Is the "Gospel in the Stars"? or the Distinction Between Nature and Grace

In 1882 the Lutheran minister Joseph A. Seiss (1823-1904) published the provocative volume, The Gospel in the Stars, Or, Prímeval Astronomy (Philadelphia: E. Claxton & company, 1882). Evidently it found an audience and it has been reprinted as recently as the early 1970s and again in 2005. In this 196p volume Seiss argued,

“Not to the being and attributes of an eternal Creator alone, but, above all, to the specific and peculiar work of our redemption, and to Him in whom standeth our salvation are “lights in the firmament” the witnesses and “signs.”

Seiss is not the only American evangelical to have argued this thesis. The American Presbyterian pastor and tele-evangelist, D. James Kennedy argued a similar thesis from the pulpit and in print.

This argument, which seems to find favor not only among some broadly evangelical Lutherans and Presbyterians apparently has advocates within the Calvary Chapel movement.

What is the attraction of this notion, that the gospel may be found in general revelation general or in the stars in particular? Almost certainly it is attractive because it seems to offer a mitigation to the problem, in modernity, created by Christian exclusivism. When the modernist critic says, “But it isn’t fair to restrict the knowledge of Christ and the gospel only to those who have heard the preached gospel, what about the rest of the world that has never heard or may never hear?” To be sure this is a great problem and an equally great stimulus to mission. The “gospel-in-the-stars advocate can say, “But everyone CAN hear or at least see the basic gospel message spelled out vestigially in the Zodiac.”

The basic structure of this argument is as old as Justin Martyr (c. 150 AD) who argued that since the Logos is the universal rational principle and therefore accessible to all rational persons, and Jesus is the Logos incarnate, all persons, insofar as they have access to the Logos, have access to Christ.

The great problem with this sort of an argument, however attractive initially, is that it reduces the scandal of the cross. Under the guise of pointing sinners to Christ, it actually points them away from the scandalous cross and to a theology of glory. We might excuse an American evangelical Presbyterian, for whom the categorical distinction between the theologia crucis and the theologia gloriae might be unfamiliar but a Lutheran? What’s his excuse? The answer is that American Lutherans have just as great a problem with non- or sub-confessional theology, piety, and practice as do American Reformed and Presbyterian types.

In the history of Christianity there have been three great approaches to nature and grace:

Grace perfects nature (e.g., Thomas). In this scheme, nature is thought to have been inherently defective by virtue of finitude. Grace is conceived as a sort of medicine that facilitates deification.

Grace Obliterates nature (e.g., the Anabaptists). In this scheme, the point of grace is to overcome nature since, in this radical ontological dualism, nature is evil. This is the scheme of the gnostics of all times and places.

Grace renews nature. This is the biblical and confessional Protestant view. This view, advocated by many of the fathers against the gnostics and Valentinians and others, affirms the goodness of creation and the necessity of grace to restore that creation finally at the consummation.

The opposite error, ho to seeing the gospel in nature is refusal to see any natural revelation at all.  Rom 1-2 are explicit that all humans know from nature, intuitively, in the conscience, and in that sense innately, that they are image bearers accountable to the personal God who is a righteous judge. We all know the substance of the moral, creational law. We demonstrate that we know the law by making and breaking laws ourselves. Every society, no matter how small or corrupt has a law and a system of punishments. Even thieves have rules. There is a moral hierarchy of sorts in the worst prisons. One of the great errors of modern theology (e.g., Barth) is to attempt to placate the religious skepticism of the Enlightenment by denying natural revelation or natural law. The Reformed confessions explicitly and repeatedly teach the existence of natural revelation and natural law.

Fundamental to the “gospel-in-the-stars” error is its implicit confusion of nature for grace and its implicit confusion of law and gospel. According to the Apostle Paul in Rom 1-2 nature reveals only God’s existence and his righteous justice and coming judgment. There is no gospel in the command: “do this and live” whether it is revealed in nature, in the covenant of works, or at Sinai. Law is law. It never becomes gospel. It never says, “Christ shall do for you” or “Christ has done for you.” The law is relentless and ruthless. The law says, “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything which is written in the book of the law.” (Gal 3:10). That is essentially a different word from: “Come to me all who are burdened and I will give you rest.” According to God’s Word as confessed by the Reformed (and Lutheran) churches, we only know the gospel from special revelation (grace) not from nature or law.

The Belgic Confession (1561) Art. 2 witnesses to the Reformed confession about the limits of natural revelation:

We know him by two means: First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most elegant book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many characters leading us to see clearly the invisible things of God, even his everlasting power and divinity, as the Apostle Paul says (Romans 1:20). All which things are sufficient to convince men and leave them without excuse.  Second, he makes himself more clearly and fully known to us by his holy and divine Word, that is to say, as far as is necessary to us to know in this life, to his glory and our salvation.

Notice that in the Belgic, the Reformed churches confess a twofold knowledge of God: natural and saving. The first means of knowledge is via “the creation, preservation, and government of the universe.” This is, as the Belgic says, “as a most elegant book.” The Barthians and theonomists and others who deny natural law or natural revelation are out of step with the Reformed faith when they do. The Reformed faith has a due appreciation for the reality of natural revelation but we also recognize and appreciate the limits of natural revelation.

We should pay close attention to those limits. That elegant book of nature is only able “to convince (convaincre) men and leave them without excuse.” This theme of “leaving without excuse” is universal in Reformed orthodoxy in the 16th and 17th centuries. This was the corollary to natural law. The law convicts. It teaches but it does not regenerate, it does not preach Christ, it does not save. We could just as well translate “convaincre” as “convict.” The function of the law is privative not positive. It deprives the sinner of ground of appeal. That is all.

The second source of knowledge leads to a distinct sort of knowledge. The first sort of knowledge is legal and non-saving. The second sort of knowledge leads to “his glory and our salvation.” The first sort of knowledge does not lead to our salvation because it cannot. This is the qualifier for the clause, “he makes himself more clearly and fully known.” The locus or source of of this knowledge is “his holy and divine Word.” Art. 3 specifies that when we speak of this Word, we are speaking of the “holy and divine Scriptures.” When the Belgic says “Word” it means a book and a message not an existential encounter.

This was the doctrine of the Westminster Assembly and remains the doctrine of the confessional Presbyterian churches today. WCF 1.1 says: “Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation.” It contrasts the good and just general revelation with that revelation of his law and of his grace which God committed to writing in Holy Scripture (1.1). It is not in nature but in Scripture that the “whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down….” (1.6).

Scripture has a unique function and authority for faith and the Christian life. WCF 1.10 says, “The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.” This is not true of natural revelation.

Nature and grace are distinct things. Nature is good as created by God but it is not saving only grace brings salvation and the revelation of the same. Nature is good. It does not need to be perfected nor should it be obliterated. Nature, particularly human nature, needs to be renewed. By grace it is being renewed and that renovation shall be completed at the consummation. We need not confuse nature and grace nor ought we to reject the one for the other. God gave us both. Let both fulfill their proper functions.

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  1. “What is the attraction of this notion, that the gospel may be found in general revelation general or in the stars in particular?”
    “Fundamental to the “gospel-in-the-stars” error is its implicit confusion of nature for grace and its implicit confusion of law and gospel.”

    This blows the doctrine out of the water. Interpreting the stars is shearly arbitrary as it is for astrology and those who try to interpret that for guidance of their lives.

    To interpret the stars, who will be a guide for the blind who don’t know how to do so rightly?

    Curiousity on my part here, since you’re mentioning revelation confusion: The Amaraldians made a stink about their “hypothetical universal atonement” ditty. How is it that God made or would have made this manifest in their scheme of thought?

  2. I have a question. Given something like Thomas Boston’s fourfold state, where the state of heaven is beyond and better than the state of nature, would the language of renewal fully comprehend that notion. Renewal sounds like restoration, but if eschatology precedes soteriology, then it seems like we have more than renewal going on. We have a different state in the eschatological world. But that might not negate the notion of renewal. Is it grace that puts us in a world that is beyond the original created natural world? I am just wondering out loud here. Any help?


  3. Oh, that makes sense. So in this particular issue, the problem with the other two positions (among other things) is that there is such discontinuity.

  4. I don’t think the Seiss book, or Bullinger’s (the 19th century Bullinger) which is along the same lines, means anything other than in the stars were available to see what, for instance, could be seen in the types in Old Testament Scripture or the ceremonial laws as acted out in real life by the Israelites. And what is viewed in the stars according to these books includes the cross, the sacrifice of the Messiah.

    With this in mind I don’t see how this that you write follows:

    “The great problem with this sort of an argument, however attractive initially, is that it reduces the scandal of the cross. Under the guise of pointing sinners to Christ, it actually points them away from the scandalous cross and to a theology of glory.”

  5. Dr. Clark,

    The Barthians and theonomists and others who deny natural law or natural revelation are out of step with the Reformed faith when they do. The Reformed faith has a due appreciation for the reality of natural revelation but we also recognize and appreciate the limits of natural revelation.

    I don’t know about the Barthians, but are you saying that theonomists (in general) deny natural law and natural revelation?

    Because recently on another thread at the outhouse, you and I were actually arguing *together* against a fellow’s arguments that natural revelation included Christ. It seemed to me that both you and I were saying that *yes* there is natural revelation and natural law, but *no* the way of salvation is not ever found in it. I’ve long fancied myself as a theonomist, and so maybe in this arena I’m just out of step with most other theonomist. ??


  6. Jackson,

    The typological pattern revealed in the temple and the entire worship system prior to Christ was NOT general revelation.

    One cannot equate the temple, which was built according to specifications revealed to Moses on the mountain, with the stars or the trees. The latter is what is meant by “nature” and “natural revelation.” The gospel was revealed in the temple, in circumcision, in the promises made to Adam and Noah etc. Those were examples of special revelation.

    Adam could not have known from nature that God the Son would become incarnate, would obey in his place as the last/second Adam, and that all who trust him would be accounted as righteous. Adam could not have known from nature that God is one in three persons.

    These doctrines are revealed in special revelation.

    That’s why the Reformed Churches distinguish between “general” (which is universally accessible) and “special” revelation (which is given in Scripture and which culminates in the incarnation of God the Son).

    “The gospel in the stars” unintentionally reduces the scandal of the cross by making the gospel into a sort of universal rational principle which anyone can see if he simply applies himself to the study of nature (e.g. the stars).

    The scandal of the cross, the foolishness of the gospel, is the scandal and foolishness of the PREACHED message (the kerygma) of the incarnation, obedience, death, and resurrection of Christ. This is Paul’s doctrine in 1 Cor 1-3; Rom 10-11.

    When Paul appeals to natural revelation at Mars Hill (the Areopagus) he does do to CONVICT the pagans of their idolatry. When he preaches the gospel he points them to the resurrection — grace, special revelation. He does not say, “Now you good Athenian philosophers, if you will only apply yourself to the study of the stars, you yourselves may see the natural revelation of the very thing I just preached.” Not at all. Why not? Because Paul was a Christian and not a rationalist. The gospel is not a universal rational principle. It the GOSPEL of Christ which is only known in special revelation and which is preached and which is witnessed in the sacraments (grace, not nature).

  7. K,

    When you made that natural law argument you were NOT being theonomic. That system is not malleable. You cannot have it, “I am a theonomist, I did x, ergo theonomy does x.” Theonomy, as a system, is a competitor to Reformed theology, it has sympathies with Reformed theology but it also has serious tensions with Reformed theology. It more or less rejects WCF 19.4, “To them also, as a body politic, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require.”

    There is no reconciling the abiding validity of the Mosaic civil laws or punishments with the verb “expire.” To expire is to breath out one’s last, to die, to push up daisies, to join the choir invisible. “Abiding validity” is the very opposite of “expire.”

    This is why theonomy is one of the capital examples of the QIRC, because it says, in effect, “Pay no attention to what the WCF says, look at this coin trick over here! We have a whole system for restructuring the civil law of post-canonical societies.”

    Never mind “general equity thereof.”

    I took your natural law argument at the Outhouse as a sort of experiment but there’s no reconciling natural law with theonomy, not honestly and not in the spirit or history or tradition of the theonomic and reconstructionist movement(s). You must choose this day whom you will serve. The historic Reformed natural law tradition or the QIRCY/fundamentalist novelty that is theonomy.

  8. Okay, fair enough response. I think I had your answer in mind as a possibility when I finished with:

    and so maybe in this arena I’m just out of step with most other theonomist. ??

    So, you’re saying I’m out of step. Got it. Thanks for the answer.

    Regarding the “general equity thereof,” I don’t think I’ve seen your explanation of that statement, and now that you mention it, it has brought that question to mind. How do you read that, in its historical setting and original intent? Maybe you already have a post or an article written on that you can link to. If you do, I’ll read it, I promise!


  9. K,

    I discuss “general equity thereof” and give references to the literature in RRC.

    Read in its context there’s absolutely no way to square the theonomic account of “general equity” with the historic use and the intended sense in the WCF.

    In my view the verb “expire” and the phrase “general equity thereof” should have aborted the entire theonomic movement within the Reformed Churches. The fact that it did not is prima facie evidence that, when the theonomic movement arose, people weren’t analyzing issues in confessional terms. We were either predestinarian fundamentalists or predestinarian evangelical/revivalists. The revivalists rejected theonomy on inadequate grounds and at least some of the fundamentalists embraced it because it provided a substitute for the moral certainty they had under their previous fundamentalist-moralist (no drinking, no smoking, no whatever) system they had before the embraced predestination.

  10. Okay, well, then I’m well on my way to reading that part too! (I guess I’ve really got to pick it back up, get off the computer for a while and do my continue my homework. It’s just been so much easier to be on the laptop in the same room that my wife is in. I’ll switch to the book tonight.)

    Have a good Lord’s Day tomorrow.


  11. I see our difference. I myself wasn’t, and wouldn’t, put the Gospel in the Stars in the general revelation category. More like special revelation that miracles or direct communication to a prophet would be in (special revelation being, I know you know, more than just the Old and New Testaments). I also suspect that prophets would have been needed to see and teach the Gospel in the stars.

    I say this without ever having a position on the subject prior, but just knowing of the Seiss book and the similar Bullinger (19th century Bullinger) book.

  12. Hi Jackson,

    As you can tell from WCF 1, the Reformed are cessationists. We limit special revelation to the canonical period and, with the end of the canonical period, we hold that Scripture is the only source of special revelation. Claims to special revelation outside of Scripture are impossible to verify and tend to subjectivism. It’s like interpreting providence. Who knows why the planes hit the twin towers? Who can know the mind or intent or will of God apart from special revelation. When an earthquake strikes or a tower falls or a man is born blind, who can say why God ordained such providences? Jesus warned us explicitly not to try to guess the meaning of providence or to say “x happened because y sinned.”

  13. I didn’t make it clear, but I was operating under the assumption that the Gospel in the Stars is a ‘lost art’ (if I can put it that way) for a reason, and is not special revelation that exists now alongside the Old and New Testaments, nor do prophets exists to reveal it.

  14. Jackson,

    The scriptures do not teach that the gospel is in the stars. A “lost art” implies that, if one is skilled enough, one can “divine” the gospel from the stars. One can read the gospel into the stars but that’s not natural revelation or special revelation. That’s just Christians making up stuff to make themselves feel better about their faith: “See, it’s the stars, it must be true!”

  15. Jackson,

    Can we see the Holy Trinity in the stars and, if not, why not? If so, what else can we see in the stars (nature)? Can we see, if we’re skilled enough, the sacraments? Can we see church discipline? Can we see the history of redemption? Can we see the resurrection?

  16. The subject isn’t ecclesiology in the stars, or systematic theology in the stars, but the Gospel in the stars.

    But please don’t use me as a foil as if I brought up the subject or argue for it or for its relevance.

    If anything, my position originally was this: *if* there is or was a Gospel in the stars it would constitute special rather than general revelation. You take the other side on that. I think, though, that is at least a very arguable subject.

  17. Jackson,

    The question in principle is how you can limit the revelation in the stars, which, according to Romans and the Reformed confessions, is a matter of special revelation which is confined to Scripture, only to the gospel. Why not the Trinity?

    On what grounds can you say that only the gospel is in natural revelation? Why not the Trinity or other matters of special revelation? Why do we even need the bible? Why not just give ourselves over to the skilled study of the stars?

    How do you know, from the stars, what the gospel is?

    You say it’s an “arguable” subject. So argue it.

  18. Because I’m not sure if you are familiar with the general subject matter of Seiss’ book (and the source he used, and then Bullinger’s later) here is a page from the site I linked above with a quick overview:

    Miracles are in the category of special revelation, and your question seems to me to be asking the equivalent of why didn’t Jesus perform every type of miracle but only the ones He did perform?

    My understanding, by the way, of what constitutes special revelation is from Berkhof. Holy Writ is special revelation par excellence, but theophanies, direct communications, and miracles are special revelation too (and I don’t mean now, again, the subject of the Gospel in the stars is, in those books, set in antediluvian times.

    In fact, if you have his Manual of Christian Doctrine (the Eerdman’s edition) on page 31, the section titled THE NECESSITY OF SPECIAL REVELATION is relevant regarding all this. That section seems to take a position between what you and I have stated here regarding general/special revelation with regards to this Gospel in the stars subject.

    “Through the entrance of sin into the world God’s general revelation was obscured and corrupted, so that the handwriting of God in nature and in the very constitution of man is not as legible now as it was in the morning of creation.”

    One of the reasons he gives for special revelation is “To illumine man so that he can once more read the handwriting of God in nature.”

    I realize special revelation is usually defined as carrying what general revelation can’t carry, namely the facts of the Gospel, but that is why I say this Gospel in the stars would be in the category of special revelation (special revelation of antediluvian times) now obscured and surpassed by special revelation par excellence the Word of God.

    Berkhof seems to say that general revelation was more able to deliver special revelation (God’s handwriting in nature) in the “morning of creation.”

    Again, if you review the subject matter of the Gospel in the stars books in question you’ll see that they are detective exercises attempting to suss out what was known in antediluvian times (Enoch’s time).

  19. Jackson,

    I agree with Berkhof. He isn’t contradicting the Belgic Confession. He’s only saying that, prior to the fall, general revelation was clearer than it is now. I agree completely.

    Bullinger was wrong. The gospel has never been revealed in the stars. Ever. Not in the garden. Not during the Noahic epoch. Not now. Never. The gospel was preached by God to Adam in special revelation after the fall.

    The position I’m arguing is not my personal view. It’s the view confessed by the Reformed Churches, hence the quotations from the Belgic and WCF.

    So you haven’t answered the basic methodological question. If we can see the gospel in the stars, why not the incarnation, the Trinity etc?

    Who can see the gospel in the stars?

    What does this view do to the great commission?

    “Go to all the nations. Preach the gospel. Administer the sacraments or just let them figure it out from the stars. Either way. Pick em.”

  20. “It’s like interpreting providence. Who knows why the planes hit the twin towers?”

    Is it lright to say that God wanted to kill the 9(?) nutcases that were driving those things?

  21. Durrell,

    That sure sounds more like frustrated American, which seems to help make RSC’s point about attempting to discern the secret will of God. Calvin called that a “labyrinth from which there is no hope of return.” I’m also not sure how such a suggestion escapes too readily the third commandment, you know, employing the name of the Most High in the service of frustrated American.

  22. Durell,

    Apart from special revelation, we can’t say what God’s purposes were. Anything we say is speculative. In the 14th century, there was a synod of sorts, in London, where Archbp Wm Courtenay was seeking to convict Wycliffe of heresy. There was an earthquake during the meeting. The Archbishop took it as a sign of divine approval. Wycliffe, of course, took it as a sign of divine disapproval!

    So it is with interpreting providence. It’s hopelessly subjective unless one has an a priori (rationalist) scheme by which to interpret it or unless one has special revelation by which to interpret it.

    The only thing we know that natural revelation (of which post-canonical providence is a part) reveals is God’s existence and his law.

    We wouldn’t know what the rainbow means were it not for special revelation.

    For more on natural revelation and natural law see these resources.

  23. >Who can see the gospel in the stars? What does this view do to the great commission?

    I just don’t think you realize that the book you originally mentioned, the Seiss book, is an exercise not in saying the Gospel can be seen in the stars during this time between the first and second comings of Christ, but that it was a form of revelation in antediluvian times.

    It’s not about modern day astrology (that website linked is written by a man with a Ph.D. in astronomy) or about saying a tribe in a valley of Peru circa 908 A.D. had the Gospel by just looking up. I.e. those books are not about solving the question of ‘what about people who never heard the Gospel?’

  24. Jackson,

    I do realize it and I don’t care! I quoted the thesis statement in the essay and I categorically reject the thesis.

    It doesn’t matter when he posits the gospel in the stars. It really doesn’t. It’s wrong as a matter of biblical exegesis, theology, and confession.

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