The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.Psalm 19:1
Last week’s post overviewed the doctrine of Revelation, or God’s unveiling of himself to the world. Today’s post will define general revelation, one of two spheres of the doctrine of revelation. Special revelation is the second sphere and will be the subject of subsequent posts.
General revelation refers to God’s self-manifestation through nature, history, and the inner being of the human person. It is general in two senses: it’s universal availability (it is accessible to all persons at all times) and the content of its message (it is less particularized and detailed than special revelation).Millard Erickson, Introducing Christian Doctrine, 26.
The distinction between general and special revelation is important. Because general revelation is universal and available to all, it is sufficient for mankind to know that there is a God. But because the one true God can only be known through Jesus Christ, special revelation is necessary. We will unpack this consideration in upcoming posts.
Millard Erickson suggested three areas where God has revealed himself generally to the world:
- Nature/Creation (Ps. 19 and Rom. 1:18-32). In nature, which is the focus of natural theology, God makes himself known as Creator. While we will not dive into the arguments for God’s existence from natural theology here, it is necessary to note that the universal tendency to worship gods or nature as gods is an affirmation of God’s revelation through nature. For the entirety of human civilization, gods and religions have been a part of human experience. The primary reason for this is that humanity has recognized that the world we live must have come from something/someone greater than ourselves. While some versions of ultimate reality coming from nature arose during the experiment of Greek philosophy, naturalism as a worldview is a recent development (18th century).(Naturalism is the worldview where ultimate reality is found in nature. The theory of evolution comes from the worldview of naturalism. Hence the phrase evolutionary naturalism). Humans have almost universally believed some deity is responsible for creating the world we live in. Creation testifies to general revelation.
- History (the Old Testament). An example of general revelation in history would be the unfurling of God’s character through his dealings with Israel in history. Whatever one thinks about the nation of Israel theologically or geopolitically, it is evident that there is something special about them. As a people, they have been targeted for annihilation (Nazis), persecuted, and disenfranchised throughout history. Their land has been under the control of empires and other nations for most of human history. Yet Israel remains. They remained a unique people even before they returned to their land. Why is this? It appears to me that God’s dealings with Israel reveal his special concern about the people he chose. Israel’s history testifies to general revelation.
- Humanity (Gen. 1:28). Being made in God’s image is a vital part of human understanding. It is true that the doctrine of the imago Dei is not universally accepted. But the philosophical definitions of humanity (as an animal or machine or mere product of nature) are inconsistent with human experience and reality. Humanity must be more than what naturalistic philosophies suggest because of our capacity for relationships, rationality, creativity, and morality. The fact that humans have free choice about how to live life reflects the freedom and personality given by a Creator. Humanity testifies to general revelation.
I recognize that connected these three areas to Scripture (special revelation). Understanding and interpreting general revelation sufficiently requires special revelation. We will unpack what this means in the following weeks.
Even so, it is important to recognize one staggering truth about general revelation that should shake us as followers of Christ:
General revelation is sufficient for condemnation, but not for salvation.
You might read that quote and disagree. You might not like it. But whether we like it or not, it is true. Have a read from Paul’s exposition in Romans 1.
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.Romans 1:18-25 (emphasis on verse 20 mine)
24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
Theologically, one is condemned for failing to believe in God alone. Human sin, flowing down the generations from Adam to sinners today, is the cause of unbelief. Paul identified idolatry as a rejection of the truth taught in general revelation and sufficient for condemnation.
As Christians, the truth regarding general revelation should drive us three specific applications:
- Pursue deeper knowledge of God.
- Seek a greater appreciation for God’s general work in the world (nature, history, humanity).
- Share the specific truths about God and salvation to sinners who desperately need forgiveness and eternal life.