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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...

,

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...

,

4

Previously on Christ the Truth:

We must begin all theology with the Word of God - Jesus.

This means ruling out other starting points, such as...

Reason

and

Religion

Now we consider creation as another false foundation for theology.  Not, of course, that the heavens are silent about God - they pour forth speech day after day! (Psalm 19).  What I am opposing here is the idea that creation gives us a sub-Christian witness that is a kind of stepping stone to Christian knowledge. 

I turn to this issue now because it is just so common for people to argue that revelation cannot be solely mediated in Jesus since 'general revelation' is not a specific witness to Jesus.  If this were true then I would have to give up my claim that all revelation of God is in and through Jesus.

So then let us then apply ourselves to the question 'Does the creation tell us general things about God without Jesus?'

Well the Scripture has a very high view of the creation. The heavens and the earth were created very good and though the universe is now fallen due to human sin, the Father is committed to redeeming it through the Son and making planet earth His eternal home. In Romans 8, creation itself groans in its longing for this time and cannot wait for its liberation from the bondage to decay. Throughout the Psalms the personality of the creation is proclaimed again and again. A famous example is Psalm 19:

"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." (vv1-4)

The creation is an evangelist - it declares continually and universally the Glory of God. And notice, this is intentional evangelism. It is declaring, proclaiming, speaking and displaying. The creation is not concealing special clues in odd places. It is not that creation has simply left marks of design that point to some kind of god. This is proclamation. This is the pouring forth of speech. And there is no speech or language where this proclamation is not heard.

So, many claim "there it is!" The creation reveals general truths about God but without the need for Jesus." Not so fast! Let's see how the Apostle Paul understands the Psalm:

"Not all Israel accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, 'LORD, who has believed our message?' Consequently faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ. But I ask: Did they not hear? Of course they did:

'Their voice has gone out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.'" (Romans 10:16-18)

Paul makes it abundantly clear that Psalm 19 is not declaring general truths about some kind of god. Psalm 19 declares message of the 'good news. The heavens of Psalm 19 are declaring "the word of Christ."

We may ask, 'how are they declaring the word of Christ?' Well let's note, first of all, that verse 1 of the Psalm tells us the heavens are declaring the Glory of God. The Glory of God is not primarily a shininess of character- the Glory of God is fundamentally His Son.

From verse 4, the Psalmist develops the way in which the Creation proclaims the 'word of Christ' - he gives us one small illustration - the sun:

"In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun, which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion, like a champion rejoicing to run his course. It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is hidden from its heat."

 So the sun, which is the light of the whole world (nothing is hidden from its heat) - is like a Bridegroom who is also a Champion as He moves from east to west across the sky (east is estrangement from God, west is His presence.  Note that the High Priest travels east to west on day of atonement to enter into the presence of God)

What is the sun trying to tell us? Well it represents One who is both Bridegroom and Victor and the Light of the World . Who could this be but Christ? The Apostle Paul agrees! (Rom 10:17) The creation does not mutter general truths about God but boldly proclaims the word of Christ.

What about Romans 1?

Perhaps the most frequently cited passage used to establish a Christ-free revelation of God is Romans chapter 1. It is asserted that these words from Paul prove that creation reveals God in a non-Trinitarian, non-Christ-centred way. If this were true then Christ would not be the sole mediator of revelation. Let's look at the verses:

"I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: "The righteous will live by faith." [For] 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. 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." (Romans 1:16-20)

Here we have a simultaneous revelation of the righteousness from God and the wrath of God from heaven to earth. This revelation is (v17) in the gospel. It is in the gospel that we see God's anger at sin when the Father metes it out on the Son at the cross. It is also in the gospel that we see God's offer of righteousness as Christ rises again to offer us His righteous status before the Father. Both those things, the righteousness from God and the wrath of God, are revealed in the gospel. Unfortunately, v18, we suppress the truth of the gospel by our wickedness.

But this does not deter the Living God from revealing Himself. No - He continues to reveal these truths whether we suppress them or not! Verse 19 shows that God reveals an incredibly vast amount about Himself in the creation. "What may be known" about God is made plain to every human being. This is very similar to what we saw in Psalm 19. In the creation - if we have eyes to see it - God is revealing Himself in depth and in deliberate universality. Verse 20 tells us that this revelation could not be more full - even God's invisible qualities can be clearly seen. (We've already noted from Colossians 1:15 that the invisible God is only made visible in Christ). We are told that this revelation explicitly includes the power of God (which has helpfully been defined in v16 as the gospel) and His divine nature.

All of this plain revelation of 'what may be known' about God renders every single human being without excuse on judgement day. No-one will be able to stand in front of Jesus, the Judge of the World, and say "Who are you? The creation said nothing of You".

The heavens declare daily, deliberately and universally the Jesus Christ, who IS righteousness FROM God. That is why all humanity is without excuse. The only excuse on judgement day IS the gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet Paul says no-one can claim ignorance of this 'excuse'. The creation proclaims the word of Christ day after day, night after night.  Thus the creation removes from people any excuse that they are ignorant of Christ since it proclaims Him, every day, in every detail of His world.

It may seem like an odd idea to us that the creation speaks specifically of Jesus (rather than just 'some kind of god'). Most western people think that if the creation is saying anything spiritual at all it is proclaiming the god of western philosophy. However, if we asked a Hindu they might say that the creation tells of many different gods. The atheist claims that the creation says nothing spiritual. It is clear that we only ever hear what we want to hear. That is the point of v18 - "we suppress the truth by our wickedness." Though the gospel is trumpeted into our ears day after day, we pursue our own agendas in wilful ignorance of the Truth. Verse 16 gives us the remedy though: ONLY as the church does its work of evangelism, is the power of God unleashed to open blind eyes, unstop deaf ears, and bring salvation to the world.

When Jesus picked up a seed to demonstrate some spiritual truth, He didn't say "Hey look how cool seeds are, they're incredibly complex and well designed, isn't God a powerful and intelligent Creator?!" When Jesus looked at a seed He saw a picture of His own death and resurrection and from it the new life made possible for many! (John 12:24) When the Apostle John is given ears to hear the song of creation in Revelation 5:13 it is explicitly about the Father and the Son who is the slain Lamb! The creation does not reveal some kind of Unitarian non-Christ-centred god who may as well be Allah. The creation is an evangelist - it tells the Trinitarian gospel.

The Apostle Paul said it best in Colossian 1:23. Having told us that Jesus is the image of the invisible God in v15, he tells us in v16 that He is the Creator of all things - the Father made everything through Jesus and for Jesus. In v17 Paul writes that Jesus is the operating system in which all things hold together. In v19 we see that all the fullness of God dwells in Jesus. In v20 He is shown to be the universal reconciler of all things in heaven and on earth. It is therefore no surprise when we get to v23 that Paul says this:

"This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant."

Paul proclaims the same gospel that the heavens proclaim. Day after day the non-Christian is confronted with Jesus Christ the image of the invisible God, the Creator and Purpose of all life.

To summarize

The proclamation of general revelation is, according to the Apostle, the same as the proclamation of special revelation. And humanity is equally blind to both in our wicked truth suppression. Only through the preached word of Christ (Romans 10:17) are people able to see what is most manifestly true about the universe - Jesus is LORD.

The pagan looking up into the night sky sees everything yet sees nothing. He ought to know everything yet he knows nothing. He is without excuse for Christ is proclaimed in every way possible. He is ignorant exactly because he rejects Christ in every way possible.

In all this, it should be clear that Jesus is not incidental to the question of revelation. Not a speck of the knowledge of God can be credited to the one who rejects Christ. Yet it is Christ who the unbeliever rejects, in every aspect of their being. For this they will be judged - judged by the One who they have actively and wilfully resisted all the days of their life.

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1) The sermon of creation is not a minimal thing - it's maximal.  Romans 1:19 'what may be known about God... God has made plain.'  Colossians 1:23 'the gospel... has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.'  Psalm 19:2 'Day after day they pour forth speech.'

2) Our blindness/deafness to this sermon is not minimal either - it is maximal. Note that in Psalm 19 David trusts that the creation daily pours forth speech in intentional evangelism.  In Ecclesiastes 1 his son sees the exact same heavens.  Yet even with all his wisdom, the 'teacher' of Ecclesiastes finds it utterly meaningless.  The circuit of the sun which was such a vivid portrait of the Bridegroom Champion in Psalm 19 becomes, in the eyes of the 'teacher', a futile and meaningless cycle.

Humanity is blind to the things of God (2 Cor 4:4; Col 1:21). We cannot judge what the sermon of creation is saying by what we see. We naturally only see what we want to see.

3) The sermon of creation is not a static thing, it's dynamic, it's about movement and action and inter-relation. Literally Ps 19:2 says "Day unto day is a pouring forth of speech; night unto night is a displaying of knowledge." The sequence of day and night and day and night is itself a display of knowledge.  This proclamation involes 'sun, moon and stars in their courses above.'  The sermon of creation is expressed in dynamic action, it does not simply speak to us in static snap-shots of beauty.

So often people simply characterise the sermon of creation as something like "Look at a snow-capped mountain range, doesn't it fill you with awe. Well, now you should direct that awe to the God who is big enough and clever enough to have made it." That is certainly an element to what creation is saying, but it's not what David is drawing our attention to.

Psalm 19 highlights the progression of day and night, the movement of the sun across the sky, the heavens in their courses.   The dynamic sermon of creation tells far better of the Glory of God who is not a static, unmoved deity simply waiting for people to give Him glory. The Living God acts and moves and relates.  And His Glory, according to the Bible, is His Son acting, moving and relating. The theist will think of the sermon of creation in static terms because her god is static. The Christian knows the sermon is dynamic - just like our God.

4) The sermon of creation is 'the word of Christ.'  It is not about abstract qualities of power or wisdom but about the Son.  Of course this is so since Jesus is eternally the image of God (Col 1:15).  There is no revelation that is not in Him.

In Romans 10 Paul asks if any have not heard the word of Christ (v17)?  He answers, of course not and quotes Psalm 19!  The sermon of creation is the word of Christ.  When we examine Psalm 19 we see this to be so.  His example of the sun is a dead giveaway.  This sun is like a Bridegroom Champion who moves from east to west (like the journey the high priest makes from altar to ark) as the light of the world. (Ps 19:4-6; cf Ps 45). Here is a sermon regarding Christ.

Think also of John 12. When Jesus picks up a seed He doesn't say "How pretty and how intelligently designed" - He says "This seed proclaims my death and resurrection and, though this, the life of the world."  The sermon of creation is a gospel word concerning Christ.

5) Finally, the sermon of creation is seen only through the spectacles of the Scriptures (Calvin's famous image).  Ps 19 continues 'The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving/converting the soul.' (v7)  That which left even Ecclesiastes' 'teacher' looking into the meaningless cycle of life and death is that which, through the spectacles of Scripture, becomes the dynamic proclamation of Christ and His gospel.

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