Everything in Nature Speaks of God: Understanding Sola Scriptura Aright

Jordan Steffaniak
Monday, May 2nd 2022
May/Jun 2022

A virtue of evangelicalism is its love and passion for the Bible. While it’s difficult to pin down what exactly evangelical means, cherishing the Bible almost always comes to mind.[1] But it’s not just evangelicals who should love the Bible. Christians—especially Reformed Christians—ought to love the Bible too. We ought to love it given its character, its origin, its content, and its goal. Indeed, as Calvin urged, we cannot know or attain God unless we are “aided and assisted by his Sacred Word.”[2]

As with all human loves, however, love of the Bible may become disordered. Such a disordered love of the Bible sometimes leads to distortion of Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy. One disordered variation is called biblicism. While the term may sound pious by its etymology (it nearly spells Bible!), it is in fact corrosive. In what follows, therefore, I intend to clarify the nature and danger of biblicism, while arguing in favor of a thicker and more classically Protestant understanding of Holy Scripture and the task of theology. While biblicism can corrode every area of theology from moral theology to anthropology, I intend to focus exclusively on the doctrine of God because of its prime position in theology and because of the growing number of biblicist treatments of the doctrine.


What’s So Bad about Biblicism?
Defining Biblicism

The charge of distorting faithful orthodox doctrine and orthopraxis is a serious one deserving of careful argumentation. Such argumentation must begin with clear definitions. So, what is this biblicism that is so sinister? Although there are several ways biblicism could be defined, I will cover two of the more common variants. I begin first with the following definition:

Biblicism: Scripture is authoritative for all concepts of God (and any other theological locus such as morality, anthropology, etc.). Therefore, theological commitments must emerge from Scripture alone and be consistent with Scripture. Intuition, creed, confession, tradition, or any other source is incompatible with the supremacy of the Scriptures.[3]

For most Protestants, this likely sounds good, right, and true. In fact, this sort of thinking is common. For example, consider Jeffrey Johnson’s recent popular level critique of Thomas Aquinas. He criticizes Thomas because his “doctrine of God is not rooted in revelation alone.”[4] The key operative word here is alone. Nothing—not intuition, not creed, not confession, not tradition, not anything—can have input for theological construction to be faithful to the supremacy of the Scriptures. It is not just that theological commitments must be consistent with Scripture, but that they must emerge from Scripture alone. If theological commitments come from or are influenced by anyone or anything besides Scripture—whether it be Plato, Aristotle, Thomas, or C. S. Lewis—they are to be rejected.

Oftentimes, this version of biblicism is defended by reference to the sufficiency of Scripture. It is assumed that for Scripture to be sufficient, no other epistemic resources should be brought to bear on the topic. But while it may seem virtuous to afford such a role for Scripture, I argue that it is practically impossible, contrary to the Scriptures themselves, often corrosive to faithful doctrine, and even contrary to the classic Protestant doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture. I believe there is a better way for reverencing the Scriptures.

Getting Clear on Natural Theology

Before elucidating the various problems with biblicism as defined, it is helpful to clarify what biblicism is rejecting as a means of knowledge. The definition of biblicism above provides several examples: intuition, creed, confession, and tradition. These are broadly part of “natural theology” whereas “supernatural theology” is strictly identical to the Scriptures themselves and extremely disciplined descriptive theological tasks. I take it that biblicism attempts to create a conflict between these “natural” means and the “supernatural” means of Scripture. While many who hear the term “natural theology” often associate it exclusively with the proofs for God’s existence and attempts to justify theism apart from divine revelation, I think this is an insufficient understanding. A better approach is to follow Herman Bavinck’s distinction that natural theology is that which is “through” the natural order, whereas supernatural theology is “from beyond” the natural order. Both are equally revelations of God. The difference is in the manner of revelation.[5] Therefore, natural theology, as I take it, is the knowledge of God the Creator through his creation, whether that is human cognitive capacities like intuition or the socially mediated summary of sound doctrine in tradition.[6] Natural theology is not to be understood as a means to obtaining the salvific revelation of God as Redeemer independent from supernatural theology.

Now, I can clarify the specific means of natural theology. First, intuition is broadly construed as a person having a mental state in which a proposition seems to be true. This can be defined more stringently in terms of either beliefs, dispositions to believe, or sui generis states (e.g., states such as “seemings” where P seems to be true to S).[7] But no matter how one defines the inner workings of intuition, some intuitions are stronger than others. For example:

Intuition 1: Torturing an innocent person is wrong
Intuition 2: Spanking a child is wrong
Intuition 3: Rooting for the St. Louis Cardinals is wrong

Depending on the person, each of these intuitions varies in strength. Some, like intuition 1, are nearly universal, whereas some, like intuition 3, are rare and appear arbitrary.

Second, tradition is what Scott Swain and Michael Allen call “the temporally extended, socially mediated activity of renewed reason.” It is the church’s “abiding in and with apostolic teaching through time.”[8] It is neither static nor infallible in this Protestant construal. Tradition is properly considered natural theology, given that it is not an infallible supernatural provision from God.

Third, creed and confession are those codified summaries of orthodox and right doctrine. Examples of creeds are the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. Examples of confessions are the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) and the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith. The creeds are broader and more universally accepted, whereas confessions typically serve as denominational boundaries.

General Problems with Biblicism

Biblicism has several serious ailments. First, such a hard version of biblicism as defined here is impossible.[9] It is unfeasible to derive any theological concept from Scripture without a secondary means apart from Scripture. Theology cannot be done within this biblicist framework. Even the basic reading of the text and forming an idea of it is itself external to Scripture. Therefore, no one can consistently adhere to biblicism, because biblicism itself is a theological concept derived rationally from Scripture and is thus unacceptable as a theory by the grounds of its own premise. Moreover, such a vision of theology is inconsistent with Scripture’s own vision. As Herman Bavinck says, “God has not called us to literally repeat but to reflect on what he has antecedently thought and laid out in revelation.”[10] Therefore, contemplative reasoning is an essential part of theology if we desire to do anything more than the literal repetition of the Scriptures into which biblicism would lock us.

Second, Scripture itself validates means external to Scripture as divine sources of revelation. Psalm 19:1 exclaims that “the heavens declare the glory of God” and Romans 1:20 claims 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.” Therefore, as Steven Duby suggests, “In light of Romans 1, it is not just reason but faith itself . . . that compels us to affirm the reality of a natural knowledge of God.”[11] It is not as if natural knowledge of God is obtained by following a pathway that Scripture rejects. Scripture speaks of humanity knowing God in creation itself. We can know God as Creator, as Basil suggests, “through what he has made.”[12] Calvin echoes these sentiments, saying, “This skillful ordering of the universe is for us a sort of mirror in which we can contemplate God, who is otherwise invisible.”[13] Therefore, biblicism violates its own maxim by not allowing these scriptural texts to speak in their fullness.

Third, biblicism has led to numerous theological constructions that have either departed from classical orthodoxy or significantly modified it. For example, Scott Oliphint previously attempted to promote God having “accidental” or “contingent” attributes that are mutable in God.[14] Bruce Ware similarly argued that God has relational mutability.[15] Such doctrinal constructions are in conflict with the church confession of God through the ages.

A More Nuanced Biblicism

But biblicism is not restricted to those who argue that Scripture must be the sole source of our theology. There is another, more nuanced route to a biblicist framework. Consider the following revised definition:

Temporal Biblicism: Scripture is authoritative for all concepts of God (and any other theological locus such as morality, anthropology, etc.). Therefore, theological commitments must emerge from Scripture first and be consistent with Scripture. Intuition, creed, confession, tradition, or any other source is incompatible with the supremacy of the Scriptures if they are understood temporally prior to Scripture.

In this definition, rather than Scripture needing to be the sole resource for theology, it must be the first resource for theology. Take Bruce Ware as a representative example. He argues that “God is not to be understood first in his metaphysical perfections, for such notions of God are supplied by philosophy and not divine revelation.”[16] Ware argues for a strict binary between scriptural knowledge and every other mode of knowing, saying that God should not be understood first by concepts from nature before supernature.[17]

The key problem noted by Ware is that mediums of knowledge besides Scripture hold primacy over Scripture because of a distorted epistemic ordering. For Ware, if someone knowingly or unknowingly understands God through nature before Scripture, then in their methodology they reject the authority of the Bible. So, Ware does not deny the validity of natural theology. Scripture need not be the sole source of theology. But he argues that natural theology has a required location in the process of knowing that should not usurp supernatural theology.

Good Dogmatic Order

Despite the pious sounding concerns about epistemic ordering or “good dogmatic order” from those like Ware, such versions of biblicism fail to convince for several reasons. First, the Christian tradition largely disagrees. While many seek to follow such good dogmatic order, there is no consensus or necessity in this ordering. Good dogmatic order does not require Holy Scripture to exercise epistemic primacy in every respect. While the Christian tradition affirms the Spirit’s epistemic work as the ontological principle of knowledge (the Spirit himself) and the infallible external cognitive principle of knowledge (Scripture), it also affirms that the Spirit functions as the internal cognitive principle, causing knowledge to be received, contemplated, and confessed via various sources.[18] Such an understanding of the epistemic ordering is decidedly not temporally relevant. The internal cognitive principle can often pedagogically precede the external cognitive principle. And this is not understood as a problem. Scripture remains logically prior.[19] Nor does such an understanding suggest that the external and internal principles cannot function independently.

Second, the temporal order of theology is not as cut and dried as some suggest. For example, take the classical Christian project of faith seeking understanding.[20] This is a dogmatic project, assuming the truth of beliefs such as classical theism. From these foundations, further theological contemplation is practiced. Such dogmatic reasoning assumes that Christians begin with faith and then use their sanctified reason to further seek out divine truth. This means that there is no temporal point at which dogmatic theology should ever issue apart from faith. Faith is the garden in which both supernatural and natural theology flourish. Rather than pitting supernatural and natural theology against each other, good dogmatic order is properly related to faith and understanding. So, there is such a thing as “good dogmatic order,” but it relates to faith. Moreover, no Christian practice of theologizing can ever truly be independent of supernatural theology. Its theologizing always issues from exegesis at some point in the process—indeed it always initially issues from Scripture first, given Scripture’s role as the sole sufficient guide for all knowledge of God necessary for salvation.

Third, it is not wrong for natural theology to function independently of supernatural theology at times in seeking to know God the Creator. Most who intentionally conceive of God independently of Scripture do not intend to conceive of God in contradiction to Scripture; they intend to develop their thoughts independently of it for specific reasons (though never ignorant of it).[21] So long as the conclusions are consistent with Scripture, there is no problem. Surely, none deny that supernatural theology is clearer than natural theology and objectively authoritative. Therefore, independent conceptions of God are never completely ignorant of nor independent from Scripture. There remains an interdependence, even if it is not explicitly notated. There is a larger pattern of authority within which Scripture networks, although it is the supreme authority.[22] Though supernatural theology always stands to “sanctify” natural theology, correcting it where it errs and building it up where it is deficient, natural theology can provide legitimate content independently of and prior to Holy Scripture.[23] Natural theology, by means of the Spirit’s self-manifestation, constitutes “true and proper effects of his pedagogical grace.”[24]


An Alternative Vision for Biblical Supremacy
Retrieving the Right Doctrine of Sola Scriptura

There is another reason biblicism falters: biblicism is not what the Protestant Reformers had in mind when they vigorously defended sola scriptura. While duly noting that biblicism genuinely seeks to follow sola scriptura, it must be admitted that it is, in the strong words of Allen and Swain, a “bastard child nursed at the breast of modern rationalism and individualism.”[25] In contrast, the Reformers’ doctrine of sola scriptura never intended a wholesale rejection of the vast array of Spirit-given natural tools for the church to know God. It never imagined Scripture as alone in the cognitive process. Its purpose was to ensure that Scripture continued to critique and reform every natural object of knowing.[26] Therefore, for the Reformers, sola scriptura was never intended to reject the deliveries and gifts of nature. Scripture and nature are not, as Bavinck strikingly puts it, “two independent powers engaging in a life-and-death struggle with each other.”[27] Supernatural revelation, rather than destroying natural revelation, “perfects it” and makes it clearer, as Francis Turretin put it.[28] The confession that natural theology has a role does not deny the norming authority of supernatural theology.[29]

Given this summary, I suggest the following definition for sola scriptura in contrast to biblicism:

Sola Scriptura: Scripture is authoritative for all concepts of God. Therefore, theological commitments must be consistent with Scripture. Intuition, creed, confession, tradition, and any other source is complementary to the magisterial rule of the Scriptures. They function as derivatively authoritative ministerial guides to right interpretation.

Notice that the sole requirement for theological commitments is consistency with Scripture. Epistemic ordering (the first source) and epistemic primacy (the sole source) are absent. Sola scriptura is not about the Bible as the sole source or the first source, but about the Bible as the supreme source. Scripture is the organic principle from which the entire Christian faith—including, theology, preaching, confession, liturgy, and worship—arises and is nurtured.[30] Scripture remains the sole foundation and norm, though it is not the only epistemic means.

The Sufficiency of Scripture

As noted initially, there is a tendency among many biblicists to claim support for their anemic view of Scripture from the doctrine of its sufficiency. But I argue that this is a misunderstanding of the sufficiency of Scripture. Consider 2LCF 1.1 wherein the doctrine is spelled out:

The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience, although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet they are not sufficient to give that knowledge of God and His will which is necessary unto salvation.

There are several important aspects to note. First, Scripture’s sufficiency is about salvation. It is not about every detail of the Christian faith.[31] It is definitely not about non-scriptural areas, such as molecular biology. Sufficiency has a limited scope. Second, Scripture’s sufficiency does not invalidate the “light of nature” as a legitimate means of knowing God. Sola scriptura is about the Bible being the supreme authority, not the only authority. The Bible’s sufficiency is not self-sufficient in the sense of being independent of God’s ordained means such as pastors, tradition, the Holy Spirit, and so on.[32] We need other aids, even as simple as basic rational capacities to hear, read, and understand.

Third, when it comes to the doctrine of God, there is much about God not revealed explicitly in Scripture. To think that God has exhaustively revealed himself in Scripture seems to contradict his infinity. This is the point behind 2LCF 1.7 and the perspicuity of Scripture. Affirming that Scripture is sufficient is not the same as claiming that it is exhaustive.


The Differences Clarified

It is important to summarize the differences between biblicism and the classical vision of sola scriptura. Both biblicism and sola scriptura affirm the centrality of the Scriptures for knowledge of God, and they would both heartily affirm statements like this one from Kevin Vanhoozer: “Scripture is the divinely appointed means by which God generates and governs the church’s understanding of who he is and what he has done in the Son and Spirit for us and our salvation.”[33] So, the key difference between them is not the authority of Scripture, but the outworking of this authority for external sources. For biblicism, the Bible is either completely alone or must have temporal primacy. Biblicism gives no room for natural theology to serve a role in knowing God. Scripture is either the only or first authority rather than the highest authority. Therefore, for one version of biblicism, knowledge of the divine ends up being exorcised from all secondary sources. It confesses a faith divorced from nature. It often repudiates any form of traditional metaphysical thinking, and it functions as an extreme form of fideism that historically has led to rationalism. Speaking or thinking of anything else—such as intuition, creed, confession, or tradition—in any positive fashion is “to tread on confessional eggshells.”[34] For temporal biblicism, the knowledge of God ends up being inadvertently hijacked by our own presuppositions and biases. It then becomes relatively easy to cast doubt on other interpretations because they did not follow the same methodological order.

Whereas biblicism removes either the role or authority of natural knowledge, classic sola scriptura recognizes the norming authority of Scripture, while making room for doctrine derived from Scripture alongside various natural manners of revelation. The Bible is not an independent authority. It functions as the supreme authority within a larger pattern of authority. So, classic sola scriptura views the Spirit’s epistemic work beyond the ontological principle of knowledge (the Spirit himself) and the external cognitive principle of knowledge (Scripture). The Spirit also functions as the internal cognitive principle, causing knowledge to be received, contemplated, and confessed via various sources.[35] In scriptural language, this is an extrapolation of commands such as 2 Timothy 2:7 to “think over” what Scripture says. It is a difficult and joyous wrestling with the text of Scripture by means of the light of nature through the divinely given gift of reason.



Herman Bavinck said that “to the devout everything in nature speaks of God.”[36] In a phrase, this is the Reformed vision of Holy Scripture and the task of theology. It is not limited to Scripture alone, though Scripture is the sole infallible and authoritative norm for all theology. Malnourished evangelical doctrines of Scripture that rely on biblicist frameworks cut themselves off from the rich and bountiful harvest of resources that God created and provides. In forfeiting these, evangelicals have also often forfeited orthodox doctrines. But there is a better way. This way is modeled by the Reformers and their thicker understanding of Scripture and its relationship to God’s supreme creative authority. Unlike biblicism, this way has the conceptual resources needed to make sense of God and his world.[37]

Jordan Steffaniak (ThM, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) is cofounder of the London Lyceum and editor of the annual Theologia Viatorum: Journal of the London Lyceum. He is a research fellow for the Center for Faith and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a PhD student in philosophy at the University of Birmingham, studying the intersection of conciliar Christology and anthropology.

1. Thomas S. Kidd, Who Is an Evangelical? The History of a Movement in Crisis (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019), 4–5.
2. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2006), I.VI.4.
3. Jordan L. Steffaniak, “The God of All Creation: A Critique of Evangelical Biblicism and Recovery of Perfect Being Theology,” Journal of Reformed Theology 14, no. 4 (December 1, 2020): 361,
4. Jeffrey D. Johnson, The Failure of Natural Theology: A Critical Appraisal of the Philosophical Theology of Thomas Aquinas (Conway, AR: Free Grace Press, 2021), 48.
5. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 1:307; Thomas H. McCall, An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 41; Franciscus Junius, A Treatise on True Theology, trans. David C. Noe (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2014), 160.
6. Steven J. Duby, God in Himself: Scripture, Metaphysics, and the Task of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019), 71.
7. Joel Pust, “Intuition,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (Summer 2019),
8. Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain, Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015), 36, 34.
9. Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2012), 3.
10. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1:618.
11. Duby, God in Himself, 68.
12. Basil, Against Eunomius, trans. Mark DelCogliano and Andrew Radde-Gallwitz (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2011), 1.14.
13. Calvin, Institutes, I.5.1. Now, it is important to note that Calvin has a generally negative view of natural revelation, saying that despite its “very great clarity, such is our stupidity that we grow increasingly dull toward so manifest testimonies.” Therefore, natural revelation is a somewhat vexed topic for Calvin. Regardless, avoiding the exegetical dispute, I take Calvin’s positive understanding of natural revelation at face value: God reveals himself in nature. Natural revelation is unprofitable for the nonbeliever because it only renders him unexcused. But for the Christian, it can be of great profit.
14. K. Scott Oliphint, God with Us: Divine Condescension and the Attributes of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 82–88.
15. Bruce A. Ware, God’s Greater Glory: The Exalted God of Scripture and the Christian Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 140–55.
16. Bruce A. Ware, “An Evangelical Reexamination of the Doctrine of the Immutability of God” (PhD diss., Fuller Theological Seminary, 1984), 238.
17. Ware, “An Evangelical Reexamination, ” 238.
18. Allen and Swain, Reformed Catholicity, 31–32; Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “May We Go beyond What Is Written after All? The Pattern of Theological Authority and the Problem of Doctrinal Development,” in The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 763.
19. Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 2:151.
20. Augustine, The Trinity, trans. Edmund Hill (Hyde Park, NY: New City, 2015), I.1.1, 1; V.1, 1; Augustine, On Christian Teaching, trans. R. P. H. Green, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), I.14; Gregory of Nazianzus, On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius, trans. Frederick Williams and Lionel R. Wickham (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), 28.28.
21. Peter Van Inwagen, Metaphysics, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2015), 9. For example, Van Inwagen explains why he leaves out revelation in this work: “The reason is simple enough: by appealing to physical cosmology, I do not restrict my audience in any significant way, and if I were to appeal to what I believed to be divine revelation, I should no doubt restrict my audience to those who agreed with me about the content of divine revelation—and I do not wish so to restrict my audience.”
22. Vanhoozer, “May We Go beyond What Is Written after All?,” 764.
23. John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (New York: Bloomsbury, 2012), 129.
24. Allen and Swain, Reformed Catholicity, 45.
25. Allen and Swain, Reformed Catholicity, 85.
26. Carl R. Trueman, “Reckoning with the Past in an Anti-Historical Age,” Themelios 27, no. 3 (August 2002): 35; Rhyne R. Putman, “Baptists, Sola Scriptura, and the Place of the Christian Tradition,” in Baptists and the Christian Tradition: Toward an Evangelical Baptist Catholicity, ed. Matthew Y. Emerson, Christopher W. Morgan, and R. Lucas Stamps (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2020), 39–43.
27. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1:616.
28. Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison, trans. George Musgrave Giger (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1994), 1:30–31.
29. Petrus van Mastricht, Theoretical-Practical Theology, ed. Joel R. Beeke, trans. Todd M. Rester (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018), 1:127.
30. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1:493.
31. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1:488.
32. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “The Sufficiency of Scripture: A Critical and Constructive Account,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 49, no. 3 (September 2021): 2,
33. Vanhoozer, “May We Go beyond What Is Written after All?,” 761.
34. Alister E. McGrath, Darwinism and the Divine: Evolutionary Thought and Natural Theology (West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 18.
35. Allen and Swain, Reformed Catholicity, 31–32; Vanhoozer, “May We Go beyond What Is Written after All?,” 763.
36. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1:308.
37. My thanks go to Lucas Sabatier, Brandon Carmichael, and Tim Stanyon for feedback on an early draft of this work.
Monday, May 2nd 2022

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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