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General Revelation, the Bible, and the Limits of Modern Science

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[Originally published as Modern Science ≠ General Revelation]

In the origins debate, no shortage of ink has been spilled on the subject of the applicability of the Bible to science, and vice-versa.

While most in this debate are well-meaning, I believe many sadly miss the mark. By failing to recognize the crucial distinction between these concepts, theologians and other thinkers threaten to undermine the Bible’s purchase on reality.

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How?

As just one example, consider what general revelation is purposed to accomplish in the Bible itself. Paul’s argument in Romans 1 makes clear that God will judge the world on the basis of their failure to acknowledge what has been made clear to all men—his very existence.

For Paul, God is a righteous judge before whom no man can stand with a legitimate excuse. This is general revelation. But the scientific enterprise cannot, by definition, tell us what is true. It’s a well-known paradox in scientific study that at best, science can tell us what is false, since we don’t know what we don’t know.

Here’s the point: 

If we hitch the wagon of modern science to general revelation, we remove the unbeliever’s excuse before God.

If scientific study can’t tell us what’s true, yet no man is without excuse because of what has been made evidently true, then modern science cannot be equated with general revelation.

That’s why it matters—now, let’s look at the details.

The “Nature” of General Revelation (Ontology—not Origin)

“Modern science” is not, of course, a branch of science. We generally use the term to stand in for something like, “The current consensus on scientific knowledge.”

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In that regard, the term is actually quite imprecise. For example, the Creation Time Coordinates theory is an example of modern science; yet, when we say modern science with respect to ideas concerning the cosmos, we’re undoubtedly referring to the Big Bang.

So while this nomenclature may be inaccurate (at best, unhelpful), it’s also a fairly standard way of speaking about these things. There is a sense, though, in which the term can be quite helpful when defined in the above way.

That is, it helps us clearly understand the position of one who essentially declares that modern science is on the same footing as general revelation. I discussed this notion at length in my rebuttal to Luke Nix awhile back.

In that way of thinking, when modern science tells us something that contradicts what we previously thought, and in turn would require reinterpretation of the biblical text, that is the route we should take. “Modern science,” therefore, changes every day. The term is helpful for clarifying that what we mean is not necessarily a scientific model; rather, it’s the ostensible truth of the current conventional paradigm.

“General revelation” is something entirely different than this. Since the Bible is not a scientific textbook and was written by folks who spoke with less than scientific precision (to put it lightly), it would be absurd to think that the biblical text is actually trying to give us scientific information.

Don’t get me wrong—the text surely speaks about reality. When the Bible says the earth hangs on nothing (Job 26:5–14), I believe it! But that doesn’t mean the text is teaching us about gravity. It’s a description of the nature of reality.

A key consideration is that the Bible often speaks in phenomenological language.1 This is language that is not meant to speak with precision about the way the world really is, but rather the way the world is being perceived by the viewer. The writer of Joshua didn’t think the sun revolved around the earth. These passages are based on the observation that the run rises and sets in the sky. The same thing we see today and describe using the terms “sunrise” and “sunset.”

If you think about it then, general revelation is predicated upon what is apparent according to what we see—not necessarily according to what we “know.”2 How else could the uneducated man from the jungles of Peru be “without excuse” as Paul argues in Romans 1? He knows nothing of Big Bang cosmology; yet, he is guilty before God, and God is just in his judgment because this man should have known better.

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Therefore, the origin (or, explanation) for a phenomenon is much different than the ontology (or, existence) of the phenomenon.

General vs. Special Revelation

General revelation is fundamentally about what can be seen, felt, heard, etc., of nature, not necessarily what can be known about it.

Special revelation, on the other hand, encompasses what can be known about the nature of reality through God’s divine interaction with us.

Special revelation means God has spoken. Put in the prose of the late 20th century Christian philosopher, Francis Schaeffer, 

God is there, and he is not silent.

This has some pretty significant implications for how we view the world. For example, because God has spoken, we have to consider questions like, “What about those who never hear?” Sure, we have general revelation. But it is according to special revelation that we find out how much of the world should be interpreted.

This realization has led many to conclude—I think rightly—that general revelation is sufficient for our condemnation, but not for our salvation. A prime example is the biblical story of the first gentile salvation in Acts 10.

Cornelius was a Roman centurion who was “a devout man, and one that feared God with all his house, which gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God alway.” (Acts 10:2). He saw a vision of an angel, who gave him instructions that would lead him to meet the Apostle Peter.

On the other end, God had been preparing Peter. He gave him the vision of the sheet, which was essentially God’s permission slip to invite the gentiles into his master plan of salvation. He then sends Peter to meet Cornelius and tell him about Jesus. The story seems to suggest that an explicit knowledge and acceptance of Christ’s atoning work is necessary for salvation.

Some would disagree with this, saying that it is at least possible that, much like Old Testament believers were granted salvation based on the knowledge they had, so would the individual be who, like Cornelius, was devoted to God, even though he knew nothing of Christ.

While I actually want to believe this proposition (which veers dangerously close to inclusivism), it would seem to misunderstand a fundamental aspect of the salvation project in the Old Testament. Old Testament saints were not granted faith because, as is commonly quipped, they were “looking forward to the cross.” Instead, they were granted faith for their believing loyalty in Yahweh. They believed, and it was counted to them for righteousness.

When we move into the New Testament, the teaching is fairly explicit that one must accept the work of Christ on the cross as finished and sufficient for his salvation. That is New Testament belief. One could perhaps say, “Well, it may not be that anyone will come via general revelation, but God could choose to grant them salvation if he recognized himself to be a sinner before a holy and righteous God, even not knowing the name of Jesus.” This would be a philosophical approach that appeals to the goodness of God, but does not seem to have direct biblical support.

For what it’s worth, I’m a fan of a Molinistic approach based on the Acts 10 episode. If God knows that x will believe if he is presented with the gospel, then God will make sure the missionary is sent, arrives safely, and accomplishes the work. God is not obligated to send the missionary to those he foreknows would not believe even if presented the gospel. This solves the same apologetic scenario while remaining more faithful to the biblical concepts involved.

Because of the way God has structured reality, special revelation is therefore necessary to truly understand general revelation. This is why I believe the correct approach when it comes to parsing, say, scientific knowledge, is that it must be filtered through what has been revealed by the very creator of the world of science.

The Project (And Limits) of Science

Many believe that the hard sciences are the only pathway to truth. Never mind, of course, that the statement, “The hard sciences are the only pathway to truth” is a philosophical statement that cannot be proven by science.

Nevertheless, this idea is pervasive. If it can’t be learned from physics, chemistry, etc., we just can’t know it’s true. If you’ve heard this before, you’ll be pleased to know it is blatantly false, for a few reasons.

First is the one we mentioned above. The reality is that philosophical reflection is necessary to discerning truth.

Second is the experiential fact that “knowledge” we’ve acquired in the past from the hard sciences has been demonstrated to be inaccurate! As we learn more about God’s world, we learn where we’ve been mistaken in understanding it. Spoiler alert: Very few things are certainties in science.

Third is the little-known truth that follows from the above. Namely, science is not in the business of determining what is true. In fact, underlying the scientific method itself is the logical fallacy called affirming the consequent. This means that the scientific method can, at best, tell us when things are false, but not necessarily when they are true.

How sad a world it is when we think modern science has all of the answers! Especially over and against the special revelation of the God who is there. Those who erect an imaginary wall between faith and science misunderstand faith, science, or both.

Thus, we’re led to the final and most striking reason modern science cannot be equal to general revelation. While modern science is based on our ability to discern what is false, general revelation is 100% about what is true. We therefore understand science correctly when what we learn is in concert with what God has revealed in both general and special revelation—not the other way around.

Footnotes

  1. There is no small number of biblical scholars who want to take issue with this approach. Many think that biblical writers simply held an inaccurate view of the nature of the cosmos, which made it into Scripture. While there’s a sense in which I have less of a problem with this than others seem to, I still regard this notion as highly implausible. It’s far more plausible, in my estimation at least, that the biblical writers were writing about what they saw—in other words, phenomenology.
  2. There are always extreme cases. For example, this statement may not actually apply in the case of a blind man. Nevertheless, it is not knowledge of the scientific model known as the Big Bang theory that should evince general revelation to him. Rather, it is the existence of planets, of the earth, of anything at all! How these came to be is irrelevant to their ontological status—this is what the Bible hitches to general revelation.

Written by Steve Schramm

Steve is an author, speaker, and Bible teacher with a heart for exploring God’s Word and God’s world. He trains Christians to become confident, passionate servants of Jesus, so they can grow in their walk with God and share their faith more persuasively. Enroll in Steve's FREE email course, The Battle for the Beginning, by going to steveschramm.com/battle.

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