Natural and Revealed Theology
The Fourth Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| June 23, 2013| Romans 8:18-23
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body. Romans 8:18-23
Theology is talking about God. The word comes from two Greek words meaning God and word. Theology is God-talk. People talk about God all the time and not just in church. People talk theology on the job, at the ball game, in the tavern, around the dinner table, and everywhere else that people gather. Folks love to talk about God, whether or not they know what they’re talking about.
Theology is either natural or revealed. Natural theology is what we can learn by nature from nature. You don’t need the Holy Spirit, the Holy Scriptures, a prophet, or a preacher. All you need are your own God-given brains and the willingness to look at the world in which you live, putting two and two together to come up with four. Most of the theology you hear around town, on T.V., and in many churches falls under the category of natural theology. It’s common sense theology.
Natural theology looks at the world God made and comes to certain conclusions. Since it is natural theology and does not rely on God’s revelation in Christ, it knows nothing of the gospel. Natural theology knows only the law and its knowledge of the law is limited. Sin, after all, blinds us to sin. Still, natural theology can come up with some useful knowledge. It pays to live a clean and decent life. Liars have to remember their lies. Thieves can’t trust anyone. Murderers must fear for their lives. Marriage is between a man and a woman. Those who despise parents and other authorities can’t get any respect. And so it goes. Don’t borrow what you cannot repay, be content with what you have, work hard, and be frugal. Natural theology is common sense.
But natural theology is good only for life in this world. It cannot teach us the way to eternal life in heaven. For that we need the theology revealed to us by God in his Son. It cannot be learned from nature. It can be learned only from the Holy Spirit in the Holy Scriptures.
Natural theology cannot explain human suffering. God reveals the truth about it. Natural theology can only speculate about life after death. God reveals the truth about it. Natural theology gropes in the darkness of sin, stumbling around, unable to make sense out of the tragedies of life. God lifts us up out of the darkness of sin and reveals to us the truth about sin, forgiveness, life, death, and a divine love that is deeper than any pain we feel and more powerful than any sin we’ve done.
But Christians who have access to God’s revealed theology foolishly ignore it. They rely on natural theology. They try to figure out by their own reason and strength what cannot be apprehended except by faith alone. They forget that faith lives on God’s word, not on human speculation. Natural theology can only deal with the horizontal plane. When it comes to questions about God’s judgment, his grace, and whether he will give us eternal life or punish us for our sins, natural theology is nothing but futile guessing. It is people trying to figure out what they cannot figure out.
Explain suffering. Do you understand it? You cannot understand it by looking at nature. You can only understand it by listening to God. If you depend on natural theology you’ll conclude that our suffering is natural. It must be the way God intended things to be. But that’s not so. Suffering is the result of sin. Nature itself is under the curse of sin. After Adam sinned, God said to him, “Cursed is the ground for your sake.”
We’re not going to learn that from nature. Nature cannot teach us what sin is. God reveals the nature of sin and death to us. When Adam sinned the whole human race sinned with him and death came upon us all. Death is the wages of sin. The reason we suffer and die is because we are sinful. We deserve it.
Who wants to believe that the unkind word, the broken promise, the lustful thought, the neglect of God’s word, the disregard of the neighbor’s needs bring us suffering and death? Our sin-infected nature loves itself more than God or anyone else. Our sinful condition is why we serve ourselves instead of our neighbor, why we refuse to listen to God or honor him but insist on grasping onto honor for ourselves instead. The sin within is the cause of the sin without. And that’s the reason we suffer in this world.
Sin cannot be known from nature. Neither can forgiveness of sins. Christ cannot be known from nature or by the most brilliant analysis of natural facts. Only the Holy Spirit can reveal him to us. He confronted the sin of the whole world in his own body. He was innocent. He obeyed God perfectly, purely, and without holding anything back. He offered his obedience to the Father as the offering of the whole human race. He bore the punishment of the sin of the whole world. He was cursed for us. By bearing all the sin of all the sinners he took it away. In his vicarious obedience, love faced down hatred, mercy faced down judgment, life faced down death. By bearing the shame of the guilty, Jesus turned human shame into glory. He redeemed the whole human race, setting the world free from the curse, and bondage, and guilt of sin.
This freedom is what the Bible calls redemption. That’s what Paul is talking about in our text. Redemption is freedom. Paul contrasts “the bondage of corruption” on the one hand to “the glorious liberty of the children of God” on the other. The sin in which we are born that infects our bodies and souls and brings us to the grave is the sin that Jesus took away by bearing that sin in his body on the cross. This redemption, this setting free from sin, is ours in Christ who gave his life to God as the ransom to set the world free.
It is ours by faith. We cannot see it. We shall see it. But now we cannot see it. We see the opposite of what we believe. Our bodies suffer pain and disease and we die. God says that we are forgiven of all our sins, redeemed in body and soul, and set free from all evil. Yet we feel the guilt of our sin, we are gripped by pains and losses, and we are surrounded by suffering, death, and evils of every description. We live within a contradiction between what we believe and what we see.
But God’s revealed theology brings us peace within this contradiction. We feel in our bodies the pains of sin and we hear the words that give us the forgiveness of sins. The words of the gospel tell us that the sufferings we endure in this life “are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” We know this by faith. Suffering is just for a little while. Glory will be forever. Here is how St. Paul puts it in his second epistle to the Corinthians:
For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal. 2 Corinthians 4:17
Natural theology can only look at what is seen. Revealed theology is instruction from God in the invisible reality that cannot be seen. We see the world, not always working so well, producing destructive storms, fires, earthquakes, and famines. Natural theology struggles to understand an orderly world suffering from such disorder. God reveals what is really going on in our text for today where Paul writes:
For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now.
In the beginning the natural world was under Adam’s dominion. His sin brought God’s curse on this world. Christ’s redemption of sinners released this world from the curse of sin. We cannot yet see it. There is an already but not yet tension between what we believe and what we see and feel. We are already redeemed by the blood of Christ, but our bodies have not yet been set free from the results of sin. Neither has the natural world. All of creation groans and labors – like a woman who is giving birth – anticipating our final redemption, the liberation of our bodies from every vestige of sin, as St. Paul writes:
We also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body.
We wait. We wait in eager anticipation of the full redemption of our bodies. We reckon that the present sufferings don’t compare with the future glory. Who can imagine the joy, the glory, the wonder of heaven? St. Paul writes:
Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him. 1 Corinthians 2:9
Natural theology cannot rise above nature. Revealed theology is wisdom from heaven. Far above us, where our minds cannot travel, where our souls cannot ascend, far above all human thought, experience, and expression lives a love untouched by human sin. This love became incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary and became our brother. He bore all our sins and sorrows. He felt all of our troubles and pains. He experienced the suffering of the human race not just at the level of its symptoms, but at the root of its pain, as he, who knew no sin, became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in him.
Those who have Christ have heaven. It is our true home. The sufferings we endure in this life cannot compare with the glory that will be revealed in us when our bodies are fully redeemed and set free from all the effects of sin. We will be confirmed in perfect health, perfect peace, and perfect joy forever. Amen