by Robert Shaw
Section I.–Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence, do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet they are not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation; therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his Church; and afterwards for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God's revealing his will unto his people being now ceased.
There are few doctrines of supernatural revelation that have not, in one period or another, been denied or controverted; and it is a peculiar excellence of the Westminster Confession of Faith, that its compilers have stated the several articles in terms the best calculated, not only to convey an accurate idea of sacred truth but to guard against contrary errors. In opposition, on the one hand, to those who deny the existence of natural religion, and, on the other hand, in opposition to Deists, who maintain the sufficiency of the light of nature to guide men to eternal happiness, this section asserts,–
1. That a knowledge of the existence of God, and a number of his perfections, is attainable by the light of nature, and the world of creation and providence.
2. That the light of nature is insufficient to give fallen man that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation.
3. That God has been pleased to grant to his Church a supernatural revelation of his will.
4. That this revelation has been committed to writing, and that the Holy Scripture is most necessary, the ancient modes of God's revealing his will unto his people being now ceased.
First. That there is a God is the first principle of all religion, whether natural or revealed, and we are here taught that the being of God and a number of his perfections may be discovered by the light of nature. By the word God is meant a Being of infinite perfection; self-existent and independent; the Creator, Preserver, and Lord of all things. "It is true, indeed, that to give a perfect definition of God is impossible, neither can our finite reason hold any proportion with infinity; but yet a sense of this Divinity we have, and the find and common notion of it consists in these three particulars,–that it is a Being of itself, and independent from any other; that it is that upon which all things that are made depend; that it governs all things." When we affirm that the being of God may be discovered by the light of nature, we mean, that the senses and the reasoning powers, which belong to the nature of man, are able to give him so much light as to manifest that there is a God. By our senses we are acquainted with his works, and by his works our reason may be led to trace out that more excellent Being who made them. This the Scripture explicitly asserts, Rom. i 19, 20: "That which may be known of God is manifest in them (i. c., in men), for God hath showed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead." The existence of God is not less indubitable than our own existence. Every man knows, with absolute certainty, that he himself exists. He knows also that he had a beginning, and that he derived his being from a succession of creatures like himself. However far back he supposes this succession to be carried, it does not afford a satisfactory account of the cause of his existence. His ancestors were no more able to make themselves than he was; he must, therefore, ascend to some original Being, who had no beginning, but had life in himself from all eternity, and who gives life and being to all other creatures. This is the Being whom we call God. But "we are not only conscious of our own existence, we also know that there exists a great variety of other things, both material and spiritual. It is equally inconceivable that these things should have existed from all eternity in their present state, or that they should have fallen into this state by chance; and, consequently, as there was a time when they did not exist, and as it was impossible for them to produce themselves, it follows that there was some exterior agent or creator to whom the world owed its being and form: that agent or creator we call God." The amazing works of providence, the regular and unerring motions of the heavenly luminaries for so many thousand years, the never failing return of summer and winter, seed-time and harvest, day and night, and innumerable other wonders, clearly manifest the existence of a Supreme Being, who upholds and governs all things. In the works of creation and providence, too, we see the clearest characters of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness. "The more that we know of these works, we are the more sensible that in nature there is not only an exertion of power, but an adjustment of means to an end, which is what we call wisdom, and an adjustment of means to the end of distributing happiness to all the creatures, which is the highest conception that we can form of goodness."
As the marks of a Deity are so clearly impressed upon all the works of creation, so we learn from the history of former times, and from the observation of modern travellers, that in every country, and at every period, some idea of a Superior Being, and some species of divine worship, have prevailed. The persuasion of a God is universal, and the most ancient records do not conduct us to a period in the history of any people when it did not exist. That truth must certainly be a dictate of nature, to which all nations have consented. There is much practical Atheism in the world, but it may be questioned whether any have been able entirely to erase from their mind the impression of a Supreme Being. It is, indeed, affirmed, Ps. xiv. 1, "The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God;" but it is rather the wish of the unsanctified affections, than the proper determination of the deliberate judgment, which these words express. Though some may in words disavow the being of God, let the terrors which they feel in their own breasts, especially upon the commission of some daring wickedness, force upon them the conviction that there is a Supreme Being, who will judge and punish the transgressors of his law. Conscience, indeed, is in the place of a thousand witnesses to this truth. The Apostle Paul, who tells us that "there is a law written in the hearts of men," adds that "their conscience bears witness, and their thoughts accuse, or else excuse one another."–Rom. ii.15. Conscience reproves, condemns, and scourges a man for his wicked deeds, and anticipates the account which he must give of all his actions, and thus demonstrates that there is a God. The Scriptures, accordingly, take the being of God for granted, and instead of first proving that there is a God, begin with telling us what God did. "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."–Gen. i. 1.
This knowledge of God, which is attainable by the light of nature, serves various useful purposes. It is a testimony of the goodness of God towards all his creatures.–Acts xiv. 17. As it shows men their duty, and convinces them of sin, in many points; so it has had some influence on mankind, at least by the fear of punishment, in restraining them from extreme degrees of wickedness.–Rom. ii. 14, 15. It excites men to seek after a clearer revelation of God, and prepares the way for their receiving the gospel of his grace.–Acts xvii. 27. It serves to vindicate the conduct of God as a righteous governor, in his severe dealing with obstinate sinners, both here and hereafter. This will leave them without excuse in the great day, when God shall judge the secrets of all hearts.–Rom. i. 20, 21, and ii. 15, 16. But the knowledge of God by the light of nature being obscure and defective,
The second proposition asserts the insufficiency of the light of nature to give fallen man that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation. The extent of knowledge, in regard to the things of God, which man is capable of attaining, cannot be ascertained from the writings of modern Deists, who, how much soever they affect to despise supernatural revelation, have derived the greater part of their sentiments respecting God, and moral obligation, from that source. The history of past times and ancient nations shows, that the greater part of mankind, in every country destitute of supernatural revelation, knew but little of the true God, or of their duty towards him. "The world by wisdom knew not God;" even the learned Athenians were so ignorant of the true God that they dedicated an altar "to the unknown God." The heathen world was sunk in the most abominable idolatry and gross superstition. Not only were the heavenly luminaries deified, but almost every creature on earth was worshipped as a god, and innumerable imaginary beings had divine honours paid them. Though some heathen philosophers attained some considerable knowledge of the nature of God, and inculcated upon their followers several moral virtues, this did not prevent them from complying with the idolatry of their country, or deter them from the commission of the most gross and unnatural crimes.–Rom. i. 21-28. From the light of nature we may learn that there is evil both moral and penal in the world; but as to the question how sin entered into the world, and how deliverance from it may be obtained, the light of nature is entirely silent. It shows men their sin and misery, but it discovers not the plain and certain way of salvation. The Scriptures assure us, that there is no salvation for sinful men in any other name but that of Jesus Christ,–that there is no salvation through him but by faith, and that there can be no faith nor knowledge of Christ but by revelation.–Acts iv, 12; Mark xvi. 16; Rom. x. 14-17. The Scripture affirms, in terms the most express, that "where there is no vision," or revelation, "the people perish;" and it describes those who are destitute of divine revelation, as "having no hope, and without God in the world."–Prov. xxix. 18; Eph. ii. 12. God does nothing in vain; and were the light of nature sufficient to guide men to eternal happiness, it cannot be supposed that a divine revelation would have been given. But,–
The third proposition asserts, that God has been pleased to grant to his Church a supernatural revelation of his will. It cannot be considered as a thing incredible that God should make a revelation of his mind and will to men. Has he framed men so as that they should be capable of making known their mind to one another, by speech and by writing? And shall it be deemed a thing incredible that he should communicate his mind to them in a similar way? "It was, indeed, out of infinite love, mercy, and compassion, that God would at all reveal his mind and will unto sinners. He might for ever have locked up the treasures of his wisdom and prudence, wherein he abounds towards us in his Word, in his own eternal breast. He might have left all the sons of men unto that woeful darkness, whereinto by sin they had cast themselves, and kept them, with the angels who sinned before them, under the chains and power of it, unto the judgment of the great day. But from infinite love he condescended to reveal himself and his will unto us." The mind God was not revealed to the Church all at once, but by several parts and degrees, as in his infinite wisdom he saw meet. He spake unto the fathers by the prophets a at sundry times, and in divers manners."–Heb. i. 1. The "sundry times" may be understood "as referring to the matter of ancient revelation, given in different parts, and at different times, thus conveying the idea of the gradual development of truth in different ages, and by different persons;" and the "divers manners" may be understood "as indicating the various ways in which these revelations were communicated, i.e., by dreams, visions, symbols, Urim and Thummim, prophetic ecstasy, &c." Under the new dispensation, God has completed the whole revelation of his will by his Son, and no new revelation is to be expected to the end of the world.
The fourth proposition asserts, that this revelation has been committed to writing until the time of Moses, or for a period of two thousand five hundred years, no part of the sacred books was written. God then communicated his will to the Church by immediate revelation; and the long lives of the patriarchs enabled them to preserve uncorrupted what was so revealed, and to transmit it from generation to generation. Two persons might have conveyed it down from Adam to Abraham; for Methuselah lived above three hundred years while Adam was yet alive, and Shem lived almost a hundred years with Methuselah, and above a hundred years with Abraham. But after the lives of men severe shortened, and revelation was greatly enlarged, it pleased God that the whole of his revealed will should be committed to writing, that the Church might have a standing rule of faith and practice, by which all doctrines might be examined, and all actions regulated,–that sacred truth might be preserved uncorrupted and entire,–that it might be propagated throughout the several nations of the earth, and might be conveyed down to all succeeding generation. Though, in the infancy of the Church, God taught his people without the written Word, yet now that he former ways of revealing his will to his people have ceased, the Holy Scripture, or written Word, is most necessary. Without this the Church would be left to the uncertainty of tradition and oral teaching; but the written Word is a sure test of doctrines, and a light in a dark place, both of which are most necessary.–Isa viii. 20; 2 Pet. i. 19.
From The Reformed Faith: A Commentary on the Westminster Confession by Robert Shaw