When God Speaks, Are We Listening With Both Ears?

In recent years I have had many conversations over the matters that divide conservative churches, especially those in the Reformed tradition. Some of my conversation partners have been ordinary pew-sitters, but many have been trained as theologians and hold positions such as pastor, elder, or teacher of religion at the college level.

In the course of these conversations I have raised the question of how the Christian community reaches decisions on controversial issues. These include the age of the earth, the status of slavery as a social practice, the acceptability of divorce, the status of women, both in the church and in society, and the role that same-sex partners might have in church or society. I have been puzzled, and sometimes amazed, at the responses I have received.

Obviously, Christians have reexamined their position on all of these questions, and in most cases have dramatically changed their minds. Some of my conversation partners have lamented some of these changes, but many endorsed them, and some have even been aggressive leaders in effecting change.

But across the board I got puzzling answers when I asked what new insights had provoked the change. What, for example, had tipped the balance toward regarding the age of the earth as much older than biblical chronologies had established? How and why did Reformed churches decide to join the abolitionist cause, well after other traditions had led the way? The most common answer was that ongoing biblical studies, a reexamination of texts relevant to the issue, were the change agent.

Few people seemed to have noticed how extra-biblical studies had contributed to the process. Geological evidence on the age of the earth, for example, compelled believers to return to the Bible with different eyes, just as in a much earlier age, evidence from astronomy had altered the belief that the earth was fixed and that the sun moved. And surely it was detailed historical evidence that revealed the horrors of the slave trade.

These issues are not all safely sealed away in history either. People in my own denomination, the Christian Reformed Church, remember how hotly contested was the question of women’s status in the leadership of the church.   How Christians decide to change their minds is as important to think about as ever.   It took the CRC over a decade before it closed the book on the matter and opened the door of all church offices to women. And now the status of gay Christians is on the docket in many church circles, as in American society at large. How Christians decide to change their minds is therefore as important to think about as ever.

In our conversations I have pressed my interlocutors for an epistemological principle that would explain how the Reformed tradition has shifted its conclusions about so many ethical and scientific questions. I’ve offered “reading general revelation” as my own explanation but have found it hard to get agreement. People’s first response was to connect that doctrine to the question of whether unbelievers are without excuse about the existence of God, referring to St. Paul in Romans 1:20ff as the relevant text. I have had to clarify that my concern is with Christian believers and their discovery of God’s nature and will in creation as well as in the Bible.

Nonetheless, my respondents tended to shift over to common grace and the question of whether or not all those in the human race could know God and be saved. Only when I repeated my question more pointedly could we get to the Belgic Confession, Article 2. This most venerable of Reformed statements, originating in the sixteenth century and the earliest of the three authoritative confessions in the Dutch Reformed tradition, asserts that we Christians know God through two means: Scripture and the created world. We can let the Confession speak for itself:

We know him [God] by two means: First by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, since that 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: his eternal power and his divinity, as the apostle Paul says in Romans 1:20.

This “two-book” doctrine was picked up by Louis Berkhof, the giant of CRC theology in the first half of the twentieth century. Long a theologian at and eventually president of Calvin Theological Seminary, Berkhof was regarded as thoroughly conservative and his multi-volume Systematic Theology (1932) was authoritative for the denomination. It was in his Manual of Christian Doctrine (1933), a condensation of his longer work intended for the instruction of covenant youth, that I first became acquainted with the two-book idea. The Manual uses the terminology of general and special revelation to capture the Confession’s distinction and spends a whole chapter on the differences and the interaction between the two. Berkhof ‘s claims for the biblical soundness of the distinction, and the support he draws from numerous passages or proof texts, seem to establish the credibility, if not the complete clarity, of the doctrine.

Yet in my conversations, people trained in biblical studies invariably gravitated toward the perceived weakness of general revelation rather than its worth. They considered general revelation to be less normative than Scripture, and furthermore untrustworthy by virtue of the changing nature of its conclusions. These conclusions were also seen as infected by sin and thus not dependable. My observation that those who read special revelation are affected by the very same infection the biblical scholars have never found convincing. The two revelations do not produce equally valid conclusions, in their eyes. Only Scripture is infallible, they insist, even if their reading of it is not.

Still, I think it is clear from observation that we rely on general revelation more than these strictures would allow. As a long-time pew-sitter I have observed many preachers use the results of general revelation to clarify Scripture. They turn to archeology to clarify the culture in which Christianity was born and flourished. They use social history to explain, for instance, why Scripture might condemn rings and jewelry on women while most Christians today find these acceptable. The passages in question were written, historians tell us, when such decorations were characteristic of prostitutes–an occupation not typically pursued by the well adorned occupants of conservative pews today.

Certainly Berkhof conveys that the key to the two books’ relationship lies in their interdependence and not their competition for validity. He offers an illustration from the term “father,” noting that Scripture uses it to suggest a quality of God, while we, God’s creatures, give it meaning by seeing actual fathers. Thus the two books enrich each other, and the revelation of each is weakened by the absence of the other.

Berkhof’s interpretation goes even farther, to focus on the specific powers of general revelation. His Manual of Christian Doctrine makes some strong claims for the power of general revelation: “It consists in an embodiment of the divine thought in the phenomena of nature, in the general constitution of the human mind, and in the facts of experience or history” (26, 27). That trio of phrases seems to point respectively to the natural sciences, to psychology, and to history as the forms in which general revelation appears. Moreover, “if special revelation engenders a true appreciation of general revelation, it is equally true that general revelation promotes a proper understanding of special revelation” (31; my emphasis).

Let’s return to that illustration from fathering. The two-book interaction fits what has caused changes in the discipline of children. The expression “spare the rod and spoil the child” for many years
made corporal punishment a legitimate biblical response to unacceptable behavior by children. But the study of child psychology and of the effects of violence on the young person, along with the experiential evidence that violence begets more violence, have caused believers in both kinds of revelation to form a different rule for discipline, something more like “unless we spare the rod we will likely spoil the child.” Some biblical scholars have noted that the term “rod” in Scripture does not denote a tool for violence; rather, like the shepherd’s “rod and staff ” invoked in Psalm 23, it connotes an instrument of guidance or protection from danger. From the interaction of these two expressions, one from special and the other from general revelation, a better principle of discipline has emerged.

People who hold to the validity, or at least the superiority, of only one form of revelation have usually resisted these sorts of changes. People who believe in the value of both have led the way, in the Reformed tradition at least, to changing the perception of the status of women in the church and society.   In my experience, people trained in biblical studies have invariably gravitated toward the perceived weakness of general revelation rather than its worth. Only Scripture is infallible, they insist, even if their reading of it is not.   For years the interpreters of only the one book resisted the progression from accepting women as deacons, then elders, and then preachers. Each of these steps required overcoming the resistance, not to mention the parliamentary maneuvering, that slowed down the progression. Now the last-ditch defenders of one-book revelation in the CRC are fighting on the level of classis, having lost the battle to exclude women at the level of synod.

From astronomy to slavery to the status of women, these episodes are case studies in the sociology of change on basic questions of ethics. It would seem that the church has been well guided in the past by practicing Berkhof ‘s analysis of the interpenetration of the results of studying both books of revelation. It seems equally evident, however, that one of the books has been rarely acknowledged– and when acknowledged, underrated and devalued–in the process. In the CRC, academics in the liberal arts have rarely been placed on important denominational study committees, even after they have written books or published articles as Christian scholars in respectable Christian journals on the subject in question.

Looming on the horizon for all denominations is the question of same-sex relationships. Being a complex matter that needs the study of both Bible and general revelation, the issue may once again threaten the unity of denominations, causing the losers to depart and distract the church from its larger mission by hasty attacks on new evidence or a defense of the policy that we “hate the sin but love the sinner.” Both those seeking greater clarity on the issue and those who think that it is already clear enough from Scripture alone may some day come together if the Belgic Confession and Berkhof are accepted as a reliable guide.

The evidence from neither book is crystal clear. Since the relevant Scripture verses have been parsed in depth, I will explicate a few appropriate “passages” from general revelation. On the one hand, some destructive effects have emerged on the side of same-sex relationships. Gay men in North America have been at greater risk of contracting the A IDS virus; the disease gained its first foothold here in the San Francisco gay community. Physiologically, the orifices available to men manifestly each has its own function, and an alteration in that function creates the possibility of health risks. Psychologically, some studies of the effect on children raised in families headed by same-sex partners indicate the need for the young to have role models of both sexes in order to identify their own.

On the other hand, some physiological studies have found that the brain structure of individuals with same-sex attractions is different from that of the heterosexual population. This would lead to the conclusion that sexual orientation is not a choice but a condition; and if a condition, like hair color or foot size, then not changeable and the behavior thus induced not morally deviant. Such brain studies seem provocative but not uncontestable. Sociologically, enough people with same-sex orientation are productive citizens with their own talents, making their own contribution to society, to preclude any judgment about “deviants.” Also, parents have testified about their children, and pastors about church members, that same-sex attraction does not destroy either family relations or congregational participation unless such individuals are treated as outcasts.

While the military struggles with the question of whether or not its homosexual members harm morale or detract from the effectiveness of its mission, the church’s focus is on whether or not those openly gay can be effective leaders and models of Christian living.

In short, the evidence from general revelation on the matter of same-sex partnerships is, at this point, somewhat mixed. That is no reason to ignore it or to treat it as second-rate. From history and theology the message is clear: in the Reformed community of believers, the search for God’s will on this issue should go on in both the books of general and special revelation. That means that biblical scholars should be returning to Scripture to clarify what principles should guide us, and the scholars in the relevant arts and science disciplines should closely watch and conduct research in their respective fields. Both together should lead us to come together in a way that has not yet happened, at least too seldom in the CRC.

The under-valued but highly significant role that general revelation played in changing attitudes toward astronomy, geology, slavery, and the role of women in the church calls us to consult and apply it more openly and responsibly to this new and vexing issue. To do less is to ignore the lessons of the past and to engage in yet another decade-long divisive struggle. Ignoring either of the two books of God’s revelation will lead not only to a loss of Reformed integrity but also to the churches’ loss of the talents and contributions of those left out.

Donald Oppewal is professor of education emeritus at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.