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:
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.”