There is nothing more foundational to knowing God than the His self-revelation to His creatures. Though He is incomprehensible, the true and living God reveals aspects of Himself in both creation and in Scripture. Theologians refer to these two ways of God’s self-revelation as general or natural revelation and special or supernatural revelation. In creation, God reveals aspects of His being, attributes, and power. In Scripture, He gives further revelation of His being, names, attributes, works, and will for the salvation of His people. All special revelation centers on the person and saving work of Jesus Christ. Jesus is Himself the full revelation of God to mankind. He is the eternal Logos who, in the fullness of time, entered the world He created to redeem a people for Himself. The Holy Spirit is both the divine agent of God’s special revelation as well as the One who illumines the hearts of believers to give them a saving understanding of that revelation.
For people to come to a knowledge of God, God must reveal Himself to His creatures. However, man will never attain a comprehensive knowledge of God, since He is infinite and we are finite. As Dr. R.C. Sproul explained: “Our finite understanding cannot contain an infinite subject; thus, God is incomprehensible. This concept represents a check and balance to warn us lest we think we have captured altogether and mastered in every detail the things of God. Our finitude always limits our understanding of God.” Nevertheless, God created us to know who He is and what He has done in the world. Everything that God reveals is truth, since it is a revelation of the God of truth Himself. The innate knowledge of God comes to us by means of His general revelation. The Apostle Paul summarized the essence of God’s general revelation to mankind when he wrote: “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” (Rom. 1:19–20).
In every part of creation, God’s glory is revealed. The psalmist summed it up when he wrote, “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps. 19:1). Since God fills the heavens and the earth, all people have an innate and inescapable knowledge of God’s being, attributes, and power. This innate knowledge is what John Calvin called the sensus divinitatis (sense of deity). However, by nature, fallen human beings suppress the truth that God has made known about Himself in creation; they do so by living in unrighteousness. Therefore, God’s general revelation leaves all mankind inexcusable on the day of judgment and condemns them for their failure to worship and thank the Lord (Rom. 1:18–32). Additionally, no one can come to a saving knowledge of God except by means of His special revelation of a Redeemer. This is why Scripture is necessary for the salvation of humanity, for it is the only source of special revelation we have today. The opening paragraph of the Westminster Confession of Faith helpfully explains, “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” (WCF 1.1).
“Divers manners” are those ways that God revealed Himself in redemptive history (e.g., oral revelation, written revelation, dreams, visions, etc.). After Jesus and the Apostles, special revelation ceased, and the only special revelation we have today is the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Theologians have commonly referred to the divine authorship of Scripture by the Holy Spirit as the inspiration of Scripture. More specifically, Protestant and Reformed theologians have referred to the process by which God has revealed Himself in Scripture as verbal plenary inspiration. The idea of verbal plenary inspiration is that God has superintended the writing of His special revelation by human authors in their respective historical contexts such that there is not one word in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments that is not given by divine inspiration. Therefore, every word carries all the divine authority of the God who breathed it out. The Bible is the inspired Word of God—the only source of special revelation. As the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy affirms, “The whole of Scripture and all its parts, down to the very words of the original, were given by divine inspiration.” In addition to inspiration, theologians employ other significant terms to explain the nature of God’s revelation in Scripture. Among these terms are the inerrancy and the infallibility of Scripture. Inerrancy tells us that the Bible never teaches error, and infallibility means that it cannot teach error.
God’s revelation in Scripture occurs in a diversity of literary genres. He reveals His Word in prose, poetry, legal codes, wisdom, prophecy, historical narratives, didactic letters, and apocalyptic visions. There is progress to the revelation of God in Scripture. He reveals Himself in successively unfolding covenantal epochs. He revealed His Word progressively through prophets. The Old Testament prophets proclaimed and foretold the judgments and deliverances of God. The prophetic and historical judgments and deliverances in the Old Testament era foreshadowed the sufferings of Christ and His subsequent glories. When Jesus came, in the fullness of time, He fulfilled in His person and work every preparatory and anticipatory aspect of the Old Testament. The message of the death and resurrection of Jesus is the center of special revelation for the salvation of the elect. In the new covenant era, God has appointed ministers of the gospel to be heralds of this revelation, by whose preaching of the gospel He is pleased to save those who believe (1 Cor. 1:21).
The Lord Jesus is Himself, at one and the same time, both the general and the special revelation of God. He is God manifest in the flesh. The Apostle John states this explicitly when he writes, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Jesus is special revelation because He is the living Word (the Logos) of God. He is part of general revelation inasmuch as He is truly man. The Apostolic preaching of the gospel involves eyewitness accounts of Christ and Him crucified (1 John 1:1–3; 2 Peter 1:16–20).
Since the Holy Spirit is the divine author of Scripture, He acts as the agent by whom we may come to a right understanding of what He has revealed. Apart from the illuminating work of the Spirit, people could not arrive at a saving understanding of the revelation of God in the Bible.
Theologians have called God’s words—spoken at first and later written down—His special revelation, while they have called His works of creation and providence His general revelation. General revelation is, well, general (those theologians know what they are talking about), whereas special revelation is much more specific, detailed, and extensive. Today, general revelation surrounds us in nature, while we possess special revelation in the Bible. Special revelation tells God’s people everything revealed about His character in general revelation and much more.
There is a mysterious dimension of God that we do not know. However, we aren’t left in darkness, groping around for a hidden God. God has also revealed Himself, and that is basic to the Christian faith. Christianity is a revealed religion. God the Creator has revealed Himself manifestly in the glorious theater of nature. This is what we call ‘natural revelation.’ God has also revealed Himself verbally. He has spoken, and we have His Word inscripturated in the Bible. Here we’re talking about special revelation—information God gives us that we could never figure out on our own.