God speaks through both nature and scripture, but they are not equal.
From towering mountains and bustling anthills to the infinite expanse of galaxies and the infinitesimal world of bacteria, nature displays aspects of its Creator’s character. It’s exciting to see reminders of God everywhere we turn, but lately some Christian leaders have taken this a step further than God ever intended, even appealing to nature to “correct” our interpretation of the Bible.
Throughout Christian history, some people have believed that God revealed himself to us through two books—nature and Scripture. This concept seems to be increasingly present in origins discussions among Christians who consider how science and faith intersect. Some have even referred to nature as the sixty-seventh book of the Bible. But what is behind this “two books” concept? If nature reveals God’s attributes to mankind, does that mean it is equal to God’s Word as an authoritative source of revelation? How should we read (interpret) these two books? Which “book” should take priority? It’s no small matter. If we misinterpret these two books, we run the risk of ultimately compromising the gospel—our need for the Savior because of our sinful nature.
The Bible tells us that the triune God who created the universe has revealed himself in three specific ways:
Each type of revelation has a different role in the way God shares truth with mankind. Christians get into trouble when they rip one type of revelation out of context to promote their own agenda.
Christians who believe that life evolved over millions of years must go outside God’s special revelation to find support for their views. So they grant general revelation equal weight with the Bible, calling it one of two books God gave us to understand how he created the world. In his book Adam and the Genome, Dr. Dennis Venema uses the two books analogy to ultimately deny that Adam was a historical person.
If indeed nature and Scripture have the same author, as Christians affirm, then there cannot, ultimately, be any disagreement between what we “read” in one book and what we read in the other.1
Since Venema is absolutely certain that his studies of the human genome disprove the possibility of a single human ancestor 6,000 years ago, he concludes that Scripture cannot teach a literal Adam—that would contradict his interpretation of “the book of nature” found in the genetic data.
Likewise, Old Testament theologian and theistic evolutionist Dr. Bruce Waltke appeals to general revelation—nature—as the voice of God to discount the fact that God created the universe in six literal days. The days of creation may also pose difficulties for a strict historical account. Contemporary scientists almost unanimously discount the possibility of creation in one week, and we cannot summarily discount the evidence of the earth sciences. General revelation in creation, as well as the special revelation of Scripture, is also the voice of God. We live in a “universe,” and all truth speaks with one voice.2
From Waltke’s perspective, “the evidence of the earth sciences,” which he erroneously equates with general revelation, proves creation could not have happened in one week. Therefore, in order to accommodate general revelation with special revelation, he advocates a new nonliteral way to read Genesis. His “literary framework” view of creation teaches that the early chapters of Genesis are only theological, not scientific or historical.3 However, it is not the evidence of earth sciences or genetics that discredits a one-week creation or a historical Adam. Rather it is the naturalistic presuppositions that Venema and other evolutionists use to interpret the evidence and that Bible scholars like Waltke simply accept as fact. If you look closer at all these scientific studies, they are built on unproven (and unprovable) assumptions about the past.
From the pictures below, you can search for the meaning by examining visual clues such as facial expressions, small details in the scenes, and the apparent progression of events. But while trying to understand the cause-effect relationships, you must infer many things. Then you must construct a likely scenario that seems to make sense of the images, much as scientists do when looking at a fossil in the present to determine what happened in the past.
But when the author explains his intent, we understand the real story. Clear statements don’t require us to infer subtle details because the author provides an unmistakable meaning.
The statements in God’s special revelation, the 66 books of the Bible, don’t require extra layers of interpretation to determine the meaning. Special revelation can make clear statements in a way that general revelation cannot.
General revelation clearly reveals the existence, attributes, and glory of God. As Psalm 19 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” It even reveals his kindness to all humanity (Matthew 5:45; Acts 14:17). Faced with this evidence, unbelievers are without excuse for not honoring him as their Creator and God (Romans 1:18–21). But the created world does not reveal all of the Creator’s attributes, and it cannot reveal how God’s flawless earth functioned before Adam’s sin brought a curse on the whole universe. Furthermore, key verses on general revelation say nothing about our ability to discern how earth functioned in the unobservable past. General revelation is limited. We must remember that it has a general content and is revealed to a general audience. Everyone has seen the creation’s witness to its Creator in nature’s incredible design, beauty, and complexity.
This does not mean that we cannot learn anything from studying nature. It just means that our interpretation of what we observe must be consistent with the revelation of Scripture.
This does not mean that we cannot learn anything from studying nature. It just means that our interpretation of what we observe must be consistent with the revelation of Scripture. For example, a police detective compares eyewitness testimony with circumstantial evidence to figure out who committed the crime in the unobservable, unrepeatable past. Likewise, the Bible is God’s eyewitness testimony that enables us to rightly interpret the present physical evidence so we can reconstruct earth’s history since creation. Therefore, it is not biblically sound to equate general revelation to claims and interpretations about evidence from nature, as Waltke and Venema do.
Whereas God’s general revelation in nature is given to all humanity throughout history, his special revelation in Scripture was only given to some people in history. Also, while general revelation is constantly changing, special revelation in the Scriptures has ceased (Hebrews 1:1–2). Furthermore, Scripture speaks directly to God’s people who have the Holy Spirit to understand it correctly (1 Corinthians 2:10–16).
Special revelation is God-breathed, perfect, right, pure, and profitable for teaching and training believers (Psalm 19:7–9; 2 Timothy 3:16–17). This includes details about the physical creation—how and when it was created (Genesis 1–2; Exodus 20:11; Psalm 33:6–9). It also tells us how the physical creation came to be corrupted (Genesis 3:17; Romans 8:20–22), how it was destroyed in a global catastrophe (Genesis 6:13, 17, 7:19–23), and how God plans to redeem it (Genesis 3:15; Colossians 1:20). All these things were confirmed by God’s incarnational revelation through the words of Jesus while he was on earth (Mark 10:6; Luke 17:26–27, 24:44–47).
God’s special revelation also specifically informs us that the creation itself has been corrupted by the curse and that sin has affected how people view general revelation. The New Testament uses various words to describe the ruin of humanity’s intellect: futile (Romans 1:21), debased (Romans 1:28), deluded (Colossians 2:4), and darkened (Ephesians 4:18). Only by having our mind renewed in Christ and our thinking guided by the Holy Spirit can we rightly understand the special revelation of Scripture and then apply that to interpreting general revelation. Theologian Louis Berkhof states, “Since the entrance of sin into the world, man can gather true knowledge about God from His general revelation only if he studies it in the light of Scripture.”4 God has given us special revelation as the eyeglasses that equip us to rightly understand his general revelation.
The most important distinction between the two is that, biblically speaking, special revelation precedes and grounds our understanding of general revelation. For example, in Genesis 1 we read, “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). Theologian John Frame notes,
The power of God displayed in nature is the power of his word; nature is God’s self-expression. Nature behaves as it does because God’s word tells it what to do. . . . It is important to remember that nature is not the word of God, but only a medium of the word. The word . . . is God. It is divine, not something created.5
Special revelation brings general revelation into existence. Once creation was completed, God told Adam what to do in the garden he had created (Genesis 2:16–17). Both special and general revelation are complementary concepts: one cannot exist without the other. If we isolate one from the other, we will end up with problems, such as when observations of nature are used to support evolution or millions of years. However, our scientific observations and interpretations of creation are not equivalent to Scripture and cannot be used to modify our understanding of special revelation.
It’s important to remember that God’s Word offers us direct statements of truth while nature does not speak.
It’s important to remember that God’s Word offers us direct statements of truth while nature does not speak. As an analogy, nature is like a picture book without words, requiring us to deduce the meaning. The Bible gives us the pictures with the words so we can directly understand the author’s intent and rightly interpret the pictures.
When we are dealing with an issue like the age of a fossil, the fossil does not speak to us as Scripture does. The Bible gives propositional truth statements that we can directly evaluate. We read explicitly in Genesis 1 that the earth was created before the sun and birds were created before dinosaurs. Scientific study does not provide propositional truths about the past, but offers possible explanations based on the evidence we find in nature. Before we “read” the fossil, we must first gather data about the fossil such as the type of rock it is in, the mineral composition, and the structure of the bones. These are aspects of operational science and are generally agreed upon by all observers, whether creationists or evolutionists.
Using these pieces of information, we then use our starting assumptions to create a picture of the fossil. From that picture, we construct a story to explain how the creature died and was buried and how long ago it lived, an example of historical science. But this interpretation is still subject to error and isn’t a truth statement like statements in the Bible. The evolutionary claims say that the sun was around before the earth and that birds evolved from dinosaurs. We can then evaluate these historical interpretations based on the propositional truth statements given in the Bible.
Since general and special revelation both proceed from God, they cannot ultimately conflict with each other, and they do not conflict when we use special revelation to correctly interpret general revelation. Although Christians who hold to evolution and millions of years call them “two books,” we should understand that metaphor is oversimplified. We must interpret general revelation through multiple steps, while we can interpret special revelation more directly. Though a testimony to the Creator’s attributes and glory, nature can never be “quoted” as the sixty-seventh book in the canon of Scripture. We must always see special revelation as the ultimate authority as we seek to interpret general revelation.
If we allow for the “reading” of the book of nature that denies Adam and Eve were the first humans and that the world was created in a perfect state over the span of six ordinary days, we undermine the foundation of the gospel message. If there was no first Adam who brought sin into the perfect creation, then why do we need the last Adam, Jesus, to save us from the consequences of that sin and bring about a new creation of eternal perfection? Misunderstanding how to rightly read these two “books” that God has given us has dire consequences. Let us look to the Bible as God’s ultimate source of truth, and trust in the Son who has perfectly revealed the Father and sent the Spirit to dwell in us.