What if God never made Himself known?
What is revelation?
As Bernard Ramm put it: “In its broadest sense “revelation is the sum total of the ways in which God makes himself known” (17). We could never know God—we could never discover God—if God did not reveal Himself to us. It would be kind of like Jack Slater from Last Action Hero never finding out he’s an action movie hero. Or Truman Burbank never finding out he’s the star of The Truman Show. We would be living in ignorance of reality. The created would know nothing about its Creator. We would not know God. Without revelation, there would be no true religion.
If we are going to know anything about God, He must reveal Himself to us. For there is to be revelation, there must be a God. There must be something—truth, fact, or event—that is up to that point unknown. And there has to be a human for God to reveal this truth, fact, or event to (295). Theologians like to make a distinction between natural and supernatural revelation. But, as Herman Bavinck points out, all revelation is supernatural (307). God is at work in all of it. So we would do better to categorize revelation into two groups: general revelation and special revelation.
General revelation is general because it’s how God has communicated Himself to all persons at all times in all places (122). General revelation tells us that God exists. And it tells us something about His character like His goodness and justice. Nature reveals God’s existence and glory (Psalm 19:1–6; Rom 1:18–21). God’s providence reveals He is benevolent to all people (Matt 5:45). Our conscience is how God has placed His law in the hearts of all (Rom 2:14–15). But general revelation isn’t enough. It isn’t insufficient. It’s too general. It doesn’t reveal to us man’s need for faith and repentance and forgiveness of sin. It doesn’t reveal to us the person and work of Jesus Christ. And it’s Jesus, the Son of God, who reveals the Father to us (Matt 11:27).
As Herman Bavinck summed it up:
“The knowledge that general revelation can supply is not only meager and inadequate but also uncertain, consistently mingled with error…” It’s the foundation on which special revelation stands (313, 322). It gives the Christian a point of contact with every human when we confront them with special revelation.
The highlighted theologian this week is Tertullian.
Living in Carthage and the son of a centurion, Tertullian wrote theology in the early third century AD. He made this same point on the purpose of general revelation. He calls it “nature.” He wrote:
“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” (cited by Bavinck, 322).
By “prophecy” he means special revelation, which is where we now turn.
Special revelation is special because that’s how God has communicated Himself to particular persons at particular times that are now only available to us in certain sacred writings: Scripture (122). Special revelation includes God speaking directly to people like Adam, Noah, Abraham, Hagar, Moses, and the prophets. God’s miracles were revelation: the ten plagues in Egypt, Joshua and the people of Israel crossing the Jordan River. And there’s the Bible. It doesn’t reveal everything about God. But it does reveal everything needed to become “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 3:15).
Speaking of Christ Jesus, He himself is the revelation of the true and living God. When Philip, one of Jesus’ disciples says: “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us” (John 14:8).
Jesus answers him:
“Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? (John 14:9)
In the most fullest sense possible, God makes Himself known in Jesus. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature…” (Heb 1:3a). And we know Jesus through the Bible. So while there are different channels of revelation, they are only properly understood through Scripture. God has spoken.
And this brings us back to Tertullian because this is where he got himself into theological trouble. He was influenced by a Christian sect called the Montanists that emphasized, among other things, asceticism and the continuation of prophecy from the Holy Spirit. Tertullian believed that God sometimes changed His mind about prior revelation in Scripture. He believed “new prophecy” was coming from the Holy Spirit and changing things like what Paul taught about widows remarrying (157–160). I believe Tertullian was wrong and would appeal to 1 Cor. 13:8–10 to argue that revelatory activity ceased with the completion of the New Testament canon. And as one theologian put it:
“To circumvent this absolute authority in favor of some form of direct revelation is to abandon stability in the Christian experience” (180).
God wants to be known. He wants you to know Him. He wants you to know the status of your relationship with Him. And what the status of your relationship with Him ought to be. And for you to know that you must pursue the knowledge of God that He has made available to us in His revelation.
How much confidence could we place in the Bible if Tertullian was right and Scripture was subject to change upon later subjective revelation? Our Christian experience owes its stability to the sure revelation of Scripture. It’s authoritative, inspired, inerrant, and infallible. But know you can confidently place your confidence in the Word of God. Don’t live in ignorance of reality by ignoring supernatural revelation.