Earthly Things and Heavenly Things — A Reformed Approach to Science and Scripture

from Jun 08, 2012 Category: Articles

In this series, we have been discussing Dr. R.C. Sproul’s answer to a question about the age of the universe during the Q&A at Ligonier’s 2012 National Conference. In our last post, we looked at the geocentricity of Martin Luther and John Calvin in order to expand on Dr. Sproul’s point regarding past mistakes Christians have made in their understanding of God’s creation. Dr. Sproul argued that the church was able to learn from nonbelieving scientists who studied God’s created works. For Reformed Christians, this raises several questions related to the Fall and its impact on human reasoning.

It is important to look at these questions because some have suggested that those, such as Dr. Sproul, who stand in the tradition of the Princeton theologians do not take the impact of the Fall on the human mind as seriously as they should. This suggestion is false, as several recent books have demonstrated.i But how can one affirm on the one hand that the Fall has defiled the human mind and affirm on the other hand that the church can learn from unbelievers about God’s created works? Before we look at the answer to this question, it is necessary to offer a brief summary of the Reformed view of reason and revelation before and after the Fall. The objective here is not to address every related issue (there are many). It is merely to summarize some of the most fundamental points.

Revelation and Reason Before the Fall

Man was created in the image of God, and before the Fall, “God’s image was visible in the light of the mind, in the uprightness of the heart, and in the soundness of all the parts” (Calvin, Institutes I.xv.4). He was, as Charles Hodge explains, “originally created in a state of maturity and perfection.”ii Man’s reason, will, and emotions were uncorrupted by sin and functioned correctly.

Regarding general revelation before the Fall, John Calvin helpfully explains its original purpose. In his Institutes, he writes, “The natural order was that the frame of the universe should be the school in which we were to learn piety, and from it pass over to eternal life and perfect felicity” (II.vi.1). Before the Fall, then, God’s revelation was able to accomplish its original purpose because man’s reasoning faculties, his ability to receive what was revealed, had not been distorted by sin.

Revelation and Reason After the Fall

Our first parents sinned against God, and as a result they were “wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body” (WCF, VI.2). This is a description of total depravity. Theologians sometimes use the phrase “the noetic effects of sin” to describe the defilement of one of these faculties, the human mind. It is important to note that while these faculties, including the mind, were corrupted and deformed, they were not annihilated or destroyed (Calvin, Institutes, I.xv.4). God graciously prevented all human beings from becoming completely irrational beasts.iii

Although the creation itself was cursed as a result of man’s sin (Gen. 3:17), God’s infallible revelation of Himself continued. Paul, for example, explains that God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:20).iv It is precisely because the continuing revelation remains clear that unbelievers are deemed inexcusable (cf. Calvin, Institutes, I.vi.1).

How, then, does a Reformed believer simultaneously affirm the fallenness of the mind, the curse on creation, and the ability of unbelievers to understand something of the created world? He can do this because the kinds of understanding or knowledge that are being discussed are carefully distinguished. Here is where John Calvin can offer another helpful insight.

The Twofold Knowledge of God

It is important to recall that Calvin’s Institutes is largely structured around the idea of the twofold knowledge of God. Book One is titled “The Knowledge of God the Creator.” Book Two is titled “The Knowledge of God the Redeemer in Christ.” If certain Calvin scholars are correct, and Books Three and Four are actually subsumed under the topic of the knowledge of God the Redeemer, then the entirety of the Institutes is structured around this idea of the twofold knowledge of God.v

Regardless of whether most or all of the Institutes is structured around this theme, Calvin clearly teaches that our sources for knowledge of God the Creator are both general and special revelation. Our source for knowledge of God the Redeemer in Christ, on the other hand, is special revelation alone. General revelation, as we have already seen, is insufficient for knowledge of redemption. Furthermore, what knowledge of God there is in general revelation is suppressed and distorted by the unbeliever. According to Calvin, anyone who would come to a true knowledge of God the creator requires Scripture. Calvin compares Scripture to spectacles that enable us to see the revelation of God in creation clearly (Institutes, I.vi.1).

The important point to notice here is that this entire discussion so far concerns knowledge of God.

Heavenly Things and Earthly Things

We have already looked at several important theological distinctions in this series. John Calvin makes another that sheds significant light on the question now before us. He distinguishes between knowledge of heavenly things and knowledge of earthly things. The fullest discussion of this distinction is found in the Institutes, II.ii.12–21. Calvin also uses it in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:20, when he comments on the so-called “wisdom of the world.”

Calvin begins his discussion in Book II.ii.12. He begins this section by agreeing with Augustine’s assertion that man’s spiritual gifts were “stripped” from him by sin while his natural gifts were corrupted. One of these natural gifts is “understanding,” which has been weakened and corrupted. But this weakness, according to Calvin, is not the same as annihilation, which would reduce man to the same level as brute beasts. Regarding “understanding,” he says, “When we so condemn human understanding for its perpetual blindness as to leave it no perception of any object whatever, we not only go against God’s Word, but also run counter to the experience of common sense” (II.ii.12). Human understanding, then, has not been completely destroyed. It has, however, been weakened.

While a weakened human understanding stumbles around, “its efforts do not always become so worthless as to have no effect, especially when it turns its attention to things below” (II.ii.13, emphasis mine). Here, Calvin hints at the distinction that clarifies much of his thinking on this subject. He then explains himself more fully: “to perceive more clearly how far the mind can proceed in any matter according to the degree of its ability, we must here set forth a distinction. This, then, is the distinction: that there is one kind of understanding of earthly things; another of heavenly” (II.ii.13). “Earthly things” are those things that do not pertain to God or His kingdom. Among these things, Calvin includes government, household management, mechanical skills, and the liberal arts and sciences. Among the “heavenly things” are the pure knowledge of God, the nature of true righteousness, and the mysteries of the kingdom (II.ii.13).

According to Calvin, despite the Fall, unbelievers can come to a knowledge of earthly things, and he provides numerous examples. Regarding knowledge of the sciences, he writes, “Those men whom Scripture [I Cor. 2:14] calls ‘natural men’ were, indeed, sharp and penetrating in their investigation of inferior things” (II.ii.15, emphasis mine). In the next section, he continues along the same lines: “But 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. For if we neglect God’s gift freely offered in these arts, we ought to suffer just punishment for our sloths” (II.ii.16). As grateful as Calvin is for the knowledge that can be gained in this way, however, he understands that the knowledge of earthly things that unbelievers do have is true only in so far as it goes. It is “an unstable and transitory thing in God’s sight, when a solid foundation of truth does not underlie it” (II.ii.16).

In the following sections, Calvin turns his attention to what human reason can know of heavenly things (“God’s kingdom and spiritual insight”). He explains, “This spiritual insight consists chiefly in three things: (1) knowing God; (2) knowing his fatherly favor in our behalf, in which our salvation consists; (3) knowing how to frame our life according to the rule of his law. In the first two points – and especially in the second – the greatest geniuses are blinder than moles!” (II.ii.18). He adds, “Human reason, therefore, neither approaches, nor strives toward, nor even takes a straight aim at, this truth: to understand who the true God is or what sort of God he wishes to be toward us” (II.ii.18). So, while unbelievers can come to some accurate understanding of earthly things, they cannot do so in connection with heavenly things.vi

The Wisdom of the World

In his commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:20, Calvin comments on what Paul refers to as the “wisdom of the world.” His use of the distinction between knowledge of earthly and heavenly things helps us understand how learning from the knowledge of unbelievers in some areas does not entail capitulating to the wisdom of the world. He first explains in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:20 what we have already mentioned above, namely, that whatever knowledge unbelievers have of earthly things is ultimately vain if not grounded in Christian faith. It may be true as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. Calvin then makes his main point. He argues that Paul is not condemning man’s reasoning or his ability to understand earthly things. He is declaring “that all of this is of no avail for acquiring spiritual wisdom” (i.e. knowledge of heavenly things).

Calvin’s distinction concerning the ability of unbelievers to come to some accurate knowledge of earthly things, but little to no knowledge of heavenly things is based on Scripture itself. All of Scripture assumes that man’s reason retained some functionality after the fall. He is still distinguished from irrational beasts and can still come to enough of an accurate understanding of the created world to live and function. He can tell the difference between a tree and a cow. He can learn to cook, and farm, and build, and govern by accurate observation of the world. Jesus himself pointed to the ability of unbelievers to properly understand something about the natural world in his controversy with the Pharisees and Sadducees: “He answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times (Matthew 16:2-3). Unbelievers can come to some knowledge of ‘earthly things’ from observation of God’s creation. When it comes to the knowledge of heavenly things, however, unbelievers are blind.

In our next post, we will look more closely at how Dr. Sproul suggests Christians should respond when there is an apparent conflict between Scripture and science.


ii Several important recent works have begun to answer this criticism with specific reference to the Princeton theologians and by extension, to those who follow them. See, for example, Paul Kjoss Helseth, “Right Reason” and the Princeton Mind (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010); Fred G. Zaspel, The Theology of B.B. Warfield (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010); David P. Smith, B.B. Warfield’s Scientifically Constructive Theological Scholarship (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2011).
ii Charles Hodge, Systematic Theolgy, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982 [1872–73]), 2:92.
iii See Anthony Hoekema’s discussion of “common grace” in his Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 189–202.
iv Emphasis mine.
v Edward A. Dowey, Jr. The Knowledge of God is Calvin’s Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 41–9.
vi Calvin does sometimes hint at a very limited insight into spiritual things by unbelievers, but this topic is beyond the scope of the present series.


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