Athens & Jerusalem: General and Specific Revelation
“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”
In its modern usage, this quote means: “What does Philosophy have to do with Scripture?” “What does reason have to do with Christianity?” “What does objective reality have to do with God and His people?” The answer:… Everything.
Why the Dichotomy?
What is it that makes Christians think that there is some sort of necessary dichotomy between these things? If objective reality has nothing to do with God, then God is not objectively real. If reason (i.e. truth) has nothing to do with Christianity, then Christianity is not true. If Philosophy (i.e. foundational ideas about reality) has nothing to do with Scripture, then Scripture has nothing to do with reality. If Athens has nothing to do with Jerusalem, then Jerusalem is just a Middle-Eastern version of the North Pole.
If you really want to know why so many force such a dichotomy, you need only to listen to their repetitive bromides: “You can’t build a ladder of reason to God”, “We shouldn’t attempt autonomous reason, independent from God”, “We should follow God’s Word, not ‘Greek speculative thinking’”, etc… All of this assumes that reason or knowledge which does not come from Scripture is necessarily not knowledge revealed by God; that the attempt to obtain any knowledge about God outside of Scripture is the attempt to “autonomously” reason our way to God; that ‘secular’ knowledge (knowledge discovered by non-Christians, like in Athens — or discovered outside of Scripture) is second-class truth, at best — and “mere speculation” at worst. But where does this assumption — that God’s revelation of Himself, and knowledge about Him, is exclusively contained in Scripture — come from? Certainly not the Bible!
“because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 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.”
Notice first, where this knowledge about God outside of Scripture is coming from: it is coming from God. “He made it evident to them”.
“The heavens declare the glory of God; and their expanse is telling of the work of His hands. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words where their voice is not heard. Their sound has gone out through all the earth, and their utterances to the end of the world”
Who created the heavens and causes them to do all of this proclaiming, speech, and revelation? Not man, God.
So, this “autonomous reason”; this knowledge of God outside of Scripture; where is it coming from: from God or from man? The verses above make the answer crystal clear: God is revealing Himself outside of Scripture — which means that this knowledge outside of Scripture is also revelation. It is what theologians refer to as “General Revelation”.
General and Specific Revelation
General Revelation refers to any true knowledge of God outside of Scripture, and Specific Revelation refers to true knowledge of God which is contained in Scripture. General Revelation is general, primarily in respect to its audience (everyone) and its content (knowledge about God’s existence, essence and attributes). Specific Revelation is likewise specific, primarily in respect to its audience (the Church) and its content (many particular details about God’s relationship to His people and His dealings with the world). Notice that both are revelation.
At this point, the insecure Christian may concede that both are revelation, but he is hasty to insist that, in the event of any disagreement between the two, Scripture (or Specific Revelation) should always be given the priority over Philosophy (or General Revelation), “because it is more clear”, he might say.
But I would suggest that there is a fundamental confusion in this mind-set which must be dealt with, and it has to do with a failure to distinguish between the object and the subject. “Disagreement between the two” — two what? Disagreement between God’s various means of revealing Himself (the object)? OR, disagreement between someone’s particular understanding (subject) of what God has revealed in the two?
You had better not mean the former — that would imply that God is contradicting Himself in His revelation. If you mean the latter, then the question should not be “whose opinion should we go with: the pastor or the philosopher?” — that is wildly subjective and evil. The questions should be “which position (if either) is true — and what mistakes have been made in the other position to give rise to this disagreement?”
The Pastor vs. The Philosopher
For example: If a pastor is quoting Hebrews and claiming that faith should replace reason, and a philosopher is explaining that faith cannot lead to truth — only reason can, your first instinct should not be to side with the pastor (or the philosopher, for that matter). Remember, God is revealing truth both in and out of Scripture — and no one person is guaranteed to get it right, in either case! So, your first instinct, rather, should be to ask “which is objectively true?” [Now, to answer that, you will need to have a pretty good idea of what truth is, and how to identify it (i.e. epistemology) — but that is a separate topic.] Once you’ve determined which is objectively true (in this case, the philosopher), then you can move on to question what mistake the pastor might have made which brought him to his error. [For the answer on what mistake the pastor has made regarding faith in this instance, see my post: Faith: The Fruit of Reason]
The point is that the object, God’s revelation of Himself (no matter the form) is not the same as the subject’s understanding of that revelation. Therefore, we should permit no disagreement between the different forms of God’s revelation, because God does not contradict Himself. If we think there is a disagreement, the problem is with us, and our current understanding of it — not with God and either of His forms of revelation.
One Final Point
There is much else which needs to be said on this topic (including an explanation of how both forms of revelation hold different sorts of priority over each other), but that will have to wait. However, there is one thing which must be grasped from the above.
The Christian (and particularly the Pastor and the Theologian) is concerned with knowing all of God’s truth accurately, and glorifying Him to the max with all that He is revealing about Himself. Therefore, though there can be many non-Christian philosophers, there should not be many (if any) non-philosophic Christians. The degree to which a Christian is dealing with and spreading ideas about God is the degree to which he must be dedicated to accurately understanding all of the ideas being revealed about God, in both forms of revelation. How will one exult in the glory of God as revealed in Scripture if he is not convinced that God exists outside of Scripture? How will one trust a particular promise of God in Scripture without being convinced of the absolute impossibility of God to contradict Himself outside of Scripture? How can the God of Scripture be fully enjoyed apart from a full understanding of His “invisible attributes, eternal power, and His divine nature” as revealed certainly outside of Scripture? How can Jerusalem (the Church) enjoy and glorify God in everything, if they exclude Athens (the rest of reality) from that enjoyment and that glory?
Originally published at www.thechristianegoist.com on September 10, 2013.
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