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.

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