[K:NWTS 21/2 (Sep 2006) 13-34]

Natural and Special Revelation:

A Reassessment1

William D. Dennison, Ph. D.

Introduction: Raising the Issue

"Then God said, `Let there be light;' and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. So the evening and the morning the first day" (NKJ Gen. 1:3-5).

As God created the light on the first day of creation, and he separated the light from the darkness, I ask you, should we understand the creation of the light as natural revelation or special revelation? I think we tend to say, natural revelation.

Let us move quickly ahead and glance at the dawn of the new creation! "All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. This man came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him" (NKJ Jn. 1:3-10).

Later in John's gospel, the Light in John's prologue speaks to us—our Savior Jesus Christ affirms: "I am the Light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life" (Jn. 8:12; cf. Rev. 21:23).

As the new creation dawns by the coming of the Light of life into the world (Jesus Christ), should we understand Christ's redeeming work in the world as natural revelation or special revelation? I think we tend to say that Christ's redeeming work is special revelation.

It seems that we understand the distinction—right? God's creation of light on the first day of the original creation is an expression of natural revelation, whereas God sending the divine Light, Jesus Christ, to usher in the new creation is an expression of special revelation.

The boundaries and the limits of natural revelation and special revelation are set. Natural revelation is a distinct and separate revelation, communicating God's imprint upon the created universe; special revelation is a distinct and separate revelation, communicating God's saving activity to humanity. Although distinct and separate, the two revelations are complimentary and do not contradict each other. Indeed, we have an efficient, tightly defined system that distinguishes both revelations. It has been said, therefore, that natural or general revelation provides the "evidences that a supreme being has created the universe, but we do not see that the being is triune, nor do we see a plan of redemption anywhere in the created order."2 Rather, for humanity to see that the Supreme Being is triune (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), and for us to see God's plan of redemption, we need special revelation.3 Hence, special revelation communicates the triune God of the Bible and the plan of redemption focused in Christ.

With this typical distinction between natural and special revelation before you, permit me to ask this question: does the Bible present natural revelation and special revelation within such rigidly defined boundaries? In order to stimulate your thinking, permit me to set before you a few observations from the twentieth century Reformed apologist, Cornelius Van Til (1895-1987). Van Til questions whether nature reveals nothing about God's grace.4 In fact, he writes: "Saving grace is not manifest in nature; yet it is the God of saving grace who manifests himself by means of nature."5 It is not entirely apparent what Van Til means by the first phrase, but as one wrestles with the entire statement in the context of his apologetic, it becomes clear that Van Til holds the position that God displays his saving grace upon the landscape of nature. Perhaps, it can best be said in this manner: saving grace is not nature itself, but saving grace is always displayed by the free and sovereign action of God upon the natural terrain of created history. For this reason, Van Til does not speak of two distinct and separate revelations—natural and special; rather, he understands revelation as a unity that is disclosed in two forms—natural and special. Van Til writes:

Any revelation that God gives of himself is therefore absolutely voluntary. Herein precisely lies the union of the various forms of God's revelation with one another. God's revelation in nature, together with God's revelation in Scripture, form God's one grand scheme of covenant revelation of himself to man. The two forms of revelation must therefore be seen as presupposing and supplementing one another. They are aspects of one general philosophy of history.6

Perhaps, an example will help; let us turn to one of Van Til's favorite Biblical characters and stories, Noah and the flood.7

In the flood, God executes his wrath upon unbelief; he uses nature (flood) to wipe the reprobate from the earth. On the other hand, God's grace is displayed to Noah and his family on the landscape of nature; God preserves their lives from judgment as they take up residence in an ark that was constructed from natural materials. Certainly, God's covenant of grace is a saving grace, and after the flood that covenant is mediated through Noah to his descendents and to every living creature (Gen. 8:21; 9: 9-11). In fact, God uses a natural object to be a "sign" of the covenant that he would never again destroy all flesh with a flood; that natural object is the rainbow (Gen. 9:12-15). The rainbow—a natural object—is not saving grace, but it is a sign of God's saving grace to Noah in what Van Til called "a limiting notion."8 In other words, the "sign" is always a "limiting notion" until it is completely fulfilled in its "reality"—the saving grace that can only be fulfilled in the future redemption of Christ for Noah. Hence, in the story of Noah, Van Til directs our attention to the fact that saving grace is "mediated through nature." Specifically, we see throughout Biblical revelation in the Old Testament that nature serves "the purposes of redemption. The forces of nature are always at the beck and call of the power of differentiation that works toward redemption and reprobation."9 As Van Til stresses the unified understanding of the two forms of revelation—natural and special, he demands that we view this in the context of two Biblical truths:

(1) the triune God of the Bible, and (2) God's "one unified comprehensive plan for the world."10 First, concerning the triune God of the Bible, we must keep in mind that the God of Scripture has no facsimile to deism or pantheism. Specifically, nowhere in the Bible, or more specifically, in the history of revelation (since the beginning of the creation) is God pictured through the lenses of deism. In other words, nowhere does the Bible teach that natural revelation is without the complement of supernatural revelation. Or, to put it another way, nowhere in the Bible does the Word of God display nature as a product of natural laws set by a supreme being who put everything in motion—a theistic adaptation to Aristotle's unmoved mover. Simply stated, it does not seem to me that Aquinas's view of natural revelation can be rescued from laying the foundation of seventeenth and eighteenth century deism.11 In contrast to those who maintain that natural revelation does not reveal the triune God of the Bible, Scripture as well as the Westminster Confession of Faith tells us that natural revelation (creation) is the product of the Father (Gen. 1:1), Son (Jn. 1:3; Col. 1:16), and the Holy Spirit (Gen. 1:2; cf. WCF IV:1). The entire creation bares the blueprint of the triune God of heaven and earth, and furthermore, the Bible presupposes that no one can interpret or understand the theistic construction of the creation unless one stands in the palm of the triune God of Scripture.

Furthermore, nowhere in the Bible, or more specifically, in the history of revelation (since the beginning of the creation) is God pictured through the lenses of pantheism. In other words, nowhere does the Bible teach that natural revelation is swallowed up by special revelation to the point that the differentiation between the two is lost. The point here is this; if we lose sight of their difference, then we will possibly identify supernatural revelation with natural revelation to the degree that natural revelation is virtually eliminated and we transform revelation into a supernatural pantheism. Let me provide an example from the apostle Paul to illustrate my point. In 1 Corinthians 10:4, Paul states that the "rock" from which God provided water for the Israelites to drink in the wilderness "was Christ" (Ex. 17:6; cf. Ps. 95:1; 114:7-8). If the rock is part of natural revelation, and Christ is the supernatural revelation of God Himself, how are we to understand Paul's statement? Is Christ really that rock; if Moses or an Israelite picks up that rock, are they handling or touching Jesus? Is the rock to be identified as the saving grace of God to the point that I may put my faith in that rock in the same way I put my faith in Christ? In other words, has natural and special revelation become so unified that there are no longer two forms of revelation, and thus, we now have the very being of God identified with natural phenomena—i.e., God is one with the created world—a supernatural pantheism? Not at all; Paul's language is an "ontological revelational metaphor." The rock, from which water comes, in Exodus 17:6 is a metaphor that points us to the reality of Christ as the eternal and everlasting water of life (cf. Jn. 6:35). The rock is not the divine-human Christ incarnate; rather, the rock is a "sign," as natural revelation, directing the covenant people of God to the reality of the water who will not allow anyone to thirst—the special revelation of the divine-human incarnate Christ.

Second, concerning God's "one unified comprehensive plan for the world," Van Til's conception is insightful and crucial. Van Til holds that natural revelation and special revelation must be viewed from within the spectrum of God's "all-comprehensive plan for the created universe."12 To repeat from an earlier quotation that I placed before you, Van Til states, "the two forms of revelation [natural and special] must therefore be seen as presupposing and supplementing one another. They are aspects of one general philosophy of history."13 For Van Til, you can only speak of natural revelation and special revelation upon the landscape of God's providential history; or to put it another way, you can only speak about the two forms of revelation within the context of revelational-history. Perhaps even more enlightening is Van Til's profound statement: "He [God] has planned the end from the beginning."14 The earmarks of Geerhardus Vos are clearly in place in Van Til's remark. Van Til holds that the entire plan for the creation is to be seen from its endpoint, not its starting point. In fact, you are to understand and interpret the beginning from its endpoint. You start with where the plan is going to end, and then you interpret the beginning. In the vernacular of Biblical eschatology, Van Til works from our present stance in the eschatological (final) kingdom of Christ and works back to the beginning of the creation. Simply, in Van Til's view of history, the two forms of revelation and the discipline of apologetics are shaped by eschatology.

Let us return to my opening remarks and briefly sketch how this works. We can never understand fully the creation of light on the first day of creation unless we understand the eschatological Light of the new creation—Jesus Christ. In fact, Jesus Christ brings the light of the original creation into existence (Jn 1:3; Col. 1:16). Furthermore, Jesus Christ, the special revelation of God is the pattern for the natural light of natural revelation in the original creation.15 On the other hand, the light of the original creation is a "sign" and "pointer" to Christ as the Light of the new creation. Let us go one step further; as light gives resolution to the darkness in the original creation—as God separates the light from the darkness in the original creation, likewise, Christ as the Light of the world gives resolution to the darkness in the new creation—Christ comes to separate the light from the darkness (Gen. 1:1-5; cf. Jn. 3:16-21). The eschatological coming of Christ, as the divine Light, sets the pattern for the light in the original creation. The eschatological work of Christ's redemption in the new creation (special revelation) is written upon the fabric of the original creation (natural revelation). The end determines the beginning. For this reason, the natural revelation of the original creation is inherently eschatological, i.e., written upon the very fabric of the original creation (natural revelation) is a telegram which informs all humanity that they must see upon its natural aspects the special revelation of Christ. A person cannot understand the one form of revelation without the other; or to put it another way, one cannot interpret Genesis one without John one. In fact, the eschatological pattern for which Van Til is arguing is this: starting with John one, one must interpret Genesis one.

On the basis of such a Biblical construct of revelation, the believer possesses an unique epistemological self-consciousness against modern naturalistic science because one should never look at natural phenomenon outside the eschatological reality of Christ. Furthermore, no natural phenomenon can be understood correctly outside the integrated work of God's plan for the creation. We can say it like this; if there is no new creation, there can be no original creation. Any understanding of the original creation without the new creation is reductionist—one has removed oneself from the integrative fabric of supernatural revelation!

Paul's View of Revelation in Romans

Van Til's position is helpful in addressing some challenging texts found in Paul's epistle to the Romans: 10:18; 8:18-30; and 1:18-25. I wish to begin with Romans 10:18 and make our way back to Romans one because Romans 10:18 presents us with a major problem which possibly sheds light upon a better understanding of Romans 8:18-30 and Romans 1:18-25.

In Romans 10, Paul is speaking of the propagation of the gospel into the world. He has placed before his audience that both Jew and Greek are in need of salvation, and hence, whoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved (10:11-13). Herein Paul raises an obvious question: who will call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? These questions are often heard within the church; simply put, how can a person be saved if they have never heard about Jesus—if they have never heard the gospel preached to them? In fact, how can a person be responsible before God, if they have never heard the name of Jesus, or the preaching of his Word? Have we not all wrestled with this question; is it fair for God to send someone to Hell if they have never heard of Jesus or of the gospel? After all, our inclination is to cry out that such persons never had a chance to be saved! Moreover, Paul is specific: "how shall they hear without a preacher?" (10:14)—"how shall they preach unless they are sent?" (10:15a). The church may respond, however, with a voice of self-justification; she may claim that the gospel has gone forth into many areas of the world (fulfilling Isa. 52:7), but as the gospel goes forth, many of these people have not obeyed the gospel. Like Isaiah, the apostolic church raises the same question: "Lord, who has believed our report?" (Isa. 53:1). This leads Paul to this comment: "so then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God" (10:17). In other words, saving faith and obedience to the gospel is a result of effective listening to the Word of God.

We may continue, however, to press the point that many in the world still have not heard the gospel; they have not had a preacher come to them to instill faith in Jesus Christ. So, are we to be content that the gospel has been preached to many people but not all people; and are we to be content that the gospel has been received in faith or rejected by many people but not all people? If you are one who is hung up with the "many" versus "the all," then Paul's rhetorical question may be a bombshell (vs. 18): "But I say, have they [all] not heard?"—Paul answers: "Yes, indeed [the all]," and then Paul proceeds to quote Ps. 19:4: "Their sound has gone out to all the earth, And their words to the ends of the world." Paul says that the communication of the Word of God concerning the gospel of Jesus Christ has been preached to the ends of the world. Paul makes his case by quoting Ps. 19:4; in other words, Paul quotes Ps. 19:4 as a defense that everyone has heard the gospel on the face of the earth.

Specifically, Psalm 19:4 is a reference to the universal propagation of the gospel through the preaching of the Word of God. One may wish, however, to ask: "why would one be amazed to find Paul's quotation and application of Ps. 19:4 to the preaching of the gospel?" Because within the traditional understanding of the boundaries between natural revelation and special revelation, it is usually affirmed that Ps. 19:4a-b relates to natural revelation. For example, John Murray stated that Psalm 19:1-6 relates to general or/and natural revelation, whereas Psalm 19:7-14 relates to special revelation.16 It is said that Ps. 19:1 denotes the content of natural revelation for the first six verses: "The heavens declare the glory of God; And the firmament shows his handiwork."17 However, here lies the problem; Paul does not apply the first part of the Psalm 19: 1-6 exclusively to the distinct category of natural revelation. Rather, in Romans 10:18 Paul applies Psalm 19:4 to the gospel, i.e., to special revelation.18 Has Paul lost his way? Does he not understand the theological prescription here; verses one through six of Psalm nineteen only reveals the divine attributes of God's wisdom and power from natural revelation, whereas verses seven through fourteen reveal God's supernatural revelation from his Word—the law (righteousness) of the Lord? How is it that Paul will quote Psalm 19:4 to verify that the gospel has gone forth to all humanity by virtue of the testimony of the creation? Although much study is yet needed, allow me to suggest two points: (1) the creation declares the supernatural deeds/acts of the Lord, and (2) within the fabric of natural revelation lays the essential nature of supernatural revelation.

First, in respect to the creation declaring the supernatural deeds/acts of the Lord we note that in various passages in the Old Testament the heavens are described as witnessing and testifying to the acts of God. For example, in passages in Deuteronomy, God seems to be holding court, and the witnesses are the "heavens and the earth" (4:26; 30:19; 31:28; 32:1). Simply, the witness is the created order (also true for prophetic literature: Isa. 1:2; Am. 4:13; Mic. 6:1, 2). Isaiah (1:2) may capture best the point I am attempting to make. The Lord testifies to the heavens that he has "nourished and raised his children" (they are objects of his acts of redemption) and that those same children are sinful and corrupt, and therefore, objects of God's anger (judgment). The Lord makes his appeal to the heavens because they have witnessed God's blessing and judgment with respect to God's activity; on the terrain of the creation God has performed his deeds. The heavens and the earth have seen how God has actually pruned his children—whether he has brought them through the Red Sea on dry ground, or whether the Lord has hosted them in a "land that flows with milk and honey." In this context God does not partition or divide himself as if there are certain attributes only revealed by natural revelation and only certain attributes revealed by special revelation. God's revelatory activity is one; it is supernatural as well as comprehensive. Moreover, such revelatory activity is always the product of the God of the Bible—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The heavens witness his activity—even the activity of special revelation upon the terrain of natural revelation (these acts are done in the creation). To put it another way, the heavens serve to declare the glorious supernatural deeds of God by simply witnessing his activity upon the landscape of creation (cf. Ps. 97:6).19

Second, I have noted that within the fabric of natural revelation lies the essential nature of supernatural revelation. In order to illustrate this point, I want to direct our attention to Romans 8:18-31, and then on the basis of some observations about that text, I want to make a connection with Romans 10:18 and Ps. 19:4.

Romans 8

In Romans 8, Paul opens by speaking of the believer in union with the effectual work of Christ; there is no condemnation for those in Jesus (vs. 1). On the plain of redemptive-history a transformation has occurred in the believer by virtue of the coming of Christ and the sending of the Holy Spirit. The believer is now under the "law of the Spirit of life in Christ" who has released the believer from the law of sin and death (vs. 2; 5b). The believer's life in the Spirit is now in distinct contrast to walking according to the flesh (vs. 3, 5a, 7-8).

With this context before us, Paul tells us that the believer has received the Spirit of adoption (vs. 12-17) that brings the believer into intimate communion and fellowship with his heavenly Father (vs. 15). Through the work of Christ and the entrance of the Spirit, the believer has moved into the eschatological presence of the Father as his adopted child—such a child is not an object of his wrath (cf. Rom. 1:18). The believer is assured of this adoption by virtue of the Holy Spirit bearing witness to the believer's spirit (vs. 16). Moreover, as the adopted child of God, the child of the Spirit is being conformed to the eschatological state of being a joint-heir with Christ (vs. 17). Meanwhile, as the children of God continue their pilgrimage here on earth, they assume the pattern of Christ in this world. Like Christ, the child of God lives the pattern of suffering to glorification (vs. 17).

Paul is so overcome by the final glorified state of believers, i.e., when they become joint-heirs with Christ, that he holds that the present state of suffering in this world cannot be compared with the glorious state of heavenly inheritance (vs. 18). As Paul makes his argument, verse eighteen serves as the hinge pin for what follows. For not only do we suffer in this world as an anticipation of our glorified state, but also the creation shares in our suffering condition as the creation itself waits for the glorification of the "sons of God" (vs. 19; cf. Ps. 102:25-28; Isa. 51:6). As we keep in mind that the creation is in the state of futility and bondage because God has subjected it to such a state by virtue of Adam's fall into sin (vs. 20-21),20 Paul directs our attention to the fact that like the birth of a child, the creation is going through the pains of labor—groaning and crying out for the release of her child and the ceasing of pain (vs. 22). Likewise, the believer, who already has received the firstfruits of the Spirit, groans like a mother in labor for the final adoption of their glorified body (vs. 23; cf. vs. 26). Simply, for Paul the parallel is clear; the believer lives the life of suffering waiting for his release, and likewise, the creation exists in a state of suffering waiting for its release.21 Paul seems to infer here that the creation can be said to be "joint-suffers" with the children of God as those children wait for the day to be joint-heirs with the glorified Christ.

Let us draw out the pattern more directly. One must not miss the fact that Christ sets the pattern! The pattern of Christ's redemptive work is from suffering here on earth to glorification in heaven. Likewise, following the pattern of Christ, the pattern for the believer is suffering here on earth to glorification in heaven. Do not stop there; likewise, following the pattern of Christ and the believer, the pattern for the creation is suffering in its present state while it waits for the glorification of the "sons of God." Here is the point: since the fall, God has subjected the creation itself to the visible pattern of Christ—it is one of suffering to exaltation. Hence, God wrote the pattern of suffering to exaltation upon the very fabric of natural revelation; the creation was not meant to be an end for itself. Rather, the creation's own pattern of suffering to exaltation is always a witness and a testimony to Christ's pattern of suffering to exaltation as well as the believer's pattern of suffering to exaltation. In fact, the creation takes this pattern because it is the fiat creation of Christ; as the product of Christ's creative word, the creation takes on the pattern that the Father has marked for his Son as Christ is delivered into the creation.22 In light of this Christocentric pattern, the special revelation of the gospel's pattern of suffering to glorification is written upon the very fabric of natural revelation. For this reason, as Paul moves to his discussion in the tenth chapter about the gospel being heard by all, he quotes Ps. 19:4 as the sure evidence that creation itself has proclaimed the kerygma—the gospel message of suffering to exaltation has been preached to every single person on the face of the world. Everyone has seen and heard this testimony. Indeed, the creation proclaims its message in sermonic form. As the creation groans and cries, it is declaring the pattern of the cross for the exaltation of Christ's church! In this way, Paul applies Psalm 19:4, which is usually bound by theologians to the realm of natural revelation, to the universal proclamation of the gospel!

The Biblical picture should be becoming more apparent; God's revelatory work and activity comes to humanity in two forms: special revelation and natural revelation. Although there are two forms, they are inseparable. In fact, the creation (natural revelation) declares the supernatural deeds/acts of the Lord (special revelation). This observation does not mean that the creation (natural revelation) tells you that the death of Christ will be on Calvary, nor does the creation (natural revelation) tell you that Christ's resurrection will occur in the tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea (Jn. 19:38). Even so, the creation witnesses that Christ died on the cross, and the creation witnesses that the resurrected Christ broke the bonds of the tomb (Mt. 27:45, 50-54; 28:2-3). The creation has witnessed the entire story of redemption and testifies to that entire story by virtue of its pattern of existence—suffering waiting for the exaltation of the Christ and the church! For this reason, we must acknowledge that within the fabric of natural revelation lays the essential blueprint (pattern) of special revelation. The creation receives its freedom and release from bondage when the children of God are released from their suffering state in the creation—the creation serves redemption; the creation serves the church.23 Creation gives way to the church as the eternal flock enters into joint-inheritance with the glorified Christ. The restoration of the creation is not the end; rather, the joint-inheritance of the church and Christ is the end; creation serves grace. Creation serves eschatology!

Romans 1

Before we look at Romans chapter one, permit me to remind us that we have been proceeding in reverse order: Romans 10:18, 8:12-30, and 1:18-3:20. If we pause, however, to look at these texts in sequence, we can make the following observation. In Romans 1:18-3:20, Paul sets up the strict antithesis between the righteous and the unrighteous upon the landscape of revelational- history. In Romans 8:12-30, Paul informs the church of her final end—the cre-ation will surrender itself for her consummation. From Romans 1 to Romans 8, therefore, we move from creation to consummation; we move from the plain of creational-history to the plain of the transcendent age to come. In Romans 10, however, Paul returns to the present task of the church in light of her mission to both Jew and Gentile; and that present task is the preaching of the gospel (10: 8-21). Hence, in terms of the sequence of Paul's argument in Romans, the present task of preaching is done on the backdrop of the antithesis of the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan (1:17-3: 20) as well as the understanding of the final end for the glorious children of God. Indeed, the final flock of the Lamb enjoys the justifying and sanctifying grace of God the Father through His Son by the work of the Holy Spirit (8: 12-30).

Even so, in contrast of the sequence of the text, we have made our journey in reserve order. I have taken this approach in order to offer a challenge with respect to an organic understanding of supernatural revelation. In my mind, if the problems surrounding the exegesis of Romans 10:18 can approach resolution, then issues in Romans 8 and Romans 1 may be reexamined in a better light. Indeed, Paul tells us by quoting Psalm 19:4 in Romans 10:18 that the heavens have witnessed the supernatural activity of God upon the plain of the natural creation, and furthermore, the creation proclaims that testimony every single day to all men. Moreover, in Romans 8, Paul notes that an essential characteristic of the gospel is inherently written upon the fabric of natural revelation; it is the pattern of suffering to exaltation (a component of special revelation). Let us keep these fundamental truths about the fabric of supernatural revelation before us as we now proceed to Romans 1.

Paul's argument in Romans 1 is redemptive-historical; in verses 17-25 Paul does not intend to prescribe the foundations of theological prolegomena for future theologians along the line of a defense for theism and/or a construct for natural theology. Rather, Paul places us in the midst of the redemptive-historical drama between the seed of the woman (the kingdom of God) and the seed of the serpent (kingdom of Satan). The contrast is grounded in eschatology, i.e., the present and final revelation of the righteousness of God (vs. 17) in contrast to the present and final revelation of the wrath of God against all ungodliness and unrighteousness (vs. 18).24 Simply, Paul is mapping out the strict antithesis between faith and unbelief; faith results in salvation, and unbelief results in wrath.25 There is no middle ground; moreover, theism based on natural theology does not get it half right. Rather, the strict antithesis is before the reader; there are those who are redeemed by faith in Christ (vs. 16,17), and there are those who are condemned by their own unbelief, and thus are objects of God's fury (1:18-3:20).

The reason that unbelievers are condemned is because they are "without excuse" to believe (vs. 20: avnapologh,touj); their rebellion is self-imposed.26 They not only know God as image-bearer (vs. 19 "sense of divinity within them"), but they also know God "through the things that are made" (vs. 20). For Paul, the knowledge of God is not limited to the divine attributes of a theistic being deduced logically and exclusively from natural revelation. Why? First, according to Paul, the God who is revealed and known is the God of the Bible. Human beings are the image-bearer of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (1:19 corresponds to Gen. 1: 26-28), and the creation is the product of the activity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (1:20 corresponds to Gen. 1—Father; Jn. 1: 2-3—Son; Gen. 1:2—Holy Spirit). Second, the arena on which the triune God of the Bible displays himself is upon the creation (1:20). In light of this point, I want to reassess verse 20. Let me reiterate that Paul has placed the reader of this passage within the spectrum of the entire story of the history of redemption. We are viewing Paul's analysis of the landscape of redemptive-history "since/from" the creation of the world. Simply, Paul is telling us that since the creation of the world, the "invisible things of the Lord are clearly seen" upon the continuum of history.27 John Murray indicates that Paul seems to be caught in an "oxymoron" here, i.e., how can something invisible be clearly seen (visible)?28 In verse 20 Paul provides an answer; the invisible is a reference to the God's eternal power and divinity. In other words, God's eternal power and divinity (which is invisible) is clearly seen and understood by the things that are made. In order to fit into a certain theological construct, however, many theologians have held that verse 20 is a reference to God's creative act of bringing forth the creation, and that the creation reveals the "invisible attributes" of God (i.e., his eternal power and divinity) which leaves humanity without excuse. Although it is absolutely true that the creation reveals the blueprint of God's invisible attributes, I am not convinced that such a theological construct is in the mind of Paul in this text.29 Again, Paul has placed us within the continuum of history "since/from" the creation, and therefore, he is not isolating our attention upon the natural phenomena of the creation that God created. Rather, God's eternal power and divinity are clearly seen and understood by the things the Lord is "doing" in created history (cf. Ps. 136). In other words, God's creative power with respect to bringing the creation into being is not what is in view in this text; rather, what is in view is God's activity—God's doing—in the creation (cf. Ps. 145:10-13; 146:5-9; 148:1-14; 150:1-2). Paul does not use a form of the Greek word, ktizo (kti,zw) that usually refers to the creative work of God with respect to the creation; rather, Paul uses the form of the Greek word, poyeo (poie,w) that usually refers to an activity (do, make, working).30

Let me illustrate by using Israel's exodus from Egypt as an example! Again we must keep in mind that "since/from" the creation the invisible things of God, i.e., his eternal power and divinity are clearly seen by virtue of the things that he is doing. In this light, we need to pick up simply upon such statements from the Lord in Exodus 14:4, 18 about the unbelieving nations:

" `Then I harden Pharaoh's heart, so that he will pursue them; and I will gain honor over Pharaoh and over his army, that the Egyptians may know that I am the Lord.' And they did so" (vs. 4)… " `Then the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I gained honor for Myself over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his horsemen'" (vs. 18; cf. also Josh. 23:4-9).

Keeping the event of the exodus in mind, let us look at God's incredible act in light of Romans 1. Pharaoh and the Egyptians were truly witnesses to God's invisible power and divinity; moreover, they clearly understood God's invisible power and divinity on the basis of the visible activity (doing) of the Lord. In fact, they "knew God" (Rom. 1: 21) on the basis of God's activity, and thus they were without excuse.31 Furthermore, not only did Pharaoh and the Egyptians know God, but also they refused to glorify him as God, nor were they thankful; rather, they lifted up futile thoughts as they lived with darkened hearts (Rom. 1:21). Indeed, the Egyptians are a perfect example of "changing the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man" (Rom. 1:23). In other words, the Egyptians are a perfect example of those who exchanged "the truth of God for lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator" (Rom. 1:25; cf. Ps. 115:1-8; 134:15-18)!

We must not stop there; we must press on from the antithetical structure of Romans one to the consummation of creation in Romans 8. After all, the exodus is a preview of the consummation of God's activity upon the landscape of creation history. In the exodus the creation witnesses its own preview of its eager expectation of the glorification of the sons of God (in this case, the Israelites final release from bondage; cf. Rom. 8: 19). In fact, the creation subjects itself to God's sovereign activity in the exodus in the hope of being delivered from its own bondage through the glorious freedom experienced by the children of God (the exodus itself; cf. Rom. 8: 21).

Moreover, we must not stop there; we must press on to the present nature of preaching the gospel (Rom. 10:18). The exodus is also a preview of the Lord preaching the gospel through the testimony of the creation (Rom. 10:18)! Was not God's special revelation organically connected with the natural revelation in this event; or to put it another way, in the exodus, are we not witnessing the supernatural revelation of God in its two overlapping forms—natural and special revelation? For we are told that the "Angel of God" (Jesus Christ) and the "the pillar of cloud" (Holy Spirit) which led the camp of Israel moved behind the camp of Israel and stood between the Egyptians and the Israelites—giving the Israelites protection during the night (Ex. 14:19-20). In fact, in the morning, as the Egyptians pursue the Israelites through the Red Sea, the pillar of fire and cloud (Holy Spirit) played havoc upon the Egyptian chariot wheels—so much so that the Egyptians say, "Let us flee from the face of Israel, for the Lord fights for them against the Egyptians" (Ex. 14:25). Indeed, the creation witnesses and now testifies (preaches) that it has seen the gospel upon the landscape of creation history. The creation testifies that the children of God have gone from bondage to freedom, from slavery to resurrection by virtue of the joint operation of the Father, Son (Angel of God), and the Holy Spirit (pillar and cloud). The creation testifies to all humanity that has seen the gospel upon its site (cf. Josh. 2:9-12; 5:1; 9:1-2, 8-9).

Implication for Apologetics

As we focus upon this paradigm in Romans, it becomes a strong tool in the apologetic arena of ideas. For example, at the beginning of the 19th century, William Paley's work on Natural Theology was a popular academic textbook in the field of science throughout Britain. Like others in England, a young Charles Darwin was educated in the field of natural science and human anatomy by using Paley's natural theology as a textbook. When Darwin began to challenge the conclusions of Paley's natural theism, he, like many others, thought that the issue was merely to remove God out of the picture of naturalism. Since many naturalists had already rejected the Christian themes of redemption in Christ, they thought that all that remained was to reject the God of nature—a God of natural theology! Herein lies the genius of Paul's thought as well as the full-orbed understanding of Christian theistic revelation. Paul does not teach natural theology plus supernatural revelation; he does not even teach natural revelation plus supernatural revelation. Rather, the Biblical theistic position is that natural revelation can never be truly comprehended without special revelation, or natural revelation is always organically linked or united to special revelation in the entire spectrum of God's supernatural revelation. An excellent example is provided in Paul's great sermon on Mars Hill. In his sermon, recorded in Acts 17:16-31, the issue for Paul is not natural revelation plus supernatural revelation, rather the issue is that the same God who created all things (Acts 17:24), and even gave the Athenians life (sense of divinity; cf. Rom. 1:19; natural and general revelation), is not only the true invisible God that cannot be served or made into a finite imagery, but he is the same God that will judge all humanity by his righteousness by virtue of the fact that he has raised Christ from the dead (Acts 17:30-31). One can never separate the fact that all humanity has their life, movement, and being by virtue of God's natural creative activity (natural revelation) from the fact that God has given life, movement, being to his Son at his resurrection (supernatural revelation). Moreover, one must not forget that the resurrection (supernatural) has occurred upon the plain of the natural order (natural); to reject the resurrection is to reject the true understanding of the natural (e.g., Athenians); moreover, to reject the true understanding of the natural is to reject the resurrection (e.g., Darwin and other naturalists). In the realm of apologetics, we demand that all human beings must repent because the realms of the natural and supernatural are inseparable! This is why the Christian apologist must be emphatic—to reject the God of the resurrection is to reject the God who made all things, including the natural world. If one rejects the God of Christianity, then one must reject the natural world as it appears to humanity since the phenomenon of nature is linked organically to the gospel. In a Biblical construction of supernatural revelation, a true view of natural revelation is dependent upon a true view of special revelation found in the gospel of Jesus Christ.


1 With some revisions, this article was delivered as a public lecture on August 13, 2005 at Northwest Theological Seminary in Lynnwood, Washington under the title, "Apologetics and Creation." Although delivered in August, the lecture was part of the program for the Kerux Conference in May 2005. I wish to thank the Lilly Endowment through the Kaleo Center at Covenant College, Lookout Mountain, GA for a grant to research this subject. Specifically, I thank Dr. Kevin Eames, Director of the Center for Theological Exploration of the Kaleo Center, who graciously approved the grant.

SUP>2 R.C. Sproul. Defending your Faith: An Introduction to Apologetics (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2003), 74.

3 Ibid.

4 Christian Apologetics, ed. William Edgar, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003), 66.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid. Italics are mine. Here Van Til is following the line of Herman Bavinck who wrote, "Scripture, though it knows of established natural order, in the case of revelation makes no distinction between `natural' and `supernatural' revelation. It uses the same terms for both… In its origin all revelation is supernatural. God is always working." (Prolegomena, vol. 1 of Reformed Dogmatics, general editor, John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 307.

7 See Christian Apologetics, 67-68.

8 Ibid., 68. Bavinck states, "The covenant that after the flood was made with Noah and in him with the new human race is a covenant of nature, yet no longer natural but the fruit of non-obligatory supernatural grace" (Prolegomena, 311).

9 Van Til, Christian Apologetics, 68. Interestingly, Jonathan Edwards conveyed the same idea in the eighteenth century, i.e., that creation serves redemption. Edwards wrote: "This seems to have been one reason why God made the world by Jesus Christ, viz. that the creation of the world was a work that was subordinate to the work of redemption," The "Miscellanies" (Entry Nos. 501-832), vol. 18 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. Ava Chamberlain (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 289.

10 Christian Apologetics, 78.

11 Perhaps, the contrast here can be seen in the way Guido de Brès intended the opening of Belgic Confession, Article II to be understood. The opening phrase presently reads, "We know Him by two means," which refers to creation (natural revelation) and Scripture (special revelation). As it presently reads, many find in this phrase a construction that fits with Aquinas. However, it is known that in the original draft de Brès wrote: "we confess to know Him as such by two means," which stresses the organic union of the two revelations (one revelation in two forms) rather than a sequential movement of two revelations (Aquinas) (see G. C. Berkouwer, General Revelation [Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1955], 275).

12 Christian Apologetics, 76. Again, Edwards would agree—creation serves redemption. Moreover, Edwards sees providence in this vein: "And that work of God's providence to which all other works of providence, both in the material and immaterial part of creation, are subservient, is the work of redemption. All other works of providence may be looked upon as appendages to this great work, or things which God does to subserve that grand design" (The "Miscellanies," 284).

13 Christian Apologetics, 66.

14 Ibid., 76. Van Til comments further: "It is not that we are merely brought into existence by God, but our meaning also depends upon God. Our meaning cannot be realized except through the course of history. God created man in order that man should realize a certain end, that is, the glory of God, and thus God should reach his own end" (The Defense of the Faith, 3rd ed. [Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1967], 40). Edwards also seems convinced that we need to understand the beginning from its end: "The work of redemption may be looked upon as the great end and drift of all God's works and dispensations from the beginning, and even the end of the work of creation itself; yea, the whole creation. It was the end of the creation of heaven: the preparing that blessed and glorious habitation was with the eye to this" ("The "Miscellanies," 284).

15 Edwards was emphatic about his point: "That the recovery of the world from confusion and ruin is by Christ, who is the wisdom of God and the brightness of his glory and the light of the world; and that the first thing that was done in order to the recovery of the ruined world, was the giving of Jesus Christ to be the light of the world to put an end to its darkness and confusion" (ibid., 284-285).

16 The Epistle to the Romans, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1968), 61.

17 In fact, the Belgic Confession (1567) captures the element of communication that pertains to natural revelation in Ps. 19 when it discusses that natural revelation is a book that is read. After all, as the Psalmist says that nature speaks and propels knowledge, we note that such speech is so broad that everyone has heard its voice. Hence, Reformed theologians have said correctly that natural revelation manifests the truth that all humanity has heard the voice of God.

18 There is a wide range of perplexity over this text, particularly Paul's use of Psalm 19:4. Charles Hodge was clear that Paul does not intend that Psalm 19:4 be applied specifically to the "preaching of the gospel." Rather, Hodge contends that Paul uses Psalm 19:4 to state that the "proclamation of the gospel was now free from all national and ecclesiastical restrictions" in order to go to Jew and Gentile (A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans [Philadelphia: Grigg & Elliot, 1835], 443-44). John Calvin rejects the ancient "allegorical" interpretation in which the sun equals Christ (Ps. 19:4) and the heavens equal the apostles (Ps. 19:1). Rather, for Calvin, Paul invokes his teaching from Romans 1. Paul is using Ps. 19:4 not to declare that "the Gospel" has gone to the Gentiles, but that "the whole workmanship of heaven and earth spoke and proclaimed its Author by its preaching." In the fashion of Aquinas, Calvin is holding that Paul's use of Ps. 19:4 here is a reference to natural revelation alone—that God preaches through natural revelation his "divinity" to Jew and Gentile (The Epistles of Paul The Apostle to the Romans and to the Thessalonians, ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance, trans. Ross MacKenzie [Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1960], 234). John Murray saw the "difficulty" here. Murray wonders if Paul has a lapse of memory since he seems to be quoting Ps. 19:4 in the context of special revelation instead of natural revelation. After all, we must remember that the Psalmist deals with general revelation in verses 1-6 and with special revelation in verses 7-14. For Murray, although in the strict sense Ps. 19:4 applies to natural revelation, Paul has the liberty to use it in any way he pleases. Simply put, according to Murray, Paul is using Ps. 19:4 as a pattern for the gospel going "to the uttermost parts of the earth." To put it another way, general revelation (Ps. 19:4), as it testifies of God to all humanity, is now an analogy for the gospel (special revelation) going out to all humanity (Romans, 61). C. E. B. Cranfield suggests a simple solution; he holds that "probably all that he [Paul] wants to assert is that the message has been publicly proclaimed in the world at large—the significant thing is that it has been quite widely preached to the Gentiles…" Like Murray, Cranfield maintains that Psalm 19:4 is being used by Paul as an analogy of expanding the preaching of the gospel (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Epistle to the Romans, vol. 2 [Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1979], 537). Karl Barth avoids the reference of Psalm 19:4 altogether. In light of his dialectical view of transcendence and cosmos this is not surprising. Barth will avoid the traditional view of natural revelation with respect to Psalm 19:4, and thus, he will place the verse in the context of the preaching of the Word of Christ within the church. As the church goes into the world, it proclaims the kerygma (The Epistle to the Romans, trans. Edwyn C. Hoskyns, 6th ed. [1933; reprint, London: Oxford, 1972], 389. N. T. Wright holds that Paul's quote of Psalm. 19:4 is directing us back to the "created order" as stated in Romans 1:18-20, but Wright admits that Paul is not clear concerning how the reference to Psalm 19:4 is related to the gospel. Wright realizes that Paul's use of the Psalmist is a reference to the proclamation of the gospel, but he does not know how (Paul for Everyone: Romans: Part Two: Chapters 9-16 [London: SPCK, 2004], 37).

19 The material in this paragraph is stimulated by a sermon delivered by Rev. Charles G. Dennison (1945-1999) on Psalm 19 that was preached on November 27, 1994 at Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Sewickley, PA.

20 Going back to the fall seems to be agreed upon by Murray, Romans, 303; Wright, Romans, I: 151; Cranfield, Romans, I: 413; Calvin, Romans, 173.

21 Wright draws the analogy between Israel and their bondage, not Christ (Romans, I: 151). Cranfield goes so far as to say that Christ is not in view at all in verses 18-23 since Paul does not mention him (Romans, I: 416-417). On the other hand, Charles Hodge thinks the phrase "glorious liberty" in verse 21 (cf. also vs. 18) is a phrase that has been applied to Christ, and now is applied in a similar manner to the creation (Romans, 337).

22 Wright sees a restorationist view of creation here (Romans, I: 152). Barth works with his transcendence-cosmos dialectic (see his Romans, 302-15).

23 The creation also seems to assume the position of the sacrificial system that obviously points us to Christ (see Lev. 6:1-13; 9:23-24). Note that offerings must be consumed (burned up) in order to bring peace and holiness (note the eschatological structure of the sacrifice being on the altar from night to morning [creation language from "evening and morning"]). What happens to the sacrifice will happen to the creation (2 Pet. 3:10ff.)—the creation is consumed by fire so that the sons of God may be brought into the consummation of God's peace.

24 The same Greek verb appears in both verse 17 and verse 18: avpokalu,ptetai. In both cases, the verb is in indicative present passive 3rd person singular.

25 Murray sees the passage in the context of strict antithesis as well: "`The wrath of God' stands in obvious antithesis to `the righteousness of God' in verse 17" (Romans, 35).

26 One can say that unbelievers are literally "without an apology"—"without a defense"—against the testimony of the true God and his supernatural revelation.

27 In the NKJ we have: "For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen." The word "attributes" is not in the Greek text. NIV has: "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen…" ASV (1901) and KJV both have: "For the invisible things of him since the creation of the world are clearly seen."

28 Romans, 38; Cranfield also places the concept of oxymoron before us (Romans, I: 115); Calvin ties the text to Hebrews 11:3 (Romans, 32).

29 On the basis of Greek and Roman literature, Cranfield sees this as a reference to the "attributes" of God (Romans, I: 115; e.g. Homeric hymns, Hesiod, Cicero). Cranfield's assessment can be questioned. What is known, what is seen, and what is perceived are the "invisible things of God" (vs. 20). Paul is not arguing from the visible to the visible; rather he moves from the invisible to the visible—the invisible is revealed in the visible, and from the visible the invisible is known. We cannot overlook the Greek term that Paul uses here with respect to God's revelation of the "invisible" (avo,ratoj adjective nom. pl.). When this particular form of the Greek word for "invisible" appears in the New Testament, it has either a direct or indirect reference to Christ (Col. 1: 15, 16; 1 Tim. 1:17; Heb. 11:27). Simply put, the invisible things of God include the person, identity, and ordained work of Christ. Look at Col. 1: 15, 16; as Paul refers to the things that have been made in Romans 1, i.e., as Paul looks at God's activity in creation, we do well to look at the Colossians passage as further commentary. In, by, through, and unto Christ were all things created—visible and invisible, including the basic patterns which are found in Christ's creative activity in the original creation (Gen. 1) as they come to be found also in the gospel centered on Christ: e.g., light testifies to the Light; chaos testifies to order; void testifies to fulfillment; formlessness testifies to resolution; a first day testifies to a final day of consummation (Sabbath day); and eventually, a fallen groaning creation testifies to the deliverance of God's children. Indeed, Christ, as the "firstborn of all creation" (vs. 15) points to Christ being the "firstborn from the dead" (vs. 18), i.e., having the position of priority (pioneer, go before) in the creation order as the second person of the Trinity points to the fact that he also has the position of priority in the resurrection of the dead on behalf of his body of believers, the church—the invisible is made visible as his Father makes the tomb vacant! Christ, as the great "I am of God" (Ex 3:14; cf. Jn. 6:35, 38) made his invisible person known to Moses out of a bush (the invisible in a visible natural object) that would not be consumed as Moses' faith exchanged fearing the wrath of God for not fearing the wrath of Pharaoh (Heb. 11:27). The same Christ took Paul on a similar path like Moses (cf. 1 Tim. 1:12-17). In my judgment, when we fully grasp what Paul means by "the invisible things of him [God] from the creation of the world are clearly seen" (Rom. 1:20a), it is not the attributes of a theistic being that is revealed, rather the attributes of the triune God of the Bible as well as the essence of his being are revealed which are exhibited in the pattern of the gospel itself.

30 The Greek word for "made"—poih,masin—noun, dat. pl. (of things done or made would be the literal); its specific form is only found twice in the New Testament, both in the writings of Paul: Rom. 1:20; Eph. 2:10—"we are the workmanship of Christ Jesus." Christ is active in the things that are made.

31 Cranfield is on the right track when he writes, "The result of God's self-manifestation in His creation is not a natural knowledge of God on men's part independent of God's self-revelation in His Word, a valid though limited knowledge, but simply the excuselessness of men in their ignorance" (Romans, I: 116).