General and Special Revelation

Last time we looked at different sources and norms for Christian belief, and found there were at least four legs that makes the stool a theologian sits on. These legs were Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. We also suggested there is another source and norm, and as we begin our overview on the Doctrine of Revelation we will be exploring this fifth leg – creation.

Romans 1:20

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 men are without excuse.

Psalms 19:1-4

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.

From these verses we find that it is possible to gain knowledge of God through nature. It does not say how much knowledge, but it does say that it is clearly evident. In church history there has generally been acknowledged that God is revealed in some way through that which he created. [1] We call this knowledge of God that is derived from nature general revelation. General revelation is contrasted with special revelation.

What is meant most often meant by special revelation is Scripture, but knowledge of God – and of other theological truth – can also be gained directly from the Holy Spirit, through miracles, through preaching, or perhaps through a personal word of prophecy. As noted last time in Sources and Norms all of these should conform to the norming norm of Scripture, which testifies of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God, who is the most authoritative and reliable special revelation possible.[2]

There are at least five features of General revelation that set its apart from Special revelation:

(1) General revelation is continuous whereas Special revelation is not continuous. It is continuous because there has never and will never be a time when it has not been available. Special revelation is given at certain times, but general revelation is there at all times.

(2) General revelation is natural whereas Special revelation is supernatural. To be natural is to be in accordance with the order and design of the universe. To be supernatural is to transcend (be beyond) that order and design.

(3) General revelation is available to all people whereas Special revelation is available to only certain people. Special revelation is distributed through the personal agents God chooses to use, including missionaries, evangelists and preachers. He may also use angels to spread the good news of the gospel. Jesus Christ, the greatest evangelist of all, witnessed to Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus. Because God chooses to use personal agents restrictions of time and place are involved. General revelation however is accessible to all people to clearly see.

(4) General revelation is non-specific whereas Special revelation is specific. That is Special revelation has the same content as General revelation, but it has more details and is far more clearly defined. In Romans 3:1-5 Paul explains that Jews, who were entrusted with the very words of God, saw more clearly their unrighteousness and God’s righteousness than did the Gentiles, who were not the recipients of the written law.

(5) General revelation is non-redemptive whereas Special revelation is redemptive. Though the revelation from nature is not sufficient for salvation, God can use it to prepare peoples hearts to accept the Special revelation that is sufficient. The lesser light of general revelation can draw people to accept the greater light of the Lord Jesus Christ.

On this last point we want to be careful, for there is nothing to tell us that there was not once a time when general revelation alone was efficacious to salvation. Some suggest that the point at which general revelation ceases to be efficacious for salvation is the point at which special revelation becomes available. This could be, for instance, when the gospel enters into a culture for the first time. It remains the case however that for most people general revelation is not enough to save, and that special revelation is also needed.

Two questions immediately arise here concerning general revelation. The first is, “Are people who are born blind and deaf able to receive general revelation? The answer is Yes!

Romans 2:14-15

Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.

Here we see that human conscience is a part of God’s creation. A ‘moral law’ is written on the heart of every person and testifies of God in some manner. So even a person whose experience of the world is impaired by blindness and deafness, they are still able to receive general revelation from their own conscience. Thus it is the case that no one is without excuse.

The second question is more difficult. If there is ample proof of God’s existence in the world so that all people are without an excuse, why are there so many people who do not believe in God?

In the previous verse Paul clearly states that people ‘suppress the truth by their wickedness.’[3] That is not to say that atheists are intentionally lying when they say there is no God. That is to say that human nature is so depraved we can deceive even ourselves. Because people refused to acknowledge God, even though his existence was made plain to them, they were coming under judgment. The following gives us clue on how they found themselves in this tremulous predicament. Paul writes:

Romans 2:21-22

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, . . . [they] exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

What was the result of this? “Their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.” (v.21) This was the first step in a downward progression of depravity and wickedness. So pernicious is this trend that Paul, after carefully expounding the gospel, implores his readers to worship God (unlike those who refused to acknowledge him) and be transformed by renewing the mind (countering the effects of not acknowledging him).[4]

Thomas Aquinas (c.1225–74), the Dominican monk from the scholastic tradition, is referred to as the father of Natural Theology. Natural Theology is the task of discovering what we can know about God and his truth wholly apart from special revelation. Aquinas is famous for his five arguments for God’s existence, which all find something in the world that, together with reason confirm that the book of scripture and the book of nature both agree with each other. We will explore in greater depth what Natural Theology can tell us when we cover the Doctrine of God, but for now it is enough to note that general revelation is the field in which Natural Theology is grown, and that Aquinas’ views on how nature and reason together speak of God’s existence became the official view of the Catholic Church.

Martin Luther (1483–1546), the great German reformer, though suspicious of philosophy and the scholastic tradition, nonetheless affirms that there is general revelation. Still, he wanted to stress that without Christ the picture was only ever limited and incomplete.

There is a twofold knowledge of God, genaral and particular. All people have the general knowledge, namely that God exists, that he has created heaven and earth, that he is righteous, that he punishes the wicked, etc. But people do not know what God proposes concerning us, what he wants to give and to do, so that he might deliver us from sin and death, and to save us – which is the proper and the true knowledge of God. Thus it can happen that someone’s face may be familiar to me but I do not really know him, because I do not know his intentions. So it is that people know natually that there is a God, but they do not know what he wants and does not want.[5]

John Calvin (1509-1564), the French theologian and reformer, is sometimes accused of having views that are anti general revelation. If we allowed him to speak for himself, we would see that this is not the case.

In order that no one might be excluded from the means of obtaining happiness, God has been pleased, not only to place in out minds the seeds of religion of which we have already spoken, but to make known his perfection in the whole structure of the universe, and daily place then in our view in such a manner that we cannot open our eyes without being compelled to observe him […] To prove his remarkable wisdom, both the heavens and the earth present us with countless proofs – not just those more advanced prods which astronomy, medicine and all the other natural sciences are designed to illustrate, but proofs which force themselves on the attention of the most illiterate peasant, who cannot open his eyes without seeing them.[6]

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), widely considered to be America’s greatest theologian, also recognizes that something of God’s person and character is communicated to us through the natural realm.

It is very fit and becoming of God, who is infinitely wise, so to order things that there should be a voice of His in His works, instructing those that behold him and painting forth and shewing divine mysteries and things more immediately appertaining to Himself and His spiritual kingdom. The works of God are but a kind of voice or language of God to instruct intelligent beings in things pertaining to Himself. And why should we not think that he would teach and instruct by His works in this way as well as in others, viz., by presenting divine things by His works and so painting them forth, especially since we know that God hath so much delighted in this way of instruction.[7]

For Edwards the magnificence of the visible world was a helpful way to describe God’s own greatness.[8] In this he took his cue from the pages of scripture.

Psalms 103:11

For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him;

Psalm 36:5-6

Your love, O LORD, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies.
Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your justice like the great deep.

Next time we will be looking at the doctrine of Inspiration.


[1] Roger E. Olson. Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2002) p. 74.

[2] Paul’s experience of the risen Lord on the Damascus Road was special revelation.

[3] 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. see Romans 1:18-19

[4] Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will. see Romans 12:1-2

[5] Martin Luther, Commentary on Galations; in Martin Luther Werke: Kritsche Gesamtausgabe, vol. 40 (Weimar: Bohlaus, 1911), 602.18-603.13, 607.19-609.14

[6] John Calvin, Institutes I.iii.1, 2; in Joannis Calvini: Opera Selecta, ed. P. Barth and W. Niesel, vol. 3 (Munich: Kaiser Verlag, 1928), 37.16-46.11.

[7] Jonathan Edwards, The Images of Divine Things, ed. Perry Miller (New Heaven, CT: Yale University Press, 1948), p. 61.

[8] Ibid., p. 134.

Eminent Atheist Changes his Mind: The Antony Flew Story

By Ron Hay

The December 2004 headline was eye-catching – “Famous Atheist Now Believes in God.” The Associated Press story went on to say, “A British philosophy professor who has been a leading champion of atheism for more than a half century has changed his mind. He now believes in God…based on scientific evidence.”

The professor in question was Antony Flew whom many rate as the pre-eminent British philosopher of the last half century, so his change of mind was certainly major news. Strangely, though, his story received the barest mention in the New Zealand media. Would that have been the case if a notable Christian, say Billy Graham, had announced that he had just become an atheist?

Overseas, the interest in Antony Flew’s announcement was huge. One commentator wrote: “Few religious stories have had such an impact.” Many welcomed the news. Francis Collins, former director of the Human Genome Project, wrote: “His colleagues in the church of fundamentalist atheism will be scandalized by his story, but believers will be greatly encouraged, and earnest seekers will find much in Flew’s journey to illuminate their own path towards the truth.”

Others were, as Collins predicted, “scandalized” by the news and reacted angrily. Richard Dawkins accused Flew of “tergiversation,” that is, apostasy or betrayal, and made disparaging comments about this being a change of mind made in “old age.” Read more

Hermeneutic Principles in Typological Interpretation

Introduction

McGrath says there is a sense in which the history of Christian theology can be regarded as the history of biblical interpretation.[1] This is particularly true of typological interpretation. It’s history touches the earliest stages of the Christian movement, and plausibly dates back to the interpretive method of the Christ himself. Over two thousand years it has been plagued by misuse and misunderstanding. A cloud of uncertainty lingers today over the nature of typology and the hermeneutical principles that might help establish the study of types. Read more

Saddleback Apologetics Conference

The MP3s are up and ready to listen (or you can watch)

Here are the names of the speakers:  Dinesh D’Souza, Norman Geisler, William Lane Craig, Greg Koukl, Darrell Bock, and JP Moreland. What a fantastic lineup!!!

Here is the page:

http://saddleback.com/mediacenter/services/currentseries.aspx?site=yDi0V4EwP58=&s=OsqcpA0SUkE=

http://apologetics315.blogspot.com/ should have the MP3s linked pretty soon…..

Against Subjectivism

Essential to the moral argument is affirming the existance of objective moral values and duties. If narualrism is true then there are no objective moral values and duties, and therefore all moral values and duties are merely subjective. But this brand of ethical theory, called Subjectivism, we find inadequate for the following reasons.

For one it does not adequately explain our shared moral experience. If a subjectivist were to see a woman being abused, victimised and raped, saying “this is wrong” is saying noting more profound that “Hey, such action is not acceptable to me.” He cannot rightly condemn the rapist for the rapist is only doing what feels right for him. But surely that doesn’t make sense. Such an action is morally reprehensible no matter how one feels about it. Rape is wrong for all people at all times, because it is an invasion of something sacred. But how can it be sacred if it is pure matter? The only way it could be sacred is if it is as the Bible says: the body is the temple of the living God. 

If morals are not objective then one would have to say that Hitler’s extermination of the Jews (dissenting Christians, homosexuals and disabled) was only wrong in the sense that it was unpalatable – a mere preference of taste. If subjectivism is true, then Hitler was only acting unfashionably, doing nothing more serious than breaking another social convention like belching at the table, or driving on the right hand side of the road instead of the left.

But if you want to affirm that Hitler was really wrong, and that rape is wrong, and that other virtues like kindness, generosity and love are truly right whether believed or not, then it follows that there are some moral obligations that are objective, and subjectivism is false.

Secondly, it does not adequately explain how we live. Day to day we assume morals really are more than mere subjective expressions of taste. We praise good sportsmanship and deplore game-fixing. We object to be being treated unfairly and we cry out for justice as if it really is a right of ours. We declare acts of terrorism evil and we applaud fire-fighters who run into burning buildings to save lives. Like Princess Di we give to charity because we think it is right, and that not giving when we are capable is somehow wrong. We cherish people like Ghandi, who acted honourable in response to British Imperialism. 

Examples are manifold. Everyday we face a thousand decisions and at every decision we understand that there is a standard of right and wrong that supersedes all opinions and judges each appropriately. 

Bertrand Russell espoused subjectivism in his writings but could not live consistently with it. He was involved in protests for nuclear proliferation, animal rights campaigns and even spent a number of months in jail for refusing to pay the war tax. In other words he lived like there were moral obligations, and that these moral obligations were valid and binding for all people at all times, and not merely expressions of preference.

Richard Dawkins, the popular evolutionary biologist says “There is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pointless indifference. . . we are machines for propagating DNA” and yet his latest book is full of moralising. He has shown he does believe that some things that are evil, some things are good, and these not merely right and wrong for him, but wrong for everyone. He is at bottom a walking talking self-contradiction.

Such a moral awareness can be described as basic and bedrock, as the atheist philosopher Kai Neilson puts it:

“It is more reasonable to believe such elemental things [as wife beating and child abuse] to be evil that to believe any skeptical theory that tells us we cannot reasonably believe any of these thongs to be evil. . . I firmly believe that this is bedrock an right and tha anyone who does not believe it cannot have probes deeply enough into the grounds of his moral beliefs.”

We have more reason to deny the physical worl is objective, lthan we do to deny the objectivity of moral values and obligation. Though modification may be necessary on further reflection we have no reaso. To distrust our basic intuitions. Indeed, the atheist moral philosopher David O. Brink considers it the default possision. He says;

“There might be no objective moral standards. . . But this would be a revisionary conclusion, to be accepted only as the result of extended and compelling argument that the commitments of ethical objectivity are unsustainable.”

The objectivity of moral values and duties should be considered what philosophers call properly basic beliefs: something that is perfectly acceptable to believe on the basis of your own experience, only to be abandoned if successful defeaters are found. People who fail to see that moral obligation is objective are simply morally handicapped and there is no reason for their impaired vision to call into question what we clearly see. 

Finally, personal subjectivism and cultural relativism are inadequate to explain moral debate and moral reform. These are two correlatives of the above considerations. If all there is to right and wrong is a factual claim about the likes and dislikes of a particular person or culture, then what sense is there in protesting for the civil rights of black American’s in the 50’s and 60’s? There wasn’t anything objectively wrong about racism and apartheid, just like there wasn’t anything ultimately praise worthy about the abolition of slavery. These were just the changing winds of fashion. A fad that was in one day, and could quite possibly be out the next.

If cultural relativism is true, then there was nothing wrong about lashing a run-away slave to within inches of his life during the heydays of slavery in the south, for that was an acceptable practice for that culture. Though unacceptable now, there is nothing incoherent given cultural relativism that slavery may, in 50 years time, be acceptable again. But if you disagree and think that slavery can never again be acceptable, and if you think that moral progress has been made: if you think that mankind has grown up in his thought and that a deterioration of the collective moral conscience would be abominable, then you are pre-supposing a standard of right and wrong outside of your own feelings and culture, and it follows that there is an objective frame of reference for moral debate and reform. 

In summary then, (1) our experience assumes and confirms to us a realm of objective moral obligations beyond social convention, emotional preference, or adaptive mechanism. (2) We all take moral duties to be properly basic, bedrock intuitions that we can’t not know to be true. (3) Moral debate and moral progress presupposes an objective, external standard. It is for these reasons that we take subjectivism to be false, and that therefore there are some moral obligations that are objective features of the world.

Preorder the Hitchens v Wilson DVD documentary "Collision"

Collision

The documentary of the debate tour involving new atheist Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything) and evangelical theologian Pastor Douglas Wilson comes out next month. Their tour addressed the topic “Is religion good for the world?” and the documentary is directed by Duane Doane. You can preorder it now on amazon. Check out the official site to watch the first 13 minutes.

Interest in Intelligent Design is Strong

The above title is stolen directly from the Uncommon Descent website posting of the same name.  It seems they are having quite a lot of success if hits are any sort of metric. They write:

We thought the readers here might be interested in knowing a little bit about how much interest is out there for ID.  One gauge of that is UD’s traffic.  August traffic is at a high for the year with 31,000 more visits than the previous 7-month average (see graph).

And then they have some nice graphs.