How does God speak? Part 1: General Revelation

What is it?

Christian theologians tend to talk about two types of revelation: General Revelation and Special Revelation. General Revelation captures that sense which we have already considered that everything God does discloses something of who he is.

Three aspects of General Revelation have been suggested. First of all, the whole of creation points us to God’s glory and calls us to worship him.  Psalm 19:1 tells us that “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.”  This includes God’s power both in the first act of creation and in sustaining it through time. As 19th Century Theologian Herman Bavinck puts it,

…immediately linking up with the event of creation is the act of providence. This too is an omnipotent and everywhere present power and act of God.  All that is and happens is, in a real sense, a work of God and to the devout a revelation of his attributes and perfections.[1]

This is brought out in the Apostle Paul’s sermon to the Gentiles in Lystra.

Yet he has not left himself without testimony: he has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy. (Act 14:17)

Secondly, God’s revelation is seen in history. We tend to think of God’s acts in redemptive history: the signs and wonders through Moses, the calling of David as King, the miracles of Elijah etc.  However, there is a sense in which God’s ordering of wider history is meant to reveal his power and justice to us. [2] So in his speech on Mars Hill, Paul argues that,

From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. (Acts 17:26)

These are the more obvious, objective examples of General Revelation. However, John Calvin pushes us further, arguing that there is another way in which God reveals himself to us.  Calvin argues,

That there exists in the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of the Deity, we hold to be beyond dispute, since God himself, to prevent any man from pretending ignorance, has endued all men with some idea of his Godhead, the memory of which he constantly renews and occasionally enlarges that all to a man, being aware that there is a God, and that he is their maker, may be condemned by their own conscience when they neither worship him nor consecrate their lives to his service.[3]

In other words, God has imprinted on our very being a sense of his existence. There is an innate desire to seek him, know him and worship him.  I believe that Calvin is drawing on two places in Scripture here.  First of all, positively, Ecclesiastes tells us that God has “set eternity in the hearts of man.”  There is an awareness and longing for the transcendent; a realisation that there is more to it than our temporary existence here.  Secondly, there is the negative assertion that, “The fool says in his heart there is no God.”  Awareness of deity is something so foundational to our being that it would be ridiculous stupidity to deny it.  The result says Calvin is that “there is no nation so barbarous, no race so brutish, as not to be imbued with the conviction that there is a God.”[4]

Now there may be some aspects of these assertions that we balk at. Can we really be so strident as Calvin?  Some of us may struggle with the description of the Atheist as foolish, even though it’s in Scripture.  After all, there are plenty of reasonable, intelligent people who don’t believe in God.  In fact, it often seems that the weight of intellectual debate and scholarship is overwhelmingly on the side of Atheism.

Well, hold onto those concerns for the time being because we are going to come back to them and address them later. Interestingly, even in Calvin’s days, many of the objections that we might have or encounter today were anticipated.  So, for example, Calvin notes that some may argue that religion is simply an invention of those in power in order to control the masses, to which he responds with two rebuttals:

  1. That it would be impossible to use religion as a control if there wasn’t a pre-existing common awareness of God[5]
  2. That even those who generally show contempt, when confronted with their own mortality, show some fear of God[6]

What affect does it have?

We have already seen that General Revelation does not simply convey neutral information. Rather, it is intended to draw out a response of wonder, praise and obedience to God as we see his greatness, his goodness and kindness.[7]  This is the positive side of the coin, but General Revelation is also the basis of judgement.  It acts as a witness against us and sin because, as Paul tells us in Romans 1, God’s revelation leaves us all without excuse.  Remember how we saw in our second post that God has revealed his righteousness in the Gospel? (Rom 1:16-17) Well, Paul goes on to say that:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 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 people are without excuse. (Rom 1:19-20.

There again, we have the sense, as suggested by Calvin, that God’s Revelation isn’t simply something objective and neutral out there for us to look at for ourselves and make decisions. It is effectively in our faces, unavoidable, undeniable.  This is seen both in the idea that truth is made manifest to them (“known, plain”) but also in their response.  Quoting the Dutch Missiologist J.H. Bavinck, Dan Strange notes General Revelation provokes a reaction: it “does not simply slide off man ineffectually like a raindrop glides off a waxy tree leaf.”[8] The response is to suppress the truth. As Strange adds, “Suppression carries with it the sense of violently holding down.”[9]  He offers the following vivid illustration: human response is like “that of a child playing with an inflatable ball in the water.  She tried to hold the ball under the water with all her might and thinks she has succeeded, but the ball always pops up to the surface again for the child to try again and so on.”[10]

So General Revelation has much to say. Indeed, Calvin argues that it not only gives us some vague general idea that there is something more, but also points us to the God who is eternal and gives us hope for the future because as we look at God’s actions in history, we see both what he has done and the incompleteness of events. We see that God’s “mercy and severity are only begun and incomplete.”[11]

Bavinck argues that if we deny or ignore General Revelation then we lose a vital support for our faith[12] because General Revelation

…keeps nature and grace, creation and recreation, the world of reality and the world of values, inseparably connected. Without general revelation, special revelation loses its connectedness with the whole cosmic existence and life.  The link that unites the kingdom of nature and the kingdom of heaven then disappears.[13]

The Limits of General Revelation

And yet General Revelation falls short. It cannot give us the complete account of who God is and how we are to know him.  Sin has corrupted our hearts so that we suppress the truth. Strange sees this as being an instantaneous response to the point where we may not be even conscious of the suppression.[14]

Calvin suggests two ways in which humans respond sinfully to General Revelation. First,

They do not conceive of him in the character in which he is manifested but imagine him to be whatever their own rashness has devised….With such an idea of God, nothing which they may attempt to offer in the way of worship or obedience can have any value in his sight, because it is not him they worship, but, instead of him, the dream and figment of their own heart.[15]

Secondly,

To this fault they add a second – viz that when they do think of God it is against their will: never approaching him without being dragged into his presence and when there, instead of the voluntary fear flowing from reverence of the divine majesty, feeling only that forced and servile fear which divine judgement extorts –judgement which, from the impossibility of escape, they are compelled to dread, but which, while they dread, they at the same time hate.[16]

But even without the Fall, there is a sense in which General Revelation on its own is incomplete. It cannot tell us everything that we need to know about God.  Bavinck comments,

On the insufficiency of general revelation, however, there can scarcely be any doubt. In the first place, it is evident from the fact that this revelation at most supplies us with knowledge of God’s existence and of some of his attributes such as goodness and justice, but it leaves us absolutely unfamiliar with the person of Christ who alone is the way to the Father.[17]

And so, right from the beginning, there has been a close link between the General Revelation and Special Revelation. In Psalm 19, where we see creation singing of God’s glory and pouring out praise, we also discover that God’s will is revealed explicitly in Torah.  Furthermore,

In the garden, Adam both heard the voice of God and saw his creative handiwork. His task was to relate these to one another in obedient response.  God never intended man to attend to natural revelation while ignoring his spoken word.  Similarly, after the Fall, God’s verbal revelation accompanied His mighty, ‘objective’ redemptive acts.[18]

So Christians are meant to use General Revelation only through the lens of God’s Special Revelation.

They position themselves in the Christian faith, in special revelation, and from there look out upon nature and history. And now they discover there as well the traces of the God whom they learned to know in Christ as their Father. Precisely as Christians by faith, they see the revelation of God in nature much better and more clearly than before.[19]

In our next chapter we will look at what Special Revelation is and how it works in more detail.

[1] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol 1, 307.

[2] See, Frame, DWoG, 76.

[3] Calvin, Institutes, I.iii.1. (Beveridge, 1:43).

[4] Calvin, Institutes, I.iii.1. (Beveridge, 1:43).

[5] Calvin, Institutes, I.iii.2. (Beveridge, 1:44).

[6] Calvin, Institutes, I.iii.2. (Beveridge, 1:44).

[7] Frame, DWoG, 76.

[8] JH Bavinck, The Church, 124.  Cited in Daniel Strange, “Perilous Exchange, Precious Good News: A Reformed Subversive Fulfilment of other Religions” (Pages91-138 in Gavin D’Costa, Paul Knitter and Daniel Strange, Only One Way: Three Christian Responses on the Uniqueness of Christ in a Religiously Plural World, London. SCM, 2011), 112.

[9] Strange, “Perilous Exchange,” 113.

[10] Strange, “Perilous Exchange,” 113.

[11] Calvin, Institutes, I.v.10. (Beveridge, 1:58).

[12] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol 1, 322.

[13] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol 1, 322.

[14] Strange, “Perilous Exchange,” 113.

[15] Calvin, Institutes, I.iv.1. (Beveridge, 1:46).

[16] Calvin, Institutes, I.iv.4. (Beveridge, 1:48).

[17] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol 1, 313.

[18] Frame, DKoG, 144.

[19] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol 1, 321.

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