to whom our goodness—and also our wrongfulness, right—acquires its meaning.
Tyler Wittman (19:32):
So I need to hear the gospel, ultimately, in order to be liberated from…in order to know God, and in order to really be kind of liberated from my sin. But that point about conscience, right? Points us to that first use, classically, they call it the first use of the law. Mainly, the law itself condemns me, right? It shows me that I am guilty of something. Right? And it leaves me knowing that I must atone for something, and, you know, I’ve done something wrong. And then this, I think, hits upon what you’re saying with this ancient Near Eastern text. And it also shows why Paul makes that movement, ultimately, in Romans three and then following, and goes right to the gospel. Right? God has provided for this. And so yeah, we’re without excuse. Because not only do we know that there’s something out there, right? By reflecting on creation. We also know probably…we choose to suppress that knowledge, and we choose to go off on our own, and pretend like it’s not there. And we choose to kind of try to forget it. And I think, in that very action, we show ourselves sinners.
Brian Arnold (20:39):
I think that’s a really good summation of Paul’s movement there in the book of Romans. Let me kind of ask you this question. It’s happening a bit more in just kind of the theological circles today, and that’s the debate over the usefulness of natural theology. So where do you kind of fall out on that? Is that something that Christian theologians should take advantage of? And then what are the limitations of it?
Tyler Wittman (21:01):
Well, I mean, I think Aquinas is pretty careful here. He doesn’t just kind of…you know, some people think that Thomas Aquinas, famous scholastic theologian in the middle ages, they think that he kind of tries as long as he can to just sort of sort out what he can about God without having to read the Bible or something. And then, at long last, when he’s kind of sorted everything out he can, rationally, then he appeals to the Bible, to kind of shore up, you know, to kind of fill in the corners. That’s really not what he’s doing at all. He says at the very outset of his project—and this is the guy that so many people look to, right, when they’re thinking about these issues—he says, like I just said a minute ago—look, you know, the philosophers, if you got them all together, they’d have some insights, some really good ones, but you wouldn’t be able to find out what those are without revelation. Right?
Tyler Wittman (21:49):
Because they’re mixed in with so many errors. Not just errors in terms of like what they’ve actually said, but also errors in terms of how they got the error, and errors in terms of what they think it means, and what we should do with that information. So for Aquinas, he really says…he makes a good use of reason. He tries to say like—look, I can actually show you. I can give you good reasons that I can give to someone who doesn’t believe. I can say—if you just…you know, come let us reason together. I can give you good reasons to believe that there is a God. That’s when he is doing natural theology. But he doesn’t think that that’s going to actually get them to the place where they’re going to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ <laugh>.
Tyler Wittman (22:30):
And he doesn’t think that that’s going to be enough for them to know the Trinity, right? And the gospel. So there’s a utility of natural theology in the sense that, in light of the gospel, in light of special revelation, we can kind of see where the light of nature shines intelligibly, right? With meaning and with clarity on various issues pertaining to God’s attributes, to God’s existence, the natural law, right? You know, the kind of moral order of the universe. But we do need special revelation to kind of see where that is. So it’s kind of like you’re stumbling through the dark, and then you find the light switch, and you turn it on, and you can kind of look behind you, and you can retrace the path that you took. Right? But with the lights on, you can see, you know, the paths that you shouldn’t take, right? The things that you shouldn’t have stepped on, and so forth. Is that—
Brian Arnold (23:29):
I mean, that’s…yeah, it absolutely makes sense to me. And I think that’s exactly how I would describe where I’m at on that question, as well—of God gave it to us for a reason. And there are things that we can know. And even use it as an apologetic for getting people to recognize the world that they live in as designed by God. And even in their conscience, like you said before—nobody has trouble finding shame in their life. And that, you know, speaking to who we are as image bearers of God. So maybe, if you could, you know, we’re kind of running low on time. And if you could, maybe think of a resource or two that’d be really helpful for people to think through these issues, that’d be great.
Tyler Wittman (24:08):
Yeah, I think that…well, I’ll point people to one of your own faculty, right? Steve Duby, good friend of mine, and he wrote a big book called God in Himself. It’s a slog, right? I mean, people are going to have to put on their thinking caps. <laugh> to get through it, but he’s got a great chapter in there on natural theology. If you’re not, you know, you don’t have that much time on your hands, let’s put it that way, you could find a really good short essay on this by Scott Swain, and it’s called Theses on Natural Theology, and you can find it over at the reformation21.org website.
Brian Arnold (24:52):
Tyler Wittman (24:53):
People can just look on their web browsers, yeah—Scott Swain, Theses on Natural Theology. That would be a good kind of like…
Brian Arnold (25:00):
Tyler Wittman (25:00):
Good starter. Yeah.
Brian Arnold (25:02):
Well, that’s excellent. That’s a new one to me, and I’ll check that out myself. Well, this is a great discussion to think through how we can know God through what he has revealed to us. And I appreciate your time today, helping us think through this.
Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about our new online learning experience at Phoenix Seminary. Over the last year, we’ve been creating what we believe to be the highest quality of online courses for ministry training. If you’re called to train for a lifetime of faithful service, but can’t join us on campus, I’d like you to invite you to join us online. Take courses featuring some of the guests you’ve heard on Faith Seeking Understanding, including Wayne Grudem, Mike Thigpen, Steve Duby, myself, and more. Learn more about Phoenix seminary online, and even access the entire online lecture content for my church history course at ps.edu/online.