Doctrine of Revelation (part 3)

January 12, 2010     Time: 00:32:07


C. Special Revelation: 1. Sense of "Special" 2. Types of Special Revelation 3. Scripture: a. Inspiration: (1) Extent of Inspiration.

Special Revelation - Introduction

We’ve been looking at the Doctrine of Revelation, and for the last couple of weeks we’ve been discussing general revelation – how God is revealed in nature and in conscience and the function that that plays and its relation to the arguments of natural theology. Today we want to turn to special revelation.

Sense of “Special”

In addition to his revelation in nature and conscience, God also reveals himself to us in certain special ways. Now what do we mean when we speak of special revelation? What we mean is that God makes himself known with a clarity and fullness that surpasses general revelation. In general revelation, God is known vaguely in sort of broad outlines – there is a Creator of the universe who has planted his moral law on our hearts – , but through general revelation little else is known about him beyond that. But in special revelation, God makes himself known with a clarity and fullness that surpasses general revelation.

Types of Special Revelation

What types of special revelation are there? Preeminently, there is God’s special revelation in his son Jesus Christ. In the person of Christ, God himself has entered into human history and thereby given us a disclosure of what he is like. In John 1:1, 14, 18 we read,

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. . . . full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. . . . No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.

Here John says that Jesus Christ is the living Word of God, the one who has been with God from eternity. He is, indeed, God, and he has now become flesh and lived among us. In doing so, he has revealed to us the unseen God whom no one has ever seen before.

So Jesus Christ is the living Word of God, who reveals to us what God is like. But in addition to God’s living Word, there is also his written Word, his propositional revelation in holy Scripture, that is to say, in the Bible. The Bible is God’s written Word. 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Here the author indicates that holy Scripture is, itself, inspired by God. The word here means God-breathed. The Scripture is God-breathed; it proceeds, as it were, from the mouth of God. It is God’s Word to us.

So not only do we have God’s living Word in Jesus Christ, but we also have his written Word in the holy Scriptures, which are God-breathed, or inspired, by him. In addition to these two primary forms of special revelation, we have to say that God is free to reveal himself in other ways that could be called “particular revelation.” These would be revelations that would be to specific individuals at specific times. These can be dreams, visions, or some sort of word of disclosure that God would give to an individual person.1 These are not his Word to mankind in general, but a specific revelation given to a particular individual. That seems clear in the Old Testament when the prophets would say, “Thus saith the Lord,” and the prophet would give some revelation or word that God had given him to communicate. But in the New Testament as well there are prophets in the church, and “prophet” was one of the offices of the New Testament church. We find in 1 Corinthians 14:26 and 29-31 reference to the regulation of such prophets. Here Paul is describing the church in Corinth as they gather together to worship. Verse 26: “What then, brethren? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.” So different people in the service would participate – one person would offer a hymn that might be sung, another person would speak in tongues, another would interpret, and someone else would have a revelation from God (the word “revelation” is right there in the text). Then in verses 29-31 he says,

Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting by, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets.

Here Paul, in describing the early church in worship, seems to think that there were revelations that would take place in the context of these worship services that could then be shared with the group, and the others would weigh what was said (whether it was really a genuine word from the Lord or not).

Many evangelicals think that this sort of prophetic office ceased with the closure of the canon of the New Testament. Given that we now have the written Word of God, there isn’t any need anymore for this sort of prophet that is described here in 1 Corinthians 14. And, therefore, this gift of prophecy has ceased, and there aren’t these kinds of particular revelations made to people today. I don’t have a hard and fast opinion on this issue, but I must say that in studying the Scripture, it seems to me extraordinarily difficult to prove that these prophetic gifts have ceased. There isn’t anything that I can find in Paul’s instructions or anywhere else in the New Testament that would suggest that God is not free to, and does not occasionally, give a particular revelation to someone through a special word or dream or vision or something of that sort. So I think that caution requires us at least to be open to the possibility that there could be ongoing revelations of this sort. Of course, our supreme authority is going to be God’s propositional revelation in Scripture itself. However, there might be legitimate claims to these sorts of particular revelation.

These are the types of special revelation that God might give: primarily through his son Jesus Christ, also his propositional revelation in Scripture, and then particular revelations that might be given to individuals on various occasions.


Question: Can you explain verse 34 where it says, “Women should keep silent in the churches?”

Answer: You do bring up an issue of great controversy in the church today. I take it that we need to read these verses in their context. The context is, as I say, a description of an early home church worship service where Christians were coming together to worship the Lord.2 And Paul says in this context that he wants this type of service to be led by men and that the women should remain silent in the worship service. But that isn’t to say that outside the worship service the women would not be allowed to speak. On the contrary, Paul talks about prophetesses – there were prophetesses in the early church. Philip’s daughters were prophetesses. The gift of prophesy was given to women, and they did exercise it in the early church. But apparently, at least in Paul’s churches, they did not do so in the context of the worship service. With regard to women teaching, I don’t see anything in Scripture that says that women can’t teach children or other women or even men on certain subjects. But in a different letter in the New Testament – 1 Timothy 2 – Paul says that women should not teach Christian doctrine to men. In the area of teaching Christian theology in the church, you should have men teach other men, and you shouldn’t have a woman hold a position of authority as a doctrinal teacher over men. Whether we like that or not, whether it is counter-cultural or not, it seems to me that if this is God’s standard and order that he sets down, then we should obey it and abide by it. It seems to me that God, being God, has the perfect prerogative to prescribe whomever he wants as teachers. If God were to prescribe that none of us should eat beans, for example, as the early Pythagoreans believed that we should all forswear eating beans, that would be perfectly within God’s prerogative, and in that case we should obey him and do what he says. It seems to me that however counter-cultural it might be, given the type of service that is described here, Paul would not have women prophesy in the service. They would do it outside of the service. And women wouldn’t teach doctrine to adult males but could teach to females and children or they could teach men on other subjects or share their experiences.

Question: How does the experience of Priscilla and Aquila relate to this?

Answer: That bears out exactly what I said. Priscilla was apparently a very gifted teacher. She is mentioned before her husband many times, not “Aquila and Priscilla” but “Priscilla and Aquila.” They instructed Apollos when he was erring or uninformed in his doctrine. They took him aside and instructed him more carefully in Christian doctrine. And again that seems to me to be perfectly all right because it is not done in the context of the church. It is in the context of the church that Paul is speaking here. This doesn’t mean that a woman can’t be the head of a business or a professor. He’s talking about, say, a class like this one. I don’t think that Paul would want a woman teaching a class on Christian doctrine that would include adult males in the class. He would say that you should have a man teach Christian doctrine to other men.

Question: If a particular revelation occurs today, it would have to harmonize with the Scriptures, right?

Answer: That’s what I would think. If someone got a particular revelation today that said, for example, “God has revealed to me that I am to divorce my husband and marry John,” I would say, “Baloney!” because Jesus made it very clear that divorce is not permitted except in cases of adultery. So the person who claims a particular revelation that goes against Scripture is, in all probability, erroneous or deceived by an illusion. I do feel very uncomfortable talking about particular revelation, but it seems to me that Scripture does teach this, that particular revelations can happen. I have never had a particular revelation like that. I know friends who claim that they have or know of prophets who do speak in this way, but I have never experienced it. I think those of us who haven’t had this kind of particular revelation place our trust and our stake in Scripture. If someone contradicts Scripture, that would mean God would be at odds with himself, he would be contradicting his own inspired Word, and, therefore, we would know that that would be fallacious.3

[Q&A: Discusses John Hus and the story of his future prediction of Luther]

Question: Can you comment on 1 Corinthians 13:8 where it says, “as for prophecies they will pass away, and as for tongues they will cease?”

Answer: Yes, these would be the verses that those who believe that with the close of the canon these gifts have ceased. So in chapter 13:8 it says, “Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away, as for tongues they will cease, as for knowledge, it will pass away.” Now they interpret that to mean that it is going to pass away when the New Testament canon is closed and there will be no more prophecies. But I have to say, in all honesty, it doesn’t seem to me that that’s when he is imagining them passing away. Look at the rest of the paragraph: “For our knowledge isn’t perfect and our prophecy isn’t perfect, but when the perfect comes the imperfect will pass away.” Further,

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even, as I have been fully understood.

I think he’s talking about the return of Christ. That’s when the perfect comes and when the imperfect will be done away with. I can’t persuade myself that what Paul is talking about here is when the New Testament canon is closed. So I remain open to the charismatic gifts like speaking in tongues or prophecy or healing and things of this sort. I don’t think these passages are referring to their passing away with the close of the canon; it’s talking rather about the return of Christ.

Special Revelation – Scripture - Inspiration

We want to talk now more specifically about holy Scripture because this is the Word of God, the special revelation on which we base our lives and understanding of who God is and what he would have us do. Fundamental to the doctrine of Scripture is the inspiration of the Bible. Remember we saw in 2 Timothy 3:16 that Scripture is “God-breathed.” Notice that the property of inspiration belongs not to the authors of Scripture but to the Scripture itself. This is extremely important – he’s not saying the authors of Scripture were inspired; he’s saying the Scripture itself is inspired. This [holding up the Bible] is God’s Word, this is God-breathed. So inspiration is a property of the Scripture primarily; it is not the property of the authors of Scripture. Now we’ll see in a moment that certainly the Holy Spirit did guide the authors of Scripture, but it is critical for the authority and the infallibility of the Bible that we understand that it is the Bible, it is the Scripture, that is inspired, not simply its authors. It is God’s Word to us.4

In addition to 2 Timothy 3:16 the other key verse on this subject is 2 Peter 1:19-21:

And we have the prophetic word made more sure. You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.

Here the author does speak of the work of the Holy Spirit on the authors of Scripture, particularly on the authors of prophecy. He says that when they spoke, they did not do so by their own natural impulse, but rather they were moved by the Holy Spirit. The Greek word here means that they were carried along, they were borne by the Holy Spirit, so that what they spoke is from God. Inspiration means that the authors of Scripture are moved by the Holy Spirit to speak or write in such a way that what they compose is the Word of God to us. It is inspired and is from God. That’s what inspiration means.

Extent of Inspiration

Let me say a word about the extent of inspiration. Typically, evangelicals or orthodox Christians have maintained that the extent of inspiration is the full breadth and depth of Scripture. That is to say, Scripture is inspired in a plenary way. That speaks to the breadth of inspiration. To say that Scripture is inspired in a plenary way means that all of Scripture is inspired. It is not as though just the doctrinal parts of Scripture are inspired, not just the prophetic parts, but all of Scripture is inspired, including even the seeming trivialities, like Paul’s greetings at the end of his letters or his commands to someone to bring his cloak that he left behind. All of Scripture is inspired by God, as it says in 2 Timothy. So the inspiration of Scripture is plenary in its extent. Secondly, it is verbal inspiration. That speaks to the depth of inspiration. It is not just the ideas in Scripture that are inspired or even just the propositions in Scripture that are inspired, but the very words of Scripture are inspired. Down to the very words these are the words of God to us. So the very words that an author of Scripture uses are God-breathed. These are God’s words to us, though they come through the human author. Many times you will find the authors of Scripture appealing to or quoting from passages of the Bible where they will appeal to a single word to make their point. This shows the depth of inspiration – a single word can make a doctrinal difference in certain cases when the authors of the New Testament are writing and quoting passages of the Old Testament. Scripture is inspired, it is God-breathed, all of it, the entire extent, and down to the very words that the authors chose to use.

There is a third property of Scripture that is difficult to reconcile with these two, and that is that inspiration is confluent. “Fluent,” as when someone is fluent in a language, means to “flow;” “con” is “with,” as when you are with something. So confluent is the property of Scripture that it is both the product of the human author and the product of God.5 It is both a human word written by, say, Zachariah or Haggai or the Apostle Paul or Luke. It is a human word. But it is also God’s Word to us. This is an inspired Word.

What this forces us to think about is theories of inspiration: how is it that Scripture can be plenary, verbal, and confluent in its inspiration?


Question: Does “confluent” mean a common understanding among the authors of what is to be written?

Answer: No, “confluent” means that this Word, this product, flows both from a human author and from a divine author. It is not to say that the human author understands all of what he may be writing. The passage in 1 Peter talks about how the prophets who wrote in the past often didn’t fully understand the things that they were saying because they were prophesying about Christ and may not have realized it. So it is not to say that there is a single depth of understanding on the part of both the human and the divine author, but simply that Scripture is the product of a divine/human synthesis.

Question: Would you consider Christ’s birth as part of natural theology, since it was a part of history, but it becomes part of the special revelation when you come to realize who he is?

Answer: That is a very good point. Here you do begin to see the boundaries blur because as a real, historical individual, Jesus of Nazareth can be investigated by any secular historian, and facts about his life can be established. I think you are quite right. In that sense there is a kind of general revelation in so far as Christ is a historical figure. On the other hand, such knowledge is not generally available to mankind and confers more than just general knowledge of God. In that way it is special.

Question: [makes a comment about how the Bible inspires and reveals itself to a person]

Answer: I want to say that we shouldn’t ever lapse into this kind of language of “the Bible’s becoming God’s Word for me,” or “When I read it, it becomes God’s Word for me because God speaks to me through it.” I think that’s quite incorrect. God could speak to you through the telephone book or through The Shack, but that wouldn’t make it God’s Word. The Bible is God’s Word. The whole idea is that the Bible is a propositional revelation. If it were lost, forgotten in some vault, and nobody ever read it, it would still be the God-breathed, propositional revelation of God. So let’s not lapse into this language of the Bible’s becoming God’s Word to me or anything of that sort. That is to diminish the degree to which this is a verbal, propositional revelation from God.

Question: How do we take these ideas you are talking about but avoid the idea of dictation?

Answer: That is the next subject – theories of inspiration! How can revelation be plenary, verbal, and yet confluent? That’s the question that we are going to need to tackle. I think that a lot of Christians did once believe in the dictation theory of inspiration. They will actually use the word “dictation.” Those who are fans of these theologians will say, “They didn’t mean it literally; they were just using that as a means of saying how specific and correct is God’s Word; but they didn’t mean it was literally a dictation.” But when you read the writings of some of these early church fathers and even some of the Protestant Reformers, they did seem to think of it as some kind of dictation. Sometimes they would compare God’s playing upon the human author the way I would play upon a lyre and I would pluck the strings of a lyre to make it produce a certain sound using a pick. They would say the Holy Spirit is like God’s pick and the human author is like the musical instrument, and God plucks the strings of the human author to make him produce the words that he does. This is very much like dictation. While this is exactly what Islam teaches with respect to the inspiration of the Qur’an, that really doesn’t get you a confluent inspiration in the way we Christians want to affirm.6


1 5:02

2 10:12

3 15:10

4  20:11

5 25:15

6 Total Running Time: 32:06