Systematic Theology Series #2: General Revelation and Natural Theology

Have you ever heard the expression, "All truth is God's truth"? How does that rub you? Do you think, "No duh"? Or do you feel like it somehow jeopardizes "real" Truth? Some Christians have very strong convictions about this issue—on both sides of it. I think it's a topic that has important apologetic and evangelistic implications, so I'm presenting this for your consideration.

General revelation is knowledge from God about God that is universally available to all mankind. Yet it is distinguished from special revelation in that its content is much less detailed. By definition, it is non-specific, as distinguished from particular religious Scripture. General revelation is the indirect object of the study of God in the enterprise of Natural Theology. Natural Theology does not presuppose the existence of God, but rather seeks to determine whether he does indeed exist necessarily by nature of that which has been potentially created by him.

According to Peter Jensen in The Revelation of God (IVP, 2002), “Natural theology is characteristically exercised free of any supernatural aid through verbal communications from God” (98). Natural theology is contrasted with “revealed” theology in its source of inquiry: general revelation, rather than verbal revelation. However, it should be apparent that the names “natural theology” and “revealed theology” are somewhat misleading. Perhaps a better name for them would be Naturally-Revealed Theology and Verbally-Revealed Theology.

General revelation is communicated through three primary, nonverbal means: (1) inner understanding of truth (conscience), (2) observable providential actions in history (and remembered actions), and (3) inference from the construction of the natural order.

The Bible teaches the existence of general revelation, three examples of which are Psalm 19:1-2, Romans 1:19-20, and Acts 17:28-29. Psalms 19 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork, day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words . . . Their voice goes out through all the earth.” Here we see the universality of revelation as well as the means by way of the created order.

Romans 1 states, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” Clearly, this general revelation is perceptible, that is, discernable, by all. However, it is limited in what it reveals. It communicates only that (a) God exists and (b) God is all-powerful (indeed, the latter in part defines the former). In other words, general revelation is the means by which all humans are able to accept the premise that a god (or God) exists. But that is all.

In Acts 17, in his address to the Athenians at the Areopagus, Paul recognizes the truth (little as it may have been) of certain statements by these pagans, quoting their poets who said, “For we are indeed his offspring,” and then communicating the fuller nuances of this truth from the Christian perspective.

The benefits of general revelation are several. First, it provides a bridge of understanding between the pagan and Christian worldviews (see Jensen, 100). It is, in essence, divine illustration of ultimate truth, making Christianity’s theological claims believable. As such, it lends credibility to the Christian message as consistent with reality. Second, it protects Christian doctrine from utter contradiction. As intimated previously, some Christian leaders have knee-jerk reactions to the statement, “All truth is God’s truth,” but is anything to the contrary even possible? Denying the validity of general revelation as universally discernible by humanity creates a catch-22 in which some truths are owned by someone other than God. This shoots the sovereignty of God in the foot, for how can there be any truth but that which is established by God?

The benefits of NT ought not be enumerated without considering some potential drawbacks. The first is that it makes the whole task of theology vulnerable, for purported proofs contra God’s existence, if conceded, make moot any claims of verbal revelation (If God cannot exist, how can he possibly have revealed himself?!). Formidable atheistic arguments were presented in the Enlightenment period (18th and 19th centuries), by Kant, Hume and Darwin. These have not been without substantial (even successful) rebuttals, yet the damage done in the meantime demonstrates the exigencies of the endeavor. Of foremost concern is the danger of natural theology to create the box into which verbal theology must be crammed, as has been the case with naturalism, e.g. deism. Insofar as natural theology succumbs to this tendency, it overestimates itself, for it is the one that is drastically limited with comparison to the other! Thus, this hermeneutical move (placing NT above RT) is largely suspect in intellectually rigorous theological conversations.

In summary, general revelation is taught by Christian Scripture and studied by Natural Theology. It has God as its originator and the total of humanity as its audience. Sin has not made us ignorant to it, though it has led many to suppress it in various degrees. Its importance for evangelism and apologetics should not be underestimated, but its limitations are strict when compared to Divinely initiated verbal revelation. It is, in a sense, the kindling for the fire of the knowledge of God; Scripture is the lumber, and the Spirit is the flame. It is indispensable, but insufficient for salvation (James 2:19). We mustn’t deny it or neglect appealing to it, but neither must we depend on it. We must let it do what God intends for it to do—no more and no less.

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