Revelation and Responsibility

One of the most important questions for the Christian intellectual is: How does the truth of Scripture relate to the truth of philosophy, or science, or history?

If we put it in terms of “revelation,” it becomes: how does special revelation relate to general revelation?

The typical answer is that all other sources of truth must be submitted to Scripture; that general revelation, at the end of the day, must be submitted to special revelation; that philosophy and science and history must all ultimately “bow the knee” to the Bible.

This answer is most succinctly stated by John Frame in his Systematic Theology, where he introduces the following formula:

“When we have a settled view that Scripture teaches p, then we must believe p, over against any claim that p is false.1

Of course, this formula (as answer to the above question) is born of a jealous desire to ensure that God, and His Word, remain authoritative. Unfortunately though, this answer—like so many contemporary Christian answers to such problems—does exactly what it is aimed to fight against. It undermines the authority of God, and it botches our view of His truth. And that’s because, in addition to being born from a sincere desire, this answer is also born from some serious confusion.

That confusion is best introduced by one of Frame’s restatements of his formula:

“To be sure, the Bible must be interpreted in the light of other forms of revelation, as they must be interpreted in the light of the Bible. But our settled convictions about what Scripture says take precedence over convictions derived from any other source.”2

Here, Frame grants that there may be some way in which “other forms of revelation” (like philosophy) might inform our interpretation of Scripture, but at the end of the day, he insists that Scripture must take “precedence... over any other source.” This is curious though, because Frame (and most Christians) would presumably agree that all revelation is from God, and therefore authoritative.

Is Frame suggesting that some revelation is more revealed than others? The implication, at least, is that Scripture is more authoritative than other “forms” of revelation. But this is where the confusion comes in.

Sources Of Knowledge vs. Means of Knowledge

When Frame talks about other “forms” of revelation, does he mean other sources of revelation, or other means of understanding that revelation? He seems to mean the former (because he compares Scripture to “any other source”), but I would suggest that this is because he is confusing the former with the latter. A source of revelation is given directly by God, and must therefore carry His authority.

General revelation is God’s revelation through the created order (i.e. through the nature of things3), and special revelation is God’s revelation through Scripture—but both are God’s revelation, and therefore both must carry the same authority. The claim that special revelation is more authoritative than general revelation is just as ludicrous as the claim that the Gospels are more authoritative than the Epistles. God’s revelation is God’s revelation. There can be no distinction of authority in different forms of that revelation.

However, I think Frame would agree with this, and that’s why I suggest that he is confusing the sources of revelation with the means of understanding that revelation. The sources must be equally authoritative, but that is not to say that our conviction about what those sources says is authoritative. That’s because the meaning does not automatically jump from the source into our heads. We must employ a means of understanding that source.

Typically, the means of understanding general revelation is philosophy.4 And as everyone knows, philosophers often err, and often disagree with Scripture. And since philosophy is viewed as almost synonymous with general revelation, this makes many Christians wary of general revelation. But the wariness is unfounded. General revelation is no more synonymous with “what philosophers say” than special revelation is synonymous with “what theologians say.” After all, theologians often err as well, and also often disagree with Scripture.

Why would we be okay with fallible theologians studying an infallible text, but not okay with fallible philosophers studying an infallible reality? The solution is this: Whether we are dealing with nature, or with Scripture, we must maintain a distinction between God’s authoritative revelation and our understanding of it.

The text of Scripture is authoritative; the theologian’s interpretation of it is not. Likewise, the truth to be gleaned from general revelation is authoritative; the philosopher’s interpretation of it is not.  This means that rather than submitting one form of God’s revelation to another, we must instead labor to submit our understanding of each to both.

A New Formula

Since special revelation and general revelation are equally authoritative, it follows that neither can contradict the other. God is the author of both (from which each derives its authority), and God does not speak with a forked tongue. Therefore, the beginning of our new formula must be:

It will never be the case that Scripture teaches p, and general revelation teaches ~p.

The immediate question then is: what if it seems like Scripture teaches p, and general revelation teaches ~p? The answer is: “Let God be true, though every interpretation be false!” In other words, whenever it seems like there is a contradiction between God’s special revelation and His general revelation, we must not pit either one against the other—lest we pit God against God.

When our understanding of God’s revelation involves a contradiction, it is not the revelation we must question, but our understanding of it. This is why Frame’s formula is so dangerous. It encourages us to assume that our understanding of Scripture is accurate, and to automatically discount our understanding of God’s general revelation any time the two come into conflict.

But what if our understanding of Scripture were wrong, and our understanding of general revelation were right? Frame’s formula would have us skip past such a worry, and thus potentially undermines the authority of God in general revelation. To avoid this danger, we must add the following to our new formula:

Whenever it appears that Scripture teaches p, and general revelation teaches ~p, we must conclude that our interpretation of one (or both) is in error, and we must question our interpretations of both.

The question then becomes: how do we determine which interpretation is erroneous? We know that one (or both) is in error, but how do we identify the error? Is there some authoritative interpretation of both that we can check ours against? Is there some easy or automatic way to know when an interpretation is in error and when it is not? This is where the Christian’s existential panic will begin to set-in, because the answer is: no.

The Weight of Personal Intellectual Responsibility

There is no authoritative interpretation available to us. Sure, God’s “interpretation” of His revelation is authoritative, but we don’t have immediate access to that. Our only access to what He means by His revelation is through His revelation. There is no easy or automatic way to sift through interpretative errors.

But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a way, at all. It just means that it takes work. It means that there are no  “trump-cards,” the likes of which Frame’s formula attempts to be. It means that it is up to each individual to wrestle with all of God’s revelation (general and special), in order to learn to properly interpret each. It means that we must struggle to learn and to implement the appropriate interpretive principles for each field of study.

In the study of Scripture, there are hermeneutical principles. In the study of nature, there are metaphysical principles. In the study of knowledge, there are epistemological principles. And all are necessary for taking all of God’s revelation seriously.

It may be tempting to shirk off the work required for properly understanding general revelation, and to simply adopt Frame’s formula, or some other similarly pseudo-pious shortcut, but doing so would come at the steep cost of turning your back on part God’s authoritative revelation.

The responsibility of sorting through one’s own interpretive errors for both types of revelation may be weighty, but that is the weighty responsibility—and the unique privilege(!)—of being a man. This is what God has called us to in calling us to know Him. We may only know Him through His revelation, but it must be through all of His revelation.

It is a difficult task, but it also a glorious calling. And those who see that the glory of that calling is not worthy of being compared to the toil of that work will be the new Christian intellectuals.

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1 Frame, 721.
2 Frame, 734.
3 This is why the study of general revelation is typically called “natural theology.”
4 However, the other sciences are also means of understanding general revelation.

Jacob Brunton
B.T., Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis. M.A. in Philosophy (in progress) & Research Assistant at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.