The Significance of General Revelation

In our thinking and intellectual labors we are compelled to make distinctions. This is at least in part due to the limited capacity of our minds. However, the danger exists that distinctions are treated as if they were separations, so that the one part is evaluated independently from the other. In such cases we fail to see the forest because of the trees.

This danger exists with the distinction we regularly make with respect to the revelation of God. We speak of God’s general revelation and of his special revelation. God reveals himself in all his works and his revelation must, therefore, be said to be universal. However, we call all that which is not Scripture general revelation, while Scripture itself is described as the special revelation of God. Though this terminology is not literally found in Scripture, yet the distinction is legitimate, provided it is not abused. For such abuse occurs. General and special revelation are then placed in separate compartments and they are approached from different starting points and evaluated by different standards. This forced and unscriptural bifurcation (division into two branches—Ed. ) produces serious errors.

In this connection the views of dialectical theology, as propounded by Karl Barth, should not be discussed. Indeed, Reformed theology differs from Barthianism, but the difference does not concern the evaluation of general and special revelation, but the very concept or idea of revelation itself. It should be known that Barth considers revelation not as an object for investigation but as an act of God, which must be repeated and experienced over and over again. It is, according to Barth, a “vertical act” of God. This implies the denial of the existence of general revelation and even a distortion of the doctrine of special revelation. Hence it would be useless to discuss the significance of general revelation with Barthians. They simply deny its existence.


However, the danger which not only threatens us who are supposed to be Reformed, but to which some in Re-formed circles appear to succumb, is Roman Catholic theology. This theology has absorbed the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas (1225?–1274), who insisted that there are two separate areas in which we labor in different ways and with different standards or principles. There is the realm of nature, which unaided reason is to investigate and to interpret; there is also the realm of supernatural grace, in which faith must operate. Each may and must go its own way, for reason and faith pertain to different and separate realms. Attempts at reconciliation between the results garnered in these realms is not necessary. They do not affect each other. Hence no distinction is made, but a separation.

Evidence that some among us succumb to these Roman Catholic views, i.e. to Thomism, may be observed rather frequently. The latest instance coming to my attention occurred in the November (1960) issue of The Reformed Journal. In it a letter is published written by Brandon H. Wiers in which he quotes with approval a typically Thomistic statement by the Roman Catholic philosopher Etienne Gilson. Moreover, Mr. Wiers alines two of our own men with Gilson, asserting that they too agree with a Thomistic bifurcation.

This unnatural and unscriptural division by Roman Catholicism, simple though it may seem, is bound to result in the overemphasis on the one realm or on the other, and, consequently, in the neglect of either the one or the other. Roman Catholic scientists do not feel bound in their interpretation of nature by the teachings of the Bible. They allow themselves free rein and assign Scripture (and also the sacraments) to a different realm—the realm of supernatural grace in which faith is to operate and not reason. As could be expected, the other extreme is also found among Roman Catholics—the neglect of nature and the exclusive emphasis upon the realm of grace. This produces such things as morbid mysticism, monasticism, celibacy and the like.

However, with and after the Reformation a similar development occurred among “Protestants.” On the one hand rationalism asserted itself, glorifying reason, and expressing itself boldly in the enlightenment—the Aufklarung—and its sad results. On the other hand we observe the neglect of nature and of God’s general revelation in Anabaptism, Pietism, Wesleyan Methodism, as well as in present-day Fundamentalism or Undenominationalism. The sacrificial zeal of these movements for missionary work should, of course, not be condemned but, as a rule, little or no appreciation is found in them for God’s work in the realm of nature. To them Christ seems to have no Significance for culture and civilization. Restorer and it is the Bible, God’s special revelation, which makes Christ and his work known to us.

But that means that God has not given his special revelation to us in a vacuum. In fact, and reasoning in an infralapsarian fashion for the moment, it must be maintained that special revelation has been given because general revelation needs special revelation. God not only adapted his special to his general revelation, but special revelation presupposes the existence of general revelation and its fallen, marred state and condition. If that were not the case special revelation would be useless and purposeless. As the existence of physicians, pharmacies, hospitals and the like, presuppose not only the existence of man but of man in need, so God’s special revelation presupposes his general revelation and its need. General revelation, therefore, constitutes the realm in which special revelation operates and in a certain sense explains its existence and function.

For that reason the Bible, far from divorcing itself from God’s general revelation and nature, deals with them throughout. In fact special revelation attains its purpose through the restoration of nature and general revelation to God. The purpose which both revelations, in the created and in the re-created universe, must serve is identical—the glory of God. There is, therefore, nothing profane or secular about nature and the revelation of God’s power and wisdom in it. In that sense all is “holy ground” and “sacred territory” to us.


However, a choice should not be made between general and special revelation. The one should not even be emphasized at the expense of the other. Both must be accepted, but accepted in proper relation to each other. We cannot possibly gather true and comprehensive knowledge from the realm of general revelation from that realm itself and by means of unaided reasoning. Knowledge—comprehensive knowledge—concerning God’s general revelation, for example its motives and purposes, can be obtained only from God’s special revelation. All Roman Catholic theology notwithstanding, no one bas ever yet arrived at the knowledge of the only true God by studying nature. On the contrary, history is replete with evidence that man’s unaided reason leads him away from God and to idolatry. The reaction of unaided reason to nature leads from bad to worse and even to heinous and repulsive sins (Rom. 1:18–32; Acts 17:22–31). The proper appreciation of general revelation demands faith in God’s special revelation. Also in the realm of general revelation one must operate with faith.

Though we should, therefore, speak of the “integration” of God’s general and special revelation in Scripture, yet the starting point must ever be taken in that element of the Bible which reveals the Christ of God as the Mediator of redemption and restoration. In the existing situation, which is abnormal because of the fall and its results in man (the subject) and in nature (the object), there is no other way. In Christ the Logos, all things were created, and in him all things are to be reconciled to God. Christ is, therefore, declared to be “the mystery of God…in whom are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge hidden” (Col. 1:16, 20; 2:2, 3). He is the Interpreter of God, who again sheds the light of divine wisdom and knowledge upon man himself as well as upon the world, God’s product and man’s habitat and realm of operation. In his light we see the light.


It is not at all surprising that Scripture engages in controversy throughout. It is said that all pagan religions always lapse into the worship of nature and its powers. In fact, it is man’s sense of dependence upon these powers which produces paganism. There is then an identification of deity and the powers of nature. Hence Scripture sets itself against such notions. tendencies and practices. It does that in the New Testament, but it does this clearly in the Old Testament. The nations living round about Israel worshipped such deities as Baalim and Ashtaroth. They identified their Baalim with the masculine generating power of nature, while their Ashtaroth personified the feminine receptive and reproductive power of nature. Of course, this godless trend inevitably goes from bad to worse, expressing itself in the gross and repulsive sins described in Romans 1. But this persistent tendency to identify nature and deity embodies itself in a more refined way in the philosophy of pantheism, the philosophy of divine immanence, which also insists that nature is “god”—a philosophy which continues to this day.

But, though God is highly exalted above creation (Ps. 97:9) and is, therefore, the transcendent God, yet “in him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). He maintains and governs all things and has not delivered the title to his creation to Satan or to man. And he never will. “The earth is Jehovah’s, and the fulness thereof; the world and they that dwell therein” (Ps. 24:1). “For every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle upon a thousand hills” (Psalm 50:10).




Moreover, though material creation is marred because of the sin of man and now groans and travails in pain, yet God still manifests himself in that creation. It is he who reveals his wisdom and power in all things—in animate (living) creation, and also in inanimate (non-living) creation (Ps. 65, 104, 145; Hab. 3:6, etc.). He is the source and giver of all material blessings—of grain and oil and wine and silver and gold. He responds to the need of his creatures (Ps. 147:9), so that he answers the cries of the heavens, and they in turn answer the earth, and the earth again answers the grain, the wine and the oil (Hos. 2;8, 21,22; see also Joel 2:23 ff.) .


Of course, Scripture is consistent in teaching that God reveals himself as the Creator and Sustainer of the earth and of life. The Old Testament does that. but the New Testament not less. Barnabas and Paul protested vehemently against the attempts of the people at Lystra to render worship to them and bade them “turn from these vain things unto a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that in them is” (Acts 14:15–17). An identical reference is made by Paw in his address upon the Areopagus to the Athenians. God is again proclaimed as the Creator of “the world and all things therein,” and it is said that he is “not far from each one of us, for in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:22–31).

It is striking that in both addresses, at Lystra and at Athens, as the apostle proclaims the gospel of redemption, he takes his starting point in the fact that God is the Creator and Sustainer of all things. But this is not an exceptional approach. It is consonant with all of Scripture. Scripture itself begins that way (Gen. 1 and 2). Moreover, the so-called Votum, used in our public worship services, refers to the same fact, “Our help is in the name of Jehovah, who made heaven and earth” (Ps. 124:8). In the prologue of the Gospel according to John, Christ, the Logos, is presented as the Mediator of creation before he is proclaimed as the Mediator of redemption, “All things were made through him; and without him was not anything made that hath been made” (John l:3). Again. it is striking that when the apostles were threatened by the Jewish magistrates and appealed to God, in their prayer they first of all mention the fact that God created all things. “O Lord, thou that didst make the heaven and the earth, and the sea, and all that in them is” (Acts 4:24). The “invisible things” of God, namely, “his everlasting power and divinity” are “clearly seen” since the creation of the world, “being perceived through the things that are made.” True, man by nature hinders and suppresses the truth of God in unrighteousness, and God’s wrath is revealed against tillS ungodliness and vanity of man, but that suppression does not erase the fact that God does reveal his everlasting power and divinity in general revelation (Rom. 1:18ff.). Though nowadays this reference to God as the Creator may be neglected or relegated to the background by Christians, the early church evidently lived by that truth—it was an integral part of its faith. The first article of the Apostles’ Creed reads. “I believe in God the Father, Almighty. Maker of heaven and earth.” The Nicene Creed is consonant with this.


But God reveals his power and divinity not only in the elements of nature and their operations (sun, moon, stars, rain, drought, etc.), but likewise in the talents and abilities of man. He either endows man with the gift of speech and all that it implies or he withholds such a blessing. “Who hath made man’s mouth? or who maketh man dumb, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? is it not I Jehovah?” (Ex. 4:11). Technical and artistic abilities are ascribed to the Spirit of God. Of Bezalel it is said, “…I have filled him with the Spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, to devise skillful works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, and in cutting of stones for setting, and in carving of wood, to work all manner of workmanship” (Ex. 31:3–5 ). Moreover, Oholiab and “all that are wise-hearted” received the same gifts (Ex. 31:6). At the request of Solomon the Lord gives him “a wise and understanding heart,” and he adds “riches and honor” (I Kings 3:12, 13). Such as lack wisdom must ask God, “who giveth to all liberally and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him” (Jas. 1:5). These gifts include the reasoning of the husbandman and his adjustments to various seeds and seasons. In Is. 28:23–29 we find a parable, the thrust of which is that the work of God in his dealings with men and nations differs, so that he, as it were, “adjusts” himself to various needs and circumstances. To illustrate this fact, the adjustments which a farmer makes to various seeds and seasons is used. But it is stated, “For his God doth instruct him aright, and doth teach him.” In all man’s ingenuity, whether of a skilled or unskilled laborer, God must be acknowledged. He teaches man even in common and “every day” affairs.

We wonder at the facility with which Jesus, in his parabolic teachings, turns to nature for illustrations (Matt. 13:24–43, f.i.). However, that could be expected. The Logos, the Word, made the world and he redeems it. No wonder, therefore, that he can use the one to illustrate the other with such admirable and skillful facility. Both are his handiwork. However, it is only through special revelation that we learn to know this. Only through special revelation do we obtain the proper view of general revelation.


As special revelation traces legitimate culture to God and his Spirit, so it refers all political and governmental power to God. Even among peoples and nations not touched directly by the special revelation of God, this power or authority is ascribed to God and it is ever delegated by him. The initial arrangement for the exercise of this authority is made in the well-known ninth chapter of Genesis. But this truth is revealed more explicitly later on. “By me kings reign, and princes decree justice” (Prov. 8:15). Jehovah’s rule is not confined to Israel and to the realm of his special grace and revelation, but he reigns over all nations and peoples (Ps. 41:8; 96:10; 97:1; 99:1, see also such sections as Is. 13-23). Elijah must anoint Hazael to be king over Syria (1 Kings 19:15), and Cyrus, the Persian king, is called Jehovah‘s “shepherd,” who “shall perform all my pleasure,” and Jehovah’s “anointed,”…whose right hand I have holden…” (Is. 44:28; 45:1). Moreover, Christ is now “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev. 1:5). Rom. 13:1 is the locus classicus for this doctrine, “…there is no power but of God; and the powers that be are ordained of God.” For that reason we are bidden to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s (Matt. 22:21), to be in subjection to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient (Tit. 3:1), to be subject to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake (I Pet. 2:13–17).

All this tremendous power, playing such a large and often decisive role in the history of mankind, is to be attributed not to man, nor to any contract social of Rousseau, but to God and his Christ, who causes the realm of his general revelation to serve that of his special revelation. Again, there is integration here, but there can be no proper appreciation of God’s general revelation without his special revelation.


Finally, the eschatological question should be put whether God’s general revelation and the gifts and powers distributed by God in that realm, will be of any significance for eternity and for the new heaven and earth. There appears to be a view among Christians which not only distinguishes between the present and the future but also separates the age to come from the age that now is. The break is made complete, so that it is a foregone conclusion that nothing, in any shape whatever, is to continue from the present into the future dispensation. Scripture, however, does connect the future with the present: “…whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Gal. 6:7), But in addition to that, Jesus reveals something remarkable about the new Jerusalem in Rev. 21. He states that the kings of the earth “shall bring the glory and the honor of the nations into” the new Jerusalem (vss. 24 and 26). As throughout the book of Revelation, so here also the nations are those of the world, Gentile nations, and not Christian nations. Admittedly these texts challenge the acumen of the keenest scholars. However, it seems to me that they establish at least two truths. First, that there is a definite connection between the old (Jerusalem) and the new (Jerusalem); and second, that the old is not only of symbolic significance for the new, but that “something” shall be brought into the new from the old.

Some able scholars, for example Dr. S. Greydanus, appear to be of the opinion that these texts refer only to that which kings and nations contribute to the kingdom of God here and now -that is, during this present dispensation. However, the entire chapter (Rev. 21) speaks of the future and of the new Jerusalem. Hence the idea is unavoidable that these passages teach not only that there is connection between the present and the future, but also that the one age is of significance for the other in the sense that the realm in which God’s general revelation operates now is to contribute “something” to the realm which is to come.

Just what is this significance and contribution? Glory and honor are definitely mentioned. But these are abstract nouns -they must represent something concrete and substantial. It has been remarked that since “the heavens that now are and the earth…have been stored up for fire, being reserved against the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men” (II Peter 3:1), nothing substantial can be carried into the one from the other, since all will be burned. However, Paul states that “the fashion of this world passeth away” (I Cor. 7:31), that is, the manner of its existence. Moreover, the meek shall inherit the earth (Matt. 5:5); this would not be possible if it should cease to exist altogether. Isaiah 60, a chapter in which the so-called prophetic perspective is found, should be studied, for in it too Scripture teaches that some things are to continue from the present into the future.

I mention all this to indicate that this is an important and difficult question in which problems are involved which are Dot easily unraveled and which require a separate study. For the present I should like to transmit the comment of Dr. H. Bavinck in this connection. I translate what this devoted and erudite scholar has written in his Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, Vol. IV, pp. 802, 803, “All that which is true, all that which is honorable all that which is just, all that which is pure, all that which is lovely, all that which is of good report, in the entire creation, in heaven and earth, is to be gathered together into the future city of God, but renovated and recreated and developed to its highest glory. The substance of it is present in this creation…, as the resurrection body is raised from the body which has died and is buried in the earth, so the new heaven and earth shall once appear…Substantially nothing will be lost…all nations bring together into the new Jerusalem all that which they, each according to its own character, have received from God in glory and honor (Rev. 21:24, 26).”