How do we come to know that God exists and what God is like? That is what the second article of the Belgic Confession discusses, and it notes that there are two ways in which we come to know God, two “books” that we must read. These things are called “general revelation” (nature and the world around us) and “special revelation” (God’s Word in the Bible).
General revelation is the revealing of truth about God that is available to all people because it comes in the form of the natural world. The confession describes this as “the creation, preservation, and government of the universe,” noting that the “universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God: God’s eternal power and divinity, as the apostle Paul says in Romans 1:20.” What this means is that the existence (creation) and continued operation of this world (preservation and government) points to the fact that there is a God, that there is an ultimate being who is greater than us. The world points to us his power, in that he made all these things, but also his holiness and divinity, as we have this feeling from what we see that there is something transcendent, beyond us. Going into nature often overwhelms us, pointing to something (better, someone) greater than us, and the more science studies the world, the more this is true, as we see such great beauty and complexity, a complexity that works together and only makes sense as whole. The world shows some sort of design and points to a designer who should put us in awe.
But yet there are limits in what the world around us can show us. It is limited first of all because it needs some sort of interpretation or explanation; we see what there is, but why is there something? Secondly, it is limited because of the fact that we live in a broken world (more on that later in the confession). That is, what we see is not necessarily what always ought to be. If what we see and experience is all that there should be, that would point to there really being no category of evil. When we see a tornado or a hurricane, when we see death and disease, we say, “This is not the way that things are supposed to be.” But even that experience points us to the fact that there is something beyond us and this world is not right. As C.S. Lewis noted, anytime someone points out injustice, it points us to the fact that there is some measuring stick beyond human action, which points us to the existence of God.
This is where special revelation comes into play, as the confession states that “God makes himself known to us more clearly by his holy and divine Word, as much as we need in this life, for God’s glory and for our salvation.” God, in his Word, gives us an explanation of who God is that goes beyond what we see in this world. It confirms what we find in the world — that the world is not the way it is supposed to be — but then explains why this is the case and why we can have hope in light of that. Note that this makes God known to us “more clearly”; we need this revelation to really know what God is like, to find all those qualities that we read about in article 1. However, special revelation will not tell us everything, but rather “as much as we need in this life for God’s glory and our salvation.” We will never have complete knowledge, but there are some things that we don’t need to know.
The confession, following Paul’s words in Romans 1:20, notes that general revelation make all people accountable, as it is “enough to convict humans and to leave them without excuse”; we can see that there is something beyond ourselves and should seek to find out more because this must define our life and our world. The confession also notes that special revelation is needed for us to know that we can be saved, as it gives us “what we need in this life for God’s glory and for our salvation.” That is, looking at the world will not reveal to us that God has sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to save us; we need God telling us this truth, which we find in God’s holy Word. Special revelation is necessary for our salvation.
In many ways, the confession is echoing what we see in Psalm 19, which starts out by saying that the “heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1) and for the first six verses talks about how we can see God’s glory but then turns to God’s special revelation (with particular reference to the revealing of the law of God to the people of the Old Testament, in noting that the law of the God and his precepts and commands give us life and make us wise (see Psalm 19:7-11).
So, look at the world and see that there is something beyond you, but look to the Bible to find how you can be right with the God and who this God is. We should be students of both books, but knowing that the book of nature will not be enough for us to know God.
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