From Natural Revelation to Special Revelation

After a rather lengthy hiatus from Scripture studies, I want to come back with some Muller. I want to start with what seemed to me one of the very strongest arguments for the Bible being foundational to the church, rather than the church being foundational to the Bible. I would especially welcome my Roman Catholic readers to respond to this, because Muller doesn’t indicate what the standard Catholic response to this argument is, and I would like to know.

Muller goes to John Owen, in volume 16 of his works, in the work entitled Divine Original, for an argument that moves from general revelation to special revelation in a “how much more” fashion. Owen starts with something that Roman Catholics, Reformed and even Rationalists all agree on: the divine origin of natural revelation “declares itself to be from God by its own light and authority…: without further evidence or reasoning, without the advantage of any considerations but what are by itself supplied, it discovers its author, from whom it is, and in whose name it speaks…common notions are inlaid in the natures of rational creatures by the hand of God, to this end, that they might make a revelation of Him…, are able to plead their own divine original, without the least contribution of strength or assistance from without” (Owen, vol 16, p. 311). Muller’s comment on this: “If such a view of natural revelation is assumed, how much more ought its logic apply to Scripture!” (vol 2, p. 268). Then comes the killer quotation from Owen:

Now, it were very strange, that those low, dark, and obscure principles and means of the revelation of God and his will, which we have mentioned, should be able to evince themselves to be from him, without any external help, assistance, testimony or authority; and that that which is by God himself magnified above them…should lie dead, obscure, and have nothing in itself to reveal its Author, until this or that superadded testimony be called to its assistance (Owen, p. 311, quoted in Muller, pp. 268-269).

The substance of the argument, then, is that if natural revelation is acknowledged to be of divine origin and authority without the support of the church, then why shouldn’t special revelation also be acknowledged to have divine origin and authority without the support of the church, especially since the latter is much clearer than the former, and is given by God a higher priority and authority than natural revelation? Why would God not make natural revelation depend on humanity, but then make a more important revelation depend on humanity? Revelation is of God from first to last. God requires no human crutch to make His revelation authoritative. It is authoritative because of its Divine Author.

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Are You Persuaded?

My recent post talked in part about my conviction that the Church in America is indeed in need of a new reformation, a new experience of the Jesus’ renewal promise to his Church (Rev 2:5). It occurs to me that my urging only registers to the degree that one is persuaded that the Church in America is truly seriously spiritually ill. In this post here I want to offer some of my reasons for believing that the Church in America is heading the way of the Church in Europe – all but non-existent.

To start off, let me clarify my understanding of “Church”. I am specifically referring only to the portion of the Protestant branch of the Church that still affirms what Machen identified as the fundamentals of the faith, especially the five solas of the Reformation. This definition is more or less coterminous with what is historically identified as Evangelicalism in America, those denominations for whom justification by faith alone is a sine qua non, an absolute essential.

(This definition of the Church does exclude the Roman Communion. Following the Reformers, I understand the Roman Church to be a broken branch, a part of the Church historic that no longer exhibits the essential marks of the True Church. Sorry guys, just the way I roll.)

Leave aside the question whether or not the Reformation has/had a terminal point (see Dr. Carl Trueman’s review of Noll and Nystrom’s, Is the Reformation Over?) That question is interesting, but ineffective in answering the question here. Rather than determine whether or not Reformation has ended (and therefore need to be re-started) I think a better way forward to look at what factors demonstrate the need for a Reformation. Insights into this approach can be gleaned from both the Bible and history.

From the Bible, Jesus’ message to the church in Ephesus (Rev 2:1-7) I relevant. This church had lost their first love. That is, they had forgotten the basics of their doctrine and practice, summarized in the words Christ (doctrine), grace (practice), and the gospel (doctrine + practice). Their spiritual illness was so serious that this church was in danger of ceasing to exist (lampstand removal). To correct this Jesus offered the church a renewal promise (Rev 2:5), involving three parts: remembering, repenting, and recovering. In summary, this promise involved a recommitment to the ministry of the gospel (remembering, word-ministry-preaching) resulting in expressions of repentance and faith (repenting, doing first works).

Applied to the question here, we can gather from this that reformation is needed whenever there is evidence that a church has wandered/forgotten the core of its doctrine and practice. A church in need of reformation is one that has forgotten the Bible’s teaching about Christ, grace, and the gospel, a wandering/forgetting in both doctrine and practice.

From history the most obvious application of Christ’s renewal promise is the Reformation of the Church in Medieval Europe. Applying the biblical insights here, what were the signs present in this Church that demonstrated the need for reformation? What was the evidence that the Medieval Church had forgotten her first love? While there were many factors, I’m rather partial to the summary Dr. Harry Reeder offered in a sermon recently. He noted there were five characteristics marking this Church’s need for reformation: 1) Biblical illiteracy, 2) spiritual impotency, 3) compromised leadership, 4) devaluation of the word, and 5) devaluation of word-ministry, preaching. While longer, more detailed lists could be adduced, these five, it seems to me, offer an efficient summary of what it looks like for a Church to lose its first love, its adherence to Christ, grace and the gospel.

So, the question now is, does the Church in America evidence these or similar characteristics? Are these signs of spiritual illness present in our Church? I would argue that the answer needs to be a resounding yes! This post is already too long, so I’ll forgo making an argument relevant to each point. (More than happy to discuss this via the combox.) Maybe my point is simply made by your immediate response to this argument. Do you see these factors present across the Church in America? Are they dominant, that is common characteristics from one denomination to the next? Are they observable in most congregations? If you say yes I need say no more. (If not, might I ask you to pray about it?).

For me, I see increasing evidence of this week by week. In fact I believe that the spiritual illness in our Church is far advanced. While not unrecoverable, I believe it will be fatal if God is not merciful and soon sends the Spirit of renewal upon us. I’ve taken to telling folks in our congregation that that unless Jesus once again keeps his renewal promise in our city, we’re looking at the Church all but being nonexistent in twenty years – and we’re in the heart of the Bible Belt. I may be tad alarmist, but only like a doctor who gives a cancer patient three months to live, who then dies six months later.

I’m convinced – Jesus will remove the Church in America’s lampstand, unless she remembers, repents and recovers. We need a new reformation.

How about you, are you persuaded?

Posted by Reed DePace