The Westminster Standards affirm notions of natural theology and natural law through its use of the term “light of nature,” which refers to natural reason. Given the highly negative portrayal that some give of these concepts we might have expected the divines to have referred to natural reason as the “jet-black darkness of nature.” But rather than using this term in a merely negative light, the Standards present natural reason as having wide-ranging positive uses. Though it is fallen and warped by sin, it is still “light.” As another Reformed council put it, there remains yet in man “the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, and natural things, and of the difference between good and evil, and shows some regard for virtue” (Canons of Dort 3.4). Natural reason, natural law, and natural theology are insufficient to save. But that doesn’t make them untrue, unimportant, or unserviceable to the church. It certainly doesn’t make them un-Protestant.
In recent years the concepts of natural law and natural theology have seen a resurgence of interest in Reformed evangelical circles. These concepts refer to what can be known about morality (natural law) and God (natural theology) through nature, without the aid of special revelation in Scripture. Accordingly, both rely upon the broader concepts of natural reason and natural knowledge. This “natural renaissance” has gone hand-in-hand with a renewed interest in going back to the sources (ad fontes) of the church’s rich theological heritage in the Fathers, the great medieval theologians, and the Reformed orthodox.
While these developments are embraced with enthusiasm by many, others are skeptical or even adamantly opposed to them. In some quarters charges are made that the concepts of natural law and natural theology threaten the authority, necessity, and sufficiency of Scripture. Elsewhere we hear that these concepts fail to do justice to the Reformed teaching that man is totally depraved in heart and in mind. Some would say that the resurgence of interest in these concepts constitutes a movement away from the truths of the Protestant Reformation and towards Roman Catholicism.
These charges are serious and should be judged on their own merits. This article will not be able to assess all of them; instead, it will address the question of whether the concepts of natural reason, natural law, or natural theology have any place within the Reformed tradition by assessing the concept of the “light of nature” within the Westminster Standards. The Westminster Standards are a series of documents that were drawn up by a council of English divines (theologians) summoned by Parliament to reform the Church of England. The Assembly met between 1643 and 1649, and its documents would comprise the formal doctrinal standards for Presbyterians in England, Scotland, and America. These are documents to which the churches of no small number of Reformed evangelicals subscribe. They are decidedly Puritan in sentiment, and while one can say many things about the Puritans, being too friendly towards Roman Catholicism is not one of them.
The three most significant documents of the Westminster Standards, which are still widely used today, are the Confession of Faith (CF), Shorter Catechism (SC), and the Larger Catechism (LC).
“The Light of Nature” in the Westminster Standards
The Standards frequently refer to “the light of nature.” The phrase is introduced in the first clause of the first sentence of the Westminster Confession of Faith. While the concept appears here in a concessive clause (“Although the light of nature…”), this does not make it negligible. It is mentioned a total of nine times in the Standards and bears significant theological weight.
The Standards do not define this light of nature, but other contemporary documents shed light on its meaning. William Twisse, one of the Prolocutors of the Assembly, says elsewhere that it is a means of understanding: “Never was it said, I presume, that a man regenerate had two understandings in him, by the one to understand things natural, and by the other to understand things spiritual; but that by the same understanding he understands both, but by light of nature the one, by light of grace the other.” Anthony Burgess, another Westminster divine, holds that it involves discursive argument: “Faith therefore, and the light of Nature go to the knowledge of the same thing different ways: faith doth, because of the testimony and divine revelation of God; the light of Nature doth, because of arguments in the thing itself by discourse.” Finally, Jus Divinum Regiminis Ecclesiastici: or, The Divine Right of Church Government, a treatise produced by a number of jure divino Presbyterians of the Assembly, defines it plainly as natural reason: “That which is evident by, and consonant to the true light of Nature, or natural Reason, is to be accounted Jure divino in matters of religion.” This definition is supported by the wording of Answer 2 of the Larger Catechism, which speaks of the “light of nature in man” (emphasis mine), suggesting it refers to an inner faculty.
The first appearance of the phrase in the Confession highlights its connection with natural theology. The light of nature, or natural reason, manifests “the goodness, wisdom, and power of God” (CF 1.1). It declares plainly “that there is a God” (LC A. 2) and that he “hath lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and doth good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might” (CF 21.1).
But the Standards are quick to affirm that the light of nature is not sufficient to give us “that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation” (CF 1.1). More is needed: “His word and Spirit only do sufficiently and effectually reveal him unto men for their salvation” (LC A. 2). What is lacking is not just additional knowledge of essential truths which are not able to be ascertained by natural reason—e.g., the sacred history and divine promises, the person and work of Christ, the Trinity—but also the regeneration of our sinful nature by the work of the Spirit, who grants faith and repentance through the word of the Gospel.