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Question 4 on Theology

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“Every decree of God is eternal; therefore it cannot depend upon a condition which takes place only in time. (2) God’s decrees depend on his good pleasure (eudokia) (Mt. 11:26; Eph. 1:5; Rom. 9:11). Therefore they are not suspended upon any condition outside of God. (3) Every decree of God is immutable (Is. 46:10; Rom. 9:11).”

Topics in Theology

Extract from Institutes of Elenctic Theology,
Topic 1 Question 3, “Is Natural Theology Sufficient for Salvation?”

Is natural theology sufficient for salvation; or is there a common religion by which all promiscuously may be saved? We deny against the Socinians and Remonstrants.

I. The impious doctrine of the Pelagians that everyone well grounded in whatsoever religion will be saved gave occasion to this question. Not only the Libertines, David
Jorists and the like (who, content with an honest and civil life, hold religion to be a matter of indifference) retain it, but also the Socinians of the present day approve it. They do this in part directly, teaching that those who worship God according to the light of nature as a kind of more hidden word, appease and are pleasing to him and find him their rewarder (Socinus, Praelec tiones theologica 2 (1627), pp. 37); in part indirectly and obliquely, reducing the doctrines of religion absolutely necessary to salvation to the very lowest number and making these common to all in their mode and degree (of which hereafter). The Remonstrants evidently agree with them: some more openly as Curcellaeus and Adolphus Venator (Adolf de Jager) who, in his defense against the ministers of Dort (cf. Een besonder Tractaet. . . der Predicanlen tier Stadt Dordrecht (1612)), expressly denies the proposition “no one can be saved who is not placed in Christ by true faith”; others more cautiously, as Arminius, Corvinus, Episcopius (who, not immediately indeed, but mediately), admit the Gentiles and others to salvation, holding that by a right use of the light of nature, the light of grace can be obtained and by grace admission to glory (Arminius, “The Apology or Defence of James Arminius Against Certain Theological Articles,” 15, 16,17 in The Writings of James Arminius (1956J, 1:32229; and Amoldus (Johannes Amoldus CorvinusJ, Defensio sententiae … 1. Arminii [1613] against Tilenus). Many of the papists hold the same error, scrupling not to defend the salvation of the heathen without the knowledge of Christ; as Abulensis, Durandus, Capreolus, Andradius, Vega, Soto, Erasmus and others.

II. On the other hand, the orthodox constantly maintain that the theology or true religion by which salvation can come to man after the fall is only one (i.e., that revealed in the word of the law and gospel), and that all other religions except this one are either impious and idolatrous or false and erroneous. Although retaining some obscure and imperfect notions of the law and that which may be known of God (lou gnostou Theou), yet these false and erroneous religions are of no further use than to render men inexcusable (anupobgeton).

III. The question is not Are the certain first principles of religion common to all men? For we grant that in natural theology by the light of nature some such do exist upon which supernatural theology is built (for example, that there is a God, that he must be worshipped, etc.). Rather the question is Are first principles (adequate and proper to true religion) held among all? This we deny.

IV. The question is not whether natural theology is useful to men, for we acknowledge its various ends and uses: (1) as a witness of the goodness of God towards sinners
unworthy even of these remains of light (Acts 14:16, 17; Jn. 1:5); (2) as a bond of external discipline among men to prevent the world from becoming utterly corrupt (Rom. 2:14, 15); (3) as a subjective condition in man for the admission of the light of grace because God does not appeal to brutes and stocks, but to rational creatures; (4) as an incitement to the search for this more illustrious revelation (Acts 14:27); (5) to render men inexcusable (Rom. 1:20) both in this life, in the judgment of an accusing conscience (Rom. 2:15) and, in the future life, in the judgment which God shall judge concerning the secrets of men (Rom. 2:16). Rather the question is Is it by itself sufficient for salvation, and was the design of God in that revelation the salvation of those to whom it is made? This we deny.

V. The reasons are various. (1) There can be no saving Proof that religion without Christ and faith in him (Jn. 3:16; 17:3; natural theology Acts 4:11,12; 1 Cor. 3:11; Heb. 11:6). But Christ is revealed is insufficient nowhere except in the gospel; nor is faith given without to salvation. the word, since it comes by hearing (Rom. 10:17). Nor is it a valid objection that it merely follows from this that the Christian religion is the only ordinary way of salvation, and not that God could not extraordinarily grant salvation to those who might live in a holy manner according to the law of nature, although they had never heard of Christ. For since the Scriptures testify that Christ is the only way of salvation (without whom no one can come to the Father), it is criminal to suppose an extraordinary way without him. (2) The state of the Gentiles and all those destitute of the word of Christ is called the “time of ignorance” (Acts 17:30), when God as it were winked at them, suffering them to walk in their own ways (Acts 14:16), and when they worshipped the unknown God (Acts 17:23) and were without God (Eph. 2:12) in the world (which could not be said if the natural revelation was sufficient for salvation). (3) If salvation could have been obtained by a common religion, there would have been no need of the gospel and the preaching of the word. However Paul testifies, “After that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching (i.e., by the word of the gospel which is foolishness to the wicked] to save them that believe” (1 Cor. 1:21).

VI. It is one thing to allow some knowledge of God as Creator and preserver however imperfect, corrupt and
obscure; another to have a full, entire and clear knowl edge of God as Redeemer and of the lawful worship due to him. Natural theology has the former in that which may be known of God (gnosto lou Theou). Revelation alone has the latter in the faith (topisto) which is gained only from the word. Nor (if God has not left himself without witness (amartyron] in nature by doing good to men as to temporal things [tabiotika, Acts 14:171 which he often bestows upon those whom he hates and has devoted to destruction) does it follow that the external calling is objectively sufficient for salvation because it is said “he suffered the nations to walk in their own ways” (v. 16) and it is called that “time of ignorance” (Acts 17:30, referring plainly to a defect in the external calling because he opposes it to the time of the New Testament in which he calls men to repentance by the word).

VII. It is one thing to seek the favor and grace of God revealed through his word in virtue of his promises in Christ; another to seek an unknown god in the works of nature and providence, if haply by feeling after they may find him. The latter is properly applied to the Gentiles (Acts 17:26, 27), but not the former. Nor (if elsewhere in the Scriptures the phrase “to seek God” signifies to fly to his faith and to seek the guardianship of his grace, and “to find him” denotes to obtain the protection sought and to experience the propitious presence of his most holy deity) does it follow that it must be understood in the same sense here; both because the objects are different and the manner of seeking manifestly so. The other passages adduced refer to the covenanted people of God, but this only to those who were strangers from the covenants of promise. The former to those who knew God by the word and detested idols; the latter to idolators ignorant of God. The former to seeking and finding God known favorably through Christ; the latter to seeking an unknown God through the works of nature and providence so that he might be known and be distinguished from idols. Finally, in the former it is simply and absolutely said that believers ought to seek God that they may find him for salvation, but in this that God had given in the creation and government of the world such proofs of his power and divinity as that by them they might be induced to seek the Creator of all things in that manner (viz., if by “feeling after” they might find him). No one will say this applies to those saints mentioned in the Old Testament who were accustomed to approach him relying on his most sure promises in Christ.

VIII. Rom. 1:19, 20 (concerning that which may be known of God, gnostd tou Theou) does not favor a common religion by which all may be saved and which is sufficient for salvation. (1) Only that which may be known (gnosio) is there spoken of and not that which is to be believed (pisto), which alone is saving. (2) Paul says the knowledge (to gnoston) of God is manifest in the Gentiles, but not all knowledge (pan gnoston) (viz., what may be learned from the book of nature, but not all that may be known of him from his word and which must be known in order to salvation, such as the mystery of the Trinity, and of Christ the Redeemer, etc.). (3) This knowledge (gnoston) which is restricted by the apostle to his “power and godhead” (i.e., to the knowledge of his existence and of those attributes which strike our senses in the works of creation and providence) is usually referred to natural theology; but is not extended to the knowledge of his will and mercy in Christ which can be derived only from his word, and not at all from his works and without which there can be no salvation. (4) This knowledge (gnoston) is only such as to render men inexcusable (Rom. 1:20). Nor should the words eis to here be understood only eventually to denote that the thing turns out so accidentally, but also intentionally as to the purpose of God because this event must have been intended by him since it refers to a work which he performed by his decree, not to that which he commands only by the law.

IX. That which is sufficient to render inexcusable does not therefore suffice for salvation if used properly; for more things are requisite for the obtainment of salvation than for incurring damnation justly and without excuse (atiapologetos). For evil arises from some defect, but the good requires a whole cause. For example, he who offends in one point is guilty of all (Jam. 2:10); but not, therefore, he who does well in one point is just in all. The commission of one sin can render a man inexcusable, but the performance of one good work is not sufficient to save him. Thus the Gentiles were inexcusable because they substituted gods without number in place of that one God whom they could know from the light of nature; but we cannot infer from this that the knowledge of the one God is sufficient absolutely for salvation. Thus this inexcusableness must be restricted to the subject matter of which the apostle treats (viz., to idolatry), which was sufficient for their condemnation, although the avoidance of it would not suffice for their salvation.

X. It is one thing for a man to be excusable or excused; another to be savable or saved, if he is excusable only from a part and not from the whole (which would be the case with the heathen if they would use aright the light of nature, which is impossible). Although they might properly regulate their external actions by abstaining from subsequent sins, still they could not obtain the pardon of previous and especially of original sin, and change their corrupt state and nature. For the actions which they would perform would be only external and good as to substance, not also as to the manner and source (being destitute of the Holy Spirit); and, if profitable, would be so only as to the present or future, but not as to the past in removing former guilt (without which, however, no one can be saved).

XI. It is falsely asserted that in that which may be known of God (gnosta tou Theou) there is given objectively a revelation of grace, and a Redeemer sufficient for salvation, if not clear and explicit, at least obscure and implied, inasmuch as in it God is known as merciful and therefore, in a certain although confused manner, as a Redeemer who will accept a satisfaction, may call to repentance and promise remission of sin. For in the first place, to be able to know God as merciful by a general mercy tending to some temporal good and the delay of punishment is far different from being able to know him as merciful by a mercy special and saving in Christ after a satisfaction has been made. To be able to know him as placable and benign is different from being able to know him as actually appeased or certainly to be appeased. We grant that the heathen could have the former from the light of nature, but not the latter which nevertheless is necessarily required to tranquilize the conscience. For what advantage would there be in knowing that God could be appeased unless it was evident that he was willing to be appeased and the means of such a propitiation were well ascertained? For when the conscience is weighed down by the guilt of sin and a sense of the divine justice, it could never be tranquilized unless both the goodwill of God, and the manner of satisfying his justice became known. Now who will say that this could be derived from the book of nature where God manifests himself only as the Creator and preserver? On the contrary, who does not confess that it can be sought for only in the word of the gospel, which reveals to us the mercy of God in Christ? Otherwise why should Paul call this a mystery which was kept secret since the world began (Rom. 16:25)? Why should he say that the Gentiles were strangers from the covenants and without Christ (Eph. 2:12), if they had always been in some manner under the covenant of grace and professed a certain (although a confused and implied) knowledge of saving mercy in Christ?

XII. No better do they disentangle themselves who seek another incrustation and distinguish between a mediate and an immediate sufficiency. As if the Gentiles who could not have a revelation immediately sufficient might yet have one mediately sufficient, inasmuch as they suppose that if anyone had made a good use of the light of nature, God would have superadded the light of grace (since this is agreeable to his mercy and can be gathered from the saying of Christ, “Whosoever hath, to him shall be given,” Mt. 13:12*). For besides the absurdity of calling a revelation sufficient which requires another additional revelation (in which sense we strongly ridicule the opinion of the papists who maintain that the Scriptures may be called mediately sufficient because, although they do not contain all things, they refer us to tradition from which they can be gained), the very thing to be proved is here taken for granted— that God would superadd the light of grace to one making a good use of the light of nature as if he had bound himself to anyone or owed something to man, or as if this connection could be proved from some passage of Scripture. Indeed this seems to have been drawn from the fountains of Pelagians who held that “God would not withhold grace from one who did what he could.” Mt. 13:12 cannot be adduced here because it refers to the gifts of grace which God is accustomed to crown with new gifts, not to the gifts of nature.

XIII. Rom. 2:4 (to chreslon tou Theou eis metanoian agein, “the goodness of God leadeth to repentance”) does not apply here because Paul is not speaking of the Gentiles, but of the Jews, whom in this chapter he wishes to convict of sin, as in chapter 1 he had proved the Gentiles to be guilty. This appears: (1) from the things which he attributes to the person addressed which properly belong to none but a Jew, as that he judges others in those things which he does himself, etc.; (2) from v. 17, where he mentions the Jew by name as the very man with whom he speaks, “behold, thou art called a Jew.” These words are not the beginning of a new discourse to a person different from the preceding, but the continuation of the former discourse with a clearer designation of the person. Therefore the goodness (chrescotes) here spoken of denotes the revelation made to the Jews and the benefits bestowed upon them, and has no reference to the works of general providence.

XIV. Although the conscience of the Gentiles may be said to excuse them sometimes (Rom. 2:14,15), it does not follow that they can, in that state, enjoy true and solid peace, and the perfect salvation which follows it. It is one thing to excuse in some things or from a part, which it does; another, to excuse in everything and from the whole, which it cannot possibly do. It is also one thing to excuse from the more serious crimes (comparatively to others more iniquitous), and quite another to bestow upon us that sure and lasting peace flowing from a sense of the love of God and of our reconciliation with him, which the Gentiles do not have.

XV. A difference exists between a furnished and destitute state. The one is of the law considered in itself and its own nature; the other, in relation to us. The law was given to man in the beginning (before the fall) for life and by itself also led to life according to the sanction “do this and thou shalt live” (cf. Rom. 2:13). But after the fall, being destitute of strength through the flesh, it is not given for life, but for a mirror of sin and misery to render the sinner inexcusable
(Rom. 3:19, 20).

XVI. The work of the law is used in two senses: either formally for that which the law itself does; or imperatively for that which it enjoins upon man. The former is the work or duty of the law with regard to men in teaching, promising, forbidding and threatening. The latter is the work of man in reference to the law. The former is the proposition and revelation of the law; the latter its observance and fulfillment. The Gentiles are said to do the things “contained in the law” (Rom. 2:14) not in the latter, but in the former sense; not by complying with the law’s demands, but by doing what the law itself does—prescribing the good and forbidding the bad. This is evident: (1) from the general scope of Paul which is to prove that the Gentiles are exposed to death by the natural law even without the written law; (2) from the exegetical (exegetika) words which follow because these, “having not the law” are “a law unto themselves.” Therefore to do the things contained in the law is equivalent to being a law unto themselves.

XVII. Although some of the heathen (comparatively considered and in relation to each other) may have been better than others; although their works civilly and morally speaking may be called virtues, and so followed by the double reward of a wellregulated life, both positive (as productive of some temporal good and peace of conscience in this world) and negative (as making their punishment more tolerable), nevertheless (theologically speaking and relatively to God) their works best in form were nothing else than more splendid sins and in the sight of God worthy of no reward.

XVIII. The examples of Melchizedek, Job, the centurion and the like adduced here are not to the point because they all did the things for which they are praised in the Scriptures by the aid of special grace and revelation, not by the mere light of nature.

XIX. Although a Gentile by birth, Cornelius, was yet a proselyte by religion. Although he could not believe that the Messiah had come and was that Jesus whom Peter preached, yet he could believe with the Jews from the oracles of the prophets that he would come. Thus he is not to be reckoned among the Gentiles, but among the patriarchs who looked for salvation from a Redeemer not yet manifested. Hence by the advent of Peter, he did not receive a beginning, but an increase of faith.

XX. The two articles mentioned in Heb. 11:6 must not be understood physically, as if they could be perceived by the light of reason, but hyperphysically and theologically, to denote their manifestation to us by a saving knowledge, assuring us not only that God is, and is the omnipotent Creator of all things, but who he is (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), and after the fall a Redeemer and a rewarder not only of those seeking him legally by merit, but of those seeking him by grace evangelically through faith in the Mediator. The following arguments prove that this is the meaning of the apostle: (1) the adjunct of saving faith, which he sets forth throughout the whole chapter; (2) the examples of the saints mentioned there, so that the faith in God of which the apostle speaks is not the general knowledge of God diffusing his goodness in any way, but the knowledge of the true God bestowing heavenly blessings on account of Christ. By “approaching to God” the apostle means nothing else than to obtain communion with him in Christ (as everywhere else in the same epistle, Heb. 4:16; 7:25; 10:22). Hence Curcellaeus makes a false distinction between faith in God and faith in Christ, making the former absolutely necessary to salvation, the latter so only after a divine revelation. For no faith in God can be true and saving which is not connected with faith in Christ (Jn. 14:1), since we cannot believe in God except through Christ.

XXI. We do not deny that some of the fathers cherished a hope of the salvation of those Gentiles and philosophers who regulated their lives in accordance with reason (as Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 6.5,17 1ANF 2:490, 51718; PG 9.264, 392); Justin Martyr, First Apology 46 |FC 6:8384; PG 6.397]; John Chrysostom, “Sermon 36 [37),” Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew [NPNF1,10:241; PG 57.416) and others cited by Isaac Casaubon, De rebus sacris el. . . exercitationes . . . Baronii 1116141, PP 74). But the error of those who could speak more safely before the rise of Pelagian ism is less to be wondered at than that of many of the Scholastics who struck upon the same rock, after the strong defense of the necessity of grace in Christ made by Augustine and his followers.

XXII. Zwingli assigned a place in heaven to Hercules, Theseus, Numa, Aristides, Socrates and similar distinguished men (“A Short and Clear Exposition of the Christian Faith,” 12 in On Providence and Other Essays: Ulrich Zwingli 11922/1983], p. 272). In this work (after mentioning the saints of the Old and New Testament in his description of the heavenly hosts), he adds, “Here you will see Hercules, Theseus, Socrates, Aristides, Numa, etc. Here you will see your predecessors and as many of your ancestors as have departed this life in faith.” Besides not being approved by us, it is certain that he erred rather in fact than in right, not as if he thought the gate of salvation stood open without Christ and faith, but because he hoped that divine mercy had (in a manner hidden from us, but known to himself) wrought faith in some of those whom he had so illustriously endowed with heroic virtues. This is evident from his speaking expressly of those who departed in faith, which ought not to be restricted to the ancestors of the king, but extended to all those of whom he had just spoken. That this was his opinion, we gather from his declaration concerning original sin to Urbanus Rhegius where, after saying that they erred who adjudged to condemnation all whom we call Gentiles, he adds, “Who knows how much faith the hand of God had written upon each of their hearts?” (De peccato originali declaratio, ad Urbanum Rhegium [1526], CR 92.379).

XXIII. The various sacrifices of the Gentiles do not prove that they had a knowledge of God’s mercy in Christ. For they were not offered so much to obtain his saving grace (which cannot become known to man without a revelation since its exercise is altogether free) as to appease his justice (which is known by nature and its exercise necessary).

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