What We Believe: Our Knowledge of God

Herewith THE OUTLOOK begins a series of articles on Reformed Doctrine, under the heading What We Believe. The familiar question-and-answer method, used so effectively by Bosma‘s Reformed Doctrine of a bygone day is being followed. Rev. Elco H. Oostendorp (retired) of Hudsonville, Michigan, has consented to contribute this introductory article as well as a number of articles on the first division, the Doctrine of God.

Our Knowledge of God

What is the basic truth of our Christian faith?

We believe that we can know the true, living God, who is the Creator and Ruler of the universe. Jesus said, “This is life eternal, that they should know thee the only true God, and him whom thou didst send even Jesus Christ” (John 17:3).

How can men know God?

Only in so far as He reveals Himself to us. This is not a unique doctrine of Christianity since even many non-Christian religions speak of God (Judaism, Islam) or the gods as appearing to men and giving messages to their representatives. We cannot by searching find out God; He must take the initiative and disclose something about Himself (Job 11:7).

By what means is God made known to us? First of all by what we call general revelation, that is, from His works of creation and providence. We read in John 1:3 that all things were made through the Word of God; and, in verse 4, that that Word is the light of men. We often mistakenly think of this revelation as being given in what we as men can know about God from what is external to us, but it is important to remember that man as created in the image of God is included in this general revelation. Paul pointed this out to the Athenians when he reminded them that even one of their own poets had said, “For we are also his offspring” (Acts 17:28). The second source of our knowledge of God is His written Word, the holy Bible, which we call His special revelation (compare Confession of Faith, Article II).

Why is the distinction between general and special revelation important?

General revelation is God’s revelation in nature, including human nature, but special revelation is His revelation by supernatural works and words. The denial of the differences between them involves tht: denial of the miraculous nature of redemption. As Dr. B. B. Warfield says of the revelation God gives us in the Bible: “It is . . . itself a redemptive act of God and by no means the least important in the series of his redemptive acts” (ISBE, p. 2576).

Do we accept a general revelation of God as the result of so-called “Natural Theology”?

No. We believe this because it is plainly taught in the Bible. Without the aid of special revelation we can never attain to the true knowledge of the true God. Religions and philosophies can speak of some kind of god or gods, but the Bible insists that only the God of Israel (Psalm 147:19, 20) who spoke His final word in Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1–4) is the true God. In his Institutes Calvin uses the comparison of spectacles by which men who are unable to see clearly can do so (I, vi, 1). Thus while both logically and temporally general revelation is primary, for us in our fallen condition and in terms of our experience special revelation comes first.

Why is general revelation not sufficient as a source of our knowledge of God?

This is well stated by the Canons of Dort in III and IV, Article 4: “There remain, however, in man since the fall, the glimmerings of natural light, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and the difference between good and evil, and shows some regard for virtue and good outward behavior. But so far is this light of nature from being sufficient to bring him to a saving knowledge of God and to true conversion that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil. Nay further, this light, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted, and hinders in unrighteousness, by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God.”

Are special revelation and the Bible identical?

Historically speaking, there was special revelation before there was a written record of it. There was even special revelation in the garden of Eden in that God spoke to Adam directly in making the covenant of works. For many centuries the knowledge of God‘s works and words was preserved orally. But since the completion of the Scriptures we may say that for us the Bible is God’s special revelation to us and for all practical purposes they are identical. This involves the added postulate that revelation is complete, and we should not seek additions to it from continuing prophecies (charismatics), the Church (Roman Catholic) or further books (cults).

Why do we accept the Bible as God’s infallible revelation of Himself and the way of salvation?

Article V of the Confession of Faith mentions three reasons. “We receive all these books . . . not so much because the Church approves them as such, but more especially because the Holy Spirit witness in our hearts that they are from God, and also because they carry the evidence thereof in themselves.” Thus with Calvin we reject the Roman Catholic contention that the authority of Scripture derives from the decree of the Church, but the words “not so much” remind us that our faith in the Bible as the Word of God is a communal faith, and Calvin says, “Thus the authority of the Church is an introduction to prepare liS for the faith of the Gospel” (Institutes, I, vii, 3). Objectively, the testimony of Scripture to its own inspiration and divine authority is the second reason for our belief in the Bible. But this testimony will not be effective unless there is a subjective testimony of the Spirit, opening our eyes to see the wonderful things of God’s Word.

What is meant by the inspiration of Scripture? By inspiration we mean that supernatural work of the Spirit of God by which He so guided the human writers of the books of the Bible that they wrote infallibly what God wanted them to write. Inspiration refers to the writing of the Scriptures, while revelation refers to the content, although sometimes the two coincide as in the letters of Paul and some of the prophetic books. The two main source texts (I prefer that name rather than “proof texts”) for the doctrine of inspiration are II Timothy 3:16, 17 and II Peter 1:21, but the Church bases its confession in this matter on many other Scriptures. In this connection we refer to the excellent articles on Inspiration and Revelation by Dr. Benjamin B. Warfield in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.