TWO KINDS OF REVELATION
Some years ago I met a geologist who worked for a major oil company. At the time some conservative Christians were pushing to have “Creation Science” included in public school curricula. “Creation Science” is the attempt to prove the historical and factual nature of the biblical creation accounts with scientific evidence. A handmaiden of Creation Science is “Flood Geology” which tries to explain the earth’s natural features in light of the account of Noah’s flood in Genesis 6ff.
These things were all in the news. So, I asked the geologist what he thought of Creation Science and Flood Geology. His answer was succinct and pointed. “It doesn’t help me find oil,” he said.
In other words, the biblical accounts of creation and flood do not accurately describe the physical reality of our world. The truth of these stories is metaphoric and spiritual. To read them as factual accounts is a mistake.
Theologians speak of two kinds of revelation. The General Revelation is the knowledge of God that is available to all people through experience and reason. The Special Revelation is the knowledge of God that is available to the Church through Scripture and tradition. I will spell that out a little more fully below.
First let me note that my Methodist friends will recognize the Wesleyan quadrilateral of experience, reason, tradition and Scripture in the last paragraph. These are the four things that John Wesley taught must be considered in all theological reflection. To adapt from Wesley a little, I would say that both the General and Special Revelations must be considered in our discussion of God.
The General Revelation (reason and experience) can teach us a lot about God’s will and work. It can show us God’s existence and direct us in moral living. It can teach us how God ordered creation. The content of the General Revelation is broad.
The content of the Special Revelation (Scripture and tradition) is narrow. The Special Revelation teaches us about God’s saving work on behalf of humankind, first through his chosen people Israel, and then, through Jesus Christ, extending from Israel to all nations.
The Church gets itself into trouble when it mistakes the content of the Special Revelation for the content of the General Revelation. This was the mistake that Luther made in rejecting Copernicus out of hand. It was the mistake that the Roman Catholic Church made in condemning Galileo. It is the mistake that Creation Scientists and Flood Geologists have made in our own time.
Experience and reason teach us about God’s creation. Scripture and tradition teach us about salvation.