Can we know enough about God from observing the creation? Ruminations on a General Revelation

DriftwoodI 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.)

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15 thoughts on “Can we know enough about God from observing the creation? Ruminations on a General Revelation

  1. We persistently read poiēmata there as things made, but if the everlasting dynamis and theiotēs of God are really aoratos from the creation of the cosmos, then they are not known in the cosmos as creature; they are known from the things God has done, which is a far better contextual translation of poiēmata for a Jew making such a claim anyways.

  2. Thank you for these reflections, Rick. In my PhD research and dissertation, I did a lot of work with Rom. 1:20 (and Rom. 1:20-25) and with Wisdom 13:1-5, a passage with several similarities to the verses written by Paul. I have also identified similarities between these two passages and some passages in the works of Philo of Alexandria, and all of these writings are probably from the first century C.E. (the dating of Wisdom is not firm but this is the likely dating). I have shown that there are many things one can take from these verses or passages from three different authors, all of whom were influenced by the Jewish scriptures and Jewish ideas, even though Paul also was a Christian. In addition to my own work on interpreting and translating Rom. 1:20 and Wis. 13:1-5, I did a lot of work on how these two passages were interpreted by Augustine and Basil of Caesarea in their commentaries on the biblical creation accounts, especially but not only on the creation account in Genesis 1. Rom. 1:20 and Wis. 13:1-5 point to the beauty, goodness, reality, and intrinsic worth of creation because of the Creator’s own goodness, beauty, and power. Hence these passages reveal something about creation itself as well as about God, and Augustine in particular is trinitarian in his views, not simply christological. So I would push back on your perspective on viewing creation as reflectors without their own light. Creatures and all aspects of creation have intrinsic independence, value, goodness, beauty, and reality according to the witness of the OT, NT, and what we call the deutero-canical books (Wisdom is canonical for non-Protestants). I have many chunks on this in my dissertation, beginning with my analysis of Philo’s work and moving through Augustine, and this one area I will be writing a paper or article about in the next few months. So I don’t want to publish these ideas too broadly here, and yet I wanted to engage in dialogue with you. I am not a Barthian, and I think Barth’s views are very limited on matter. I also think christological views are limited and that trinitarian views are very compelling, and I look forward to discussing how Augustine, Basil, and Philo argued from creation to God or the Trinity, and also showing how Augustine argues that the attributes of creation are gifts of the three Persons of the Trinity. More later!

    • Thanks, Jane, for these thoughtful insights. They make me even more eager to see your book, when it becomes a book. And I want to hear more of them. The “reflectors on the highway” metaphor may indeed be too limited in describing the creation. I am reminded of Fred Craddock’s remark that every sermon is heresy because it emphasizes one aspect of the faith at the expense of others. I sometimes get e-mails about my daily devotionals reminding me that I have only told part of the story, and I chuckle because I only get 300 words. I am guessing that Karl Barth was reacting to any theology in which God was understood as immanint, such as some of the naturalistic German theologies of his day. I wouldn’t call myself a Barthian (Barth himself rejected the term) but rather an appreciator of the 20th century’s greatest theologian. I think the moves you sketch above might be closer to Hans urs Von Balthasar. And remember that Barth, too, is very much a Trinitarian even with his strong Christology. I’ve been reading quite a bit of Edwards lately, and a little book on him that I love is Amy Plantinga Pauw’s “The Supreme Harmony of All: The Trinitarian Theology of Jonathan Edwards.” I hope Matt Frost and Scott Jackson (and others) might respond to your good comment.

  3. Well, I can attempt some sort of response to Jane’s comment — acknowledging my own limitations in the areas of ancient Christian and Jewish exegesis. The first thing to stress is that, from Barth’s perspective, a critical stance toward the notion of general revelation is not a rejection of the goodness or beauty of creation. Moreover, he affirms (very strongly) that creation is distinct from God, other than the creator, and has its own dignity — though I don’t think the notion of creation as autonomous fits, since the created world is absolutely dependent upon the Creator. In CD I/1 Barth does engage the notion in Augustine (and Bonaventure especially) that creation is replete with figurations of the Trinity. It’s been too long since I’ve read this passage carefully, so I’d have to review it before trying to summarize the arguments. The main thing to stress, I think, from Barth’s perspective is the question of a putative general revelation seems to entail a dangerous notion that humanity can, in some measure, depend upon its own resources in knowing God. The Christological emphasis serves, in part, to stress that knowledge of God is sheer gift, always at God’s discretion, and is not in some general sense “available.” That which is taken as generally available, he fears, can be manipulated by ideology. That’s why it’s important to keep the situation of Germany in the 1930s in mind when reading Barth’s trenchant critique of natural theology. The question of Barth’s Christocentrism and possible rejoinders to it from the standpoint of a more balanced(?) Trinitarian perspective is a big topic that would require much more careful attention than I can muster on a Saturday morning, with only one cup of coffee imbibed so far. But thanks for the stimulating reflections!

    • Thanks, Scott, for valuable insights in this conversation. Years ago I was involved in a multi-lateral dialogue sponsored by the (then) World Alliance of Reformed Churches on “The Integrity of Creation” and we touched on many of these issues. In light of climate change and other environmental concerns in our time it seems important to me that we Christians (and especially those of us who care about theology) get our thinking as right as we can about these issues. I know Jane has been drawing deeply from several theological wells on this subject, and I am eager to see more of her thoughts. And any you might have after another cup of coffee or two. Cheers.

  4. Jane, I agree: there are definite similarities between Paul’s use of this rhetoric in Romans 1 and its appearance in Wis 13 and Philo Iudaeus. It is functionally a polemic against paganism, and functions ideally both internal to the Judean consciousness as a condemnation of those outside, and also among converts, for whom condemnation of the ignorance of their former ways of life is a crucial aspect of conversion. But there is for Paul a disingenuousness about his use of this rhetoric in Romans, because he is using it as part of an epideictic strategy in which it complies with the audience’s own prejudices and exposes them for correction.

    And I’m going to side with Pamela Eisenbaum and a strong general consensus in the field that Paul was emphatically not a Christian in any sense that means anything to the Fathers or us; we have only appropriated him as such because he, of these three, also speaks of faith in God through Jesus, God’s messiah—which we would realize was more common in the period before the First Jewish War if we knew what to look for, especially in the variety of our own scriptures.

    Paul is not condemning the stupid idolatrous goyim for himself; he’s trying to get the stupid zealot goyim that the hardliners are converting with such tactics to remember that there’s nothing about Torachic-obedience culture that they don’t already have a path to in their own proper pneumatic obedience in Christ. And why? Because God has embraced them and included them while at the same time humbling the zealots for their own failures, so that all should come to walk before God in fidelity and trust and mutual reconciling love.

    As to Barth’s doctrine of creation, that’s even more central to my work, but I’ll have to come back to it in a little while; this is probably enough of a first point.

  5. It’s not clear that any of these sources are actually attempting to say that accurate knowledge of God can be had from creation, as though from general revelation without the aid of special revelation. This is not dogmatics; it is apologetics, meant to confirm the validity of a faith not based on general revelation and in fact significantly and polemically opposed to all naturalisms that do not serve as mere corroboration of so-called “special” revelation. The track only runs one way, and cannot be run the other way with validity recognized by its authentic practitioners.

    If it were not merely apologetics, these claims would actually serve Paul’s intent better, because a doctrine of general revelation would make anyone’s particular version of the faith unnecessary. Special revelation would only at best be a confirmation of general truths, making God’s self-revelation optional. While God’s self-revelation might disconfirm certain members of the set of all natural religions as misinterpretations of natural revelation, it could not—for example—decide among the Abrahamic faiths or their many, many subspecies. It would be useless for the purposes of most heresiology.

  6. From that perspective, and hopefully without stretching the limits of civility by taking up this much space here, I’d say that there’s an openness in Barth’s theology, and in Barth himself, that he is simply unwilling to frame as a principle of dogmatics. And rightly so! Where someone like Pannenberg can make “openness to the world” a dogmatic principle, for Barth it must be excluded from our epistemology. Where in earlier theologies (not to mention among his peers and colleagues in the dialectical theology movement, who would come to be called “neo-orthodox” in ways Barth is not) the path from God’s revelation to the world’s reflection had been taken as a reliable but secondary principle, it had also always resulted in the selective legitimation of the world as it conforms to our theology and cultural self-concepts of virtue. And we have absolutely no baseline for valid comparison of what is cultural and what is natural, what is ours and what is God’s. We’re stuck in the middle of the problem, and have nothing to use as control that is not ideologically contaminated.

    For Barth, the proper consideration of our reflection—and never our embodiment, because the imago Dei is not a thing we have, but a resemblance we bear—of God is responsibility to God in right relationships. We may not be “reflectors without our own light,” but the only light we have, if we have it, comes inalienably from God. It is not our own, nor have we ever in our hubris been able to make it our own. It does not in any way come from us; what we have as creatures of the Creator comes from God, and would disappear (as would we ourselves) if God stopped positing the creation over and out of the abyss. There is therefore no good to be had studying us as sources of it, as though our character in the world, as we find ourselves, was determined by the Creator and not also and more significantly by our own massive histories of interaction with one another in the world. The Fall, if we take it at all seriously, means that we cannot ever rely on our lights as theological sources. Nature is not a source; it is a product, and not a simple product in any way that would allow us to track its reflection as though it preserved the source of its light. We may enjoy that light and its reflections, but we may never trust them.

    • Thanks, Matt. Lots of good stuff here, and there is all the space you need. I especially like your reminder that creation is not a “once and done” as it seems in much creation theology, which sometimes wants the creation without the Creator. I’m intrigued by the difference in a construal of the imago Dei that believes it is “a resemblance we bear,” rather than “a thing we have.” If I understand what this means rightly, it is again a move toward the continuing dependance of the creature on the Creator. It seems to me the trick is to not claim too little about “the goodness, beauty, reality, dignity and intrinsic power”” of creation, as Jane reminds us, without claiming these things as somehow not continually dependent on the sovereignty and freedom of the Creator. Or as Scott mentioned creation is distinct from God, but not autonomous, “since the created world is absolutely dependent upon the Creator.” As always, I stand ready to be corrected.

      • Well, that’s tricky. For Barth, creation absolutely is a “once and done,” in that creation as a work of God (or a moment in the one work of God) is finished on the seventh day. But other works/moments go on after it, and either depend upon it (reconciliation/atonement) or sustain its reality (providence). Creation is not the logic of what follows after it, because gracious election is the paradigm of all economic acts; but as Barth says, God remains the Creator in all that God will later do. However the creature changes, or however God will later transform the creature in redemption and consummation, God will never be unfaithful to this first work of creation.

        I think you’ve nailed the implications of imago as resemblance, but I’ll recommend his Gifford lectures generally as a nice, reasonably concise (for Barth) exposition of the theme. And I’ll tweak Scott’s wording: we are in fact autonomous, constantly self-re-norming, though naturally dependent upon God at all times. That difference is what makes the difference in terms of general revelation. God made us to be free and loving as God is free and loving, and that entailed the possibility of our failure at all times, which is covered by our relation to God who forgives and renews and sends us back out.

        God is the criterion of our right creaturely being. We were made to be constantly connected and reconnected back to our source, and as the creature we chose instead to treat that relationship as optional, and to connect and reconnect to ourselves and one another as sources. And worse, we chose to use negation in order to re-arrange ourselves into forms we found more congenial. It has been common in the tradition to suggest that sin cannot create order, but sin isn’t the agent; we are, and we absolutely can and do! And we keep choosing those things, which makes us worse and worse sources, and worse and worse reflectors. None of which makes us bad as the creature—because we are nothing else, and can become nothing else, than God’s good creature—but all of which makes the identification of our worlds with God’s act of creation deeply problematic. We are in the realm of atonement, in God’s maintenance of the creature in the terms of the covenant of grace after the Fall, and that is a separate and autonomous realm from creation-history. And it will also be a separate and autonomous realm from the future history of our redemption and consummation as God’s creature. These things don’t run one into the other, Barth insists; they only run one after the other.

      • What that does for the classic Judean polemic of the natural availability of the knowledge of God is something we really ought to apply without partisan bias, and I think Paul is doing that here in Romans. We were not made such that God was hidden from us. We were made that we might know and relate to God and one another faithfully at all times. We were made with the intention that the length of cord required for that connection would never be very long, even though God would give us all the length we required. We were made with the intention that tangles could always be sorted out because we would return to God for timely help. But we have preferred our own expertise at running out length and tangling it up artfully so much that we have become experts at tying knots and cutting cords, and this is not God’s doing, and at this point there is no way to trace any of these lines back to an original state. God graciously sustains us and gently corrects us toward covenant at all times, but most of that grace is forbearance because of the vast amounts of negation that would be required to restore us to anything like an original state. God won’t employ that power. Instead, Paul suggests, God now also cuts cords and ties knots—but for very different ends than we do! We should never mistake God’s actions for our intentions. We should instead grow to have among us the same intentions as God does.

      • Thanks again, Matt, for your engagement with these issues. Is the rope and tangles metaphor, “Cuts cords and ties knots,” your phrase? It is such a good one. I wish I had known it when I was writing my Romans study to use in chapter 1 and elsewhere.

      • The cords and knots was mine, spur of the moment, but it’s derived from work Mark Nanos has done on the pruning and grafting metaphors in Romans 11. I was lucky enough to have him visit our Romans seminar several years back because he and my NT professor, Ray Pickett, are regular sparring partners. The material is featured, IIRC, in this lecture he gave in 2014: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mWfiuR1rDQw

      • Of course, the real determining factor is my Barth work; I wouldn’t say the cords and knots and tangles metaphor comes from Romans, so much as the solution to the problem it describes comes from Paul’s solution to their quarrels between Judeans, Jewish gentiles, and converts in the pagan political center that is Rome. And that solution came to me mediated by Mark Nanos, and resonated with Barth’s insistence that there is no hope in a way back to the origin, no hope in apokatastasis or similar reversions to integrity that matches what we’re really given as hope for redemption.

  7. Dear Rick, Matt, and Scott, I am sorry to be delinquent in responding to your contributions here. As I explained to Rick last week, I was out of town when this dialogue was taking place and then had to go out of town a second time, so I am behind in my serious reading. I’ve also changed my WordPress account to a new name. When I first posted above, I was using jelling57. I will respond again very soon. Jane Ellingwood

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