Doctrine of Revelation (part 1)December 29, 2009 Time: 00:17:11
The Question of Authority, II. The Concept of Revelation A. Definition of "Revelation" 1. Two Senses of "General" and 2. Types of General Revelation.
Last time, we introduced the subject of Christian doctrine, the importance of Christian doctrine, and the importance of studying Christian apologetics. Now we want to move into our first unit of this course, which is on the Doctrine of Revelation.
The Question of Authority
We’ll introduce this subject by raising the question of authority. What do we mean by “authority?” Well, authority is the right to demand belief and obedience. The person who has authority has the right to demand belief and obedience. So, for example, in a family structure, parents have authority with respect to their children, to demand that the children do certain things and obey their parents. But that’s only a subsidiary authority. Obviously there are higher authorities over the parents. There are authorities of the state and the job, and there are higher authorities than those. But ultimately we have to get to the final court of appeal, the highest authority beyond which there is no higher authority. That will be God himself. God is the supreme authority, who has the right, as the supreme authority, to demand belief and obedience unconditionally from us.
So the practical question becomes, then, how do we discover God’s will and mind? If God is the ultimate authority who directs our lives, commands us to live in certain ways, and requires us to believe certain things, how do we know God’s will and mind on any subject, so as to follow his authority? Well, the answer to that question is revelation. Revelation is the disclosure of God’s will and mind on something.
Definition of Revelation
Now what do we mean by the word “revelation?” Revelation means the unveiling of something hidden so that it may be seen and known for what it is. Revelation is disclosure of something, the uncovering of something. In this case, it will be God’s mind and will on any particular subject. This raises a certain definitional problem because if revelation is the unveiling of something that would be otherwise hidden, then that would seem to imply that much of the Bible really isn’t revelation, technically speaking. This was something that troubled theologians in the 17th century when biblical criticism first began to arise. What they began to discover was the human element in Scripture, that a good deal of Scripture is not prophetic utterances from the Lord, e.g., “Thus sayeth the Lord,” some sort of revelatory word coming through the prophets. A lot of Scripture is things like Paul’s letter to Philemon, where he’s just writing as an ordinary human author would write, or the Gospel of Luke, where Luke talks about how he went and interviewed eyewitnesses and ministers of the Gospel about the Jesus tradition so that he could write it down. It wasn’t as though Luke and Paul had some revelation to their minds disclosing some otherwise hidden truths. Rather the facts that Luke discovered about Jesus were public knowledge; they could be found out by anyone who cared to do a historical investigation. And many of Paul’s letters were not revelatory in that sense. They were about ordinary matters of church life that many people could know about. So if we think of revelation in this narrow sense, it would seem that a lot of Scripture isn’t really revelation, and yet usually we think of the Bible as being God’s revelation.
Similarly, it wouldn’t make sense to talk about general revelation in nature because the whole point of general revelation is that it’s not hidden – it’s open, it’s generally available.1 So rather than deny that the Bible is revelation and thereby engender all kinds of misunderstandings, it is helpful if we distinguish between two senses of the word “revelation” – what we might call revelation in a sort of broad sense and then revelation in a more restricted sense. In the technical, restricted sense of disclosing something that is hidden, only certain parts of the Bible would be revelation. For example, the Book of Revelation would be revelation in that restricted sense. John sees a vision from God which reveals to him what is going to come. And so he calls his book the Apocalypse or the Revelation of what’s going to happen. Or in 1 Corinthians 12-14, Paul talks about Christian worship services where prophets would speak, and he says that if a revelation is made to someone else, then let the others be quiet so that they can hear what is being said. This would be revelation in the narrow sense of a disclosure of something that is hidden. But we also use the word “revelation” in the broader sense of a communication from God. It is in that sense that I think that the Bible is God’s revelation to us and that God reveals himself in nature. It is a communication from God. So we call the Bible the “Word of God” because it is a word of God to us. It’s his communication to us. So we must not be misled by confusing these two senses of “revelation” – broad and narrow – or it could lead to some serious misunderstanding.
Answer: I want to resist that idea. I do think that the Holy Spirit can illumine the Bible in special ways to us when we read it – a passage can become meaningful to us in a certain situation – , but I don’t want to say that the Bible becomes revelation or can become more revelatory. I think, as we’ll see when we get into the doctrine of inspiration, that the Bible is God’s Word. It is revelation from God in the sense that it is a communication from him to us. It doesn’t become revelation; it is revelation in this broad sense of a communication from God.
Answer: OK; again, I just want to resist your use of “revelation” here to characterize this disclosure of illuminated passages of Scripture. I don’t think that these are on the same plane as God’s revelation of Scripture to us. So I think it is quite right to say that the Holy Spirit applies the Scripture to our heart, he illuminates it for us, but the idea that God is in the business to giving private revelation to people that would be comparable to Scripture makes me very uncomfortable. I do think that there are prophets who can get revelations from God, but I would distinguish that from the sort of subjective, inner sense that many people often have that “God is speaking to me” or “God is telling me to do this.” I don’t think we should call this revelation.
Answer: Well, I think that what you have to understand is the background of this. Later we’ll look at this a little bit more. Many of these theologians or divines had a very wooden understanding of Scriptural inspiration, almost akin to dictation. They thought that it was almost as though the Bible had been dictated by God. This is what Muslims believe about the Qur’an. The Qur’an is dictated from Allah to Muhammad. There’s no human element in it at all. So when scholars began to discover the human elements in Scripture, that these documents reflect the education and the circumstances and the weaknesses and the tempers of their authors, many of them found this very difficult to reconcile with the idea that Scripture is an inspired revelation from God.2 That’s why I want to distinguish these two different senses of “revelation” because I think that they were quite right in saying that not all of the Bible is revelation in the narrow sense. Some of it is, like the Book of Revelation, but not all of it. That doesn’t mean that it’s not revelation in the broad sense, that it isn’t God’s Word to us in the sense that he’s communicating to us via the Scriptures. We’ll see how this works itself out when we get to some of the theories of inspiration.
Answer: That’s the real danger, isn’t it? Someone says, “I got a revelation from an angel and, therefore, I don’t need the Scripture; I don’t need the Bible.” You will often hear people say things like, “Well, God revealed to me that I am married to the wrong person and that I really should be married to this other person, and, therefore, it is justified to get a divorce. God wants me to be happy, and he’s revealed it me.” I’m not kidding! This is the way some Christians reason, and it’s a result of not really understanding the nature of revelation.
Answer: Very nice! That is exactly the middle knowledge perspective on divine inspiration that I will defend later in this class. So you are already anticipating me. I will argue that, in fact, we can believe that the Bible is God’s Word to us verbally, plenarily, and what’s called congruently (it’s both the Word of God and the word of man), and yet it is God’s Word to us precisely because of God’s knowledge of how a Paul would write if he were in such and such circumstances and called upon to write an epistle to the church in Rome. So hang on to that – that will be the view I will defend.
Now let’s say a word about general revelation. There are two types of revelation that are often distinguished. What I said above does not describe two types of revelation; rather it was two definitions of “revelation” – broad and narrow. But there are also two types of revelation. One is called general revelation, and the other is called special revelation. Don’t confuse these two types of revelation with the two definitions of “revelation” broad and narrow.
Two Senses of “General”
What do we mean by general revelation? There are two senses in which there is a general revelation of God. One sense would be that it’s generally available. That is to say, it is not restricted to certain people or certain times and places in history. This is a revelation that is available to all of humankind. It is general in its scope. But secondly, it’s also general in that it provides merely general information about God. On the basis of God’s general revelation in nature and conscience, people can know that there is a Creator of the universe who has enormous power; but they won’t know that he’s a Trinity, and they won’t know that he became incarnate in Jesus Christ. So general revelation gives only general information about who God is, not specific information. So there are two senses of general revelation, generally available and then general information.
Types of General Revelation
Now how does God reveal himself generally to us? Well, in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, he talks about two ways in which God is generally revealed. The first way is in nature. In Romans 1:18-20, Paul talks about how God has revealed himself to all humanity through the created order. He says in Romans 1:18-20,
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse;
Here Paul says that on the basis of nature alone, all persons everywhere at any time in history can know that there is an eternal Creator who is a powerful deity that has made the world. Moreover, in Romans 2:14-16 3 Paul says that this Creator has implanted his moral law in the hearts of all persons. Romans 2:14-16 says,
When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
Here Paul says that the requirements of God’s law are written on the hearts of all people, even non-Jews who don’t have the Mosaic Law, and therefore they do by nature what the law requires. There’s a kind of common moral code that permeates the world’s societies that is rooted in the conscience of man. Paul says that our conscience bears witness and tells us what to do and what not to do. Therefore, all persons everywhere through God’s general revelation can know that there is an eternal, powerful Creator of the world before whom we are morally responsible and, based on what Paul says in Romans 1, morally guilty and whose forgiveness we need. That can be known by anybody anywhere. That’s God’s general revelation in nature and conscience.
What we’ll do next time is look at the functions of general revelation and then talk a bit about the relation of general revelation to arguments for God’s existence before looking at special revelation.4
4 Total Running Time: 17:11