I just started my Fall Quarter at Fuller Theological Seminary. This quarter I’m taking two classes, one of which is Systematic Theology. We had to write an essay on the topic of “revelation” and why it’s important to Christian Theology. Here were my thoughts…
Revelation: General and Special
Historically, the theology of revelation has been divided in to two categories: general revelation and special revelation. General revelation points to the fact that some attributes of God are knowable and discernable through observation of the natural world, anthropology and history. Psalm 19:1 and Romans 1:20 are two primary moments where the Bible acknowledges the reality that God is revealed in some capacity through creation. By contrast, special revelation implies a secondary, more detailed and specific revelation of God’s-self to humanity, but only to specific people at certain times. It goes beyond what can be simply observed in nature and creation, to a more specific disclosure of God’s character, God’s intent for creation, and ultimately the recording of the event that was/is Jesus of Nazareth. It is a revelation with redemptive purposes.
Why is the idea of revelation important to Christian theology?
Revelation is important to Christian theology because we assume that the Creator has an interest in knowing us and in being known by us. More to the point, however, I think that some Christians differentiate between general and special revelation because ultimately our soteriology and eschatology require us to. Or, to say that differently, because some Christians presume that life after death leads to one of two potential outcomes, and because we believe certain requirements must be met in order to ensure a positive outcome, we are then forced to parse revelation in to two different realms: the type of revelation that all humanity is privy to (but that does not assist one in meeting said requirements), and the type of revelation that only a select few are privy to (and that ultimately allows one to meet said requirements).
If one starts with the assumption that the goal of life is “get to heaven when we die,” and if that same person subscribes to the typical Western/Protestant/Evangelical doctrine of “justification by faith” (whereby we are saved through a professing statement of faith in Jesus as our Savior), then clearly one would need to separate the moments in life that reveal God “generally,” from the specific information we are cognitively required to agree with as revealed to some of us “specially.” Robert Johnson, in Discerning the Spirit in Culture, points out that “special revelation’s focus on salvation has tended to define the conversation, delimiting its boundaries.” And I think he’s right. Christian theology has heavily leaned toward the redemptive over the creational and the propositional over the narrative, and in order to make sense of it we divide God’s self disclosure in to two categories: those that are only able to know a very limited amount of God through general revelation, and those that are lucky/fortunate/elected to know the full purposes of God through Christ Jesus.
Revelation is important to Christian theology, for it helps us try and wrap our arms around the Transcendent One’s decision to disclose who God is, what God is about, why we exist, what God wants for us and from us. As Christians we should wrestle with revelation and its inherent implications. What do we do about the majority of humanity throughout history who has not been privy to the information disclosed only through special revelation? And should that discussion move us toward engaging other theological disciplines in a new and different way?