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General Revelation and Special Revelation

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One of the foundational convictions of the Christian faith is that God is transcendent, sovereign and personal. If humankind is to know and worship him, God must disclose himself. There is, therefore, a sense in which God discloses and makes himself accessible to every human being, at all times, without racial distinction. However there is also another sense in which God reveals himself only to a particular people living in particular times, thus only those who are in covenant relationship with him, have access to this distinct revelation. Several theologians across centuries have noted this distinction as “General revelation” and “Special revelation”[1].

General revelation is God’s revelation of himself to all people, at all times and in all places. As such, therefore, general revelation is universal in its communication and broad in its content. The loci of this form of revelation are the created order, the moral order, the religious order (an intrinsic innate sense of a higher bbible-sunset-3eing), and providential acts. In contrast, Special revelation is God’s disclosure of himself to a particular people, at a particular time and at a particular place. Hence, special revelation is particularly exclusive and its content is detailed. The modes of special revelation are Redemptive-history (the history of Israel in the OT), direct divine speech, incarnation, special modes of communications -such as dreams and visions- and the Holy Scripture. The proposal of this paper is then to demonstrate how scripture and history dealt with this doctrine and defend the need for a precise distinction between the two forms of revelations without blurring their roles, but at the same time uphold the necessity of and compatibility of both in God’s Eschatological (End-Time, eschatos in Greek means “End”) purpose of all things, Eph 1: 11.

General Revelation

The first locus of general revelation is the created order. According to Eph 3: 9[2], creation has a purpose and a precise goal. Scripture teaches (Rom 1: 19-20; Ps 19: 1-3), that the things that have been made reveal a basic understanding of God and his attributes, unlike an intransigent teleological perspective of the world which heavily relies on the somewhat self-sufficiency of the created order and human reasoning. Therefore, creation itself serves as a trajectory to reveal something outside of itself, namely God’s invisible attributes – his eternal power and divine nature. It is important to note the progression of the thought in Romans: (a) Clarity: what can be known…is plain…for God has shown it to them. (b) Objectivity: the revelation is clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, (c) Mediation: revealed through the things that have been made. In conclusion,…”they are without excuse” for God has left evidence of himself in the very world he created.

The Second means of general revelation is the basic moral order as it is revealed in the human conscience. Rom 2: 11-16 affirms that God’s moral standard is written in every human conscience. Their conscience bears witness to what is right or wrong. Therefor it is universal. As C. S. Lewis affirmed since objective moral values and duties do exist, therefore, God exists.[3]   God has left evidence of himself in the humans whom he created in his image.

The third locus of general revelation is God’s providential act. Paul in his interaction with the pagan world at Lystra, Acts 14:17, insisted that “God did not leave himself without witness… for he did good by giving you rains … fruitful seasons, satisfying you with food and gladness.” God’s providential act sparkles his glory as he cares for mankind, as he control the weather system, and through his intimate understanding of animals, plants and sea creatures.[5] There is therefore a sense in which God’s providential universal care reveals him and is accessible to all people at all times.

The final mode of God’s self-disclosure, in general revelation, is the inner innate sense of God.  It is universally and historically true that humankind has always been religious. Paul in his address in Athens, at Areopagus, (Acts 17: 22-31) observed that those highly learned philosophers of the time, have also been very religious. Paul addressed this by simply reorienting their beliefs towards the LORD, for what those men sought after intrinsically was there precisely because God has wired them as such. Postmodernism, in reaction against the motto of Modernity, (that was shaped after the enlightenment of rationalism, where the locus of human epistemology was finally relocated rather to oneself), erupted a sense of spirituality with its new form of religious pluralism and tolerance.  It’s easy to encourage spirituality in the media these days. Spirituality is something that is embraced by all. However the issue is which spirituality, for the exclusive claim of the christian faith, salvation by one and only one savior, is viewed as intolerant and pompous. However, what makes sin so heinous, in any given culture, is its willful departure from the worship of the true God to a worship of idols.  Idolatry is then any means by which sinners deliberately disregard their creator and exchange his truth, as witnessed by general revelation, for a lie.

The inadequacy of General Revelation

In spite of the witness of general revelation both externally through the physical world and internally through the human conscience, humanity turned away from God.  The limitation of general revelation can be summarized as follow. (a) General revelation is good enough to condemn sinners, but not adequate to save them (Rom 1: 20; 2: 1; 3: 10):  “None is righteous, no, not one”; It serves somewhat similar to what the Torah does in the locus of special revelation, it places sinners rightly under the wrath of God. [6] Therefore general revelation has a double effect on the sinner; it reveals God’s glory as well as God’s wrath[7]. (b) General revelation, as rightly observed by Erickson[8], is not only general in its universal availability but also general in its content. The content of general revelation, for instance, does not disclose God’s redemptive-historical purpose to which creation itself is created for (as I argued above in Eph 3: 9-11) which could only be known through special revelation (Rom. 16:25).  (c) The knowledge of God by general revelation has been marred by the fall. As we have noted above, sin likewise has had a double effect on general revelation[9]. It affected the very loci of revelation, creation (Gen 3: 17-19; Rom 8: 22) and the human conscience (Eph 4: 17-19;  II Cor 4: 4). Since human understanding has been radically affected by the fall, men and women do not process the witness of creation and respond in worship and adoration. Rather, they consistently draw the wrong conclusion[10]. (d) General revelation, despite being disturbed by the fall, it is objective, clear and a foundation for universal human guilt before a holy creator; which calls for the need for the gospel of Christ.[11] General revelation is then adequate to hold humanity accountable before God but in sufficient to bring about transformation in the hearts of men and women.

Special Revelation

As we have noted, special revelation is God’s self-disclosure to particular people, at particular times and places. It is important to note that the two forms of revelation supplement each other. Special revelation uses and depends upon general revelation in order to communicate God. This interdependence is somewhat similar to what Thomas Aquinas calls, a posterior.[12]

The Chief Characteristics of Special Revelation

(1) Special revelation is particular in character. God reveals himself to particular people whom he chose as his own possession. (Deut 7: 6; 1 Pet 2: 9; Ps 103: 7). It is particular not that because it is a hidden knowledge, confined only to a few. In general revelation, sinners corrupt the story that creation narrates. In special revelation, however, God chooses a people to whom and through whom he will disclose himself.[13] Therefore, it is personal and relational in every respect[14].

(2) Special revelation is progressive[15]. General revelation, even though it is marred by the fall, yet it is objective and static. In contrast, special revelation was given progressively across time.  Diehi’s slipped an idea of progressive revelation in to general revelation when he says: the Christological progressiveness of general revelation[16]. It is highly unlikely and questionable. He appears to draw analogous parallel between the two modes of revelation, using mere transfer of attributes, without adequate ground.

(3) The communication of special revelation utilizes anthropomorphism and analogical forms: The God who has created all, now accommodates himself to speak to a particular people. He uses means they are accustomed and language they are able to understand. (4) Special revelation is redemptive in its purposes. This is somewhat disputed, depending on where one locates the account of God’s revelation in the garden. I think Calvin’s general statement works well, with the exception of Genesis 2, when he says, “the Lord first appears, as well in the creation of the world as in the general doctrine of Scripture, simply as a Creator, and afterwards as a Redeemer in Christ,—a twofold knowledge of him hence arises[17]

The Modes of Special Revelation

The first mode of special revelation is God’s revelation through redemptive-historical events (the biblical-history of Israel exclusively). The New Testament is filled with reference of God’s special act in Israel’s history for the purposes of revealing himself as well as his purposes (Acts 13; Matt 1, etc..).  The bible is best understood as story/ drama. The story of creation, the sotry of the fall, the story of the promise of redemtion (Israel), the story of the fulfilment of redemption (Jesus) and the story of the completion of all things (Jesus’ second coming). Hence, history itself tells a story- the story of God’s act in human history.[18] Matthew for instance summarizes, in 17 verses using genealogy, the whole historical progression of the Old Testament as it is climaxing in Jesus the Messiah. It’s a story that Jesus fulfilled and brought to completion. History has redemptive meaning, purposes and a goal. (Amos 9:7; Isa 19)

The second mode of special revelation is direct divine speech. The bible presents God as a speaking God. He spoke in the garden. He spoke to Adam and Eve after the fall. He spoke to Abraham. He spoke to Moses in the burning bush account. He spoke to the children of Israel at Mount Sinai. He spoke to the prophets and finally He spoke to and through his divine Son.

The third mode of special revelation is the incarnation. God has worked through history in general. Also God has spoken and worked through the story of Israel both in words and in deeds in particular. However, in these last days he has spoken to us through “Son” (Heb 1: 1-3).  The words and the deeds of Christ are the words and the deeds of Israel’s God – YHWH – who has begun to reveal himself (John 14: 10-11; 10: 37; Rom 1: 2-4; 15: 8-9 et al).[19] According to the synaptic gospels, Christ’s words and deeds bring God’s prior revelation to fulfillment in the historical order and surpass the message of the Law and the prophets, since he himself is the true Son who reveals God perfectly[20]. Therefore the coming of the Son of God (who is sent by the father) in to this world to complete the task, to which Israel was assigned but failed[21], discloses God to us in ways nothing else can (Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. John 14:9). God has revealed himself specially in the person of his only begotten son to which general revelation has nothing to say.

The fourth and final mode of special revelation is Scripture.  In this mode of special revelation, the Holy Spirit has superintended the human authors using their own individual personalities in such a way, so that what they composed is God’s revelation to mankind in written form.

In Conclusion

            God’s people need to uphold both forms as valid forms of revelation of the one true God. At the same time, however, it is very important to underline the supremacy of special revelation. History provides us wisdom in this regard.  When general revelation was downplayed, it eventually gave birth to a whole natural theology that simply sought to replace special revelation. In reaction, Karl Barth and the neo-orthodox movement sought to push aside even the legitimacy of general revelation. In conclusion, I would like to quote two computing ideas in our present time that should be corrected when both forms of revelations are understood in thier place in God’s eternal purposes for all things.

“Assuredly, in the time of the Reformation men believed in the general revelation of God, but not with the understanding that through this revelation they could arrive at the idea of a natural, true knowledge of God. Moreover, the rupture between God’s revelation and the human heart was pointed out.”[22]

“Although theologian and scientist are quite fallible in their interpretations of Scripture and nature, general and special revelation are equally authoritative and infallible for the respective truths that they in fact reveal… Let us admit that the Bible is not the only infallible source of truth.” [23] (Post Script: Ouch! But scripture is the only authoritative revelation!)

A Paper Presented to
Dr. Gregg Allison
The Southern Baptist Theological SeminaryBy Samson T. Tilahun
September 28, 2012

[1] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, First Part, Question 2, Article 2 The existence of God and other like truths about God, which can be known by natural reason, are not articles of faith, but are preambles to the articles; for faith presupposes natural knowledge, even as grace presupposes nature, and perfection supposes something that can be perfected.

[2] Ephesians 3:7–13 (ESV) .. “and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.” Here I see general revelation as well as special revelation working in concert to bring about the Eschatological-teleological end of creation itself. The personified outcry of creation, as in Rom 8, because it’s subjected to decay, itself witness to what God will accomplish through his Son to bring about the priestly ministry of the sons of God who will rule as kings.

[3] C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), The Business of Heaven, Fount Paperbacks, U.K., p. 97, 1984

[4] Louis P. Pojman, The Moral life: An introductory reader in ethics and literature, New York, p. 311. Kant in “The Moral Law” arguing against a utilitarian’s point of view,  affirms that the value of a moral act is in the act itself – duty oriented. However, his insistence on the rational beings as an end in themselves, kingdom of ends, he down played the crucial purposes of the moral law as affirmed by Paul.

[5] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R, 2002), p 286.

[6]Seifrid, Mark A, Natural Revelation and The Purpose of The Law In Romans, Tyndale Bulletin 49.1 (1998) 115-129: In this regard, we should note that Paul does not name those of whom he speaks as gentiles, and does not reintroduce the categories of ‘Jew and Greek’ until Romans 2:9-10. This delay must be regarded as intentional, … He omits the usual ethnic stereotypes precisely because they are for him theologically irrelevant, and indeed, misleading. .. Whether Jew or Greek, each one shall receive just recompense for his or her deeds at the coming Day of Judgment (2:8-11).

[7] Dr. Allison, Gregg, Lecture content

[8] Erickson, M.J., Christian Theology, Baker, Grand Rapids, MI, p. 178, 1998

[9] Ibid, p 195

[10] Dr. Allison, Gregg, Lecture content

[11] David W. Diehl, Evangelicalism and General Revelation: An Unfinished Agenda, p 444.

[12] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, First Part, Question 2, Article 2: Answer: Demonstration can be made in two ways: One is through the cause, and is called “a priori,” and this is to argue from what is prior absolutely. The other is through the effect, and is called a demonstration “a posteriori”; this is to argue from what is prior relatively only to us… The existence of God and other like truths about God, which can be known by natural reason, are not articles of faith, but are preambles to the articles; for faith presupposes natural knowledge,

[13] J. Rodman Williams, Renewal Theology: Three volumes in one, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI,  p 37, 1996

[14] Erickson, M.J., Christian Theology, Baker, Grand Rapids, MI, p. 2, 1998

[15] Williams,  p37

[16] David W. Diehl, 453-455

[17] Calvin, J. (1997). Institutes of the Christian religion. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

[18] Wright, J. H. Christopher, Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament, p27

[19] Schreiner, Thomas: Magnifying God in Christ, 179-185

[20] Ibid

[21] Wright, N. T. (1996). Jesus and the victory of God. Christian Origins and the Question of God (501). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. The prophetic story of the rejected servants climaxes in the rejected son; he, however, is the messianic stone which, rejected by the builders, takes the chief place in the building.

[22] G.C. Berkouwer, “General and Special Divine Revelation,” Carl F.H. Henry, ed., Revelation and the Bible. Contemporary Evangelical Thought. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1958 / London: The Tyndale Press, 1959. pp.17.

[23] David W. Diehl, Evangelicalism and General Revelation: An Unfinished Agenda, p 448

© 2013 – 2014, Samson Tilahun. All rights reserved.

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