God’s Wider Presence Reconsidering General Revelation, By Robert K. Johnston

God’s Wider Presence  Reconsidering General Revelation, By Robert K. Johnston

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Book Reviews


Robert K. Johnston,God’s Wider Presence: Reconsidering General Revelation(Grand

Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2014). 256 pp. $26.00 paperback.

A young woman stands on the beach watching the sunset; beautiful shades of pink and purple paint the sky as she feels the coolness of the ocean breeze. She is moved to tears, unable to name the overwhelming awe that fills her. A young man leaves a movie theater both perplexed and inspired by the beauty of the film he just witnessed. He has never felt so connected to something like that before. In the 2014 book, God’s Wider Presence: Reconsidering General Revela- tion, Robert K. Johnston seeks to engage experiences such as these in terms of the concept of general revelation. He argues that “while not having to do with one’s salvation in any direct way and occurring outside the church and with- out direct reference to scripture or to Jesus Christ, such encounters, for that is what they are experienced to be, are seen, heard, and read as foundational to life” (xiii).

In considering the numerous ways in which people understand experiences of transcendence, the book attempts to ask, “What is the inherent value of God’s wider revelation, of experiences of God’s Presence not directly tied to our salvation? And how are they to be understood theologically?” (xiii) In order to do this, Johnston looks at the ways culture, creation, and conscious serve as areas that become occasions for the in-breaking of God’s revelatory Presence. Using a modified Wesleyan quadrilateral as his starting point, Johnston argues that Christian theologians read the authoritative biblical text from out of a wor- shipping community, in light of centuries of Christian thought and practice, as people embedded in a particular culture, who have had a unique set of expe- riences. These five aspects (Bible, church, tradition, culture, and experience) serve as the primary resources for constructing his theology of general revela- tion.

As an example of experience, Johnston takes us to his familiar territory; the world of film. Does something happen to us when we watch film? Can the movie viewing experience serve as a space where we encounter revelation? For Johnston the answer is yes.While our experiences play a key role in understand- ing how God is revealed in our world outside of the church, Johnston does not believe that experience alone is enough. He places scripture at the center of his quadrilateral, indicating its importance as the space where God reveals God- self. Focusing on the three textual worlds of Ricœur, Johnston argues that the text itself (especially the world of the text) is central in understanding general revelation.

Where experience gives us a personal encounter with revelation and the biblical texts offer us insight in where God is revealed since the beginning, tra-


© koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2018 | doi:10.1163/15700747-04003025



Book Reviews

dition offers us some insight as to how the history of the church has engaged both. Thus, it is important for Johnston to offer some foundation to experience, highlighting significant debates such as Barth and Brunner, as well as Calvin’s take on general revelation. In light of each of these arguments, Johnston insists that each party agreed that an in-breaking of God into our world is possible, even if by different means. Finally, Johnston engages church and culture, argu- ing that general revelation must happen outside of church contexts, while the church’s role is to help identify and name these encounters as God’s in-breaking presence.

By reconsidering the role of conscious, creation, and culture, Johnston argues that general revelation should always refer to the present and particular experiences in everyday life. Pushing back against ways the theological tradi- tion has attempted to claim humanity’s own intellectual efforts and reason as having equal power to the in-breaking work of the Spirit, Johnston offers four reflections that invite readers to reconsider general revelation:

1. General revelation is rooted in the active and ongoing work of the Spirit

in the world and not merely a footprint of creation

2. General revelation challenges negative assessments of God’s activity out-

side of the church

3. General revelation will help us to understand how God works in creation 4. General revelation calls for us to work out the implications of God’s wider

presence in relation to a Christian theology of religions.

In all of this, Johnston argues that the theologian’s stance toward general revela- tion should not be one of rigidity but of generosity and openness to possibility.

Johnston’s exploration of the Spirit’s in-breaking into the world is helpful in a number of ways. Johnston helpfully identifies the (often overlooked) biblical passages that are relevant to the topic of general revelation, He also outlines a brief history of church fathers and other theologians who have wrestled with similar questions. In addition, the framework of creation, culture and con- scious offers a helpful lens for identifying God’s work, as well as the inspiring and affirming ways that art and art making have the potential to serve as an occasion for this type of in-breaking, especially as it relates to mysterious/mys- tical encounters and openness to transcendence.

In engaging with a project such as the one Johnston presents, one could ask: why is there a need for a category of “general revelation?” If our theology is one where we believe in a God that not only created the whole world but is intimately engaged with it, why is there a need to segregate the work of the spirit outside of the grasp of the church? The purpose of this project seems to argue that the work of general revelation is one that is specifically for Chris- tians to understand the work of God in the world, which is a necessaryquestion,

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Book Reviews


although this project does not show why this is a necessary question (beyond engaging comparative theologies). That being said, for those who are part of a theological tradition in which the presence of God outside of scripture is often treated with suspicion or downright hostility, this book will be quite challeng- ing. Johnston’s text has a somewhat limited audience in mind and, so too, a somewhat limited scope. But despite these limitations, the book serves as a good introduction to the conversation of encountering God’s presence outside of church doctrine.

Tamisha Tyler

Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California tamishatyler@fuller.edu

PNEUMA 40 (2018) 389–452


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