I was preparing this morning to lead Romans using the new small group study book that Mike Bennett and I wrote for the UCC’s “Listen Up!” Bible Study Series.
I came across that vexing section of Romans 1, no not that one, this one: “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” (Romans 1: 19-20).
These verses have often been employed to put forth one or another versions of the idea of General Revelation, so I paid attention when a short while later, while I was wasting time on Twitter, I came upon a thoughtful blog post by J. Scott Jackson entitled Got General Revelation? Well, Isn’t that Special!
In my A Course in Basic Christianity, which I designed to teach adults about the faith I wrote this:
The Christian does not know God in general, but God as he has revealed himself through Jesus Christ. Just as we know only as much about another person as that person chooses to reveal to us, so we know about God because God has chosen to reveal himself to us. Revelation is often divided into two categories, General Revelation and Special Revelation.
General Revelation is what can be known about God by looking at the created order (Romans 1:18-21). Just as you can know something about an artist from viewing the artist’s work, so you can know something about God from looking at creation, at the world around us and the human conscience. Unlike some adherents of some other religions Christians do not believe that nature is God. Rather, like those little reflectors on the highway that catch the light of our headlights, but have no light of their own, so creation shines with the reflected glory of its Creator (the image is from Karl Barth). But this knowledge is limited, and needs to be greatly enlarged for us to truly know God.
Special Revelation is the particular disclosure of God’s saving acts through the witness of the scripture. It is through Special Revelation that we know the particular truths of the Christian faith as revealed in the biblical narrative. We believe that this revelation is a gift of God’s Holy Spirit.
In the Romans 1:19-20 text Paul seems to me to be saying you can know enough about God from the created order to be held morally responsible for keeping God’s ways. So General Revelation is limited in that way, enough but not complete.
For Karl Barth the completeness is always in Jesus Christ. Jackson succintly sums up Karl Barth’s position:
For Barth, though, the heart of the kerygma hinges upon the irreplaceable identity of Jesus Christ as a person — note carefully: not of the mere story of Jesus, or the person-forming reverberations of history throughout a diverse human community, nor the his life-event as historical moment (though these are pieces of the whole, to be sure), but in his personal identity.
It seems to me that Barth is always, and with good reason, suspicious of any attempt to fully know God apart from God’s self-revelation in the man Jesus Christ.
There are other ways to think about this, of course, which do not betray the required Christological focus. I am thinking especially of the Trinitarian ontology of Jonathan Edwards, who was a great observer of the natural world and saw God’s hand at work everywhere. Edwards was the second pastor of the church where I am a member, and I often think of him as I traipse through the Berkshire Hills which were his home four centuries ago.
(Photo: © R.L. Floyd, 2015. Driftwood at Cheshire Lake, Cheshire, MA.)