Which Has the Priority: General Revelation or Special Revelation? 6 Theses on Natural Law and Scripture

In an insightful article for Eikon: A Journal for Biblical Anthropology, Joe Rigney—assistant professor of theology and literature at Bethlehem College and Seminary and the author of The Things of Earth and Lewis on the Christian Life—has a helpful meditation on Scripture and natural law, special revelation and general revelation, the authority of God’s Word and the authority of God’s world.

Using Psalm 19 as a guide, he explains that while

  • General revelation has a chronological (time), ontological (reality), and epistemological (knowledge) priority over Scripture,
  • Scripture has a linguistic (language) and redemptive (salvation) priority over general revelation.

They are sufficient for different things and are mutually interpreting.

1. General revelation is the first and foundational revelation upon which all subsequent revelation is built.

Special revelation is “special” because it presupposes the existence of general revelation.

2. General revelation has an ontological and epistemological priority over Scripture.

The existence of created reality and experiential knowledge of created reality are both necessary in order for Scripture to be intelligible.

For example, “the heavens declare the glory of God” is unintelligible apart from the existence of the heavens (ontological priority) and our knowledge of the nature and existence of heavens (epistemological priority).

Psalm 19, as special revelation, doesn’t mean anything unless the sun blazes up out of the east and moves across the sky, and we’ve seen it do so. [JT: This is a bit overstated. It still means something even if you’re blind and even if you have eyes to see but haven’t personally witnessed it, like God’s work in the depth of the sea. But the point is still taken.]

3. Special revelation has linguistic priority over general revelation (owing to our relative immaturity and creatureliness).

The Scriptures, because they use human words, are more direct and therefore more intelligible to us than the revelation of God in nature.

In saying that Scripture has a linguistic priority, we are not saying that nature is obscure or unclear. It is clear. The heavens clearly declare the glory of God. Paul tells us that “what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived ever since the creation of the world in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:19-20). The obscurity we may feel about what God is declaring in nature is owing first to the way that God reveals himself in nature.

God doesn’t issue direct, linguistic commands through nature. Instead, he creates a natural order that is designed, that has purposes, trends, trajectories. All of creation is governed by God’s fixed and established laws and principles.

Then, human beings, through the use of their minds, reflect on this fixed natural order and its trends and trajectories and draw conclusions which they express in human language.

So general revelation includes both the fixed natural order as well as human minds to discern and express the import and implications of that order. But that process takes time and effort and maturity, and therefore, Scripture, by giving us God’s revelation in human language, is more direct, even if both Scripture and nature are clear.

Let me illustrate through Jesus’ words about anxiety in Matthew 6. Jesus doesn’t want us to be anxious, so he exhorts us to “consider the birds of the air,” how God provides for their basic needs despite their lack of barns (Matt. 6:26-27). The birds of the air are crystal clear in their witness to God’s provision. But it takes time and effort and maturity to stop and think about the birds and how their needs are met, and how valuable we are relative to them, and to therefore, draw the conclusion that God will provide for us, and to therefore draw the conclusion that we ought not be anxious.

It’s all there in nature, in general revelation, but it remains obscure because of our immaturity and creatureliness.

4. Special revelation has a redemptive priority over general revelation (owing to our sinfulness).

Not only does Scripture have a linguistic priority over general revelation owing to our relative immaturity and creatureliness, it has a redemptive priority owing to our sinfulness.

The obscurity of general revelation which we experience is not only owing to the fact that it takes time, effort, and maturity to comprehend God’s revelation in nature; it’s also owing to the Fall. Because of our truth-suppressing rebellion, in our natural state we are deaf to God’s voice and blind to his beauty. Again, Romans 1: even though we know God (through nature), we suppress what we know and we refuse to honor God as God and give thanks to him (Rom. 1:21). The Holy Spirit restores man’s sight through the new birth by means of special revelation. Or, in the words of Psalm 19, it is the law of the Lord which revives the soul and enlightens the eye.

Thus, special revelation has both a linguistic priority and a redemptive priority in giving us knowledge of God.

5. Both general and special revelation are sufficient, but for different things (general revelation: condemnation; special revelation: salvation).

General revelation is sufficient to condemn us. The authority and clarity of general revelation leaves us without excuse. But it is not sufficient to save us.

Only special revelation is sufficient to save, since through it alone, God causes the new birth. He has caused us to be born again through the living and abiding Word of God (1 Pet. 1:23).

6. Thus, Scripture and nature are mutually interpreting for each other: mutually meaningless without each other and mutually fruitful with each other.

You can’t understand the Bible rightly without some general revelation.

You can’t understand nature rightly without the illumination of the Bible.

Again Psalm 19 illustrates this point. “More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold. Sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb” (Ps. 19:10). You can’t know the meaning of that verse unless gold and honey exist, and you’ve experienced a desire for gold and the sweetness of honey. And you can’t experientially make the connection between desiring the Word of God more than gold and honey unless God causes you to be born again through special revelation.

You can read the whole thing here.