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What are the sources for theology? By what means may we know God? In answering this question, theologians regularly speak of general revelation and special revelation. By the former is meant that non-redemptive knowledge of God to be found in creation and conscience, a knowledge that is universally accessible (hence, “general”). By the latter is meant that redemptive knowledge of God as revealed in the person of Christ, the living Word of God, and in the Bible, the written Word of God, a knowledge that is restricted to the recipients of saving grace (hence, “special”).


Not everyone, however, has acknowledged the reality of general revelation (or at least, the possibility of natural theology based on general revelation), chief among whom is Karl Barth (1886-1968). Barth’s theology was shaped by his reaction to the liberal emphasis on divine immanence. He thus affirmed the radical transcendence of God and the utter sinfulness of mankind. There exists between Creator and creature an absolute qualitative difference. Time and eternity are two mutually exclusive realms with no common ground or connecting link or point of contact between them. God is thus wholly incomprehensible and ineffable. He is hidden (Deus absconditus) and cannot be known apart from the initiative he takes to reveal himself in the person of Christ. Demarest explains:


“The infinite, wholly other God cannot be known save by the decisive act of His self-disclosure in the Word. God, who inhabits eternity, breaks into the temporal realm in Jesus Christ like a vertical line intersecting a horizontal plane. From the perspective of radical transcendence, Barth characterizes the God of the bible as ‘the God to whom there is no way and bridge, of whom we could not say or have to say one single word, had he not of his own initiative met us as Deus revelatus” (General Revelation, 116-17).


For Barth, the image of God in man has been so utterly defaced by the fall that all capacity, whether by reason or through nature, to know even that God exists is lost. Thus “only the divine revelation in Christ restores to man his original capacity to know God through the Creation” (Demarest, 117).


Donald Bloesch tends to agree with Barth and suggests that the term “general revelation” should probably be “abandoned because of its ambiguity and imprecision” (A Theology of Word and Spirit, 164). But Barth’s rejection of general or natural revelation simply cannot be sustained in the light of what Scripture says. The testimony of special revelation to the validity of general revelation is inescapable. The latter, according to the former, comes primarily in two modalities: creation and conscience.


A.        Creation as a Modality of Revelation


The principal textual support for the reality of general revelation in nature is Romans 1:18ff. The wrath of God revealed from heaven is grounded in the persistent repudiation by mankind of the revelation God has made of himself in the created order. In other words, there is a reason for God’s wrath. It is not capricious. God’s wrath has been deliberately and persistently provoked by man’s willful rejection of God as He has revealed himself.


The revelation is both from God and about God. Therefore, in this case if the pupil does not learn it is not because the teacher did not teach. The phrase “evident to them” (v. 19, NASB), is better rendered either in or among them, probably the latter; i.e., God has made himself known among people (and thus, in a manner of speaking, to them, in their minds and hearts) in His works of creation and providence.


Observe Paul’s paradoxical language in v. 20: he refers to God’s invisible attributes (1 Tim. 1:17) as clearly seen (oxymoron). Paul’s point is that the invisible is made visible via creation or nature. Divine wisdom, power, eternity and goodness, for example, are not in themselves visible, but their reality is undeniably affirmed and apprehended by the effects they produce in nature. That there is a God, supreme, eternal, infinite in power, personal, wise, independent, worthy of glory and gratitude, is clearly evident in the creation.


How are these truths about God made known and where may we see them? Answer: “through what has been made” (v. 20). God has left the indelible mark of His fingerprints all across the vast face of the universe.


In this regard, see especially Psalm 19 (where divine revelation is portrayed as a two-volume book: God’s revelation in nature [vv. 1-6] and his revelation in the written Law [vv. 7-13]; God’s witness to himself via the natural realm is perpetual [v. 2], silent [v. 3], and universal [v. 4]); Psalms 8, 29, 93, and 104. In the NT, in addition to Romans 1, see Acts 17:22-31 (cf. Acts 14:15-17).


“They who have no Bible may still look up to the moon walking in brightness and the stars watching in obedient order; they may see in the joyous sunbeams the smile of God, and in the fruitful shower the manifestation of his bounty; they hear the rending thunder utter his wrath, and the jubilee of the birds sing his praise; the green hills are swelled with his goodness; the trees of the wood rejoice before him with every quiver of their foliage in the summer air” (Robert Dabney).


“Heaven and earth and all creatures, herbs and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, meat and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, yea and all things declare God. There is not an atom of the universe in which God’s power and divinity are not revealed” (Herman Bavinck).


“Men,” said Calvin, “cannot open their eyes without being compelled to see him” (I, 5.1), and “wherever you cast your eyes, there is no spot in the universe wherein you cannot discern at least some sparks of his glory” (I, 5.1).


This revelation is sufficiently clear and inescapable that it renders all without excuse (see Rom. 1:20). Consequently, there is no such thing as “an innocent native in Africa” any more than there is “an innocent pagan in America.”


“The excuse that is banished, the excuse every pagan hopes in vain to use, the excuse that is exploded by God’s self-revelation in nature is the pretended, vacuous, dishonest appeal to ignorance. No one will be able to approach the judgment seat of God justly pleading, ‘If only I had known you existed, I would surely have served you.’ That excuse is annihilated. No one can lightly claim ‘insufficient’ evidence for not believing in God” (R. C. Sproul, Classical Apologetics, 46).


The problem is not a lack of evidence. The problem is the innate, natural, moral antipathy of mankind to God. The problem is not that the evidence is not open to mankind. The problem is that mankind is not open to the evidence.


Note well: “For even though they knew God” (v. 21a). Again, “that which is known about God is evident within them” (not hidden, obscure, uncertain, but disclosed, clear, and inescapable). There is no such thing as an honest atheist! All people know God. There is a distinction, of course, between a cognitive apprehension of God, i.e., knowing that there is a God and that He is worthy of obedience, worship, gratitude, and a saving or redemptive knowledge of God. All people experience the former whereas only the redeemed experience the latter. Thus the problem, again, “is not a failure to honor what was not known, but a refusal to honor what was clearly known” (Sproul, 51).


Bloesch, who joins Barth in rejecting general revelation, argues that “while the wonders of nature manifest God’s deity and power, because of human sin they fail to give us real knowledge. They do bring us a deep-seated awareness of God – sufficient, however, to condemn us, not to save us. Real knowledge of God entails not only objective disclosure but also subjective understanding” (165). But it appears that Paul believed the unbeliever’s knowledge of God was “real” though not “saving”. They have more than an “awareness” of God. They know both that he exists and that he is of a certain moral character and that they themselves are accountable to him. In other words, their knowledge of God brings “subjective” understanding, to use Bloesch’s term, but not “saving” understanding. The God they truly and “really” know, they hate and refuse to honor. Their response, however, is not borne of ignorance but of willful rebellion and self-centered sinfulness.


But no less clear is Paul’s assertion that all persistently suppress this knowledge (see vv. 21-32). Paul does not say they began in darkness and futility and are slowly but surely groping their way toward the light. Rather, they began with the clear, inescapable light of the knowledge of God and regressed into darkness. More on this below.


The reference to them as “futile” and “fools” (vv. 21-22) does not mean all pagans are stupid. It is not man’s intelligence that is in view but his disposition. The problem with the unsaved isn’t that he can’t think with his head. The problem is that he refuses to believe with his heart. The unsaved man is a fool not because he is of questionable intelligence. He is a fool because of his immoral refusal to acknowledge and bow to what he knows is true.


What is the response of the human heart to this revelatory activity of God? Paul describes it in vv. 21-23. What he has in mind involves a distortion or deliberate mutation when one substitutes something artificial or counterfeit for that which is genuine. Clearly, then, when man rejects God he does not cease to be religious. Indeed, he becomes religious in order to reject God. He substitutes for God a deity of his own making, often himself.


Here Paul “describes the terrible proclivity of all people to corrupt the knowledge of God they possess by making gods of their own. This tragic process of human ‘god making’ continues apace in our own day, and Paul’s words have as much relevance to the person who has made money or sex or fame his god as to those who carved idols out of wood and stone” (Moo, 105).


What does this tell us about why people ultimately reject the gospel? Is their reason intellectual, as so many claim, or moral?


B.        Conscience as a Modality of Revelation


Calvin argued that there is within the mind of all people an “awareness of divinity” (divinitatis sensum or semen religionis). God has implanted this seed of religion in everyone. “Yet there is . . . no nation so barbarous, no people so savage, that they have not a deep-seated conviction that there is a God” (I, 3.1). Theoretical atheism, therefore, is impossible. Men may live as if there is no God, but they cannot deny his existence, “for the worm of conscience, sharper than any cauterizing iron, gnaws away within” (I, 3.3). However, the innate knowledge of God is corrupted by sin and consequently men “deliberately befuddle themselves” (I, 4.2). Again, “this seed is so corrupted that by itself it produces only the worst fruits” (I, 4.4).


Calvin drew his conclusions from Romans 2:12-16 where Paul argues that all mankind intuitively know of the existence of a Supreme Being on whom they are dependent and to whom they are morally accountable. In fact, “the mind’s intuitive consciousness of God logically precedes and grounds all reasoning about God from the observable world” (Demarest, 229).


Paul’s primary purpose here is to demonstrate to the Jews that mere possession of the Law does not, in and of itself, bring salvation and thus does not, in and of itself, constitute an advantage over the Gentiles. In v. 12, Paul declares that those who sin without the law will perish. But why? Verses 14-16 give the reason: “Gentiles are fairly judged for their sin because even without knowing the Mosaic law they are conscious of moral norms and yet do not consistently keep them” (Schreiner, 119). In other words, Gentiles who do not have THE law of God (the Mosaic Law) are not completely without law. The basic moral principles revealed in the Law of God (obedience to parents, do not murder, do not lie, etc.) are inscribed on their hearts, indelibly embedded in their conscience by virtue of the fact that they are created in the image of God, no less than the Jews. Unsaved Gentiles, says Paul, manifest an innate awareness of God's moral demands, their conscience either accusing or acquitting them. In other words,


“Man qua man is intuitively aware of the categories of good and evil, of right and wrong. Man the creature is attuned to a voice that commands him to do his duty, or to put it otherwise, to the categorical imperative that is not learned or otherwise acquired” (Demarest, 231).


An objection often found on the lips of skeptics is that it is unfair of God to hold people morally accountable and to judge them for failure to obey a “law” of which they are ignorant. But here Paul clearly reminds us that no one is utterly without divine law and that each and every one will be judged according to their response to the “law” they have received (whether carved in tablets of stone, as with the Jews, or merely on the tablet of one’s heart, as with the Gentile).


It is important to note that when Paul speaks of the “work of the law written in their hearts” (v. 15) he is not alluding to the truth of Jeremiah 31:33. In this latter text, the prophet speaks of the time when God’s saving work among his people will entail the writing of the law on their hearts. Paul’s purpose in v. 15, on the other hand, is simply to demonstrate that the Gentiles have an inner, intuitive awareness of the law and its obligatory force. When Paul says in v. 14 that they are “a law to themselves” he has in mind “what is natively human [by virtue of having been created in God’s image], not what is supplied by the Holy Spirit [by virtue of having been redeemed]” (Schreiner, 123).


Paul’s reference to Gentile "obedience" to certain divine moral principles does not imply they are saved or that this is an obedience that secures merit for them in God's presence. In the first place, the text emphasizes that “accusing” thoughts predominate and that “defending” thoughts are relatively rare, or at least the exception rather than the rule. Secondly, the opening statement of v. 12 confirms this point. Paul “introduces the Gentiles by stating that those who sin without the law will perish without it. Verses 14-16 fill in the basis on which the judgment of the Gentiles occurs. They are judged by the law that is written in their hearts and attested by their conscience. They will eternally perish and face condemnation because of their failure to keep the law” (Schreiner, 124). Thus both the Jews and Gentiles will be judged for their failure to keep the law which they both, in ways unique to each, possessed.


This leads to three important conclusions:


·      First, the revelation of God in creation and conscience is sufficient to render all men without excuse, sufficient to lead to their condemnation if they repudiate it, but not sufficient to save. No one will be saved solely because of their acknowledgment of God in nature, but many will be lost because of their refusal of Him as revealed there. In other words, general revelation lacks redemptive content. It is epistemically adequate but soteriologically inadequate. It makes known that there is a God who punishes sin but not that He pardons it. “Any unbeliever who rightly understood it would be driven to despair. However clearly the content of general revelation was grasped, it would by itself provide no adequate basis for fellowship with God” (Packer, God Has Spoken, 55).


·      Second, the so-called heathen are not condemned for rejecting Jesus, about whom they have heard nothing, but for rejecting the Father, about whom they have heard and seen much. What exactly is the content of that revelation about God made known in nature and conscience? Ronald Nash (What About Those Who Have Never Heard? [IVP, 1995], p. 67) identifies seven elements:


1.     God exists

2.     This God created the physical universe

3.     This God is loving

4.     This God is personal, since love cannot characterize an impersonal       deity

5.     This God is a moral being

6.     We have violated the moral law and thus are guilty

7.     We have displeased the morally perfect God who is the source of       the moral law.


Demarest (General Revelation) extends this by appealing to other texts as well. Scripture, he says (242-43), suggests that all human beings know more or less the following about God from the light of universal general revelation:


1.     God exists (Ps. 19:1; Rom. 1:19)

2.     God is uncreated (Acts 17:24)

3.     God is Creator (Acts 14:15)

4.     God is Sustainer (Acts 14:16; 17:25)

5.     God is universal Lord (Acts 17:24)

6.     God is self-sufficient (Acts 17:25)

7.     God is transcendent (Acts 17:24)

8.     God is immanent (Acts 17:26-27)

9.     God is eternal (Ps. 93:2)

10.  God is great (Ps. 8:3-4)

11.  God is majestic (Ps. 29:4)

12.  God is powerful (Ps. 29:4; Rom. 1:20)

13.  God is wise (Ps. 104:24)

14.  God is good (Acts 14:17)

15.  God is righteous (Rom. 1:32)

16.  God has a sovereign will (Acts 17:26)

17.  God has standards of right and wrong (Rom. 2:15)

18.  God should be worshiped (Acts 14:15; 17:23)

19.  Man should perform the good (Rom. 2:15)

20.  God will judge evil (Rom. 2:15-16)


·      Third, general revelation is the essential prerequisite to special revelation. And special revelation is that which redemptively supplements and interprets general revelation. Therefore, if by God's gracious and sovereign enablement and enlightenment, any unbeliever responds positively to the revelation of God in nature (and conscience), God will take the necessary steps to reach him or her with the good news of Christ whereby they may be saved.




As grand and glorious as the revelation of God in creation and conscience may be, it is, of itself, inadequate to bring anyone to a saving knowledge of Christ. For that, God’s special revelation is essential. Calvin put it this way:


“Just as old or bleary-eyed men and those with weak vision, if you thrust before them a most beautiful volume, even if they recognize it to be some sort of writing, yet can scarcely construe two words, but with the aid of spectacles will begin to read distinctly; so Scripture, gathering up the otherwise confused knowledge of God in our minds, having dispersed our dullness, clearly shows us the true God” (I, 6.1).


Thus, Scripture supplements what general revelation could not supply:


“It is therefore clear that God has provided the assistance of the Word for the sake of all those to whom he has been pleased to give useful instruction because he foresaw that his likeness imprinted upon the most beautiful form of the universe would be insufficiently effective” (I, 6.3).


It is to that special revelation of God in Christ and Scripture that we now turn.


An Alternative Interpretation of Romans 2:12-16


N. T. Wright (“The Law in Romans 2,” in Paul and the Mosaic Law, ed. James D. G. Dunn [Eerdmans, 2001], 131-50) has proposed a reading of Rom. 2:12-16 that, if true, would cast considerable doubt on the traditional understanding of this text. Wright’s argument is based on, among other contextual clues, two grammatical observations.


First, he argues that the “for” (gar) with which v. 14 opens indicates that this verse is an explanation of the principle stated in v. 13. In other words, the “doers of the law who shall be justified” (v. 13) are none other than the “Gentiles” of v. 14. But who are these Gentiles who will be justified by doing the law?


This leads to Wright’s second point, which pertains to the word translated “by nature” (phusei). More traditional views have taken this word with what follows, hence: “for when Gentiles who do not have the law do by nature the things of the law they, not having the law, are a law to themselves.” On this reading, “by nature” means something like “instinctively” or “by virtue of something in their constitution” as divine image-bearers. In other words, in some way these unregenerate Gentiles have had the law of God written on their hearts as a constituent element in their status as image-bearers. Though unsaved, they are not without knowledge of what God requires, of the fundamental principles of right and wrong. These they have “by nature”. Wright, however, contends that “by nature” should be taken with what precedes and should be translated in a way that is consistent with its usage a mere thirteen verses later in 2:27. In the latter text phusis means what the Gentiles are or have “by birth”. Their “natural” state is uncircumcised. This leads Wright to translate 2:14 as follows: “for when Gentiles who do not by nature have the law do the things of the law they, not having the law, are a law to themselves.” Thus “by ‘nature’, that is, by birth, they are outside the covenant, not within Torah. And yet they ‘do the things of Torah’ (v. 14)” (145). Although it may seem unusual from a grammatical point of view, a similar construction is found in Rom. 14:1 (in which the substantive participle is followed, rather than preceded, by its modifying dative).


These Gentiles, therefore, who by birth did not have the law of God, yet do the things of the law, are Christian Gentiles, not unbelievers. This is confirmed by 2:15 which, Wright contends, is in fact a direct allusion to the new covenant of Jer. 31:33 and its promise of God putting his law within his people and writing it on their hearts. Says Wright, “I find it next to impossible that Paul could have written this phrase, with its overtones of Jeremiah’s new covenant promise, simply to refer to pagans who happen by accident to share some of Israel’s moral teaching” (147).


But if the Gentiles in 2:14 are Christians, what is the meaning of 2:15 and the reference to an inner uncertainty, as it were, concerning their status before God? Says Wright:


“They are not simply lawless Gentiles; but the Jewish law, which is now in some sense or other written on their hearts, and which in some sense they ‘do’, nevertheless has a sufficiently ambiguous relation to them for them to still be concerned that the eventual issue might be in doubt. Hence, as judgment day approaches, they may well find inner conflict as they reflect on their situation. They would not have this inner conflict were they not Christians. The situation would then be the simply [sic] one of v. 12” (146).


Wright concludes that Rom. 2:14-15 is not talking about the function of the divine image or conscience in unregenerate Gentiles by which they demonstrate an intuitive knowledge of the law of God. Rather, these are Christian Gentiles who, in fulfillment of the new covenant promise in Jeremiah, have had the law of God written in their hearts by the Spirit. Although they were born without the law, being outside the covenant God established through Moses, they now have the law in fulfillment of God’s promise to establish a new covenant. These are the “doers of the law” (v. 13) who will find themselves vindicated (justified) at the final judgment.


If Wright’s interpretation is correct, the principal textual support for the idea of general revelation in the conscience of mankind is lost.