by Rev. Brian Flamme
I bet that if you conducted a survey of the world’s population, a good portion of folks would say that God reveals Himself “everywhere.” They’ll claim that they can find God in the glimmer of their child’s eye, in the breathtaking colors of a sunset, and in the quiet moments of walking through a forest glade. In those moments of utmost sublimity, they imagine that they’ll touch the divine and discern something of his transcendent will. Still others, a growing segment of the population if the expert surveyors are to be believed, would argue that they find divinity nowhere. They stare out at the grandeur of the heavens, or marvel at delicate intricacy of a flower blossom, and find not a whisper or trace of what their ancestors called “God.” They’ll look at the pain and suffering that so often afflicts us and say, “There mustn’t be a God.”
As Christians we’re familiar with both extremes. Either some acquaintances hear God speaking his secret will through an assortment of signs or others hear nothing at all. To avoid falling into these traps, it’s good for us to meditate on what the church believes, teaches, and confesses about how God reveals himself to his creatures.
The old scholastic theologians and the later reformed theologians explored the question by making a distinction between general and special revelation.[i] God both reveals himself to all people generally through creation or God reveals himself specially through more narrow modes of communication, like in sending an angel to instruct Mary about the child she’s about to bear (Luke 1:31). Either way, the scholastics and reformed weren’t discussing an attempt on man’s part to lift himself into the heights of heaven. Both revelations occur according to God’s desire.
The medieval scholastic theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) explains,
“Knowledge of God’s greatness and goodness cannot come to men except through the grace of divine Revelation, as we are told in Matthew 11:27: ‘No one knoweth the Son but the Father; neither doth anyone know the Father but the Son, and he to whom it shall please the Son to reveal him.’ Therefore Augustine says, in his commentary on John, that no one knows God unless He who knows manifests Himself. To some extent God makes Himself known to men through a certain natural knowledge, by imbuing them with the light of reason and by giving existence to visible creatures, in which are reflected some glimmerings of His goodness and wisdom, as we read in Romans 1:19ff…”[ii]
Aquinas articulates his idea about general revelation from the Scriptures. St. Paul says, ““For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead, so that they [the gentiles] are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).[iii]
Because this knowledge from reason is imperfect on account of our finite nature and corrupted by our wandering away from God through idolatry (Romans 1:21-23), Aquinas explains that something better is needed for man to reach his goal of achieving knowledge of the divine.
“In order that true knowledge of God might spread throughout the whole human race, God the Father sent the only begotten Word of His Majesty into the world, that through Him the entire world might come to a true knowledge of the divine name…He carries on His task without intermission through the Apostles and their successors; by their ministry men are brought to the knowledge of God, to the end that the name of God may be held in benediction and honor throughout the entire world.”[iv]
John Calvin (1509-1549), a radical reformer who came a generation after Luther, says much the same thing about God revealing himself generally to all people.
“Since the perfection of blessedness consists in the knowledge of God, he has been pleased, in order that none might be excluded from the means of obtaining felicity, not only to deposit in our minds that seed of religion of which we have already spoken, but so to manifest his perfections in the whole structure of the universe, and daily place himself in our view, that we cannot open our eyes without being compelled to behold him.”[v]
He also adds that there’s a special seed of knowledge that’s implanted in men’s minds.
“That there exists in the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of the Deity, we hold to be beyond dispute, since God himself, to prevent any man from pretending ignorance, has endured all men with some idea of his Godhead, the memory of which he constantly renews and 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.”[vi]
But this isn’t sufficient for men to consecrate their lives to God’s service, Calvin explains, so God progressively added special, private revelations into the minds of his mouthpieces. These private revelations, organized according to progressive dispensations given over time, were compiled into the book we call the Scriptures.[vii]
Through the years after the Reformation this language of general and special revelations was taken up by the later Lutheran orthodox dogmaticians. And so general revelation, according to Hollatz (1648-1713), is that by which
“God makes himself known both by the innate light of nature and by the effects conspicuous in the kingdom of nature. But we speak of the special and supernatural revelation, which is twofold, immediate and mediate. The Holy Spirit immediately illuminated the prophets and apostles, and suggested to them conceptions of things and of words concerning doctrines of faith and moral precepts. At the present day God reveals Himself to men by means of the Word written by the prophets and apostles.”[viii]
Again, Abraham Calov (1612-1686) writes,
“But as one general revelation has been made in Nature, Rom. 1:19 sq., and another special one by verbal communication, it is first to be proved from nature that God is, inasmuch as God has revealed Himself unto all by His works, in the formation of this world; and subsequently it is to be shown that God has revealed Himself to the human race in a more perfect manner by the Word.”
Notice the slight, but significant, difference between Hollatz’ take on immediate revelation into a man’s mind and Calov’s distinct emphasis on God disclosing himself through “verbal communication.” It seems, at least in my humble estimation, that Calov mirrors the old Lutheran way of speaking about revelation. For earlier theologians like Luther, Chemnitz, and Gerhardt, revelation was synonymous with Christ held forth by Scripture.
Luther says that the doctrine of the Gospel is the “revelation of the Son of God.”
“This is a doctrine different from all others. Moses does not reveal the Son of God; he discloses the Law, sin, the conscience, death, the wrath and judgment of God, and hell. These things are not the Son of God! Therefore only the Gospel reveals the Son of God. Oh, if only one could distinguish carefully here and not look for the Law in the Gospel but keep it as separate from the Law as heaven is distant from the earth!”[ix]
Would Luther deny that God reveals himself in creation? Of course not. But through nature you’ll only get as far as the law. On Romans 1:20 Luther writes,
“The meaning of the law is, under various circumstances, known to the philosophers. But the promises of God belong to theology, and the gospel is not known to every creature because it is a mystery hidden from the world.”[x]
Why obsess over distinctions over revelation once we discover that nature and the natural inclinations of our conscience can only terrify men of God’s anger? The true revelation is the Scriptures that hold forth Jesus as the end of the terror of the Law’s judgment. Natural theology can only take you as far as God’s existence and attributes, but it says nothing about his Son or grace. Natural theology, apart from the instruction of the prophets and apostles, is an impoverished doctrine of death. If the theologians have only their vain imaginings or cold philosophies, they’ll only get a dim picture of God as he revealed himself in power and wrath at Sinai. But godly theologians keep to the life-giving revelation of the Gospel and will not deviate from it. Gerhardt writes,
“We conclude deductively that the adequate and proper principle of supernatural theology is divine revelation, which exists today only in Holy Writ, that is, written in the prophetic books of the Old Testament and in the apostolic books in the New testament. For this reason we say that the written Word of God, or (and this is the same thing) Holy Scripture, is the only and proper principle of theology.”
It’s good to remember that God reveals himself in the wonders of creation. We can and do discern his power and wisdom. But in decay and death we also see the preaching of his judgment. Nothing in creation nor in our hearts or imaginations can escape the grave’s last word in this world. To chase after God in such circumstances either leaves you in inescapable doubt or despair. In the Scriptures however, God reveals his greater Word, the Incarnate Word, his Son who suffers to save us from sin and death that he might bring all his saints to resurrection, life, and a new heavens and earth free of the old corruption.
Where does God reveal himself? Stop looking and listen instead. Hear Jesus preach God’s kindness in the words of the Bible.
The Rev. Brian Flamme is pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Roswell, New Mexico.
[i] Revelation, of course, means an unveiling or disclosure.
[ii] Thomas Aquinas, Aquinas’s Shorter Summa (Manchester: Sophia Institute Press, 2002), 348-349.
[iii] Other favorite verses used in support of the idea of general revelation come from the opening words of Psalm 19, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” Luther, however, when commenting on this verse asserts that it deals not with God revealing himself through nature, but through his preached Word. Luther says that when the heavens declare God’s glory, “the apostles preach only about the righteousness which God works in us, not at all about the righteousness which men can produce” (LW 14:200).
[iv] Aquinas, 349-350.
[v] Institutes, I.5.1
[vi] Institutes, I.3.1
[vii] Institutes, I.6.1-4
[viii] As quoted in Heinrich Schmid, Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1899), 26.
[ix] LW 26:72
[x] LW 38:258