General and Special Revelation

Writes Herman Bavinck in Our Reasonable Faith, page 44:

“In determining the value of general revelation, one runs the great danger either of over-estimating or of under-estimating it. When we have our attention fixed upon the richness of the grace which God has given in His special revelation, we sometimes become so enamored of it that the general revelation loses its whole significance and worth for us. And when, at another time, we reflect on the good, and true, and beautiful that is to be found by virtue of God’s general revelation in nature and in the human world, then it can happen that the special grace, manifested to us in the person and work of Christ, loses its glory and appeal for the eye of our soul. This danger, to stray off either to the right or to the left, has always existed in the Christian church.”

On General Revelation

bavinck-rdIMHO: The most careful and thoughtful statements on the value of general revelation have come from the pen of Dutch reformed scholar Herman Bavinck. Here, for example, are few of his thoughts taken from the first volume of his magnum opus, Reformed Dogmatics:


“… To deny that natural religion and natural theology are sufficient and have an autonomous existence of their own is not in any way to do an injustice to the fact that from the creation, from nature and history, from the human heart and conscience, there comes divine speech to every human.

No one escapes the power of general revelation. Religion belongs to the essence of a human. The idea and existence of God, the spiritual independence and eternal destiny of the world, the moral world order and its ultimate triumph—all these are problems that never cease to engage the human mind. Metaphysical need cannot be suppressed. Philosophy perennially seeks to satisfy that need. It is general revelation that keeps that need alive. It keeps human beings from degrading themselves into animals. It binds them to a supersensible world. It maintains in them the awareness that they have been created in God’s image and can only find rest in God. General revelation preserves humankind in order that it can be found and healed by Christ and until it is. To that extent natural theology used to be correctly denominated a “preamble of faith,” a divine preparation and education for Christianity. General revelation is the foundation on which special revelation builds itself up.

Finally, the rich significance of general revelation comes out in the fact that it keeps nature and grace, creation and re-creation, the world of reality and the world of values, inseparably connected. Without general revelation, special revelation loses its connectedness with the whole cosmic existence and life. The link that unites the kingdom of nature and the kingdom of heaven then disappears. Those who, along with critical philosophy, deny general revelation exert themselves in vain when via the way of practical reason or of the imagination they try to recover what they have lost. They have then lost a support for their faith. In that case the religious life exists in detachment from and alongside of ordinary human existence. The image of God then becomes a “superadded gift” (donum superadditum). As in the case of the Socinians, religion becomes alien to human nature. Christianity becomes a sectarian phenomenon and is robbed of its catholicity. In a word, grace is then opposed to nature. In that case it is consistent, along with the ethical modems, to assume a radical break between the power of the good and the power of nature. Ethos [morality] and φύσις [nature], are then totally separated. The world of reality and the world of values have nothing to do with each other. In that scenario we at bottom face a revival of Parsism or Manichaeism. By contrast, general revelation maintains the unity of nature and grace, of the world and the kingdom of God, of the natural order and the moral order, of creation and re-creation, of φύσις and ethos, of virtue and happiness, of holiness and blessedness, and in all these things the unity of the divine being. It is one and the same God who in general revelation does not leave himself without a witness to anyone and who in special revelation makes himself known as a God of grace. Hence general and special revelation interact with each other. “God first sent forth nature as a teacher, intending also to send prophecy next, so that you, a disciple of nature, might more easily believe prophecy” (Tertullian). Nature precedes grace; grace perfects nature. Reason is perfected by faith, faith presupposes nature.”

—Herman Bavinck
, Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena (Baker Academic, 2003), 1:321—322.

Pillaging Pagans

augustinetheologianSpeaking of what to do with ancient Pagan literature, here was Augustine’s take:

Moreover, if those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it.

For, as the Egyptians had not only the idols and heavy burdens which the people of Israel hated and fled from, but also vessels and ornaments of gold and silver, and garments, which the same people when going out of Egypt appropriated to themselves, designing them for a better use, not doing this on their own authority, but by the command of God, the Egyptians themselves, in their ignorance, providing them with things which they themselves were not making a good use of; in the same way all branches of heathen learning have not only false and superstitious fancies and heavy burdens of unnecessary toil, which every one of us, when going out under the leadership of Christ from the fellowship of the heathen, ought to abhor and avoid; but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them.

Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not create themselves, but dug out of the mines of God’s providence which are everywhere scattered abroad, and are perversely and unlawfully prostituting to the worship of devils.

These, therefore, the Christian, when he separates himself in spirit from the miserable fellowship of these men, ought to take away from them, and to devote to their proper use in preaching the gospel. Their garments, also—that is, human institutions such as are adapted to that intercourse with men which is indispensable in this life—we must take and turn to a Christian use.

—Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, II, 60.

The Plowman’s Education

“In Isaiah 28:26 we read that God instructs the plowman, teaching him how he is to do his work. But this instruction does not come to the plowman in writing, in so many words, nor in the form of lessons at school; it is a teaching, rather, which is contained and expressed in all the laws of nature, in the character of air and of soil, of time and place, of grain and corn. What the plowman must do is conscientiously to get to know all those laws of nature, and in this way to learn the lesson which God teaches in them.”

—Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith (Eerdmans 1956), p. 65.