Theology 101

General & Special Revelation: the Knowledge of God

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The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding. To him belongs eternal praise.

-Psalm 111:10

We’re in the middle of discovering five tools that will help us think biblically about faith, work, and economics. This week we continue our look at knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. How do we gain knowledge, understanding, and wisdom?

What Is the Beginning of All Knowledge and Wisdom?

We know that the Bible teaches, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 9:10). Fear seems like a strange pathway to wise living and a proper relationship with God. How can fear of God be central to the life of faith, which is meant to draw us closer to God in love?

The answer to this paradox is that the “fear of the Lord” is used two different ways in the Bible. In fact, Exodus 20:20 uses them both in the same sentence:

Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.’

Moses is drawing a contrast between being afraid and properly fearing God. In the first usage, fear is not coupled with love and trust. It can lead only to terror and despair. This is the way we normally use the word fear.

The proper “fear of the Lord” is coupled with love and trust. It is almost a child-like combination of holy respect and glowing love. Systematic theology professor Robert Strimple writes that the “fear of the Lord” is the  “convergence of awe, reverence, adoration, honor, worship, confidence, thankfulness, love, and, yes, fear” in the presence of the eternal God—the Creator of the universe, the holy Lawgiver, the righteous Judge, and the merciful Savior.

So for those who are in Christ, the “fear of the Lord” does not involve abject terror or dread of divine justice, but it is the beginning of a path that leads to wisdom. This path begins with the “knowledge of God.”

General & Special Revelation: the Knowledge of God

This “knowledge of God” comes to us in two distinct ways: general and special revelation. The Belgic Confession, written in 1561, describes the two means by which we know God:

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: his eternal power and his divinity, as the apostle Paul says in Romans 1:20. All these things are enough to convict men and to leave them without excuse. Second, he makes himself known to us more openly by his holy and divine Word, as much as we need in this life, for his glory and for the salvation of his own.

Through general revelation, we can learn much about God and his truth from observing the world around us. Although the general revelation of God’s knowledge and truth does leave men without an excuse, as the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 1:20, it is not sufficient to transmit the knowledge of the gospel. It is also not sufficient enough to give us knowledge of God’s will for our lives, which is necessary for our salvation. It is only through this special relationship with Christ that we can begin to see and understand the full purpose of the world around us.

It is the special revelation of Scripture, then, that gives us a much clearer picture of creation and the world in which we live. The revelation of Scripture serves as the filter through which everything else should be interpreted.

The reformer John Calvin wrote in his Institutes that the Scriptures are the spectacles with which to read the book of nature, and that the illumination of the Spirit is needed to give us proper eyesight for the reading. As Graeme Goldsworthy points out in his book Gospel and Kingdom,

The creatorship of God tells us that all reality is God’s reality; all truth is God’s truth…if we believe in God as Creator, we may not divide the world into spiritual and secular. The fact that all reality depends upon the creative word of God means that the word of God must judge the ideas of men about truth and error, not the other way round.

In my next post, I’ll write about how many Christians today have compartmentalized general and special revelation. This compartmentalization is at the root of the secular/spiritual divide that has distorted our current view of vocation, faith, and economics.

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