General Revelation

The Belgic Confession – Article 2 (General & Special Revelation)

We know Him by two means: First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most elegant book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many characters leading us to see clearly the invisible things of God, even his everlasting power and divinity, as the apostle Paul says (Romans 1:20). All which things are sufficient to convince men and leave them without excuse. Second, He makes Himself more clearly and fully known to us by His holy and divine Word, that is to say, as far as is necessary for us to know in this life, to His glory and our salvation. (Belgic Confession, Article 2)

How is it possible for us to know God? What must happen in order for us (as creatures and as sinners) to know God?

Article 2 of the Confession speak of two “means” (or ways) by which we know God – the “most elegant book” of nature (i.e. God’s creation & providence), and the book of Scripture. These are often referred to as general and special revelation.

General Revelation

According to the Belgic Confession, there are two “books,” so to speak, by which we know God. The first is what is often referred to as “general revelation.” This consists of the universe itself, including (as the Confession puts it) its “creation, preservation, and government.”

The Confession holds that both Creation (See also Article 12.) and Providence (See also Article 13.) are means by which God reveals Himself to us. These things testify to God’s “everlasting power and divinity.” The Scriptures plainly teach this in both the Old and New Testaments:

  • “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. here is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world . . . .” (Psalm 19:1–4, ESV)
  • For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” (Romans 1:18-20, ESV)

As Daniel Hyde notes,

“The Confession follows the apostle in saying that this knowledge of God in creation, providence, and governance is of God as our creator. The content, then, of general revelation is not of God as redeemer but simply as the wise, eternal, powerful, and creative God that he is.” (With Heart and Mouth, p.57)

So the knowledge of God that we have in that “most elegant book” of nature is sufficient to render all of mankind “without excuse” (Romans 1:20) for our sin and rebellion against our Creator. But the gospel is not found there. That is where the second book comes in – the Bible. This is often referred to as “special revelation” (as distinct from general revelation).

Special Revelation

Special revelation refers to God’s revelation of Himself in Scripture. The word “special” here is used in the sense of being more specific, clear, and explicit.

Note that the Belgic Confession states that God reveals Himself “more clearly and fully” in Scripture (“His holy and divine Word”), so the Scriptures are primary. The Scriptures are more clear (or perspicuous) and more complete in revealing God to us. Both are true, but Scripture must be primary. Our reading or understanding of God in the “book” of nature must be informed or guided by the book of the Scriptures.

And, most importantly, it is only in the Scriptures that God makes Himself known to us, not just as Creator, but also as Redeemer in Jesus Christ. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it:

“Q. 2. How does it appear that there is a God? A. The very light of nature in man, and the works of God, declare plainly that there is a God; but his word and Spirit only do sufficiently and effectually reveal him unto men for their salvation.”

The Scriptures, of course, bear this out:

  • “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” (1 Corinthians 1:20-21, ESV)
  • “and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:15-17, ESV)

Belgic Confession Articles 2-7 all basically deal with the doctrine of Scripture (i.e. what Scripture says about itself & how we are to view the Scriptures as the Word of God). Considering the fact that there are only 37 Articles (points of doctrine) in the Confession, we can see how important and foundational a right view of Scripture was thought to be in the life of every believer, and in the life of the church.

Not only that, but the Confession focuses our attention squarely on the doctrine of Scripture even before resuming its handling of the doctrine of God (including the doctrines of the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the deity of the Holy Spirit, etc.) in Articles 8-13.

Clearly the writer of the Confession held that a firm grasp of the doctrine of Scripture (i.e. having a right view of the Scriptures as being the very Word of God), was (and still is) essential to a proper affirmation and grasp of a great many other doctrines taught in Scripture (such as the Trinity, for example). And so the Confession takes its time firmly establishing the doctrine of Scripture first, before dealing with anything else.

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“A Most Elegant Book” (The Belgic Confession on General Revelation)

The Belgic Confession (1561) is one of the confessional documents that comprise the “3 Forms of Unity” in the churches of the continental reformed tradition. This confession is the statement of faith, taking the reader through a brief but thorough (at least by today’s standards) treatment of the basic doctrines of the Christian faith.

Article 2 (of a total of 37 articles or heads of doctrine) deals with how God has made Himself known to us. It reads as follows:

“We know Him by two means: First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most elegant book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many characters leading us to see clearly the invisible things of God, even his everlasting power and divinity, as the apostle Paul says (Romans 1:20). All which things are sufficient to convince men and leave them without excuse. Second, He makes Himself more clearly and fully known to us by His holy and divine Word, that is to say, as far as is necessary for us to know in this life, to His glory and our salvation.”

According to the Belgic Confession, there are two “books,” so to speak, by which we know God. The first is what is often referred to as “general revelation.” This consists of the universe itself, including (as the Confession puts it) its “creation, preservation, and government.” In a sense, then, the Confession holds that both Creation and Providence (which is often defined as God’s powerful preserving and governing of all things – see Westminster Shorter Catechism Q.11). These things testify to God’s “everlasting power and divinity,” as both Psalm 19:1-6 and Romans 1:20 attest.

In his book, With Heart and Mouth (which is an exposition of the Belgic Confession), Daniel Hyde notes the limits of general revelation:

“The Confession follows the apostle in saying that this knowledge of God in creation, providence, and governance is of God as our creator. The content, then, of general revelation is not of God as redeemer but simply as the wise, eternal, powerful, and creative God that he is.” (p.57)

So the knowledge of God that we have in that “most elegant book” of nature is sufficient to render all of mankind without excuse for our sin and rebellion against our Creator. But the gospel is not to be found there. That is where the second book comes in, which is an actual book – the Bible. This is often referred to as “special revelation” (as opposed to or distinct from general revelation).

God reveals Himself “more clearly and fully” in Scripture (“His holy and divine Word”), so the Scriptures are primary. Our reading or understanding of the “book” of nature must be informed or guided by the Scriptures. And, most importantly, it is only in the Scriptures that God makes Himself known to us, not just as Creator, but also as Redeemer in Jesus Christ.