God’s Wider Presence: Reconsidering General Revelation
Johnston is professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. He was the keynote speaker for the DTS Arts Week, October 22–24, 2014. He explains that the purpose of this book is to “think constructively” about several questions: “What are we as Christians to make of those occasional encounters with God in our everyday lives that seem more real than everyday reality, more fundamental than everything else? . . . What is the inherent value of God’s wider revelation, of experiences of God’s Presence not directly tied to our salvation? And how are they to be understood theologically?” (p. xiii). These experiences are generally classified as general revelation, “the term usually given to that communion with the divine that takes place outside of the church and its Scripture, and without direct reference to Jesus Christ” (p. 7). Johnston observes that there has not been much theological reflection by evangelicals on “God’s revelation through creation and creature, conscience and creativity, art and science, family and public life” (p. 8).
Johnston believes that the changing Western culture has had ramifications for Christian faith and practice: “Stated simply, our experience of God is becoming at one and the same time, less centralized, or institutionalized, in its various expressions, even while it becomes more important even than our theological positions. While reason remains important, contemporary Christians respond increasingly more to the imagination than to logical argument, to story over proposition” (p. 19). He concludes, “This book is one attempt, theologically, to speak into this trend, to learn from its strengths, to counter its erosions, and to suggest a way forward, both in our worship and in our mission” (ibid.).
After a chapter that lays the foundation by describing this cultural shift, Johnston uses movies as a case study of how God is experienced by many people. He then turns to the Scriptures and spends two chapters developing a biblical defense of divine revelation in creation. A brief survey of views of general revelation in the Christian tradition follows. A final chapter proposes modifications in the understanding of general revelation. Johnston argues that instead of revelation “available to all people, everywhere, at all times,” as general revelation is often defined, “God’s wider revelatory Presence is instead the specific experience of people sometimes and on some occasions” (p. 189). In short, “it is the Spirit who is present in and through creation, conscience, and culture,” not just in the Scripture (p. 199). And Johnston demonstrates that this view of general revelation can be defended from the Scriptures.
Johnston’s work makes several contributions to the study of general revelation. First, he identifies three reasons Christians tend to neglect general revelation. Defining general revelation as “truths that are communicated by God to all persons at all times and in all places” tends toward abstraction and thus impersonal understanding of the Revealer (p. 8). Additionally, the evangelical focus on salvation history has sometimes led to ignoring the texts that focus on creation and on God’s dealing with outsiders (see the list on p. 10). Finally, evangelicalism’s doctrine of human depravity diminishes the doctrine of general revelation. Johnston asserts that another “reason for the marginalization and subsequent sterility of much theological reflection on general revelation has been the theological judgment that sin has so clouded and warped human receptivity to divine revelation that general revelation, even though present, is of little value other than to confirm our sin” (p. 11). As a result of this view, revelation of God in creation is often understood to be limited to condemnation.
Second, Johnston’s interpretation of Acts 17 is instructive. Here, as with Psalm 19, he says, “it is not Scripture, but nature, that is the . . . primary text, as the Spirit speaks though it” (p. 87). God reveals himself through creation, and the Athenians “received in truth God’s revelation to them” (p. 116). Paul built upon this revelation by both affirming and correcting what they knew about God from creation. Johnston observes, “In his preaching to a gentile audience with no context or background through which to interpret or understand the gospel message, Paul turns neither to Scripture nor to Christianity’s Jewish background but to general revelation” (ibid.).
Third, Johnston emphasizes the work of the Spirit in general revelation. He writes, “The Spirit’s Presence is compelling, seeking us out, opening our eyes, redirecting our evasions and turning them into our freely chosen prayers” (p. 164). People cannot receive or respond to general revelation without the work of the Spirit. The Spirit who inspired Scripture and is essential to understand it (1 Cor. 2:14) is also the source of revelation in creation and essential for understanding the God who is revealed there.
Johnston’s work reminds the reader that knowledge of God through general revelation “is still revelation” (p. 185). As such, people should not neglect saving revelation (Bible and Jesus) for God’s wider revelation (creation, conscience, culture); instead both general and special revelation are “grounded in biblical truth and . . . intertwined” (ibid.). The implications of these statements are far-reaching. Johnston invites his reader to re-examine the doctrine of revelation in both understanding and praxis. Evangelicals are wise to accept his invitation.