As we’ve been thinking about how to know God (and how not to) we’re basically thinking about the subject of revelation.
It’s common when speaking of revelation to treat two categories – general revelation (God made known through nature and conscience) and special revelation (usually meaning ‘the bible’). Now of course such a distinction can be fruitfully and biblically made. Psalm 19 for instance spends the first 6 verses describing the proclamation of the heavens but the last 8 verses speaking about ‘the law/testimony/precepts/commandments of the LORD.’ And while creation’s voice is not said to revive the soul – the bible does in fact give us life (v7ff). And so, often, the difference between general and special revelation is imagined to be something like this…
Such a presentation protects the fact that general revelation cannot save. Well that’s a good thing. But here are four things that I think are really problematic with such a view:
1) It works off the assumption that salvation is a matter of accumulating stuff – in this case knowledge. And it imagines that God works salvation by adding to our natural stash a supernatural donation and together it gets us over the line.
I hope alarm bells are going off. I mean let me just switch the terms from epistemology (knowledge of God) to soteriology (salvation by God). As we’ve seen in previous posts, these are parallel concepts. Hopefully you’ll see the problem immediately…
That’s no way to conceive of salvation. Not this side of the reformation anyway! It’s not a matter of God’s grace bridging the gap between my good works and God’s standard. God’s grace in Christ judges even my righteousness. In fact – especially my righteousness. You see, because salvation is a gift, any imagined journey towards salvation via works is proved to be completely backwards. Only receiving in faith is the proper response to a gracious salvation. Works don’t advance me towards this salvation at all. Now of course, at the same time there are such things as Christian good works. Yet those works flow from faith and do not lead to faith.
In just the same way we mustn’t think of general revelation (knowledge of God that which we piece together from observing nature) as advancing us towards the truth that is in Jesus. By all means there is a Christian knowledge to be had in observing the creation. But because of point 2 below, observing the creation does not by itself lead to Christian knowledge. Rather from the knowledge we have in ‘special revelation’ we perceive the creation rightly.
In short – the problem with general revelation is not its lack of content in getting us over the line. The problem is any idea of ‘getting over the line’ in the first place. Knowledge, like salvation, must be received. Where it is not received, attempts to grasp it don’t just ‘leave us short’ they are travelling in entirely the wrong direction.
2) Let me re-assert my reformed credentials and drop some shibboleth terms like ‘total depravity’ and ‘the noetic effects of sin.’ I believe in these. More to the point, I think the bible teaches them:
For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God (Rom 8:7)
In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (2 Cor 4:4)
You… once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds (Col 1:21)
Straight after Paul tells us that “what may be known about God” has been made plain to all people through creation he says that men “suppress the truth.” (Rom 1:18,19). Humanity once knew God (aorist tense, v21) but something has happened. Humankind “became futile in their thinking” (v21) – a reference, I believe, to the fall. Our foolish hearts have been darkened and we have become fools (v21-22). We have exchanged the truth for a lie (v25). Our epistemological depravity is every bit as deep as our moral depravity – and in fact the two are inextricable. Just as there is no-one righteous, not even one (Rom 3:10), so there is no-one who understands (Rom 3:11).
In short – the reason general revelation doesn’t save is not because its content is supposedly sub-Christian. The problem is sin. Humanity is blind to the bleeding obvious – ie Jesus is LORD.
3) I just don’t see the bible teaching that the content of general revelation is sub-Christian. In fact I see the opposite. Psalm 19 tells us one prominent example of how the heavens proclaim the Glory of God (hint hint!). Verse 5 goes into detail about the light of the world that is like a Bridegroom Champion (cf Psalm 45). And Paul specifically calls this Scripture ‘the word of Christ.’ (Romans 10:17-18)
We’ve already noted how Paul says “what may be known about God” is made plain in creation (Rom 1:19). Do we really imagine that “what may be known about God” should be understood to be some minimal information about how big and clever the creator deity is? Is that really “what may be known about God”?? Don’t we know a wee tad more than that?
I believe Revelation 5:13 to be a present reality – all creation sings about the Lamb.
Colossian 1:23! The gospel has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven. That statement makes perfect sense in the context of Colossians 1. To say that creation preaches the gospel is simply what you’d expect if you take the previous 8 verses seriously! Col 1:23 is no more hyperbole than Col 1:15-22! The creation that was made by and for Christ and holds together in Him – that creation proclaims Him. Of course it proclaims Him. Who else is it going to speak about?
In short – I do not think the biblical evidence supports a ‘sub-Christian’ content for general revelation. In fact I think the bible tells us that Jesus is being proclaimed in manifold ways, at all times and in all places.
4) What kind of knowledge of God is there that’s sub-Christian? I just don’t get it. Are we to imagine that creation proclaims a basically unitarian creator deity – a kind of Allah-lite? Please no! And please don’t tell me that this basically unitarian creator deity is a foundational revelation that can set me up for true knowledge of the Father, Son and Spirit!
I remember speaking to a lecturer at bible college about these things. Incredulously he spluttered out, “So you think that tree out the window is preaching Christ to you right now?!” I’m sure I’m remembering my response with a few coats of gloss but I said something like: “Of course it’s preaching Christ, who else would it speak about??”
Ok. Enough ranting.
I can say all I want to say with the old hymn:
Jesus is LORD, creation’s voice proclaims it.
The difference between the proclamation of creation and the proclamation of Scripture is not basically one of content (though obviously there are differences). Both of them preach the triune God, Christ as Mediator, His life, death, resurrection, ascension, the church, etc, etc.
Perhaps this diagram gets at what I’m trying to say.
The difference in size between the two boxes is immaterial. (In some ways I could have drawn the General Revelation box bigger – after all, the data available in everything from the horsehead nebula to sub-atomic particles seriously outstrips the bible!). But really the difference is in the way that true knowledge comes. No-one becomes a Christian through creation because all are blinded in sin and no-one can earn knowledge of God. Just like salvation, it must be received. Which is why the gospel must be specially revealed. But once it is, we are equipped (and more so as we study the Scriptures) to hear the profoundly Christian sermon of creation.
Sorry. A lot of words to say not very much…