Christian theology asserts, based on Scripture and the confirming acts of God, that divine revelation is the first, last, and only source for the theological. Without this firm base, theological discussion seems random and pointless. We have knowledge of God because of His initiative and activity. We see what He has done; we see that it is good. God is the author and initiator of revelation and we are the recipients. He discloses what would otherwise be unknown. He uncovers what would otherwise be hidden. Deuteronomy 29:29 says, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and our children forever, that we may follow all the words of His law” (NIV).
God draws the veil back for us in two ways. First, there is what has been called general revelation. This refers to God revealing Himself in nature, history, and in man as made in His image. The association of God’s revelation with nature, by which people have an intuitive knowledge of God’s existence, is long-standing. It’s been said that when people deny God, as with the atheist, it is actually a forced effort against an inner yearning to find truth and meaning about our origin and meaning. Paul expressed this to the Athenians, expecting them to agree with him based on the proclamations of their philosophers and poets. He said, “For in him we live and move and have our being. As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring'” (Acts 17:28, NIV). It is universal in scope. In other words, no one can claim ignorance relative to God’s general revelation.
Because of the natural knowledge of God (scholars like Thomas Aquinas termed it natural theology to distinguish from that which was revealed by God directly through Scripture), which confronts humanity on every side through that which is created, Paul can say that people are “very religious” (see Acts 17:22). It is not a case of identifying God and nature, but rather recognizing that the natural knowledge of God is deeply ingrained in humanity’s own nature and in the natural realm. Psalm 19:1-2 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies declare the works of his hands” (NIV). The Dake’s Annotated Reference Bible notes a four-fold confirmation of God’s existence:
- The heavens declare God’s glory. The Hebrew word saphar means to recount, to mark as a tally, number out, inscribe as a writer (Psalm 19:1; 75:1; Job 12:8)
- The firmament shows His handiwork. The Hebrew word nagad means to front, stand boldly out, manifest, certify (Psalm 19:1; 111:6; Micah 6:8)
- The days utter speech. The Hebrew word here is naba, which means to gush forth, belch out, pour out, utter abundantly (Psalm 19:2; 78:2; 145:7)
- The nights show knowledge. The Hebrew word for show is chavah, meaning to declare or indicate (Psalm 19:2; Job 15:17; 32:6, 10, 17; 36:2)
If the heavens number out the glory of God and inscribe the infinite works of the Creator; if the firmament manifests His handiwork and certifies His existence; if days constantly pour forth teaching; and if nights declare the very knowledge of God, then God’s existence is everywhere confirmed. Paul notes in 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 people are without excuse” (NIV). Paul is clear: General revelation provides everyone with evidence that God is real.
Natural knowledge of God does have its limitations. Because it confronts mankind with the fact of God’s existence on a cerebral level, the individual engages in point-counterpoint discussion—from his or her own worldview. Moreover, general revelation does not provide information regarding the Gospel. Information about the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus can only be found in the Bible. Accordingly, where general revelation deals with the existence of God and generic morality, special revelation, the Bible, and the person of Christ, give specifics regarding sin, salvation, heaven, hell, the nature of God, the Trinity, the incarnation, death, the Fall, redemption, and other spiritual matters.
Nature is not the sixty-seventh book of the Bible, but a signpost pointing to the existence and character of God. The book of nature should be studied and understood in the light of the book of Scripture, not the other way round. To know God from His revelation in nature, however, still leaves Him and His gracious purposes completely unknown. This is true because the things of the Spirit are foreign to the mind of mankind. In Isaiah 55:8-9, God says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways… as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (NIV).
God desires to share His ways with us. We would certainly know nothing of His heart or His plans for our redemption had He not revealed it through Scripture. Before the Fall, communion between God and man was direct and uninterrupted. With the earliest patriarchs and prophets—Noah, Abraham, Isaiah, Elijah, and others—God’s revelation came by means of words articulated directly in a supernatural way. At other times, He spoke through angels (as when they appeared before Abraham, see Genesis 18:1-15), in the burning bush (see Exodus 3:1-22), in the cloud (see Exodus 34:5-7), or the fire and cloud over Mount Sinai for Moses and the people of Israel (see Exodus 19:18-21). God made His mind and heart known through Moses. God also used dreams and visions.
In addition to speaking to His prophets and apostles, God also inspired them to record His thoughts, words, promises, and covenants to be retained for all time. The Bible is a sacred collection of writings through which God has revealed His thoughts and intentions toward humanity. The prophets and apostles were prompted to recount key historical events. Revelation and inspiration are necessary counterparts to God’s disclosure of His character and will. R.C. Sproul, author, theologian, and ordained minister, said this of general and special revelation:
I believe firmly that all of truth is God’s truth, and I believe that God has not only given revelation in sacred Scripture, but also, the sacred Scripture itself tells us that God reveals Himself in nature—which we call natural revelation. And, I once asked a seminary class of mine that was a conservative group, I said, “How many of you believe that God’s revelation in Scripture is infallible?” And they all raised their hand. And I said, “And how many of you believe that God’s revelation in nature is infallible, and nobody raised their hand. It’s the same God who’s giving the revelation.
The ultimate form of special revelation is Jesus Christ. God became a human being (see John 1:1, 14). Hebrews 1:1-3 says, “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven” (NIV).
General revelation is important because it represents effective communication regarding the existence of God, His moral character, and all that He has created. However, general revelation itself does not reveal the Gospel. Special revelation provides specific communication involving God’s will and His plan for redemption. The most compelling element of special revelation is the incarnation of God in the flesh as Jesus Christ. The scribes who penned the Scriptures received special revelation in physical manifestations, dreams, angels, and through witnessing the events they recorded. Those who wrote the Bible were under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
In Christ we meet the fullness of the revelation of the Father, and it is only through Scripture that we meet Christ.