General Revelation—Do You Understand It?

This post was a collaborative effort between Ben Williamson and Cody Libolt.

When someone tells you what they did, that is special revelation. When you see what they did, that is general revelation.

In any relationship, there will be some of both. But many Christian thinkers seem to overlook the special-general distinction when talking about God.

For instance, notice the confusing lack of any special-general distinction in this excerpt from Dr. Albert Mohler’s lecture, Theological Education that Transforms.

While there is much here to agree with, there is also an unfortunate ambiguity. Mohler says,

“There is no room for anti-intellectualism in the Christian life, nor intellectual egotism and pride. The frame of God’s glory reminds us that all we know of God and his ways is given us by grace. We are absolutely dependent upon revelation, for God’s ways are unfathomable and his judgments are unsearchable.”

Mohler is correct that all we know about God is given us by grace. We are absolutely dependent upon revelation.

But “revelation” includes two types: special and general. By leaving this detail unnamed, Mohler opens the door for an important error. Namely, one could reasonably question whether Mohler agrees with Paul in Romans 1:20, which says, “The invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made.”

The confusion is made worse as Mohler continues,

“Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ must be thinkers whose minds are captive to the Word of God, and whose entire intellectual structure is shaped and determined by biblical truth.”

What does it mean to have one’s entire intellectual structure shaped and determined by biblical truth? Yes, the Christian conforms his mind to the mind of Christ. The Christian affirms God’s words as true. The Christian seeks to integrate all his thoughts to the revelation of God. But does Mohler intend to imply that biblical truth is the only revelation from God that the Christian is responsible to integrate?

Hopefully, we are seeing more implied in Mohler’s words than he intends. But those without a background in the special-general issue would most naturally take Mohler to be equating “revelation” with “special revelation,” as if general revelation were not also important.

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We are not convinced that our “entire intellectual structure must be shaped and determined by biblical truth.” In fact, this claim itself doesn’t seem to have much biblical support going for it.

All truth is God’s truth.

Though we may be misunderstanding his intention, Mohler has conveyed a very narrow understanding of what the intellectual life looks like for a Christian. Is our intellectual life focused simply on clarifying what Scripture says and defending it? Is that the extent? Almost certainly, Mohler means no such thing. But the suggestion is there.

The problem of anti-intellectualism goes beyond the concerns Mohler highlights, such as Christians not knowing how to study their Bibles or synthesize and analyze Scripture.

Anti-intellectualism traces in large part to the very ideas Mohler seems to be promoting: the notion that Scripture alone is the measure of all truth claims. If such were the case, then natural revelation with respect to God’s existence (knowledge acquired by reason applied to reality)and most other domains of knowledgewould hold no independent or unique authority in their own right.

Someone may reply, “Of course Scripture isn’t the measure of claims of science or history.” But will they then claim that Scripture is our only measure in evaluating ethical truths? Even those ethical questions not addressed in Scripture? Where does that leave philosophy? Where does it leave human responsibility?

As Christians, we have no license to ignore outside knowledge by appealing to “Scripture alone.” To Christian thinkers of the past, that was not the meaning of Sola scriptura.

Today’s thinkers owe it to themselves to find out what Sola scriptura did mean. What is at stake if they default on that responsibility? The future of the Christian intellect, for one. And eventually the credibility of the Christian witness.

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M.A. in Worship Leadership, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville KY.

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