Last week I began a new project here for the blog: to work my way through the Belgic Confession, offering brief commentary and reflections upon what may be my favorite of the historic Reformed Confessions. [For a brief intro and preface, check out the initial post.]
On to the next article, then.
BY WHAT MEANS GOD IS MADE KNOWN UNTO US
We know Him by two means: First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most elegant book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many characters leading us to “see clearly the invisible things of God, even his everlasting power and divinity,” as the apostle Paul says (Rom. 1:20). All which things are sufficient to convince men and leave them without excuse. Second, He makes Himself more clearly and fully known to us by His holy and divine Word, that is to say, as far as is necessary for us to know in this life, to His glory and our salvation.
This article makes explicit what was implicit in the first one–namely, that there are things about God that can be known by all, and are known through the creation and ongoing preservation of the universe. This is often referred to as general revelation, i.e. the universal testimony of the Creation to the Creator. The fact that things are is enough to impress upon us the existence of the divine.
Yet this is not enough. It is not enough to lead us to a right and true knowledge of the nature and character of God as the Triune, covenant-making and covenant-keeping God who has acts in and upon history. It is not enough to bring us to the knowledge that “in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:19).
For that, we need something more. We need this God to reveal himself in ways that we can understand and in ways that bring clarity to the muddled conceptions that we produce. We need what is often called special revelation, i.e. the Spirit-inspired Word of God that bears witness to who God is and what God has done, is doing, and will do.
John Calvin famously spoke of these two “theaters” in which God’s glory is revealed, and his well-known comments remain apt: “Just as old or bleary-eyed men and those with weak vision, if you thrust before them a most beautiful volume, even if they recognize it to be some sort of writing, yet can scarcely construe two words, but with the aid of spectacles will begin to read distinctly; so Scripture, gathering up the otherwise confused knowledge of God in our minds, having dispersed our dullness, clearly shows us the true God.” (Institutes, I.vi.1)
The next few articles in the confession continue to elaborate on the doctrine of Scripture, addressing categories like necessity, sufficiency, clarity, and authority, so I’ll wait till then to add much more.
The purpose of this article in the confession is to remind us that God is known through the works of his hands, but that God can only be fully and truly known through the Word. The former are sufficient to provide us with knowledge of the divine, but insufficient to lead us to a right knowledge of the Triune God or a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. For this, we need this same God to graciously reveal these things to us in a way that brings clarity to our bleary vision, and we rejoice because this is what his Scriptures do.