The Doctrine of Revelation: How God Reveals His Nature and His Will

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Rick Wade considers how God reveals his nature and his will to mankind.  He finds that God clearly speaks to us through His creation and through His thoughts communicated in special revelation (includes His spoken word, His written word, and His Son).

Revelation and the God Who Speaks

Some years ago the pastor of the church I attended was on a nationally syndicated radio program with another pastor of a more liberal bent. They were discussing differences of understanding about Christianity, one of which was the nature of the Bible. My pastor asserted that Scripture is the inspired, revealed Word of God. The other pastor disagreed, saying that the Bible is a collection of the religious reflections of a particular group of people. Since it was a call-in program, I phoned at that point and asked the question, “If the Bible is just the religious ideas of a group of people and isn’t from God, how can we know whether what we think is true Christianity is what God thinks it is?” The pastor said something about how we have other ways of knowing truth, and the program ended. Not a very satisfying answer.

The issue being dealt with was the nature of Scripture. Is it the religious reflection of sincere people expressing truth about God the best they can? Or is it the revealed word of God?

In another article I dealt with the matter of the inspiration of Scripture. In this article I want to look at the doctrine of revelation. Not the book, Revelation, at the end of the New Testament, but the doctrine of revelation.

 

Revelation: What makes the Bible more than just religious writings

What is revelation? New Testament scholar Leon Morris quotes The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. Revelation, it says, is “‘The disclosure of knowledge to man by a divine or supernatural agency’, and secondly, ‘Something disclosed or made known by divine or supernatural means.'” Says Morris:

Theologians might hesitate over this concentration on knowledge, for some of them would certainly prefer to define revelation in terms of the disclosure of a person. But the point on which we fasten our attention is the word ‘disclosure’. Revelation is not concerned with knowledge we once had but have forgotten for the time being. Nor does it refer to the kind of knowledge that we might attain by diligent research. It is knowledge that comes to us from outside ourselves and beyond our own ability to discover.{1}

Thus, revelation is knowledge we can have no other way than by being told.

Here one might ask the question, Does it make sense to think God might reveal Himself? What we see in Scripture is a God Who speaks. God walked and talked with Adam in the “cool of the day” (Gen. 2:8ff). Later, He spoke to Abraham and then to the prophets of Israel. In the Incarnation of Christ He spoke directly, as man to man, face to face. Along the way He inspired His prophets and apostles to write His words to man.

This makes perfect sense. First, we know things in keeping with their nature. So, for example, we know the color of something by looking at it. We know distances by measuring. We know love by the good it produces. Along the same lines, we know persons by what they reveal about themselves. God is a Person, and there are things we can only know about Him if He tells us Himself. Second, God is transcendent, high above us. We cannot know Him unless He condescends to speak to us. Third, since God created rational, communicative beings, the idea that He would communicate with them in a rational way is not unreasonable.

Today, people look here and there for answers to the big questions of life–some consciously looking for God, some just looking for any truth on which they can depend. The doctrine of revelation teaches us that rather than wait for us to find God, God has found us. And He has revealed Himself to us in words we can understand.

General Revelation

Revelation comes to us in two basic forms: general or natural revelation, and special revelation. Let’s look at the first of these.

Through what has been made

General revelation is God’s Word given through the created order. Everyone is exposed to general revelation just by virtue of living in and being part of creation. In Psalm 19 we read, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (vv. 1–4). This idea is reiterated in Romans 1 where Paul writes, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature– have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (v. 20). Says Leon Morris, “A reverent contemplation of the physical universe with its order and design and beauty tells us not only that God is but also that God is a certain kind of God.”{2}

If God can be known through creation in general, then it’s reasonable to think He can be known through man himself in particular as part of the created order. God has left His imprint on those made in His image. Theologian Bruce Demarest follows John Calvin in his belief that we all have an immediate knowledge of God based on our being made in His image and on common grace.{3} Our own characteristics of personality, rationality and morality say something about God.

What can be known through general revelation

What do we know about God through general revelation? Demarest says that through nature we know that God is uncreated (Acts 17:24), the Creator (Acts 14:15), the Sustainer (Acts 14:16; 17:25), the universal Lord (Acts 17:24), self-sufficient (Acts 17:25), transcendent (Acts 17:24), immanent (Acts 17:26–27), eternal (Ps. 93:2), great (Ps. 8:3–4), majestic (Ps. 29:4), powerful (Ps. 29:4; Rom. 1:20), wise (Ps. 104:24), good (Acts 14:17), and righteous (Rom. 1:32); He has a sovereign will (Acts 17:26), has standards of right and wrong (Rom. 2:15), and should be worshiped (Acts 14:15;17:23).{4} Furthermore, we all have some knowledge of God’s morality through nature (Rom. 2:15).

Other religions

It is because of general revelation that other religions often contain some truth about God. Remember that Paul said everyone knows God exists through what He has made, but that this knowledge is suppressed by our unrighteousness. They “exchanged the truth of God for a lie,” he said, “and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1: 25). Nonetheless, snippets of truth can be detected in non-Christian religions. “For example,” writes Bruce Demarest, “the Yoruba people of Nigeria have a name for God, ‘Osanobwa,’ that means ‘he who blesses and sustains the world.’ The Taro people, also of Nigeria, after a time of barrenness often call a baby girl ‘Nyambien,’ meaning ‘God is good.’ The Ibo people of Nigeria denote God as ‘Eze-elu,’ or ‘the King above.’ And the Mende people of Liberia designate God as the Chief, the King of all Kings.{5} The Gogo people of West Africa believe that Mulungu governs ‘the destiny of man sending rain and storm, well-being and famine, health or disease, peace or war. He is the Healer.’{6} The Yoruba people say that in the afterlife the person-soul, the Oli, will give account of itself before Olodumare the supreme God. Since, as anthropologists testify, these convictions appear to have been arrived at apart from Christian or Muslim teaching, they must derive from God’s universal general revelation in nature, providence, and the implanted moral law.”{7}

What can’t be known

If all this can be known through nature, is there anything that can’t? Yes there is. Although through nature we can know some things about God, we cannot know how to get to know God personally, how to find redemption and reconciliation. This is why there had to be special revelation.

Special Revelation

As I have noted, God has revealed Himself through nature, but through nature we cannot know how to be reconciled to God. God had to speak in a special way to tell us how we may be redeemed. “Special revelation is redemptive revelation,” says Carl Henry. “It publishes the good tidings that the holy and merciful God promises salvation as a divine gift to man who cannot save himself (OT) and that he has now fulfilled that promise in the gift of his Son in whom all men are called to believe (NT). The gospel is news that the incarnate Logos has borne the sins of doomed men, has died in their stead, and has risen for their justification. This is the fixed center of special redemptive revelation.”{8}

Personal

What is the nature of special revelation? First we should note that it is the communication of one Person to other persons. It isn’t simply a series of propositions setting forth a theological system. This is why special revelation finds its culmination in Jesus, for in Him we are confronted with the Person of God. We’ll talk more about this later.

Verbal and Propositional

It has been the understanding of the church historically that God has spoken verbally to His creatures. Words have been exchanged; rational ideas have been put forward in understandable sentences. Not all revelation is easy to understand, of course. Meaning is sometimes shrouded in mystery. But important truths are made clear.

That God would reveal Himself through verbal revelation isn’t surprising. First, He is a Person, and persons communicate with other persons with a desire to extend and receive information. Second, His clear desire is to make friends with us. He wants to restore us to a proper relationship with Him. It’s hard to imagine a friendship between two people who don’t communicate clearly with one another.

Implicit in this understanding of revelation is the belief that it contains propositional truths; that is, statements that are informative and have truth value.

This isn’t to say the Bible is only propositions. Douglas Groothuis notes that it also contains questions, imperatives, requests, and exclamations. However, in the words of Carl Henry: “Regardless of the parables, allegories, emotive phrases and rhetorical questions used by these [biblical] writers, their literary devices have a logical point which can be propositionally formulated and is objectively true or false.”{9} So when Jeremiah says that God “has made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm!” (32:17), we know that the image of God’s “arm” speaks of His power active in His creation. The truth “God acts with power in His creation” is behind the imagery.

Modern ideas

In recent centuries, however, as confidence in man’s reason overshadowed confidence in God’s ability to communicate, the understanding of revelation has undergone change. Some hold that revelation is to be understood in terms of personal encounter, of God encountering people so as to leave them with a “liberating assurance. . . .This assurance — ‘openness to the future’, Bultmann called it — was equated with faith.”{10} Such an encounter can come as a result of reading Scripture, but Scripture itself isn’t the verbal revelation of God. Even in evangelical churches where the Bible is preached as God’s Word written, people sometimes put more faith in their “relationship” with God than in what God has said. “Don’t worry me with doctrine,” is the attitude. “I just want to have a relationship with Jesus.” It’s fine to have a relationship with Jesus. But try to imagine a relationship between two people here on earth in which no information is exchanged.

Those who hold this view draw a line between the personal and the propositional as if they cannot mix. In his evaluation, J.I. Packer says that this is an absurd idea.

“Revelation is certainly more than the giving of theological information, but it is not and cannot be less. Personal friendship between God and man grows just as human friendships do — namely, through talking; and talking means making informative statements, and informative statements are propositions. . . . To say that revelation is non-propositional is actually to depersonalize it. . . . To maintain that we may know God without God actually speaking to us in words is really to deny that God is personal, or at any rate that knowing Him is a truly personal relationship.”{11}

Another idea about the Bible in particular which has become commonplace in liberal theology is that the Bible is the product of the inspired ideas of men (a “quickening of conscience”{12}) rather than truths inspired by God. If this were the case, however, one might expect the Bible to give hints that it is just the religious reflections of men. But the witness of Scripture throughout is that it is the message of God from God. Here we don’t see men simply reflecting on life and the world and drawing conclusions about God. Rather, we’re confronted by a God who steps into people’s lives, speaking words of instruction or promise or condemnation.

Modes of Special Revelation

Special revelation has taken different forms: the spoken Word, the written Word, and the Word made flesh.

Spoken Word

In the Garden of Eden, God spoke to Adam directly. (Gen. 3:8ff) He spoke to Abraham (e.g. Gen. 12:1–3), to Moses (Ex. 3:4ff), and to many prophets of the nation of Israel following that. Amos said that God did nothing “without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets. . . . The Lord has spoken,” he said. “Who can but prophesy?” (3:7–8) Prophets were primarily forth-tellers, relaying God’s Word to those for whom it was intended.{13}

Written word

God also had His prophets write down what He said. The writings of Moses were kept in the Tabernacle (Dt. 31:24–26), read in the hearing of the Israelites (Dt. 31:11), and kept as references by future kings of Israel (Dt. 17:18ff). They are quoted throughout the OT (Josh. 1:7; 1 Kings 2:3; Mal.4:4). Joshua put his teachings of God’s ordinances with “the book of the law of God” (Josh. 24:26), and Samuel did the same (1 Sam. 10:25). The writer of Chronicles spoke of those earlier writings (1 Chron. 29:29), and later, Daniel referred to these books (Dan. 9:2,6,11). Solomon’s proverbs and songs are mentioned in 1 Kings 4:32. The writing of the New Testament took a much shorter time than the Old Testament, so we don’t see generations down the line referring back to the writings of their fathers. But we do see Peter speaking of the writings of Paul (2 Pe. 3:15–16), and Paul referring (it appears) to Luke’s writings in 1 Tim. 5:18.

Word made flesh

So God has spoken, and His words have been written down. The third mode is the Word made flesh. The writer of Hebrews says that, “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son . . . .” (1:1-2a) All God’s will wasn’t given at once; it came in portions at various times. J.I. Packer says, “Then, in New Testament times, just as all roads were said to lead to Rome, so all the diverse and seemingly divergent strands of Old Testament revelation were found to lead to Jesus Christ.”{14}

Jesus has been the mediator of revelation since the beginning. “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. (Matt. 11:27) Peter says it was the Spirit of Christ who spoke through the Old Testament prophets. (1 Pe. 1:11) But these were God’s words given through men. In the Incarnation we received the fullest expression of His word directly. Jesus was and is the Word made flesh. (John 1:1,14)

Jesus is the supreme revelation because He is one with the Father: He is God speaking. He spoke the words the Father taught Him. (John 12:49; 14:10), and He summed up his ministry with the phrase “I have given them your word.” (John 17:14) Abraham Kuyper summed it up beautifully: “Christ does not argue, he declares; he does not demonstrate, he shows and illustrates; he does not analyze, but with enrapturing symbolism unveils the truth.”{15}

But Jesus doesn’t reveal God just in His words but also in His person — in His character and the way He lived. Says the late Bernard Ramm: “The attitudes, action, and dispositions of Christ so mirrored the divine nature that to have seen such in Christ is to have seen the reflection of the divine nature.” He continues:

Christ’s attitudes mirror the Father’s attitudes; Christ’s affections mirror the Father’s affections; Christ’s love mirrors the Father’s love. Christ’s impatience with unbelief is the divine impatience with unbelief. Christ’s wrath upon hypocrisy is the divine wrath upon hypocrisy. Christ’s tears over Jerusalem is the divine compassion over Jerusalem. Christ’s judgment upon Jerusalem or upon the Pharisees is the divine judgment upon such hardness of heart and spiritual wickedness.{16}

As the Son spoke the Word of the Father so clearly because He knows perfectly the mind of the Father, so He also reflected the character of the Father being of the same nature.

In Christ, also, we see revelation as event. He carried out the will of the Father, thus revealing things about the Father. The cross not only accomplished our redemption; it also demonstrated the love of God. Jesus revealed God’s glory in changing the water to wine in Cana (John 2:11) and in His resurrection (Rom. 6:4).

The total redeeming work of Christ, therefore, revealed the Father in word, in character, and in deed.

Modern Hurdles

There are a couple of ways modern thought has served to undermine our confidence in the Bible as the written revelation of God. One way has to do with the knowability of historical events; another with the final authority for truth.

First, the matter of history and knowledge. In the Enlightenment era, philosophers such as Ren Descartes taught that only those ideas that could be held without doubt could count as knowledge. This created a problem for Scripture, for its major doctrines were revealed through historical events, and the knowledge of history is open to doubt logically speaking. History is constantly changing. Because of such change, the different contexts of those living long ago and of the historian negatively affects the historian’s ability to truly comprehend the past. At best, historical knowledge can only be probable. Religious ideas, on the other hand, seemed to be eternal; they are fixed and unchanging. It was believed that they could be known through reason better than through historical accounts. The classic statement of this position was made by the eighteenth century German, Gotthold Lessing, when he said, “The accidental truths of history can never become the proof of necessary truths of reason.”{17} (“Accidental” means just the opposite of necessary; such things didn’t logically have to happen as they did.)

Thus, biblical teachings were put on the side of probability, of opinion, rather than on the side of knowledge. Since it was thought that religious truths ought to be on the side of logical certainty and knowledge, people began to wonder whether the Bible could truly be the revelation of God.

The fact is, however, that we can know truth through historical texts; we find it there all the time. I know I was born in December of 1955 and that George Washington was our first president — even though these truths aren’t what we call logically necessary, such as with mathematical equations. Although historical knowledge as such doesn’t give the rational certainty our Enlightenment forebears might have wanted, it doesn’t have to in order to be counted as knowledge.{18} Knowledge doesn’t have to be logically necessary in order to be trustworthy.{19} There is no reason God cannot make Himself known through the lives of people and nations, or that the historical records of that revelation cannot convey objective truth to subsequent generations.

Nonetheless, confidence in Scripture was weakened. Wherein shall our confidence lie, then, with respect to religious matters? If we can’t know truth through historical accounts, but must rely on our own reason, our reason becomes supreme over Scripture. The authority for truth lies within us, not in the Bible.

This subjectivity is the second outgrowth of the Enlightenment that affects our understanding of revelation and the Bible. Now it is I who have final authority for what is true. For some people it is our reason that is supreme. The philosopher, Immanuel Kant, taught that God speaks through our reason, and our worship of Him consists in our proper moral behavior. For others it is our feelings that are supreme. Friedrich Schleiermacher, for example, put the emphasis on our feelings of dependence and of oneness with God. For him, to make Scripture authoritative was to elevate reason above faith, and that was unacceptable. Thus, one camp elevated reason and said that historical accounts (such as those in Scripture) cannot provide the certainty we require, while the other camp elevated feeling and rejected final confidence in Scripture as too much in keeping with reason. Both ways the Bible lost out.

The turn inward was accentuated by the philosophy of existentialism. This philosophy had an influence on Christian theology. Theologian Rudolph Bultmann was “the outstanding exponent of the amalgamation of theology and existentialism,” according to Philip Edgecumbe Hughes. The Bible was stripped of the supernatural, leaving little at all to go by with respect to the person of Jesus. But this didn’t matter since Bultmann’s existentialism turned the focus inward on our individual experience of the encounter with God.

The influence of this shift is still felt today. For too many of us, our confidence rests in our own understanding of things with little regard for establishing a theological foundation by which to measure our experience. On the one hand we get confused by disagreements over doctrines, and on the other our society is telling us to find truth within ourselves. How often do we find Christians making their bottom line in any disagreement over Christian teaching or activity, “I just feel this is true (or right)”? Now, it’s true we can focus so much on the propositional, doctrinal content of Christianity that it becomes lifeless. It does indeed engage us on the level of personal experience. But as one scholar notes, “What is at stake is the actual truth of the biblical witness; not in the first place its truth for me . . . but its truth as coming from God. . . . The objective character of Scripture as truth given by God comes before and validates my subjective experience of its truth.”{20} If we make our individual selves and our experiences normative for our faith, Christianity will have as many different faces as there are Christians! Our personal predilections and interests will become the substance of our faith. Any unity among us will be unity of experience rather than unity of the faith.

In response to the subjective turn of thinking, we hold that reason is insufficient as the source of knowledge of God. We could not know of such doctrines as the Incarnation and the Trinity unless God told us. Likewise, making feelings the final authority is death for theology, for there is no way to judge between personal experiences unless there is an objective authority. We have the needed authority in the revealed Word of God. Because we can know objective truth about God, we needn’t look within ourselves to discover truth.

One final point. God has revealed Himself for a reason, that we might know Him and His desires and ways. We can have confidence that the Holy Spirit, Who inspired the writing of Scripture, has also been able to preserve it through the centuries so as to provide us with the same truth He provided those in ancient times.

God has spoken, through general revelation and special. We can know Him and His truth.

Notes

1. Leon Morris, I Believe in Revelation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 10-11.
2. Morris, 33.
3. Bruce A. Demarest, General Revelation: Historical Views and Contemporary Issues (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 51.
4. Demarest, 242-243.
5. Warren Lewis, ed., Global Congress of World Religions (Barrytown, N.Y.: Unification Theological Seminary, 1978), 126.
6. Bolaji Idowe, African Traditional Religion (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1975), 151. Quoted in Demarest, 243.
7. Demarest, 243.
8. Walter, A. Elwell, ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), s.v. “Revelation, Special,” by Carl F. H. Henry.
9. Douglas Groothuis, Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 113.
10. J.I. Packer, God Has Spoken: Revelation and the Bible, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 87.
11. Packer, 52-53.
12. Packer, 86.
13. Other modes of special revelation which can be categorized as the word spoken were dreams, visions, and theophanies. Cf. Bernard Ramm, Special Revelation and the Word of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961), 44-48.
14. Packer, 81.
15. Abraham Kuyper, Principles of Sacred Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954), 287. Quoted in Bernard Ramm, Special Revelation and the Word of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961), 111.
16. Ramm, 113.
17. Philip E. Hughes, “The Truth of Scripture and the Problem of Historical Relativity,” in D.A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge, Scripture and Truth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 178.
18. See my article “Confident Belief: What Does It Mean To Know Truth?”, Probe Ministries, 2001. Available on the Web at www.probe.org/confident-belief/.
19. See the above article.
20. Hughes, 183.

© 2003 Probe Ministries

Rick Wade

Rick Wade served as a Probe research associate for 17 years. He holds a B.A. in communications (radio broadcasting) from Moody Bible Institute, an M.A. in Christian Thought (theology/philosophy of religion) from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a Master of Humanities (emphasis in philosophy) from the University of Dallas. Rick's interests focus on apologetics, Christianity and culture, and the changing currents in Western thought. Before joining Probe Ministries, Rick worked in the ship repair industry in Norfolk, VA. He can be reached at rwade@pobox.com.

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