The Reformed Doctrine of Special Revelation: What It Is and What It Isn’t
In a previous article, I discussed the Reformed doctrine of general revelation – what it is and what it isn’t. We learned that God has implanted knowledge of Himself in all men and that in the creation and government of the universe, He communicates His existence, His power, and His glory, such that men are without excuse (Rom. 1:20). God’s revelation, whether general or special, is something He does, and thus God’s revelation, whether general or special, is infallible.
We also learned what general revelation is not. General revelation is not to be identified with the human interpreters of general or special revelation. God is infallible, and thus His revelation is infallible. Human interpreters of revelation are fallible. General revelation is also not to be equated with the interpretations of human interpreters. Biblical commentaries are not special revelation, and scientific theories are not general revelation. We must maintain the Creator-creature distinction when thinking about revelation.
What About Special Revelation?
Reformed theology has traditionally distinguished general revelation from special revelation. Article 2 of the Belgic Confession discusses these two means of revelation under the title: “By What Means God is Made Known to Us.” After mentioning general revelation, the confessions states: “Secondly, 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 Westminster Confession of Faith also begins with a discussion of the distinction between general and special revelation:
Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing: which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people being now ceased.
Note first, the phrase, “it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his church.” The framers of the confession are appealing here to Hebrews 1:1–2.
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.
The idea of God revealing Himself “at sundry times, and in divers manners” has led Reformed theologians to discuss the various means of special revelation. Louis Berkhof lists three before His discussion of the relationship between special revelation and Scripture (Introduction to Systematic Theology, 134–6).
- Theophanies (e.g. Exodus 19:9)
- Communications – Under this category, Berkhof includes God’s audible voice, dreams, visions, the prophets, and Jesus Himself
- Miracles (e.g. Deuteronomy 4:32–35)
Prior to the completion of Scripture, then, God’s special revelation was given through more than the written text of Scripture.
Regarding the content of special revelation, it is important first to recall what was said about the content of general revelation in order to note the difference. General revelation communicates God’s existence, His power, and His glory, such that men are without excuse. It is “not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation.”
The knowledge that is necessary for salvation, on the other hand, is the content of special revelation. This knowledge is not found in general revelation. General revelation does not communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ. While one can know that God exists through an examination of general revelation, one cannot know about the incarnation, atoning death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ by looking through a telescope or a microscope.
For the purpose of man’s redemption and His own glory, God has committed that which He had in times past revealed through theophanies, dreams, and prophets “wholly unto writing: which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people being now ceased.” God’s special revelation, therefore, is now found in its permanent form in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.
The understanding that Scripture is God’s special revelation rests on the conviction that God inspired the human authors of Scripture. Paul writes: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). And Peter adds: “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).
The word “inspiration” that Paul uses is a translation of the Greek theopneustos, which means “God-breathed.” When we say that all Scripture is inspired by God, what we mean is that God superintended the human authors of the Scriptures so that their words were the very words of God Himself. Because Scripture is the very word of God Himself, Scripture carries the full authority of God Himself. It is His Word. And because God is infallible (incapable of error), the Holy Scriptures are inerrant.
The Difference Between Scripture and Interpretations of Scripture
Many Christians believe in the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, but many of these same Christians have differences of opinion about the interpretation of particular passages of Scripture. Some of these differences, such as those concerning the sacraments, have given rise to different denominations. Others simply remain the subject of ongoing debate. The men who framed the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, for example, came from a range of denominational backgrounds and held different views on a number of subjects. They agreed that Scripture is inerrant, but they differed on what that inerrant Scripture means in certain places.
Many Christians do not grasp this distinction, and the result is often the misrepresentation of what other Christians believe. The problem is that these Christians confuse a difference of interpretation with a denial of biblical authority. During my final months at Dallas Theological Seminary, when I was slowly transitioning out of dispensational premillennialism toward Reformed theology, I was repeatedly informed that the only reason I was not a premillennialist was because I did not believe the Bible (specifically Revelation 20). My friends there could not grasp the fact that my difference with them had to do with a difference of interpretation, not a difference over the authority of God’s Word.
This is an important point and one that has been repeatedly ignored throughout the history of the church. On any number of disputed issues, Christians will often frame the debate in a way that indicates either an inability or an unwillingness to acknowledge the difference between the Word of God and their own interpretations of that Word. “We believe the Bible and you do not” is the implicit (and sometimes explicit) affirmation. Those who disagree are asked, “Why are you rejecting the ‘biblical’ view”?
Such a way of framing an argument begs the question. The “biblical” view is precisely the question that is being debated, and it needs to be discerned through careful exegesis.
Unless a person has been granted the gift of infallibility, a disagreement with his or her interpretation of Scripture is not necessarily a denial of biblical authority. People who affirm the authority and inerrancy of Scripture differ in their interpretations of some biblical texts. The way to deal with such disagreements is through patient and careful exegesis, and it must be understood that this can take time. The early church took centuries to hammer out the biblical teaching on the Trinity and the Person of Christ. Some of our contemporary debates may likewise take many years to resolve.
We do not despair because of this. God knows what He intended to communicate in every word of Scripture. It is our ignorance and sin that hinders us from grasping everything perfectly. But our ignorance and sin does not alter the fact that the Scripture is the infallible, authoritative, and inerrant Word of the living God.
“The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isa. 40:8).