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“Canst thou by searching find out God? Canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection?” (Job 11:7, KJV). Job raises a profound question: Is man, with his finite mind, able to probe into the mysteries of God, who lives on an eternal, infinite plane? Did God leave clues in creation that tell mankind of his existence and characteristics?
In order to answer these questions, I will explore several topics. First, I will define what general revelation is and how it relates to natural theology. Following that, I will examine the ontological limitations of mankind in his ability to understand general revelation. Lastly, I will evaluate Scriptures pertaining to natural theology.
What are General Revelation, Special Revelation, and Natural Theology?
Any theologically sound study on the doctrine of revelation will conclude that finite man cannot know an infinite God who has not revealed himself. The characteristic of “divine transcendence” as well as the “reality of human sinfulness” necessitate that God reveal himself if mankind is to know him. Historically, this revelation has been categorized as either general or special revelation.
Bruce Demarest defines general revelation as “a universal witness to God’s existence and character … mediated through nature, conscience, and the providential ordering of history.” The first method, nature, encompasses both the existence of the universe itself (cosmology) and its observable design (teleology). The second mode of general revelation, conscience, is rooted in the doctrine that human beings are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27) and that God has endowed us with intellectual and moral capacities. This includes mankind’s ability to comprehend information, their innate sense of God’s existence, as well as their ability to distinguish between right and wrong. The final means of general revelation, providence, refers to God’s natural blessings that he bestows on all people (called common grace) and his sovereign ordering of history.
Special revelation, unlike general revelation, conveys the gospel message of salvation through Jesus Christ and a fuller knowledge of God’s nature and character. The incarnation of Jesus Christ as God’s revealed Word and the Scriptures as God’s written Word are the two primary forms of special revelation, but it can also include prophecy, visions, dreams, miracles and other acts where God directly and supernaturally intervenes in the lives of people. So, while general revelation is “more comprehensive in number of hearers,” special revelation, “is move comprehensive in content and means.”
Natural theology, then, is acquiring knowledge about God from general revelation “through the intellect in its natural state, unaided by supernatural illumination or grace.” This presupposes that this knowledge is both available (by means of general revelation) and understandable (by means of human reason).
Mankind’s Capability of Understanding General Revelation
The next topic to explore is whether man’s sinfulness renders him incapable of observing and understanding the information present in general revelation. Among Christian thinkers, this is the main point of contention.
On one end of the spectrum, Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke hold to the idea that mankind could, through reason, deduce many important elements pertaining to God’s nature and character. He goes so far as to say that reason was of a higher certainty than special revelation because all knowledge gained had to be processed by means of reason anyway. He therefore prioritizes tenets developed by reason over tenets accepted by faith in God’s revelation.
On the other end of the spectrum, there is Karl Barth, who vehemently denies mankind’s ability to reason his way into any meaningful knowledge about God apart from the special revelation of Christ. He views natural theology unfavorably as mankind’s “attempt to make sense of the mystery of life and of the universe on the basis of human power and ingenuity,” which serves as a distraction from the true knowledge of God found in the gospel.
The two thinkers who can represent a middle ground in this debate are Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin. Aquinas argues that what we can naturally know about God is limited because creation is not the fullest expression of God’s “power” or “essence”. In order to gain that knowledge, “some supernatural disposition should be added to the intellect in order that it may be raised up to such a great and sublime height.” However, God’s existence can be known as well as other basic qualities such as his transcendence. Calvin also acknowledges that basic information about God can be grasped but is much more pessimistic than Aquinas when it comes to man’s sinful tendency to distort general revelation. He contends that while God puts within every person an indelible sense of his existence and his role as creator, by our own “carnal stupidity,” mankind ends up creating a very distorted image of God.  This limited knowledge is enough for them to be held accountable, but does not reveal so much that they can gain a knowledge that could lead to salvation.
Ultimately, Scripture must be the deciding factor in this discussion. Not only does it testify of the existence of general revelation but it also affirms mankind’s ability to perceive it.
Romans 1:18-20 is the most prominently cited passage to advocate for general revelation appearing in nature. From a plain reading of the passage, it can be concluded that through creation, God has revealed his existence and some basic attributes, that these attributes have been recognized and understood, and that mankind willingly suppresses these truths by their unrighteousness, thus making them accountable before God. Barth objects to this interpretation of the passage, saying that we are approaching this interpretation of creation, as Paul also is, from a post-Christ perspective where the special revelation of the cross and resurrection have already taken place. Barth declares:
We cannot isolate what Paul says about the heathen in Rom 1:19-20 from the context of the apostle’s preaching from the incarnation of the Word. We cannot understand it as an abstract statement about the heathen as such, or about a revelation which the heathen possess as such.
However, as Demarest points out, Barth is eisegeting his theological understanding of the Word into the passage that derives from an overreaction to liberal theology’s “monism of nature.” While Paul is writing after the events of the cross and resurrection, this doesn’t prevent him from writing from a generic pre-Christ perspective. Within the context of the book, it makes more sense that Paul would say that whether one is a Jew or Gentile, pre-Christ or post-Christ, all are condemned under sin and held accountable before God because of the general revelation present in creation.
Contrary to Barth’s objection, one of the most important aspects of Romans 1:18-20 is that it lists “invisible attributes” of God that are able to be perceived: his “eternal power” and “divine nature” (v.20). This is significant because it argues that general revelation can reveal more than God’s existence but can also lead us to an understanding of God’s nature. William Paley, in his book Natural Theology, reasons that the attributes of the Deity “must be adequate to the magnitude, extent, and multiplicity of his operations.” Thus, based on our observations of the immensity and complexity of the universe, it would necessitate that God has characteristics such as “omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, eternity, self-existence, necessary existence, [and] spirituality” that correspond to what we observe. If God created the universe, his power and knowledge must at least be proportionate to (if not far exceed) the power necessary to accomplish that.
Psalms 19:1-6 lends further support to general revelation’s continuality (v.2), understandability (v.3), and universality (vv.4, 6) as it is seen in the created order. G.C. Berkouwer disagrees with nature Psalms such as this being interpreted to teach that God reveals himself though nature. Rather, he argues these Psalms have to be interpreted in light of the authors’ focus on the overriding salvific elements seen throughout the entire book. However, as Demarest notes, even after rightly taking this into account, this doesn’t exclude the possibility of the psalmists praising God for both his salvific and creative works, nor does it exclude the possibility of the Psalms teaching God’s revelation through creation.
Scripture also testifies of general revelation expressed through God’s providence. In Acts 14:16-17, Paul, speaking to Gentiles in Lystra, says that one of God’s witness about himself was the common grace in the provision of rain, food, and happiness for all people. In Acts 17:26-29, Paul asserts that God has determined the rise and fall of nations so that people would seek him and find him. Similar to Romans 1, these passages affirm that not only can God’s existence be perceived, but that his goodness and sovereignty can be seen as well. However, of the evidences given for general revelation in Scripture, these are admittedly the most difficult for man to grasp without the aid of special revelation. Not all people have knowledge or understanding of the history of world events, and thus, it would be difficult to observe God’s providence in them. Additionally, the fallenness of nature (Romans 8:20) could lead someone to wrongfully interpret natural disasters and diseases as an impingement against God’s character if they were to believe that creation always reflects his goodness. Nonetheless, despite these difficulties, these Scriptures prove that general revelation exists and can be understood in such a way that God’s existence and certain aspects of his character can be known.
Not only does Scripture speak about external sources of general revelation like creation, design, and providence, but also internal sources like the moral conscience and intelligence. Romans 2:14-15 describes general revelation disclosed in the conscience of mankind. In it, Paul refers to Gentiles who did not have the written law of Moses (a form of special revelation) but nevertheless had similar moral principles inscribed on their hearts. This can readily be observed in mankind. No matter what society you live in, all people have a knowledge of right and wrong or a code of conduct that they live by. Having this moral capacity ought to lead us to a knowledge of a moral law and then to an objective moral law giver, as C.S. Lewis contends for in Mere Christianity.
God also gave mankind an intellectual capacity that allows us to perceive and comprehend information. This intellectual capacity inherently testifies of the existence of God. Calvin describes it as a “natural instinct” in which we have “some sense of Deity.” This is why Scripture proclaims in Psalms 14:1, “The fool says in his heart there is no God.” People, deep down, know that God exists, but choose to foolishly ignore or deny that inclination.
Evaluation & Conclusion
In order to carve out a correct position on this subject, a distinction needs to be made between what a man is capable of knowing through general revelation, and what theology he is likely to develop from general revelation.
Scripture is abundantly clear about the existence of general revelation as well as man’s ability to perceive it. Thus, when man sees these evidences and denies them, he can be held accountable. I disagree with the Barthian point of view that general revelation can only be understood in light of special revelation. I would argue that it can only be more fully understood in light of special revelation, but we cannot deny that even pagan Greek thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle, who only had general revelation to work from, came to some correct ideas about God (or deity of some kind) through natural theology. However, to Barth’s credit, he, along with Calvin, both correctly stress that even if general revelation can be perceived and understood, man’s sinfulness will inevitably corrupt it and distort it into something meaningless.
I also criticize Locke’s view of holding reason above revelation. Mankind is sinful (Romans 3:23) and exists in a state of total depravity apart from Christ (Romans 5:12-21). If mankind does stumble onto truths pertaining to God, it is only afforded by the common grace, intellect, and general revelation that he affords to all people. Salvific knowledge can only be given by God through special revelation as a divine and supernatural act that cannot be gained through pure reason. Certainly, the gospel is reasonable, but as Paul affirms, its foundation is not built upon clever words but upon the power of God (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).
Given the evidence from Scripture and Christian theologians, these are my conclusions: that general revelation exists and mankind is capable of perceiving and understanding it apart from special revelation. Natural theology can lead us to know of God’s existence and true things about his nature such as his omnipotence, omniscience, transcendence, self-existence, etc., but, because of man’s sinfulness, these things cannot lead man directly to the one true God. Any knowledge a person can gain about God through general revelation is ultimately meaningless if he or she is still hell-bound. Thus, the special revelation that is necessary for salvation and communion with God ought to be the primary focus of a Christian’s witness. If arguments of God’s existence and attributes from general revelation are to be used, then they ought to be used as a springboard into God’s saving special revelation – the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
 Nicolaas H. Gootjes, “General revelation in its relation to special revelation,” The Westminster Theological Journal 51, no. 2 (September 1989): 368, accessed November 4, 2016, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost.
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol. 1, The Doctrine of the Word of God, Second Half-Volume, ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance, trans. G.T. Thomson and Harold Knight (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1956), 306.