General and Special Revelation in Conversation Waiting on God

Occasionally, and often tangentially, I pick up in conversations and in periodicals in the Reformed community the terms general revelation and special revelation. I assume the speakers and writers refer to the Belgic Confession (Art. 2), found in the back of our Psalter Hymnals.

The Belgic Confession indicates that God has spoken in two manners, or “books.” Theologians often refer to general and special revelation as the book of nature and the book of grace, with the Bible being the latter and the raw material of the universe the other.

The Bible itself contains some evidence of that distinction. But it doesn’t say much on how the two “books” speak together to help Christians confront the moral, social, and intellectual questions we face.

In making his case that all of us have access to the truth but have suppressed that truth by our wickedness, the apostle Paul puts it bluntly: “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 [we] are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20).

Paul acknowledges God’s voice in creation as well as Scripture, yet what has happened to our two-book doctrine of revelation? In particular what is the role of general revelation in helping us understand, for example, what decision is most soundly Reformed on the question of women in office or even on homosexuality as a lifestyle?

Three Faces

Most helpful to me in sorting out the debates over such tough questions has been Louis Berkhof, author of a six-volume work on systematic theology. He explains the two revelations most succinctly in his Manual of Reformed Doctrine. In it he points to three faces of general revelation:

  1. an embodiment of the divine thought in the phenomena of nature,
  2. the general constitution of the human mind, and
  3. the facts of experience or history.

Berkhof asserts that while general revelation is not enough by itself to know God’s will, so also special revelation alone is inadequate. He argues that the two sources are interdependent. While special revelation “engenders a true appreciation of general revelation, it is equally true that general revelation promotes a proper understanding of special revelation.”

In other words, we need to take both into account and each in light of the other. We could say that they must be in conversation together and that the most valid conclusion arises out of listening to both.

Role of Women

Unless I missed some major conversations on the role of  women in society and therefore in the church, I heard little acknowledgement of the role of general revelation and its contribution to the question. The  Christian Reformed Church’s several committees that studied the matter were staffed mainly, sometime exclusively, by  experts in special revelation. The procedure consisted chiefly in teasing out, sometimes tortuously, the Scriptural sources to defend each view. Why weren’t Christian psychologists, biologists, and sociologists—experts on general revelation—seriously consulted?

If Berkhof’s statements are soundly Reformed and a reasonable paraphrasing of the Belgic Confession, it’s small wonder that the issue of women in church leadership led to schism, wounded feelings, and lingering hostility. With less than the full complement of revelation available to all those serious about the discussion, the Reformed community has come to an uneasy peace. Had both sides laid on the table the results of psychological evidence of women’s unique capabilities, the biological factors that inhibit or assist them in ministry, and the sociological effects of their leadership or lack of it, the outcome might well have been characterized by consensus rather than enduring conflict.

Other Hot Topics

Two previous issues, now more peacefully resolved, concerned the age of the earth and the disciplining of children. It was scientists, as Christian academics, who laid before us the evidence that led many of us, including experts in both general and special revelation, to conclude that it points to an older earth than we had previously deduced from only special revelation.

On the question of child rearing and discipline, it was the Christian specialists on the psychological nature of children that brought a clearer consensus that corporal punishment is usually counterproductive in changing behavior.

In the language of Berkhof, the examination of  “the general constitution of the human mind, and the facts of experience or history” have added meaningfully to the evidence from special revelation on the same question. When the two sources of the knowledge of God are consulted and kept in conversation together, a quiet consensus becomes likely.

One more example from history, that of slavery, may be persuasive in helping to understand the role of both general and special revelation. When we gazed simply on Bible texts, we tended to find justification for oppressing one class of people. But when we read the texts God wrote in history and saw the psychological effects on those oppressed people, our outlook changed. Today one is hard-pressed to find a defense of what was once seen as defensible.

It remains to be seen how the question of homosexuality as a lifestyle comports with a Christian view of sexuality. But we can hope that the church will examine the evidence from general revelation just as seriously as it does the evidence from special revelation.

Without also considering the evidence from biology concerning how sexuality is shaped, and without turning to the actual sociological evidence about same-sex relations, we’ll end up doing only half our homework as Reformed Christians.

Keep the Conversation Going

We can think of the need for both general and special revelation another way. Many of us use bifocals to look at the world around us. What is blurred when we use one part of the lens becomes clearer when we use the other part. When we shift from one to the other, depending on whether we look close up or from afar, we finally get the clearer picture.

Those who readily dismiss the validity of general revelation seem to argue that only special revelation is normative, a particular application of the doctrine of the infallibility of Scripture. What this view seems not to consider is that the trustworthiness of both revelations is rooted in God as the writer of both books. Once human beings, being the fallible readers of both, interpret them, then neither reading is final or infallible by itself. God reveals and people read. History should teach us that the readers of both are not infallible and that confident changes come about when both revelations are honored for their contribution.

The Spirit moves most surely among us when Christians read the “facts of experience or history” (Berkhof) as well as when we read the Bible. Christian thinkers in the various disciplines, including theology, can give us counsel as we try to walk together toward that day when we shall all see more clearly the will of God for our communal lives, both in church and in society.

For Discussion

  1. Brainstorm a list of the things Creation reveals about God.
  2. Compare your list with things mentioned in Scripture itself. See Genesis 1:26-27; Genesis 1:31; Psalm 19:1-4; and Romans 1:18-20. Can you think of other passages that mention God’s revelation in and through Creation?
  3. Does general revelation tell us only about God, or does it also give us insight into ethical and moral issues, as the author suggests?
  4. Do you share the author’s optimism that looking at both special revelation and general revelation will lead to consensus on difficult issues?
  5. What’s your reaction to this quote from the article: “Without also considering the evidence from biology concerning how sexuality is shaped, and without turning to the actual sociological evidence about same-sex relations, we’ll end up doing only half our homework as Reformed Christians.”
  6. Share times in your life when you’ve experienced God’s revelation in nature. What impact did that have on your spiritual life?

About the Author

Dr. Donald Oppewal is an emeritus professor of education at Calvin College. He lives in Grand Rapids, Mich.

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