28 May, 2016

Canons of Dordt, III/IV: 4—“Glimmerings of Natural Light”



There remain, however, in man since the fall the
 glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the differences between good and evil, and discovers some regard for virtue, good order in society, and for maintaining an orderly external deportment. But so far is this light of nature from being sufficient to bring him to a saving knowledge of God and to true conversion, that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil. Nay further, this light, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted, and holds it in unrighteousness, by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God (Canons of Dordt, III/IV:4).


(I)

Prof. Homer C. Hoeksema

[Source: The Voice of Our Fathers: An Exposition of the Canons of Dordrecht, (RFPA, 2013) pp. 273–274, 276]

Man [after the fall] retained a residue of light. By that light man remained a rational, moral being, a man who could still think and will. If he did not have that residue, he could not be a responsible, rational, moral creature in relation to God and man. He could not sin, because sin implies a responsible creature who knows what he ought to do and is capable of a moral response. Not being a responsible creature, he could not be subject to punishment. Man has enough of the light of nature to be a human being—a rational, moral, responsible creature. Although his nature was seriously affected through sin, it remained a human nature. Man through the fall did not become an irrational beast.

The light of nature has nothing to do with having or lacking grace. The truth is that the glimmerings of natural light are a constant testimony of God’s wrath. This wrath against sin so consumes man that it extends to his nature and strips him of a large part of his original, natural gifts, and leaves him with just sufficient natural light to be inexcusable and to become the object of more divine wrath. It might have been better if man had been totally stripped of his natural gifts, then he would not be a morally responsible creature subject to further visitation of wrath. Now man is born a child of wrath.

… Apart from Christ, these glimmerings of natural, intellectual power to know things concerning God bespeak no divine favor. They serve only as a constant reminder of the wrath of God that strips man of the largest part of his 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 he would know nothing concerning God, could not be held responsible to glorify and thank God, and could not be the object of God’s consuming wrath. Then he would be like the dumb beast, which at least does not go to hell.


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(II)

Rev. Steven R. Key

[Originally published in the Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, vol. 37, number 2 (April 2004), pp. 45-64]

What then are those “glimmerings”? They refer to the remnants of the excellent gifts God bestowed upon man in creation. When man fell, he did not completely lose his gifts of thought and will. That which belongs to his human nature, though devastated through sin, was not lost. His depravity is not a matter of intellectual ignorance. For God would hold him accountable as a thinking, willing creature.

The article itself explains those glimmerings in terms of the remnants of some knowledge of God. That is the truth set forth in Romans 1:18-32. By that knowledge man is left without excuse before God. Man also retains some knowledge of natural things. He continues in his created position as king of the earthly creation, able to use the earth and its resources, and even to discover relationships between various elements of creation and to make earthly advancements by way of many inventions. Man retains some knowledge “of the differences between good and evil, and discovers some regard for virtue, good order in society, and for maintaining an orderly external deportment.” That is so, as Romans 2:14-15 explains, because they have “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.”

But any appeal to this article in support of common grace is unfounded. The Arminians insisted that man, by those natural gifts, could come to a saving knowledge of God. Over against this the Synod of Dordt maintained that it was not so. In the portion of the article omitted by Abraham Kuyper, as well as by the CRC, the Reformed fathers—continuing to develop the biblical doctrine of total depravity—insisted that this “light of nature” is not sufficient to bring man to a saving knowledge of God and to true conversion. But then the fathers make a positive conclusion. So different is the biblical picture of the natural man from that drawn by the Remonstrants, that man is incapable of using these glimmerings aright “even in things natural and civil. Nay, further, this light, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted and holds it in unrighteousness, by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God.”


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(III)

Rev. Martyn McGeown

[Source: An Answer to Phil Johnson's “Primer on Hyper-Calvinism”]

Article 4 was not written in order to contradict Articles 1-3—Dordt does not return with the right hand what it took away with the left hand. Articles 1-3 are an uncompromising, biblical statement of total depravity, the first petal in the Reformed TULIP. Dordt is not claiming in Canons III/IV:4 that man is still good after all or that man is still good in some sense. Article 4 is not a denial or a dilution of total depravity. It is, however, an explanation or a clarification. What did man become after the fall? Has he become a beast or a demon? Does man commit every possible sin? Is man’s depravity such that life is impossible, inasmuch as all men are raping, murdering, rampaging demons? And if all men are not raping, murdering, rampaging demons, is that due to common grace or due to the remnants of some goodness in man? Those are the issues in Canons III/IV:4.

The key phrase is “the glimmerings of natural light.”

Before the fall, according to Canons III/IV:1, man was “adorned with a true and saving [Latin: salutary, beneficial] knowledge of his Creator and of spiritual things.” That is gone—in its place is “blindness of mind.” The light that man retains is merely “natural.” Everyone has natural light, which is the natural light of reason. However, fallen man retains only “glimmerings” of that light. Imagine the power of Adam’s natural light before the fall compared to man’s darkened mind after the fall. We think that we are modern, sophisticated and intellectual. Adam’s intellect far exceeded ours. What is the power of this “natural light” of reason? Article 4 lists several things: (1) he retains some knowledge of God; (2) he retains some knowledge of natural things; (3) he retains some knowledge of the differences between good and evil; and (4) he discovers some regard for virtue, good order in society and for maintaining an orderly external deportment.

And he does all of this while remaining totally depraved.

Let us explain and prove these various aspects of “natural light.”

First, the totally depraved unbeliever retains “some knowledge of God.” This is, however, not a “true and saving knowledge” of God, not the knowledge of love and fellowship, and not a spiritual appreciation of God. Nevertheless, even the dullest atheist knows that God exists. Even the demons know that God exists and they know that without “common grace.” The reader should consult Romans 1:18-23 and James 2:19.

Second, the totally depraved unbeliever retains “some knowledge of … natural things.” This is, however, not a “true and saving knowledge … of spiritual things.” Sinful man can engage in intellectual pursuits. He can study the world, develop science and become proficient in many fields of study, but all of it is merely in natural things. That is part of the so-called “cultural mandate” of Genesis 1:28: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion …” Man pursues science, art, culture and philosophy, and he does so as totally depraved. An unbelieving, cultured scientist with a PhD in physics is as depraved as an idolatrous, cannibalistic savage in the jungles of Papua New Guinea.

Third, the totally depraved unbeliever retains “some knowledge of … the differences between good and evil.” He knows, for example, that murder is wrong, that theft is wrong and that living faithfully with one wife is good. He knows that because his inner judge—his conscience—reminds him of that.

Romans 2:14-15 states,

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 consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another.

When Gentiles do “the things contained in the law,” they do not obey God’s law, which is impossible (Rom. 8:7), but they display external virtue and avoid external vice. When they display “the work of the law written in their hearts,” this does not mean that God has written the law on their hearts—that is regeneration (Jer. 31:33; Heb. 8:10)—but it means that God has written the knowledge of right and wrong in their hearts, and He testifies it to their consciences. All men know the difference between right and wrong. This does not make them good, or even partially good, but inexcusable!

Fourth, the totally depraved unbeliever “discovers some regard for virtue, good order in society, and for maintaining an orderly external deportment.” Even the basest of sinners prefer to live in a nation of laws. They see some need for a criminal justice system, even if they hope to escape human justice, and they see the benefit of complying with some moral code. Most people generally obey the law of the land. However this is not “civil righteousness”—it is self-preservation. Law is good for them and law is good for society. Most are astute enough to discern that lawlessness is counterproductive. Many are restrained by a natural sense of shame or a fear of punishment. But unless the Holy Spirit regenerates a sinner and writes God’s law on his heart, that sinner will never serve God out of thankfulness from the heart.

These “glimmerings of natural light” do not amount to much—they do not produce good works, they do not constitute righteousness, they are not pleasing to God and they are not spiritual or saving good. And their existence has nothing to do with “common grace.”


An Inexcusable Omission

However, the Synod of Dordt did not finish there.

Here is the part of Canons III/IV:4 that the CRC Synod did not quote:

But so far is this light of nature from being sufficient to bring him to a saving knowledge of God and to true conversion, that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil. Nay further, this light, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted, and holds it in unrighteousness, by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God.

Notice those damning words. Not only do the “glimmerings of natural light” not improve totally depraved man, they actually make his judgment before God even worse because of his misuse of them. Unregenerate man is “incapable of using it [i.e., the light of nature] aright even in things natural and civil.” When man seems to fulfil the “cultural mandate” of Genesis 1:28, he sins. (In fact, all of his endeavours are not a fulfilling of the “cultural mandate” but a selfish pursuit of pleasure, wealth, power and sin). When man develops science, medicine and technology, he sins. When man pursues any field of study, he sins. When man behaves in an outwardly moral fashion, even when he lets conscience be his guide and when he follows God’s law externally, he sins. When man lives as a law-abiding citizen, in faithfulness to one wife and loves his children, he sins. Everything man does, he does in the service of sin. He cannot use natural light aright even in things natural and civil (cf. Prov. 21:4).

Of course, if, instead of pursuing a cure for cancer, man makes and deploys a terrorist bomb, he sins even more. If, instead of living in faithfulness to his wife, he commits adultery or, if instead of loving his children, he neglects or abuses them, he sins even more. If instead of living as a law-abiding citizen, he becomes a criminal, he sins more. The issue is not between depravity and “common grace,” but between different expressions of depravity.

Moreover, “this light, such as it is [and it is not much], man in various ways renders wholly polluted, and holds it in unrighteousness.” Man pollutes—he wholly pollutes—his intellectual gifts, his knowledge of God, his knowledge of good and evil, his conscience, and his natural sense of morality and external virtue. He wholly pollutes it! Do you believe that or is that too strong? If it is too strong for you, do not call yourself a Calvinist and do not claim that you “affirm without reservation the Canons of the Synod of Dordt.”

The Synod of Dordt did not invent this out of whole cloth. The Synod echoes the teaching of sacred Scripture. Romans 1:18 states that unbelievers “hold the truth in unrighteousness,” where the verb “hold” means to “hold down” or to “suppress.” I Timothy 4:2 speaks of those “having their consciences seared with a hot iron.” Titus 1:15-16 warns that

unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure; but even their mind and conscience is defiled. They profess that they know God; but in works they deny him, being abominable, and disobedient, and unto every good work reprobate.

Romans 3:12 simply teaches, “there is none that doeth good, no, not one.” No one does spiritual good, saving good, moral good, natural good, civil good or any other kind of good before God.


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(IV)

More to come! (DV)





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