Has God made himself known only in the Bible and/or Jesus? Are there any other ways in which He has revealed himself to us? If so, how? What is the nature, extent, and value of that revelation and how does it compare with the knowledge we have of God through Christ and Scripture? Does everyone inherently know God? If so, in what way(s)? These are just some of the questions we will treat in this brief paper.
Our use of the term “revelation” comes from the Greek term ajpokavluyi" (apokalupsis) and means “to uncover, reveal, disclose,” or “make known” (cf. Rom 16:25; Rev 1:1).1 Therefore, in terms of divine revelation, it is God making himself known to the objects of that revelation, e.g., angels and people. The fact that God must make himself known in order for us to know him is necessary since we are finite and he is infinite, and we are sinful and he is holy.
Those that have studied revelation have suggested that Scripture affirms a two part division to God’s revelation, namely, (1) general, and (2) particular. Some have used the terms (1) general, and (2) special. General revelation refers to God making himself known in creation, providentially orchestrated history, and conscience (i.e., in conjunction with the moral law).2 Thus, it is general in the sense that it is equally available to all men and women, everywhere, all the time, and is less specific information about God than one acquires in special revelation. Special revelation refers to God making himself known through special acts (e.g., signs and miracles), appearances, Christ, and Scripture.
Let us briefly state again what we mean by the expression “general revelation.” General revelation refers to God’s self-disclosure in creation, providentially orchestrated history, and in human nature (i.e., conscience in conjunction with the moral law). As we said above, it is general in the sense that it is equally available to all people, everywhere, all the time. It is less specific information about God, however, than is found, say, in the life and teaching of Jesus and the explicit commands, teachings, etc. in the Bible.
According to Bruce A. Demarest, there have been at least five different responses to the concept of general revelation. First, there are those who along with Karl Barth, flat-out deny any reality to general revelation. According to Barth, there is such a qualitative difference between man and God—coupled with the fact that the “image of God” is now totally corrupted in man—that the idea of general revelation is a non-reality. The redeemed man projects such thoughts upon creation, but in truth, such revelation is not there. Second, the Dutch Reformed school, including men like Kuyper, Berkhouwer, and VanTil, argues that nature and history point to God only for those who are already regenerated. Third, many liberal traditions affirm general revelation to the degree that the knowledge afforded through it is salvific. Schleiermacher, Tillich, and Rahner would characterize one stream within Liberalism which argued for a non-cognitive salvific experience in the religious feeling of absolute dependence. Fourth, Thomas Aquinas, while not attempting to prove the existence of God—at least not in the sense of basing his faith on such proofs—did attempt to show in his Summa Theologiae that creation itself points to the existence of God (cf. his five ways).3 Fifth, and final, theologians such as Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Hodge, Warfield, and Henry argued for “the objective reality of general revelation and its limited utility in mediating an elemental knowledge of God’s existence and character.”4 One aspect of general revelation, namely, conscience and moral law, has been extensively developed in recent times by such writers as C. S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer. Both of these men stressed the revelatory value of the fact of moral law.5 We turn now to examine some of the Biblical passages cited in the discussion of general revelation.
The psalmist claims that creation6 declares God’s glory (v. 1), displays his handiwork (v. 1), continuously speaks out and reveals God’s greatness, power and majesty (v. 2). The proclamation is universal (v. 4, 6) and may have an apologetic force to it regarding God’s existence (cf. “escape” in v. 6 [NET]).7
The connection of v. 3 (in English versions) to vv. 1-2 is not by way of contrast as Barth taught—so as to negate the objective revelation in creation—but rather to heighten the irony, that although the message is proclaimed “day to day” and “night to night” (v. 2), it is nonetheless inaudible.8 There is no audible voice, yet the message is loud and clear: Creation reveals the supreme power of God. But as Calvin put it: “When a man, from beholding and contemplating the heavens, has been brought to acknowledge God, he will learn also to reflect upon and to admire his wisdom and power as displayed on the face of the earth, not only in general, but even in the minutest plants” (Inst. 1.308-9).9
The relationship of vv. 7-14, then, to vv. 1-6, is not to overturn the truth of general revelation by implying (and this is the best one can say) that it is projected on creation by those who are already in a saving relationship with God (i.e., those described in vv. 7-14). Rather, the psalmist desires in vv. 7-14 to express another, more specific revelation of God. This interpretation is further buttressed by the fact that in extolling the Torah in vv. 7-14, the psalmist never once mentions the subject of creation—so prominent in vv. 1-6 and in the Torah—but, instead, celebrates the sanctifying role of the Law as given by God his redeemer.
Therefore, Psalm 19:1-6 teaches that there is an objective, rationale revelation from God in and through creation, whether anyone is there to receive it or not.
Paul repeatedly affirms that people apart from special revelation (i.e., the Jewish law) know God (vv.19, 21 the sensus divinitatis) and that this knowledge is mediated to them in and through creation. From this objective revelation men know that God, while he is unseen (v. 20), is nonetheless knowable in terms of his divine power and eternal nature. They also know something of his moral demands and judgment for those who disobey (1:32).10
Paul says that there are times when the Gentiles do “by nature” things required by the moral imperatives of the law. The term “nature” indicates that this is something designed by the Creator. When Gentiles do these things they demonstrate that the righteous requirements (lit. “work”) of the law are written (by God) on their hearts (cf. 1:32). This is in turn confirmed by an inward reality, namely, the testimony of conscience. It too bears witness to the fact of the moral law within. People may have different ways of dealing with their conscience, but all have a conscience and all are cognizant of the moral law.11 Other aspects of man’s being, including his mind, emotions and will also reveal something of the one who created him.
In Acts 14:15-17 the Lycaonians attributed divinity to Barnabas and Paul after the latter had healed a crippled man (v. 8-10).12 At the sound of such blasphemy, the apostles rushed into the crowd and tearing their clothes, shouted that they were only human messengers, but that the God about whom they spoke was the Creator of everything. They urged that the Lycaonians to turn to this living God from their idols since God had demonstrated to them providential grace in the provision of food and livelihoods. He had also filled their hearts with joy. Thus Paul uses neither Jewish scripture nor philosophy (cf. 17:22-31 and his preaching in Athens) in his attempt to win the Lycaonians to the “good news,” but instead argues from the witness of God in nature and providence.
In proclaiming the unknown God to these Athenian philosophers, Paul appeals first to their religious nature and constant need to worship (vv. 22-23). This is easily accounted for according to categories of general revelation.
Then Paul refers to God as the “one who made the world and everything in it;” he is the Lord of heaven and earth, the Creator (vv. 24a). Further, he appeals to several attributes of God, including his omnipresence (v. 24b), omnipotence (i.e., he needs nothing, v. 25a), and his sovereignty, exercised redemptively in determining the times set for people and the exact places where they should live (v. 26-27). He even argues that God is one who created everything and sustains human life (v. 25b). Thus the Biblical God, being completely separate from, yet vitally involved in creation, is quite different from the deistic and pantheistic gods of the Epicurean and Stoic Athenian philosophers.13
In order to bridge the gap with his listeners, in v. 28 Paul cites a couple lines from their own poets. The first line comes from the poem Cretica written by Epimenides (ca. 600 BCE) and goes as follows:
They fashioned a tomb for you, O holy and high one—The Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies! But you are not dead; you live and abide forever, For in you we live and move and have our being
The second citation is taken from the Cilician poet Aratus (ca. 315-240 BCE): “It is with Zeus that every one of us in every way has to do, for we are also his offspring” (Phaenonlena 5). This has also been found in Cleanthes’s (331-233 BCE) earlier Hymn to Zeus.14
The point we wish to make about the lines of poetry from Epimenides and Aratus is that here Paul uses pagan sources to confirm a truth of special revelation and set the foundation for personal accountability. The truth that Paul wanted to confirm by using these sources is monotheism and a proper understanding of the divine being. Having made it clear from their own poets that there is only one God and that he is Spirit—not part of creation—Paul summarily calls these philosophers to repent and warns them of the coming, appointed “day” of judgment.
There are several conclusions that can be drawn from the general revelation of God in creation, history, and human nature.15 First, let us not assume that general revelation saves (some liberal traditions) or that it simply does not exist (Barth and neo-orthodox writers). Romans 1:18-20 and Psalm 19:1-6 clearly establish both the reality of general revelation as well as its limited efficacy (i.e., because of the human condition). Second, from general revelation we learn that God is the Creator, and as such, he is integrally involved in his creation, giving all things life and continually caring for their basic needs. From this truth, one might discern that God must be loving. Third, God is not to be strictly identified with anything in creation, but rather he upholds it and is distinct from it. Fourth, the unity of the human race argues for the essential oneness of God and not a plurality of gods. Fifth, the moral law, of which all are cognizant, argues for the ultimate justice and righteousness of God, the creator. Sixth, idolatry of any kind—i.e., the replacement of God for anything material or immaterial—is worthy of just punishment. The revelation of the wrath of God in human history, as expressed in judgments against human sin, reveal his righteous character (Rom 1:18ff).
Thus, through general revelation we ought to conclude that a theistic world-view best conforms to the pertinent information.16 Pantheism, Panentheism, Deism, and Atheism, all of which seem at times to capture some of the important details of experience, do not in the end, harness the explanatory power evidenced by theism.17
As Grudem points out, the fact that all people have some understanding of right and wrong, vis--vis general revelation in conscience, is a great blessing for society. This means that—at all levels of government, civic, state, and federal, including all relationships, personal and professional—we as Christians can find much common ground with many non-Christians.18 The particular degree to which we are involved with non-Christians in any relationship, however, requires an a priori commitment to the Lordship of Christ, holiness, love, and wisdom. Involvement is not an option, but it is Spirit-directed, Scripturally-informed involvement that God is after.19
Though there is much that can be positively known about God from general revelation, people have habitually suppressed this knowledge. They have not “approved” of God’s thoughts and have, through (or, “because of”) their own unrighteousness suppressed such information (Rom 1:18-20, 32). On this matter, they approve of others who join them in their wickedness (Rom 1:32), yet their own consciences accuse them of such wrongdoing. If the conscience is continually seared in this manner, its voice gets softer and softer, until barely ever heard (2:14-15; 1 Tim 4:2). We must encourage people not to violate their consciences, but rather to educate them properly.
It is clear from our statements above that general revelation is not enough to bring a person into a right relationship with God. For that, there must be a hearing of the gospel, i.e., the redemptive truths that God has made known through Christ and Scripture (i.e., special revelation; cf. Rom 10:14-17). General revelation, however, when suppressed and distorted—as it always is—leads to judgment and divine wrath. The nature of God’s wrath, as outlined in Romans 1:18-3:20 is a serious thing for it renders the guilty even more guilty as they plunge further into the darkest reaches of sin. The end result of general revelation is that men are without excuse, as Paul says (Rom 1:21).
That there exists in the human minds and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of Deity, we hold to be beyond dispute, since God himself, to prevent any man from pretending ignorance, has endued all men with some idea of his Godhead, the memory of which he constantly renews and occasionally enlarges, that all to a man being aware that there is a God, and that he is their Maker, may be condemned by their own conscience when they neither worship him nor consecrate their lives to his service.20
There is, however, a therapeutic aspect to God’s wrath that must not be overlooked: from a human standpoint there is always the hope that those who have been given over to the sinful desires of their hearts, after having experienced loneliness in the wasteland of personal autonomy, will return to God with repentant hearts and seek his mercy. This mercy is available to all who believe, no matter what they’ve done (Rom 3:21-26; 1 Cor 6:9-11).
There is another point to consider as well. It is directed more toward Christians and refers to the idea of packaging the gospel for unbelievers. In 1 Corinthians 9:19-27 Paul explains the modus operandi for his ministry. While never changing the gospel, he nonetheless goes out of his way to find points of contact with non-Christians so as to lead an effective, intelligent, “not unnecessarily offensive” ministry to those who do not know Christ yet. This truth was seen in Paul’s discussion with the Athenian philosophers in Acts 17:22-31. We also should look for “points of contact” with people in our culture, including “truth” found in magazines, movies, culture, events, reason, sports, etc. We can then applaud truth where it is found and use it as a means to establish a beachhead with unbelievers.
5 See C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Glasgow: Fount, 1952), 15-38: “These, then, are the two points I wanted to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in”; Francis Schaeffer, The God Who Is There (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1968), 119-25.
6 Peter C. Craigie, Psalms 1-50, Word Biblical Commentary, ed. David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker, vol. 19 (Dallas: Word, 1983), in loc.: “The first part of the hymn (vv. 2–3) contains an affirmation that the world of nature testifies, by its very existence, to God’s glory. But it is a specific part of the world of nature which the poet has in mind; it is the “heavens,” or sky, and the associated aspects of light and darkness. “Heavens” and “firmament” (in effect, a poetic synonym for “heavens”) are mentioned first (v 2), and then “day” and “night” are introduced (v 3) as the two fundamental perspectives from which the heavens may be perceived. By day, the sky is characterized by sun and light, and by night its darkness is punctuated by the light of moon and stars; both these dimensions combine to recount God’s glory.”
7 NET Bible note #4: “it (i.e., the sky) declares knowledge,” i.e., knowledge about God’s royal majesty and power (see v. 1). This apparently refers to the splendor and movements of the stars. The imperfect verbal forms in v. 2, like the participles in the preceding verse, combine with the temporal phrases (“day after day” and “night after night”) to emphasize the ongoing testimony of the sky.
8 Craigie, Psalms 1-50, in loc.
9 The message of God’s glory is there continually in creation as this Psalm affirms. Thus it is not the projection of the redeemed upon creation (e.g., Barth). But, those who are separated from the creator through sin, cannot “hear” the message properly. Those who are redeemed and have the light of God’s Spirit can “hear” the voice about which the psalmist speaks.
10 See Douglas Moo, Romans 1-8, The Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary, ed. Kenneth Barker (Chicago: Moody, 1991), 1:121-124.
12 Richard N. Longenecker, “Acts,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 9 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 436, who says: “There is no reason to think that the majority of the Lystrans knew anything of Jewish history or of the Jewish Scriptures, or that they were vitally affected by Athenian philosophies. Culturally, they were probably peasants living in the hinterland of Greco-Roman civilization, with all of the lack of advantages of people in their situation.”
13 On Epicureanism and Stoicism, see Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993), n.p., electronic media. See his comments on Acts 17:18 where he discusses the two philosophical groups: “Epicureans were influential only in the educated upper classes, and their views about God were similar to deism (he was uninvolved in the universe and irrelevant); if there were gods, they were only those known through sense knowledge, like stars or planets. Life’s goal was pleasure—the lack of physical pain and emotional disturbance. Stoics were more popular, opposed pleasure, and criticized Epicureans (though not as much as they had in previous times).”
14 Longenecker, “Acts,” 476; See also I. Howard Marshall, Acts, The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, ed. R.V.G. Tasker, vol. 5 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 288-89. He states that the first expression “for in him we live and move and have our being” is found in a ninth century Syriac writer who cites it in the passage in which it was found. The second comment, “we are his offspring,” is more likely to be from Aratus, but it is also found in a slightly different form in Cleanthes, Hymn to Zeus; Keener, IVP Background, comments on Acts 17:29: “The quote from the Greek poet Epimenides (v. 28) appears in Jewish anthologies of proof texts useful for showing pagans the truth about God, and Paul may have learned it from such a text.”
15 See also Gordon R. Lewis and Bruce A. Demarest, Integrative Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 1:72-90. Especially helpful are their comments concerning the proper dualisms that exist in light of God’s ordering of creation: (1) metaphysical (God is not part of creation and creatures are not divine); (2) ethical (there is right and wrong; good and evil); (3) epistemological dualism (there is a knowable difference between truth and falsehood).
16 For an interesting discussion of the nature of a worldview, including a distinctly Christian worldview, see Ronald H. Nash, Worldviews in Conflict: Choosing Christianity in a World of Ideas (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 16-53.
19 For some helpful essays on the topic of the Christian in the world, the reader is urged to consult Mark A. Noll and David F. Wells, eds., Christian Faith and Practice in the Modern World: Theology from an Evangelical Point of View (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988). One should also read the works of Francis Schaeffer.