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🌲 The Limitations of Natural Revelation

February 23, 2024

10 minute read

Note: This article was written as an assessment piece for Theology for Today's World via the Haddon Institute, a course lectured by Craig Ireland.


Job poses a fundamental question about the nature of the universe: can we truly grasp the depths of God's wisdom and the limits of His power?[1] This query resonates with our own quest for understanding. Do we claim to know God fully, or do we humbly acknowledge our limited comprehension? The richness of God's attributes and the inscrutability of His ways are acknowledged throughout scripture[2], reminding us of the inherent limitations of human understanding. While natural revelation provides glimpses of God's existence and character, it falls short of revealing the fullness of His redemptive plan. Can natural revelation, a theology that does not include the special revelation of Scripture, unveil God to humanity?

Understanding Natural Revelation

Natural revelation, also known as general revelation, is the truth about God that can be discerned by looking at the world around us. It posits that “God has revealed Himself so clearly in the natural order that no person will ever be able to stand before the Creator and claim that there is insufficient evidence that He exists and should be worshiped.”[3]

In London Baptist and Westminster Confessions of Faith, natural revelation is often referred to as “the light of nature” and “the works of creation and providence.”[4] Let us elaborate on these to understand what the Puritans and Reformers intended for us to understand.

The “works of creation and providence” refers to the visible universe, which God brought into existence out of nothing[5] and which God sustains by the word of his power6. These works of God serve to reveal God. In the words of the Psalmist, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork”[7].

The Reformers and Puritans use the phrase “light of nature” to refer to natural revelation in a generalised way.[8] Other times the phrase is used to refer to the innate knowledge of God within man, which is a particular mode of natural revelation.[9] Such innate knowledge would include human reason and conscience.[10]

What does natural revelation reveal? As articulated by the apostle Paul, the observable universe demonstrates God’s “eternal power”[11]. Paul also asserts that divine providence reveals God’s “goodness”[12]. Similarly, the Psalmist sees God’s “wisdom” evident in creation and God’s providence[13].

Is the scope of natural revelation limited to these three divine attributes (eternal power, goodness, wisdom)? A faithful interpretation suggests that while these attributes are integral to God, they do not encompass the entirety of His being. The heavens proclaim, “the glory of God”,[14] encompassing all attributes pertaining to His sovereignty and role as Creator. Moreover, the language of the confessions implies, and Scriptures explicitly affirm, that natural revelation following humanity's fall into sin also unveils God's justice and wrath against sin.[15]

In Romans 1, Paul highlights the inherent revelation of God evident in the world around us. He asserts that humanity possesses an innate awareness of God's existence and attributes, which are plainly discernible through observation of the natural world. From the dawn of creation, the eternal power and divine nature of God have been manifest in the intricacies of His handiwork.

This revelation is not obscure or hidden but rather conspicuous and unmistakable. Paul emphasizes that humanity, throughout time, has had the capacity to perceive and comprehend these aspects of God through the wonders of creation. However, despite this awareness, many fail to acknowledge or honour God as they should.

The failure to recognize and revere God, despite the clarity of His revelation, leaves humanity without a valid excuse. Paul underscores the accountability of individuals for their unbelief, emphasizing that even though they possess knowledge of God, they often disregard His rightful place and fail to accord Him the reverence and worship due to Him.[16]

The first facet of natural revelation, nature, comprises both the existence of the universe (cosmos) and its apparent design (teleology).[17] The second facet, conscience, originates from the belief that we are made in the likeness of God[18] and endowed with intellect and morality. It encompasses our capacity to understand, our inherent awareness of God's presence, and our discernment between right and wrong. The last form of natural revelation, providence, pertains to God's inherent blessings bestowed upon all individuals (referred to as common grace) and his sovereign orchestration of history.[19]

The Bible emphasizes that natural revelation is universally accessible, holding individuals responsible for their reactions to it. This concept assumes that despite humanity's fallen state, the inherent image of God and cognitive abilities remain sufficiently intact for people to grasp an understanding of God through logical reasoning.

The Insufficiency of Natural Revelation

Romans 1 asserts that God's presence is clearly manifested in nature, yet it also acknowledges the constraints of natural revelation.[20] While it provides sufficient evidence of God's existence, it falls short of imparting salvation. Paul explains that when individuals encounter natural revelation, they suppress the truth of God that is revealed to them. The fall of man makes this clear, “Every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually”[21]* and Paul expands on this saying, “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot”?[22] Paul emphasizes the inherent resistance in human nature. Additionally, he notes that “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers”[23] and highlights the state of being alienated and hostile in mind. “You, who once were alienated and hostile in mind”[24]. *Despite God successfully revealing His nature in and to man through creation, humanity struggles to interpret this revelation faithfully.

Consider this, if natural revelation is universally available to everyone, why does anyone choose not to worship the creator? Without a faith in Christ, when man begins to explore the wonders of God's creation, their thoughts become futile, and their hearts are darkened.[25] They fail to acknowledge the Lord or express gratitude towards Him. Furthermore, they forsake the truth evident in the natural world, opting instead for falsehoods, embracing various forms of false religion and idol worship. They divert their reverence from the Creator to creation itself. Those who encounter the revelation of nature without the grace of God and His plan for salvation distort God's image to fit their own desires, rejecting the worship of the true Lord.[26]

The London Baptist Confession backs up this point in chapter 10, “Much less can men, not professing the Christian religion, be saved in any other way whatsoever, be they never so diligent to frame their lives according to the light of nature, and the laws of that religion they do profess. And, to assert and maintain that they may, is very pernicious, and to be detested”[27].

The idolatry that arises from individuals receiving natural revelation is not attributed to any shortcomings in natural revelation itself. Rather, it stems from the inherent sin present in fallen human beings. God cursed the ground when Adam sinned. Nature from that point forth, was broken and not operating as a part of the original plan. John Calvin says “Before the fall, the state of the world was a most fair and delightful mirror of the divine favour and paternal indulgence towards man. Now, in all the elements we perceive that we are cursed"[28]

While natural revelation provides compelling evidence of God's existence, it alone cannot bring about salvation. Despite the clarity of God's presence in nature, humanity's sinful nature leads to the suppression of this truth. Salvation requires the transformative work of the Holy Spirit, transcending the limitations of natural revelation. Although natural revelation universally attests to God's existence and character, it cannot supplant the distinct revelation of God's redemptive plan through Jesus Christ.

The requirement for Special Revelation

Where natural revelation is a universal method of witnessing God’s existence and character, special revelation presupposes that it is “not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of His will, which is necessary unto salvation.”[29]* *Natural revelation reveals God, but it does not reveal Jesus Christ and His salvific work on the cross. Special revelation is the revelation of the way to salvation.[30]

Scripture describes God’s word (special revelation) as a higher authority over natural revelation. “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.”[31] Scripture here* *places an authority on the living and enduring word of God. We can also see the same charge in Psalm 19 where David places an emphasis on natural revelation, but also on God’s law, which could only be acquired through special revelation (the prophets).

Paul, in his writings to the Corinthians states “But a* natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised”.[32] *Here, we can see that natural revelation is universally understood by man, but it cannot be accepted. The Holy Spirit must work on the heart of man before he would come to believe. John Calvin puts this well: “[All men], whether they want to or not, they are repeatedly brought up short by this thought, that there is a divinity by whose decision they stand or fall.”[33]

Fortunately, the value of natural revelation is not nullified for us. Its significance is revitalised through divine grace, but this revitalisation occurs only when we undergo reconciliation with God and undergo a transformation through the Holy Spirit. “[You] have embraced the new self, constantly renewed in knowledge to reflect the likeness of its creator.”[34] In this unity with the divine, reason discovers its true revival. Nevertheless, it is not solely the revival of reason that reinstates the reliability of natural theology; rather, it is reason being rejuvenated and humbled by the foundation of divine revelation.[35] By delving into the teachings of scripture, we unravel the insights embedded within nature.

Salvation hinges on the Holy Spirit's intervention, without which humanity cannot enter God's kingdom. Although natural revelation alone is not sufficient for salvation, God did not design it for that purpose. Paul clarifies that natural revelation functions to unveil truths about God, leading individuals to acknowledge their sinful condition and the imperative need for salvation.36 However, redemption requires more than this; it necessitates special revelation - knowledge of God's actions throughout history, notably in Jesus Christ. Such insight, which nature is unable to provide, is exclusively conveyed through Scripture.


In conclusion, the profound revelations inherent in natural revelation provide us with a glimpse into the magnificent tapestry of God's creation and the moral order woven into the fabric of the universe. The intricate design of nature and the moral compass it reflects undoubtedly point to a divine Creator. However, it is crucial to recognize the limitations of natural revelation in the context of our salvation journey.

While nature declares the glory of God, it cannot bridge the gap between humanity and the divine or offer the necessary remedy for our brokenness. The gospel, cantered on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, stands as the ultimate revelation of God's redemptive plan for humanity. Scripture unfolds the narrative of God's love and mercy, highlighting the sacrificial work of Christ as how we are reconciled to God.

In embracing the gospel, we find not only forgiveness for our sins but also a transformative power that transcends the external manifestations of natural revelation. The saving grace offered through Jesus Christ brings about a profound internal renewal, reshaping our hearts and minds. It is through this transformative process that we experience true freedom from the bondage of sin and a restored relationship with our Creator.

While natural revelation serves as a compelling witness to God's existence and moral standards, it functions more as a precursor, preparing hearts to receive the fullness of salvation in Christ. Our marvel at the wonders of creation should, therefore, propel us toward a deeper exploration of the redemptive narrative found in scripture. Our unwavering hope rests not in the captivating beauty of the natural world but in the unmerited grace and love extended to us through the person of Jesus Christ, the cornerstone of our faith and the pathway to eternal life.

[1] Job 11:7

[2] Romans 11:33-34

[3] “The Limits of Natural Revelation” (Article, Ligonier Ministries, Ligonier)

[4] Robert Gonzales, “The Necessity of Scripture: General Revelation Is Not Enough” (Article, July 3, 2018)

[5] Genisis 1:1, John 1:3, Colossians 1:15

[6] Psalms 104, Acts 14:14-17, Hebrews 1:3

[7] Psalm 19:1

[8] Robert Gonzales, “The Necessity of Scripture: General Revelation Is Not Enough” (Article, July 3, 2018)

[9] Robert Gonzales, “The Necessity of Scripture: General Revelation Is Not Enough” (Article, July 3, 2018)

[10] Matthew Henry associates the “light of nature” with the human conscience in his exposition of Romans 2:12-16. A Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 6 (New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, n.d.), 374-77.

[11] Romans 1:20

[12] Acts 14:17

[13] Psalm 104

[14] Psalm 19:1

[15] Romans 1:18; 2:1-16

[16] Romans 1:18-32

[17] Craig Ireland, “Worldview for theology or theology for worldview?” (Lecture, Haddon Institute, Australia, December 4, 2023) theology-for-worldview

Craig Ireland, “Where do we find ourselves?” (Lecture, Haddon Institute, Australia, December 11, 2023) where-do-we-find-ourselves

[18] Genesis 1:26-27

[19] Neal Hardin, “The Limitations of Knowing God Using Natural Theology” (Article, January 31, 2017)

[20] Romans 1

[21] Genesis 6:5

[22] Romans 8:7

[23] 2 Corinthians 4:4

[24] Colossians 1:21

[25] “The Limits of Natural Revelation” (Article, Ligonier Ministries, Ligonier)

[26] Romans 1:18-32

[27] London Baptist Confession of Faith (10.4)

[28] John Calvin, “COMMENTARIES ON THE FIRST BOOK OF MOSES CALLED GENESIS” (Commentary, Chapter 3.17)

[29] Westminster Confession of Faith, (I.1)

[30] Keith Mathison, “General and Special Revelation” (Article, Ligonier Ministries, Ligonier)

[31] 1 Peter 1:23

[32] 1 Corinthians 2:14

[33] Calvin’s 1538 Catechism, Art 2

[34] Colossians 3:10

[35] John Hartley “Natural Revelation: Is Natural Theology Reliable?” (Article, October 1, 2018)

[36] Romans 1 – 3

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