Have you ever become embroiled in an argument with someone just to learn that you have been speaking right past each other? Or have you ever attempted to have a conversation with someone who was so particular about definitions that it seemed more time was being spent on what you were meaning to say than the issue at hand? Moments such as these can be quite exhausting, even frustrating.
One of my former professors, the late Dr. Roger Nicole, wrote a brilliant little essay entitled, Polemic Theology: How to Deal with Those Who Differ from Us. The essay’s title cannot be more appropriate. How do we deal with people who differ from us? Though the essay is postulated from a theological perspective, certainly this question affects every aspect of human life. Nicole writes,
I have noticed that my wife sometimes says things like, “You never empty the wastebasket.” Now as a matter of fact, on January 12, 1994, I did empty the wastebasket. Therefore, the word never is inappropriate! This tends to weaken the force of my wife’s reproach. Well, I’ve learned that I don’t get anywhere by pressing this point. This kind of response does not provide dividends of joy and peace in my home. I’ve learned, therefore, to interpret that when my wife says “never” she often means “rarely” or “not as often as should be.” When she says “always,” she means “frequently” or “more often than should be.”
Instead of quibbling as to the words never and always, I would do well to pay attention to what she finds objectionable. And indeed, I should be emptying the wastebasket. Feminist or not feminist, a husband and father should empty the wastebasket; and therefore, if I fail to do this, even only once, there is a good reason to complain. Nothing is gained by quibbling about how often this happens. I ought to recognize this and be more diligent with it rather than to quote the dictionary.
Similarly, in dealing with those who differ, we ought not to split hairs about language just in order to pounce on our opponent because he or she has not used accurate wording. It is more effective to seek to apprehend what is meant and then to relate ourselves to the person’s meaning. If we don’t do that, of course, there is no encounter because this person speaks at one level and we are taking the language at another level. The two do not meet and the result is bound to be frustrating. If we really want to meet, we might as well try to figure out the meaning rather than to quibble on wording.
One topic Christians tend to quibble on is the question of whether God’s revelation has ceased. In other words, will God add new revelation to what we already have? Depending on your church background your answer can be quite quick. If you are Pentecostal the answer is yes; if you are Reformed the answer is no. End of discussion! Well, the question is not as obvious as some may suppose and we would do well to stop and consider what is being asked before offering a response. The answer to this question, which can be yes or no, is based entirely on what aspect of God’s revelation we are addressing.
The Nature of Revelation
When touring Vatican City I had the opportunity to visit the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo painted the chapel from 1508-1512. As I looked at all the paintings there was much I could learn about the artist. For example, I could see he was extremely gifted, that he paid meticulous attention to detail, and that he had a tremendous imagination. In fact, my assessment of Michelangelo, based entirely upon viewing his work, is likely shared by many people who have visited the chapel.
So, in some respects, the paintings tell me a lot about Michelangelo, but there is much that the paintings do not tell. For example, where was he born? Where did he go to school? What was his family life like? What were his greatest joys and sorrows? The paintings in the Sistine Chapel are silent concerning these things. I cannot look at his work and learn about his family. For this, I need a written testimony which details Michelangelo’s life.
God reveals himself in two ways: through creation (general revelation) and through scripture (special revelation). Let us take these two types of revelation in order.
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. – Psalm 19:1
This is how God reveals himself through creation and events. All of creation: the mountains; the oceans; the stars in the sky reveal God’s design. We can look at creation and see God’s handiwork. Every time the sun rises and sets we fathom God’s authority, control, and presence. In this respect, the Lord reveals his glory afresh every day.
Additionally, God has created all things, both seen and unseen. Our knowledge of God is not by any means exhaustive, nor will we ever see all that the Lord has made.
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 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
The apostle Paul tells us in Romans 1:18-20 that all humanity, as part of God’s creation, know that there is separation from God due to sin (suppression of the truth). So in this manner, general revelation not only reveals the glory of God but testifies to our sinfulness. Thus, all humanity have sufficient knowledge of God to leave us without excuse.
So, general revelation is clear enough to show the Lord as Creator. It is also sufficient to show our sinfulness. However, it is not sufficient to bring us salvation in the person and work of Christ. For that, we need special revelation.
As much as general revelation is truly God revealing himself, it is not part of the canon. We need to know God’s preceptive (written) will in order to know salvation in Christ. Remember how we cannot know the details of Michelangelo’s life merely by looking at his paintings? Through scripture, we learn the details of God’s holiness that creation alone cannot provide.
What makes special revelation so special is it reveals salvation through Christ. This revelation is sometimes called redemptive covenant revelation. Here is a critical point: special revelation applies not only to scripture but also to Christ (the word in the flesh, John 1). Here is precisely why special revelation has ceased – there is no further covenant that we are awaiting that can move us beyond what Christ has established.
To say that special revelation has not ceased is to assert an inadequacy of sorts in Christ’s obedience of the law, his atoning death, his triumphal resurrection, and ascension to the Father’s right hand. Consider the following texts:
1 Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. 3 He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. – Hebrews 1:1-3
The reason why special revelation has ceased is because Jesus has spoken with finality and authority. In this way, Jesus fulfills the role of prophet.
20 Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, 21 equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen. – Hebrews 13:20-21
Not only has Jesus spoken with authority, his covenant is by the blood of the eternal covenant. In other words, there is no greater covenant. There is nothing that can surpass the blood of Christ shed for sins (Matt. 26:28; Heb. 9:22; 1 John 1:7). In fact, scripture teaches that there is no other name by which men may be saved (Acts 4:12).
So if the name of Jesus is the only name by which one is saved, and if Christ has spoken with finality and authority, and if the eternal covenant is in his blood, then special revelation has ceased. To suggest otherwise would be to imply something greater to come.