The two books
SHAH JEHAN WAS BORN IN LAHORE, PAKISTAN, IN THE EARLY 1600s. As a young prince he commanded his father's army, leading many campaigns but, in 1623, compelled by the intrigues of the imperial consort, he rose in rebellion against his father, spending four years in desultory campaigns to oust him. At his father's death in 1627, Shah Jehan rushed to Agra to claim the throne and, having killed all potential rivals, was crowned the following year. Much of his 30-year reign was spent in military campaigns in the Deccan plateau area trying to subjugate the restless natives; but he never entirely succeeded. He presided over the construction of Delhi which became his capital. Deposed by his son Aurangzeb in 1658, Shah Jahan spent the rest of his years in prison.
That, in a nutshell, is the life of Shah Jehan, famous Mogul emperor of India-cum-Pakistan. I'm sure we could, with a little research, find out a lot more about his life — his conquests, defeats, his numerous wives, his schooling, and so on and so on. Imagine that you were able to catalogue a chronologically-accurate list of his life's activities, even to the point of being able to say what he did week by week, how well would you really know the man? Reasonably well.
Now, if you could discover works that he himself wrote — his beliefs about life, his opinions about marriage, education, national administration, the workings of justice, and so on — naturally you could say that you know him much better. But do you still really know the man? Fully?
Let's find out a bit more about this individual. Shah Jehan was the man who commissioned the building of the famous Taj Mahal and the not-so-famous Pearl Mosque at Agra. Though his architects must take much of the credit, he himself was heavily involved in the design of these structures. They bear his indelible signature. After you have read about the man's life and exploits, have read his own writings, your understanding of the man will be greatly enhanced if you take a long, leisurely tour of these magnificent buildings. Without trying to define precisely what you can learn about Shah Jehan by carefully examining every nook and cranny, every tower and dome of these buildings — the majestic central dome towering 200 feet above the sandstone platform, the slender minarets rising gracefully from each corner, the amazingly intricate stonework and mosaics that adorned the interior of dome and towers — you know intuitively that you would gain a much greater insight into the workings of his mind by such an examination. You would gain a far more satisfying “feel” for the man by studying what he had done than you would gain merely from reading about his life or reading what he himself had said and the poems he had written.
So too we can gain a real “feel” for God by studying the works of His hands. At a General Audience on 26th January, 2000, Pope John Paul II said,
Faced with the glory of the Trinity in creation, we must contemplate, sing, and rediscover awe. Contemporary society has become dry, “not for lack of wonders, but for lack of wonder” (G.K. Chesterton). Contemplation of the universe also means, for the believer, listening to a message, hearing a paradoxical and silent voice, as the “Psalm of the Sun” suggests: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (Ps 19:2-4). Nature therefore becomes a Gospel that speaks to us of God: “For from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator” (Wis 13:5).
God has revealed Himself to humanity through two main mediums, the written word and the creation, sometimes called “special revelation” and “general revelation” respectively. Records of God in works constitute general revelation. Records in words constitute special revelation. We can summarize these two ways by saying that general revelation shows us God's power or greatness while special revelation tells us about His goodness or perfection — in short, His thoughts.
General revelation, by its very nature, is accessible to all people in all places and at all times, because the evidence from nature surrounds them constantly. Special revelation, by contrast, is available only to those with access to the written record.
Spiritually-oriented thinkers and philosophers have long recognized and grasped the sublime truth that the seemingly edgeless canvas of nature, sitting square on a universe-sized easel, bears God's unmistakable signature. Galen, Augustine of Hippo, Anselm of Canterbury, Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin, to name a few, are often associated with the study of general revelation. Their version of general revelation focused primarily on the insights to be found in philosophy. Seventeenth century England's version of general revelation focused on insights gained from creation. Two great sources of truth were acknowledged — infallible Scripture, and the mathematical beauty of the cosmos, the latter having been unraveled by the deeply-religious Sir Isaac Newton. Often considered the greatest scientist of all time, Newton didn't blush the slightest shade of pink in seeing in the precise motions of heavenly bodies testimony to God's creativity.
It goes without saying that a man's works can yield only limited insights into the man. You may note that Shah Jehan preferred intaglio over cameo ornamentation. You can describe the style as elegant, the complete opposite of Adolph Hitler's Nuremburg stadium, where vast rallies were staged. One may note the slenderness of the minarets, and assume that he was a lover of things slender as opposed to things corpulent. The delicacy of the lace-like marble screens found in the great echoing dome betray an amazing attention to detail and beauty, and so on. But we are still left with big questions about the man. So too, general revelation enables us to see only a few of the colors from the infinite spectrum of color that is God.
Some ever argue that nature doesn't provide us with any objective knowledge about God but merely illustrates what special revelation tells us about Him. They will emphasize that examining a craftsman's artisanry or an architect's plans won't tell you what really made them tick. The Taj Mahal will not tell you if Shah Jehan preferred laughing or frowning. It won't tell you what kind of music he liked. Whether he treated his children well or shoddily. Whether he was a kind ruler, or a tyrant. You need records of what he did, what he liked. You need words. To understand him best, you would needs words he himself wrote as well as the testimony of others who knew him.
Sometimes the term “natural theology” is used as a synonym for general revelation, while the term “sacred theology” is considered synonymous with special revelation. However, others use the term natural theology in a different way, meaning a system of belief about God that is arrived at solely by "natural" means, means that exclude special revelation. Originally, those natural means were restricted to philosophical investigation; in more recent centuries the study of nature has been added. According to some natural theologians, everything we need to know about God can be arrived at by the rigorous use of reason, philosophy, and the study of God's works in nature and history. Some of them reject all special revelation, and are called “deists”.
“Theists” are similar to deists in that they accept the notion that we can learn about God from those same phenomena, but theists also accept the notion of special revelation. Christian theists of the natural theology school of thought do not see the special revelation contained in scripture as a source of knowledge about God, but as a source of information on how to have a relationship with God.
Dawn to Dusk takes the simple position that such disputes often amount to nothing more than arguments of words. The simple fact is that God has provided ways whereby we can learn about Him; we choose to pursue those ways or to ignore them. Those who are “obsessed with God” will not turn up their noses at any opportunity to learn more about Him, they will eagerly peer through any window provided, now matter how small. Let us acknowledge that even the most rigorous application of reason and logic applied to analyzing the Taj Mahal will not yield all that can be known about Shah Jehan. When it comes to God, exclusive resort to those methods yields skewed results, yielding but a thin, remote content for faith, lacking the warm fellowship of a personal relationship with a self-revealed divinity. God is far richer than study of His works on its own can possibly yield. Special revelation contained in scripture not only gives information on how to develop a relationship with God, but it also provides information about God that cannot be obtained by natural means. But by the same token, general revelation provides a grasp of God that special revelation cannot provide. They work together.
The two books
Let's probe a little further into the distinction we are here making between general revelation and special revelation, which some appropriately call "the two books". Do these two books contradict each other? We will answer that in the words of Bernard Ramm:
God cannot contradict His speech in Nature by His speech in scripture. If the Author of Nature and Scripture are the same God, then the two books of God must eventually recite the same story (1976, p. 25).
Yes, the two books recite the same story; but is the one a mere repetition of the other? If you become fully acquainted with the one, can you safely ignore the other? The answer to both questions is a resounding "no"! They do not treat of the same identical material, but complement each other.
General revelation enables us to learn certain things about God through inspection of and reflection upon the universe, and all the works of God's hands. Though there is some overlap of what we can learn about God from special revelation, by and large it focuses on different aspects of God than special revelation does.
To illustrate further the respective roles played by each kind of revelation, let's look at two Scriptures. Each scripture tells us about a means of learning about God; the means that each identifies is quite different from the other. And what we can learn about God is different according to the means.
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