May 18, 2012

General and Special Revelation

6 Min Read

In this series of articles, we have been discussing Dr. R.C. Sproul’s answer to a question about the age of the universe during the Q&A at Ligonier’s 2012 National Conference. In the previous post, we stopped in the middle of his answer to discuss his assertion: All Truth is God's Truth. Following this statement, Dr. Sproul continued by making a very important point about general and special revelation. He said:

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.

A Reformed approach to science and Scripture requires a Reformed understanding of revelation. The word “revelation” denotes a “revealing.” In Christian theology, it refers to God’s act of communication to man or to the content of that communication. Historically theologians have distinguished between different kinds of revelation. Many medieval theologians described the difference using the terms natural and supernatural revelation. The distinction had nothing to do with the source or origin of the revelation. Theologians who made this distinction believed that all revelation was supernatural in origin because God was its source. Instead, this distinction had to do with the mode of revelation. Natural revelation was communicated by God through so-called “natural” phenomena (His created works), while supernatural revelation was communicated by God through special divine intervention (dreams, visions, etc.).

General Revelation

A more common distinction among Reformed theologians is the distinction between general revelation and 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 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.

This distinction between general and special revelation focuses more on the extent and purpose of revelation.1 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.2

Special Revelation

General revelation, whether immediate or mediate, is directed to all men. It is, however, “not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of His will, which is necessary unto salvation” (Westminster Confession of Faith, I.1). General revelation does not reveal Jesus Christ or His work of redemption for sinners. Thus there is a need for what is called “special revelation.” Special revelation is the revelation of the way of salvation.

One of the most important biblical texts describing God’s special revelation is found in Hebrews 1:1–2, which reads:

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.

In times past, before the completion of Scripture, God revealed His redemptive work through the prophets by means of dreams, visions, and theophanies. But now, special revelation has received its permanent form in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments (WCF I.1).

Given this summary overview of the nature of general and special revelation, we return to the question Dr. Sproul asked his seminary class. Recall that he asked: “How many of you believe that God’s revelation in Scripture is infallible?” And they all raised their hand. Then Dr. Sproul asked, “And how many of you believe that God's revelation in nature is infallible?” And this time no one raised their hand. As we will see in our next post, the reason for the different responses had to do with the students’ right concern to recognize that Scripture is a higher authority than scientific theories. That, however, was not what Dr. Sproul asked. And therein lies the rub in many contemporary discussions of this issue. We end up talking past each other because we are not listening carefully. Dr. Sproul asked his students a question regarding something God does. And despite the misgivings of his students, the answer Dr. Sproul gave is correct. God’s revelation in creation is equally as infallible as His revelation in Scripture because in both cases, it is God who is doing the revealing, and God is always infallible. God cannot err in His work of revealing Himself. The question the students thought Dr. Sproul was asking is an extremely important question, but it cannot be answered adequately until Dr. Sproul’s original question is answered correctly.

In our next post, we will examine what may be the most important point Dr. Sproul raised in connection with the contemporary discussions, and that is the difference between God’s infallible revelation (general and special) and our fallible interpretation of that revelation (general and special). In connection with this topic, we will need to look at Dr. Sproul’s commentary on Article 12 of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy in order to understand the difference between scientific theories that contradict an interpretation of Scripture as opposed to theories that contradict an actual teaching of Scripture.

This article is part of the Reformed Approach to Science and Scripture collection.

  1. Louis Berkhof, Introduction to Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1932), 128).
  2. John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), 40.