Naturalism and the Holiness of God.
I had a really interesting experience recently through reading a tract by a French Reformer named Theodore Beza (1519-1605). It’s always interesting to read the words of folk from significantly earlier times than ourselves, because we come across ideas and ways of thinking that are so very different from the kinds of thoughts and ideas we’re used to having! This can be especially useful to help us see blind spots in our own views and lifestyles.
Anyway, as I read Beza’s tract, A Learned Treatise of the Plague, one of the things that interested me most was the way that Beza’s commentary, and even the objections of those with whom he argued, all worked from the same basic assumption: that their consideration of the plague must take into account God’s role in events. As we have been living with the reality of the Covid-19 virus in our world today, the contrast couldn’t be more stark. Listening to politicians, media commentators, and other social influencers, one thing that has been notably absent is any consideration of God’s part in all this. Why is this so?
In western society, at least, we are clearly living in a world in which the public discourse resolutely refuses to acknowledge God. According to the reformed theologian John Frame, in his magnificent and magisterial History of Western Philosophy and Theology, Christianity was historically the strongest philosophical influence in Western Civilisation (Frame, History, p.123), and we can see an example of this in the writings of Beza mentioned above. In Beza’s day, there was no real question about God’s presence and activity in the midst of plague. From about 1650AD onwards, however, things began to change. From that point, modern philosophy began to rise in western nations. This kind of philosophy worked from the basic assumption that human reason is “the ultimate authority of truth and falsehood, right and wrong” (Frame, History, p.177), and it’s fair to say that the kind of godless discourse that we are now surrounded by today has grown out of the emergence of this kind of thinking.
One particularly influential branch of this modern philosophy, and the one which I believe holds dominance today in the west just as Christianity did in the past, is a view of the world which we might generally refer to as: “naturalism”. Naturalism, in a general sense, is the belief that the world entirely consists of natural or material reality as opposed to supernatural or spiritual reality. This view of the world works from the assumption that all of reality is essentially physical in nature.
Now, here’s where this ties in with our study on the Holiness of God. Perhaps some Christians think that we don’t need to mix faith and the broader public life of the world. True enough in one sense, we don’t need to mix them, but we do need to realise that they are basically in a fight to the death with each other! You can’t mix them, it’s true, just as you can’t mix light and darkness (2 Cor 6:14), but neither can you avoid the conflict that exists between them (Gal 5:17). This war of worldviews has implications for us in the Christian life, but let’s get back to the relationship between naturalism and the Holiness of God.
Let us be clear: naturalism, which is committed to the idea that reality is merely physical, is nothing less than an all-out assault on the Holiness of God. Don’t believe me? Think I’m overstating it? Well, just think about this for a moment! Naturalism is a view of the world that denies that there is any spiritual reality beyond the natural realm around us. But is this not the very thing that the doctrine of the Holiness of God affirms? This doctrine reveals to us that God himself, as holy, is the all-encompassing personal spiritual reality existing beyond the created realm of nature, and also the very one who created the natural realm! In this sense, naturalism is resolutely committed to a complete denial of the Holiness of God as the central tenet of its worldview.
We must not therefore tip our hats to naturalism, as though it were some respectable perspective in a worldly marketplace of ideas. We must rather see it for what it is: open rebellion against the living and Holy God. Naturalism is nothing less than a deadly, soul-destroying lie, and it is a lie that has many western nations in its grip – including our own nation of Australia.
Now, we’ve got an idea of naturalism in our minds, and we see that it is diametrically opposed to the Holiness of God, let’s close this meditation out and consider how we should respond to this challenge.
Firstly, let me begin by providing one very simple insight: naturalism is doomed. As God anticipates the approach of the New Covenant in Ezekiel 36, we see very clearly that he is concerned for his holy name: “Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name” (Ezek 36:22). The prophecy continues: “...the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes” (Ezek 36:23). Naturalism is an assault on the Holiness of God, but make no mistake: in the fullness of his perfect timing, God will vindicate his holy name, and all the nations so proudly spouting their “philosophy and empty deceit” (Col 2:8), will fall down before him (Ps 72:11). The knowledge of the Lord will cover the earth as the water covers the sea (Is 11:9), and thus in the fullness of time the devilish lie of naturalism will be done away with. We must live and work now in anticipation of that day, waiting upon God, and seeing to it that we are not “taken captive” by this lie in any way (Col 2:8). So then, how do we do that now?
Naturalism certainly is a present reality and danger at this point in time. It hangs like heavy smog over a city, blocking out sunlight and slowly choking its population. The public education system is thoroughly indoctrinated in it and relentlessly seeking to disciple our children in it (let the reader understand!); the ideology of western politics is thoroughly conversant in the language of naturalism, and one must be fluent in it to have any influence; our news media takes naturalism as its basic assumption and perspective on the events of the world; the secular scientific academic community, kind of like a priesthood, declares a doctrine of naturalism, and seeks to cancel all “heretical” voices. How do we respond to all of these challenges? There is much we could say, and there are many avenues of discussion we might pursue, but at this point let us simply consider the basic lie of naturalism as it stands against the doctrine of the Holiness of God, that lie being: reality is entirely physical.
Now, in considering this lie, here is the truth that we need to see: naturalism is fundamentally self-defeating. Why do I say that? Let me put it this way: people who believe in naturalism believe that the material world is all there is, and – on the basis of this – they presume “without proof, that human rationality and the empirical method of science are the sole means for determining what is true about reality” (Whitney, Has Science Disproved God? p.3). They embrace the empirical, scientific method as the way that we can gain knowledge about the world. Now, here’s where the problem comes in: the scientific method can not possibly prove that material reality is all that there is. In other words, naturalism rejects the idea of faith, and yet – in itself – it is fundamentally committed to a faith-based view of the world.
Naturalists are faithfully committed to the idea that the physical world is all that exists, and they reject God on this basis, and interpret the world and life through this lens. Naturalism is fundamentally a religious position, because its view of the world is based upon a commitment that must be received by faith. Are you starting to see the contradiction yet? Naturalism is the key platform from which the modern world launches its attack upon the Christian faith, fundamentally trying to tell us that our faith in God is blind and idiotic, and that faith is no basis for knowing anything. And yet, as we tear down the house of naturalism, we find that it too has been built on a foundation of faith – faith in the belief that physical reality is all that exists. Naturalism is, by nature, self-defeating, for you cannot simultaneously hold the rejection of faith as a central tenet of your worldview, and then also embrace faith as the basis for your entire perspective on reality.
No, the real truth is that naturalism offers nothing for us but the promise of damnation. In place of this lie, we must instead and always turn to the Holy One of Israel. “I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides me there is no God” (Is 45:5). Psalm 2 comes as a fitting warning to all who embrace the faith of naturalism: “Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.”
And for us as believers, we must train ourselves to spot the assumptions of the world around us. We must begin to perceive the lie of naturalism as it lurks beneath the comments of those who are caught up in its bondage. And we must feed on truth – that is the best antidote here.