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.1
- 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 in redemption. This is the biblical and confessional Reformed 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 (i.e., human nature) in redemption and finally at the consummation.
The opposite error of seeing the gospel in nature is the refusal to see any natural revelation at all. Romans 1–2 is explicit that all humans know from nature, through their sense experience and 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 Romans 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 to the unjustified. 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, theonomists, and others who deny natural law or natural revelation are out of step with the Reformed faith, which has a due appreciation for the reality of natural revelation but also recognizes 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. It deprives the sinner of ground of appeal.
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.” Article 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.
A slightly revised version of this article first appeared on the HB in 2008.
1. Update January 2014. It has been pointed out that some Reformed writers, e.g., Alsted and the Leiden Synopsis, used similar expressions to “grace does not destroy nature but perfects it.” The question, however, is whether they meant by it what Thomas intended. That the Reformed intended what Thomas intended is to be doubted. Alsted, Methodus 46 [1.1.2], “gratia non distruit naturam sed eam perfecit.” Leiden Synopsis XI.XI. “Divina enim providentia non corrumpit naturam, sed perficit; non tollit, sed tuetur.” Alsted’s point, made also by Owen (Works 2.413) and others, is that nature and grace agree, that, e.g., belief in the Trinity is reasonable (not against reason) even though the truth is, as Owen says, “above reason.” which was not the point that Thomas intends by the language. Thanks to Michael Lynch for sending these references. I have also found the expression (gratia non tollit naturam sed perfecit) in J. Scharp, Cursus Theologicus (1628), 292 where he defends the abiding validity of the moral law. Anthony Tuckney Praelectiones Theologicae (1679), used the same phrase to defend the ministerial use of reason.