Our Revealing God: Understanding Revelation Systematically

God is all-powerful. He is all-knowing. He is infinite. We are weak. We are foolish. We are finite. Yet, God calls us His children and we can call Him our Father. We are co-heirs with Jesus Christ His son. His Holy Spirit lives in us. God is loving, and has chosen to reveal Himself to us. But why did God reveal Himself to us? In what ways has God revealed Himself to mankind? Does only the reader of the Bible or the believer in Christ understand God, or does every rational thinker comprehend something about the nature of God?

These are some questions, among many more, that arise as one ponders God’s revelation to man. Yet, there is one aspect about the God of Christianity that differs from commonly-understood religion. Central to the Christian claim is that God has taken the gracious initiative and revealed Himself. It is not man fumbling around trying to find God, but rather God clearly revealing Himself to man.[1]

Revelation and the Trinity

We can know about God because He has manifested himself to us in redemption through what we can understand as the economic Trinity. Everything we know about God comes through His deeds done and the defining deed in particular, Jesus Christ.[2] We trust that God is inherently and eternally in Himself what He is towards us. We know that God has a self-communicative nature because of the word “logos.” It is this logos” that was in the beginning with God, and who was God Himself (John 1:1). It is through Jesus Christ that we know that God is Love (1 John 4:7), Light (1 John 1:7), and Creator (Col 1:16, Rev 4:11). [3] It is through the Holy Spirit that we know God indwells believers (2 Tim 1:14), is our Intercessor (Romans 8:26-27), and is the Comforter (John 14:26). It is through each person of the Trinity that we can understand who God is.

Understanding God’s Revelation to Mankind

For God to be known, He must unveil Himself to mankind. God has indeed chosen to disclose Himself to us, and this is known as revelation. Norman Geisler says that there are three prerequisites for divine revelation. Geisler states, “Divine revelation is not possible unless at least three basic things are in place: (1) a Being capable of giving revelation; (2) a being capable of receiving a revelation; (3) a medium through which a revelation can be given.”[4] We find all three of these to be true. God is omniscient, and thus has truth to reveal. He is also omnipotent and thus is able to reveal this truth in a way we can understand. We as human beings are capable of receiving revelation. Because we are made in God’s image we are like Him in that we are rational and moral beings. Thus, we are able to understand rational and moral revelation. God has used reason and creation to reveal Himself to mankind.[5] It is always important to recognize that it is God that has determined to reveal Himself and has allowed Himself to be understood, and man could not determine to know Him otherwise.

God’s revelation is understood in two categories: general and special. General revelation is God’s revelation of Himself in creation, through history, and in the image of God within man. Special revelation is God’s revelation in His Word, through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Spirit.

General Revelation

In general revelation, God reveals Himself to all mankind through the glories of His creation and His government of the universe. Psalm 19:1-4 explains that God’s revelation is seen in nature by all men. There is no place in this world where God’s revelation is not apparent. Acts 14:15-17 states that God did not leave Himself without a witness on this earth. Through rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, God has revealed Himself. In fact, because God has revealed Himself in nature, no one has an excuse that they do not know there is a God (Rom 1:20). In fact, Paul says that what can be known about God is plain to people “because God has shown it to them” (Rom. 1:19).[6] Because of this the Psalmist is able to say in Psalm 14:1, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God!’”

In general revelation God has also revealed Himself in history. Scripture is full of passages showing that God is moving the course of history, completely sovereign over all nations (Job 12:23; Psalm 47:7-8; 66:7; Isa 10:5-13; Dan 2:21; Acts 17:26).[7] The nation of Israel was determined by God in Deuteronomy 28 to be a holy people unto Himself, and that they would exist so that all people of the earth would see that they were called by the name of the Lord. God has preserved the nation of Israel, and many cite this as an example of God’s revelation in history.[8]

In general revelation, God has also revealed Himself through the image of God in man. God’s revelation is best seen in the moral and spiritual qualities of mankind. Paul speaks of a law written on people’s hearts in Romans 2:14-15.[9] He said that the conscience bears witness. Universal moral consciousness is a highly debated topic. But theologians such as C.S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity discuss the existence of a moral consciousness or moral compass.[10]

It is not merely in the conscience of man that morality exists, but also that God exists. The one who sets forth what is right and wrong. Throughout the world, in all cultures and in all times, people have believed in a being higher than themselves. Calvin said in his Institutes:

“That there exists in the human minds and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of 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.”[11]

General revelation is not sufficient for salvation, however. Although general revelation may lead an individual in the direction of salvation, it is still not enough to bring an individual personal salvation. Cornelius in Acts 10 is a great example of this. He is described as “a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God (ESV).” Cornelius was a moral and religious man who still lacked salvation. Cornelius was not able to come to salvation until he heard words from Peter.

Natural Theology

With regards to the nature and extent of general revelation there has been much debate. Natural theology is a viewpoint of general revelation that maintains that it is possible to gain some true knowledge of God using nature, history, and human personality. People that hold to this view believe that it is possible without previous faith in Christianity and without relying on any special authority, such as a church or the Bible, to come to a genuine knowledge of God by reason alone.[12]

Looking to history, it is Thomas Aquinas who put much effort into natural theology and is probably its greatest advocate. Because Thomas was living when much of what was understood as the authority, such as the Bible and the church, was being challenged, Thomas felt that he could prove certain beliefs through pure reason.

Thomas employed strong arguments for the existence of God such as the cosmological proof, which claims that there has to be an uncreated Creator, and the teleological argument which claims because of the order found in the universe, God must exist.[13] Thomas’ major downfall, however, is that he gives too much credit to man’s reason. He does not see it affected by the fall, and this causes issues as he appeals to reason alone for proving the existence of God.

Philosophy also has two major arguments: the anthropological and the ontological. The anthropological argument sees some aspects of human nature as a revelation of God. Kant argued that all people possess a moral impulse, but following the moral impulse is not always rewarded in this life. He argued that God establishes morality and therefore God is the one who judges and rewards man’s morality. The moral order, he argued, requires the existence of God.

Perhaps one of the most famous arguments for the existence of God is the ontological argument presented by Anselm. In short he says that God is that being in which nothing greater can be conceived and therefore God must exist. The greatest thing that we can think of that does not exist would be made greater by existing. There have been noted problems with this argument, but it still stands as one of the well known arguments for explaining God’s existence through reason.[14]

However, these arguments have come under much attack. Many philosophers since and today critique and deny these arguments. Perhaps most famously, the teleological argument has suffered much criticism since Charles Darwin proposed organic evolution. Some theologians have also denied general revelation and natural theology. Karl Barth, educated in liberalism, saw how liberals did not take the Bible seriously and how they developed a natural theology from general revelation. Through seeing German theologians believing in natural theology endorse very ungodly practices, he found natural theology to be incorrect. Brunner and Barth would later have a debate over revelation. For Barth, revelation’s nature is redemptive, and therefore to know God, to have correct information about him, is to have salvation in God.[15] Barth said about Brunner, “How can Brunner maintain that a real knowledge of the true God, however imperfect it may be (and what knowledge of God is not imperfect?), does not bring salvation?”[16] Barth brought many attacks to natural theology, but overstated his case.

Calvin seems to be more plausible. He claims that God has given us an objective and rational revelation of himself in nature, history, and in the image of God in man.[17] Regardless of whether anyone notices it and believes in it, it still exists. General revelation is not a deduction of what exists, it exists and we are to recognize the fact that it points to an infinite God. Some will see it and believe; some will see it and reject God.

Special Revelation

Special revelation is the act of God whereby He reveals Himself and His truth to specific people at specific times and places. Special revelation is what God has revealed through His Word, through His Son, and through the Holy Spirit.

Special revelation differs from general revelation in that it cannot be learned on one’s own. The unbeliever cannot appreciate God’s revelation as seen in God’s Word. The words of Scripture are folly to the unbeliever, and he is considered a “natural person” by God (1 Cor 2:14 ESV). Without the Holy Spirit, an individual will never understand the Bible.

Special revelation is accepted by faith. As Romans 10:17 (ESV) states, “So faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Reason may be able to tell a person there is a God, reason cannot bring salvation. Faith is required for salvation, and it is faith in what has been revealed through Scripture. The object of this faith is in Jesus Christ.

The Word of God contains the gospel, which is all that is necessary for a person to come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Because general revelation is not sufficient for salvation, those who have never heard the gospel must hear it! Paul’s cry was that as well. He asked “How can they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher (Romans 10:14-15 KJV)?

Norman Geisler has contrasted general revelation with special revelation. In general revelation we see God as Creator, the norm for society, the means of condemnation, and it is found in nature. In special revelation we see God as Redeemer, the norm for the church, the means of salvation, and it is found in Scripture.[18]

Special revelation was made necessary because of the fall. Man could no longer fellowship with God. It was insufficient simply to know that God exists. Special revelation allows for reconciliation between sinful man and God.  Special revelation is therefore personal. This is seen in Scripture when God reveals his name to Moses (Exod 3:14). God went further by entering into personal covenants with individuals such as Noah, Abraham, and David.[19]

The most personal, and perhaps the most complete aspect of revelation of God to man is the incarnation. The fact that God came in human form and spoke to us through His Son is said to be superior to earlier forms of revelation (Heb 1:1-2). The center of God’s acts is found in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Jesus was not merely a prophet, but God Himself speaking. Similarly, Jesus’ character is also part of the unique special revelation of God. Jesus’ actions and attitudes were not merely a reflection of the Father, but were the presence of God on earth.[20]

God took the initiative to make Himself known to us in a more complete way than He is seen in general revelation. This He has done by His own will, accommodating to our finiteness. Because of this accommodation, man is able to not only come to know God but also to continue growing in the understanding of what God expects.

Personal Persuasions and Practical Applications

After looking at general revelation and special revelation, which one should get priority? Geisler points out that the temptation might be to give precedent to biblical interpretation and therefore to special revelation because the Bible is infallible. He notes that the Bible may be inerrant, but our interpretations are not always without error. His point is that we can have misconceptions of both general and special revelation. Therefore, when there seems to be errors in our interpretation of special revelation we need to look to general revelation to clarify, and vice-versa.[21]

One of the examples that he gives is when the Bible references the “four corners of the earth.” (Rev 7:1). The earth does not actually have four corners, and is it is not flat. This is an example of when we take the knowledge found in God’s general revelation and allow it to take precedence over what we have come to believe through His special revelation.[22]

Both general revelation and special revelation should be compared and contrasted with each other. God in His wisdom has provided us with both, and it is wise to look to both. There are times when Scripture does take precedence over popular views in science. Macroevolution, as Geisler also suggests, is a good example. He states ,

“It is virtually certain that the Bible cannot be properly interpreted to accommodate macroevolution. Or to put it the other way, it is most evident that the Bible teaches that God brought the universe into existence out of nothing (Gen 1:1), that He created every basic kind of animal and plant (Gen 1:21), and that He specially and directly created man and woman in His image (Gen 1:27).”[23]

The wonderful thing about general and special revelation is that there are no great conflicts between them. They enrich each other very much. General revelation does point to the need for special revelation, but special revelation complements and gives a greater understanding to general revelation.

I believe that there is some validity to natural revelation, yet I do not believe that we can come to an understanding of God by reason alone. We are only able to comprehend anything of God due to God’s accommodation to us as finite beings. To say we can know God by our own reason elevates our own minds higher than they actually are due to the fall.

It is humbling to see that God not only created us in His own image, but once we distorted that image through sin, He was still willing to give us special revelation so that we could have fellowship with Him once again. He has left the world with no excuse. Yet, because general revelation is not enough for salvation, we must be proclaiming God’s Gospel to those who have never heard. There are people who are ready to call on Him in whom they have not heard. God has promised that whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved! I believe that we must give them the special revelation that has been given to us. We must tell them of Jesus Christ and proclaim His Word.

In our own personal ministries we must be submitting to what God has revealed to us. If our preconceived notions differ from what God has revealed, we must humbly submit to what God has revealed. We cannot allow reason alone to determine what we understand of God. God has revealed Himself through general revelation and through special revelation and they complement and enrich each other. We cannot let tradition nor trends define our beliefs, but help mold our understanding of what God has revealed, allowing for general and special revelation to be the “checks-and-balances” for our faith in Him.

We should be thankful that God for what He has revealed to us, and be excited for the things that are still yet to be revealed. We should look forward to the day when Christ Jesus shall again appear. “For we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.”[24]


[1] Gordon R. Lewis and Bruce A. Demarest, Integrative Theology, Vol. 1:Knowing Ultimate Reality; The Living God (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Corporation, 1987), 61.

 

[2] Gabriel Fackre, The Doctrine of Revelation: A Narrative Interpretation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company), 29.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology : Volume One : Introduction, Bible (Minneapolis Minn.: Bethany House, 2002), 64.

[5] Ibid., 64-65.

[6]Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology : An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 1994), 149.

[7] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids Mich.: Baker Book House, 1998), 179.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1952), pp. 17-39.

[11]Jean Calvin and Henry Beveridge, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Translation of: Institutio Christianae Religionis.; Reprint, With New Introd. Originally Published: Edinburgh : Calvin Translation Society, 1845-1846. (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), I, iii, 1.

[12] Erickson, 181.

[13] To see Thomas’ arguments and the following arguments mentioned further explained see Erikson pp. 181-185

[14] Erickson, 184.

[15] Ibid, 188.

[16] Emil Brunner & Karl Barth, Natural Theology, First Edition / First Printing. (Geoffrey Bles: The Centenary Press, 1946).

[17] Erickson consistently calls what I say is the image of God in man “human personality.” (See p. 194 of Erickson)

[18] Geisler, 69.

[19] Erickson, 203.

[20] Ibid, 216.

[21] Geisler, 77.

[22] Ibid. 78.

[23] Ibid.

[24] 1 John 3:2-3, ESV.

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