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How does God reveal Himself in His Works and Word?
Dr. C. Van Dam
Last Updated: March 12, 2001
Taken with permission from Clarion Vol. 41, No. 8,9,10 (1993)
A slightly revised text of a speech given at the Men's League Day held on March 28, 1992 at the Rehoboth Canadian Reformed Church, Burlington, Ontario. Footnotes have been kept to a minimum.The issue
In our day and age, the controversy about Bible and science shows no signs of letting up. What is the authority of the Bible and what is the authority of science respecting inquiry and research into the created world? In an effort to break through the apparent deadlock, there are signs that a new approach is being attempted. It is suggested that the present dilemma would be solved if it be realized more fully and adequately that the created world is also God's revelation. The implication is that science properly done therefore passes on not only human insights but also God's revelation. (1) For this position, appeal is often made to Art. 2 of our Belgic Confession. After all, besides the Bible, this article also speaks of revelation with respect to creation.
Perhaps an illustration will make clear what is at stake and the dilemmas one faces. A geologist says that to the best of his knowledge, based on what is found and deduced from the world he studies, the earth must be billions of years old. The Bible reader says, I do not find this in Genesis or anywhere else in Scripture. So who is right? According to the new emphasis of equating the weight of special and general revelation, the geologist must be right for he is equipped to study the givens of creation which is also revelation. We must trust God's revelation also in the rock formations. The CRC Report on Creation and Science which was adopted in 1991, states that "the authority of general revelation, no less than that of special revelation, is a divine authority, which must be acknowledged without reservation." (2)
What we see happening here is that creation or general revelation in effect and in practice becomes separated from Scripture and becomes an authority of itself, even though it is denied that this is the intent. If there is a dispute between science and the Bible, science is generally given the greater weight for it virtually functions as interpreter of revelation in creation. But what about Scripture when it appears to disagree with science (e.g. on evolution, age of the earth)? God cannot contradict Himself can He? How can God say one thing in Scripture and another in His so-called general revelation? How do we get out of this dilemma? To answer this question, I propose that we investigate first of all what precisely God reveals in general revelation. We must be clear on this point. Next, in order to be specific in our discussion, we will need to look at a concrete scientific tool, like the laws of nature, which functions so prominently in furthering scientific knowledge and postulating new theories. In the third place in the light of the above, we should consider the place of Scripture and what man's scientific enterprise should consist of.
What does general revelation reveal?
If one studies passages dealing with general revelation, one must come to the conclusion that general revelation reveals God, His glory and His handiwork. Let us look at some important examples. We read in Psalm 8: "How majestic is Thy Name in all the earth (vv. 1, 9)! Psalm 19:1 says: "The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims His handiwork." Romans 1 speaks of the wrath of God being revealed from heaven against all ungodliness (v. 18).
19 for what can be known about God is plain to them [the unbelievers], because God has shown it to them.
20 Ever since the creation of the world His invisible nature, namely, His eternal power and deity, has been
clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse ....
One can also think of Acts 14:17 which speaks of God's goodness as seen in His provision of rain and food. In all these examples, the object of the revelation is God, be it His glory, or His goodness, or His wrath.
One can therefore say that both Scripture and general revelation reveal God. (3) Formally speaking, one could further conclude that science which is the study of general revelation should as a result be accorded as much respect as theology which studies God's special revelation. But here we run into a major problem with the way current science is conducted. If general revelation reveals God and if science studies general revelation, then the first conclusion science should come to is the reality and characteristics of God who reveals himself in creation! But science as conducted today basically ignores God. Indeed, the influential and prestigious National Academy of Sciences (in the U.S.A.) defines the most basic characteristic of science as being "reliance upon naturalistic explanation." (4) How can such a science that ignores the Creator and His attributes be considered as a valid authority by Christians to inform us concerning what God is saying in His general revelation? God's Word (Romans 1:20-21) tells us:
20 Ever since the creation of the world His (i.e. God's) invisible nature, namely His eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse;
21 for although they knew God they did not honour Him as God ....
Christian scientists will not only see God revealed in creation; but they will also take His written revelation into consideration when theorizing and trying to come to an integrated understanding of our present world. Perhaps an example which is not controversial in our circles can make this point clear. Some scientists have concluded that homosexuality is largely a genetically determined condition. From this data, it is reasoned that since nature (general revelation) shows that this is a "normal" occurrence we have no right to condemn homosexuals but must accord them full rights and privileges as any other member of society. (5) A Christian will, however, say that if such conclusions from general revelation regarding the genetics are to be considered correct, we must also listen to God's special revelation. There God says we live in a world that is fallen from the original state of perfection and sinful (with all the consequences, also genetically) and that God condemns homosexuality (e.g., Lev. 18:22; 20:13). In other words both means of revelation are taken into consideration.
This approach will also have to be followed for the natural sciences to be able to speak with any authority about the results of their work being equated with God's revelation in creation. God does not speak with one voice via the means of general revelation and with another voice via special revelation. There is one truth. What man can see or discover in the created world must always be seen in the light of Scripture. This relationship is reinforced many times in the Bible. God's Word accompanies His work. Already in paradise, Adam not only saw God's handiwork, he also heard God's voice. God did not leave man with only natural revelation. After the fall, God's spoken Word preceded and accompanied His mighty acts whereby the LORD God explained the miracles and upheavals He worked in creation. For example, Israel would not have understood the Red Sea crossing correctly if they had simply assumed that a strong east wind came along just at the right time. God's spoken Word had preceded and accompanied this event and God's people could respond accordingly (Ex. 3:7-10; 14:16-18; 15:1-21). In the New Testament, we find the same. Christ's miracles could not be understood apart from His teaching. (See, e.g., Matt. 9:1-8, 18-38.) What is true of extraordinary events in creation and the natural world is also true of what we consider perfectly normal and routine. it cannot be correctly understood without the special revelation of the Word of God. His creation work cannot be interpreted neutrally and objectively. The more God's creation is studied, the more one must keep in mind God's special revelation. The two go together and general revelation cannot be correctly understood without the special revelation.
It may be good to consider an aspect of Psalm 19 for a moment to make that clear. Psalm 19 is divided into two basic parts. In verses 1-6 we are told of God's glory in creation. In verses 7-14 we read of the glory of the LORD revealed in His Word. In this arrangement there is a movement towards a climax. One can marvel at the night sky and see something of the greatness and glory of God. But, when one reads the Word written then God's glory and power is seen in a much richer way. It is striking that in the first half of the Psalm, God is referred to only once and the name used is Elohim, the Hebrew word for God. In the second half of the Psalm, however, God is referred to seven times and the name used is Yahweh, the covenant God. The message is clear. Nature and creation cannot reveal the God of the covenant. That is only known through the special revelation. At the same time, it is clear that one cannot understand the created world properly without knowing about this covenant God, for His salvation work not only concerns the soul, but also the creation. This is His world and He is busy with it and will renew it on that great day of Jesus Christ.
These observations bring us to the next question. How does God reveal Himself in nature, in creation and why can one not understand creation properly if one does not know of the God of creation and recreation? In order to make the answers to these questions as concrete as possible (so that we do not get lost in theory), let us concentrate on the matter of "laws of nature" and see how Scripture deals with this. As you know, "laws of nature" are a key element in the modern quest for understanding the world in which we live and from which general revelation is received. More about that the next time, D.V.
In the first installment, it was noted that general revelation reveals God, His glory and His handiwork. It was noted that Psalm 19 moves to a climax from God's glory in creation (vv. 1-6) to the glory of the LORD, the covenant God, revealed in His Word (vv. 7-14).
In the first article we left with the question: how does God reveal Himself in nature, in creation and why can one not understand creation properly if one does not know of the God of creation and recreation? In order to make the answers to these questions as concrete as possible (so that we do not get lost in theory), let us concentrate on the matter of "laws of nature" and see how Scripture deals with this. As you know, "laws of nature" are a key element in the modern quest for understanding the world in which we live and from which general revelation is received.
Let us go back to Psalm 19 again for it has something to say about our subject. This Psalm tells us that "the heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims His handiwork." How is this done? This is done without words. In quiet majesty the heavens proclaim the glory of God. "There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard" (v. 3). But how do the heavens and the firmament then declare the glory of God? The answer is by doing the task God has given them to do. What is that task? The firmament was created to separate the waters which are under the firmament and the waters which are above the firmament (Gen. 1 :6-8; cf. Job 38:8-11). The heavenly bodies, the sun, moon, and stars determine the separation of day from night and are there for signs, for fixed times and for days and years (Gen. 1:14). By doing these things, the heavens and the heavenly bodies function as a measuring line, a rule, a norm. (The RSV does not follow the Hebrew here and like the Greek translation renders "voice." We read in the Hebrew text: "Their line goes out through all the earth.") By determining the separation of day and night and doing other functions, the heavens control certain things without saying a word. This measuring line of control goes out over the whole earth and their unspoken words to the end of the earth (Ps. 19:4). So God's glory is shown by the heavens and the heavenly bodies throughout the whole world by their doing their task. (6) Psalm 19 then goes into detail and gives us an example of what was mentioned, namely, the sun. The sun follows God's decree for it, without wavering. It obeys with joy the will of God by coming
forth like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them;
and there is nothing hid from its heat. (vv. 5-6)
Thus by obeying God, it shows God's glory and majesty by fulfilling the designs of the creator for its place and function.
We touch here on an important point. Everything runs and is established in creation by God's commands. What we call laws of nature are therefore in reality nature obeying God's commands and decrees. This is an important aspect of the comparison in the two parts in Psalm 19. As the sun obeys God's law to creation, so the believer also wants to be God's servant. The glory of God is seen in creation and specifically in creation's and the heaven's obedience to God's decrees for creation; but in a far richer way the glory of God is seen in the written law and specifically in the obedience to that law. (7) For that reason the Psalm ends with the prayer that David keep the law and be acceptable in God's sight. Although the law is perfect, his obedience to it is not. Forgiveness is needed.
What we find in Psalm 19 is also found elsewhere in Scripture. Creation obeys God's commands. Because God's commands are good, we have a stable universe and world and we speak of laws of nature. But there are no autonomous laws. What we see is creation obeying the will of God as He directs creation as His servant. Indeed, Scripture speaks of God having a covenant with creation. Let us see how all this is found in the Bible.
With respect to God having a covenant with creation we can think of Jeremiah 33 which speaks of God's covenant with the day and with the night so that day and night come at the appointed time (v. 20). This covenant is also paralleled with "the ordinances of heaven and earth" (v. 25), i.e., the obligations heaven and earth have received from God. Literally the word translated ordinances means "that which has been prescribed" (huggôt). We find a similar thought in Jeremiah 31, although the word covenant is not expressly mentioned. There the LORD's giving the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, as well as God's stirring up the sea, are called the statues, the ordinances (huggôt). Notice how God continues to be involved in the world He made. We read in Psalm 119:
89 For ever O LORD, Thy word is firmly fixed in the heavens.
90 Thy faithfulness endures to all generations; Thou hast established the earth and it stands fast.
91 They stand this day according to Thine ordinances; for all things are Thy servants.
He gives His orders to the sun, moon, stars, seas and all creation (e.g., job 38:3135; Ps. 148:5, 6; Prov. 8:29; Jer. 5:24; cf. also Ps. 65:5-10). He makes the wind His messengers, fire and flame His ministers (Ps. 104:4). God does not give these orders haphazardly. No. He does so as God who is faithful to the promise spoken to Noah. "While the earth remains, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease " (Gen. 8:22). There is therefore a certain regularity and predictability in nature. But, and this must be clear, it is only predictable because God is faithful and is consistent in His wishes for His creation. What we therefore can conclude as recurring and predictable from a study of nature are strictly speaking not laws of nature, but evidence of the faithfulness of our God to His creation work as He designed, a work He is still involved in moment by moment, seeing to it that it carries out what He has ordained and commanded.
Because God is in total control at all times, therefore, the "laws of nature" cannot be treated as autonomous and unchanging. Phenomena of creation are God's servants. God has therefore used the heavens in order to have them serve His people in special ways. Think, for example, of how God threw great stones down from heaven on the Amorites and caused the sun to stand still in the sky so that Joshua could achieve a full victory (Josh. 10). Or think of how the stars were involved in the battle against Sisera (Judges 5:20). (8) God also used the heavens to punish Israel. Thus, for example, God kept the rain from falling in Israel for three and a half years in the days of Ahab and Jezebel (1 Kings 17:1; James 5:17).
These examples warn us not to look at the created world as running more or less independently like a clock that has been wound up and is now ticking its time away. We must retain the personal God in our view of creation. He is active there. The order and regularity we see in creation does not reside in the creation but in God who commands the regularity, but who can also command irregularity! Remember, God even used His position as creator to destroy and cleanse the world with a great flood. The separation between land and water set at creation was erased while the deluge lasted. God made a covenant with Noah and every living creature that this type of destruction would never happen again (Gen. 9:8-11). But, we do know that God will one day make all things new by the judgment of fire (cf. Hosea 2:18; 2 Peter 3:5-10). But this our God has and can also act in less momentous ways. For example, we are all familiar with wear and tear. Things get older, not newer. Books get tattered, clothes get worn, and shoes get holes. But this is not an absolute law, operating independently. God can also command otherwise. And He did that when Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years. God could say to His people, "your clothes have not worn out upon you and your sandals have not worn off your feet" (Deut. 29:5). This fact must be taken into consideration by present day science. One can never assume that as things are today they have always been. For instance, if a river bed erodes at a certain rate today, this does not mean it has always done so. There may have been droughts and there may have been much more water. For this reason, to take geology as an example, one can never simply measure layers of sediment on the basis of present rates of deposit and come up with an age. God and His Word must also be reckoned with and it could very well be that the great deluge of Noachian times may be relevant for the particular geological problem that is being studied.
In the previous article, we saw how God's glory is seen by creation obeying God's commands. According to the Bible, what we call laws of nature are in reality nature obeying God's commands and decrees. There is a certain regularity and predictability in nature only because God is faithful to His covenant and consistent in His wishes. The "laws of Nature" can, therefore, not be treated as autonomous and unchanging.
on what the Bible reveals respecting our topic
Principles in using the Bible
At this point an objection could be raised. But the Bible is not a scientific textbook is it? Can we really use the Bible in scientific study of creation? There are several issues here that need to be recognized. It is true that the Bible was not written by God to serve as a handbook for geology or chemistry. However, does that take away from the authority of the Bible respecting these scientific disciplines? The point is: does a lack of scientific detail in the Scriptures automatically mean that it has nothing to say and that we can thus exclude God and rely only on what He has to tell us in His book of creation? That approach would be a bad mistake for the real question is whether the Bible contains relevant information for the sciences. We have already seen that it does. Only from Scripture do we, e.g., know that a personal God sustains and governs this world. Not natural autonomous laws, but God makes it run. The Bible is normative and authoritative for all of life, also for science (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16-17). Furthermore, only the Bible can tell us with authority and truth what happened at the beginning of time and what will happen in the future.
Only the Bible can inform us that God created a perfect world and universe, that there was a fall into sin, and a terrible flood, and that there will be a restoration one day after the judgement of fire. This framework is relevant for science. Science can not be sure of what happened at the beginning, or what will happen in the future. Science can only be sure of what God is doing now and even that knowledge is very limited, for scientists are finite human creatures.
This truth of the finiteness of man is clearly revealed in Scripture. It is, for example, demonstrated by God's response to Job's questions concerning God's government of the world and in particular his life. (9) God reminds job that job is only a creature. He is not God. In the course of God's answer to Job, God speaks of the stars and weather and says (Job 38 NABS):
(31) Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades, or loose the cords of Orion?
(32) Can you lead forth a constellation in its season, and guide the Bear [probably "planets"] with its satelites?
(33) Do you know the ordinances of the heavens or fix their rule over the earth?
(34) Can you lift up your voice to the clouds so that an abundance of water may cover you?
(35) Can you send forth lightnings that they may go, and say to you, "Here we are?"
All these questions expect "No!" as answer. A key question is "Do you know the ordinances [huggôt] of the heavens or fix their rule over the earth?" (v. 33). We have run across this word "ordinances" before. It refers to God's law and rule over creation. Man may be able to deduce all kinds of laws of nature and draw up all manner of working hypothesis. But, he will never be able to give the answer to the secret of the workings of creation. For behind creation, behind this book of natural revelation, is God's inscrutable command and ordinance. He is in charge and man will never be in charge. For if man were to be able to reproduce this ordinance of God that he could make the stars leave their course, well then man would be as God! How finite man is. He cannot even determine the weather properly for the next day, much less control it. Man can come up with all kinds of formulas, and it is part of his cultural mandate to do so. He is able to grow in understanding of the world and the universe, but our scientific laws can never produce obedience in creation. We can analyze, but cannot rule as God.
It may be helpful at this point to briefly discuss four basic truths or principles that should be kept in mind when using the Bible, also regarding scientific topics. (10)
In the first place, the Word of God is clear or perspicuous. This means that believers who read the Bible are not dependent on specialists, be they in science or theology, in order to understand the basic message that comes to them there. When the child of God reads and studies Scripture, humbly submitting himself to the Word and asking for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, then the Word is a light on his path, a lamp before his feet (Ps. 119:105). Believers are able to judge and are called to judge any interpretations of Scripture that are suspect (cf. 1 Cor. 2:15; 1 John 2:20). This clarity of Scripture does not imply that there are no difficulties in interpretation or perplexing passages. It therefore also does not deny the need for the scholarly study of Scripture. (11) On the other hand, children of God do not need to feel that they are at the mercy of science to inform them of how and what happened, for example, at the beginning. The Bible is clear on what it says and demands it be taken seriously. In the second place, God's Word is self-sufficient and self-authenticating. It does not need our reasoning and proofs to show that it is trustworthy and true. As we confess in Article 5 of our Belgic Confession:
We believe without any doubt all things contained in them [i.e. the holy Scriptures], not so much because the Church receives and approves them as such, but especially because the Holy Spirit witnesses in our hearts that they are from God, and also because they contain the evidence thereof in themselves; for, even the blind are able to perceive that the things foretold in them are being fulfilled.
One must, therefore, resist attempting to prove the Bible scientifically on contested points, like creation, the flood, the sun's standing still etc. Such proof is not necessary.
Thirdly, God's Word explains itself and is its own interpreter. Behind the many books of Scripture is the one Author, namely God. This means that there is a basic unity underlying all of Scripture. One part of the Bible can therefore be used to explain another part. !f there are difficulties in understanding parts of Genesis, then relevant information found elsewhere in the Old Testament or New Testament can and should be used.
Finally, God's Word has the last say. If there is a real contradiction between what men say and what God says in His Word, God's Word must be maintained and the word of man must be put aside. Scripture never conflicts with facts. God does not contradict Himself in His revelation in creation and in the Bible. We need to remember that, if we are to understand rightly, we are to read the data of Creation through the glasses of the Scriptures. The one means, the Book of Creation, is not understandable without the other, the Book of Special Revelation. That is because our minds have been darkened by sin and we cannot truly understand creation without the Bible.
Although there actually cannot be a conflict between the revelation in nature and the Bible, conflict does arise when scientific theorizing is influenced by a denial of the Word of God. The theory of evolution, along with all the presuppositions that inform it, is a good example of this. Conflict can also arise if Scripture is wrongly understood. If one insists that Scripture does not allow you to believe that the earth revolves around the sun instead of vice versa, then one goes further than Scripture. However, although mistakes in understanding Scripture have occurred and are possible, we should not now relativize all interpretation of Scripture, but we should be careful that we do not go further than Scripture does. Christian endeavour in science, done on the basis of Biblical presuppositions and within a Scriptural world view can never come in conflict with Scripture. Secularized science can. "But then we have in essence a conflict, not between science and faith, but between unbelief and faith." (12)
One's understanding of Scripture may never be subjected to the condition that it must fit the current scientific theory. Faith must never be put over against rationalism as if it is some sort of contest. What Scripture teaches must always be fully reckoned with. We accept it in faith and do not need "proofs" from science or any other discipline that it is true. Without minimizing the labours of science, it is in a sense only man's attempt to understand God's creation. As a human enterprise busy with God's glorious work, science therefore has a modest place and its theories are only that and nothing mores At the same time, science that recognizes the place of God can begin to show us the greatness of God, namely His power, wisdom, and faithfulness as seen in His creation work.
in conclusion and summary, let us briefly note Article 2 of our Belgic Confession. As we read it through, we will notice that the contents of this article have already been demonstrated from Scripture.
How God Makes Himself Known to Us
We know Him by two means: First by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe which is before our eyes as a most beautiful book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many letters leading us to perceive clearly the invisible qualities of God, namely, His eternal power and deity, as the apostle Paul says in Rom. 1:20.
Notice we know God, not all kinds of so-called scientific facts which are elevated to revelation and are to decide on issues like the world's origin or homosexuality. We know God from His handiwork (think, e.g., of Ps. 19 and the heavens), His providence (He sustains everything), and His government (He commands creation, commands we cannot duplicate!). It is terrible that precisely that which reveals God, has been reduced to an experimental arena for theories that refuse to take God seriously and in many cases seek to undermine His Word! Working scientifically is for many by definition ignoring God! The seriousness of this revelation of God in creation (and therefore ignoring it) is clear from what follows in Article 2.
All these things are sufficient to convict men and to leave them without excuse.
In other words, God's wrath abides on those who refuse to see the revelation of God in His creation, preservation, and government of the universe. God does, however, provide a way out. The article continues:
Second, He makes Himself more clearly and fully known to us by His holy and divine Word as far as it is necessary for us in this life, to His glory and our salvation.
Scripture gives us all the information we need to know God as fully and clearly as is necessary for His glory and our reconciliation. The Scriptures also give us what we need to combat the current crisis on how God reveals Himself. The Psalmist said it well. "In Thy light, we see light" (Ps. 36:9).
(1) See, e.g., the Christian Reformed Report of the Committee on Creation and Science appointed in 1988 and reporting to the 1991 Synod (hereafter CRC Report), 13, 38, 41, 44 (mimeographed copy).
(2) CRC Report, 41; also see pp. 38, 44. Also see, e.g., the response to this way of thinking by N.H. Gootjes, "Does the Belgic Confession Teach 'Not the Bible Alone?'" Clarion 39:22-23 (1990) 470471, 492-493.
(3) See on this point and for what follows, N. Weeks, The Sufficiency of Scripture (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1988), 16-17.
(4) See P.E. Johnson, Darwin on Trial (Downers Grove, III: InterVarsity, 1991) 7-8; also see pp. 145-154.
(5) "Born or Bred," Newsweek, February 24, 1992, pp. 46-53, esp. pp. 48, 53.
(6) For the above see N.H. Ridderbos, De Psalmen (KV; Kampen: Kok, 1962) I, 210.
(7) The words used for law are those emphasizing the demands of God. See further N.H. Ridderbos, Psalmen, I, 212. Cf. on creation's and man's being servants, Ps. 119:89-96.
(8) Also see, e.g., 1 Sam. 7:10; 2 Sam. 22:8-16 [Ps. 18:7-15].
(8) For what follows in this paragraph I am indebted to Weeks, The Sufficiency of Scripture, pp. 22-25.
(9) The following appeared in slightly different form in C. Van Dam, "Bible and Science: some basic factors," Clarion, Vol. 38, No. 3 (1989) pp. 54-55.
(10) See further on this topic, e.g., H. Bavinck, Gereformeerde dogmatiek, I (Kampen: Kok, 1967; this ed. first pub. 1906), pp. 445-451.
(11) J. Van Delden, Schepping en wetenschap, (Amsterdam: Buiten & Schipperheijn, 1977) p. 57.
(12) 0n the above see J. Byl, "Science and Christian Knowledge," Reformed Perspective, Vol. 2, No 6 (1983), pp. 4-9.