Special Revelation - Part I
There is no more critical issue in theology than that of authority: by what standard, on what grounds, from what source, and for what reasons do we believe something to be true and therefore binding on our conscience (beliefs) and conduct (behavior)? Donald Bloesch put it this way:
“Is authority to be placed in human wisdom or cultural experience, or is it to be located in an incommensurable divine revelation that intrudes into our world from the beyond? Does it lie within the compass of what we can ordinarily discover or conceive, or does it break into our world as a new reality that overturns human imagination and conception? Is it a truth waiting to be uncovered through diligent searching, or is it a word personally addressed to us, calling us to repentance and obedience?” (A Theology of Word and Spirit, 185).
Authority for the Christian may come from one of three sources:
(1) the church (as is the case with the RCC and Eastern Orthodoxy who regard the consensus of the church, as expressed in its traditions and creedal formulations, as the authoritative guide to God’s will; hence, “What the Church says, God says”);
(2) the individual (such that the Bible and the church are little more than resource materials to assist each person in making up his/her own mind on what is true and authoritative; hence, “What my own spirit says, God says”); or
(3) the Bible (as affirmed, e.g., in the Westminster Confession of Faith: “The supreme judge by which all controversies are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture” [I,x]; hence, “What Scripture says, God says”).
It is for the third of these options that I will contend. The first paragraph in most ecclesiastical doctrinal statements affirm belief in the inspiration and authority of the 66 books of the Bible. How could it be otherwise? For apart from a belief in the authority of Scripture, we would have no way of knowing with any certainty whether any of the remaining doctrinal affirmations are true or false. If the Bible is not the sole, sufficient revelation of God himself, how could we possibly know that God is a Trinity of co-equal persons or that the second person of that Trinity became a man in Jesus of Nazareth and died for sinners and was raised on the third day? Simply put, the inspiration and authority of the Bible is the bedrock upon which our faith is built. Without it, we are doomed to uncertainty, doubt, and a hopeless groping in the darkness of human speculation.
But do we have good reason to believe that this book, the Bible, is different from Plato’s Republic or Shakespeare’s Hamlet or any other human composition? Why do we believe that the 66 books of the Bible are divine revelation and authoritative for belief and life? There are any number of reasons, drawn from historical, archaeological, theological, and experiential resources and arguments (perhaps chief among which is that the Holy Spirit has borne witness in our hearts that Scripture is God’s Word). But we must also take into consideration that Jesus himself clearly believed in the inspiration and authority of Scripture. Being a disciple of Jesus entails not only doing what Jesus did but also believing what Jesus believed. It is impossible to accept the authority of Christ without also accepting the authority of Scripture. To believe and receive Jesus as Lord and Savior is to believe and receive what He taught about Scripture.
Clearly, then, the question: “What think ye of the Bible?” reduces to the question: “What think ye of Christ?” To deny the authority of Scripture is to deny the lordship of Jesus.
Consider the people and events of the OT, for example, whom/which Jesus frequently mentioned. He refers to Abel, Noah and the great flood, Abraham, Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot, Isaac and Jacob, the manna from heaven, the serpent in the desert, David eating the consecrated bread and his authorship of the Psalms, Solomon, Elijah, Elisha,, and Zechariah, etc. In each case he treats the OT narratives as straightforward records of historical fact. But, say the critics, perhaps Jesus was simply accommodating himself to the mistaken beliefs of his contemporaries. That is to say, Jesus simply met his contemporaries on their own ground without necessarily committing himself to the correctness of their views. He chose graciously not to upset them by questioning the veracity of their belief in the truth and authority of the Bible. However,
· Jesus was not at all sensitive about undermining mistaken, though long-cherished, beliefs among the people of his day. He loudly and often denounced the traditions of the Pharisees and took on their distortion of the OT law in the Sermon on the Mount.
· Jesus challenged nationalistic conceptions of the kingdom of God and the coming of the Messiah. He was even willing to face death on a cross for the truth of what he declared.
· In referring to the OT, Jesus declared that “the Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). Again, “It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the law” (Luke 16:17). See also Mark 7:6-13; Luke 16:29-31. He rebuked the Sadducees saying, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God” (Mt. 22:29).
· When faced by Satan’s temptations, it was to the truth and authority of the OT that he appealed (Mt. 4:4ff.). Note especially his words: “It has been [stands] written.”
· Jesus didn’t hesitate to deliberately offend the religious sensibilities of his contemporaries when he chose to eat and socialize with both publicans and prostitutes.
There is a tendency in some evangelical circles to drive a wedge between revelation (the transcendent Word of God) and the Bible (understood as man’s written record of or witness to the Word). It is said that we cannot identify the words of Scripture with divine revelation. Rather, the former is the sacramental means or instrumentality by which the latter encounters or engages us experientially. The writings of Scripture are said to mediate the revelatory Word to us. But the former are not identical with the latter.
I believe, on the other hand, what Augustine meant when he put into God’s mouth the words: “Indeed, O man, what My Scripture says, I say” (Confessions, 13.29; emphasis mine). Scripture is thus the “transcript of divine speech” (Packer, God Has Spoken, 28). In his article on “Inspiration”, Packer unpacks the significance of this principle:
“Christ and his apostles quote Old Testament texts not merely as what, e.g., Moses, David or Isaiah said (see Mk. 7:10, 12:36, 7:6; Rom. 10:5, 11:9, 10:20, etc.), but also as what God said through these men (see Acts 4:25, 28:25, etc.), or sometimes simply what ‘he’ (God) says (e.g., 2 Cor. 6:16; Heb. 8:5,8), or what the Holy Ghost says (Heb. 3:7, 10:15). Furthermore, Old Testament statements, not made by God in their contexts, are quoted as utterances of God (Mt. 19:4f.; Heb. 3:7; Acts 13:34f.; citing Gen. 2:24; Ps. 95:7; Is. 55:2 respectively). Also, Paul refers to God’s promise to Abraham and his threat to Pharaoh, both spoken long before the biblical record of them was written, as words which Scripture spoke to these two men (Gal. 3:8; Rom. 9:17); which shows how completely he equated the statements of Scripture with the utterance of God” (The New Bible Dictionary, ed. J. D. Douglas et al. [London: IVP, 1962], 564).
Let us begin by defining two critical terms: revelation and inspiration.
(1) Revelation is the activity of God by which he unveils or discloses or makes known what is, to humanity, otherwise unknowable. It is God making himself known to those shaped in his image. Revelation is what God does, not what mankind achieves. It is a divinely initiated disclosure, not an effort or endeavor or achievement on the part of mankind. “Revelation does not mean man finding God, but God finding man, God sharing His secrets with us, God showing us Himself. In revelation, God is the agent as well as the object” (Packer, God Has Spoken, 47). The God of the Bible, notes Donald Bloesch, “is not a God who is discovered in the depths of nature or uncovered in human consciousness. Nor is he a God who is immediately discernible in the events of history, . . . For the living God to be known, he must make himself known, and he has done this in the acts and words recorded in Scripture” (A Theology of Word and Spirit, 20).
Much has been made of an alleged distinction between revelation as propositional and revelation as personal. Since God is himself a person, so some say, revelation cannot be propositional (or at least, not primarily so). Revelation is God making himself known; the event of disclosing his person to other persons. But this distinction should not be pressed too far:
“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. . . . [Indeed] 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” (Packer, 52-3).
In other words, revelation is a verbal activity, in the sense that “God has communicated with man by means of significant utterances: statements, questions, and commands, spoken either in His own person or on His behalf by His own appointed messengers and instructors” (Packer, 63). This does not mean that God is less active, less personal, as if he were nothing but a celestial lecturer. He discloses himself by powerful acts in history, encountering his people, showing himself gracious by redeeming them, kind by forgiving them, strong by delivering them, etc. The Bible “itself is essentially a recital of His doings, an explanatory narrative of the great drama of the bringing in of His kingdom, and the saving of the world” (71). Let us not forget that faith is often portrayed in Scripture as trusting, often against great odds, what God has said – see Rom. 4:3; Gal. 3:6; Heb. 6:13ff.; 11:8-13,17; 11:33.
The fact that revelation is verbal does not mean that knowing God is simply a matter of memorizing texts or cataloging doctrines. “But what the claim that revelation is essentially verbal does imply is that no historical event, as such, can make God known to anyone unless God Himself discloses its meaning and place in His plan. Providential happenings may serve to remind us, more or less vividly, that God is at work (cf. Acts 14:17), but their link, if any, with His saving purpose cannot be known until He Himself informs us of it. No event is self-interpreting at this level” (72). Again, “all history is, in one sense, God’s deed, but none of it reveals Him except in so far as He Himself talks to us about it. God’s revelation is not through deeds without words (a dumb charade!) any more than it is through words without deeds; but it is through deeds which He speaks to interpret, or, putting it more biblically, through words which His deeds confirm and fulfill” (73). Again:
“For no public historical happening, as such (an exodus, a conquest, a captivity, a crucifixion, an empty tomb), can reveal God apart from an accompanying word from God to explain it, or a prior promise which it is seen to confirm or fulfill. Revelation in its basic form is thus of necessity propositional; God reveals Himself by telling us about Himself, and what He is doing in His world” (76-77).
The notion of propositional revelation in no way denies the revelatory activity of God in events, personal encounters, or in the dynamic and relational ways whereby he engages his people and makes himself immediately and experientially known to them. See Heb. 1:1. The “various ways” in which God “revealed” himself personally included theophanies, angelic visitations, an audible voice from heaven, visions, dreams, supernatural writing, inward impressions, natural phenomena, etc. But in each of these instances the divine disclosures introduced or confirmed by these means were propositional in substance and verbal in form. In other words, whereas not every statement or revelatory deed comes to us in strict propositional form, all do in fact presuppose a proposition on the basis of which a truth claim about the nature of reality is being made.
Another characteristic of revelation is that it is progressive, i.e., cumulative. God has not revealed himself comprehensively at any one stage in history or in any one event. Revelation is a series of divine disclosures, each of which builds upon and unpacks or unfolds that which preceded it. Revelation moves from what is piecemeal and partial and incomplete (but always accurate) to what is comprehensive and final and unified. This contrast between the incomplete and complete, between the partial and the full, is not a contrast between false and true, inaccurate and accurate, but a contrast between shadow and substance, between type and antitype, between promise and fulfillment.
(2) Inspiration, on the other hand, was the related process whereby God preserved the biblical authors from error when communicating, whether by his voice or in writing, that which he had shown them. The Holy Spirit superintended the writing of Scripture, that is to say, he acted to insure that what the human authors intended by their words is equivalent to what God intended (also referred to as concursive inspiration). Thus “each resultant oracle was as truly a divine utterance as a human, as direct a disclosure of what was in God’s mind as of what was in the prophet’s” (Packer, 91). The Spirit thus brought the free and spontaneous thoughts of the human author into coincidence with the thoughts of God.
Many question how this can be done. They contend that if God’s control over what the biblical authors said was exhaustive, they must have written as mindless automatons. On the other hand, if their minds operated freely according to their own volitional creativity, then God cannot have kept them free from error. But this dilemma “rests on the assumption that full psychological freedom of thought and action, and full subjection to divine control, are incompatible” (93).
The doctrine of verbal, plenary (i.e., complete, total) inspiration means that the words of the Bible are the words of God. This doesn’t mean that God spoke every word himself, but that the words spoken by the authors of Scripture are the words that God desired them to speak in the revelation of himself. Thus there is no significant difference between the ultimate authority of God and the immediate authority of Scripture. “The authority of Scripture is the divine authority of God Himself speaking” (96). Some argue that one cannot stand under the authority of the living Word, Jesus Christ, and at the same time stand under the authority of the written Word, the Bible. This is a false antithesis. Jesus Christ is the lord of the Scriptures and in the latter the former is revealed and made known and his will unfolded. To obey the latter is to obey the former. To disobey the latter is to disobey the former.