Why You Need to Know the Difference Between Natural and Special Revelation

Why You Need to Know the Difference Between Natural and Special Revelation by Ty Gregory for Core Christianity

Imagine accidentally showing up to a neurosurgeon’s office when you meant to see a plastic surgeon. The neurosurgeon wouldn’t be able to help you, not because he’s incompetent, but because his training wasn’t designed for it. Knowing the difference between plastic and neural surgery is helpful because it prepares you to expect certain things from each kind of doctor. This is as true in theology as it is in medicine. Theologians make a distinction between general and special revelation because they detect two different purposes behind these forms of divine communication. Just like a patient can expect unique treatments from plastic and neurosurgeons, a Christian can expect unique messages from general and special revelation.

General Revelation

General revelation has unique tools to communicate its message about God. The tools of general revelation are created things. According to Psalm 19, both “the heavens” (19:1) and “the law of the Lord” (19:7) reveal God’s character. In the first half of this poem, the heavens are depicted as a living art piece that announces God’s active presence in the world (19:1–6). The day-night pattern of creation is like a loud voice that applauds God’s fame (19:1–4). And the predictable rising then setting of the sun is a daily exhibition of God’s creative skill (19:5–6). Creation, in other words, is God’s masterpiece. The patterns and beauty embedded within it are clear strokes of a divine artist. Its message about God is simple yet profound—the Creator is wise and powerful.

If the “heavens” are the visual theater of God’s creative glory on a global scale, then the “law of the Lord” is the personal stage of God’s morally compelling character. God’s standards for right relationships cause the poet’s heart and soul in Psalm 19 to be renewed (19:7–8), his moral and emotional intelligence to soar (19:9), and seeking justice to be his life’s purpose (19:10–11). God’s moral law, in other words, is like a compass that centers the poet’s life by directing him back to the perfect lawgiver. He knows that God’s standards are simultaneously life-giving yet impossible for him to perform. That’s why the poet closes his song by recommitting his imperfect steps to God. Despite his flaws, he trusts God to declare him innocent (19:12). The message about God in the moral law is that God satisfies the demands of divine justice.

General revelation is important for everyday life because it teaches us that God has blended wisdom into every created thing. This infusion of patterns, beauty, and morality in the world not only makes the study of physics, art, and ethics possible, it also reflects the divine mind who made them. Though this panoramic message about God is compelling, notice what is left out. There is nothing about humanity’s rescue, the Trinity, the hope of resurrection life, or the renewal of creation. But that’s not the purpose of general revelation. It describes in broad terms who God is with respect to the world. It’s the purpose of special revelation, on the other hand, to describe who God is with respect to humanity as a fractured and rebellious people.

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