Reformed Christians accept among their creeds a statement called The Belgic Confession or, simply, The Confession of Faith. In the foreword to this creed we are told that a man in Belgium, Guido de Bres, died a martyr’s death because he wrote this creedal statement. It is, therefore, a thing to be taken seriously.
In the second article of this creed for which a man forfeited his life, stands the truth of how God makes himself known. In the mind of this earnest old saint, next in importance to the teaching that there is but one God—the theme of the first article comes the equally important teaching of how God makes himself known. There is scarcely anything in the whole round of Christian teaching that is more important than the teaching concerning God’s revelation. Go wrong here, or be uncertain here, and you are likely to find yourself going wrong or being confused all along the line.
WHEN GOD SPEAKS HE SPEAKS IN TWO WAYS
That Confession of Faith stales first, “We know Him by two means.” From that, as well as from the Scripture which supports it, we gain our first point, that when God speaks, he speaks in two ways. Guido De Bres went on to write:
“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 the invisible things of God, even His everlasting power and Divinity, 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 it is necessary for us to know in this life, to His glory and our salvation.”
Ever and always, when God speaks, he speaks in two ways. He speaks through his world and through his Word. We have long called these two ways, General Revelation and Special Revelation. But we have sometimes made the mistake of thinking that Special Revelation came only because sin blinded man’s view of general revelation, and because man now needed a special message of salvation from sin. In that way the Bible becomes a kind of emergency measure, somewhat like intravenous feeding in the hospital. Healthy people, all healthy people, nourish their bodies by eating with their mouths, digesting food with their stomachs and so forth. But when people become too sick to eat in the normal fashion, they must be fed through the veins.
We sometimes think that such is the case in the matter of God’s revelation. If man were still normal—unspoiled by sin—we think that special revelation would not be necessary and might never have been given.
The fact is, however, that when man was normal and sinless as he was once in the Garden of Eden, God spoke to him in two ways. Then, too, undoubtedly Adam could see God’s power and divinity in the world. He could see it better than anyone can see it now. He could see it so well that he was completely lord of the creation and saw into the real nature of the animal world and gave names to the animals.
But that was not the only way God spoke to man. God also walked and talked with Adam personally. He made himself known to man by special revelations of himself. God’s world reflected to Adam, God’s power and divinity. But Adam needed to know more than power and divinity. He had to know God’s will and be personally enlisted in hearty obedience to that will. Only a special, personal revelation of God could bring him that.
God’s general revelation through his world is ever and always limited, indirect. It reveals something about God but does not reveal God himself. A special revelation, if we are to know God himself, is ever and always necessary. This necessity is infinitely multiplied because man is a sinner, and blinded. Both general and special revelation before sin came, were addressed to man as man, as the image bearer of God. But sin has almost completely destroyed that image. God’s world still shows to that fallen man enough of God’s power and divinity to leave him without excuse for his unbelief. But to say that fallen man, a scientist, let us say, can really know God’s world, much less know God through his world, is simply to indulge in wishful thinking.
A striking example of this was recently sent to me, clipped from a Michigan newspaper. The writer is reflecting on the magnificent beauty of an unseasonable electrical snowstorm.
“It was a most amazing display,” he writes, “and we watched it for several minutes, and as we watched we contemplated our helplessness before Nature. We have learned to overcome most diseases, eat up space unbelievably fast and overcome gravity. But we haven’t mastered the elements, and doubtless never will.
“For instance, what can we do to combat the winds? No matter how hard they blow we have no means of slowing them down. There is no protection against hurricanes, tornadoes or cyclones.
“Nor is there any way of diverting cold. It can drop to fifty or a hundred degrees below zero and we can do nothing to temper the air. It could freeze us all stiff and we have no armor against it.
“…Snow…could keep falling until all life on the earth was buried and we could only sit and watch it pile up.”
The rains too can flood the earth again, covering its surface to any depth Nature prescribes, and we have no way of halting it.
“As we stood there thinking of these things, it came to us what an unimportant, insignificant thing man is, after all. He has progressed, certainly, but he is still a very small speck of dust in the over-all plan of Nature.
“When we went back into the house we felt very humble, unimportant and unnecessary until we were asked to sharpen a pencil and, suddenly, our self assurance returned. Anybody who can sharpen a pencil isn’t entirely unnecessary.”
The closing statement is, of course, intended to be satirical, but there is a serious truth hidden in its lighthearted exterior. If man is to realize any greater destiny than to be sharpening pencils, he must first know God. He can only know God through his Word. The only way really to know God’s world is to know God first. First the Word, then a true knowledge of the world. Only the regenerate man can truly know God’s world, because he alone has learned to kneel before the God of his Word.
This is intensely important if we are ever to understand why we have Christian education, why we support a Christian college, why we appeal to you to support that Christian education as a part of your obligation to God’s Kingdom. The glory of God demands that in his world there be those who really know him in his world. There must be scientists, philosophers, historians, sociologists who have first learned to know God personally by his Word, accepted by personal faith, and who, with that basic commitment, are able truly to know the God of nature and of history.
For too long we have let general revelation stand next to special revelation, and we have said, “Not only, but also.” Not only is there a special revelation, we have said, but also a general revelation; and because we believe in that “Not only, but also,” we have Christian higher education. If general revelation simply stands next to special revelation, and unregenerate man simply stands next to regenerate man, if we assume that natural man can really understand that general revelation just as well and just as truly as can the child of God. If we continue the pernicious bowing before the shrine of liberal education and continue to make a cult of culture, we are walking on a road that leads to Modernism, humanism, and finally atheism!
It is essential for us to understand that when God speaks, he speaks in two ways. And these two ways are not independent, nor are they addressed, the one to everyone, and the other only to the regenerate. Rather, these two ways in which God speaks are indissolubly wedded together, so that although the natural man has just enough remaining of the image of God to sec his power and divinity in the world, his knowledge cannot be placed in the same class with the knowledge of the child of God. The child of God has learned to know God personally and richly in his Word. With that fuller knowledge he returns to God’s world and then sees again, not merely impersonal power and a kind of divinity which men call Nature, but he sees the face of his Father!
“By faith we understand that the worlds are framed by the will of God.” That knowledge does not come by observation, but by faith. Can anyone maintain that the natural man constantly blinking and blundering before the mysteries of life, design and purpose in the world, muttering something about “Mother Nature,” has a true knowledge of things? Then why are there those who continue to insist that we should have science and philosophy without the presuppositions of faith, that we should have education which is Free from quotations from Scripture, and that we must have the “glorious tradition of liberal education” or we have nothing but a “Bible School”? Why should there be voices which assert that we must not have Christian textbooks but rather let covenant youth discern truth through a study of the basically vain speculations of unbelief? How can such declarations be harmonized with a system of education that is thoroughly and unashamedly integrated with God’s Word from beginning to end? It is time that lovers of the Word of God demand and receive answers to these questions!
When God Speaks W e Must Be Conservatives
We hear a good deal of talk about conservatism and progressivism. We hear it said that Christianity must be brought up-to-date. Calvinism, we are told. still has to be developed to fit the modern age, and, as example, it is said that we have as yet no philosophy of Christian education. All this progressive Christians must make yet. But the person who insists on the old, established standards of truth and right is quickly labeled a “reactionary,” and that is supposed to be enough to silence him forever.
Perhaps it is time that we make one thing clear: A Christian must be a conservative, he must be reactionary enough to believe that truth has been spoken once for all and that anything which purports to be true must agree with that once-for-all truth or be immediately discarded as falsehood. The Christian does not go forward into the future hoping to find truth. He could not find truth were it right under his nose in the present. Truth lies for him in the given truth of the Word of God.
The revelation or God is given, it is historical. It is there whether anyone believes it or not. Men either accept it for what it claims to be—the truth—or they fail to accept it. They may be very courteous about it. They may want to give the Bible a place of honor somewhere, as people sometimes do with an old grandfather in the family. They do not want to ignore him completely. They feel that he deserves some place. So they set him up in a room in the house, preferably far away from the rest of the house, in order that family life can go blithely on, far away from his embarrassing, old-fashioned ways.
So also there are those who feel strongly for a Bible department in a college, but they would prefer that it keep its place and not interfere with scientific and philosophic freedom. They are all for chapel services in the day’s educational activities, but they feel strongly that nothing so very exclusive or definite ought to be said, at least not by way of placing the shackles of Biblical teaching upon the free-running legs of scholarly inquiry. A little devotional Bible reading and a brief liturgical prayer is really all we ought to have. It is even being said that a Bible department is unnecessary in a Christian school!
It is time that genuine, conservative Christian teaching come to life again. And by “genuine” and “conservative” we mean two terms describing the same thing. Christian teaching which is not conservative to the point that it rests upon foundations older even than the Middle Ages—as old as the apostles and the prophets—is not genuine Christian teaching.
In Hebrews 1:1 we read: “God having of old time spoken unto the fathers in the prophets by divers portions and in divers manners, hath at the end of these days spoken unto us in his Son.” For us that statement is about 2,000 years old. And no truth can or may claim to supersede the revelation here given. When God speaks, we must be conservatives.
When God Speaks Natural Man’s Values Are Crucified
It is really astounding how easily the world of unbelief expects to defeat the world of faith. One of the chief weapons of unbelief against faith is the weapon of threatening catchphrases. One of these is that faith, exercised in the field of education, crucifies human intelligence. This phrase is supposed to make us cringe and cower. But it does not. We not only accept the fact, we glory in it. Of course, when God speaks, he crucifies the fallen human intelligence! He does more, he crucifies human standards of goodness and of culture. He crucifies every merely human value of the unregenerate man.
It seems that God in his Providence has so arranged that the force of the Christian message struck amidships a world in which human values, intellectual and moral, had reached a kind of climax. No greater thinking had ever been developed by men than that of the Greek schools of philosophy. No higher moral standards were taught by any people without special revelation than those of the Greek ethicists. No more effective political structure had ever been built than we find in the Roman empire. No greater system of mere human law had ever been written than the “Lex Ramana;” the Roman law. And no more beautiful culture and art had been developed than the Greek culture.
It was this world of supreme human worth that the gospel was sent to conquer. And “conquer” is the word. The gospel could not compromise with that world, no matter how excellent its human values.
The most direct impact of the Christian gospel upon that world of human values was not at Athens, where only a partial message could be brought; not at Ephesus, still relatively loyal to an older polytheism, but at Corinth, the metropolis, the center of commerce. And it is to the Corinthians that Paul keeps insisting that human wisdom is foolishness to God, and the things of God are foolish to the natural man.
The reflection of that impact of Christianity upon the natural man’s world is found in the first letter of Paul to the church of Corinth, and that in its very opening chapter:
“For the word of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us who are saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning will I bring to naught.’ Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For seeing that in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom knew not God, it was God’s good pleasure through the foolishness of the preaching (literally the thing preached) to save them that believe…we preach Christ crucified, unto Jews a stumbling block and unto Gentiles foolishness, but unto them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men God chose the foolish things of this world, that he might put to shame them that are wise, and God chose the weak things of the world, that he might put to shame the things that are strong; and the base things of the world, and the things that are despised, did God choose, yea and the things that are not, that he might bring to naught the things that are, that no flesh should glory before God” (I Cor. 1:18–28).
“Now the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him; and he cannot know them, because they are spiritually judged” (I Cor. 2:14).
But does not this kind of teaching destroy education and culture? Are we not then driven to uphold only Bible Schools and Seminaries?
Some have come to that conclusion. But that conclusion does not follow. Culture and education are also a gift of God. But the question is, “Whose wisdom must give the content to that education?” Are we simply to be content with the wisdom of a lost world? Of course not! God’s revealed wisdom, that which is a mystery to those who believe and becomes known to them simply by faith—that which is foolishness to the world and cannot be known by the lost world—that is the content of all true thought, true education, true culture. That is as plain as a pike-staff in these words of Paul:
“Let no man deceive himself. If any man thinketh that he is wise among you in this world, let him become a fool, that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written. He that taketh the: wise in their craftiness: and again, The Lord knoweth the reasoning is of the wise, that they are vain. Wherefore let no one glory in men. For all things are yours; whether Paul or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present or things to come, all are yours, and ye are Christ’s; and Christ is God’s” (I Cor 3:18–22).
There is the foundation of true Christian culture and education! But this wisdom must meet the education, the culture, the morality, the aesthetics, the wisdom of the world, not obliquely, not at right angles, but head·on! This turns the world of education upside down!
When God speaks, every merely human value is crucified for his sake!
When God Speaks He Demands the Personal Commitment of Faith
There is nothing so desperately needed by this age of complacent orthodoxy, lukewarm formalism and easy-going worldly-mindedness, than ‘the insistence upon a personal, individual commitment to the faith once for all delivered unto the saints!
We as a church are unitedly faithful in most of the outward evidences of Christian faith. Our children are faithfully instructed in the way of the covenant. The time comes when they easily graduate into confessing membership in the church, after which they are likely to sit drowsing through innumerable more sermons and services. Where along that well-known road do they catch fire for God? Where are they brought abruptly face-to-face with the crucial question, “Do you really and truly love the Lord, and is it really your heartfelt desire to serve him with all your heart and soul?” We know they are asked that question in the form for public confession. But is it a form or a reality? Is it Arminian to challenge covenant youth to accept the Lord? Of course it isn’t!
It is assumed as a matter of course t.hat at a certain age young people make mature choices, as to a life-partner, a life-work, a place of residence and a hundred other things. Is it out of place to expect them to make a mature choice concerning their heart’s loyalty for God and his cause when they come to years of discretion? That is the very meaning of “years of discretion.” It is then that a covenant youth should decide definitely, individually, and enthusiastically, “This faith in which I have been trained and this covenant under the roof-tree and claim of which I have lived, lo these years, I now accept as my own.” It is all very well to presume regeneration in the case of covenant infants if we wish. But when those infants grow to years of mature decision and do not bring forth the fruits of a genuine, heartfelt repentance and faith, it is time to realize that we presumed too much when we presumed they were born again!
Where is the zeal of the fathers that braved dangers, faced persecution, burned with a heaven-born fire? They had nothing more than we have, and not nearly as much! They wrote our formulas of unity and forged them as sharp two-edged swords in the white heat of persecution. We print them complacently among our creedal formularies, or we sign a statement of agreement with them when we serve as officers in the church, and most of us never read them, to say nothing of catching fire for the Lord at their blessed spark!
Our homes are drifting along lackadaisically into the dark waters of worldliness. Our churches are losing the loyalty of their members. Church people know more about the latest television show, wrestling match, radio drama, and comic strip than they do about the Catechism or the Scripture, and all because we have not really fallen before the cross, sobbing out our penitent hearts, pledging ourselves with body and soul, for time and eternity, not to serve ourselves or our own interests, but him and him alone. who is lovelier than the lilies, the fairest of ten thousand!
Arnold Brink is educational secretary of Calvin College and Seminary.