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What is general revelation?

This post is adapted from an original on 25 September 2009 at www.thinkingmatters.org.nz. It is about the nature of general revelation, special revelation and natural theology.

There is a stool that theologians sit on as they survey the wild beauty of God and his all his works. Each leg of the stool is a different source and norm for Christian belief; scripture, tradition, reason and experience. When I have talked of this before (see here), I have also suggested there may be another leg to the stool: creation.Romans 1:20 For since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.Psalms 19:1-4 The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.

From these verses we find that it is possible to gain knowledge of God through nature. It does not say how much knowledge, but it does say that it is clearly evident. In church history it has been generally acknowledged that God is revealed in some way through that which he created.[1] We call this knowledge of God that is derived from nature general revelation to contrast it with special revelation.

What is meant most often meant by special revelation is scripture, but the knowledge of God – and of other theological truth – can also be gained directly from the Holy Spirit through miracles, preaching, or perhaps even through a personal word of prophecy. As noted last time in Sources and Norms all of these should conform to the norming norm of scripture, which testifies of Jesus Christ, who as the incarnate Word of God is the most authoritative and reliable special revelation possible.[2]

There are at least five features of General revelation that set it apart from Special revelation:

  1. General revelation is continuous, whereas special revelation is not continuous. It is continuous because there has never and will never be a time when it has not been available. Special revelation is given at certain times, but general revelation is there at all times.
  2. General revelation is natural, whereas special revelation is supernatural. To be natural is to be in accordance with the order and design of the universe. To be supernatural is to transcend (be beyond) that order and design.
  3. General revelation is available to all people, whereas special revelation is available to only certain people. Special revelation is distributed through the personal agents God chooses to use, including missionaries, evangelists and preachers. He may also use angels to spread the good news of the gospel. People have been known to have dreams of the risen lord. Jesus Christ himself witnessed to Saul of Tarsus (whom we know as Paul) on the road to Damascus. Because God chooses to use personal agents, restrictions of time and place are involved. General revelation however is accessible to all people to clearly see.
  4. General revelation is non-specific, whereas special revelation is specific. Special revelation has the same content as general revelation, but it has more details and is far more clearly defined. In Romans 3:1-5 Paul explains that Jews, who were entrusted with the very words of God, saw more clearly their unrighteousness and God’s righteousness than did the Gentiles, who were not the recipients of the written law.
  5. General revelation is non-redemptive, whereas special revelation is redemptive. Though the revelation from nature is not sufficient for salvation, God can use it to prepare peoples hearts to accept the special revelation that is sufficient. The lesser light of general revelation can draw people to accept the greater light of the Lord Jesus Christ.

On this last point we want to be careful, for there is nothing to tell us that there was not once a time when general revelation alone was efficacious to salvation. Some suggest that the point at which general revelation ceases to be efficacious for salvation is the point at which special revelation becomes available. This could be, for instance, when the gospel enters into a culture for the first time. It remains the case however that for most people general revelation is not enough to save, and that special revelation is also needed.

Two questions immediately arise here concerning general revelation.

Are people who are born blind and deaf able to receive general revelation?

The answer is Yes!Romans 2:14-15 Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.

Here we see that human conscience is a part of God’s creation. A ‘moral law’ is written on the heart of every person and testifies of God in some manner. So even a person whose experience of the world is impaired by blindness and deafness, they are still able to receive general revelation from their own conscience. Thus it is the case that no one has an excuse. (Rom 1:20).

If there is ample proof of God’s existence in the world so that no one has an excuse, why are there so many people who do not believe in God?

In the previous verse Paul clearly states that people “suppress the truth by their wickedness.”[3] That is not to say that atheists are intentionally lying when they say there is no God. Rather, it is to say that human nature is so depraved we can deceive ourselves into believing what we want to believe. Because people refuse to acknowledge God, even though his existence was able to be perceived by them, they come under judgment. The following gives us clue on how they found themselves in this predicament. Paul writes:Romans 1:21-23 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.Although they claimed to be wise, they became foolsand exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

The first step in a downward spiral of depravity and wickedness was a heart that did not turn towards acknowledgment and praise at the moment they first perceived him. After carefully expounding the gospel, Paul implores his readers to therefore worship God (unlike those who refused to acknowledge him) and be transformed by renewing the mind (countering the effects of not acknowledging him).[4]

What is Natural Theology?

Natural Theology is the task of discovering what we can know about God and his truth wholly apart from special revelation. It is grown in the field of general revelation.

Thomas Aquinas (c.1225–74), the Dominican monk from the scholastic tradition, is referred to as the father of Natural Theology. He is famous for many reasons, but especially his five arguments for God’s existence. His views on how nature and reason together speak of God’s existence became the official view of the Catholic Church.

Martin Luther (1483–1546), the great German reformer, though suspicious of philosophy and the scholastic tradition, nonetheless affirms that there is general revelation. Still, he wanted to stress that without Christ the picture was only ever limited and incomplete.There is a twofold knowledge of God, general and particular. All people have the general knowledge, namely that God exists, that he has created heaven and earth, that he is righteous, that he punishes the wicked, etc. But people do not know what God proposes concerning us, what he wants to give and to do, so that he might deliver us from sin and death, and to save us – which is the proper and the true knowledge of God. Thus it can happen that someone’s face may be familiar to me but I do not really know him, because I do not know his intentions. So it is that people know naturally that there is a God, but they do not know what he wants and does not want.[5]

John Calvin (1509-1564), the French theologian and reformer, is sometimes accused of having views that are against general revelation. If we allowed him to speak for himself, we would see that this is not the case.In order that no one might be excluded from the means of obtaining happiness, God has been pleased, not only to place in our minds the seeds of religion of which we have already spoken, but to make known his perfection in the whole structure of the universe, and daily place them in our view in such a manner that we cannot open our eyes without being compelled to observe him […] To prove his remarkable wisdom, both the heavens and the earth present us with countless proofs – not just those more advanced proofs which astronomy, medicine and all the other natural sciences are designed to illustrate, but proofs which force themselves on the attention of the most illiterate peasant, who cannot open his eyes without seeing them.[6]

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), widely considered to be America’s greatest theologian, also recognises that something of God’s person and character is communicated to us through the natural realm.It is very fit and becoming of God, who is infinitely wise, so to order things that there should be a voice of His in His works, instructing those that behold him and painting forth and shewing divine mysteries and things more immediately appertaining to Himself and His spiritual kingdom. The works of God are but a kind of voice or language of God to instruct intelligent beings in things pertaining to Himself. And why should we not think that he would teach and instruct by His works in this way as well as in others, viz., by presenting divine things by His works and so painting them forth, especially since we know that God hath so much delighted in this way of instruction.[7]

For Edwards the magnificence of the visible world was a helpful way to describe God’s own greatness.[8] In this he took his cue from the pages of scripture.Psalms 103:11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him;Psalm 36:5-6 Your love, O LORD, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies. Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your justice like the great deep.

Footnotes:

  1. Roger E. Olson. Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2002) p. 74.
  2. Paul’s experience of the risen Lord on the Damascus Road was special revelation.
  3. The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. see Romans 1:18-19
  4. Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will. see Romans 12:1-2
  5. Martin Luther, Commentary on Galations; in Martin Luther Werke: Kritsche Gesamtausgabe, vol. 40 (Weimar: Bohlaus, 1911), 602.18-603.13, 607.19-609.14
  6. John Calvin, Institutes I.iii.1, 2; in Joannis Calvini: Opera Selecta, ed. P. Barth and W. Niesel, vol. 3 (Munich: Kaiser Verlag, 1928), 37.16-46.11.
  7. Jonathan Edwards, The Images of Divine Things, ed. Perry Miller (New Heaven, CT: Yale University Press, 1948), p. 61.
  8. Ibid., p. 134.
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