There are two ways that God has chosen to reveal himself to us. The first is typically called general revelation, or alternatively natural revelation. This is the basic knowledge of God we see expressed in his created works, which image God to us. We use the word “image” because no created thing is exactly like God. Rather, creation reflects something of who God is.
In my first article on the topic of theology proper, I discussed why we must know the God who created us. I will now explain how we can know that God whose ways are higher than our ways, and his thoughts higher than our thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9) Christianity is a religion of revelation, and our God is a God who reveals himself. Perhaps you, like me, experience dark days when you feel that God is distant or even absent from your life, but it is a great comfort to know that God has not left us as ignorant orphans. He has condescended and spoken, authoritatively and finally, into our lives. Human history is the story of the revelation of God.
There are two ways that God has chosen to reveal himself to us. The first is typically called general revelation, or alternatively natural revelation. This is the basic knowledge of God we see expressed in his created works, which image God to us. We use the word “image” because no created thing is exactly like God. Rather, creation reflects something of who God is. (More on that in a moment.)
The second way God reveals himself is through special revelation. Here we should think primarily of the Word of God, but for the purposes of this article, I am going to break special revelation down into three sub-categories that highlight different aspects of God’s condescension to man (in the sense of stooping to our level like a loving parent, not patronizing us like someone haughty). Throughout salvation history, God has revealed himself more directly and completely through his actions in history, his written Word, and the incarnation of the Son of God.
Keeping this in mind, here are the four ways that we can know God through his revelation.
God’s revelation of himself in his created works is his general or natural revelation. In one of the chief texts on the subject, the Apostle Paul wrote, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20) This does not mean that everything necessary for salvation can be grasped through glancing at a poppy field. Rather, it means that the moral law of God is written on our hearts from birth, and creation itself provides a basic knowledge of God to us: namely, it points to his existence.
As the Psalmist wrote, “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; / And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.” (Psalm 19:1) The Belgic Confession also affirms that God is known, “First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, since that universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God.”
How can creation do this? After all, plenty of people study the natural world and remain unconvinced of the existence of God. I think it is helpful to remember here that Paul speaks of a knowledge that is available to us in creation, placed there for the taking, but which many of us will ultimately reject because of the hardness of our hearts. It is through this basic knowledge of God and his moral law that every proposition we make, moral or otherwise, ultimately makes sense, for if there is no ultimate source of morality or truth, then the universe is simply a teeming chaos, and we cannot know anything for certain. Paul says we sense this instinctively, but many of us “suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” (Romans 1:18)
The deeper reason that creation provides knowledge of God to us is because it is a reflection of God’s character. Note: It does not contain God’s character, duplicate it, or even provide exact and complete knowledge of it. It reflects God’s character as an image is reflected in a mirror, or to use a better example, the way a photograph shows us its subject. If you think of an old, grainy photograph in particular, it is not a completely true likeness, but it tells you something about the subject. Human beings, more than any other created thing, are made specially in God’s image, as scripture tells us.
“Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” (Genesis 1:26-27)
This concept of imaging is helpful to understanding God’s revelation of himself to us. The Greek word we translate as “image” is eikόn, which is perhaps best defined as “a likeness or manifestation”. Another term that has often been used to describe the link between creation and the Creator is “analogy”. I will write more about these terms in a later article and why different Christians may prefer one or the other.
2. Actions in History
I now move on to the first of three sub-categories of God’s special revelation: his actions in history. There is obviously some overlap here with God’s written Word and the Incarnation of Christ, for both have been granted to us in history. What I am choosing to focus on in this category is the way God’s actions informed His people prior to and after being recorded.