Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Is "General Revelation" a matter of Common Grace? (21)

Dear Forum members,

I mentioned at the conclusion of my last letter that the time has come for us to turn to the question of general revelation. I intend to treat this subject at this point because we are discussing the view of common grace that teaches that God reveals His love for all men in creation (rain and sunshine, for example), what has sometimes been called “general revelation,” that is, God’s revelation of Himself in creation in distinction of God’s revelation of Himself in Scripture. And this general revelation, so called, is also common grace, for God gives evidence in the creation of His goodness, kindness, benevolence and grace. God speaks His Word of creation and providence in the world about us, expresses in it His greatness and glory and gives through it the knowledge of Himself. This knowledge of Himself is given to all men and is indicative of God’s favor and love to all men. Indeed, the very act of revealing Himself to all men is indicative of His favor. But along with that revelation of Himself to all is a certain subjective grace that all men have by the power of which all men come to know God’s love for them and kindness to them.

Herman Bavinck most clearly identifies common grace with general revelation. In his book, Our Reasonable Faith (tr. by Henry Zylstra from the Dutch work Magnalia Dei; The Wonderful Works of God; (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House,1977). In discussing the differences between general revelation and special revelation, he writes: “The first (general revelation, HH) is directed to all men and, by means of common grace, serves to restrain the eruption of sin . . .” (37). “It is common grace (in general revelation, HH) which makes special grace possible, prepares the way for it, and later supports it; and special grace, in its turn, leads common grace up to its own level and puts it into its service.” (38).

William Masselink wrote a book under the title, General Revelation and Common Grace in which he argues that God’s revelation of Himself in creation and history constitutes in itself the common grace of God. (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977). That is, the very fact that God reveals Himself to all men is, in itself, grace.

In a decision concerning the legitimacy of teaching evolutionism in Calvin College, it was argued that general revelation, because it is God’s common grace, has to be taken into account in determining the origins of the creation and the age of the earth. The argument is that God’s common grace through general revelation gives man the necessary ability to discover in creation God’s truth – also concerning the age of the earth. It is strange though that although Scripture teaches creation in seven days of twenty-four hours by the mighty Word of God, science, which supposedly teaches an old earth of billions of years of age and creation by long processes of natural selection and the survival of the fittest, is to be preferred over Scripture, and Scripture’s teachings considered in the light of science, rather than science in the light of Scripture. This is the theistic evolutionist’s position in spite of the fact that Scripture has as its Author, God, while science has as its authors, unbelieving scientists. That idea certainly ascribes to common grace a formidable power.

Prof. Ralph Janssen, professor in Old Testament studies in Calvin Theological Seminary in the early 20th century till his deposition in 1922, held to the idea that the miracles of Scripture had to be explained in scientific terms because of common grace. For example, the water from the rock when Moses struck it was not due to a miracle, but was due to a blow of Moses’ rod on a thin layer of rock, which broke the rock and released the water already in it (Num. 20:7-11). He also taught that the monotheism of Israel’s religion was gained in a certain measure by the adoption of the religions of surrounding nations. All this was possible because of the common grace given in general revelation, for, because all the heathen possessed common grace, they were able to discover and hold to certain truths concerning creation and God. And because scientists possessed common grace, they are able to understand general revelation and formulate certain scientific truths into which Scripture’s miracles had to be fitted and in the light of which they had to be explained. (For a more detailed study of this subject see my Masters Thesis, A Study of the Relation Between the Views of Prof. R. Jansen and Common Grace, available from the Protestant Reformed Theological School in Grand Rapids, Michigan.)

But we cannot be side-tracked by attempts to destroy God’s Word. We must move on to this question of “general revelation” and face the question whether so-called “general revelation” is common grace.

* * * *

Before I examine this whole idea in detail, I have a caveat that is, it seems to me, important. The fact is, that for years I have been unhappy with the whole concept of general revelation. General revelation is usually interpreted to mean that, apart from Scripture, God reveals Himself through creation; and this revelation of God in creation is given to all men. This is why this revelation in creation is called “general.” I have no problem with the idea that creation itself makes God known; my problem is with the word “revelation” as it stands connected to “general” and is applied to creation. It seems inevitable that such a conception leads also to a grace common to all those to whom God “reveals” Himself, for Scripture connects revelation with grace. I do not want to quibble about mere terms, but it is my conviction that we ought to abandon the term “general revelation” for the term itself implies something contrary to Scripture and has been used as proof of God’s universal love and favor.

I have examined the many texts in Scripture where the term “revelation” is used in the sense of God’s self-disclosure and I have been unable to find a single text that speaks of revelation as God’s self-disclosure to all men. In the sense of God’s revelation of Himself, the term is used strictly as revelation to the elect. Scripture’s use of the term “revelation” limits God’s revelation to His people. All Scripture follows the words of our Lord, when, after pronouncing terrible woes upon Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum for their unbelief, He prays: “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. Even so, Father; for so it seemed good in thy sight. All things are delivered unto me of my Father: and no man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him” (Matt. 11:25 –27; the emphasis is mine).

The same idea of revelation is underscored in Jesus’ explanation of the reason why He teaches in parables. I refer to Matthew 13:11-16. Jesus’ answer to His disciples’ query (why does Jesus teach in parables?) is first of all, that to them (that is, the disciples; and the disciples in distinction from all others) is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. This knowledge is not, Jesus says, given to others, but is hidden from them (vs. 11). And so Jesus goes on to explain that His reason for teaching in parables is that the sovereign purpose of God might be realized in the salvation of the church and in the damnation of unbelieving Israel. He quotes Isaiah 6:9, 10 in support of His contention.

Many want to interpret these words of Jesus that parables are intentionally the method of instruction that Jesus chose because parables are riddles, enigmas, puzzles calculated to obscure. Quite the opposite is the case. Parables make clear, explain things, and teach concerning the invisible truths of the kingdom of heaven by means of visible and easily understood realities in this visible creation. Thus, everyone who hears them, knows exactly what Jesus means and what truths He is making clear. But that is not yet revelation, because God’s purpose is that hearing many shall indeed hear, but not understand; and seeing they shall surely see, but shall not perceive. That they hear and see, but do not understand or perceive is due to the fact that the heart of the Jews was grown fat, and their ears dull of hearing, and their eyes closed so that they could not see (vss. 14, 15).

But, says our Lord to the disciples: “Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear” (vs. 16). Obviously the meaning of the Lord is that it is given to the disciples both to see and to hear (vs. 11). That is, revelation of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven is to the disciples alone, because revelation includes the spiritual ability to see that revelation. Revelation includes the subjective and gracious work of God to enable the spiritually blind to see and the spiritually deaf to hear. Revelation is sovereign and particular. Revelation is part of the work of salvation. Revelation is never, never to the wicked.

I can understand why revelation is linked to common grace in the thinking of the defenders of common grace. Even they realize that revelation involves grace, and so, if revelation is general to all men, grace is general to all men. And so, we have “general revelation” and common grace. But the Scriptures do not teach this.

That revelation is only for the elect is easily illustrated. The word “revelation” means “to uncover, to expose, to unveil.” It brings to mind the public unveiling of a statue of some famous person in some park. A crowd is assembled, and, after appropriate speeches are finished, the time for unveiling comes and the drape covering the statue is removed. But now supposing that all the people assembled are blind and deaf -- is there any revelation? No one present can see a thing or hear a word. What revelation takes place? None.

The sinner is spiritually blind and deaf. He cannot see nor hear because he has no eyes and ears attuned to heavenly things. He is dead in trespasses and sins. The uncovering or unveiling of God when He speaks of Himself and all His mighty works cannot be to the unbeliever whose heart is fat, whose ears are dull and whose eyes are closed. Revelation is indeed grace. It is a grace that opens eyes and ears and instills faith. But the Lord God must be thanked that this same revelation is hidden from the wise and prudent and revealed to babes, for this is the Father’s good pleasure.

Our conclusion is, therefore, that revelation is part of the work of salvation; part of God’s undeserving gift to His people, part of the overflowing bounty of grace, and it is very particular.

* * * *

That teaching of Scripture raises, however, some questions. The first question is: Is it not true that God does make Himself known to the wicked? Another question, closely related to this is: Why does Jesus nevertheless, speak of the wicked as “seeing,” even if they do not see, and “hearing” even though they do not hear? And, thirdly, is it not true that the wicked also know God? Does not Romans 1 teach exactly that?

In connection with these questions, one must recall that I talked in an earlier letter about the fact that not only saving grace, but also common grace, is not simply an objective attitude of God towards men, but is also a subjective infusion of spiritual power modifying and mitigating the severity of sin in the sinner. Applied now to this idea of revelation, does not general revelation, if it is common grace, bestow the spiritual ability to know God in the truest sense of the word? It certainly has to mean that, and the defenders of common grace and general revelation are ready (and even eager, one might suppose) to teach this.

But these questions, and especially an analysis of the teaching of Romans 1:18ff. are going to take more time than we have left in this letter.

With warmest regards,
Prof. Hanko

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