General and Special Revelation

General and Special Revelation

by Mark and Kira DeRosa

Many in this world today are caught up by the "facts" of science that float all around us. The Church has been told that we are to accept "The facts of nature [to be] likened to a sixty-seventh book of the Bible" (Hugh Ross 56-57). Is nature, what we call general revelation, really a sixty-seventh book of God's Word? Should it be taken as having the same authority as God's special revelation contained in the Scriptures? These probing questions have been forced upon the people of God and what has been our response? We blush, stumble over our words, and start making excuses like "The Bible is just a religious book -- it isn't supposed to be applied to science". This statement is designed to make us think that religion and science have nothing to do with each other, when in actuality; they have everything to do with one another. Both general and special revelation are important for a proper understanding of the world around us, yet at the same time we need to make sure that we clearly distinguish the differences between the two and remember the dependence of the former on the latter.
When we use the word "revelation", we think of someone knowing something and deciding to share that knowledge with someone else. That is exactly what God did when He created all the plants and animals and the starry heavens to reveal a piece of Himself to us, His image-bearers. In Psalm 19 we read, "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork. Day unto day utters speech and night unto night shows knowledge. There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard." This general revelation in the heavens is given to all men, in every language, in every nation around the world. In speaking of this revelation, John Calvin observed that "we cannot open our eyes without being compelled to behold Him [God]", because God's fingerprints are engraved on every object of His creation (65).

In Genesis chapter three we read of how sin entered the world through the disobedience of one man. This man, Adam, had been commanded by God not to eat the fruit of one particular tree in the Garden of Eden, "for in the day that you eat thereof you shall surely die" (2:17b). Instead of trusting God's word, Adam allowed his reason to have the final authority and took some of the fruit to eat. Because of this sin of disobedience, Adam began to die. It was both a spiritual and physical death and it would not just end in Adam. Before sin entered the world everything was very good, it was perfect, but after sin everything was changed. Man's ability to think and understand was altered, making it hard for him to know what was right and true from that which was wrong and a lie. This is still the case today for all of Adam's descendants, because "in Adam all die" (1 Cor. 15:22).

The Bible also says that the animals, the plants, and even the very elements of the earth would be under this curse of sin (Genesis 3:14; 17; 18). They were designed originally to show God's goodness, but now they would be tainted with imperfections and death. The beauty of God's revelation through nature was not totally demolished by sin, for we can still see some of the splendor and majesty, but this general revelation does not satisfy our need for fellowship with our Creator and show us how to glorify Him.

Therefore, not only has our thinking been changed by sin, but even the creation which we seek to understand has been changed. How can we ever know that we have interpreted what we see in nature correctly? "There is a way that seems right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death" (Proverbs 14:12). The answer is both that we can not know, but at the same time that we can. Since man sinned, we have been in a state of "total depravity", being unable to choose right, so we can not know the truth in and of ourselves. God has seen our need for truth and so He has provided a way.

As Greg Bahnsen wrote in his book Always Ready, "Scripture has authority to declare what has happened in history and to interpret it correctly" (79 emphasis mine). It is the Bible that makes it possible for us to understand nature. In God's Word we find His special revelation which is always trustworthy and will never change. We say it is special because it is the complete will of God written down for us to study and learn. We are commanded to "Study to show ourselves approved unto God, a workman that needs not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15).

With only nature to show us the way, we would be left in the darkness of sin and confusion. God did not end His work in general revelation however, just to leave His people in "spiritual blindness", but delivered to us both His Son on the cross and a sure record of His truth, the Bible (Burridge 3). The Scriptures are our foundation in every area of life (Ham), that sure record that we can hold to. They are given "for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works" (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Recorded in the pages of God's Word is the picture of what a Christian's life should look like; how we are to glorify God and serve both Him and His people.

God's Word contains the plan of salvation by grace and shows us how we can be forgiven of our sins. General revelation leaves us without an excuse in acknowledging God's existence, but it does not show us the solution to this problem of our separation from God (Romans 1:20; Acts 16: 30-31). Only when we look to the Bible will we find God's promise of redeeming love and the beginning of a new life in fellowship with Him (Berkhof 32).

Neither general nor special revelation should be taken without regard for the other, because they are both important and complement each other. For example, in the passage in Psalms quoted earlier; if you had never seen the star filled sky, how would you appreciate this song of David? He was able to gaze up into the night and see some of God's awesome wisdom and glory. General revelation is a blessing from our Heavenly Father and it should not be despised, but rather it should be looked at though the eyes of Scripture. From his study of the Scriptures, David knew that God was the Creator and that all of creation pointed to Him.

Do you remember the statement put forth by Hugh Ross saying that nature is the sixty-seventh book of the Bible? Mr. Ross, and many other men like him, would like us to believe that general revelation can be used with the same authority as the written Word. The problem with this reasoning is two-fold: first, like already discussed, all of creation is under the curse and second, he is not really claiming that nature itself is the sixty-seventh book, but that his interpretation of nature is at the same level as Scripture. When we observe the world we live in and study it scientifically, we must remember that it is God's Word that is our starting point. It is the beginning of knowledge, whether in science, math, grammar, or any other subject of learning. We read in the Westminster Confession that, "The supreme judge... can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures" (24). God's written Word is our authority, not the interpretations of fallible men.

As God's children, we need to be able to defend the faith. I believe that the main attack in this century is about general revelation and the authority of Scripture. There are many who would seek to destroy our trust in the Scriptures. Satan will use whatever he can to try to weaken our faith. Many men who claim to be teaching God's Word are actually taking a piece of truth and twisting it so that it turns into a subtle lie. The Bible tells us in Romans 1:22-23a; 25 that there are men, "Professing themselves to be wise [that have become] fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man... [These men] changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator." Men who place the teachings of modern scientists above the clear words of the Bible are worshipping man more than God. Good science (observations of general revelation) never has and never will contradict the Bible (God's special revelation), because the same God who created the world is the One who told us about it in His Holy Word.

The subject of general and special revelation is of great importance in the Church of our day. We need to understand how deep this issue goes, because it goes to the very heart of the Christian faith. Most Christians would say that all that is important to our faith is trusting Christ as our Savior. Yes, I would have to agree, but there is more to trusting Christ then just praying a cute Sunday School prayer. If you really trust Christ, then you trust everything about Him, including His Word. It means looking at the Bible with awe and saying, "It is written, period". The Scriptures must be the ultimate authority in our lives, because the only alternative is total chaos and ruin. General revelation is important, but without trust in God's special revelation we have no hope of ever understanding its message. "Trust and obey, for there is no other way to be happy in Jesus but to trust and obey" (Sammis and Towner 437).

WORKS CITED

Bahnsen, Greg L. Always Ready. Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Press, 2002

Berkhof, Louis. Manual of Christian Doctrine. Grand Rapids, MI: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002

Burridge, Bob. "Revelation: Divine Self-Disclosure -- Lesson 2". http://www.girs.com/library/theology/syllabus/reveal.html, 1996

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Edinburgh: The Edinburgh Printing Company, 1845

Ham, Ken. The Monkey Trial. Florence, KY: Answers in Genesis, 1997

Ross, Hugh. Creation and Time. Colorado Springs, CO: Navpress, 1994

Sammis, John H., and Daniel B. Towner. Sing to the Lord. Kansas City, MO: Lillenas Publishing Company, 1993

Westminster Assembly. The Westminster Confession of Faith. Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 2001