How does God speak? (2) Special Revelation

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Imagine that you are watching one of those old silent movies.  You are enjoying the different scenes.  You catch something of the humour, pathos, danger and heroics from the way the actors interact with each other and the scenery.  You watch their facial expressions.  You see the way that the landscape around them changes.  Suppose that someone suddenly turned the sound on for the film and you were able to hear the sounds of conversations and maybe a narrator’s voice.  It would be even better still if you could watch the film on DVD, playing back the special edition of the film complete with director’s commentary.  There’s a sense there, isn’t there, of our understanding and enjoyment of the film being sharpened and increased as we not only see what is happening but hear as well.  A further level of enjoyment is created as we hear the explanations and the gaps are filled in.

The illustration is imperfect but hopefully it gives a sense of how Special Revelation is necessary to complete the picture. Special Revelation focuses in on the way that God has chosen to speak clearly to his people. Now, here’s the frustration of theology and doctrine.  We are introducing concepts about God and humanity that we are only really going to come to in detail later. We are taking about God’s people and God choosing us before we have got to that stage.  So, once again, we will need to bear with one another a little while and assume some things.

So what would we include or categorise as Special Revelation?  Well, first of all, it will include situations where God appears to people and speaks to them directly and audibly.  In the Old Testament, we find God walking in the Garden of Eden and talking with Adam and Eve; he speaks to Moses from within a burning bush and from Mount Sinai; he calls to Samuel in the Temple during the night.  Sometimes he appears in human or angelic form.  For example, in Genesis 18, he appears to Abraham along with two other “men,” bringing the promise of a son, Isaac, and warning about his intention to judge Sodom and Gomorrah.  In Genesis 32:22-31, Jacob meets and wrestles with a man at night.  It only becomes clear later on that this is no ordinary man: God himself has met with Jacob, wrestled with him and blessed him. The invisible and infinite God chooses to appear in a particular form – whether through impersonal symbols such as fire or in personal, human form. Such appearances are often referred to as “theophanies.” 

Another category of Special Revelation is prophecy.  Bavinck tells us that,

By prophecy we here mean God’s communication of his thoughts to human beings.  Often the word inspiration is used for this and is also more accurate insofar as the concept of prophecy is broader than that of inspiration, including as it does also the announcement of those thoughts to others.[1]

God chooses to reveal his will to specific individuals and uses them to communicate this to his people.  For example, he uses Nathan, Elijah and Elisha to bring messages of encouragement, warning and judgement to the Old Testament Kings of Israel and Judah.  He uses Isaiah and Jeremiah to warn the people about their sin and call them to repentance.  When the people return from Exile in Babylon, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi are used to challenge their pride, forgetfulness and injustice.  Frequently, prophecy includes warning and judgements. “Prophecy consistently opposes the thoughts of God to the thoughts of human beings.”[2]

Other ways in which God speaks clearly and directly through Special Revelation include dreams, visions and “interior illumination.”[3]  Bavinck notes that God even chooses sometimes to use forms of communication that we might at first associate with those lower forms, by which also among pagans the gods were deemed to make known his will.”[4]  These might include the lot, the Urim and Thummin, the dream and the vision.”[5]

There is a sense in which God is condescending himself so we can understand him.  If God is infinite and invisible, then how can we know him?  If he is holy and his ways are not our ways, then we might think it impossible for God to communicate in an intelligible way with us.  But what we see in Special Revelation is God getting down to our level and communicating to us in a way that we can understand.  As Calvin famously expresses it:

God in so speaking, lisps with us as nurses are want to do with little children?  Such modes of expression, therefore, do not so much express what kind of a being God is, as accommodate the knowledge of him to our feebleness.  In doing so, he must of course stoop far below his proper height.[6]

Special Revelation has a particular focus and purpose and so we are not to think of it as just a category of unconnected acts, sayings and revelations.  Rather,

The revelation that Scripture discloses to us does not just consist in a number of disconnected words and isolated facts but is one single historical and organic whole, a mighty world-controlling and world-renewing system of testimonies and acts of God.[7]

The focus of Special Revelation is on Salvation history: the story of how God has acted to call a people to himself, rescuing them from sin and death.  In fact, this is the best way of defining Special Revelation, not so much by the mode and medium involved, but more by its content.

This means three things.  First of all, Special Revelation has its focus in Jesus Christ.  In fact, Jesus is himself special revelation.  John Frame reminds us that other things such as nature are not themselves God’s Word. [8]  “The word….is God.  It is divine, not something created.”[9]  In John 1, we are introduced to Jesus as the one who is the Word of God, who is himself God, who is eternal and who has “made his dwelling place among us.”  Jesus is God’s ultimate Special Revelation.  He is the focal point of all revelation because in him, salvation comes.  Unlike the theophanies of the past, God not only reveals himself in human form: he actually takes on human nature.  This is the ultimate condescension.  This focal point means that Special Revelation stands out from General Revelation because the latter can only make us aware of aspects of God’s character such as his greatness and power. Calvin may be right that there is a hint of his mercy there, but it is only through Special Revelation that we can truly understand God’s righteousness, love and forgiveness.

Secondly, the purpose of Special Revelation is to bring glory to God.  Specifically, it glorifies him as the Triune God.  There is again specificity in Special Revelation lacking in General Revelation because it is only here that we discover that we are to worship him as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. [10]

Thirdly, we will want to say that the place where Special Revelation is found is in Scripture (the Bible).  We say this because this is the specific place where we learn to call God Father, where we are introduced to the person of Jesus, where we discover God’s plan of salvation and where we hear about the coming of the Holy Spirit.

[1] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol 1, 330.

[2] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol 1, 330.

[3] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol 1, 334.

[4] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol 1, 331.

[5] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol 1, 331.

[6] Calvin, Institutes, I.xiii.1. (Beveridge, 1:110).

[7] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol 1, 340.

[8] Frame, DWoG, 76.

[9] Frame, DWoG, 76.

[10] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Vol 1,343 & 346.

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