Nothing is more important than knowing God as He truly is. For this reason, the church has confessed many truths about our God throughout history. God is the eternal Trinity, the almighty Creator, the wise Sustainer, the effective Redeemer, and the coming Judge. One truth not so clearly articulated in our creeds is that God is the trustworthy Revealer. To know God as He is, He must reveal Himself to us.
Because God is infinite, He cannot be fully comprehended by finite creatures. We are blinded to God’s truth by our sin. But even before sin entered the world, we needed God to tell us about Himself. God has always been a revealer of Himself both in His words and in His works. He spoke to Adam in the garden of Eden to reveal Himself and displayed aspects of His character in the works of creation that surrounded Adam. Theologians have called God’s words—spoken at first and later written down—His special revelation, while they have called His works of creation and providence His general revelation. General revelation is, well, general (those theologians know what they are talking about), whereas special revelation is much more specific, detailed, and extensive. Today, general revelation surrounds us in nature, while we possess special revelation in the Bible. Special revelation tells God’s people everything revealed about His character in general revelation and much more.
What exactly, then, is general revelation, and why is it significant? Some suggest that the natural sciences are the study of general revelation and so go beyond special revelation. But since the Enlightenment, the natural sciences have typically studied creation not to know God but to know creation, and therefore are not focused on general revelation through creation. General revelation, properly speaking, is God’s clear display of His glory and power in the works of creation and providence. As the Scriptures explain: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge” (Ps. 19:1–2). “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:19–20).
Many years ago, Joan Baez, the celebrated folk singer, introduced a song at one of her concerts. She was about to sing “The Dangling Conversation,” a song with the refrain: “Be not too hard, for life is short and nothing is given to man.” She told how she had been watching a beautiful sunset with the writer of the song and had asked, “How can you look at such beauty and say that nothing is given to man?” The writer thought a moment and replied, “Well, the beauty is loaned, not really given.” The psalmist would have smiled and interjected: “Whether the beauty of the sunset is given or only loaned, it points unmistakably and unavoidably to the Divine One who gives or loans. That is the necessary character of general revelation.”
Sinners can resist and deny this general revelation, but they cannot escape it. All nature, all the time, shouts out the existence, power, and splendor of God. Sinners can close their eyes and stop their ears, but general revelation remains plain all around them. Only when the unrighteous actively suppress this plain truth can the testimony of general revelation be denied. Such suppression is wicked and foolish. So the Scriptures rightly declare: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good” (Ps. 14:1).
This general revelation is an inevitable result of God’s works of creation and providence. But what purpose does it serve? In the first place, general revelation is a great encouragement and support to believers throughout their lives: “Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them. Full of splendor and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever” (Ps. 111:2–3). But there is another vital function of general revelation in this fallen world as well. Paul expressed this function powerfully: “So they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20). Sinners are full of excuses: “I would believe if only I could see God or could hear God.” Paul says sinners have no legitimate excuses. Those who have rejected God’s general revelation would not have profited from His special revelation. Indeed, all of us sinners would reject both forms of God’s revelation apart from God’s special, merciful work of regeneration in the hearts of His people.
Surely, it would be presumptuous for us to add to the Apostles’ Creed. But it might well be an improvement to say: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, the revealer, and the maker of heaven and earth.” Praise God the Revealer.