Monday, May 27, 2019

Thinking about God through general revelation, religious experience and natural theology

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Acts 17:24-25 The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; 25 nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; 26 and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, 27 that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us


A.W. Tozer's classic book - "Knowledge of the Holy" begins with this most insightful quote: 

"What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. The history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever
been greater than its idea of God".

How does one begin to think about and know about God? Two answers come to mind: 

1. Knowing about God through what is called "general revelation".

2. Knowing God through what is called "special revelation". 

In today's post, we will consider the first of these (as well as give some brief definitions). 

Knowing about and thinking about God through His general revelation in creation and the conscience.

"Knowledge about God" is accessible to all people. In the Old Testament we see a clear example of this through what theologians term, "general revelation", in Psalm 19:1-4 -

"The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. 2 Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. 3 There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard. 4 Their line has gone out through all the earth, and their utterances to the end of the world. In them He has placed a tent for the sun."

General revelation is called such because it is generally accessible to all people as much as knowledge of the external world or knowledge of other people having minds. Such general revelation is a feature of our world which is perceptible by our mental faculties (that is, reason, intention, the human will) which have the ability to draw conclusions about God's Divine nature through all He has made. 

Albert Einstein, the noted 20th century physicist, observes that the ability comprehend anything in our universe is indeed incomprehensible.  Whether observing the grandeur of the universe, watching a sunrise, listening to a beautiful piece of classical music or reflecting on what is meant by terms such as "beauty" and "the good-life", all count as places to discover God's general revelation. Why? Because God's general revelation operates on the basis of "truth", "goodness" and "beauty", which are germane qualities embedded in His very nature as God. 

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This "general revelation" by God is further expounded in the New Testament by the Apostle Paul in Romans 1:18-20 -

"For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse."

Such innate knowledge about God grants to every human being a base-line profile of the Creator, namely, 

1. God is the sum of His moral perfections. As the Supreme Moral Being, God is the source of moral standards that govern the human conscience - called in Romans 2:14-15 the "law of God" inscribed on the heart. 

2. God possesses such attributes as omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence or absolute perfections. Unless God is the absolute cause and Sustainer of the universe and life as we know it, there is no sufficient natural explanation to account for the order, meaning and purpose we rightly discern in our world.

This first level of "knowledge about God" comes to us through "general revelation" and is apprehended by people through what theologians call "common grace" (see Matthew 5:45, Acts 14:25, 17:22-25). As people respond to this general revelation of God, the mixture of His general revelation and the frailty of human thinking affected by the fall of Adam and Eve leads to people proposing all sorts of various religions. General revelation requires the special revelation of God through the Bible and Jesus to take us from mere "knowing about God" to "knowing God". 

Two routes of thinking about God from general revelation - religious experience and natural theology

Two sorts of responses are observed as one surveys how people interact with God's general revelation by His common grace working all around them in creation and the conscience. 

1. Religious experience of God through knowing about Him in general revelation and then coming to know Him in special revelation.

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The first way, and most common way, is by route of religious experience of God. Various sorts of religious experience can range from how people perceive God's general presence in the natural realm to the specific way He draws people to trust in Jesus through the hearing of God's Word - the Bible (compare Romans 10:8-17). As human beings relate to God's general revelation, to the degree people demonstrate an openness to truth, God will in turn make available to them further "light" through the special revelation of His word. Professor John Hick explains this first route of knowing about and thinking about God was exhibited by people in the Bible, as cited by William Lane Craig - 

"God was known to them as a dynamic will interacting with their own wills, a sheer given reality, as inescapably to be reckoned with as destructive storm and life-giving sunshine . . . They did not think of God as an inferred entity but as an experienced reality. To them God was not . . . an idea adopted by the mind, but an experiential reality which gave significance to their lives."

As a Christian, I don’t believe in the God of the Bible because He is a conclusion to a series of theistic arguments (which I'll mention near the end of today's post). Granted, I find such arguments providing a secondary foundation for why the God of the Bible best explains reality and human experience. Instead, I am a Christian because God was apprehended by me in a moment of trust He initiated when I was a ten-year-old boy, sitting in a Sunday School class hearing the Gospel of salvation. 

It was only through God leading me to Himself through the Gospel that I discovered how He had made the way for me to be deemed "good enough" by placing simple trust in Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12; Ephesians 2:8-9). 

The work God did in my heart enabled me to journey from what I had "known about Him" in general revelation to my need to "know Him" through the special revelation of the Bible and Jesus. The prophet Jeremiah quotes God in Jeremiah 29:13 

“You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart”.

James in the New Testament writes these words in James 4:8a 

“Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” 

It is from this transformative  experience 35 years ago, and several subsequent, ongoing experiences with God through the Bible, that I have found certainty in knowing God and thinking about Him. 

2. Knowing about and thinking about God through reflections upon general revelation or what is called "natural theology".

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Experience of God is one way a person can have genuine knowledge of God. However, there is a secondary route in which we can discover that belief in God is most reasonable. Throughout Christian history, various older thinkers (such as Athanasius, Augustine of Hippo, Anselm of Canterbury and Thomas Aquinas) and newer ones (Brian Leftow, William Lane Craig, Ed Feser) have taken the general revelation of God in creation and the conscience and offered systematic reflections of what we can know about God through what is called "natural theology". 

Natural theology will often include various theistic arguments or "proofs" for God's existence such as "the moral argument", "the cosmological argument" and several other types of well-reasoned arguments. Natural theology does not deliver "certainty" of God, but rather the level of knowledge that counts as rational grounds for belief in God - namely, "beyond a reasonable doubt" or "high degree of probability" in comparison to arguments against God. 

Natural theology gives us a "second route" for thinking about God. A well-rounded natural theology will approximate the clearest and surest revelation of God that we find in the Bible (even though natural theology draws from observations largely independent from the Bible). Just as general revelation is designed by God to prepare the unbeliever to respond positively to His special revelation in the Bible and Jesus, the human efforts behind natural theology can pave the way for understanding why belief in the God of the Bible is most reasonable, and thus potentially remove any obstacles that stand in the way. 

Closing thoughts

In today's post, we considered knowing about and thinking about God through what is called "general revelation" and its attendant routes of "religious experience" and the project of "natural theology". In the next post, we will continue by looking at how we can think about and know God through the "special revelation" of Himself in the Bible and Jesus, as well as the project of what is known as "Perfect-being" theology.

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