Last time we explored the necessity of classifying types of revelation. We saw that though the great Christian presupposition is that God has spoken to humankind, God’s communication should be classified according to its audience and content. I noted that God communicates to every human being in general revelation, and that the revelation does not only have a general audience, it has general content as well. We ended on the despondent note that it is just enough to establish for mankind an obligation to honor God as God and a consequent penalty (death) for failing to do so.
Enter special revelation. Special revelation is characterized by its specific audience, and its fuller content. Unlike general revelation, which finds itself wherever humans can be, special revelation is given to a particular audience, at a particular place, in a particular time. Also unlike general revelation, which can only establish general obligation and condemnation, special revelation can include specific language-bound commands, detail on the nature and depth of our condemnation, and the message of our deliverance from it.
When we think of this kind of revelation, my mind often jumps directly to the written revelation which is the Scriptures. The Scriptures provide the most ready example of special revelation, but special revelation as described above includes more than just the Scriptures. So I’ll list some of those other instances of special revelation here and explain my understanding of the relationship between the Scriptures and special revelation in a future post.
First, Adam and Eve’s conversations with God in the Garden fit our definition of special revelation. Only they know the content of those conversations, but we may assume they went beyond what Adam and Eve should have known already from God’s creation around them and their own pristine consciences. This revelation differs from the Scriptures in that redemption from sin could not have been its focus.
Jesus Christ is the special revelation par excellence. He revealed the Father with a one-for-one correspondence which is unique in all of history (John 1:18, “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known.”) He fits the twofold description of special revelation because (1) he was physically present only to a small portion of humanity in history and because (2) he revealed more than general revelation is able to communicate about God. He differs from the Scriptures in that he is the revelation of God in human, rather in written form.
Another example of special revelation outside of the Scriptures is the authoritative visions and messages given to various persons throughout the human history which have not been recorded in the Scriptures. For instance, God tells Aaron and Miriam that he speaks to prophets through “visions…[and] dreams” (Num 12:6), yet there are very few visions and dreams recorded from that period in Israel’s history. It seems reasonable to assume that not all of the decisions of the Urim and Thummim (Exod 28:30, see also 1 Sam 14) have been recorded. Old Testament examples abound, and there are probably New Testament examples as well. They fit the qualification of special revelation (limited audience, more specific content than general revelation), but they differ from the Scriptures in that they were not committed to writing to provide a preserved authority for future generations of God’s people.
The Scriptures, then, are unique in that they were committed to writing with a view toward providing a lasting and authoritative truth deposit for future audiences. As Paul writes, “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope,“ (Romans 15:4) and “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11).