Sometimes in church life, when making a case for bringing a secular business model or a secular counseling technique into the church, one will argue, “all truth is God’s truth.” This may be followed by the claim that all truth is general revelation and as such is from God and should be trusted. Something doesn’t necessarily have to be found in the Bible in order to be true and useful.
But there is a big difference between special revelation and its authority compared to general revelation and its authority. Both are acts of God’s grace in making known to us truth that would not be known otherwise. Both are helpful to us. But they are not on an equal playing field.
General revelation is general in two senses. First of all, it is general in scope – it goes to everyone. Second, it is general in substance; that is, it delivers general, not specific, truth. It is broad in nature. It shows truths like “God is divine and powerful” (Rom 1:20). It does not deliver detailed truths like the doctrine of the Trinity.
The Bible speaks of two avenues of general revelation. The first is creation, which Psalm 19 depicts as revealing truths about God: The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Likewise, Romans 1:20 shows how God has revealed truth about Himself in creation: 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. A second avenue of general revelation is the human conscience. Romans 2:15 teaches 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…
The benefit of general revelation, according to Scripture, is not the same for the unbeliever and believer. In Romans 1:19-32, we find that general revelation serves to expose the heart of the unbeliever and his rebellion against God, and brings upon him God's just judgment. There is no saving benefit. For the unbeliever, it is altogether negative. For the believer, general revelation bears witness to the glory of God. For the believer, general revelation is altogether positive.
Special revelation is completely different. It is special in substance, which means that it is more specific, more detailed than general revelation. For example, knowledge of salvation can only come through special revelation. It depends upon details not available in our observation of creation, nor in our conscience. Rom 10:17 reads, So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
There are three main avenues of special revelation. The first is through personal encounter, as when God appeared to Moses in a burning bush in Exodus 3. The second is through propositional revelation, which is what we have in the Bible. The third is the Incarnation – the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
The benefit of special revelation is also different for the unbeliever and believer. If the unbeliever is judged for rejecting general revelation about God, how much more will he be judged for rejecting special revelation? As Peter writes of false teachers, it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them (2Pet 2:21). Special revelation will serve to condemn the unrepentant sinner. On the other hand, for the believer, Scripture is profitable to equip him for every good work (2Tim 3:16-17).
When we think about these two kinds of revelation it becomes obvious that one is superior to the other in terms of its benefit and authority. General revelation, because it is limited in scope and substance, is only useful in a limited sense. It is not sufficient to lead us to life and godliness. Special revelation, on the other hand, is sufficient to make us “complete” (2Tim 3:17), to guide us in all matters pertaining to life and godliness (2 Pet 1:3-4). Some might argue that the conscience (considered general revelation) can serve as a guide in how we live and make moral decisions. This is true, but it is far inferior to Scripture (special revelation) since the conscience is weak and fallible (1Cor 8:7-13; 1Tim 4:1-3;Titus 1:15). Our consciences should be educated by Scripture.
When the general revelation argument is used to bring models and techniques from the secular world into the church, most often the model or technique does not qualify as general revelation. I'll use secular counseling techniques as an example. First, we do not find support in Scripture for the idea that general revelation involves "secular" truth. Each passage in Scripture dealing with general revelation shows that it pertains to truth about who God is, and in a limited sense, what He requires (ex. Psa 19; Rom 1:19-32; 2:12-16). However, secular counseling techniques like psychotherapy are inherently godless. Therefore, they do not biblically qualify as general revelation. Second, secular counseling techniques are not general in scope or substance. In other words, they are not truths obvious to everyone, nor are they truths that are non-specific. To the contrary, they are ideas that occur to only a scant few and they are extremely specific in nature. Third, secular counseling techniques frequently directly contradict special revelation, which true general revelation can never do. For example, much secular counseling theory is based upon the premise that man is basically good until he is corrupted by negative experiences. But Scripture teaches that all men are sinners by nature (Rom 3:23; Eph 2:1-3).
Again, we must be very careful what sources of "truth" we consider authoritative in the church and in our lives. Special revelation is the only revelation we can trust completely on matters pertaining to life and godliness. And as it is objectively recorded in Scripture, it is the final authority as well.
Posted by Greg Birdwell