Previous article in this series: March 1, 2012, p. 248.
Where are we to look if we desire to find the laws of God for human culture and society? How does God teach us how to run a business, a government, or an educational institution? Those who embrace “Reformational” theology¹ would point us to the creation. Embedded in the creation itself, they say, is the word of God that teaches us how we are to do these things.
But what about the Scriptures? The Scriptures, they say, do set forth for us some general information to point us in the right direction. But to discover the specific details as to how to develop human culture, we must turn to the creation, and listen attentively to the message that God tells us through this means.
So how does this instruction get from the creation to us? How do we know what the creation is saying? The Reformationalists maintain that we perceive this intuitively, as we work with the creation, laboring in the midst of human society. The creation speaks in sign language, they say. And we learn better how to interpret these signs the more we get out into society, and get busy working to build the grand structure of human civilization.
The church has historically confessed that God does indeed make Himself known by means of the creation. But this idea of discovering in creation laws for human conduct not found in Scripture is something different. Yet they believe they have found scriptural proof to support it. Let us turn now to consider one of the main passages they cite to prove their position.
Isaiah’s reference to a wise farmer
In the twenty-eighth chapter of the prophecy of Isaiah, there is a passage that reformational theologians cite in an effort to prove that God would have us look to the creation to discover the details concerning the will of God for human civilization:
Give ye ear, and hear my voice; hearken, and hear my speech. Doth the plowman plow all day to sow? doth he open and break the clods of his ground? When he hath made plain the face thereof, doth he not cast abroad the fitches, and scatter the cummin, and cast in the principal wheat and the appointed barley and the rie in their place? For his God doth instruct him to discretion, and doth teach him. For the fitches are not threshed with a threshing instrument, neither is a cart wheel turned about upon the cummin; but the fitches are beaten out with a staff, and the cummin with a rod. Bread corn is bruised; because he will not ever be threshing it, nor break it with the wheel of his cart, nor bruise it with his horsemen. This also cometh forth from the Lord of hosts, which is wonderful in counsel, and excellent in working (Is. 28:23–29).
This passage, they claim, proves that from the creation we can understand God’s word that is telling us things that we cannot know from the Scriptures. Commenting on this section of Scripture, Wolters says:
The Lord teaches the farmer his business. There is a right way to plow, to sow, and to thresh, depending on the kind of grain he is growing. Dill, cummin, wheat, and spelt must all be treated differently. A good farmer knows that, and this knowledge too is from the Lord, for the Lord teaches him. This is not a teaching through the revelation of Moses and the Prophets, but a teaching through the revelation of creation—the soil, the seeds, and the tools of his daily experience. It is by listening to the voice of God in the work of his hands that the farmer finds the way of agricultural wisdom.2
Other Reformational theologians have said something similar. Gordon Spykman, who was a professor of religion and theology at Calvin College, wrote a dogmatics, rather late in his life, in which he summarized his views. Commenting on this passage in Isaiah, Spykman has this to say:
Think of Isaiah’s parable of the God-instructed farmer (Is. 28:23–29). His good insight into plowing and threshing, sowing and harvesting, “comes from the Lord of hosts” who is “wonderful in counsel and excellent in working.” We may assume that this farmer works diligently by the light of whatever Scripture he has. But his instruction in agrarian practices is not derived directly from the inscripturated Word. It comes rather from the wisdom of God embedded in seed and soil, which the farmer attains through years of hands on learning experience.3
This argument is similar to one made by Herman Bavinck (1854–1921), a Dutch theologian who served as a professor first at Kampen Theological Seminary and then later at the Free University in Amsterdam. The following is the explanation Bavinck gives of this passage in Isaiah:
In a sense we can say that also all knowledge of nature and history as we acquire and apply it in our occupation and business, in commerce and industry, in the arts and sciences, is due to the revelation of God. For all these elements of culture exist only because God has implanted in his creation thoughts and forces that human beings gradually learn to understand under his guidance. Scripture itself testifies of this when it says that it is God who teaches the farmer about the way he has to work the fields (Is. 28:24–29).4
So is this really what God is teaching in these verses from Isaiah? What does this passage mean, when taken in its context?
A reference to spiritual farming
This text in Isaiah is a parable, as Spykman rightly pointed out. Parables are found not only in the New Testament, but also in the Old. When we come across such a parable, we are to recognize that something earthly is being pointed to as an illustration of some truth concerning the kingdom of heaven. It is this truth about Christ’s heavenly kingdom that we are called to take note of and to believe.
The earthly picture speaks of a farmer who learns how to farm. First of all, he learns that he needs to plow the field before he plants the seeds. He does not need to plow forever, but just long enough to prepare the soil. Secondly, he comes to recognize that different plants do better when planted in different ways. Thirdly, when it comes to harvesting the plants, different plants are harvested best with different tools, since some plants require harsher treatment to bring about the necessary separation of the chaff from the grain. These are facts that man has come to know through experience with farming.
The Reformationalists maintain that God in this passage is telling us that His word is embedded in the creation itself, and that by working in the creation we will discover by intuition what this word is saying to us about how to farm, how to run a busi ness, and, in short, how to build a glorious city upon this earth.
That, however, is not what this passage is saying. When one reads the entire chapter, he sees that God is not speaking about some supposed calling of man “to develop culture.” One whose mind is on carnal things will be inclined to forget that this passage is a parable, and will interpret the text in a carnal way. If, however, we come to this passage with our heart set on heavenly things, we will recognize that the farming that God is speaking of here is of a spiritual nature. The parable mentions an earthly activity to get us to think about a heavenly one.
God’s people are like a field with weeds that needs to be plowed (cf. Micah 3:12). Yet God’s believing people are not to fear this plowing. God is a wise Farmer who knows how to plow just long enough to prepare the soil to receive seed. Furthermore, God knows how to sow and how to harvest the different kinds of plants. He will execute a righteous judgment in these matters, chastening sometimes more gently and sometimes more severely, precisely as is necessary to separate the chaff from the wheat.
Yet, someone may say, this text does not speak of what God does, but of what someone does who is being instructed by God. Referring to this farmer, the passage says that “his God doth instruct him to discretion.” So who is this farmer? Who is this Man who faithfully receives instruction from His God, and farms precisely as His Father has told him to do?
The farmer spoken of here is the same as the sower in the parable of the sower. It is Jesus Christ, as the one sent by God to accomplish His work. Christ was spoken of earlier in the chapter as the precious corner stone, who would build the house of God, executing a righteous judgment against the ungodly in the church (Is. 28:14–17). This illustration then shifts, and the one who before was called the stone is now called the God-instructed plowman, who obeys His Father perfectly, and knows how to prepare the people to receive the word, so that they will bring forth more fruit to the glory of God.
This, in short, is what this text is about. It speaks of how God in and through Christ redeems His people through the executing of His righteous judgment. It was centrally at the cross that this judgment was seen and that this redemption took place. But there are also judgments of God that come upon His people throughout this life. This text stresses the benefits of these judgments, as illustrated in the earthly activities of plowing and harvesting.
The passage, therefore, is about our bringing forth of spiritual fruit. That, after all, is the fruit that God desires. Recognizing this we can rejoice, even when it is God’s will that we are afflicted. We must willingly submit to the plowing, and to being beaten with the rod, knowing that the farmer knows what He is doing. For, indeed, we must confess that “This also cometh forth from the Lord of hosts, which is wonderful in counsel, and excellent in working” (Is. 28:29).
But is it not true that man, even without the Scriptures, can work with the creation and learn how to farm? Of course it is. But when the natural man knows about agriculture, what he has come to understand is not “God’s word” in the creation. The two means by which God is made known must be distinguished from one another. God’s word must be distinguished from His works. And, furthermore, God’s word can be understood only by one who believes that word.
We are now getting to the heart of one of the central errors of the Reformational movement. That subject, however, will have to be continued next time.
1 Reformational theology is not Reformed theology. The former is based on the ideas of Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd (1894–1977), and is promoted by some of the professors at Calvin College, Dordt College, Trinity Christian College, and Redeemer University College.
2 Albert M. Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 32–33. Wolters is a professor at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario.
3 Gordon J. Spykman, Reformational Theology: A New Paradigm for Doing Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 82.
4 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 341.