In the previous post I discussed the overall concept of revelation and why it is important to Christian theology. In this post I will move into some specifics about revelation in an attempt to move the topic from the abstract to the concrete.
The first type of revelation I will discuss here is General revelation. It is essentially revelation that is available to anyone anywhere anytime. You can think of it as being similar to a General Admission ticket: you don’t need to be someone special to get it because it is available to everyone. The Bible is not properly General Revelation and so it is excluded from this category. The reason is because historically the Bible has not been available to everyone at all times. Even today not everyone in the world has access to a Bible, either to read themselves to hear it read to them.
What is included in General Revelation is the created world and all that is visible and observable within it. Things like weather patterns, constellations, ecosystems, plants, animals, stars, galaxies, the human body, etc. These things have always been available to everyone at every time in history to observe and consider. You don’t need any sort of special equipment or knowledge to observe these things. This sort of revelation is appealed to several times by the Apostle Paul:
Romans 1.19-20: “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. So they are without excuse.”
Acts 14.15-17: “We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.”
Acts 17.24-27: “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us…”
As an aside: This is one of the reasons why I believe the choice between science and Christianity is a false one. I believe that the observation and study of the natural world should at the very least lead you to theism. To be sure, this process might take several years, or even several decades, but it should happen. In any case, a full discussion of this issue is beyond the scope of this article, so I will leave it at this for now.
I believe that you can also add conscience as a type of General Revelation. What I mean by conscience is basically a natural sense of right and wrong. The basis for me adding it here is Romans 2.14-15:
“For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them…”
Everyone then who has ever lived has had some natural sense of right and wrong and their conscience either affirms them for doing good or accuses them of doing evil. I do not mean to include specific actions here; that is, I do not mean to say that everyone who has ever lived has always condemned the same things as being wrong and affirmed the same things as being right. What I mean here is that everyone has a natural sense that some things are right and other things are wrong and their conscience will tell them where a particular action falls.
Unlike General revelation, special revelation is revelation that is given to particular people at a particular time. In other words, there has to be something “special” about you in order to receive it. It is sometimes also called specific revelation. It is not always available to everyone everywhere at anytime. In many cases in fact it is only accessible to the person receiving the revelation.
For the purposes of this article I will mention 3 types of special revelation. These categories are not meant to be exhaustive nor mutually exclusive, but I think that they will cover most of the experiences of special revelation.
At the most basic level Christians consider Scripture to be “God-breathed.” This means that we believe that God worked through human authors so that the words of Scripture are the words that God intends to be there. The technical term for this is “Inspiration.” Now there is much more that can be said about the nature of Scripture (and I will do so in a future post), but for now I think it is sufficient to say that as Christians when we read the Bible we believe that we are reading the words of God.
There are parts of the Bible that are propositional in nature. A good example of this are what are called the “high Christological passages,” which describe Jesus as being Divine. These passages are generally held to be: John 1.1-18, Colossians 1.15-20, Philippians 2.6-11, and Hebrews 1.1-14. In them, I think, it is quite clear that they are asserting that Jesus is indeed Divine (God) and not just a mere human.
Other parts of the Bible are narrative or historical in nature. A good part of the Old Testament is narrative or historical literature. In modern Bibles the books from Genesis through Job are mostly (there are a few exceptions) narrative or historical accounts of events and experiences that people had with God. In the New Testament the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and Acts are the only narrative or historical accounts. Now when I say these particular books are historical or narrative I do not mean that they conform to modern standards of historical accounts of someone’s life. A closer contemporary category I think would be myth because their primary purpose is to instruct and explain beliefs. This does not mean that the stories are not true. What defines a myth is not whether the events really happened or not. What defines a myth is its purpose in being recorded and retold to subsequent generations so that they can learn the worldview, traditions, and customs of their culture.
Overall I would say that the Bible is closer to poetry than any other contemporary literary genre; you are only being told what is essential in order to understand the author’s point. This means that when we read it we need to do it slowly in order to really understand what is being said. And sometimes, even if we do this, it is still difficult to understand what is being said.
In any case, Bible study is a lifelong pursuit for Christians. Not just because it requires effort to understand, but because it is an inexhaustible source of spiritual insights and directions. Most of us, I think, eventually find Bible study to be something we look forward to doing because we get so much benefit out of it.
However, you don’t need to be a Christian in order to benefit from reading the Bible. There are numerous people who became Christians because they started reading the Bible for themselves. For most of them their motivation at the start was something other than conversion. Some of them wanted to disprove Christianity. Others were just simply curious.
Another type of special revelation is history. I do not mean just simply world history or the historical events recorded in the Bible (although those are significant), but also personal history as well. One significant historical event, I think, is the rise and “success” of Christianity as a religion and the preservation of it to the present day because the odds are solidly stacked against any religion surviving the demise of its founder. Someone who is not a Christian might in fact study the historical record and the rise of Christianity within the Roman Empire and conclude that the best explanation for all these events is that the Resurrection actually did happen.
Personal events however might be the most impactful form of special revelation. This could be a miraculous healing, deliverance from alcohol or drug addiction, always having provisions despite otherwise adverse circumstances, or a number of other things. I would also put significant world events that have a deep personal impact, such as the attacks of 9/11, under this category also.
Inner Mystical Experience
The last type of special revelation to be discussed here is what I will call “Inner Mystical Experience.” What I mean by that is essentially all the times that you might hear God “speak” to you. I know some people who have described hearing from God as a thought being screamed in their mind. If that sounds a little strange and weird that’s ok. Other people might “hear” God through someone else’s words or from looking at an image or painting or something visual.
What I do not mean here is a synonym for your own feelings. The events I am referring to here are very distinct from feelings. Feelings are very common and experienced everyday. The types of experiences that I am referring to here are not common nor are they experienced everyday. In fact it is probably only a handful times that someone will have such experiences in their lifetime. Practically speaking the way you handle such experiences is to check the content of the message against the Bible and the historic Christian faith. If it contradicts either of those it’s either your own thoughts or a demon.
There is nothing you can really do to make these sorts of things happen. They just happen when they happen. However, it does seem as though people with a high level of spiritual devotion (e.g. monks) have a higher frequency of such experiences than others. So perhaps you can increase the likelihood of them happening, but you cannot make them happen.
General Revelation by itself is an insufficient source for Christian theology. It won’t bring someone to knowledge of the Trinity, or Jesus, or to bring them to faith, or save them, or convert them or whatever. It is however, I believe, enough to get someone to start asking questions and moving in that direction. Someone might, for instance, observe the stars at night and be awed by them and the sheer size of the universe. Another might look at a local ecosystem and wonder at the fact that every part of that ecosystem is vital and important to the survival and thriving of that ecosystem. Still someone else might marvel at the human body and how complex our DNA is and how all our various organs and systems all work together to sustain us and reproduce us and begin to entertain the notion that maybe perhaps there is some sort of intelligence behind all this and that they designed us. In none of these scenarios will simple observation of creation lead someone to conclude that Christianity is true, but it will at least start moving them in the direction of theism.
What will lead someone to Christianity is Special Revelation. When the natural world is observed and understood from this perspective it can, and will, have a very powerful effect on the individual. If they are not Christian it has the power to convert them. If they are a Christian it will lead them to greater understanding and appreciation of God and His creation.