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General Revelation

In the Nick of Time

Nearly all Christian theologies include a category for general revelation. General revelation is indirect revelation, always non-verbal, a by-the-way disclosure of God through the marks that He has left on His creation. In contrast, special revelation involves God’s direct disclosure—and the recipient’s conscious reception—of truth that humans could never otherwise know. General revelation is found in nature and (according to some theologians) in the conscience. When it is found in nature it is called (obviously enough) natural revelation.

Many scriptures speak of God’s natural revelation. For example, the display of God’s glory above the heavens prompted David to reflect upon his own smallness (Ps.8:1-4). Elsewhere he mused that the heavens declare God’s glory and the sky displays His handiwork (Ps. 19:1-6). Even in the mighty rolling of a thunderstorm David could hear the voice of the Lord (Ps. 29).

The New Testament speaks even more clearly about natural revelation. The most detailed account is probably found in Romans 1:18-32. The purpose of this text is to account for the universal condemnation of the human race (18). Paul states that all humans are condemned because they hold down or suppress the truth in unrighteousness. This statement implies that some truth is available to all people and that they are responsible for their use of it. This truth must be revealed separately from the written scriptures, which have never been available to all people.

Paul confirms this inference in the next verse, where he states that some knowledge of God is obvious to all human beings because God has showed it to them (19). He then intimates that certain invisible realities about God are clearly seen through the things God has made (20). Paul specifies what those invisible things are, namely God’s eternal power and His divine nature.

In other words, natural revelation, while clear as far as it goes, is limited in its scope. It does not disclose the entire divine nature in all its attributes. It does not divulge a complete moral system. It does not reveal God’s plan, His providence, or the mechanisms by which He created and sustains the world. Though it should convince people that they are lost, it includes nothing about Christ or the way of salvation. It provides no help for ordering either a private life of faith or a believing community. In short, natural revelation is sufficient to condemn, but it is not sufficient to save. It is entirely inadequate as a source for constructing a theology, a moral philosophy, or even a cosmogony.

How does natural revelation work? Some seem to believe that it functions inferentially, assuming that people see the created order as an effect and then reason their way to God’s existence by employing some form of the kalam cosmological argument. The problem with this assumption is that it fails to account for the universal condemnation of the human race in view of a universal rejection of natural revelation. Paul’s argument implies that the fundamental problem with humanity is not intellectual—as if people were simply flawed in their ability to draw the most probable inference—but moral.

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Simplicity

Rather, Paul writes of creation as God’s poiema, the thing God has made. Every maker—even God—leaves the marks of his persona upon what he makes. For instance, when people read and grasp a poem by Donne, they do not merely understand the poem. At some level they also understand Donne. His persona is present within the thing that he has made. Those who really listen to Glenn Gould’s performance of the Goldberg Variations will understand something about music, but they will also grasp something about Gould—and about Johann Sebastian Bach. To enter the world of the performance is to encounter the personhood of the performer. To enter the world of the Goldberg Variations is to encounter the personhood of Bach.

Humans cannot make without disclosing themselves. By the same token, God cannot make without disclosing Himself. Anyone who encounters anything that God has made must necessarily encounter the personhood of the Creator. This knowledge is not inferential, but direct and immediate. It is intuitive and it is unavoidable.

Incidentally, the scope of what God has made also defines the scope of general revelation. God has made all things, either directly or indirectly. The only thing that has never been created is the Creator Himself. Because the personhood of God is evident in all that He has made, then absolutely every created thing discloses His eternal power and divine nature. Everything in the world is general revelation. Every atom is bursting with the knowledge of God.

Human beings are awash in an ocean of revelation. Every moment of their lives they are bombarded with a clear disclosure that they cannot block out. The question is not whether they know God, but what they will do with the knowledge that they have.

Romans 1 answers that question as well. Paul states that even though people knew God (Paul phrases it in the past tense), they did not glorify him as God and they were not thankful. Instead, they became worthless or empty in their speculations. Their hearts, which did not comprehend the truth, were darkened (21). In this condition they asserted that they were wise, but in fact they became fools (22).

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Matt Recker and The Gospel Coalition: Part One

The chief evidence of this human folly is that natural humanity as a whole has accepted a wretched exchange. Humans perceive the glory of the incorruptible God, and they cannot deny it. The knowledge of God is flooding in upon them. Rather than acknowledging the true and living God, however, they exchange this truth for a lie. They glorify idols instead of glorifying God.

An idol is an explanation–a center of meaning—that denies the true and living God. It may be an image that looks like a human or a bird or a quadruped or even a creepy-crawler. But it may also be an intellectual construct that moves the true and living God out of the picture. In other words, an idol is not primarily an object, but an interpretation or a construal of the facts.

Humans do not know any brute facts. Every fact that they perceive is a fact upon which they have already placed an interpretation. What Paul is saying is that humans have universally accepted idolatrous construals of the facts. In reality, these construals are so integral to depraved human perception that people mistake them for the facts themselves.

These factors explain why a natural theology is impossible. In the first place, natural revelation is so limited in its scope that it discloses only rudimentary (though very important) truth. In the second place, natural human beings always and everywhere misconstrue the truth that is contained in natural revelation. These misconstruals are inevitable because human cognition has been affected by the fall. Left to themselves, and seeing all the right things, humans will always draw all the wrong conclusions about God.

Natural revelation is glorious within its sphere. To the redeemed person, it still constitutes a magnificent display of God’s eternal power and divine nature. Even for the believer, however, it is limited in scope. The best and brightest Christian cannot develop a genuinely natural theology or morality except at the most rudimentary level. Furthermore, believers must be constantly on their guard so that they do not confuse the created order (which reveals God’s glory) with human perceptions of created things (which glorify idols).

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Conference Notice:
Signs and Wonders? The Pentecostalization of Global Christianity

In Acts 2 Peter declares that God’s Spirit will be poured out on all people in the last days so that they prophesy, perform miracles, and have visions. Contemporary Pentecostals claim to practice these and other related miraculous gifts of the Spirit, and the influence of this movement is increasing greatly throughout the world, predominantly in the Global South.

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A Modest Proposal: One Loaf in Communion

Central Seminary professor Dr. Jeff Straub has written and taught widely on the history and present condition of Pentecostalism. His travels addressing this topic have taken him to Africa, India, and China. During Central Seminary’s MacDonald Lecture Series on February 10, Dr. Straub will trace the history of Pentecostalism, describe its current state, and make a case for the cessation of miraculous gifts from the Scriptures.

We invite you to join us for this one-day conference on the campus of Central Seminary.

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This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.

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from A Song to David
Christopher Smart (1722–1771)

The world—the clust’ring spheres He made,
The glorious light, the soothing shade,
  Dale, champaign, grove, and hill;
The multitudinous abyss,
Where secrecy remains in bliss,
  And wisdom hides her skill

Trees, plants, and flow’rs—of virtuous root;
Gem yielding blossom, yielding fruit,
  Choice gums and precious balm;
Bless ye the nosegay in the vale,
And with the sweetness of the gale
  Enrich the thankful psalm.

Of fowl—e’en ev’ry beak and wing
Which cheer the winter, hail the spring,
  That live in peace or prey;
They that make music, or that mock,
The quail, the brave domestic cock,
  The raven, swan, and jay.

Of fishes—ev’ry size and shape,
Which nature frames of light escape,
  Devouring man to shun:
The shells are in the wealthy deep,
The shoals upon the surface leap,
  And love the glancing sun.

Of beasts—the beaver plods his task,
While the sleek tigers roll and bask,
  Nor yet the shades arouse:
Her cave the mining coney scoops;
Where o’er the mead the mountain stoops,
  The kids exult and browse.

Of gems—their virtue and their price,
Which hid in earth from man’s device,
  Their darts of lustre sheathe;
The jasper of the master’s stamp,
The topaz blazing like a lamp,
  Among the mines beneath.

Kevin T. Bauder

About Kevin Bauder

Kevin T. Bauder is Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that this post expresses.

3 Responses to General Revelation

  1. Munson and Drake, in their recent collaboration “Art and Music:a student guide, suggest that one role of an artist is to expound natural revelation in much the same way a preacher expounds special revelation. I am interested to know if this idea resonates with you? Would you have any reservations? Their purpose among others is to have students properly value their artistic gifts.

  2. I won’t speak for Kevin, but I personally agree with Munson and Drake there. It’s a great way to think about the purpose and function of art.

    That’s a great little book. I’m having my students read it in a philosophy class I’m teaching this semester.

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