Dear Church Family,
Too often, I will hear Christians say things like, “There is no conflict between science and the Bible.” While I understand the intent and would probably agree with what the person means when they say this, in my opinion it lacks the precision that is needed and confuses categories. Let me explain.
Westminster Confession of Faith, 1:1
This week, in preparation for the next lesson in our adult Sunday school class on “Seeking Wisdom,” I was reminded of the importance of understanding the similarities and differences between ‘general’ and ‘special’ revelation as I reviewed and studied what the Westminster Confession of Faith has to say about these things. The first paragraph of the first chapter of the Confession provides a wonderfully helpful definition of both general and special revelation (English majors alert: prepare yourselves for a lengthy compound sentence!):
Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of His will, which is necessary unto salvation: therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal Himself, and to declare that His will unto His Church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God's revealing His will unto His people being now ceased. (WCF 1:1)
Honestly, I don’t know of any better explanation of God’s revelation to man than this paragraph. Many of the problems and errors that plague us and our churches would be helped, if not fixed entirely, if we had a better understanding of what is taught here in our Confession. I know that’s a broad statement, but hear me out. Here’s how I would break down the teaching of this statement from our Confession.
General and Special Revelation
God reveals Himself to us in two ways: we usually refer to these two forms of revelation as ‘general’ and ‘special.’ General revelation refers to the light of nature and the works of nature and providence. Thus, because man is created in God’s image and can view the created order around him, he may see God’s goodness, wisdom, and power manifested there; however, this general revelation is insufficient to know God in a saving manner. This isn’t the fault of God’s revelation, but of man’s sinfulness – his suppression of the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18-19).
Special revelation refers to the various ways in which God revealed Himself and declared His will to His Church throughout redemptive history (the audible voice of God, theophanies (a visible manifestation of God), the inspiration of prophets and apostles, signs and wonders, etc.). Those former ways of God’s revealing His will unto His people being now ceased, God committed His revealed will unto writing in the Holy Scriptures. Therefore since the passing of the Apostles and the closing of the canon of Scripture, for our purposes the special revelation of God refers to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.
Simply put, special revelation refers to God’s written word in the Holy Scriptures and general revelation refers to the created order.
Conclusion – Why it matters
Here’s why the proper understanding of these categories helps us to see why saying, “There is no conflict between science and the Bible” is not as precise as it could be. The statement mixes apples and oranges. Science is a form or interpretation (of general revelation) and the Bible is revelation itself (special revelation). ‘Science’ (or the ‘natural sciences’) typically refers to the interpretation of general revelation, while ‘biblical hermeneutics’ (or theology) refers to the interpretation of special revelation.
Thus, it would be better, I think, for us to say, “There is no conflict between general revelation and special revelation.” Or, “There is no conflict between the natural sciences and theology, properly employed.” [I understand that unbelievers don’t speak in these terms, but it is my conviction that Christians ought to speak in these terms if we want to communicate properly what we believe about God’s revelation.]
We need to be careful not to put science on par with Scripture – a method of interpretation on the same level as revelation, itself. The disharmony that arises in our understanding of general and special revelation is not due to a deficiency or disharmony in God’s revelation. The disharmony arises because of the sinfulness of man and the inadequacies of his interpretation of God’s revelation (whether in nature or in Scripture).
Understanding that our methods of interpretation are dependent upon God’s revelation also helps to keep us humble. Whether we are seeking to understand general revelation through the natural sciences or special revelation through biblical hermeneutics, we may only learn or discover that which God has already revealed – and nothing more. We are at the mercy of God in many ways, including our knowledge of Him. As Louis Berkhof writes in his Systematic Theology:
It is true that we can acquire some knowledge of the greatness and power, the wisdom and goodness of God through the study of nature, but for an adequate conception of even these attributes it will be necessary to turn to the Word of God. In the theology of revelation we seek to learn from the Word of God which are the attributes of the Divine Being. Man does not elicit knowledge from God as he does from other objects of study, but God conveys knowledge of Himself to man, a knowledge which man can only accept and appropriate. (p 54)
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch