Sometimes, within the context of the creation/evolution debate, you hear the claim that God’s general revelation conflicts with his special revelation. It seems that God has revealed one thing in nature (general revelation) about our origins and another thing in Scripture (special revelation), and as both are revelation from God we are stuck trying to reconcile the two. There is no question that the conclusions of many scientists conflict with what is revealed in Scripture, and whether those conclusions are true is a question beyond the purview of this blog post. Rather, the question here is: do the conclusions of science fall into the category of God’s general revelation?
Some would say yes. In this view science is the means by which our knowledge of general revelation grows. The scientific method is a tool of exegesis that uncovers the truths of God hidden in nature. In fact, it’s been argued that just as theologians are exegetes of God’s special revelation, scientists are exegetes of God’s general revelation. You can see then the kind of weight this gives to the scientific enterprise. Scientists aren’t just studying the natural world, they are opening our eyes to the sacred things of God. Because the discoveries of science are equated with the words of Scripture, they become equally authoritative and equally demand our submission.
But too often this “equality” is not maintained, and the exegesis of God’s Word is distorted by the exegesis of nature. We marshal our mythical readings of Genesis, not because anything or anyone in Scripture suggests Genesis should be read that way, but because it provides us with the path of least resistance. It is much easier to change our reading of Scripture and chalk the disagreements up to the vagaries of literature, than it is to change our reading of nature and expose ourselves to the ridicule of man.
But this all arises from an incorrect understanding of general revelation. It gives the wrong answer to the question, general revelation of what? The answer to that question is not nature, but God. When we speak of general revelation, we do not at all refer to man’s knowledge of the universe, but to man’s knowledge of God through the universe. In article 2 of the Belgic Confession we confess that through the “creation, preservation, and government of the universe” we come to know God. Paul wrote, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” (Romans 1:20). If we had a book called The Contents of General Revelation, its pages would not be filled with the discoveries of science, but with the “invisible qualities” of God.
Further, Romans 1:20 tells us not only what is revealed but why it is revealed. God has revealed himself in nature, Paul explains, “so that men are without excuse.” When the Cassini spacecraft discovered evidence of storms on Saturn’s methane-soaked moon, Titan, it was not the storms that belonged to the category of general revelation, but the expression of God’s power in the secret places of the universe. And the purpose of this revelation was not primarily to awe the scientists involved, although no doubt it did, but to leave the unbelievers among them without an excuse for their unbelief.
There’s a third truth in this verse, too: our knowledge of general revelation does not grow. The invisible qualities of God have been evident “since the creation of the world.” A twenty-first century scientist is no more equipped to behold general revelation than was a 10th century B.C. shepherd. My three-year-old son senses the divinity and eternity behind a thunderstorm, and one look at brilliant Venus tells him he’s seeing the handiwork of his sublime God. Science does not increase our knowledge of general revelation, that is, it does not reveal new attributes of God, but it does provide us with an ever-increasing number of opportunities to behold the God we worship.
It is impossible, then, to conceive of a conflict between general and special revelation. God does not reveal himself as one thing in nature, and then another in Scripture. He is one and the same God, the knowledge of whom through nature is sufficient to convict us, the knowledge of whom through Scripture is sufficient to save us. Also, a right understanding of general and special revelation prevents us from putting scientific consensus on an equal footing with the claims of Scripture. If Scripture teaches that God created the universe in six days, and that all of humanity, physically and spiritually, originated with Adam and Eve, then this is authoritative without qualification, without negotiation, and without equal.