What comes to mind with the word, “revelation”? Likely, it’s the last book of the Bible, but in historic Christian theology, revelation refers to God’s personal self-disclosure to his creatures. God took the initiative to reveal himself in two ways: through general revelation (the knowledge of God that comes via the created order), and special revelation (the knowledge of God that comes via redemptive history). Christian theologians sometimes call this dual view of revelation the “two-books theory.” God is the author of both the figurative book of nature (God’s world) and the literal book of Scripture (God’s written Word).
These two forms of revelation mutually reinforce and complement one another. The biblical worldview considers all truth to be God’s truth. Human interpretations of the two sources may conflict, but not when properly understood and correctly applied. God’s truth by its very nature always coheres.
Scripture instructs readers to take the message of general revelation seriously (Psalm 19; Romans 1). And the created order illustrates the need for the specificity and completeness of special revelation’s message (in the Bible). In other words, general revelation points toward special revelation and provides a rational context for accepting it. Ultimately divine revelation is one unity. It is appropriate to distinguish between its two forms, but they should never be separated.
Not all truths in general revelation (including math, logic, and science) are spelled out in special revelation. However, in all matters addressed by the Bible (the essence of special revelation having been embodied in Scripture), this verbal revelation should be considered final and supreme. This revelatory priority is granted because of the Bible’s specificity and its unique propositional and self-authenticating nature.
One can, therefore, affirm Scripture as the supreme authority in the life of the church and the individual believer (sola Scriptura), yet also hold a robust view of general revelation and of science overall.
Nature as a Book
The metaphor of referring to nature as a revelatory book is deeply rooted in Christian church history. “Book of Nature” references are found even in the patristic writings. For example, Augustine of Hippo (AD 354–430), made the following statement in his classic work the Confessions: “In your great wisdom you, who are our God, speak to us of these things in your Book, the firmament made by you.”1
Protestant reformers continued the Christian practice of speaking of nature as a revelatory book. The Reformed (or Calvinistic) theological tradition in particular articulated the “two books” revelatory perspective. The fullest expression is found in the Belgic Confession, Article 2, written in 1561:
We know him [God] by two means: First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, since that universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God…
Second, he makes himself known to us more openly by his holy and divine Word, as much as we need in this life, for his glory and for the salvation of his own.2
Later, during the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, the Christian forefathers of science readily referenced the “two books” of revelation idea. For example, Francis Bacon (1561–1626) famously spoke of “the book of God’s works” and “the book of God’s word” in his work Advancement of Learning in 1605.3
Books in Conflict?
Scientific advances have introduced challenging questions about how Christians can understand the two books when they seem to be in conflict. The historic Christian theological consensus asserts that because the “two books” come from the God of truth (who cannot lie), these two sources of revelation will ultimately agree. However, it is necessary to distinguish between the revelation on one hand and human interpretation of that revelation on the other.
Science (and other academic disciplines) represents the interpretation of the book of nature. Theology represents the interpretation of biblical revelation. Human interpretation of these books may indeed conflict. In that case, the scientist or scholar may have to reconsider the data being drawn from the book of nature. Or the theologian or Bible-reader must do the same with Scripture. Data from either Scripture or the physical realm may mean something different from what an interpreter thinks.
Science cannot correct Scripture, but it can help alert the interpreter to a faulty interpretation of the biblical text.
A refreshing realization of the historic Christian “two books” perspective is that God as Creator and Redeemer is the author of all truth that human beings encounter in life and in the world. Armed with such confidence, humans can study both revelations exhaustively to the glory of God.
- St. Augustine, Confessions (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1992), Book XIII, Section 18, 326.
- Contained in the Ecumenical Creeds and Reformed Confessions (Grand Rapids, MI:CRC Publications, 1988), 79.
- For a brief historical discussion of the “two book” idea, see Alister E. McGrath, Science & Religion, reprint (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2000), 139–42.
- Resource: See chapter 7 in A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007), and chapter 3 in Without a Doubt: Answering the 20 Toughest Faith Questions (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007).