By Cameron Brooks and Clayton Hutchins
On Friday, October 5, nearly 200 people in the Twin Cities area showed up at Cities Church in St. Paul, MN to hear plenary sessions from Joe Rigney and Brad Littlejohn.
Professor Joe Rigney began the evening with an investigation into the relationship between nature and Scripture, the two “Books” of divine revelation. His paper, “Images of Divine Things: Creation, the Knowledge of God, and the Christian Life,” argued that general and special revelation both communicate about God and reality, but to different ends. On the one hand, nature claims ontological and epistemological priority for the simple fact that nature exists and speaks to humans in all times and places through its God-given order. “The heavens declare the glory of God.” Following the classic reformed view, Rigley claimed that general revelation only suffices to condemn humans in their sin and rebellion, while special revelation—God’s Word of grace in Jesus Christ—serves and suffices to save sinful humanity. Scripture has redemptive priority.
Rigney was keen to insist, however, that general and special revelation are nowise at odds with each other; rather, they work together to communicate all that God wishes to communicate to humanity. Indeed, for the regenerate Christian, general revelation becomes a domain of edification. (One here thinks of Calvin’s phrase “spectacles of Scripture.”) Rigney turned to Jonathan Edward’s typological reading of nature and history to demonstrate this point, unpacking several examples of how Christians might faithfully decipher and receive God’s revelation through the order of nature. Of course, few of us are so nimble as Edwards. What’s needed on our part, says Rigney, is patience, effort, maturity, and prudence. Watch his talk below:
Prudence! Now there’s a word we Protestants have sadly forgotten in our discourse on natural law. Fortunately, prudence—the virtue of practical wisdom and discernment—was a central focus of Friday’s second paper by Dr. Bradford Littlejohn: “Renewing Our Minds: Natural Law, the Problem of Uncertainty, and the Recovery of Prudence” (watch the video). Bradford began by tracing the early historical development of sola scriptura within the Protestant mind. Though Luther had initially grounded the spiritual and moral life on faith in Christ’s righteousness, with Scripture sufficing to reveal Christ to the believer, later Protestants placed a greater emphasis on the Bible itself.
As a result, says Littlejohn, Protestants came to believe that the Bible must address every relevant question—from morality to church polity and beyond. This proved problematic in several ways, not least in a novel Protestant fixation on moral certainty. If the Bible must address every relevant question, then it must also contain a certain and straightforward answer to every ethical concern, right? Meanwhile, the book of nature was largely neglected by Protestants (and later evangelicals) for centuries.
Littlejohn’s proposal, following 16th-century Richard Hooker, is not to back off from Scripture; however, if Protestants will simply let the Bible be the Bible, they may need to abandon their quest for moral certainty at every turn. That’s where natural-law reasoning comes in. So far from a set of “universal rules written in invisible ink,” the natural law instead provides the requisite “background conditions” of natural goods and ends for humans to discern and pursue as moral agents. To speak of natural human goods and ends is, of course, to presuppose a moral and metaphysical order of values. Littlejohn cites Oliver O’Donovan, who likewise suggests that true moral agency is “the ability to participate in the order of creation by knowledge and action.” Hence the demand for prudence. For no set of rules can dictate every situation imaginable in this complex world. Littlejohn concluded with an exhortation toward this lost virtue, that Christians may rediscover what it means to test what is good and pursue their proper God-given ends with transformed minds. Watch Dr. Littlejohn’s talk below:
Following these presentations, a very stimulating joint Q&A session provided Prof. Rigney and Dr. Littlejohn the opportunity to delve deeper into the challenges confronting a Protestant recovery of natural knowledge. Watch the video below:
On Saturday, October 6, a smaller gathering of local pastors, teachers, and laymen met at Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minneapolis for a morning and afternoon of reading and discussing rich papers on the theme of the conference. The papers furthered the discussion which Rigney and Littlejohn began the previous night, taking up issues such as theology proper, apologetics, the sufficiency of Scripture, medical ethics, technology, and historical assessments of how great theologians in church history have dealt with these issues. After each paper, Rigney and Littlejohn offered incisive feedback and questioning, after which there was a general discussion. The beauty of an event like this is that one learns not only from the papers themselves, but also from the conversations that the papers provoke.
To kick things off, David Larson (M.Div. student at Bethlehem College and Seminary) presented the first paper, “The Perfection of God and the Dignity of Creatures,” which situated the whole question of nature within a proper dogmatic order. Drawing on John Webster and Thomas Aquinas, Larson argues that God’s Triune perfection is the ground of creaturely dignity. While some may think God must somehow need creatures in order for creaturely dignity to be real, Larson argues that such dignity would not be properly creaturely dignity. God’s life is “wholly realized,” and not contingent upon creation; creation is unnecessary for him. Creatures receive their being, life, and dignity from the self-sufficient Creator, thus displaying the divine generosity. When discussing creaturely dignity, one must always bear in mind that God is God, and creatures are creatures.
Next, Clayton Hutchins (M.Div. student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) offered a paper entitled, “‘Knowledge Is Not to Be Despaired Of’: Natural Knowledge in Augustine’s Anti-Skeptical Writings.” Augustine wrote against academic skepticism in Against the Academics and elsewhere in his works. He showed how Augustine’s responses amount to a defense of natural knowledge, and explored how natural knowledge manifests itself in other areas of Augustine’s thought, such as the theistic proofs and natural theology, the relationship between faith and reason, and the sufficiency of Scripture. He ended by indicating how Augustine’s apologetic example differs from harsher forms of presuppositionalism.
After a lunch break, Judson Marvel (Pastor of Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church, Minnetonka, MN) presented his paper, “The Impotency of Reason in Calvin’s Account of Natural Law.” He notes that Calvin’s view, as well as the Reformers’ view, of natural law is debated. Some, such as John T. McNeill, give a straightforward continuity thesis, while others see significant discontinuity. Delving into Calvin’s writings, Marvel argues that Calvin’s account of natural law differs significantly from the Thomistic account in that Calvin emphasizes the postlapsarian and fallen condition of man’s consciousness. This difference should not be ignored, he argues, even though it may amount to a difference in emphasis and not in kind.
The day closed with a paper by Jake Meador (Vice President of The Davenant Institute and Editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy) entitled, “The Industrial Body: Wendell Berry and Oliver O’Donovan on Creatures and Machines.” Meador argues that after the demise of “nature” in the west, mechanics and technique have arisen to take its place, as man uses technical tools to “emancipate” himself from nature. Such a use of technology has an implicit view of freedom as possibility rather than potency. Meador pits against this conception both Oliver O’Donovan and Wendell Berry, the latter of which expresses his alternative vision of freedom in his novel Jayber Crow. Meador exposits the character of Jayber, and thus manifests how Berry beckons us to accept our creatureliness and dispose of—or at least wisely limit—the technologies that detach us from nature, place, and community, as we lay aside “the possibilities that limited the potency of love” and therein find true freedom.
The Saturday papers were notable for both their breadth and depth. The papers and the ensuing discussions were deep, lively, and enlightening, and one walks away more attentive to what nature teaches, how it does so, and how much we still have to learn. May God make us good students, both of his Word and of his world.