Basic Reformed Stuff 3: “General” and “Special” Revelation

Open Book!

As discussed in the LAST TWO POSTS of this series, the “true religion” is the revealed religion, the “preached” religion; it is “the mystery which has been hidden from ages and from generations” and is a religion which “we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom” (Col. 1:26,28). And as we will see, it is in fact the revealing and preaching of Jesus Christ Himself, in both Old and New Testaments, for “there is no salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12) and “no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him” (Matt. 11:27).

As such, we must next discuss what exactly “revelation” is. For starters, the Greek word we commonly translate “revelation” is apokalýptō, from the roots apó, “away from” and kalýptō, “to cover.” Literally speaking, it means to take away the cover, revealing what is hidden, veiled, or obstructed, especially the inner concealed make-up. In Greek texts it often means to show forth the unseen, immaterial, deep nature of something—what cannot be known by the senses alone.

Distinguishing Types of Revelation

The Scripture seems to speak of two forms of revelation throughout. For example, we see a natural division in Psalm 19 between vv. 1-6 and vv. 7-11. We read in the first section,

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.

There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.

Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.

In them he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy.

Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them,
and there is nothing hidden from its heat. (vv. 1-6)

Here we have a clear statement that God reveals His glory, His handiwork, and His words and all men everywhere hear it. The second section takes a decided turn, while nevertheless continuing the discussion of revelation. We read,

The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is clean,
enduring forever;
the rules of the Lord are true,
and righteous altogether.

More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.

Moreover, by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward. (vv. 7-11)

In these verses, we see something different. No longer is it the Sun, Moon, and starts revealing God, but God’s written word through the prophets.

Scholastic: “Natural” & “Supernatural” Revelation

Accordingly, the Scholastics made a distinction in their theology between “Natural” and “Supernatural” revelation, each with its own peculiar mode of revealing and means of reception.

(S1) Natural Revelation:

  • Mode: Communicated through creation and natural laws.
  • Reception: Reason

(S2) Supernatural Revelation:

  • Mode: The miraculous, through Divine speech or Acts, above nature and its laws.
  • Reception: Faith

Ultimately, Reformed Theology would reject this dualism. As Louis Berkhof wrote,

In course of time, however, the distinction between natural and supernatural revelation was found to be rather ambiguous, since all revelation is supernatural in origin and, as revelation of God, also in content. (Systematic Theology, p. 37)

Further, the Reformers rejected the idea that one could build a natural theology from “Natural Revelation” alone—a theology that needed only to be “perfected” by Supernatural Revelation. Reformed anthropology, as we will see, recognizes that all of man’s faculties are corrupted by the fall. There are simply no modes of reception in man that have not been corrupted by sin.

Last, the Reformers rightly believed that God’s revelation in nature is infallible, just as His supernatural revelation, since both are God’s revelation. When the Bible speaks of God revealing Himself in nature and in man, it speaks of “plain-ness.” Even God’s General Revelation is clear and precise like its author, the Author of Creation. In it, God speaks infallibly. The problem is the corruption of sin, not the supposed fallibility of the revelation. We read in Romans 1:18-21,

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 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. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.

Again, the problem is man with his fallen “wisdom,” not the revelation itself:

For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. (1 Cor, 1:21)

And finally, it must be noted, God’s pre-fall, pre-sin, and pre-corruption revelation to man was in fact both “Natural” and “Supernatural”. Both Natural and Supernatural revelation have always been necessary to man. Thus, a different distinction must be made to account for the Psalm 19 duality. Though there have been other terms offered within the Reformed tradition, I think the most common are “Special Revelation” and “General Revelation.”

Reformed: “Special” & “General” Revelation

So, what primarily distinguishes the “Special” from the “General” in this non-Scholastic schema?

(R1) General Revelation:

  • General Revelation is addressed generally to all intelligent creatures.
  • General Revelation is addressed to man as man.
  • General Revelation’s purpose is to know God as Powerful, Perfect, Holy, Judge, etc.
  • General Revelation’s goal is for man to feel after His Creator.

(See: Psalm 19:1-6; Acts 14:13-17; 17:22-28; Romans 1:18-23; 2:12-15)

(R2) Special Revelation:

  • Special Revelation is addressed to a special class of intelligent creatures.
  • Special Revelation is addressed to man as fallen and in need of restoration.
  • Special Revelation’s purpose is to know God as Redeemer.
  • Special Revelation’s goal is to reconcile man to perfect and perpetual communion with his Creator.

(See: Deuteronomy 4:7; Psalm 147:19-20; Ephesians 2:12; Hebrews 1:1-2; Matthew 11:25-27; John 1:18)

The Reformed distinction between General and Special revelation thus differs by the “for whom,” the purpose, and the goal of each form of revelation, rather than differing on natural vs. supernatural, or on the general perspicuity of the message. And the Reformed distinction does not see the Special as simply the perfecter of the General, but rather places an emphasis on their interdependency. To be sure, the General and the Special are never at odds. In the words of B. B. Warfield,

Without general revelation, special revelation would lack that basis in the fundamental knowledge of God as the mighty and wise, righteous and good, maker and ruler of all things, apart from which the further revelation of this great God’s interventions in the world for the salvation of sinners could not be either intelligible, credible or operative. (The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, p. 75)

Special Revelation was not an afterthought, following upon the heels of a failed General Revelation.

Reformed Theology, like Scholastic, also distinguishes these two types of revelation in terms of their particular modes and means of reception, as in the following:

(R1) General Revelation:

  • Mode: both immediate: “what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them” (Rom. 1:19), and mediate: “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead” (Rom. 1:20).
  • Reception: Man as man in the image of God: “There is no speech nor language Where their voice is not heard.” (Psalm 19:3)

(R2) Special Revelation:

  • Mode: Theophanies, direct communication, miracles, and ultimately Jesus Himself.
  • Reception: By means of the enlightening work of Holy Spirit: 1 Corinthians 2:6-16

Conclusion

The Belgic Confession of Faith, Article 2, sums this all up quite well:

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 His invisible attributes, even His eternal power and Godhead, as the Apostle Paul says (Rom. 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.

In our next post in the series, we will begin to consider the “word” of God, in its most general sense, working toward the doctrine of Holy Scripture.

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