The two books
The fullness of God's goodness in Jesus Christ
Consider Colossians 2:9:
For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.
A really quite amazing proposition. In Jesus Christ, the climax of all special revelation, we are given a peephole view into the fullness of God. To speak of a peephole view of the infinite, full-blown mind of God sounds ridiculously self-contradictory. Well, our view is limited to a peephole by our inability, partly attributable to our sinfulness, and partly to our cretin-like intelligence, to grasp the infinite dimensions of the perfection of God's character as revealed in the incarnation. That is why we can only have a keyhole view. If we had the eyes to see, and endless time to digest what we are seeing, we could truly see the fullness of God's perfection in Jesus Christ. He was the mind of God in flesh.
As John put it, Jesus Christ was "full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). The couplet "grace and truth" is a summary in words of the character of God, and would have been recognized by anybody familiar with the Old Testament as such, for the ancient scriptures were rich in allusions to these attributes of God. In sum, this verse is saying that all God's attributes of character were perfectly displayed in the words and works of Jesus Christ, God in the flesh. His every word and every action bore the full impression of the thinking of God. He was sad at the very things His heavenly Father was saddened by. He was perfect in exercising just judgment. His voluntary death on the cross shows clearly God's boundless love for unlovable men and women.
The New Testament continues this amazing theme of God's revelation of Himself through Jesus Christ. He describes Jesus as “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15) and “the express image of [God's] person” (Heb. 1:3). In both passages the Greek word rendered as “image” is eikon. Our English word “icon” derives from it. This word means “a sign or representation which stands for its object by virtue of a resemblance or analogy to it” (Macquarie Dictionary). Though expert exegetes warn against imposing modern definitions on ancient words, it would appear that the Greek meant much the same thing to people of that time.
Computer gurus chose the word “icon” for the little picture you often see on a computer which, when you click on it, opens up all the capability and power of the program lying behind it and which it represents. The analogy can help us to understand better what the New Testament means when it calls Jesus an “icon” of God.
In what way did Jesus represent the glory of God? At this point we need to disagree with Guthrie, who reckons that Hebrews 1:3 “seems to mean that Christ represents in his person the majesty and power of God” (1981, p. 92). No. Jesus as man did not control the far-flung reaches of the universe. The glory that Jesus reflected relates to God's goodness, His perfection, not His power and greatness. Jesus perfectly represented the character of God.
We will consider just one example here to illustrate what we are trying to say. For we are asserting that a reader today can see the amazing character of God mirrored in the words and deeds of Jesus Christ. Here's an example:
Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end (John 13:1).
No philosopher intent on conjuring up a theoretical case study of love in action would have thought this thought. We see here an insight that a human mind could never concoct. No mere mortal has ever displayed the same selfless love revealed in the actions of Jesus Christ here.
Jesus was a handful of hours away from torture unimaginable, humiliation unparalleled, and death undesired. And he knew it. Just days before he had told his disciples,
Now My soul is troubled, and what shall I say? "Father, save Me from this hour"? But for this purpose I came to this hour (John 12:27).
What mere mortal would have a thought for any but himself at such a time? He knew that his disciples would escape hatred's sword that night, unsheathed, razor-sharp, and thirsting for the Master's blood. He knew that he was about to suffer indescribably. Yet his thoughts were on the welfare of his followers.
If you're sitting in a dentist's waiting room anticipating a tooth-yanking, the only person you're probably thinking of at that moment is the royal self. If another patient plops herself next to you and begins to rehearse her litany of woes, terrible though they may be, you're not likely to pay more attention than what is required by common decorum. Just enough to chime in with "I'm sorry to hear that" at approximately the right moment.
Jesus' frame of mind simply cannot be properly comprehended by us. It is an other-worldly pattern of thought. What a challenge. He expects His followers to seek to emulate his example. That is only possible by his living his life in us. By the other-worldly coming to our world.
But think a little further. Though Colossians 2:9 says that Jesus Christ bore the image of God's character without any encrusting patina, other verses show that he was limited in other respects. He did not know certain things (Matt. 24:36). There were things he could not do (Matt. 26:53). In making himself of no reputation and coming in the likeness of men (Phil. 2:7), he voluntarily gave up the fullness of the power of God, of the infinite knowledge of God.
If this were a book on the subject of the incarnation, we could fill numerous chapters analyzing the points being made here. But it isn't. So we won't. In sum, Jesus Christ reflected God's glory of character in full, but not the glory of His power and knowledge, and other such attributes. So by the means of the special revelation to be found in the climax of all special revelation, Jesus Christ, we learn about what we may call the "character" attributes of God. We learn about His perfection of mind, His goodness and faithfulness. These attributes of God had been expounded in the Old Testament revelation; Jesus Christ demonstrated them to perfection. Putting them to work in real life teaches us more than the mere Old Testament propositions were capable of teaching.
The fullness of God's power in the creation
But the perfection of God's character is not all there is to know about Him. Is God one gigantic ball of love and faithfulness and nothing else? No. His power, intelligence, knowledge, and wisdom also know no bounds. Scripture makes bold claims about God's power and knowledge. But how do we know they are true? Will mere assertions convince us; do claims establish their own truthfulness? Do you believe that Mohammed Ali is the greatest just because he said so? Of course not. We need more than that. Here is where the second Scripture, Romans 1:19-20, comes in:
… what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.
Note well. Scripture doesn't appeal to mere self-proclaimed authority to convince us that God is all-powerful. It rests its case in the hard evidence shining forth from the purported works of His hands.
Note also that the Greek word apo, translated here as “since”, makes more sense in this context if it is rendered “as a result of”, in accordance with one use of the term, “To indicate cause, means, or outcome” (Bauer, Arndt & Gingrich 1957, p. 87). In other words, because of the created order, we have an insight into the power of God.
Big oak trees from little acorns grow; this spiritual acorn indeed cradles a huge tree in its genes. Scripture proclaims elsewhere that God, through the Word, created all things. Even so-called empty space has not eternally existed, as modern cosmological investigations have adequately proven. This verse makes the simple claim that God's power and "Godhead" can be understood through reflection on the created order.
The material realm, from neutrinos to quasars, from viruses to dinosaurs, has the power to convict the human mind about the infinite power of God far more effectively than any pedagogical treatise, clever array of brilliant arguments, or even recital of the miracles of Jesus Christ. (The miracles Jesus wrought were not for the purpose of demonstrating the firepower of God, but for witnessing the Father's seal of approval of Jesus.) Revelation through deeds rather than words is an easier form of revelation for our minds to grasp.
In spite of the difficulty of interpreting the Hebrew of verse 3, there is no tongue in which Psalm 19:1-3's message cannot be understood. This famous Old Testament passage, sometimes called "the Psalm of the sun", plainly teaches the objective reality of general revelation in heavenly phenomena and its value for enhancing man's grasp of God's greatness:
The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork. Day unto day utters speech, and night unto night reveals knowledge. There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard.
Together with Romans 1:18-20, this passage validates the method of learning about God from His handiworks. Who would refuse to look through a God-given window into His very essence?
Let's not get pedantic
We are saying that the created order by and large shows God's greatness while special revelation shows His goodness. Are we saying that general revelation cannot provide insights into the character of God, but only into His intellect? Does general revelation's curriculum restrict our investigations of God's mind to attributes of greatness, such as omnipotence and omniscience? Note two biblical passages which suggest otherwise.
Nevertheless He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good, gave us rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.
This reference to God's providential care for His creatures testifies to the value of general revelation for providing insights into other aspects of God's mind than merely its intellectual content and power. Seeking to build a coherent structure of divine goodness from the bricks and mortar of nature's beneficence runs the risk of ending up shipwrecked, because nature not only deals out food and wine for our bellies, but also avalanches, earthquakes and floods for our destruction. In “The Problem of Pain”, C.S. Lewis warns,
The spectacle of the universe as revealed by experience can never have been the ground of religion: it must always have been something in spite of which… religion was held… At all times, then, an inference from the course of events in this world to the goodness and wisdom of the Creator would have been equally preposterous; and it was never made… i.e. never made at the beginnings of a religion. After belief in God has been accepted, "theodicies" explaining, or explaining away, the miseries of life, will naturally appear often enough.
Though one cannot build a complete, bomb-proof temple of divine providence from nature, Paul's defense nevertheless declares that even unbelievers can recognize the testimony to God's goodness found in nature's endless benefits. In spite of all the natural dangers earth throws up at us in the form of snakebites, malaria, tornadoes, earthquakes and floods, the population continues to climb steadily. God has indeed provided for our needs. He has provided endlessly for our pleasure, too. Who gave us sandy beaches to walk on, waves to surf on, snow to ski on, rocks to climb, coral reefs to give endless delights of discovery? Who made sex? Oh, the goodness of God made plain in nature.
The book of Job argues powerfully, albeit indirectly, that general revelation can indeed provide insights into the character of God. Job was not an unbeliever in need of convicting; he was a believer in need of redirection. Before the events described in the book, he had not been introduced to the fullness of God. As he himself put it, he had heard about God with the hearing of the ear, but had not seen Him with his eyes. He had received propositional truths about God; but that was not enough.
What Job seemed to lack was an understanding of the perfection of God's goodness. Yet how did God Himself correct this shortcoming? Did he give Job an earful of descriptions of His goodness? Job's friends had tried and failed. Surprisingly, He directed Job's gaze to the works of His hands, advising him to take instruction from the marvels of nature, both on the earth and in the heavens.
The outcome of this lesson in general revelation (combined with suffering) is most enlightening. Did Job exclaim at the end of it all, "How great you are!"? Indeed, he had seen God's greatness, but his conclusion was, "… I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes" (42:6). Somehow, through seeing God's greatness, Job had also seen God's perfection, His goodness, His justice. And saw his own folly. The implications of this little fact for the study of general revelation are sizable, and bear much investigation.
Getting back, now, to Romans 1:20. It tells us that because these attributes are clearly mirrored in creation, "they (humans) are without excuse". Herein lies a provocative suggestion as to one of the purposes of the vastness and intricacy of creation. (But not the only purpose.) Is the purpose of general revelation merely to bring scurrilous villains to heel? Or at least to court? One cannot deny the value of natural phenomena in robbing gainsayers of any excuse.
Those who meditate on the meaning of this little clause, "so that they are without excuse" usually come to one of two conclusions—an optimistic or a pessimistic one. Generally speaking, both groups believe that the weight of evidence suggests that men and women who cherish no purported special revelation can nevertheless "see God" in the physical creation. In other words, even unbelievers see God in creation. Some would even suggest that they see God willy-nilly. Taking an opposite view, some Bible students, notably Karl Barth, feel that only those who already know God from special revelation are capable of seeing Him in general revelation. In other words, only believers can interpret general revelation. We take the former view, largely based on Romans 1.
Optimists, such as the Protestant reformer, John Calvin, see in nature a God-given instrument, a point of contact, for reaching the unconverted. In general revelation Calvin sees a, "way of discerning God which is common to those inside and outside the Christian community" (McGrath 1992, p. 34). Adherents of this positive approach feel that they can find common ground in nature with practically anybody not prejudiced against a supernatural explanation for various phenomena. This point of contact is often used as a chief weapon in the apologist's arsenal in trying to reach the unconverted.
Pessimists, on the contrary, feel that the major purpose of general revelation is to render unbelieving human beings excuseless, preparing them for the deserved wrath of God. Crockett & Sigountos sum up this view nicely:
…the light of general revelation provides people with a knowledge of God sufficient to condemn them. This is exactly what Paul says in Romans 1:20: "So… [humans] are without excuse." But, it is argued, while general revelation is enough to damn humans because they are no longer innocently ignorant, it is not enough to save them (1991, p. 40).
According to this view, “a natural knowledge of God serves to deprive humanity of any excuse for ignoring Him” (McGrath, p. 35 ). The ultimate purpose of general revelation, then, is "merely to make guilty, not to make righteous" (Erickson 1985, p. 173). Of course, it can be argued that this pessimistic position has an ultimate positive outcome, and therefore should not be described as pessimistic!
Both books needed
Yes, it's true; you can know only some things about God through general revelation. Correctly interpreting general revelation without recourse to Scripture is impossible. For instance, an objective examination of nature's value towards human beings will produce debits as well as credits. We all enjoy nature's wonderful gifts —family, friends, marriage, great-tasting food, the thrills of exploiting natural phenomena such as waves, rock faces, caves and snow, the delights of beautiful scenery, and so on. But nature can bring tragedy, too. Shark attacks, snake bites, volcanoes, earthquakes and destructive tornadoes can wreak havoc and inflict grief on an enormous scale. As Erickson puts it, arguing from nature's debits and credits could even “turn out to be an argument, not for the existence of God, but of the devil” (p. 163)!
C. S. Lewis reacted negatively to the idea of learning much of anything about God from creation. In “The Problem of Pain” he expressed his opinion that belief in God must be held in spite of the vagaries of the created order. He felt that any attempt at seeing God's goodness in nature is a preposterous exercise, and that the task of the theologian is to explain away the miseries of life rather than to laud creation's wisdom. By contrast, the ancient philosopher, Galen, is remembered, among other things, for elucidating the principle that God's purposes can be understood by examining nature.
Perhaps today's deepest thinker in the arena of natural theology is John Polkinghorne, theoretical physicist and Christian apologist. In a warning against misuse of natural theology, he even suggests that pursuit of God in the natural order could backfire against Christianity. He says that, “The offering of a revived natural theology would have proved to be a Trojan horse for Christianity if it replaced the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ by the Great Mathematician” (1989, p. 4). He is concerned that seeking God in creation will reveal a deity who commands our respect but not our love.
Polkinghorne answers his own concerns, and those of C. S. Lewis, by noting the need for special revelation to act as arbiter and interpreter of the problems raised by ascribing to God all responsibility for the ordering of the world. Special revelation is required to make sense of general. Add Scripture's avowal of God's love to the equation, and the data interpreted pessimistically by some not just can be interpreted differently but must be interpreted differently. Nature's vagaries then can be viewed as part of God's wise and loving providence for giving man a reason to search for life's meaning. In other words, the famous aphorism that “life is a health hazard” should drive the wise seeker of truth to a consideration of purpose. Further study of revealed wisdom shows that earthly life is not the be-all-and-end-all but merely the preparation for real life in the kingdom of God. Mortality is a great gift of love from a beneficent God!
Though practically everybody recognizes the inability of general revelation to reveal much about God's character, few ask the reverse question — can you understand God's greatness through special revelation alone? Is a study of the life and person of Jesus Christ sufficient to reveal all? How about the Scriptures? Are they up to the task of unveiling God in all His glory?
If it can be established that Scripture clearly instructs believers to consider the lessons we can learn from nature, the things we can learn about God, then surely simple logic impels the conclusion that general revelation is not a mere luxury, an optional extra, it is a necessity. Romans 1:19-20 provides just such instruction. The book of Job, without explicitly instructing us to study the creation, throbs with endless allusions to learning about God from His works. General revelation is needed to round out our perception of God. Millard Erickson expresses this point well:
It is common to point out that general revelation is inferior to special revelation, both in the clarity of the treatment and the range of subjects considered. The insufficiency of general revelation therefore required the special revelation. The special revelation, however, requires the general revelation as well. Without the general revelation, man would not possess the concepts regarding God which enable him to know and understand the God of the special revelation…The two mutually require each other. And the two are harmonious. Only if the two are developed in isolation from one another does there seem to be any conflict between them (p. 177).
Amen, brother. Galileo said the same thing in different words:
Holy Scripture and Nature are both emanations from the divine word: the former dictated by the Holy Spirit, the latter the observant executrix of God's commands (Sobel 1999, p. 64).
Calvin declared that faith, stirred into being in the believer's heart by hearing and believing the gospel, effectively dons spectacles on the eyes of the believer, enabling him to clearly see God in His handicraft. Healthy faith requires that we see God's greatness as well as His goodness. Numerous Scriptures treat them together. Consider Psalm 63:1-6
O God, You are my God; early will I seek You; my soul thirsts for You; my flesh longs for You In a dry and thirsty land where there is no water. So I have looked for You in the sanctuary, to see Your power and Your glory. Because Your lovingkindness is better than life, my lips shall praise You. Thus I will bless You while I live; I will lift up my hands in Your name… when I remember You on my bed, I meditate on You in the night watches.
Faith-filled David was driven to worship God and sing His praises by a process of contemplation of both His “power and glory” and His “lovingkindness”. Seeing God as a “Great Mathematician” in no way blocks seeing Him also as a loving Shepherd and Father of Jesus Christ.
To illustrate how the two work together in enhancing faith, think about the promise of salvation given to believers. That salvation involves, as its final step, a resurrection from the dead. Christians must have absolute conviction that, first, God will fulfill His promise (He is good) and, second, can fulfill His promise (He is great). Special revelation proves that He will; that Jesus came to this earth and walked among us, suffering humility and agony at our hands, amply reassures us that God will be faithful to His promise to raise us from the dead. After all, if He is faithful to the hard part — the death of His Son for our atonement — you can have no doubt that He can be trusted implicitly to fulfill the fun part — giving us eternal life.
How can you be sure that God can bring you rocketing out of your grave? What evidence can you examine that will give you complete assurance of His power to do that? Answer: the endless miracles all around you. The starry night sky, and the existence of living human beings, for instance, testify to God's power to do anything, even give life where life was not.
Faith in God's ability to perform His promises must be based on a solid foundation; faith is not to be an institution for the blind. Healthy faith grows out of evidence. Job had plenty of special revelation in his lifetime; he even knew about divinely-ordained sacrifice (Job 1:5). One thing he lacked — the insights of general revelation. Undoubtedly, like many Christians today, he believed in God as Creator; but just like many Christians today, he apparently had paid little heed to this truth and its implications for spiritual growth. God stepped in to correct the deficiency; after getting his attention through suffering, time after time God directed Job to the wonders of nature (38:1–41:34). When the penny dropped, Job was able to declare,
I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You (Job 42:5).
General revelation makes the difference between hearing about God and seeing Him! Some take “seeing” in this verse as referring to “experiencing His living presence” in one's inner being (New Geneva Study Bible). Such an interpretation seems unwarranted; that it tells of the much clearer picture we can gain of God's goodness and greatness from the witness of His works seems much more likely.
May we not despise any valid method of seeing our glorious, infinitely powerful and infinitely good God more clearly. Thank God for the two books!
References and notes
Bauer, W., Arndt, W. F., and Gingrich, F. W., (trans.) 1957, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, The University of Chicago Press
Crockett, W. V. and Sigountos, J. G. (eds.) 1991, Through No Fault of Their Own, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids
Erickson, M. J. 1985, Christian Theology, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids
McGrath, A. E. 1992, Bridge-Building, Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester
Polkinghorne, J. 1989, Science and Providence, SPCK, London
Ramm, B. 1976, The Christian View of Science and Scripture, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids
Sobel, Dava 1999, Galileo's Daughter, Fourth Estate, London
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