Creation's voice proclaims… what?

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…

gen-revelation-1

 

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…

gen-revelation-3

 

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.

gen-revelation-2 

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…

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Posted on by Glen in creation, revelation, theological method

About Glen

I'm a preacher in Eastbourne, married to Emma.

0 Responses to Creation's voice proclaims… what?

  1. The Orange Mailman

    “And Paul specifically calls this Scripture ‘the word of Christ.’ (Romans 10:17-18) ”

    Glenn-

    What gets me is that this passage is right in the middle of one of the most “evangelistic” passages in scripture. Believe in your heart, confess with your mouth, call on the name of the LORD and you will be saved. Then Paul proceeds to ask if “they” (the world at large) had heard the gospel message before. The answer: Of course they have, Psalm 19 tells us that.

    It makes me think we have it wrong when we try to do the “sub-Christian” thing. How can it be that plain? BUT, to say that the gospel message is going forth as the sun rises and sets without the preaching of the word seems to be nigh heresy, in fact that’s what the rest of Romans 10 is saying.

    So where is the balance between the gospel needing to be orally preached, and revelation being given throughout all creation day by day? It seems like if you lean one way you will contradict Romans 10:18, and if you lean the other way you will contradict Romans 10:14.

    Inquiring minds want to know.

    -The Orange Mailman

  2. Otepoti

    I think of it as a light-bulb situation. The light is off; the light is on; it isn’t our hand on the switch. Afterwards, everything is the same – and different.

    “The noetic effects of sin”? I’m sure I’d believe in that if I knew what it was :-)

    Best wishes for Christmas to you and yours, Glen and family and commenters.

    And, for November, Many Happy Returns of the Blog.

  3. Dev

    I’ve had a thing against general and special revelation for a while

    why not just The Revelation is Christ
    The Conduit of the Revelation is the Spirit
    the methods of the Spirit are various – Scripture, direct, creation, etc… diverse yet united in harmonious technicolour
    since even Scripture requires the Spirit to be understood – being solely about Christ

    thus the rejection of Christ, of the Spirit – causes the blindness to all things…

  4. Bobby Grow

    You sound just like Calvin, and his duplex cognitio domini, “two-fold knowledge of God.” Pre-Fall Adam and Eve had perfect knowledge of God as Creator, post-fall humanity lost this “vision” and knowledge, and could only now worship creation. Of course the remedy, as you are highlighting is provided through Knowledge of God as Redeemer, which comes through the Holy Spirit giving us the “spectacles” of the scriptures which leads us to this knowledge—it is at this point that we once again have a right relationship with God as Creator, and thus right knowledge of ourselves relative to this Creator/Redeemer God.

    Good post.

  5. glenscriv

    Hi Orange,

    Good question. My latest post is addressed to it. Please do keep pressing me – especially if I’m being unbiblical, inconsistent, unclear.

    Otepoti – good to hear from you. A very Happy Christmas to you and yours also!

    Dev- I’m with you. I didn’t use gen/special language in my series on revelation. I only started using it in this post because Andy M asked me a question about my thoughts on it.

    Bobby – Yes indeed – as long as God as Creator is *very* strictly related to God as Redeemer. In other words, as long as the two-fold knowledge is not two discrete steps – a lower one leading to a higher one. In that case it would tend towards a quite Thomist understanding of revelation/salvation.

    I hear you’re reading Institutes book 1 at the moment. I have to say I *love* books 2-4 but have suspicions about book 1 – precisely because of this issue. ie I think in book 1 there’s a pervading sense that the duplex cognitio is a step change that ascends from lower basic information to higher Christocentric, trinitarian revelation. There’s much that he says in books 2-4 to redress that teaching but I think that it is there in book 1.

  6. bobby grow

    Yes, I think Barth had your concerns with Calvin as well . . . I once read Barth’s “commentary” on Calvin, and indeed he wanted to re-shape Calvin’s duplex to be logoscentric—but of course! In fact, I too got that sense of Calvin’s “knowledge” approach, in fact it gave the impression of the view that you are here critiquing. BUT, as you note, in 2–4, I think his “Redeemer knowledge” is right on, and that is the sense that I was getting at with your post . . . so maybe I should’ve said your post sounds like Calvin’s duplex cognitio domini reified per Barth ;-)—is that better?

  7. glenscriv

    :-) much!

    I write about my problems with book I here:

    http://www.christthetruth.org.uk/CalvinTrinity.htm

    See especially the section “Is Book I consistent with this?”

  8. Dev

    heh funnily enough
    although my ‘theologian speak’ is non-existent
    i did have a question why Calvin went and ‘scratched his nose by putting his arm around the back of his head’ when he was talking about Christ in creation
    it was just such a round-about….

  9. bobby grow

    One more point of clarification on Calvin.

    We ought to recognize that he was following the chronology of progressive salvation history, and thus the order of his Institutes of the Christian Religion (see Lombard’s Sentences for a similar ordering). I think it oversimplifies to assert that Calvin was necessarily less than trinitarian simply because He “starts with God as Creator,” and works toward “God as Redeemer.” To assume that this is less than trinitarian in approach, would likewise, a fortiori, be to assume that scripture itself is less than trinitarian given its chronology, and economic unfolding of God’s life in salvation history. Certainly God’s life is always and already trinitarian, but knowledge of that is tensed by His own free self-disclosure to humanity.

  10. glenscriv

    Hi Bobby,
    I guess that depends on how explicitly trinitarian you believe the OT to be…

    You know my stance ;-)

    Here’s another blogger (and lecturer) I’ve found championing an explicit understanding of trinity in OT:

    http://against-heresies.blogspot.com/2008/11/implicit-or-explicit-doctrine-of.html

  11. bobby grow

    Well I guess it depends on what you mean by “explicitly trinitarian.” If you mean, do I see the same “distinctions” in the OT as I do in the NT between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Then the answer is YES. But, if by explicit you mean do we have the “grammar” of trinitarianism in the OT, anymore than we do in the NT prior to Nicaea and Constantinople; then my answer is obviously and certainly, NO. I think the “trinity” as we speak of it today, with its grammar, and linguistic apparatus is a product of the Patristic era. I don’t think this demeans or takes away from the conceptual reality of the trinity throughout the scriptures, in latent form, just that the “trinity” as we speak of it today, is implicit all the way through all canonical scripture; and not just the OT.

    Even the article you link me to here, this fellow, Martin, alludes to Calvin speaking of the Father sending the Son, in reference to an OT passage.

  12. glenscriv

    Hi Bobby,
    Yes, we can agree that neither Moses nor Paul nor Nicea use the same language and yet they are speaking of the same think. For me the commonality is that they all speak of the Tri-Personal God in irreducibly tri-personal ways.

    And that’s the sense in which I’m talking about ‘explicit’ trinitarianism – ie that our language makes explicit the distinct Persons united in love. In this sense it’s no less ‘explicitly trinitarian’ to say ‘The Most High (El Elyon) sent His Angel who is LORD’ than to say ‘The Unbegotten Father sent His Only Begotten Son who is homo-ousios with Him.’

    And don’t forget, it’s not just Martin or Calvin who looks at OT passages and labels the Persons involved as “Father” and “Son” – Hebrews 1-3 is full of this.

    Anyway… how did we get onto this topic?? I just can’t stay away from my hobby horse it seems…

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