After having written Salt of the Postmodern Earth Part 1, I realize that I need to backtrack. These ideas are a work in progress, and I don't want to over-reach in making leaps. It is a common approach for me when I am working out ideas to try to grasp them in my own words, and then to find the words that others have used to describe the same thing. This approach gives me a much better perspective on the thinking of others. As I engage this process out in the open on this blog, this blog is as much a window into more liminal places of my thinking as it is a window into firmly planted ideas.
In regard to the cessationist vs. continuationist debate as to whether revelation is limited exclusively to Scripture or whether revelation can be subdivided into Scriptural revelation and ongoing "low-level" revelation of the Holy Spirit, I have been asserting the continuationist position that a "low-level" form of God's revelation continues even as the canon of Scripture has been completed. This "low-level" revelation is His specific executive direction for us in the dynamic space and time we live in here and now, and is a servant to the Scriptural revelation of the bible canon, fulfilling the promises therein. Having defended it, I recognize that the idea of an ongoing "low-level" revelation is a contentious idea. I know that the idea of an "ongoing general revelation of knowledge" is going to be even more contentious. Allow me to explain.
In regard to the "ongoing general revelation of knowledge" that I introduced in last week's Salt of the Postmodern Earth Part I, when I first posted Salt of the Postmodern Earth Part in my discussion on a hermeneutic of ideas, I started out calling it "general revelation" and then later in the week modified it to "ongoing general revelation of knowledge". The term "general revelation" must be reserved for the revelation about God and the truth of God that is available to all humans according to Romans 1:18-23,
For since the creation of the world, God's invisible qualities--His eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so men are without excuse.
General revelation is the grasp of God and His Law that all humans are endowed with and are held accountable to even if they have not seen the revealed Law of Scripture, and even if that grasp is clouded and muddied by sin. General revelation is a form of God's "judging truth" -- truth that affirms God's capacity to hold all humans accountable to His existence and to His law and to His judgement of them for not following it. General revelation is one form of "judging truth", while God's revealed Law is another. God's revealed Law in Scripture clarifies and codifies the substance of God's general revelation.
General revelation is the knowing of God's "power and divine nature" that is derived from "what has been made". In general revelation, what God has made, both in the moral order and in the order of creation, is there for the purpose of revealing God and holding all humans accountable to what has been revealed about God. The "ongoing general revelation of knowledge", as I'm currently defining it, is God's work in history to bring pieces of the truth about the order of His creation and the nature of His moral order past the darkening effects of sin and into the realm of human consciousness. While general revelation is occluded by sin, the general revelation of knowledge is the unfolding of those aspects of truth within general revelation that have "worked around" the reality of sin to come to the surface in fallen human consciousness. Here, general revelation is oriented around the object, being God, and the ongoing general revelation of knowledge is oriented around the content that has the ultimate purpose of pointing to the object, even if in piecemeal it may not point directly and obviously to God.
While general revelation is understood as the innate, intuitive grasp of the order of creation and moral realm that operates beneath sin, ignorance, and foolishness, the ongoing general revelation of knowledge is the outworking and codifying throughout history of that intuitive grasp that humans have been endowed with via their conscience and perception. While general revelation is understood to be somewhat subconscious in fallen people due to the reality of sin, the ongoing general revelation of knowledge is precisely that which is more conscious, since it has been arrived at and discovered in cultures in the course of history. While general revelation is not ongoing, being something that is based on a) what has been made and b) something that all humans are endowed with irrespective of their time and place, the general revelation of knowledge is an ongoing and unfolding reality in history.
While knowledge in piecemeal about the order of God's creation and God's moral order is not general revelation per se, it does have a direct relationship to general revelation because the judging truth of general revelation is based on the order of creation and the moral order of God. These aspects of the truth that people arrive at in the ongoing general revelation of knowledge are pieces of truth about God's moral order and order in creation that are revealed as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
I know that the term "ongoing general revelation of knowledge" is going to make some believers squeamish. It is a working term that I am using for the time being, that I may semantically amend later. Perhaps the term "ongoing general unfolding of knowledge" would make some happier. I understand the argument that accumulation of knowledge is merely discovery and not revelation and that "revelation" needs to be reserved only for the direct inspiration of God. I respect the desire to keep the word "revelation" separate from discovery in order to not dilute the idea of revelation. Allow me to explain.
I want to recognize the relationship that the ongoing general revelation of knowledge has to general revelation without conflating the two as being one and the same thing. At the risk of offending some, I am using the term "revelation", operating on the Biblical principle that humans did not totally lose the image of God in the Fall, and that humans do retain a form of God's glory. I am operating on the Biblical principle that God is sovereign over history, and that God works to create human diversity and culture which will be reflected at the end of time (Revelations 7:9) by allowing different persons and groups to discover different aspects of knowledge in the form of ideas that are arrived and interpreted by cultures (this is something that I will expand on later). I am operating on the principle that anything that is discovered or intuited to be true is owed to God at work in the image of Him that humans retain, and that discovery is a process guided by God's sovereign timing and inspiration. It is for this reason that I said in my post last week--another contentious idea-- that God is a God of truth and any piece of the truth belongs to God.
I realized the word "truth" is problematic to some, that there is a distinction between "truth" and "facts". To them, "truth" is defined narrowly and specifically as correct, direct knowledge about God, while "facts" are defined as truth about anything less that that. Those who argue this say that when Jesus said "...you will know the truth and the truth will set you free..." (John 8:32), Jesus was necessarily defining all truth as being limited to the Gospel and that any knowledge outside of the Gospel is mere knowledge of facts. I respect the intent of this objection, so allow me to explain.
Any piece of the truth is true, but not all pieces of the truth are salvific. When Jesus says, "...you will know the truth and the truth will set you free...", he is speaking about "saving truth" -- a particular class of truth that is available on through direct knowledge of and experience of Jesus. In using the term, general revelation of knowledge, I have used the word "knowledge", recognizing that piecemeal knowledge of God's moral order and order of creation is a form of truth in the general sense, while also wanting to make it distince from saving truth or judging truth.
But here is why I have a problem call all of the truth of the general revelation of knowledge as mere facts. In Romans 2:14-15, Paul says,
Indeed, when the Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now defending them.
Natural law, aka the law of the Gentiles, that Paul is describing here is the created moral order of God that humans are endowed with in their consciences and is part of God's judging truth in general revelation. The aspects of Natural Law that were openly recognized among the Gentiles in their codes of law and behavior had a relationship to general revelation, in that these aspects of Natural Law represented the outward manifestation of what had been written on their consciences. These aspects of Natural Law that had risen to the surface in Gentile consciousness past the darkening effects of sin represented the general revelation of knowledge in operation. While these socially and culturally recognized aspects of Natural Law were not the "truth that will set you free", nor did they represent the full idea of God as the object of general revelation, these codes of behavior were very much reflections of the consciences that the Gentiles had -- consciences that were capable of accusing them or defending them in the face of God's revealed Law. It is this relationship to the endowment of Natural Law that the outwardly recognized aspects of Natural Law among the Gentiles cannot be dismissed as merely Gentile knowledge of facts but must be recognized properly as Gentile knowledge of a form of truth.
I am saying all of this to emphasize that these things:
a) the image of God that actively operates in people and in cultures apart from the Gospel and the revealed Law of God in Scripture
b) the sovereignty of God over all peoples and cultures, and
c) the value of the truth in piecemeal form in the general revelation of knowledge,
all point to the principle that the piecemeal discovery of God's moral order and order of creation throughout cultures in history is a form of God's revelation. In order to not commit the fallacy of making that revelation equal with Scripture, I am clarifying the following hierarchy of truth and revelation:
1) God's judging truth and God's saving truth, revealed in Scripture, that provides provides us a way to be saved from the consequences of God's judging truth.
2) God's "low-level" revelation that makes Scriptural truth and its application specific to believers across all of church history
3) God's general revelation of knowledge that comprises pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that, when put together, comprise the whole content of God's moral order and order of creation that is the basis of God's judging truth.
Here, each part of the hierarchy can be claimed as truth and revelation, but each part of the hierarchy is subservient to the part above it. It is in clarifying a hierarchy of different classes of truth and revelation that I am attemtping to honor the good intent of those who object to the use of the words "truth" and "revelation" out of concern that the greater forms will be made co-equal with the lesser forms. The reason I am using the term "revelation", though, is that the content of the ongoing general revelation of knowledge is an important aspect of God's revelation throughout history and is too often dismissed and improperly examined by Christians.
Much of the debate in Christianity is to clarify just how high or how low to regard the surrounding culture. Is the wider culture depraved and thoroughly Godless? Does the wider culture have claims to truth that are co-equal with Scripture? It is possible that a culture could be completely and utterly depraved and Godless, but this is usually not the case. It is for this reason that I am trying to clarify a "middle way" that avoids both extremes by emphasizing the sovereignty of God and the value of the general revelation of knowedge without making the jigsaw puzzle pieces of the content of the general revelation of knowledge co-equal with Scripture. To affirm that God is engaged in the general revelation of knowledge is to affirm the reality that God is already working in the cultures around us before we Christians ever confront that culture with the Gospel, and that there is an extent to which God is at work in the culture around us outside of the direct influence of the church.
Understanding the ongoing general revelation of knowledge is key to understanding how Paul approached the altar to an unknown god in Acts 17:23. After having carefully studied the culture and their objects of worship, Paul discovers an altar to an unknown god. This altar to an unknown god is part of the general revelation of knowledge that had been given to the Athenians that "there is probably a god out there that we pagans have missed, so let's cover our bases". Here, the idea that there may be an unknown God is a tiny but important piece of the jigsaw puzzle of God's truth. Like the Natural Law, that was expressed to a degree in the behavior and knowledge of the Gentiles, the altar to the unknown god is a jigsaw piece of the truth that had a relationship to the judging truth of God's general revelation, without being the full picture of God's judging truth.
At that meeting of Areopagus, Paul recognized that some of the Athenian poets had a limited understanding of God, as the poets had said "we are his offspring" (Acts 17:28). This piece of Athenian verse is another piece of the jigsaw puzzle of the general revelation of knowledge that God had revealed to the Athenians before Paul ever arrived on the scene. In this passage, Paul extracted the jigsaw pieces of the truth out from the midst of untruth in the Athenian understanding and united them with the truth of the Gospel. Paul affirmed the piece of the truth that was represented by the altar to the unknown god and by the Athenian poets and applied the Gospel to confront the surrounding falsehood and ignorance. It is in this way that Paul "deconstructed" the altar to the unknown god and Athenian verse, winnowing out the truth from the midst of the untruth to present the Gospel.
The general revelation of knowledge can also be of benefit to Christians, operating in supplemental and complementary fashion to the revelation of Scripture. While Paul confronted the darkness of the philosophy of his day, Paul's writing reflects his education in the general revelation of knowledge that was available to the Greco-Roman world of the day. This is manifested in his use of reasoning and logical structure and his reference to Plato's cave (we see but through a mirror darkly). Paul did not reject the value for logic and reasoning that had been arrived at by Greek philosphers, but rather incorporated that value into the shape of writing and thought. Paul's letter to the Romans is a "cathedral" of Christian reasoning. Rather, Paul rejects the application of worldly reason that operates from premises and idolatries that preclude the Gospel. What Paul confronts is the hubris and ignorance of worldly philosophers to the extent that they rejected Christ Crucified.
The aposle John of the fourth Gospel also deconstructed aspects of the general revelation of knowledge that had been arrived at in the Greco-Roman world. John works with the idea of the Logos that had been arrived at by Greek philosphers and re-interprets the Logos as Jesus, the living Word of God.
These are examples of how John and Paul did not reject pieces of the general revelation of knowledge that had been arrived at by the wider culture that they operated within. Rather, by affirming logic, reason, behavioral manifestions of Natural Law, and clues to the existence of God that were already there in the culture that they operated in, they allowed these to influence the shape of their thought and to influence the shape of their approach to the Gospel to that culture. They were careful in their targets and only targeted the bad and erroneous idolatry, while being careful to value what was good. It is this careful effort that the New Testament writers made to place the Gospel in the context of the aspects of the general revelation of knowledge--carefully deconstructing to separate good from bad--that we are to emulate today.
Truth, in the broadest sense, can include values, ideas, and art that pervade a person and/or a culture. As knowledge operates in fallen humans who are darkened in their minds towards the revealed Law of God and the saving truth of the Gospel, pieces of truth in the general revelation of knowledge are often blended together with pieces of falsehood. What I am trying to outline is an approach to intellectual inquiry, cultural analysis, ministry and missions that sees as its task to verify what is true in the ongoing general revelation of knowledge that is asserting itself in the culture in question. It is must be the goal of Christian inquiry and ministry to find the pieces of the truth that are already operating, assert the Gospel over what is untrue, and unite the truth in the general revelation of knowledge with the truth of the Gospel.
In order to correctly apply the Gospel in this day and age, we Christians must identify the ways that God is already at work through the culture/cultures around us. To do this, we must first recognize that God is a God of truth and look for truth in a broader sense in the cultures around us without committing the fallacy of making the general revelation of knowledge co-equal to Scripture.
What I am trying to lay the groundwork for is a mandate that Christians must be attuned to the general revelation of knowledge as an important art of their growth in wisdom to understand the work of God that is going on around them and to understand the ministry of the Gospel that fits it. Christians must understand that these jigsaw pieces of truth are not co-equal with Scripture, but are supplemental and complementary when they have been properly deconstructed. What I am driving at and will elaborate on further is that this understanding is key to Christians having a dynamic faith that operates in liminality with God in dealing with with wider culture and is key to applying the Gospel with accuracy and nuance in the course of ministry.