Warfield on Calvin: General and Special Revelation

Benjamin Warfield

In John’s recent posts (here, here, and here), I’ve expressed some concern over Richard Muller’s characterization of Calvin’s view of the relationship of special revelation (scripture) to general revelation (or natural revelation). I cited Benjamin Warfield as support. Some of my concerns, I admit, were due to a misreading of Muller, my phobia of nominalism (which Muller cited as an influence on Luther), and my conviction that Calvinism is not a subset of Lutheranism (which seems popular nowadays). As a way of continuing the conversation on Calvin’s view of general and special revelation, I think it would be helpful to provide quotes from Warfield’s commentary on the first ten chapters of Calvin’s Institutes. I will provide some commentary. It is my view that understanding these concepts and their relationship is crucial to understanding our relationship to nature, politics, the Law of God, beauty, and, more generally, our place in creation. I touched on this in my recent post on public aesthetics.


Warfield explains that while fallen man continues to receive natural revelation (such that everyone knows that there is a God), they cannot produce a sound natural theology from it. This is the source of all false religion. The sense of a need for a sound theology is unavoidable.

That the knowledge of God is innate (I. iii. 3), naturally engraved on the hearts of men (I. iv. 4), and so a part of their very constitution as men (I. iii. 1), that it is a matter of instinct (I. iii. 1, I. iv. 2), and every man is self-taught it from his birth (I. iii. 3), Calvin is thoroughly assured. He lays it down as incontrovertible fact that “the human mind, by natural instinct itself, possesses some sense of a deity” (I. iii. 1, ad init. et ad fin.; 3 – sensus divinitatis or deitatis),and defends the corollaries which flow from this fact, that the knowledge of God is universal and indelible. All men know there is a God, who has made them, and to whom they are responsible. No savage is sunk so low as to have lost this sense of deity, which is wrought into his very constitution: and the degradation of men’s worship is a proof of its ineradicableness – since even such dehumanization as this worship manifests has not obliterated it (I. iii. 1). It is the precondition of all religion, without which no religion would ever have arisen. (33-34)

Warfield also explains that since our being is derived, dependent, and a product of God’s Being, unfallen man would have known God by general revelation alone. But fallen man (apart from grace) only experiences fear “looking forward to judgment” due to his sense of sin and God’s perfection.

In his analysis of the mode of the implication of the knowledge of God in the knowledge of self, Calvin lays the stress upon our nature as dependent, derived, imperfect, and responsible beings, which if known at all must be known as such, and to be known as such must be known as over against that Being on whom we are dependent, to whom we owe our being, over against whom our imperfection is manifest, and to whom we are responsible (I. i. 1). As we are not self-existent, we must recognize ourselves as “living and moving” in Another. We recognize ourselves as products, and in knowing the product know the cause; thus our very endowments seeing that they distil to us by drops from heaven, form so many streams up which our minds must needs travel to their Fountainhead. The perception of our imperfections is at the same time the perception of His perfection; so that our very poverty displays to us His infinite fulness. Our sense of dissatisfaction with ourselves directs our eyes to Him whose righteous judgment we can but anticipate; and when in the presence of His majesty we realize our meanness and in the presence of His righteousness we realize our sin, our perception of God passes into consternation as we recognize in Him our just Judge…..Man as unfallen, by the very necessity of his nature would have known God, the sphere of his being, the author of his existence, the standard of his excellences; but for man as fallen, Calvin seems to say, the strongest force compelling him to look upwards to the God above him, streams from his sense of sin, filling him with a fearful looking forward to judgment. 

Even fallen man has a “native endowment” of semen religionis from their sensus deitatis. Knowledge of God, even in unregenerated man, must have an effect in human souls. The image of God is not completely obliterated. All false religion is corrupted natural theology translated from the active suppression and corruption of natural revelation.

The knowledge of God with which we are natively endowed is therefore more than a bare conviction that God is: it involves, more or less explicated, some understanding of what God is. Such a knowledge of God can never be otiose and inert; but must produce an effect in human souls, in the way of thinking, feeling, willing. In other words, our native endowment is not merely a sensus deitatis, but also a semen religionis (I. iii. 1, 2; iv. 1, 4; v. 1). For what we call religion is just the reaction of the human soul to what it perceives God to be. Calvin is, therefore, just as insistent that religion is universal as that the knowledge of God is universal. “The seeds of religion,” he insists, “are sown in every heart ” (I. iv. 1; cf. v. 1); men are propense to religion (I. iii. 2, med.); and always and everywhere frame to themselves a religion, consonant with their conceptions of God. Wherever any knowledge of God exists, he tells us, there religion exists. He is not speaking here of a competent knowledge of God such as redeemed sinners have in Christ. (37)

Again, Warfield contrasts man as unfallen with man as fallen. Unfallen man naturally and necessarily produces “reverence and trust.”

In the estate of purity, the knowledge of God produces reverence and trust: and the religion of sinless man will therefore exhibit no other traits but trust and love. In sinful man, the same knowledge of God must produce, rather, a reaction of fear and hate – until the grace of God intervenes with a message of mercy. (38)

Now Warfield brings in the concept of an “external revelation” – nature. As a presentation of the divine glory, it is “clear, universal, and convincing.

[Calvin] teaches that to the ineradicable revelation of Himself which He has imprinted on human nature, God has added an equally clear and abundant revelation of Himself externally to us. As we cannot know ourselves without knowing God, so neither can we look abroad on nature or contemplate the course of events without seeing Him in His works and deeds (I. v.). Calvin is exceedingly emphatic as to the clearness, universality, and convincingness of this natural revelation of God. The whole world is but a theatre for the display of the divine glory (I. v. 5); God manifests Himself in every part of it, and, turn our eyes whichever way we will, we cannot avoid seeing Him; for there is no atom of the world in which some sparks of His glory do not shine (I. v. 1). So pervasive is God in nature, indeed, that it may even be said by a pious mind that nature is God (I. v. 5) – though the expression is too readily misapprehended in a Pantheistic (I. v. 5) or Materialistic (I. v. 4) sense to justify its use. Accordingly, no man can escape this manifestation of God; we cannot open our eyes without seeing it, and the language in which it is delivered to us penetrates through even the densest stupidity and ignorance (I. v. 1). To every individual on earth, therefore, with the exclusion of none (I. v. 7), God abundantly manifests Himself (I. v. 2). Each of the works of God invites the whole human race to the knowledge of Him; while their contemplation in the mass offers an even more prevalent exhibition of Him (I. v. 10).(39-40)

Since God is fully known in his works, inquiring into the essence of God “flutters in the brain.”

A speculative inquiry into the essence of God, he suggests, merely fatigues the mind and flutters in the brain. If we would know God vitally, in our hearts, let us rather contemplate Him in His works….To [Calvin] nothing is more certain than that in the mirror of His works God gives us clear manifestations both of Himself and of His everlasting dominion (I. v. 11). (42)

Warfield again says that unfallen man “could not…fail to know God as God would wish to be known.” Knowledge of God is not only perfectly accessible to sinless man; he perfectly receives and perfectly responds. General revelation has “objective adequacy.” Fallen man fails to receive and respond in perfection due to sin, not to some deficiency in general revelation. God’s general self-disclosure is  effective only for image-bearers; and it is effective only to the extent that man retains this divine image. The restoration of this divine image results in reconciliation with God’s general self-disclosure.

Were man in his normal state, he could not under this double revelation, internal and external, fail to know God as God would wish to be known. If he actually comes short of an adequate knowledge of God, therefore, this cannot be attributed to any shortcomings in the revelation of God. Calvin is perfectly clear as to the objective adequacy of the general revelation of God. Men, however, do come short of an adequate knowledge of God; and that not merely some men, but all men: the failure of the general revelation of God to produce in men an adequate knowledge of Him is as universal as is the revelation itself. The explanation is to be found in the corruption of men’s hearts by sin, by which not merely are they rendered incapable of reading off the revelation of God which is displayed in His works and deeds, but their very instinctive knowledge of God, embedded in their constitution as men, is dulled and almost obliterated. (43)

With respect to unregenerate man, the natural knowledge of God is bankrupt. However, this knowledge is still present in creation. It is not obliterated. Man’s ability to properly receive and respond to it is corrupted. God via creation continues to demand praise, reverence and obedience. Sinful man continues to be without excuse. Sinless man will respond in praise reverence and obedience.

Calvin therefore teaches with great emphasis the bankruptcy of the natural knowledge of God. We must keep fully in mind, however, that this is not due in his view to any inadequacy or ineffectiveness of natural revelation, considered objectively. He continues to insist that the seeds of religion are sown in every heart (I. v. l, ad init.) ; that through all man’s corruption the instincts of nature still suggest the memory of God to his mind (I. v. 2); that it is impossible to eradicate that sense of the deity which is naturally engraved on all hearts (I. iv. 4, ad fin.); that the structure and organization of the world, and the things that daily happen out of the ordinary course of nature, that is under the providential government of God, bear a witness to God which the dullest ear cannot fail to hear (I. v. 1, 3, 7, esp. II. vi. 1); and that the light that shines from creation, while it may be smothered, cannot be so extinguished but that some rays of it find their way into the most darkened soul (I. v. 14). God has therefore never left Himself without a witness; but, “with various and most abundant benignity sweetly allures men to a knowledge of Him, though they persist in following their own ways, their pernicious and fatal errors” (I. v. 14). The sole cause of the failure of the natural revelation is to be found, therefore, in the corruption of the human heart. Two results flow from this fact. First, it is not a question of the extinction of the knowledge of God, but of the corruption of the knowledge of God. And secondly, men are without excuse for their corruption of the knowledge of God. (44)

The failure of natural revelation to produce obedience to sinful man demanded a special revelation to restore man to a rightful relationship with God and God’s world.

The natural revelation of God failing thus to produce its legitimate effects of a sound knowledge of God, because of the corruption of men’s hearts, we are thrown back for any adequate knowledge of God upon supernatural activities of God communicating His truth to men…. A clearer and fuller revelation of God must be brought to men than that which is afforded by nature. And the darkened minds of men must be illuminated for its reception. In other words, what is needed, is a special supernatural revelation on the one hand, and a special supernatural illumination on the other.(47)


Warfield makes some surprising claims. According to him, special revelation is not “precisely a cure” but an “assistance…to perceive God in His general revelation.” Scripture serves as “spiritual spectacles” for “spiritual sight” to see God in creation. Special revelation, according to Calvin (on Warfield’s account), is meant to direct us to general revelation. Special revelation does not transcend general revelation; it reveals it (God as Creator) and reveals the means of renewing one to it (Christ as redeemer). In other words, special revelation is not special as a means of climbing the ladder of being, but a special means of putting us in our proper place in creation.

It was because man in his sinful imbecility was unable to profit by the general revelation which God has spread before all eyes, so that they are all without excuse (I. vi. 1), that God in His goodness gave to “those whom He intended to unite in a more close and familiar connection with Himself,” a special revelation in open speech (I. vi. 1)….We must conceive of special revelation, and of the Scriptures as just its documentation, therefore, as not precisely a cure, but rather an assistance to man dulled in his sight so as not to be able to perceive God in His general revelation. “For,” says Calvin, “as persons who are old, or whose eyes have somehow become dim, if you show them the most beautiful book, though they perceive that something is written there, can scarcely read two words together, yet by the aid of spectacles will begin to read distinctly – so the Scripture . . .” etc. (I. vi. 1). The function of Scripture thus, as special revelation documented, is to serve as spiritual spectacles to enable those of dulled spiritual sight to see God. (68)

Of course, the Scriptures do more than this. They not only reveal the God of Nature more brightly to the sin-darkened eye; they reveal also the God of Grace, who may not be found in nature. Calvin does not overlook this wider revelation embodied in them: he particularly adverts to it (I. vi. 1). But he turns from it for the moment as less directly germane to his present object, which is to show that without the “spectacles” of Scripture, sinful man would not be able to attain to a sound knowledge of even God the Creator.

The revelation of God in His works is not useless: it makes all men without excuse; it provides an additional though lower and less certain revelation of God to His people – to a consideration of which all should seriously apply themselves, though they should principally attend to the Word (I. vi. 2)…. More closely scrutinized, it becomes evident, however, that he means only that in the absence of Scripture, that is of special revelation, the general revelation of God is ineffective to preserve any sound knowledge of Him in the world: but in the presence of Scripture, general revelation is not set aside, but rather brought back to its proper validity. The real relation between general and special revelation, as the matter lay in Calvin’s mind, thus proves to be, not that the one supersedes the other, but that special revelation supplements general revelation indeed, but in the first instance rather repeats and by repeating vivifies and vitalizes general revelation, and flows confluently in with it to the one end of both, the knowledge of God (I. vi. 2). What special revelation is, therefore – and the Scriptures as its documentation – is very precisely represented by the figure of the spectacles. It is aid to the dulled vision of sinful man, to enable it to see God. (69)

Special revelation renews our sight toward creation. It “vivifies and vitalizes general revelation.” It renews our emplacement in creation and all that comes with it. It does not call for us to transcend God’s creation or look past it, but to be grounded in it. In our reconciliation to God as Creator, we are reconciled to God’s world—nature. We are free to become fully human, seeking to become who we always ought to have been in God’s world. We can thus assume a world-formative function in God’s creation. The re-creation of our souls unto the image of Christ is intertwined with our re-creation of…well, creation itself. Just as we will never finish the work in sanctifying our souls, we will never finish the renewal of God’s world. God will visibly accomplish all this in Christ at the consummation. But given our reconciliation to God’s world, we cannot be satisfied with a quietistic piety. No, all of life is renewed and redeemed.

Quotes from: Benjamin Warfield, Works, Vol. V (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003 [1932])

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