Survey Studies in Reformed Theology
Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
by Bob Burridge ©1996, 2006, 2010, 2016
Revelation – Divine Self-Disclosure
We can know God because he has made himself known in ways understandable to us. As our Creator, he made us to be physically able to receive all the means of revelation he intended to use. His revelation comes in two basic types: we call them General and Special.
In General Revelation God displays his wonders and tells us about his basic nature. He does this in ways available generally to all humans. This is why we call it “general revelation.”
It comes to humans both externally and internally.Among the things made known generally are: God’s glory, power, nature, and goodness, and our spiritual dependence upon, and duty toward, our Creator.
External general revelation
This form of revelation comes to us through the senses. It includes the works of creation, and God’s rule over all things through his acts of providence. Sometimes it’s called “natural revelation” because God makes himself known by nature. But this should not be confused with “natural theology” where truths about such things as morality, man’s nature, and worship are drawn from a study of nature detached from the use of Scripture.
The Bible is clear about what we can know from God’s revelation in nature. There are several verses that directly state this truth. These are two that tell what Creation actually reveals:
Psalm 19:1-2 “The Heavens are telling of the glory of God; and the firmament is declaring the work of his hands.”
Romans 1:20 “His invisible attributes, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen,
being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.”
The Bible also demonstrates that creation and providence show that God is a spirit and a person.
He’s the source of all life and being. In Acts 17:24-29 the Apostle Paul said, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being'; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.”
Internal general revelation
This is the voice of inner moral testimony which we call conscience. This testifies to us that we have moral duties as God’s creatures, however, our fallen nature rejects and suppresses what our conscience tells us.
Romans 1:18-19 “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them;for God made it evident to them.”
Romans 2:14-16 “For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness, and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.”
God does not leave us without an ample witness to the basic truths he wants us to know about himself. By means of General revelation God declares that he really exists, that he made us, and that we owe all to him. As Dr. Francis Schaeffer said, “God is there and he is not silent.” When we observe what God has made and done, we find so much for which to thank him!
This form of revelation is not given to all humans generally. As powerful as General Revelation is, it does not communicate to lost humans their need for salvation, and the means provided for their restoration by grace through a promised redeemer.
Something’s seriously wrong with all humans since Adam’s fall into sin. They tend to deny or redefine the things their senses tell them about their Creator. They tend to disobey what their consciences tell them about their moral obligations to God. Man’s problem in knowing God and in being faithful to his duties, is not due to any defect in General Revelation. Fallen man is in rebellion. He suppresses God’s truth. This makes him destined to frustration in his attempt to know who he is, and how he fits into God’s world.
The spiritual corruption that’s inherent in every human born by ordinary generation since the fall of mankind makes his understanding of spiritual things impossible. No one in that condition seeks to really know God as he reveals himself.
1 Corinthians 2:14 “a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.”
But — God was not content to leave all of fallen mankind in its corrupted condition of spiritual blindness. He not only promised to send a Savior. He also added a kind of revelation beyond that which was generally available to all humans naturally. This special revelation is supernatural. It was directed to individuals chosen by God’s grace alone. It tells about man’s fall into sin, the covenant which God established to redeem his people, and it clarifies the moral laws obscured by man’s fallen conscience. In Special Revelation God makes his redemptive plans and works known through supernatural means. He gave us this revelation for the benefit of those who are his people.
God has revealed himself specially in a variety of ways. Before the Bible was complete, He disclosed his truth by direct appearances, through visions, dreams, voices, and miracles, through the urim and thumim, the purim, prophecies, and in the Messiah.
These means were used only in specific periods of history. If left to themselves their message would have remained limited to the time when the revelation was given. For the message to continue to be known, it needed to be passed on by words either verbally or in writing.
While some specially revealed truth was passed on by God’s Prophets and Elders orally to his people, some Special Revelation was committed to writing. God specially preserved the essential part of his message by causing it to become “inscripturated” (written down). This supernaturally written record forms our Bible. It’s an objective standard against which all ideas can be compared and tested. Scripture is an infallible and error free product of special revelation.
By committing God’s word to writing his truth is preserved for his church. It provides an objective record by which our attempts to organize what we believe can be tested. When written down, his message is easier to study and communicate to others; both to those outside of Christ’s church, and to his own people.
A written word establishes a more sure foundation and comfort for God’s people (as it tells us in 2 Peter 1:19-21). It warns us and directs us as we work to preserve our Lord’s church against the opposition of fallen hearts, Satan, and the world. Written promises can be appealed to in times of temptation, discouragement, trouble, and when we sin.
The Scriptures provide a complete word of prophesy eliminating the need for new special revelation today. Once the apostolic foundation was laid (as it tells us in Ephesians 2:20), the prophetic apostolic office and the need for additional special revelation ceased.
The New Testament writers attach special meaning to the term “Scripture.” They used it to refer to that written body of truth that was growing, and approaching completion, in their time. Clearly it constituted a specific and objective body of written material that could be studied by the church and used as its final authority. Revelation 22:18 reminds us that it’s morally wrong to add any human thoughts to the book of God’s special revelation.
Biblically, all revelation must be consistent with itself because it comes directly from God. It gives us a test to recognize ideas that haven’t come from God. God can’t deny himself. What he says must always agree with what he has already made known.
The Bible gives us a final, authoritative, objective standard for testing ideas, and for recognizing truth. The Westminster Confession affirms that the Bible, not the confession, forms that standard. It’s often those who deny the use of carefully written confessions who introduce strange and aberrant ideas. But it’s the Bible alone that must remain as our only rule in all matters of faith and practice.
(Bible quotations are from the New American Standard Bible (1988 edition) unless otherwise noted.)