How Can We Know God?

In my first article on the topic of theology proper, I discussed why we must know the God who created us. I will now explain how we can know that God whose ways are higher than our ways, and his thoughts higher than our thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9) Christianity is a religion of revelation, and our God is a God who reveals himself. Perhaps you, like me, experience dark days when you feel that God is distant or even absent from your life, but it is a great comfort to know that God has not left us as ignorant orphans. He has condescended and spoken, authoritatively and finally, into our lives. Human history is the story of the revelation of God.

There are two ways that God has chosen to reveal himself to us. The first is typically called general revelation, or alternatively natural revelation. This is the basic knowledge of God we see expressed in his created works, which image God to us. We use the word "image" because no created thing is exactly like God. Rather, creation reflects something of who God is. (More on that in a moment.)

The second way God reveals himself is through special revelation. Here we should think primarily of the Word of God, but for the purposes of this article, I am going to break special revelation down into three sub-categories that highlight different aspects of God's condescension to man (in the sense of stooping to our level like a loving parent, not patronizing us like someone haughty). Throughout salvation history, God has revealed himself more directly and completely through his actions in history, his written Word, and the incarnation of the Son of God.

Keeping this in mind, here are the four ways that we can know God through his revelation.

  1. Creation

God's revelation of himself in his created works is his general or natural revelation. In one of the chief texts on the subject, the Apostle Paul wrote, "For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse." (Romans 1:20) This does not mean that everything necessary for salvation can be grasped through glancing at a poppy field. Rather, it means that the moral law of God is written on our hearts from birth, and creation itself provides a basic knowledge of God to us: namely, it points to his existence.

As the Psalmist wrote, "The heavens are telling of the glory of God; / And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands." (Psalm 19:1) The Belgic Confession also affirms that God is known, "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."[1]

How can creation do this? After all, plenty of people study the natural world and remain unconvinced of the existence of God. I think it is helpful to remember here that Paul speaks of a knowledge that is available to us in creation, placed there for the taking, but which many of us will ultimately reject because of the hardness of our hearts. It is through this basic knowledge of God and his moral law that every proposition we make, moral or otherwise, ultimately makes sense, for if there is no ultimate source of morality or truth, then the universe is simply a teeming chaos, and we cannot know anything for certain. Paul says we sense this instinctively, but many of us "suppress the truth in unrighteousness." (Romans 1:18)

The deeper reason that creation provides knowledge of God to us is because it is a reflection of God's character. Note: It does not contain God's character, duplicate it, or even provide exact and complete knowledge of it. It reflects God's character as an image is reflected in a mirror, or to use a better example, the way a photograph shows us its subject. If you think of an old, grainy photograph in particular, it is not a completely true likeness, but it tells you something about the subject. Human beings, more than any other created thing, are made specially in God's image, as scripture tells us.

"Then God said, 'Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.' God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them." (Genesis 1:26-27)

This concept of imaging is helpful to understanding God's revelation of himself to us. The Greek word we translate as "image" is eikόn, which is perhaps best defined as "a likeness or manifestation".[2] Another term that has often been used to describe the link between creation and the Creator is "analogy". I will write more about these terms in a later article and why different Christians may prefer one or the other.

  • Actions in history

I now move on to the first of three sub-categories of God's special revelation: his actions in history. There is obviously some overlap here with God's written Word and the Incarnation of Christ, for both have been granted to us in history. What I am choosing to focus on in this category is the way God's actions informed His people prior to and after being recorded.

Consider that the records of historical events contained in the Bible were written after the fact. Before that, many of them existed as oral narratives that those loyal to God would repeat to one another to recall the deeds and character of their Lord. They spoke of times that God had appeared to them in one way or another and made his character known.

A good example of this would be the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. Though Moses recorded these events for us in scripture, he likely did not do so until well after they occurred, perhaps when the people were wandering in the wilderness. Before that, the narrative of the Exodus was repeated orally and celebrated during the Passover feast. This helped them remember the time when God acted on their behalf and revealed himself.

Immediately after the Israelites had been freed from their enslavement and the divine commands regarding the Passover were given, Moses told them, "Remember this day in which you went out from Egypt, from the house of slavery; for by a powerful hand the Lord brought you out from this place." (Exodus 13:3) When they arrived at Mount Sinai to enter into a covenant with the Lord, he identified himself by saying, "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." (Exodus 20:2)

By smiting the Egyptians with plagues, God revealed himself as judge. By bringing Israel out of slavery, God revealed himself as deliverer. By sustaining them in the wilderness, God revealed himself as provider, a fact of which Moses reminded the people several years later. "He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord." (Deuteronomy 8:3)

These events were mentioned in the Psalms, prophets, Gospels, and epistles as proof of God's character. More than anything, they show him as a God who acts to save. They even pointed forward directly to Christ. As the Apostle Paul wrote of the ancient Israelites, "they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ." (1 Corinthians 10:4)

These acts of God in history were necessary for his people to know him as Savior. He came down and entered into covenant with them, that they would know him and his character in a saving manner, as the Westminster Confession states.

"The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God's part, which he has been pleased to express by way of covenant."[3]

  • Written Word of God

The form of God's special revelation we have before us today is his written Word, the Bible. We would have no knowledge of many of God's actions in history were they not recorded for us, and in addition to relating those events, the scriptures contain prophecies and instruction that teach us even more about our Creator. The Word of God, by which I mean here the Bible, carries the authority of God himself, for it is his direct revelation to us. Again, the Westminster Confession explains that general or natural revelation alone could not provide us with saving knowledge of God: we need his inspired Word.

"Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal Himself, and to declare that his will unto his Church; and afterwards for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which makes the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God's revealing his will unto his people being now ceased."[4]

Scripture reveals the character of God to us in so many ways, but to focus on just one, it speaks of Christ, who as Son of God is the supreme revelation of God's character. Jesus once told his opponents, "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me..." (John 5:39) Shortly after his resurrection, when he appeared to two disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus pointed out how the Old Testament (the part of the Bible in existence at that time) pointed forward to him. "Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures." (Luke 24:27)

Paul makes the extraordinary statement that when God told Abraham, "All the nations will be blessed in you," he was preaching the gospel to him beforehand and announcing that the Gentiles would be justified by faith. (Galatians 3:8) And in his epistle to the Romans, Paul brings together the gospel first revealed in the Scriptures, then finally accomplished in Christ.

 "Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past, but now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, has been made known to all the nations, leading to obedience of faith; to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, be the glory forever. Amen." (Romans 16:25-27)

It is to that final revelation of Christ that we now turn.

  • Incarnation

God has been revealing himself to creation since the beginning. His acts and his Word had already served as testaments to his character, but the supreme revelation occurred when the Son of God became incarnate as a man and, in the words of the Apostle John, dwelt among us. This was the crowning moment of God's special revelation.

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being...And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth." (John 1:1-2, 14)

Christ was able to reveal God to man because he himself was the Son of God, possessing the fullness of God's essence in his divine nature, while also being united to a human nature in his person. This is a great mystery the entirety of which we cannot grasp, but Paul provides us with a helpful metaphor when he calls Jesus "the image of the invisible God". (Colossians 1:15) Remember that an image (Greek eikόn) has the likeness of the original, and thus reveals to us something of the original's character, even if we are not able to comprehend everything about it. Christ functioned in such a way through his human nature that was visible to us.

The author of Hebrews wrote, "God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world." (Hebrews 1:1-2) Now, when he speaks of "these last days", he means that in Christ and the Scriptures, everything we need to know in regard to salvation has been revealed. What is written in God's Word is fully sufficient for the believer, because the work of redemption is completed and everything of necessity has been revealed.

We must still work through what the Bible says by the power of the Spirit and in concert with the Church, even as we must apply the words of scriptures to our lives in the present day. However, the special revelation of God is closed for the present age. We live in a privileged period when it comes to special revelation, looking back as we do upon the work of Christ.

Again, God has granted us 1) general revelation, and 2) special revelation. The special revelation can be thought of in terms of God's actions in history, his written Word, and the Incarnation of the Son of God. Next time, I will consider exactly what kind of knowledge about God is available to us through this revelation, and how our knowledge of God compares to his knowledge of himself.

All scripture references are from The New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.

[1] The Belgic Confession, Article 2.

[2] Bromiley, Geoffrey W. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament - Abridged in One Volume, ed. Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985) 205.

[3] Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 7, Article 1

[4] Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1, Article 1