The Reformed Doctrine of General Revelation: What It Is and What It Isn’t
In the 1967 prison film Cool Hand Luke, starring Paul Newman, the warden utters one of the most memorable lines in film history when he says, in his deep southern drawl, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” I am often reminded of this line when reading about or participating in discussions of the Reformed doctrine of general revelation – particularly when that discussion touches on contemporary debates about science and Scripture.
In one of the Q&A sessions at Ligonier’s 2012 National Conference, Dr. Sproul was asked his opinion on the age of the universe. His answer, which should be carefully listened to by all Christians who are involved in discussions of science and Scripture, may be viewed here. Because his answer was so helpful, Ligonier posted an eight-part blog series explaining the theological and hermeneutical basis for what Dr. Sproul said. At the heart of these blog posts was an attempt to outline the Reformed doctrine of general revelation.
Some, who are either not familiar with the traditional Reformed doctrine of general revelation or who disagree with the Reformed doctrine, have expressed concerns that it entails placing fallible scientific theories on the same level of authority with Scripture – or worse, on a higher level of authority. Such a concern stems from a failure to understand the Reformed doctrine of general revelation. This failure to understand may be the fault of Reformed Christians for not stating the doctrine clearly. It may be the fault of critics for not listening carefully. It may be the fault of both to one degree or another. In any case, what we have is a failure to communicate that is leading to serious misunderstanding and misrepresentation.
The purpose of this brief post is to explain what the traditional Reformed doctrine of general revelation is, and just as importantly, to explain what the traditional Reformed doctrine of general revelation is not.
What General Revelation Is
In order to understand the Reformed doctrine of general revelation, it is necessary first to have a clear grasp of what Reformed theology means by the term “revelation.” The word “revelation” simply refers to “revealing” or “unveiling.” In Reformed theology, it can refer to God’s act of communication to man or to the content of that communication.
Reformed theologians have also traditionally defined general revelation in contrast to special revelation. Article 2 of the Belgic Confession (on the means by which we know God) states the distinction in the following words:
We know Him [God] by two means: First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most elegant book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many characters leading us to see clearly the invisible things of God, even his everlasting power and divinity, as the apostle Paul says in Romans 1:20. All which things are sufficient to convince men and leave them without excuse. Second, He makes Himself more clearly and fully known to us by His holy and divine Word, that is to say, as far as is necessary for us to know in this life, to His glory and our salvation.
The distinction between general and special revelation focuses more on the extent and purpose of revelation.i General revelation is referred to as “general” revelation because it has a general content and is revealed to a general audience. Through general revelation to all men, God communicates His existence, His power, and His glory, such that men are left without excuse.
A further distinction that must be made is the distinction between immediate and mediate general revelation. Immediate general revelation occurs without an intermediating agency. Mediate general revelation occurs through an intermediating agency. John Calvin described immediate general revelation in his Institutes of the Christian Religion:
There is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity [divinitatis sensum]. This we take to be beyond controversy. To prevent anyone from taking refuge in the pretense of ignorance, God himself has implanted in all men a certain understanding of his divine majesty (I.3.1).
In other words, God has revealed Himself by directly implanting knowledge about Himself in all men. In a later chapter, Calvin described the mediate general revelation that God accomplishes through His created works:
The final goal of the blessed life, moreover, rests in the knowledge of God [cf. John 17:3]. Lest anyone, then, be excluded from access to happiness, he not only sowed in men’s minds that seed of religion of which we have spoken, but revealed himself and daily discloses himself in the whole workmanship of the universe. As a consequence, men cannot open their eyes without being compelled to see him (Institutes, I.5.1).
God, then, reveals Himself through His works. Here, Calvin is simply restating what the Psalmist said in Psalm 19:1–2.
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
The Apostle Paul elaborates on the same idea in Romans 1:19–20.
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 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.
As John Murray explains, “We must not tone down the teaching of the apostle in this passage. It is a clear declaration to the effect that the visible creation as God’s handiwork makes manifest the invisible perfections of God as its Creator, that from the things which are perceptible to the senses cognition of these invisible perfections is derived, and that thus a clear apprehension of God’s perfections may be gained from his observable handiwork.”ii
What General Revelation Is Not
In order to understand what general revelation is not, a number of further distinctions must be made.
First, the human interpreters of God’s revelation, whether general or special, are not to be equated with the revelation itself. The words “special revelation” do not refer to the biblical scholar who is studying the Word of God. Nor do the words “general revelation” refer to the scientist studying God’s created works.
Second, human interpretations of God’s revelation, whether general or special, are not to be equated with revelation itself. The words “special revelation” do not refer to commentaries on the Word of God. Nor do the words “general revelation” refer to scientific theories about God’s created works.
Third, the word “infallibility” refers only to God and His acts of revelation. It does not refer to the human interpreters of those revelatory acts (whether general or special). Nor does it refer to the human interpretations of those revelatory acts (whether general or special).
Thus, when Dr. Sproul says that interpreters of God’s created works might help us correct a misinterpretation of Scripture, he is not placing fallible human science over the infallible Scriptures. He is comparing a fallible human interpretation of God’s special revelation with a fallible human interpretation of God’s general revelation. Those who either do not understand or who do not agree with the Reformed doctrine of general revelation will inevitably misunderstand the hermeneutical point that Dr. Sproul is making.
Again, both general and special revelation are infallible acts of God. These two kinds of revelation can never be in conflict because the source of both is the one God. Human interpretations of these two kinds of revelation, however, can be and have been in conflict. Again, God’s act of general revelation and God’s act of special revelation are not and cannot be in conflict. Fallible human exegesis and fallible human scientific theories, on the other hand, can be in conflict. And as Dr. Sproul has explained, if there is a conflict between fallible human interpretations of general revelation and special revelation, the conflict may be due to a misinterpretation of general revelation (e.g. an erroneous scientific theory) or it may be due to a misinterpretation of Scripture (e.g. an erroneous interpretation of one or more biblical texts). The fact that fallible human beings can misinterpret general and special revelation does not mean that God’s revelation itself is fallible. It means that we are fallible.
In short, general revelation is not synonymous with science, scientists, or scientific theories, and to say that general revelation is part of the context we must take into consideration in our exegesis of special revelation is, therefore, not to say that science, scientists, or scientific theories are on the same level as Scripture.
There are a number of other distinctions that must be understood if we are to fully grasp the Reformed understanding of the relationship between Scripture and Science. Several of these are discussed in the eight-part blog series mentioned above.
i Louis Berkhof, Introduction to Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1932), 128)
ii John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), 40.