Special and General Revelation

We are concerned in this series of articles with the problem of Reformed apologetics. In the first three articles we discussed the general nature of Reformed apologetics. Its method, we saw, is radically different from that of Romanist-evangelical apologetics. The latter starts from the presupposition that man has a measure of ultimacy or autonomy. This method assumes therefore that man can correctly interpret an area of life without referring to the God of the Bible. Over against this Reformed apologetics contends that man himself must first be interpreted in terms of the Bible before he can, without falsification, interpret any area of life.

The Bible

In the fourth and fifth articles we dealt with the Bible itself. Reformed theology holds that Scripture speaks for itself. The sort of God of which the Bible speaks cannot speak otherwise than with absolute authority. The biblical notion of God as self-contained or self-sufficient and the notion that the Bible is self-authenticating are involved in one another.

This simple foundation truth of Protestantism is virtually rejected by evangelical Protestants. Evangelicals make a two-fold charge against the Reformed doctrine of Scripture. On the one hand they say that it is irrationalistic. We saw how Carnell sets up the autonomous or “rational man” as a judge before whom the Bible must prove its right to speak with authority. This is as though a child were sitting in judgment on its parents, graciously permitting these parents to speak to it with authority.

On the other hand evangelicals say that the Reformed doctrine of Scripture is rationalistic. We saw how Pieper, the Lutheran, sets up the autonomous man as judge over the contents of the Bible. He insists that inasmuch as the Bible teaches the “freedom” of man it can and must also teach the doctrine of a changing God who adjusts himself to the ultimate decisions of man.



The Autonomous Man

On the surface it seems strange that the Reformed doctrine of Scripture should be charged both with irrationalism and with rationalism. And on the surface it also seems strange that the two seemingly exclusive charges spring from the same source, namely, from evangelicalism. Yet there is really nothing else that we could expect from evangelicalism. The root error of evangelicalism, as noted earlier, is its ascription of a measure of ultimacy to man. This partly ultimate man only claims its “rights” when it charges the idea of the absolute, self-authenticating authority of Scripture with irrationalism, and when it charges the idea of the absolute, self-consistent God with rationalism.

Evangelical Compromise

Of course the evangelical, Mr. Grey, has the best of intentions in all this. He wants to win Mr. Black, the nonbeliever, to an acceptance of the Bible as God’s Word and to an acceptance of the God of the Bible as his God. But Mr. Black has his conditions. Hard-pressed though he is, he none the less is not ready, he says, to consider the idea of an unconditional surrender, such as Mr. White, the Reformed apologist, has placed before him. Accordingly Mr. Grey offers Mr. Black a compromise proposal. The principle of human autonomy and ultimacy is to be combined with that of biblical authority. Yet Mr. Black does not readily accept this compromise proposal.

Why not? Because he cannot clearly see, from Mr. Grey’s reasoning, why he should exchange his position for that of Christianity at all. He is not shown by Mr. Grey how utterly desperate his own situation is. Nor is he shown how completely the Christian position solves the problems that are wholly baffling on his own position. Mr Black is left in confusion. The witness of the gospel has not really been placed before him as a challenge!

Unconditional Surrender!

Meanwhile the Reformed apologist, Mr. White, has pressed upon Mr. Black the ultimatum of unconditional surrender to the authority of Scripture. He has shown that unless one presupposes this authority as absolute and not merely as that of an expert, then man’s experience operates in a vacuum. He has made plain to Mr. Black that all discussion about Christianity as being “in accord with the law of contradiction” is worse than pointless unless it first be asked on what fulcrum the law of contradiction itself rests. What sort of answer does Mr. Black give to this question? He prefers not to discuss this problem. He assumes that it rests on man thought of as ultimate or autonomous. But on what does man then rest? Man rests on a vacuum. And so Mr. Black presents the picture of man resting on “nothing,” using the law of contradiction as a revolving door in order by means of it to move “nothing” into “nothing.” His whole procedure is that of an “encounter with nothing.”

Mr. White has also made plain to Mr. Black that all discussion about Christianity being “in accord with the facts of experience” is worse than pointless unless one first has shown that be has a philosophy of fact that enables him at least to distinguish one fact from another. Can Mr. Black, on his assumed principle, distinguish one fact from another fact? No, his philosophy of fact is the philosophy of chance. His “principle of individuation,” that is, the principle by which any fact is supposed to be different from any other fact, is that of chance. On this basis one cannot even count! No fact has any identity of its own. The procedure at the “tower of Babel” would be as orderly as the strictest military discipline in comparison with a scientific methodology based on such a philosophy of fact.

“So then,” says Mr. White to Mr. Black, “you see that unless you are willing to presuppose the Bible as absolutely authoritative, your ‘law of contradiction’ could not get into gear with ‘facts’ and your ‘facts’ would not be amenable to the operation of the law of contradiction. Only on the presupposition of the absolute authority of Scripture as the Word of that God who controls ‘whatsoever comes to pass’ do you have a philosophy of ‘reason,’ a philosophy of ‘the law of contradiction’ and a philosophy of ‘facts’ that enables you to make sense out of life. Unconditional surrender to the absolute authority of Scripture is your only hope. It is your only hope for eternity. It is also the only hope for your scientific and philosophic endeavor in this life.”

It appears then that the Reformed doctrine of Scripture is the only truly Protestant doctrine of Scripture. It also appears that unless we are willing to begin from this fully Protestant doctrine of Scripture we cannot with Paul challenge the wisdom of this world, showing that it has been made foolishness with God.

General Revelation

It is to be expected that with a specifically Reformed concept of Scripture there goes a specifically Reformed concept of revelation through nature and history. And it is also to be expected that this specifically Reformed doctrine of revelation in nature and history will be charged with being both irrationalistic and rationalistic by Romanists and non-Reformed Protestants or evangelicals.

Calvinistic “Rationalism”

Let us look first at that aspect of the Reformed teaching on revelation in nature and history that is frequently charged with being rationalistic. The Reformed faith stresses the fact that it is God’s plan that is being realized in and through what man does as well as in and through man’s environment. Whatsoever comes to pass comes to pass in accordance with the one all comprehensive plan or counsel of God.

All the facts that confront man as he looks about himself and as he looks within himself are therefore revelational of God. The human mind as knowing no less than the trees that are known is revelational of God. For what happens according to the plan of God happens in accordance with the nature of God’s being. Nothing could exist, either as directly made by God or as made by man, the creature of God, that is not revelational of God. The subject of knowledge and the object of knowledge alike are revelational of God.

The apostle Paul says in the first chapter of Romans that all men know God. They cannot help but know God. Therefore they cannot help but know that they themselves are creatures of God. Human self-consciousness involves God-consciousness. Human self-consciousness would be self-consciousness in a vacuum unless it implied consciousness of God. Calvin speaks of this when he says that man has the sense of deity ineradicably impressed upon him. Therefore his freedom is the freedom of God’s creature. It is freedom to do that which is in accord with or to do that which is against the revealed will of God, but in either case that which is in accord with the plan of God.


Special emphasis should be placed upon the fact that even the evil that man does by virtue of his sinful will is still in accord with the plan of God and as such is revelatory of God. Man, not God, is the responsible author of sin. But man could not sin if his sinning· were not, in spite of himself, revelatory of God. Man does not sin in a vacuum. He could not sin in a vacuum. The possibility of sin presupposes the all-comprehensive plan of God. God reveals his holiness in his wrath upon the sinner. God is angry with the wicked every day. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold down the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18). Paul tells us that the sinner’s conscience excuses or accuses him according as he obeys or disobeys the revealed will of God (Romans 2:14, 15). Man’s self-consciousness is moral self-consciousness. And as self-consciousness in general involves consciousness of God, so man’s moral self-consciousness involves consciousness of covenant relationship to God. To know himself at all man must know himself to be a covenant being. He knows he is either keeping or breaking the covenant.

Calvin greatly stresses the fact that all things that happen in history are revelational of God. Men ought to see God everywhere, he says. God is clearly to be seen by men whether they look round about them or within them, whether they look to the past or look to the future. The whole scene of history in all of its aspects reveals God to man. Men ought to see God as their Creator. They ought to see him as their bountiful benefactor. They ought to see him as their judge. He is everywhere clearly to be seen. Men cannot look in any direction without seeing the face and therewith the claims of God. Every man walks under the brilliant spotlight of the revelational claims of God.

The Foundation of Science

When modern Calvinists present their views on the foundation and unity of human knowledge in the fields of science, philosophy, and theology they constantly refer to this basic, inescapable revelational character of all created reality (Cf. V. Hepp, De basis van de eenheid der wetenschap. Assen, 1937). The essence of false science, false philosophy and false theology consists therefore in the suppression and rejection of this revelational foundation of human effort and enterprise. And the very purpose of squarely opposing those who reject this revelational foundation of man’s work is to the intent that this work might be placed upon its proper foundation again. The antithetical effect of the Christian’s effort is not an end in itself. The idea of the antithesis is based upon and is correlative to the positive idea of the all comprehensive revelational character of the universe.

The Point of Contact

It is the basically revelational character of all created being that constitutes the foundation of truth for man. Man is inherently enveloped in and by truth. But truth is not an abstraction. Truth is truth about God and the universe. Thus man is naturally confronted by truth. When he speaks untruth he speaks that which, at bottom, he knows to be untruth. When philosophers think out systems of philosophy that are not based upon the Creator-creature distinction they know, in the depth of their hearts, that they are doing this in order to suppress the truth about themselves. Knowing God to be their Creator they glorify him not as such.

When Mr. White, the Reformed apologist, approaches Mr. Black, the unbeliever, with the claims of God and of Christ, he knows in advance that the victory is his. He knows that no man can successfully seek for truth if first he has cut himself off from truth. And he knows that those who try to cut themselves off from truth cannot really succeed in doing so. Accordingly Mr. Black, the man who starts from himself without owning his own creatureliness is like the man who, standing in the light of the sun, takes out his eyes and then wonders whether the sun exists.

In talking to Mr. Black, Mr. White will be courteous and kind. But he will not fail to point out that on his assumptions, Mr. Black cannot find the truth because he cannot even seek for it. He cannot on his basis ask a single intelligent question. When Mr. Black hears of this he turns to Mr. Grey for sympathy. He knows that Mr. White is right but, unless the Holy Spirit quickens him, he will continue to suppress the truth.

Negotiated Peace

Mr. Grey, the evangelical, hastens to assure Mr. Black that Mr. White is an extremist. “As for myself,” says he, “I do not hold to the determinism and rationalism of Mr. White.” He would rather say that God limited himself when he created man. To give man true freedom, true personality, God was willing to forego his absolute control over him. God gave man a bit of the same sort of being that he himself possesses. Man’s freedom is, like God’s freedom, ability to initiate something wholly new in the world. And so man is not exclusively revelatory of God, the controller of all things. Rather God and man are together participant of the same sort of being. Suppose, says Mr. Grey, that you and I need a dollar for a bit of breakfast. You, as the man of means, contribute ninety-eight cents. I, representing the poorer class, contribute two cents. I feel rather dependent on you. Even so, my two cents are worth exactly as much as any two cents that you have contributed. I can, if I wish, buy two cents worth of pretzels and make them do for breakfast. Even if you had given me the two cents that I possess, now that I have them, I have a measure of absolute independence over against you.

In thus asserting his idea of “freedom” Mr. Grey has compromised the revelational character of the constitution of man. He has approved of Mr. Black’s basic assumption to the effect that man must begin by thinking of himself as knowing himself apart from God. Mr. Grey has sided with the Romanist idea of the analogy of being as over against the Protestant principle of the exhaustively revelational character of all created being. Having thus taken over—in part at least—Mr. Black’s conception of man, Mr. Grey, naturally also takes over—in part at least—Mr. Black’s conception of man’s environment. For Mr. Grey history is partly revelational of God and partly revelational of man. God as the father, carries ninety pounds and man, as the child, carries only ten pounds. But the ten pounds carried by man is in no wise carried by God. Mr. Grey feels that if one says with Mr. White, the “whatsoever come to pass” comes to pass by virtue of the ultimate plan of God, that then one must make God to be the author of sin, and kill all human responsibility. He therefore joins Mr. Black in rejecting the “rationalism” of Mr. White.

Mr. Grey and non-Christian Irrationalism

The foundation on which Mr. Grey stands when he rejects the “rationalism” of Mr. White is the foundation on which Mr. Black also stands. It is that of non-Christian irrationalism. It is the assumption that man is not created but is ultimate and therefore autonomous.

From this point forward Mr. Grey is at the mercy of Mr. Black. Mr. Grey has now to accept all the false problematics of Mr. Black as though they were genuine. In particular Mr. Grey must assume with Mr. Black that the facts of man’s environment are not exclusively revelational of God. When he argues with Mr. Black about the existence of God he can only claim that a limited God probably exists. And he must prove his point by first cutting both himself and Mr. Black loose from the truth of the revelational character of all created being.

It should be noted that Mr. Grey’s attitude toward general revelation is the same as that of Mr. Pieper, the Lutheran, toward Scriptural revelation. Mr. Pieper also argued in effect that the God of the Bible must be limited in order to make room for the freedom of man. In both cases the attitude toward the revelation of God is determined by the assumption of human freedom as a measure of independence from God. In both cases there is no real ground for saying that the revelation of God is really ultimately the revelation of God, the self-contained and self-sufficient God of which the Bible speaks.

Calvinistic “Irrationalism”

So far we have dealt with the Reformed conception of general revelation from the point of view of its supposed rationalism. To this we must now add a few words about the Reformed conception of general revelation from the point of view of its supposed “irrationalism.” Here too the point is very simple and taken directly from the Scripture. It is to the effect that from the beginning of history, even before the entrance of sin, supernatural thought communication on the part of God to man was added to God’s revelation to man in his own constitution and in the universe about him. The two forms of revelation, revelation in the facts of the created universe whether within or about man, and revelation by way of God’s directly speaking to man, are mutually involved in one another. They are supplemental to one another. Just as two rafters of a house need to support one another, so these two forms of revelation need to support one another.

Mr. Grey’s Rationalism

The significance of this basically simple point cannot well be overestimated. The entire Reformed philosophy of history is colored by it. Think for a moment of some one living where the gospel call has not penetrated. What are the responsibilities of such a person? Is he responsible only for the revelation that speaks to him through his own constitution and through his environment? Mr. Grey would answer yes but Mr. White would answer no. Mr. Grey has no eye for the supplemental character of the two forms bf revelation. And that too was the fault of Adam and Eve when they sinned against God. Adam and Eve thought that they could interpret themselves and nature about them independently of the supernatural thought-communication of God. And Mr. Grey does not see that this was a grievous sin. He still thinks that Mr. Black, the non-believer, is not wrong when he interprets at least some areas of life without reference to the supernatural thought-communication of God to man in Scripture. When Paul says that “from the creation of the world” God has clearly manifested himself to man (Romans 1:20) and that at the beginning of the history of the world every man in Adam sinned against God (Romans 5:12), Mr. Grey rejects all this as so much irrationalism. How could men in far off Africa be held responsible for what happened in paradise thousands of years ago? When Mr. Black ridicules this simple biblical teaching Mr. Grey joins in with him in saying that surely Mr. White is being an extremist again. This time Mr. White is said to be an irrationalist as before he was said to be a rationalist!

In doing so Mr. Grey again does not realize that he has accepted the basic assumption of Mr. Black about man’s independence of God. Little does he realize that he has again accepted the basically false problematics of Mr. Black as though they were sound. And little does he realize that after this he can, if consistent, only ask Mr. Black to accept a God who is a supplement to nature and to man, a finite god who probably exists—and probably does not exist!

In particular it should be noted that this form of argument which fails to see the interdependence of supernatural and natural revelation springs from the non-Christian rationalism of Mr. Black. It is the sort of position maintained by Carnell when he says that Mr. Black must not be asked to accept any sort of authority which he as a “rational man” is not able to approve by a standard that he used prior to his meeting of the demands of the revelation in question.

The Sum of the Matter

In conclusion we may sum up the matter as follows: there is a distinctly Reformed doctrine of Scripture. This is for Mr. White always “the first book.” This distinctly Reformed doctrine of Scripture is rejected by Mr. Grey, the evangelical, because he thinks that it is both rationalistic and irrationalistic. It is rationalistic he says, because it insists that whatsoever happens, happens in accord with the plan of God. It is irrationalistic, he says, because it holds that human reason itself in all its cultural effort must be made subservient to the self-authenticating authority of God.

Similarly there is a distinctly Reformed doctrine of general revelation. This is the “second book” of Mr. White. This distinctly Reformed doctrine of general revelation is implied in the distinctively Reformed doctrine of Scripture. One must, to be consistent, either take both or neither. One cannot read the book of nature aright without the book of Scripture. This Reformed doctrine of general revelation is again rejected by Mr. Grey, the evangelical, because he thinks it is both rationalistic and irrationalistic. He says this doctrine is rationalistic in that it holds that all the facts of the universe, including those done by the will of man, whether good or bad, are revelational of the plan and therefore of the nature of God. He says this doctrine is irrationalistic because it asserts that all men everywhere are responsible for what happened at the beginning of history when Adam disobeyed the supernatural revelation of God.

Yet in making the double charge of rationalism and irrationalism against the only consistently Reformed doctrine of revelation, inclusive of the two “books” of Scripture and nature, the evangelical is basing himself upon the assumption of Mr. Black. It is to be expected that Mr. Black would call the biblical position rationalistic. It goes against his idea of “freedom” to say that whatever he does is within the plan of God.

It is also to be expected that he will call the biblical position irrationalistic. It goes against his idea of the ultimacy of his reason to say that reason itself, from the beginning of history, was meant to function in self-conscious subordination to the authoritative thought-communication of God.

But what shall we say of Mr. Grey? Is not he supposed to be winning Mr. Black over to the truly biblical position. Why then does he join Mr. Black in charging the simple teaching of Scripture with respect to itself and with respect to general revelation with being both rationalistic and irrationalistic? And when will he realize that by his method he cannot show Mr. Black just how Christianity differs from its opposite and just why Mr. Black should become a Christian? Only Mr. White can really challenge Mr. Black to forsake his idols and serve the living God. His witness must be heard throughout the world. Let him then not be high-minded but rather strengthen his heart in the Lord his God.