1 That this is St Paul’s self-understanding of revelation is evident from the following scripture verses which originated from him: Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all the Gentiles might come to the obedience that comes from faith— to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen. (Rom 16:25-27)
What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived…God has revealed to us through the Spirit. (1 Cor 2:9-10) Disclosure vs Discovery In defining revelation, a distinction has been made between disclosure and discovery. These two words are not sufficiently differentiated in common speech. Yet the distinction is key to a proper understanding of revelation. As the following news report effectively illustrates, disclosure differs in meaning from discovery: The police had arrested a man of whose complicity in a crime they had much evidence.
It was said in the paper that they had discovered certain facts about the man which pointed to his implication in the alleged crime. There was not, however, sufficient evidence to fasten it finally upon him. So they went to work upon him with several hours of continuous questioning, until at last he broke down and confessed. In the confession, said the paper, he disclosed to the police certain things which they had not discovered, which, indeed, almost certainly they could never, without the suspect’s aid, have laid bare at all. 2
So revelation is self-disclosure of God to humankind, not human discovery. It is a process initiated by God, not a human insight or achievement. In the revelatory experience, it is as if the holy breaks-in upon us. Necessity of Revelation Why is it necessary for God to make himself known? We can think of two considerations but there are several more. God is transcendent—-he is wholly ‘other’. Thus, Kierkegaard speaks of ‘the infinite qualitative distinction’ between us and God. It should be noted that the distinction between God and us is a severe one.
Giving his take on God’s transcendence, William Nicholls writes, ‘God differs from ourselves not merely in degree, as would be the case if we were both spirits and he the greatest of spirits, but in kind. He is above us not only morally but ontologically, as he is above everything else that he has made, far removed from us in the mystery of his divine being. He is above everything that we can conceive, and any image that we could form of him, even the highest mental image, would be a travesty of what he really is, an insult to the divine majesty. ’3
A number of scripture passages lend support to the concept of divine transcendence: ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways’, declares the LORD. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. ’ (Is 55:8,9) The LORD is exalted over all the nations, his glory above the heavens. Who is like the LORD our God, the One who sits enthroned on high, who stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth? (Ps 113:5,6). God is the hidden God, or to use a Latin expression—Deus absconditus.
The subject of God’s hiding is quite intriguing. In a final conversation with Moses, God tells him, ‘I will certainly hide my face in that day because of all their wickedness in turning to other gods. ’ God’s hiddenness is a concept that cuts to the core of the psalmists’ understanding of God and of themselves (see Ps 10:11; 13:2; 88:15, 89:46, etc). The phenomenon of divine hiddenness is not unknown to Isaiah who cries out: “Truly you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Saviour. ” (Isaiah 45:15). Given God’s transcendence and his hiddenness, God cannot be known other than by or through revelation.
Validity Before we can proceed further we need to satisfy ourselves that it is reasonable to believe that there has been a revelation from God. If there has not been a revelation, and if God has not spoken then our discussion must end here. Gerald Downing understood how essential it was to ask after the question of whether revelation from God had been given. He devoted an entire book to the quest, and entitled it Has Christianity a Revelation? (1964). Unfortunately, Downing drew the conclusion that there has not been any revelation.
As people of faith we can simply believe that divine revelation had been given. British theologian Austin Farrer has spoken that the “instinct of our faith” would react against any denial of revelation. But belief that God has revealed himself to humankind may be robustly defended as being philosophically valid. As Paley has argued: …given that there is a God—who is by definition, good—and that the human race lies in ignorance of things important for them to know, it is a priori to some extent to be expected that God would give a revelation to men. Biblical Evidences
It may be useful to look at some evidences in the Bible for our belief that God has indeed revealed himself. Here are just a few: God said to them (Aaron and Miriam), “When a prophet of the LORD is among you, I reveal myself to him in visions; I speak to him in dreams… With (Moses) I speak face to face…. ” (Num 12:6-8). The LORD continued to appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word. (1 Sam 3:21) The LORD has made his salvation known and revealed his righteousness to the nations. (Ps 98:2). “I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me; I was found by those who did not seek me. ” (Is 65:1)
Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him—to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen. (Rom 16:25-27) In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. (Eph 3:4-6)
It is thus a fundamental Christian belief that God had revealed himself or information about himself. If God had not done so, we will have little knowledge about him. General & Special Revelation In the field of Christian theology two types of divine communication are noted: one through the created order, and the other through God’s Word. We call the first type general revelation and the second special revelation. The two differ in their audiences and in their aims. General revelation is given to all peoples of all times, whether Christian or not. It is the fingerprint of God or marks left on the works of creation.
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. (Ps 19:1) 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. (Rom 1:20) John Calvin taught that God had planted within all people a sense of divinity and that there are signs of God in nature but he held that our minds had become so dull through sin that we derived no profit from these manifestations. Special Revelation, on the other hand, is given to specific people at specific times.
It is a message from God explaining his purpose, a special communication which discloses God’s character and his plans for human beings. Special revelation is both living and written—-the living message came in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ; the written message comes in the Bible. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. (John 1:14) 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, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. (Heb 1:1-2)
The usefulness of the distinction between general and special revelation has sometimes been questioned. The problem is not with the term ‘special revelation’ since this refers to divine disclosure through unique historical events. It is ‘general revelation’ that has been a source of controversy. If one is able to learn something about God from the created order, it is questionable whether revelation is needed at all. 4 Why then do we continue to speak of general revelation? We can use the term in a creative way—to point to the inadequacy of natural theology in revealing the fullness of the divine plan for human salvation.
Inscripturation of Revelation In the account of revelation given above, we seem to be talking about directly given revelation. Actually the occurrences of such revelation are rare. The original disclosure of the holy belongs to times past. What about the experience of revelation for us who live many years removed from the original disclosure? John MacQuarrie uses the term ‘primordial’ revelation to distinguish it from ‘secondary’ revelation. By the former is meant that revelatory event upon which a community of faith is founded, and which becomes a pattern for experiences of the holy within that community.
By secondary revelation is meant those events through which the primordial revelation becomes alive again for successive generations. After a primordial revelation had occurred, a record is made some time later. That record is what we now call scripture. The process is sometimes known as ‘inscripturation. ’ Today, we read that record in the midst of life’s events and sometimes as we do, the record comes alive and there is again a moment of revelation. Because revelation has been recorded as scripture, it is therefore a primary source of theology and therefore a basic category in theological thinking.