Revelation and Nature: Their Witness to God
Acts 17:23
For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD…

Suppose a scholar searching in some old library were to discover two MSS., which had lain unknown for generations on different shelves. The discoverer examines their contents and is struck with certain peculiarities in the handwriting, which are common to both documents. He also finds that in both there are words and phrases — such as seem the expression of a writer's individuality. Still further, he discovers that many ideas are common to the two pamphlets, and that though different in subject, there is a substratum of thought identical in both. Could he do other than infer that they were the products of the same author? Mere coincidence might account for one or two of these resemblances, but could never explain the great variety and number that are found here. Now the object we have in view is somewhat similar.


1. The unity of God.

(1) This doctrine runs through the pages of Scripture like a stream of light illumining all things else. Now —

(2) Judging from the many religions in the world, one might suppose that nature leads to the conception of many gods. But Polytheism betrays as profound an ignorance of nature as it does of the Divine Being. Let us turn from pagan conceptions to the interpretations of science. All recent discovery is tending to set up one conception of the universe, and that is that one plan is to be discovered, and that one power is working under divers forms.

(a) See how the two kingdoms, animal and vegetable, correspond, meet each the other's needs, and are evidently parts of one plan. With every breath that we exhale we pour into the atmosphere a gas destructive of animal life. With every inspiration we consume a portion of that element of the atmosphere which is vital to us. But then every vegetable — tree, grass, flower — is absorbing from the air the poisonous carbonic acid and breathing out the vital oxygen.

(b) But not alone within terrestrial limits is this unity discernible. The spectroscopist has caught the fleeting rays of light from stars and suns, and has wrung from them the confession that these worlds are built up of much the same materials as our own.

(c) Formerly the various natural forces were regarded as distinct. But experiment has shown that they are one, and are convertible. Electricity can be converted into light, and the light into heat, and heat into motion, or they can be resolved back again, motion into heat, heat into light, light into electricity. What a marvel is this! It is the same power that works everywhere in nature, taking a thousand different shapes; and what is that power but the power of the one God?

2. Every fresh discovery confirms the belief that Infinite Wisdom conceived, executed, and presides over all created things. And the power manifestly pervading the boundless universe is a power so vast that we may well yield to it the title of Omnipotence.

3. When we consider the moral attributes of God, nature yields a feebler testimony than revelation. Nevertheless, though nature needs to be supplemented, its witness coincides with that of Scripture. Take, e.g., the righteousness of God.

(1) Though conscience has not always power to compel obedience, it yet sits on the seat of judgment undisputed, and is a convincing evidence of the righteousness of God. For how came man to possess this faculty, which has created a universally prevalent idea of moral obligation? How came man to feel that good is intrinsically superior to evil? The secularist affirms that expediency or the general weal of society has dictated certain courses of action as the wisest and safest, and has dissuaded from others as hurtful to the community. Thus by the power of habit strengthened through the generations, certain actions have come to be regarded as right, others as evil and vicious. And we may grant to this theory a measure of truth. But there is a question farther back. Why has universal experience proved virtue to be conducive to happiness and vice the opposite? The only answer to this must be, that it is in the nature of things, impressed on them by their Creator.

(2) And man's inner nature accords with external nature. Wherever we look we find evidence of "a power, not ourselves, making for righteousness." The fail of empires through the corruption of luxury and evil; the prosperity of states whose citizens are virtuous, brave, and true; every life prematurely closed by the ravages of vicious habits, and every good man's life attests an eternal moral order. Whence, then, this moral constitution? For every effect there must be a cause, and what is in the effect must first have been in the cause. Therefore He who made the world is a Moral Being, and has transferred to His works this moral order, which first existed in Himself. Whatever quality you discover in the work must have been first in the worker.

II. THE SAME MODES OF DIVINE OPERATION ARE CLEARLY DISCERNIBLE BOTH IN SCRIPTURE AND NATURE. There is something in a man's work distinguishing it from that of all others, and which is manifest more or less in all he does. "The style is the man." By his style you recognise an artist's pictures or a writer's articles, though no name be appended to the work. Now there is a style about the Divine works, and this style can be traced both in nature and revelation. Modern science has clearly established that in creation a strict order has been observed. There can be traced a gradual development from lower to higher types of being. And the Bible presents us with a remarkably similar process. In the spiritual education of men a development can be traced. The truths of religion were gradually disclosed, and the world was led on step by step in spiritual culture and enlightenment. Here, then, we have a resemblance of a peculiar kind, which stands out as a distinct evidence of a common origin for both nature and revelation.

III. MANY OF THE DIFFICULTIES WITH WHICH SCRIPTURE CONFRONTS US ARE MET ALSO IN NATURE. Take an illustration. The election of the Jewish people to be the recipients of Divine revelation, while the other nations were left in darkness, has often appeared a strange procedure on God's part. Was this consistent with justice and love? The reply to this is that the selection of the Jewish people was not for their own sakes alone, but that through them all families of the earth might be blessed; and that men were not rejected by God simply because they were not Jews. Among all peoples there was light enough to save sincere seekers. A similar election of nations has always characterised God's government of the world. He fixes the bounds of one people on a generous soil, and plants another amid barren snows. He confides to one people to work out some problem on which the world's welfare and progress depend. And for a time that people stand out distinguished by Heaven's favour above all others. To the ancient Greek was given the highest culture of art, to the Roman the highest development of government. To the English race today is committed the problem of combining the largest liberty with order and security.

(J. Legge, M. A.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.

WEB: For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: 'TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.' What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I announce to you.

Before the Altar of the Unknown God
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