PART TWO EXPOSITION OF THE CANONS
THIRD AND FOURTH HEADS OF DOCTRINE
OF THE CORRUPTION OF MAN, HIS CONVERSION TO GOD, AND THE MANNER THEREOF
In the second place, our fathers carefully define and delineate the limits of this natural light. For we are told that through these glimmerings of natural light, man “retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the difference between things good and evil (honorable and base), and show a kind of regard for virtue and external order.”
The question is: what is meant by this knowledge? What is included in it? Do the fathers indeed mean to maintain here something that stands, to an extent at least, in contradiction of that which they stated previously? Do they mean to present here something which mitigates to an extent the condemning judgment expressed in Article 3, that all men are conceived in sin and by nature children of wrath, incapable of saving good, prone to evil, dead in sin, and in bondage thereto, so that without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit they are neither able nor willing to return to God, to reform the depravity of their nature, nor even to dispose themselves to reformation? Does the statement of Article 4 contradict to a degree the viciousness of the vicious nature spoken of in Article 2? And does this knowledge which man retains by virtue of this residual natural light mean that man’s blindness of mind, horrible darkness, vanity and perverseness of judgment is after all not total? Such indeed would seem to be the only conclusion of those who find in this fourth article evidence of a certain common grace of God. And such would seem to be the implication of Article 4 when we take cognizance of the term “however,” which appears in our English translation. It would seem as though there is a contrast between Article 4 and the preceding. This, however, is not true. The Latin quidem is more correctly translated by the Dutch, “Wel is waar,” or by the English, “indeed.” And the contrast is not between Article 4 and Article 3. But the contrast which the fathers draw is to be found in Article 4 itself. In the first part of the article the fathers of Dordt take into account a certain real fact concerning the natural man,—a fact which might seem to some at least at first glance to contradict the truth of total depravity posited in Article 3, and a fact which was indeed used by the Remonstrants to contradict the truth of man’s total depravity,—in order in the second, contrasting, part of this fourth article to maintain that this real fact concerning the natural man does not at all change the truth of his total depravity. Such is the plain language of this article: “There is indeed in man after the fall a residual light of nature, by benefit of which he retains a kind of knowledge concerning God, etc. . . . But . . .” It is within these limits, therefore, that this knowledge of the natural man, which he retains by virtue of the residue of natural light that is in him, must be defined.
First of all, then, man retains a certain knowledge concerning God. It is of this knowledge that the apostle Paul speaks in Romans 1:19, 20: “Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.” Here, therefore, we have a concise Scriptural delineation of the natural man’s knowledge concerning God. God Himself sees to it that man has this knowledge. For: “That which may be known of God ismanifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them.” The invisible things of God are, according to the text, that which may be known of God and which is manifest in them and which God shews unto them. Those invisible things are God’s virtues, or attributes, as they are in themselves invisible, hid, knowable only when God Himself makes them, known. From the creation of the world on, God has made known, in such a way that the creature can receive this manifestation, His invisible things. And He has done this through the things that are made. Through the things that are made God speaks concerning Himself. Thus the Scriptures also tell us: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament sheweth his handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth forth knowledge.” Through the things that are made, therefore, the invisible things of God are set forth, objectively revealed. The speech of the things that are made is that God is, that He is God, that He is the Lord that must be worshipped and feared. For the apostle further defines those invisible things of God as “his eternal power and Godhead.” God’s everlasting power, His infinite and incomprehensible ability to do things, to execute His will, is plainly declared in all His works. The things that are made testify to a power that man can never imitate, a power that is eternal, distinctively divine. And, in fact, God makes known through the things that are made His unique, divine glory, His Godhead,—all His divine attributes in their characteristic divinity. Moreover, the apostle refers not only to the fact that these invisible (things of God are objectively revealed through the things that are made; but he speaks of them as being clearly seen, contemplated, even to the extent that they are “understood.” Man sees the things that are made with the physical eye. And back of his physical eye is the light of the mind, of the understanding, by which he is adapted to interpret and to understand the manifestation of God in the things which he sees. This purely intellectual power to discern the eternal power and divinity of God in the things that are made is his natural light. And, even though this natural light is greatly reduced through the corrupting power of sin and I death, man has not entirely lost it. He retains a residue. His sin and his depravity is not intellectual ignorance. He has not lost the power of intellection. He is not in total natural darkness. On the contrary, he has retained enough of this power so that he is aware of God, and so that he has in his deepest consciousness, or sub-consciousness, the testimony of God’s eternal power and of His infinitely glorious attributes. If this were not true, man could not even oppose God. If this were not true, he could not even be held a sinner in the judgment of God. But now he knows God in the sense that he knows that God is, and that He is God, and that He is to be glorified and thanked.
Once again we must notice that in this knowledge concerning God as such there is absolutely no question of grace or lack of grace. Such a man, with such knowledge of God, can be either the object of God’s favor or the object of God’s wrath. Apart from Christ, the fact that man has only glimmerings, remnants, of this natural, intellectual power to, know things concerning God bespeaks no divine favor whatsoever. On the contrary, those very remnants can only serve as a constant reminder of the wrath of God that stripped him of the largest part of even this natural knowledge. Again, it would have been far better for man, considered apart from Christ, if he had been totally stripped of this knowledge. Then indeed he would know nothing concerning God. But then too he could not be held responsible to glorify and to thank God. And then he could not be the object of the visitation of God’s consuming wrath. Then he would be like the dumb beast. But at least a beast does not go to hell!
In the second place, by this same natural light man retains a certain knowledge concerning things natural. He was created with such power to know things natural. It belongs to his very creaturely make-up. He was created a royal creature, king of the earthly creation. He was created to have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. Created he was to subdue the earth. And even in his, rebellion and depravity also this power he does not entirely lose. By the light of that knowledge, fallen man is able to live his present earthly life. By it he is able to understand and to use the earth and its fullness. By that light he develops the sciences, and discovers the hidden powers of creation, and puts them to his use, and invents the wonders of the modern world. Furthermore, we may even say that there is a certain relation between his knowledge of things natural and his knowledge concerning God. For after all, the things, natural are the same as the things that are made, through which man clearly sees and understands the invisible things of God, namely, His eternal power and Godhead. The more, therefore, that man understands and discovers concerning things natural, the more clearly he is confronted by the testimony of God through the things that are made. And indeed, sometimes it appears as though man is able to understand and to discover much concerning the things natural, and to put them to much use.
But again, we must notice that there is in this knowledge of things natural as such no spiritual, ethical consent whatsoever. The question as to whether there remains in fallen man any good, and whether he performs any good, and the question as to whether he is the object of the favor of God is not answered by the fact that he is able to live and to enlarge upon the scope of his earthly life, and by the fact that he has a knowledge of things natural. Considered abstractly, such a man, with such a knowledge, may be either a good; man or an evil man, may be either the object of God’s favor or the object of God’s wrath. But the latter are determined by his spiritual, ethical relation to the living God.
The third element of this remnant of natural light, mentioned in the article, is a knowledge of the difference between things good and evil. This knowledge, let us understand, the natural man has even apart from any special revelation of the law of God and apart from any contact with the Word of God as it is revealed in Holy Writ. Thus we read in Romans 2:14, 15: “For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean, while accusing or else excusing one another.” Here we are taught, first of all, that the Gentiles do by nature the things contained in the law, or, literally, “the things of the law.” Notice that the apostle does not say that they keep the, commandments, that they perform the precepts of the law. This would be quite impossible, for, according to the, context, the apostle is speaking of those who sin and perish without the law. But the Gentiles do by nature the things which properly belong to the function of the law, the things which the law normally does, wherever it exists as an objective code of precepts. What is that which the law does? The law draws the lines of demarcation between good and evil in every department of life. The law says “Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not,” with respect to the various spheres of man’s life. And the Gentiles, who are without the law as a code, do those things of the law by nature. Without a specially revealed code, the Gentiles determine for themselves where the lines of demarcation run between good and evil.
(to be continued)