Harmony, not Discord
The Christian faith is built upon the foundation of these two preliminary assertions: one, God is; and two, He has spoken. We live in a world that is covered in the fingerprints of an Architect, an Intelligence, a Cause, a Designer behind it all. The theological term for this reality–natural (or general) revelation–is compared and contrasted with special revelation; and while this is a helpful way to categorize these certainly distinct ideas, we must never treat these two methods of God’s revealing as somehow alienated from each other. In fact, since the Bible must shape our doctrinal categories (not the other way round), it is imperative that we look keenly to how Scripture presents God’s revealing.
In our categorization of general & special revelation we must take care that we don’t develop a clunky, mechanical notion of God’s speaking. This would lead us to a more deistic view of God’s interaction with the world. Scripture, however, teaches us that God is a communicating, relational God, who has spoken in diverse ways; and, as Hebrews 1:2a (KJV) puts it, “Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son.”
Notice how this text provides a contrast with the “diverse ways” with which God had spoken previously (Heb. 1:1), by introducing a new & distinct method of speaking, vis. His Son Jesus. However, it is clearly meant to tie together both methods of God’s speaking and revealing, and not to lead us to the errant notion that God was a divine Edison, filling the garbage pail with failed idea after failed idea until the eureka moment came.
If we fail to bind natural revelation with special revelation as two distinct but coordinated manners of God’s speaking, then we will almost certainly end up with a notion of the Almighty as an inventor at the mercy of a chance discovery. This opens a whole world of error that we must certainly avoid, and in all fairness, we must ensure that we don’t traipse recklessly the other way and not acknowledge any difference between the unique methods of God’s revelation.
Natural revelation has to do with God’s created order, which certainly speaks for Him and of Him, and Special Revelation has to do with God’s Word in text, but perhaps most accurately the Word in Flesh, Jesus Christ; thus, while special revelation has to do with Scripture as revealed to and written by the holy writers of it, it also finds its culmination in the person of Christ.
God’s speaking by creation and by oracles is not a disjointed attempt to get mankind’s attention; both are a coordinated means bringing about the same end: the glorification of God through His salvation of the world. Thus, natural revelation and special revelation ought to be thought of as harmonic notes of the same song, not discordant tones of a cacophonous racquet.
Waking Up in Our Father’s House
Now, to begin with, our conception of ancient mankind must not be shaped by thoughts of a “Neanderthalic” caveman. Rather, we must realize that the first generations of men were not knuckle-draggers, but were quite advanced intellectually. Very early on in human history we know that agriculture, musical instruments, and industry were advancing quickly, even among the lineage of Cain (Gen. 4:20-22). Calvin argues that this particular passage in Genesis is to illustrate that the endowments of divine light were sent even upon such unregenerate men and that they “flourished in various and pre-eminent endowments, which would both render it inexcusable, and would prove most evident testimonies of the divine goodness.”1Calvin, John. Genesis. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1970. pg. 219 So, when discussing God’s revelation, we must not think that God made creation, filled it with evidence of His nature and character, and then stood back–fingers crossed–hoping the message would get through the frontal lobe of primitive man.
In fact, we ought to remember that Adam was accustomed to walking with God, in the garden, communing with Him there (Gen. 3:8). Further, G.K. Beale points out that in the beginning narrative of Genesis, the original Hebrew clearly depicts Adam with features of a priest, and the Garden of Eden with features of a temple.2Beale, G. K. A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011. pg. 618 In a sense, Adam awoke in God’s house which was covered in the fingerprints of the Builder, and he was also habituated to conversing with the Builder Himself. Adam had natural witness of God and special witness of God. It should not surprise us that, from the beginning, natural and special revelation were in perfect union; but what about after the fall?
After the fall, mankind is first driven from the presence of the Lord (Gen. 3:24), Cain “went out” from the Presence of the Lord (Gen. 4:16), men in the days of Enos first called upon the Lord (Gen. 4:26)–which Jonathan Edwards takes to mean that a peculiar movement of the Spirit “stirred [men] up to meet in assemblies to assist one another in seeking God, so as they never had done before”;3Edwards, Jonathan. A History of the Work of Redemption. Edited by John Frederick. Wilson. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989. pg. 142. God raises up preachers of righteousness, in particular Enoch (Gen. 5:24) and Noah (1 Pt. 2:5); and, in the case of Noah, we are told that God speaks to him and his sons after the flood, covenanting with them at an altar (Gen. 9:8); at Babel we have a record of man’s rebellion against God, and the Lord “coming down” (Gen. 11:5) to see and judge man’s work.
All of this shows that up through Abraham, in general, mankind is fleeing from the presence of the Lord; while, at the same time, there are also righteous men seeking the Lord and proclaiming the Lord. Once again, there was a world full of natural revelation, but alongside of that was special revelation through the mouth of God Himself–in various special instances–and very often in the mouth of righteous men who were inspired to preach.
P.J. Wiseman makes the case that based on ancient cuneiform tablets, which archeologists have discovered, man was quite proficient (even before Abraham’s time) at writing and chronicling his history; and Calvin states that God had “[scattered] some excellent gifts among [Cain’s] posterity”4Calvin, Genesis, pg. 218. and that, too, among Adam’s lineage, “industrious and skillful men, who exercised their diligence in the invention and cultivation of arts”.5Ibid., pg. 218.
Wiseman furthermore argues, “No longer is there any good reason to doubt that the very earliest records in Genesis–those of the creation and the fall–were written down in a very early form of writing, within the period which Genesis assigns to Adam’s sons.”6Beale, G. K. A New Testament Biblical Theology, pgs 56-57. He even asserts that Genesis itself leaves us reason to believe that it was composed by Adam and his posterity because of the oft-repeated phrase (with some variations) “this is the book of the generations (Gen. 2:4, 5:1, 6:9, 10:1, etc.)”, and that the personal nature of what is recorded in even the very earliest part of Genesis, along with the reality of Adam’s naming of the animals should compel us to think of these sections as “tablets” which Moses likely compiled later on.7Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, pgs 58-60.
This should make it plain that primitive man knew he was dwelling in God’s house, not simply because of what nature was saying about God, but because God was speaking to man by Himself and by early preachers; again, a coordination of natural and special revelation. Although some men sought to flee God’s house, and others sought God Himself, all men seemed to know of God Almighty regardless of their relationship to Him.
Bishop John Overall wrote in 1606 that, “It is apparent, that within a few ages [after the death] of Noah [and] his sons, great barbarism and confusion fell among their generations, through their pride and dissoluteness, in that they thought scorn to be governed, either civilly or ecclesiastically, as God himself, by Noah, had ordained.”8John, Overall. “The Convocation Book of MDCVI.” Archive.org. Accessed October 07, 2016. https://archive.org/stream/convocationbooko00overuoft#page/10/mode/2up. Here he insists that from Adam to Moses, man was not without clear direction (either civilly or ecclesiastically) from God. This means that the roughly two thousand years of human history from the fall to the Ten Commandments was not devoid of special revelation. Clearly, natural revelation was not the only manner of revelation present, but God was also actively communicating through world and word His will to mankind.
Another observation should be made regarding the nature of God’s revealing work in early human history. Modern man often forgets that architecture and art carries with it much of the essence and evidence of the architect and artist. Perhaps we would do well to return to a mindset which Tolkien so masterfully describes in his fiction; he understood how mankind formerly viewed architecture and art, and in the mouth of one elven character he draws us to see the wisdom in such a perspective, “we put the thought of all that we love into all that we make.”9Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings (50th Anniversary Edition). New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2012. (Kindle Edition) The idea is that the maker invests himself into his work and art.
Even more poignantly, when Tolkien describes the creation of his Middle Earth, he hints at the reality that when we make something, something of the maker passes into the thing made. Tolkien’s mythological deity, Ilúvitar, declares after singing with his angels a song of creation: “‘Behold your Music! This is your minstrelsy; and each of you shall find contained herein, amid the design that I set before you, all those things which it may seem that he himself devised or added’”.10Tolkien, J. R. R. The Silmarillion (Kindle Edition). Edited by Christopher Tolkien. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2012. Their song and their singing became a world. Their making flowed from them as makers.
Returning to the biblical narrative, Beale shows that we have numerous Scriptural reasons to conclude that Eden itself was very likely a temple/sanctuary11Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, 617-622., Adam was commissioned as a priest, and his descendants either fled from God, or sought fellowship with God; but all along they were cognizant of the reality that they were living in God’s world, because it was evidently covered in his fingerprints, and because He was speaking to them in diverse ways. Bishop Overall draws attention to the fact that God provided antediluvian man with a priesthood, so that mankind was not only presented with natural revelation (i.e. the fingerprints on the temple of the world), but also forced to reckon with the special revelation of faithful preachers (i.e. His own Word in the mouth of His appointed priests):
“It is not to be doubted, but that, first, Adam for his time, and afterwards the heads of every family of the faithful, were not only civil governors over their kindred, but likewise had the power and execution of the priest’s office; and that they were themselves instructed and taught from God, as they afterward did instruct and teach such as were under them in the said mysteries of man’s restitution, through the promised seed, by faith, and in the right worship and service of the true God.”12Overall, The Convocation Book of MDCVI, Book 1, Chapter IV.
This indicates that from the earliest of times natural and special revelation were woven together in a harmonic song of God’s redeeming purposes. Further, after the flood, God once more ensured that mankind would not be bereft of this two-fold revelation. Bishop Overall again:
“Noah […] was the patriarch, or chief governor over them; ruling and ordering of them by virtue of that superiority, power, and authority which was given unto him by Almighty God, and was also warranted by the laws of nature and reason. Touching this patriarchal, or in effect, regal government of Noah, there is more expressed in the Scriptures, than there was before the flood, of the power and authority of Adam, or at any of the chief fathers and rulers that were descended from him. For now there is mention made by God himself of punishing blood by blood, which was done by the sword of justice, being the chief & and warrant of supreme and regal authority.”13Overall, The Convocation Book of MDCVI, Book 1, Chapter VI.
God had poured Himself into His creation, this house of the world, leaving His seal all over it; He placed man in a temple garden and gave him a set of laws to follow; even after the fall and flood, God’s world bore the evidence of her Maker. What’s more, God spoke directly to certain men–some very likely putting His words into writing. Thus mankind was continually confronted with the harmonious song of the natural revelation and special revelation of God.
The Hand to Which the Fingerprints Belong
God filled this world with plain evidence of Himself, and–as Paul puts it in Romans 1:20–this leaves man without excuse. This world has His fingerprints all over it; but it is one thing to see a fingerprint and it is another thing to take hold of the Hand. Jonathan Edwards describes the insufficiency of natural revelation and the need for special revelation this way, “If there never had been any [special] revelation, I believe the world would have been full of endless disputes about the very being of a God: whether the world was from eternity or not, and whether the form and order of the world did not result from the mere nature of matter. Ten thousand different schemes there would have been about it.”14Edwards, Jonathan. “Divine Revelation.” Divine Revelation. Accessed October 07, 2016. http://www.apuritansmind.com/puritan-favorites/jonathan-edwards/miscellaneous-writings/divine-revelation/ We needed God’s fingerprints in order that we might be left inexcusable, but we most deeply needed the Son of the Right Hand of God to be “made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption (1 Cor. 1:30).”
Natural revelation is crystal clear, lacking nothing; but much like the Mosaic Law was intended to expose man’s sin and imperfection in order to make way for Christ, so too, God’s message through Creation was intended to lead man to Christ or else condemn him for his obstinate impunity for ignoring God’s clear prefatory messages of the coming Christ. T.H.L. Parker, in discussing John Calvin’s preaching, has a helpful insight here, “God has left clear marks of his divinity and power on what he had made.”15Parker, T. H. L. Calvin’s Preaching. Louisville, KY: Westminster/J. Knox Press, 1992. pg. 2 This is the authority of natural revelation. He then draws attention to Calvin’s lucid statement regarding how natural revelation was joined with special revelation:
“The only way, therefore, by which in ancient times holy men knew God, was by beholding him in the Son as in a mirror. When I say this, I mean that God never manifested himself to men by any other means than by his Son, that is, his own only wisdom, light, and truth. From this fountain Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and others, drew all the heavenly doctrine which they possessed.”16Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008. pg. 763
Parker points out that “the Teacher of the Old Testament Church is the same Christ as the teacher of the New Testament Church”17Parker. pg. 7 and Calvin states that “nothing else was permitted to the apostles than was formerly permitted to the prophets—namely, to expound the ancient Scriptures, and show that the things there delivered are fulfilled in Christ.”18Calvin, Institutes, pg. 764. From the fall of Adam, God’s revelation in nature has been a reminder of the Divine Judge from whom mankind rebelled and fled from. However, by grace, God has continually coupled the witness of nature with the proclamation of His Son, and–though by degrees–His redemptive purposes were finally and fully revealed in Christ. All along man’s history God’s special revelation of His redemptive purposes have been faithfully proclaimed to man.
Natural revelation gives man the understanding that it is inexcusable to not acknowledge God as the Framer, Maker and Ruler of the world, from whom we have rebelled and thus deserve punishment. But, God has never left the world without a witness of the promised deliverer and restorer, who was finally revealed to be God Himself, in the flesh: the Lord Jesus. Some disputers often quarrel about tribes in the middle of the jungle who have never heard the Gospel; would God really damn them? We must reply that those tribes did not spring up out of the dust, but they came from somewhere; or perhaps in some instances, fled from somewhere. Mankind dispersed all over this globe which God had made, and as they went their stories and mythologies are full of memories of a Creator, a fall, a flood, a serpent, a curse, a Savior.
Bishop Overall affirms this truth and asserts that to deny that Christ, the promised Seed of the woman, was proclaimed from the beginning in the earth, is a great error. He emphasizes the ancient patriarchs’ role as priests before God in this way:
“Any man shall therefore affirm the Son of God having from the beginning a church upon earth, didn’t leave them until the flood without priests, and priestly authority to govern and instruct then in those ways of their salvation, and in the right manner of the worship and service of God; or that they might teach them any other doctrine in that behalf, than that which they have received from God himself, he does greatly err.”19Overall, The Convocation Book of of MDCVI, Book 1, Canon IV.
From the beginning, mankind has dwelt in a temple in ruins that bears the signature of its Divine Maker; mankind has either sought God or fled from God. Nevertheless, God has never left men without the revelation of Himself in this world and the revelation of Himself by His Word. He has not failed to continually thunder to mankind, “This is my beloved Son: hear him (Mar. 9:7).” The One who made the fingerprints, has Himself reached down and calls us to hearken to His Word. Make no mistake, His Word is now most clearly declared in the bright glory of His Son, Jesus Christ.
|↑1||Calvin, John. Genesis. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1970. pg. 219|
|↑2||Beale, G. K. A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011. pg. 618|
|↑3||Edwards, Jonathan. A History of the Work of Redemption. Edited by John Frederick. Wilson. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989. pg. 142.|
|↑4||Calvin, Genesis, pg. 218.|
|↑5||Ibid., pg. 218.|
|↑6||Beale, G. K. A New Testament Biblical Theology, pgs 56-57.|
|↑7||Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, pgs 58-60.|
|↑8||John, Overall. “The Convocation Book of MDCVI.” Archive.org. Accessed October 07, 2016. https://archive.org/stream/convocationbooko00overuoft#page/10/mode/2up.|
|↑9||Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings (50th Anniversary Edition). New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2012. (Kindle Edition)|
|↑10||Tolkien, J. R. R. The Silmarillion (Kindle Edition). Edited by Christopher Tolkien. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2012.|
|↑11||Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, 617-622.|
|↑12||Overall, The Convocation Book of MDCVI, Book 1, Chapter IV.|
|↑13||Overall, The Convocation Book of MDCVI, Book 1, Chapter VI.|
|↑14||Edwards, Jonathan. “Divine Revelation.” Divine Revelation. Accessed October 07, 2016. http://www.apuritansmind.com/puritan-favorites/jonathan-edwards/miscellaneous-writings/divine-revelation/|
|↑15||Parker, T. H. L. Calvin’s Preaching. Louisville, KY: Westminster/J. Knox Press, 1992. pg. 2|
|↑16||Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008. pg. 763|
|↑17||Parker. pg. 7|
|↑18||Calvin, Institutes, pg. 764.|
|↑19||Overall, The Convocation Book of of MDCVI, Book 1, Canon IV.|