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 contemplate the invisible things of God, namely, his power and divinity, as the apostle Paul saith,
All which things are sufficient to convince men, and leave them without excuse. Secondly, 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.
Article II, Belgic Confession
The relation between this second article of our Confession and the first is quite obvious. The believer’s confession of God as the overflowing fountain of all good presupposes that God can be known. One cannot confess anything concerning God except one knows Him. Article 2 speaks of the two means by which God is known by us: creation, preservation and government of the universe and His holy and divine Word. This does not mean that man can comprehend God. That remains forever impossible because God is the infinite One Whose depths of Being and glory can never be plumbed by the finite creature. The Church, therefore, has always maintained the Biblical distinction between comprehension and knowledge. Neither is the knowledge of God of which this article speaks merely intellectual apprehension of God. It is rather that genuine spiritual knowledge of faith which is life eternal according to the Word of the Savior. (cf. John 17:3).
Thus the only way to know God is by means of the wonder of His revelation. This fundamental truth deserves emphasis in our time. Neither reasoning nor some subjective “inner light” or “religious experience” (which is false’ mysticism) can ever yield the spiritual knowledge of God. To insist that one can attain to the knowledge of God by means of human reason is to fall into the error of rationalism, which ultimately becomes skepticism. The Bible everywhere testifies that the mind of man is darkened by sin. In fact, the Scriptures teach the impossibility of man’s ever coming to a knowledge of God apart from grace. Still more, man by nature is opposed to God. This truth is clearly presented in Romans 8:7, 8: “Because the carnal mind (literally, “the mind of the flesh”, R.D.) is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God.” The greater danger in our time is the subjectivistic influences which insist on something more than the “holy and divine Word.” That “something more than the holy and divine Word” may be “inner light” (Quakerism), “conversion experience” (Arminianism), or “baptism in or with the Holy Spirit” (Pentecostalism); but whatever it may be, it is a rejection of the sufficiency of the Holy and divine Word by which God “makes himself more clearly and fully known to us, that is to say, as far as is necessary for us to know in this life, to his glory and our salvation.” Over against these errors the child of God believes in his heart and confesses with his mouth that the only way to know God is by means of God’s own revelation of Himself.
This implies that God must reveal Himself to us. God knows Himself. And because He is God Who dwells in a light which no man can approach unto, He must come down to us and manifest Himself to us. No man can ascend to heaven to discover God. Only when God comes down to us will we ever know Who and What He is. This also implies that in coming down to us God must reveal Himself in a manner which can be understood by us. There is an infinite gap between God the Creator and man the creature. Belonging to the wonder of revelation is the fact that God in His love and tender mercy adapts a correct revelation of Himself to the understanding of man, the finite creature. The result is that revelation is understandable and complete and adequate for our salvation; or, in the word of Article 2: “. . . as far as is necessary for us to know in this life, to his glory and our salvation.” Finally, this implies that God must make us capable of receiving this revelation i.e. capable of responding in faith to God’s revelation. In the state of perfection this was possible by virtue of man’s creation in the image of God. But through the fall into sin man’s mind became darkened and his will became perverse. He could no longer know God. That God, however, reveals Himself means that He gives His elect in Christ Jesus “eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to understand” His revelation. Without this spiritual illumination we remain blind and deaf to the revelation of God.
This article distinguishes two means by which God is made known to us. The first of these means is: “. . . by the creation, preservation and government of the universe. . .” In other words, the creed speaks of creation and God’s providence as the first means by which God reveals Himself to us. This is commonly called in Reformed theology, “general revelation”. Unfortunately, this whole subject has been the occasion of no little discussion and even controversy and misunderstanding among theologians. There has even been some criticism of this article of our creed. In the minds of some (notably the late Karl Barth) there are remnants of Roman Catholicism’s doctrine of natural theology and nature—grace dichotomy in Article 2. There ought be no misunderstanding, and this criticism of Article 2 is wholly unwarranted.
Notice, in the first place, that the article does not speak of two revelations of God: a general revelation for all men which yields a kind of common fund of knowledge concerning God (natural theology) and a special revelation (the holy and divine Word) which is limited to the elect. Quite to the contrary the creed speaks of only one revelation of God which reaches us by two means. There are not two revelations, the one intended for all men and the other for the church; but there is one revelation and two means by which this revelation reaches us. In the second place, and closely related to this is the fact that the article takes the viewpoint of faith. Article 2 does not say the unbeliever or even mankind in general knows God by these two means, but we know God by these two means and by these God makes Himself known to us. That “we” and “us” are those who by the grace of Christ “believe with the heart and confess with the mouth” faith in God. The ungodly certainly cannot and does not make this confession.
Thirdly, when Article 2 speaks of creation and providence as one of the means by which God makes Himself known to us, it is thoroughly Biblical. The inspired poet of Psalm 19:1, 2 exclaims: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge.” It is God Who: “. . . watereth the hills from his chambers: the earth is satisfied with the fruit of thy works. He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man: that he may bring forth food out of the earth. . .” (Psalm 104:13ff). The same Psalmist declares of God: “Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment: who stretchest out the heavens like d curtain: Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters: who maketh the clouds his chariot: who walketh upon the wings of the wind . . . Who laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be removed forever. Thou coveredst it with the deep as with a garment: the waters stood above the mountains. At thy rebuke they fled; at the voice of thy thunder they hasted away.” (Psalm 104:2-7) Indeed the Lord’s works are manifold, and the earth is full of His riches (Ps. 104:24); or, in the words of this article, the “universe is before our eyes as a most elegant book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many characters leading us to contemplate the invisible things of God, namely, his power and divinity. , . .”
In the fourth place, both implicitly by its reference to Romans 1:20 and explicitly with the words: “All which things are sufficient to convince men, and leave them without excuse” the creed speaks of the purpose and effect of this general revelation of God with respect to the wicked. To be sure, Romans 1 teaches that God shows the ungodly the “invisible things” of Himself, even “his eternal power and Godhead”; but both the purpose of this and its effect is “so that they may be without excuse.” (verse 20) In this connection it must not be overlooked that it is the wrath of God which is revealed from heaven against the ungodly. (cf. verse 18) Romans 1:18ff. also makes very plain that the ungodly always distort and reject what they see of God in His creation. These “hold the truth in unrighteousness.” (verse 18) Hence, it cannot be said either on the basis of Romans 1 or Article 2 that men are able to construct some sort of natural theology.
Neither must we ever forget the relationship between these two means of revelation. Apart from the holy and divine Word, which can only be received by the gift of faith, one simply cannot receive God’s revelation in creation and providence. No one has ever stated the matter more clearly than John Calvin who wrote: “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. This, therefore is a special gift, where God, to instruct the church, not merely uses mute teachers (creation and providence, R.D.) but also opens his own most hallowed lips.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book I, V, 1) The Scriptures are the spectacles through which we are able to discern clearly the glory of God in His creation, preservation, and government of the universe.
With this article and continuing through Article VII, the creed takes up the whole matter of the church’s confession concerning the “holy and divine Word,” the Scriptures. Beautifully woven into the fabric of these statements of faith are what have been called the attributes of Scripture, namely, its authority, necessity, perspicuity, and sufficiency. These articles have something to say concerning each of these either by implication or directly. Two of these attributes of Scripture are touched upon in Article 2. This article speaks of the perspicuity of the Word of God when it states that God makes himself “more clearly and fully known to us” by His Word. There is nothing obscure about the Bible. God’s Word plainly and in language a little child can understand teaches us all that we need to know in this life to God’s glory and our salvation. Hence, those same Scriptures are sufficient. We need nothing more than the Word of God. What is “necessary for us to know in this life, to his glory and our salvation” is contained in God’s Word.
And this is the wonder of God’s revelation. While the Bible is perfectly clear and understandable, one cannot receive it apart from faith, the gift of God’s grace. Unless the Spirit of Christ works faith in the heart of a man, he will inevitably reject and deny God’s Word to his own destruction. Always the issue between the world and the church is one of unbelief versus faith.
This is the voice of our fathers concerning God’s revelation. May God give us the faith to continue in this tradition, sounding the same voice amid the din of apostasy which characterizes our times.