Acton Institute Powerblog

Spurning the ‘Supernatural’

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In a recent post on the evangelical outpost, Joe Carter makes the case for discarding, or at least severely restricting, the use of the descriptive term supernatural by Christians. He notes that in using the term to refer, for example, to angels and demons, “we are implying that they belong on the same plane or realm of existence as God.”

One source of this implication is due to the fact that “we buy into the modernist notion that all of creation is physical and that angelic beings must necessarily exists on a ‘supernatural’ (i.e., nonphysical) plane separate and distinct from the material cosmos. Essentially, this leads us to concede a point to the physicalist worldview.”

Instead, Carter argues for a biblical worldview that separates all created reality on the one hand as contingent and God as the only metaphysically necessary being on the other. The natural-supernatural divide would then be between God and everything else. He visually describes the difference this way:

God
__________
Angels
Satan/demons
Man
Nature (i.e., plants, animals, minerals)

Such a view has the benefit of being biblical and supported by a long stream of orthodoxy. The radical Creator/creature distinction is at the heart, for example, of Athanasius’ opposition to the so-called Arian heresy.

Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck makes a somewhat similar point regarding the term supernatural in his discussion of the traditional distinction between natural and supernatural revelation. In a section of his Reformed Dogmatics (vol. 1, Prolegomena, pp. 301-12), he writes, “Actually, according to Scripture, all revelation, also that in nature, is supernatural.”

By this he means that it is supernatural in its source. That is, revelation is always from God. Thus, “the distinction between a natural and a supernatural revelation has not been derived from the action of God, who expresses himself both in the one and in the other revelation, but from the manner in which the revelation occurs, viz. ‘through’ or ‘from beyond’ this natural order. In its origin all revelation is supernatural.”

For this reason, referring to revelation as supernatural tends either to be a tautology or to lead to confusion. Bavinck prefers the distinction between general and special revelation, which refers to the distinction between God as he is generally revealed to all humanity and as he specially appears to the Church. The categories of special and general revelation therefore refer to the content of revelation rather than simply to the means of communication.

He writes, “Hence the distinction between natural and supernatural revelation is not identical with the distinction between general and special revelation. To describe the twofold revelation that underlies pagan religions and the religion of Scripture, the latter distinction is preferable to the former.”

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty, where he also serves as executive editor the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary. He has authored articles in academic publications such as The Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, and Journal of Scholarly Publishing, and has written popular pieces for newspapers including the Detroit News, Orange County Register, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In 2006, Jordan was profiled in the book, The Relevant Nation: 50 Activists, Artists And Innovators Who Are Changing The World Through Faith. Jordan's scholarly interests include Reformation studies, church-state relations, theological anthropology, social ethics, theology and economics, and research methodology. Jordan is a member of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA), and he resides in Jenison, Michigan with his wife and three children.

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