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WHAT DOES IT MEAN? The Hermeneutics of Natural Theology
Andy Bustanoby
(C) 2007

My previous essay on nouthetic counseling, "The Sufficiency of Scripture," brought some encouraging responses and thoughtful questions.

Given my argument in favor of naturalistic theism, it was suggested that a question mark might have been appropriate in my title. But Scripture is sufficient to give us God's view of what counselors need to know about the revelation of His person and work.

A further question was how "general revelation" (natural revelation) supplies any authoritative truth regarding the psychological dimension.

In this essay I want to address this question. Does a hermeneutic for naturalistic theism (or revelation) exist? Are there hermeneutics for the written word, biblical theology, but is none for natural theology?

As I read on the subject, one thing that most conservative theologians seem to agree on is that at least three fundamental rules apply to both biblical and natural revelation.

The first is, whatever meaning we attach to natural revelation, it must agree with biblical revelation in principle. There must be no contradiction between the two of them; that is, in the meaning of both.

The second is, when God speaks through natural revelation, there must be someone to hear. When the context includes the unbeliever, he does hear God speak. In this dispensation it is the voice of the Holy Spirit within.

The third is, natural revelation is self-interpreting. What the Scripture says is clearly understood by the unbeliever. It will result in his believing it and being led to salvation in Christ or result in his subduing and perverting the truth he has seen.

The fourth fundamental rule is that natural revelation is self interpreting. That which it says is clearly understood. When God speaks, man not only hears Him, but man understands what is being said. It is inconceivable that God should speak and that man should not understand what He is saying.

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When Psalm 19:1-4 says that the heavens declare God's glory and the firmament His handiwork, there must be someone to hear and understand the declaration. It is not just the believer who understands. Romans 1:20-21 makes it clear that the invisible qualities of God, His eternal power and Godhead, are "clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men [unbelievers] are without excuse.

Acts 17:27 says essentially the same thing. "God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us." The assumption Scripture makes is that which God declares is heard by the unbeliever.

John 16:8-11 tells us that the Holy Spirit will "convict the world of sin, righteousness and of judgment." The Holy Spirit speaks; the world hears. Again, it is the voice of God within.

In my final section of this paper, "Common Grace and Natural Revelation Can Point Souls to Christ," I will elaborate on other Scriptures. But this will give the reader some direction as to where I'm going. Simply put, if God declares, there must be someone to hear. And the Scripture makes it clear that it is not just believers but unbelievers who hear.

In all three references above, it is unbelievers who are addressed, who hear and understand, some to salvation, some to condemnation.

I find it ironic that the word nouthetic comes from a Greek word which can refer to Scripture, but more generally it refers to understanding God's declarations. It is from the word nous, (noun form of the verb noew), which is the word in Romans 1:20, translated, "understood." The understanding by the unbeliever in that passage is not an understanding of biblical revelation but an understanding of God speaking through natural revelation.

The Holy Spirit gives men two levels of understanding. The first, in Romans 1:20, nous, is purely an intellectual process. Unsaved man, observing creation, understands God's existence, even His eternal power and Godhead. But what will he do with this understanding? He will either step forward by faith, as Hebrews 11:3 says, and be led to the saving work of Christ. Or, he will suppress the truth and pervert it with wickedness.

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Romans 1:18-21 put together with John 16:8-11 and Hebrews 11:3, show us that the work of the Holy Spirit in unsaved man is to put before him a decision for or against Christ. Will he accept the Spirit's teaching about God's testimony about creation and by faith, believe? Or will he again, as Adam, rebel and subdue and pervert the truth.

Every man who is critical of the idea that he is going to hell because of Adam's sin faces exactly the decision that Adam had to make. Will he believe what God tells him today, here and now, or not? Will he rebel and subdue and pervert the truth, of which Paul accuses him in Romans 1?

A book on hermeneutics does not come with the Bible, but something far better does--the Holy Spirit (John 16:8-15). He gives unbelievers the opportunity to believe what He says is the meaning of what they see in creation. If God speaks, men must hear. They will hear and understand. But will they believe it?

When There Is Contradiction

We must be aware, however, that a contradiction may appear between biblical and natural revelation because what we see in nature we have wrongly interpreted or what we see in the Bible we have wrongly interpreted.

This is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but why did Paul say that he prayed three times that God would remove his infirmity (2 Cor. 12:7-10), but God told him that His grace was sufficient, and that His strength was made perfect in weakness. Yet Paul advises Timothy to use a little wine for his stomach's sake and his frequent infirmities (1 Tim 5:23). What!! Paul prays about his infirmities yet advises Timothy to drink a little wine??

Yes, tongue-in-cheek. But I find no contradiction. And don't tell me that the "wine" Christians drank in the first century wasn't alcoholic. I wrote a book on the subject, published by Eerdmans titled, The Wrath of Grapes, dismissing such an idea. It's out of print, but I'll get you one if you write me. I'll have more to say about this in the last section of this essay.

Let's face it. The Bible, let alone natural revelation, is often misunderstood.

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This is the major fault I see in nouthetic counseling. The National Association of Nouthetic Counselors (NANC) says the following in its Membership Covenant (January 1-December 31 2007). It starts out by saying:

Biblical counselors affirm the value and usefulness of God's revelation, including both Special and General Revelation [biblical and natural revelation]. God has chosen to reveal those truths that must be believed and practiced in order to please Him only through Special Revelation, now recorded exclusively and completely in the Scriptures.

But the covenant ends by saying:

We deny that secular theories and practices are manifestations of General Revelation or Common Grace. We affirm that they are, in fact, attempts to substitute the "discoveries" of rebellious human thought for the truths revealed in Scripture, and are, therefore, in competition with a proper interpretation of General Revelation and with biblical counseling. They cannot be integrated with the Faith once for all delivered to the saints.

If this is so, then an unbeliever can't be helped by a nouthetic counselor until he is saved. This idea is in direct contradiction to the teaching of Scripture. Indeed, natural revelation, properly used, is not the discovery of rebellious human thought; it is rebellious human thought plagiarizing God's natural revelation. There are a number of instances where unsaved people, faced with natural revelation that agreed with Scripture, saw the light or were convicted of their doom. I will speak of this shortly.

I first must say that some psychology is garbage. It is neither natural revelation nor the plagiarizing of God's revelation. I need not go into detail about it's contradiction to Scripture, particularly the cultural acceptance of homosexuality and premarital sex, clearly condemned by Scripture. But there is some psychology that is useful to Christian counselors, not only because it does not contradict Scripture, but that it also proves workable (one question scientists in any science want to confirm).

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Grant E. Metcalf of "Bartimaeus Alliance of the Blind," has published a series of my blogs. In the first one, "Charlie Taught Me Something About Prayer," I mention a principle of psychology that is valid. It is "operant conditioning." This is as proved a psychological principle as Pavlov's "conditioned reflex." Read the blog if you're curious. The blog website address is The Alliance Home Page address is .

The Correlation of Biblical and Natural Revelation

In spite of the "contradictions" between natural and biblical revelation that misinterpretations raise, there is definitely a correlation or agreement between the two. This suggests to me a correlation or agreement of hermeneutics. How we interpret biblical statements about biblical revelation (God-breathed Scripture) must be the same as biblical statements about natural revelation. Perhaps some quotations from noted theologians will help explain.

Augustus H. Strong. Baptist theologian Augustus H. Strong in his Systematic Theology speaks of this issue in his Prolegomena. Space does not permit more than snippets to give an idea of what I mean. It would be well for the doubter to read his entire Prolegomena.

l. Scripture and Nature. By nature we mean not only physical facts, or facts with regard to the substances, properties, forces, and laws of the material world, but also spiritual facts, or facts with regard to the intellectual and moral constitution of man, and the orderly arrangement of human society and history (p. 26).

Quoting Bushnell he says, "Nature and the supernatural together constitute one system of God."

(a) Natural theology.--The universe is a source of theology. The Scriptures assert that God has revealed himself in nature. There is not only an outward witness to his existence and character in the constitution and government of the universe (Ps. 19; Acts 14:17; Rom. 1:20), but an inward witness to his existence and character in the heart of

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every man (Rom. 1:17-20, 32; 2:15). The systematic exhibition of these facts, whether derived from observation, history or science, constitutes natural theology (p. 27).

Here, then, are some quotes Strong offers from other theologians:

There are two books: Nature and Scripture-one written and the other unwritten . . . . To despise the works of God is to despise God himself . . . . Nature is not so much a book, as a voice . . . . The direct knowledge of spiritual communion must be supplemented by knowledge of God's ways gained from the study of nature . . . . Books of science are the record of man's past interpretations of God's works.

(b) Natural theology supplemented.--The Christian revelation is the chief source of theology. The Scriptures plainly declare that the revelation of God in nature does not supply all the knowledge which a sinner needs (Acts 17:23; Eph. 3:9) (Ibid).

(c) The Scriptures the final standard of appeal.--Science and Scripture throw light upon each other. The same divine Spirit who gave both revelations is still present, enabling the believer to interpret the one by the other and thus progressively to come to the knowledge of the truth . . . . (Ibid).

The Spirit of Christ enables us to compare nature with Scriptures, and Scripture with nature, and to correct mistakes in interpreting the one by light gained from the other (p. 28).

(d) The theology of Scripture not unnatural.--Though we speak of the systematized truths of nature as constituting natural theology, we are not to infer that Scriptural theology is unnatural. Since the Scripture have the same author as nature, the same principles are illustrated in the one as in the other (Ibid.).

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With Strong's support, I say again that the hermeneutics of natural theology must be the same as the hermeneutics of biblical theology. Both theologies have the same author.

J. Dwight Pentecost. Another theologian who writes about natural theology and its correlation with biblical theology is J. Dwight Pentecost. His book The Divine Comforter: The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit, has an excellent chapter on "The Ministry of the Spirit to the World."

He points out that most believers are primarily concerned about the work of the Spirit in the believer but neglect the truth of the work of the Spirit to the world of the unbeliever. He goes on by saying:

     And yet, the Word of God reveals the fact that the Holy Spirit
     had a ministry that began at the time of creation, and which
     has continued unchanged down through the ages.  This is His
     ministry to the world in general (p. 66).

Speaking, then, of the lawlessness of society, he asks how it is that we see some unbelievers today living good lives--morally upright and respectable.

(a) His answer is that God is the restrainer of sin. How does He do this? By the power of the Holy Spirit through means: the authority given to government, the revelation of coming judgment, the voice of the Spirit which is conscience, and the life the believer lives before the world (p. 75).

I shall speak of this lastly with specific references to Scripture and comments on it. Natural revelation can point the unbeliever to the Scripture and the way of salvation in Christ. Again, as Strong points out: "There are two books-Nature and Scripture.">/P>

(b) Pentecost says further that God works in the world by reproving or convicting the world of sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16:8). It is important that we see that it is the Holy Spirit doing this. The Holy Spirit is a voice that speaks both through nature and through Scripture.

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(c) A third area of the Spirit's work to the world is in revealing Jesus Christ as the Savior. Jesus, speaking of the Holy Spirit said, "He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall shew it unto you" (Jn. 16:14). Speaking of His resurrection He also said, "I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me" (Jn. 12:32). Pentecost says, "How is He drawing men? It is by the Spirit of God restraining, convicting and revealing Jesus Christ as the Way, the Truth and the Life" (p. 78).

But to me the most convincing argument comes from L. S. Chafer. He says:

The book of nature is as much God's book as is the Book of revelation. The universe is His work and therefore must attest His being, and, as far as it can advance, unfold His ways. The voice of nature and the voice of revelation proceeding from the same source must harmonize; nor can either be slighted with impunity. It is not contended that the book of nature is comparable in extent, exactness, or elucidation, with the Book of revelation. Pious minds, wholly satisfied with the Scriptures of truth, should not be indifferent to the testimony of nature; nor should the superficial and profane disregard the pleadings of reason. The sincere student of truth will hardly do so. He will not avert his eye from the light of God. As their names denote, philosophy is "the love of wisdom" and science is "the interpretation of nature"; therefore, no worthy philosopher will ignore the Source of all truth and no sincere scientist will shrink from the investigation or right evaluation of the claims of naturalistic theism. (L.S. Chafer, Systematic Theology, vol. I, p. 140)

This to me answers a criticism offered twice by reviewers. They say that if I were applying natural revelation to definitive sciences such as brain chemistry or mathematics, they would have no problem. Chafer includes philosophy in his statement, and that is no more a definitive science than psychology.

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Common Grace and Natural Revelation

Common grace is the unmerited favor of God to all men, believer and unbeliever alike. It differs from efficacious grace which is God's salvation to those whom He calls (Rom. 8:28-30).

Contrary to the Arminian view of common grace, it has nothing to do with God's giving to all men the ability to believe on Christ if they will. The biblical view of common grace is God's testimony of His gracious gift of good things that meet the human needs of mankind. By so doing He is saying, See, I am a gracious God. I want you to know I have even more grace to offer--the salvation of your souls through Jesus Christ.

"What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?" (Mt. 16:26). God's common grace may be able to help a man gain the world, but he needs efficacious grace to save his soul.

Matthew speaks of common grace:

          He (God) causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and
          Sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Mt. 5:45b).

Matthew is writing to the Jews, making the point that they, the chosen people, are not the only objects of God's common grace. The entire world of unbelieving men also has seen the testimony of this gracious God.

The Apostle Paul repeats this truth in Lystra where the people worshipped Paul and Barnabas as gods because of the healing miracle. But they rushed into the crowd and said:

          We too are only men, human like you.  We are bringing you
          good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to
          the living God, who made heaven and earth and everything
          in them.  In the past, he let all nations go their own way.
          Yet he has not left himself without testimony:  He has shown
          kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their
          seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your
          hearts with joy (Acts 14:15b-17).

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His point in referring to common grace is the same as Matthew's. He is saying, Don't think that some of us are so special that God has turned his back on the rest of the world. He is still at work in the world working through common grace, leaving testimony that He is a gracious God who has even more grace to give in the saving work of Jesus Christ.

Common Grace and Natural Revelation Can Point Souls To Christ

Though common grace and natural revelation can save no one, Scripture makes it clear that they can point souls to Christ. God has, indeed, left a testimony to unbelieving men that He is a gracious God. This truth, nouthetic counselors do not believe. The NANC Membership Covenant says:

          We deny that secular theories and practices are manifestations
          Of General Revelation or Common Grace.

As I pointed out on pages two and three, they are doing what Strong says:

          To despise the works of God is to despise God Himself.

Perhaps the nouthetic counselor doesn't understand that the "discoveries of rebellious human thought" are really plagiarism of God's revelation in common grace and natural revelation (which they call, General Revelation).

Let biblical revelation now testify to the truth of natural revelation's message to the world of our gracious God. I must go back and pick up my remarks on page two about prayer for infirmities (2 Cor. 12:7-10) and wine for infirmities (1 Tim. 5:23).

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1) Healing for the Body. In the two Scriptures in Second Corinthians and First Timothy we see a connection between biblical and natural theology. Two-thousand years ago, as well as today, there were some cures that only God could render. Paul's infirmity was probably eye-disease, common in the Middle East. But then, as today, there were infirmities that could be treated with man's "discoveries," that really are their discovery of God's work in nature. Wine was an ancient medication, as common as aspirin today. Here we have the appeal to two cures for infirmities. One is a direct cure from God and the other is given through man by way of natural revelation--a "discovery."

2) The Life of Believers. Another testimony that the Holy Spirit uses is the life of believers. We read in 2 Corinthians, "But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life" (2 Cor. 2:14-16).

Through believers, God spreads an odor of the knowledge of Him. To some unbelievers, it is the fragrance of life, and they are saved. To others, it is the smell of death, and they gasp at the odor of their condemnation.

This is very similar to what is taught in John 16. The ministry of the Spirit is to enlighten the world of sin, righteousness and judgment. To some, the enlightenment results in salvation. Others hear the declaration of judgment from the Holy Spirit.

This is not biblical revelation. It is naturalistic revelation to unbelievers who observe Christians in the world that we share with them.

3) The Conscience of the Unbeliever. Another evidence of natural revelation in the life of the unbeliever is in Romans 2. Paul, reproaching the Jews for their pride in the law, which they did not keep, speaks of the Gentiles who through natural revelation in conscience are more in touch with God than the Jews. He says, "Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even

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though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them" (Rom. 2:14-15).

Imagine this! Here are moral unbelievers who have a conscience about what is expected of God. Again, we have the work of the Holy Spirit convicting the world of sin, righteousness and judgment.

4) The Magi and the Birth of Jesus. In Matthew 2 we have the amazing story of the Magi, the Wise Men, looking for the one "born King of the Jews" (Mt. 2:2). These were Persian astronomers who saw a star rising in the east declaring this message to them. How did they know that God was speaking through this phenomenon, saying that the King of the Jews was born?

It took them two years to arrive in Palestine. We know this because Herod ordered the murder of all boys in Bethlehem and vicinity who were two years or younger (Mt. 2:16).

Not only were they led to where Jesus was (Mt. 2:11), they were also warned in a dream not to go back to Herod and report their finding. Most dreams are ignored, but this one was different enough to make the Magi know that God was speaking.

The point is that of natural revelation. The Magi were led to Jesus and to defy Herod by a star and a dream.

Wise men still are finding Jesus by following the star of natural revelation.


I have attempted to show that there are at least four fundamental rules of hermeneutics for natural revelation.

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1) Natural revelation must agree with biblical revelation in principle. There must be no contradiction between the two of them; that is, in the meaning of both.

2) When God speaks through natural revelation, there must be someone to hear. When the context includes the unbeliever, he hears God speak. In this dispensation it is through the Holy Spirit.

3) Natural revelation is self-interpreting. What the Scripture says is clearly understood by the unbeliever (Rom. 1:18-20). It results in his believing it and being led to Christ or subduing and perverting the truth.

4) Natural revelation is self-interpreting. That which it says is clearly understood. When God speaks, man not only hears Him, but man understands what is being said. It is inconceivable that God should speak and that man should not understand what He is saying.

A nouthetic counselor that I was discussing biblical counseling with attempted to sum up the differences between nouthetic counseling and the legitimacy of natural/biblical counseling. He said, "Reformation [counseling that falls short of the salvation of the counselee] may fail; transformation [salvation by Christ] does not."

This is not true. Though transformation through the new birth may not result in the loss of salvation, it may result, because of sin, in the loss of life (1 Jn. 5:16-17) or at least the loss of reward (1 Cor. 3:10-15).

Counseling must embrace both natural and biblical revelation--all of God's works, not just what we decide is definitive and what is not. Does what we see as a work of God in His creation agree with the principles of Scripture. This approach offers an opportunity for counseling God's way. This, to me, is what the sufficiency of Scripture in Christian counseling is all about.

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