What are special and general revelation?


General revelation and special revelation are the two ways God has chosen to reveal himself to all humanity.

General revelation refers to the general truths that can be known about God through nature. It is general in content and it is revealed to a general audience. Through general revelation, God reveals his sovereignty and glory in such a manner that everyone is left without an excuse concerning God. We’re clearly told this in Romans 1:19-20. Read what John Murray wrote about these verses:

[It] is a clear declaration to the effect that the visible creation as God's handiwork makes manifest the invisible perfections of God as its Creator, that from the things which are perceptible to the senses cognition of these invisible perfections is derived, and that thus a clear apprehension of God's perfections may be gained from his observable handiwork. [1]

Within general revelation we must make a further distinction between "immediate" and "mediate" general revelation. Immediate occurs without an intermediating agency, while mediate occurs through an intermediating agency. In other words, God reveals himself by directly implanting knowledge about himself in all mankind. However, while general revelation is directed to all men, it is "not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of His will, which is necessary unto salvation" (WCF I.I).

In contrast, special revelation is specific revelation revealed by the Holy Spirit to a specific audience. Special revelation is the very word of God. It is the revelation of the way of salvation through Christ alone (Heb. 1:1-2). Before the completion of the Holy Scripture, God revealed his redemptive work to prophets, priests, and kings by means of dreams (Gen. 28:12, 37:5; 1 Kings 3:5; Dan. 2), visions (Gen. 15:1; Ezek. 8:3-4; Dan. 7; 2 Cor. 12:1-7), theophanies (Gen. 3:8, 18:1; Exod. 3:1-4, 34:5-7), and angels (Dan. 9:20-21; Luke 2:10-11). The greatest single occurrence of special revelation is the person and work of Jesus Christ (John 1:1, 14). However, now in our time, it has received its permanent form in the Holy Scriptures — the sixty-six (66) books of the Old and New Testaments (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:3, 20-21).

Psalm 19 contrasts general and special revelation side-by-side in the same text. After the section on general revelation in Psalm 19:1-4 concerning God's creation, then comes Psalm 19:7-8 that references God's word:

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes;

Of course it's important to remember that God is the author both of general revelation and special revelation.

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[1] Murray, John. The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), p. 40.

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).