The Problem of Theological Cataracts

Scott Oliphint
As we make our way toward the end of the Ten Tenets, Tenet 8 comes into view:
8. Suppression of the truth, like the depravity of sin, is total but not absolute. Thus, every unbelieving position will necessarily have within it ideas, concepts, notions, etc that it has taken and wrenched from its true, Christian context.
C. S. Lewis once famously said: "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else." If, as Christians, we see everything through the lens of Holy Scripture, we can, by the grace of God, understand the world as it really is, rather than how it might appear on the surface.

Tenet 8 requires this kind of Christian vision, a vision that sees everything else in light of Christianity. It assumes that we have put on the spectacles of Scripture and therefore have moved from blurry images to more light and more clarity.

When we see people who are outside of Christ, perhaps even hostile to the gospel, living decent lives, promoting useful ideas, encouraging good things, producing real benefits, our interpretation of those things becomes blurry and amorphous if we attempt to understand them without seeing them through the lens of biblical truth. 

Such fuzzy interpretations are all too common, however, even among some of the best of theologians. I well remember, a couple of decades ago, reading this statement from a book on apologetics, "...people do not necessarily consider themselves in opposition to God, whose existence they do not even know at the outset. ...They simply operate according to human nature." [1] Unfortunately, even the best of theologians can develop theological cataracts.

Tenet 8 affirms a different view from the one set forth in the quote above. It affirms, with Scripture, that there is no such thing, in the abstract, as "human nature." It affirms that one's nature is inextricably tied to one's relationship to the Triune God, and that relationship, as we have seen in previous tenets, is defined in one of two ways. It is either defined by one's status in Christ, or it is defined by one's status in Adam. If the former, it is because we are under grace; if the latter, we are under wrath. In each case, however, we know God "at the outset." We know him either by virtue of his revelation in nature alone, or we know him by virtue of his revelation in nature and in Scripture.

The wrath under which we abide, in Adam, comes to us because we persist in our suppression of the truth, as a symptom of our unrighteousness. That suppression is expressed in everything that we do -- in our living and practice, but also in our thinking and knowing. At each and every point, we are committed to holding down the truth that God persistently and successfully is giving us through the things he has made. We're happy to take those things and to use them for our own benefit, but what we will not do is acknowledge the knowledge of God that those things give us, nor will we given him the thanks and honor that is his due (Rom. 1:18-23).

So how can it be that someone so theologically astute could so badly misinterpret people such that he assumes a neutral notion of "human nature"? At least part of the answer to that question is addressed in Tenet 8. Even as we affirm that all people, in Adam, always and everywhere suppress the knowledge of God that is given by him -- which itself leads to all manner of sin and evil (cf. Rom. 1:28:32) -- we must also recognize that those who are outside of Christ are very often able, even as they suppress the truth, helpfully to contribute to the development and progress of the things of this world. So capable and beneficial are many who remain in Adam that we could be tempted to think that sin's affects are not as deep and deadly as Scripture teaches. Thus, we could lose clarity of vision and begin to interpret the good things accomplished by unbelievers as products of a kind of generic "human nature." We could begin to think that people are, at root, simply "human," and not sinners in the hands of an angry God.

So how is it that people who constantly and adamantly suppress God's truth nevertheless appear, much of the time, to be anything but rebels against God? Not surprisingly, John Calvin can help us maintain clarity of vision here:
...if the Lord has willed that we be helped in physics, dialectic, mathematics, and other like disciplines, by the work and ministry of the ungodly, let us use this assistance to suffer just punishment for our sloths. But lest anyone think a man truly blessed when he is credited with possessing great power to comprehend truth under the elements of this world [cf. Col 2:8], we should at once add that all this capacity to understand, with the understanding that follows upon it, is an unstable and transitory thing in God's sight, when a solid foundation of truth does not underlie it (Inst. II.ii.16).

Notice here that Calvin acknowledges that we can be "helped" by the "ungodly." This much is non-controversial. Anyone who has lived in the world recognizes that God gives an abundance of good gifts to all people, in various ways, and that without those gifts the world would descend into chaos. But notice also that Calvin recognizes that the gifts given by God are not, of themselves, wedded to a solid foundation. They are given by God, even though the foundation, which can only be one's commitment to and faith in Christ, and trust in what He has said, is absent from the gifts themselves.

Calvin also helps us to recognize the universal and persistent work of the Holy Spirit, in every person. So, he says:
Meanwhile, we ought not to forget those most excellent benefits of the divine Spirit, which he distributes to whomsoever he wills, for the common good of mankind.  The understanding and knowledge of Bezalel and Oholiab, needed to construct the Tabernacle, had to be instilled in them by the Spirit of God [Ex. 31:2-11; 35:30-35]. It is no wonder, then, that the knowledge of all that is most excellent in human life is said to be communicated to us through the Spirit of God. Nor is there any reason to ask, What have the impious, who are utterly estranged from God, to do with his Spirit? We ought to understand the statement that the Spirit of God dwells only in believers [Rom 8:9] as referring to the Spirit of sanctification through whom we are consecrated as temples to God [1 Cor 3:16]. Nonetheless he fills, moves, and quickens all things by the power of the same Spirit, and does so according to the character that he bestowed upon each kind by the law of creation (Inst. II.ii. 16)

The fact of the matter is that the Holy Spirit is active in all human affairs, giving good gifts even to those who reject and rebel against him. As John Owen argued, it is only the fruit of the Spirit that is unique to Christians, not the gifts.[2]  Fruit requires a solid and living "root" in order to be produced. Gifts, on the other hand, are given from the outside to a person, and are not the product of a living and thriving internal root. This is Calvin's point. The Spirit of God gives good gifts to people -- all to his glory and for the sake of his purposes.

These truths will help us to recognize that, contrary to an abstract idea of a neutral "human nature," the only way the world continues, and is sustained, is by the work of the Triune God. He alone sustains all things; it is in him alone that everyone -- believer as well as unbeliever -- lives and moves and has his being. So, when we see good things, when we recognize the helpful and often brilliant developments that come from those who do not know Christ, we also recognize that those things can only come because of what the Spirit of Christ is doing in and through the world. Every good thing, not just the good things that come from or to believers, are what they are by the universal activity and work of the Spirit himself.

So, before we think it proper only to acknowledge and appreciate the good gifts of any person, we must first acknowledge and appreciate the goodness of the Triune God, who alone is the source of every good gift. For those who are and remain in Adam, the suppression of the knowledge of God obtains every second that they breathe. But the same God who persistently gives his revelation through all he has made, also graciously gives good gifts to rebellious people according to his own sovereign and mysterious wisdom, and all to the glory of his holy name.

K. Scott Oliphint is Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. His latest book is Covenantal Apologetics (Crossway, 2013)


[1] R. C. Sproul, John H. Gerstner, and Arthur Lindsley, Classical Apologetics, ed. Sproul 1984 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984), 203, my emphasis.

[2] See "A Discourse on Spiritual Gifts," in John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H.Goold, vol. 4 (T&T Clark).