Theological disputes are often matters of great moment, even when those outside the dispute cannot track with what is going on. I think it was Gibbon who once displayed his ignorance by saying that the debate over homousia and homoiousia was somehow over the letter i — which is pretty similar to saying the debate between atheists and theists is over the letter a.
But at the same time, theologians are capable of talking past each other simply because they are used to different terminology, or perhaps because they are worried about the trajectory of those who use that other terminology. Take, for example, the distinction between natural revelation and natural law.
Now before opening this particular worm can, I want to acknowledge that two positions represented by these phrases can be quite different indeed. But this is a historical fact, not a logical one. I believe the two essential positions can be collapsed into one another with 5 minutes of questions.
Say you are comfortable with the phrase natural revelation. You believe that the triune God of Scripture revealed Himself through the things that have been made, and that this fact leaves all men everywhere without excuse. It sounds to me like this is an ethical obligation, and another fine word for natural ethical obligation would be natural law. Honoring God as God is not optional, and it is therefore law.
Say you are comfortable with the phrase natural law. Laws do not arrive by themselves, coming from nowhere in particular, but rather laws come from a lawgiver. And the giving of law is a form of communication, is it not? One might even say that communication reveals things — natural law is therefore a form of natural revelation.
No, no, no, someone will cry. Cornelius Van Til disagrees with John Locke and Thomas Aquinas. And I cheerfully grant it. This doesn’t mean that the hearts of the two positions are inconsistent. The God who reveals Himself through the things that have been made, and the God who embeds His law in the natural order of things, and even deeper in every human conscience, is the same God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Father of The Lord Jesus Christ.
I mean, the source of natural law is what? The true God or another one? Right, it couldn’t be another one, because he isn’t there — non-existence presents certain barriers. This means that the source of natural law would have to be the true God, there being no other options. This means the world and the Word are not two books from two gods, but rather two books from the one and the same God.
Now this does not mean that we somehow have to induct Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle into our honorary Christian hall of fame. We know too much about what they taught to put them on the “same page” with us, as some overly charitable Christians have sought to do. But it does mean we have to accept Plato’s cousin, the one who studied with rabbis at Westminster East for a bit. There were plenty of pagans who knew about the Most High God — Jethro, Nebuchadnezzar, Melchizedek, the king of Nineveh, and others, not excluding Plato’s cousin. I called them pagans, but it would be better to call them Gentiles — those for whom God reserved a special place in His Temple. “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it a den of thieves.”
When special revelation tells us that a hymn to Zeus — declaring that we are all His offspring — is a hymn that is tracking with something good, then special revelation is telling us that natural law, and natural revelation, and special revelation provide us with a three-fold testimony to the triune God. No autonomy anywhere, no neutrality anywhere, and the ghost of Van Til, who haunts my dreams, is perfectly happy with me. So is the ghost of C.S.Lewis, who visits me in my waking hours. Not only that, but those two get along with each other now, and this gives me the chance to say something I have been aching to say for years, which is, “I think we’re all saying the same thing, really.” Of course, you can only say this every once in a while, like every decade or so.
This is just like the two kingdoms issue. I don’t care how many kingdoms you think there are, I care how many kings you think there are. I don’t care how many forms of “natural” communication you believe have happened, but rather how many gods you think fit under the heading of “Nature’s God.” There is only one — the true God.
The problem arises when advocates of either position adopt, for whatever reason, a silo mentality — a silo that they will not allow to connect at the top with what every form of creational law or revelation must connect to, the Lord Jesus. Ardent Vantilians can give the raspberry to natural law theorists because of party spirit. And natural law theorists can reject the rigor of Vantilian thought because they imagine a generic Enlightenment God spending eternity humming “Don’t Fence Me In.”
But it all connects. All of created reality is Christian at the top, and for the consistent Christian, Christian at the bottom. All of created reality is Christian at the top, and for the Gentile, partial at bottom. All this is just another way of saying that natural law is just fine if Jesus is the Lord of it.