Christian Doctrine (3)

Image - John Calvin

Calvin did say, in a commentary on Psalms, that “The whole world is a theatre for the display of the divine goodness, wisdom, justice, and power …”

Chapter 3 of Christian Doctrine focuses on the doctrine of “general revelation” – the idea that God is or can be known “by the light of nature and the works of creation” (Westminster Confession, 1.1).

Guthrie presents the following summary arguments – things people have offered/frequently offer in favor of the doctrine of general revelation:

  1. “The world is not self-explanatory.” We look around, there’s “being,” and we think it must have come from somewhere or something, since we don’t believe in spontaneous combustion; so the world itself points us beyond itself towards some kind of ultimate reality;
  2. “The universe displays a purpose.” Again, we look around, the “being” all around us looks organized, orderly, and it seems to have a direction; so, who or what gave it that direction; again, it seems that the order in the world points us beyond the world towards something purposive;
    3 “World history and personal experience point to God’s existence.” I have to quote Guthrie here, because I can’t even use my own words to summarize.

Over and over again throughout the course of history, forces of injustice and evil have been defeated and forces of justice and righteousness have finally prevailed. In my own life and that of my family, sickness has been surprisingly healed, needs unexpectedly met, apparaently insoluble problems solved, a way out provided when there seemed to be a dead end. If we study history and analyze our own experience, we must conclude that there is a good God at work in the world providing for human welfare.1

4.”Conscience bears witness to the existence of God.” Pretty self-explanatory; everybody basically knows the difference between right and wrong, and senses that they’re supposed to do right and not do wrong. So how do we suppose that sense got there?
5. “We have a spiritual awareness of a divine presence deep within ourselves.” The sensus religiosus we could even say – everyone if they are honest with themselves feels it.
6. “The world seems to function in a rational way.” There are laws in nature, and nature follows them; there is such a thing as logic and it works; etc.

I had a strong reaction to this line of argument – the kind where I feel like throwing the book against the wall. I refrained, but I did put the book down and wrote out all my vociferous objections, about how none of this proves anything, and hasn’t anyone ever heard of social conditioning, and what about sociopaths do they have a religious sense? And what about Auschwitz, and how exactly does that fit into the argument that world history and personal experience point to God’s existence, and if it does, what kind of a God is it that it points to?

My point is that I find not one single one of those arguments genuinely compelling. If a person were already Christian, or inclined to believe in God whether or not the Christian one, maybe then those arguments would seem more plausible – still not logically compelling, but at least more like categories of available evidence that on balance tends to support one’s interpretations. Being Christian does not give us a warrant to ignore logic; but a Christian like me could assent to modified forms of these assertions, like “yes, I agree that to a person who already accepts the existence of God, creation really does speak to us of God’s greatness and beauty,” something like that.

I was relieved to find out that Guthrie also summarizes the objections to those arguments, as well as some of the reasons why people might be inclined to argue for something like a natural knowledge of God despite the power of the counter-arguments. [He gives three, not in this order: 1) a natural knowledge of God would be a nice place for evangelism to begin – if you were talking to someone who had it, I think to myself; 2) such a natural knowledge of God would confirm Paul’s statement that disbelievers are “without excuse” in denying the existence of God – comforting in a sort of holier-than-thou way for someone who thinks that way, I think to myself; 3) “it would be arrogant and blind to argue that there is no knowledge of God at all except in Jesus Christ and biblical revelation.”2 Because God can do whatever God wants, including give knowledge of Godself … I think to myself.]

So once again I find out that I am more Reformed than I realize, because it turns out the emphasis of the Reformed tradition is much more on special revelation (the next chapter), although it accepts the notion of general revelation.

So my annoyed reaction to the arguments about general revelation doesn’t make me a person who doesn’t accept the reality of God. It makes me a person who doesn’t accept that God’s reality can be “proved” in some conveniently logical way. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. I can’t imagine anyone who didn’t already accept God as a premise would regard the arguments from general revelation as anything other than laughably false. I think those arguments would have been laughed off already in a modernist context, and they seem even more obviously false in a context of postmodern understandings of the social and narrative construction of truth (or, if you prefer, of what we take to be truth).

Maybe it would be nice if God could be proved, though I’m not convinced. I suspect trying to prove the reality of God is a lot like trying to prove your mother loved you. Those of us who think our mothers loved us, we have evidence that we accept. And I think most of us would acknowledge that our acceptance of that evidence as evidence of what we say it’s evidence of is based at least in part on our choice to interpret the evidence we have a certain way, and on our desire to tell the story of our relationship with our mothers in a certain way. But also – when we make those choices and prioritize that desire, it all hangs together for us; when we tell our story that way; it works. In fact, it works best. It would be harder for us to tell it any other way, quite honestly. We don’t have a way to tell our own stories that makes as much sense of the evidence we have, including our own feelings about it and our lived experience of it, as when we just assume our mother loved us.

So – if you assume God, then the arguments for general revelation seem plausible, though still not logically compelling. But assuming God already presupposes “special revelation.” Or at least grace.


1Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr. Christian Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 42.
2ibid., 45.

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About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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