Seventh-day Adventists, in harmony with many other Christians, believe that the revelations of God to humanity can be divided into two broad categories called general and special revelation, or “His word [special] and His works [general].”1
General revelation is God’s revelation of Himself to all people at all times in all places through nature and through human conscience. According to Psalm 19:1: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork” (NKJV).2 Ellen G. White wrote, “The beautiful things of nature reveal His character and His power as Creator.”3 And Paul argued in Romans 1:20 that all humanity has a rudimentary knowledge of God, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.”
This revelation of God in nature is marred, however, by sin and therefore imperfect. This means that, “apart from Christ we are still incapable of interpreting rightly the language of nature.”4 Therefore, “we need the fuller revelation of Himself that God has given in His written word.”5 Humankind, left to their own reason, “cannot interpret nature without placing it above God,”6 as is evidenced by the millions of people who worship nature itself instead of the Creator.
The second avenue of God’s general revelation, His revelation through human conscience, is emphasized in Romans 2:14, 15. Paul’s point in this chapter is that all humankind stands condemned before God—the Jews because, although they had the written law, they failed to do what that law required; and the Gentiles because, though they did not have the written law, they sinned against their conscience, which took the place of the written law. Therefore “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). What, then, is the purpose of general revelation? Can a person be saved through it?
Romans 2:14 and 15 has sometimes been used to argue that if pagans live up to their consciences, they will be saved, but this would be salvation by works. In Romans 2m Paul is not discussing salvation, but judgment (vs. 16). Paul compares the conscience of the pagan to the written law of the Jews. Just as a Jew cannot be saved by keeping the law, so pagans cannot be saved by living out what their consciences tell them. Both need to be “justified freely by [God’s] grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (3:24). The written law and conscience are used only to establish that all humankind are sinners. “About the Jew the positive is that he knows the law; but that very fact becomes the basis of his condemnation. About the Gentile the positive is that he is a law to himself; but for that very reason he is without excuse before God, since he is also a sinner.”7
Nevertheless, although general revelation is not sufficient for salvation, it has a number of important functions:
1. It provides the explanation for the universal phenomenon of religion. All religions recognize that there is a supernatural power operating in this world.
2. General revelation supports special revelation. Since nature and the gospel are both revelations of God, they mutually reinforce each other.
3. It provides even primitive civilizations with a genuine knowledge of good and evil and is therefore a basis for moral actions. Though there are different moralities in different ages and different civilizations, they are nevertheless more similar than dissimilar. “If anyone will take the trouble to compare the moral teachings of, say, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks and Romans, what will really strike him will be how very like they are to each other and to our own.”8
4. It makes people responsible for their actions. God is therefore justified in condemning all humankind (Rom. 3:23), even those who have never heard the gospel.
General revelation provides evidence for the existence of God. Special revelation shows what kind of a God He is. The biblical definition of special revelation is found in Hebrews 1:1 and 2: “God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son.”
Whenever and wherever God revealed Himself directly to human beings through theophanies, dreams, and visions (Num. 12:6–8) there special revelation took place. Thus, God appeared to Noah, Abraham, Moses, and the other Old Testament prophets to make His will known to them. He revealed His power and purpose in the crucial events in Israel’s history, and finally, in the fullness of time, He sent His Son, who manifested God in the context of human life. These special revelations have been inscripturated in the 66 books of the Old and New Testament. For us, therefore, the special revelation of God is the contents of Scripture. “God’s voice speaking to us, just as surely as if we could hear it with our ears.”9
Special revelation is first of all a revelation of God Himself; nevertheless, it is also a revelation of propositional truths. After the Fall, human beings turned away from God in rebellion against Him. As a consequence, human understanding of spiritual matters diminished, and in time was virtually obliterated (Gen. 6:5). Special revelations of propositional truths, therefore, were needed to restore knowledge about God so humankind could once again have a relationship with God.
Thus, special revelation provides a rational basis for faith. Hundreds of times in Scripture we find that “God spoke to Moses,” and “God said to Joshua,” or “the word of the Lord came to” one of the prophets, indicating God’s initiative in His revelation toward humanity. “When one asks, How does one know what is true? The appeal can be made to this objective revelation, to this objective norm inscripturated in the Bible. Thus revelation is given an objective stabilized form for all men in all ages. This makes the Bible the depository of revealed truth, given once for all. It is, therefore, normative for all men in all ages.”10
Since in the Old Testament God at times appears to destroy nations at will (Deut. 7:2; Joshua 6:21; 10:40), while the New Testament proclaims Him as the God of love (1 John 4:8), liberal theologians have suggested a concept of “progressive revelation,” which asserts that just as humanity matured mentally and spiritually over time, so the divine revelation has progressed from primitive conceptions of God to more mature and noble ideas about God.
This idea was developed at a time when the idea of progress in the natural sciences was popular. It was a time “when evolution and the Bible were being adjusted one to another.”11 The biblical data, however, do not support this idea of an evolutionary progress. The gospel was understood and preached by Noah (2 Peter 2:5) and Abraham (Gal. 3:8), and “from generation to generation faithful messengers proclaimed the Coming One.”12
Conservative Christians for a long time have used the term “progressive revelation,” but not in the sense of an evolution from primitive ideas to advanced ones. Rather, progressive revelation is understood to refer to the concept that later revelations build on earlier ones, giving clearer expression to and deeper insights into particular subject matter. There is “progress from a less to a more clear and full unfolding of the truth.”13 Later revelations are complementary and supplementary to earlier revelations, not contradictory.
Ellen G. White believed that “truth is progressive,”14 but not in the sense that later revelations invalidate or correct earlier ones, as though they were inferior or less inspired. “The truth,” she wrote, “is constantly unfolding and presenting new features to different minds.”15
Progressive revelation correctly understood in no way diminishes the relevancy of the doctrines upon which the Adventist Church was founded. Ellen G. White warned: “Let not any man enter upon the work of tearing down the foundations of the truth that have made us what we are.”16
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