Revelation: Where has God Spoken to Us?

(Below is the transcript for a lecture I gave on Oct. 20th at the Ridley Institute of St. Andrew’s Church in Mt. Pleasant, SC. They are an extension campus of Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA.)

Your reading this week was entitled, “What is the Bible and What is it good for?” but even this question has another one behind it, an even broader subject which is the subject of tonight’s lecture: “Revelation: Where has God Spoken to Us?” The doctrine of Christian revelation — the question of how we get the content of our faith, and what is the authority for our faith, what is the medium by which God has spoken to us and continues to do so.

But I also think it’s fitting we should come to the topic of the Bible after having already been introduced to the doctrine of the Trinity and each person of the Trinity, because that’s really how it happened for many of the first Christians. In the earliest churches, there was an understanding of the doctrine of Christ and the good news of the gospel that comes from that, that Jesus preached, and even a growing understanding and experience of the Holy Spirit long before anyone had a Bible. The authority of the Christian faith was established in communities and through the apostles who got their authority from Christ and then from the Spirit several centuries before the Bible was formally canonized. But for us, some 2000 years later, we’re in a different situation. We weren’t there, so we depend more on the written record of that authority and of God’s revelation to the first Christians.

It is with the broader topic, though, of the doctrine of revelation, that I want to begin, and then we’ll move into talking more about the Bible itself, the Bible in the tradition of Reformation Anglicanism in particular, and to conclude, thirdly, we’ll look at the role of the Bible and how we can understand it today. How does its authority function in our communities of faith, in our churches, in this particular context of 21st Century North America?

1. GENERAL AND SPECIAL REVELATION

So first, we’re asking, what is the difference between Christian knowledge and other kinds of knowledge? This is largely the question of distinguishing between what the tradition has sometimes called special revelation and general revelation, or analogously, natural revelation and supernatural revelation.

We’ve all at one time or another had that experience enjoying creation and the beauty of nature, staring up at the stars or marveling at the sunset or a breathtaking view of the mountains and just been wowed by what we see. It’s one of God’s languages, it’s one of the ways that God communicates something to us very generally, that is available to everyone. This is what is meant by this notion of general or natural revelation.

The great medieval scholastic theologian Thomas Aquinas believed that truth becomes known through both natural revelation (certain truths are available to all people through their human nature and through correct human reasoning) and supernatural revelation (faith-based knowledge revealed through Scripture).

So there’s a distinction between these two ways of knowing, one Christian, one not necessarily, but Thomas also maintained that the relationship between general revelation and special revelation was complimentary rather than contradictory. Thus, although one may deduce the existence of God and God’s attributes through philosophical reason, certain specifics (such as the Trinity and the Incarnation) may be known only through special revelation and may not otherwise be deduced.

And the Bible, Aquinas says, contains revelation that may be general as well as special. So there are things that Scripture tells that we also know apart from Scripture, but there is also properly Christians truths that we couldn’t know apart from Scripture.

The Bible itself actually tells us about general revelation:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
2 Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
3 They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
4 Yet their voice[b] goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world. — Psalm 19

This is Scripture, talking about revelation outside of Scripture!

In the New Testament, in Romans 1, Paul says

20 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 people are without excuse.

In other words, in addition to the book of Scripture, we also have the book of nature. There’s Revelation big R, and revelation little r.

In Acts 17, moreover, there is the account of Paul’s reference to the altar to an unknown God (v. 23) that even the pagans recognized. Paul saw that the Greek philosophers believed God was the one in whom we live and move and have our being… they believed that “we are his offspring” (v. 28).

The main point being made that we can indeed know some things about God apart from any specific or explicit communication from God. And we know this, in large part, by the authority of our capacity for reasoning.

The English Reformer Richard Hooker would agree! And he helps clarify the relationship between general and special revelation:

“what Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place both of credit and obedience is due; the next whereunto is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; after this the Church succeedeth that which the Church by her ecclesiastical authority shall probably think and define to be true or good, must in congruity of reason overrule all other inferior judgments whatsoever.” (Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book V, 8:2)

So first Scripture, then reason, and then, the Tradition of the Church — and in that order, for Hooker. And this is the orthodox way of understanding the order of authority in the Christian faith: Fides quaerens intellectum. Faith seeking Understanding (Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas).

But just as the Roman Catholic Church put the authority of the Church before Scripture, much of the modern church has put the authority of reason before Scripture. The church has never said that reason and Scripture might contradict each other, but the modern church has indeed thought this at times, and it has created a false dichotomy between the two — between Scripture and reason.

In the historical period that we’ve come out of, usually just very broadly referred to as “modernity,” there’s tended to a privileging of a certain kind of knowing: scientific and rational knowing. That has this air of objectivity to it, assuming that its vantage point on matters of science, politics, economics, religion — whatever — is inherently the right and best one. It has been characterized by the preoccupation with and quest for certitude, in a kind of detached and false, God’s eye view of truth that was thought to be truly objective and foundationally indubitable!

But of course, there’s no such thing as a perfectly objective, unadulterated view of reality. We always have a particular perspective on things that is influenced by many variable beyond our control. This doesn’t mean that we can’t know anything. It just means that we always know by faith seeking understanding. And actually this quest for certitude in modernity ultimately fails and begins to produce what we now could call the postmodern period.

As the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:12,

“For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”

2. THE WORD OF GOD ITSELF AND IN REFORMATION ANGLICANISM

But to say that we have faith in the Word of God does not mean that we simply have blind faith, nor that we have faith only because it has been written and passed down to us through a reliable historical record. Of course, we do believe that it has, and we have good reasons for believing that, but our faith does not stands on empirical evidence or philosophical reasoning. It doesn’t contradict these things, but neither does it depend entirely on them. The reason we believe in the authority of Scripture is because it first came to us not as a special, sacred document, but as a living and spoken Word confirmed by the great cloud of witnesses before us.

As it was talked about two weeks ago when discussing who Jesus is – fully human and fully divine —  what’s called the Prologue of John, we read that:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.

Skipping down to v. 14:

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Furthermore, in Hebrews 1:1-3 it says that

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.

And so, initially, and primordially, the way that Christians receive special revelation about God is through Jesus Christ. Scripture is Scripture because it bears witness to Jesus Christ, the Word of God.

Perhaps now finally we could define Christian special or supernatural revelation this way:

God’s self-disclosure narrated through the history of a particular people, through personal action, culminating in Gods utter self-investment in creation through the incarnation, life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Daniel McGloire, Faith Seeking Understanding)

As this definition suggests, special Revelation in this way is not simply the transmission of data or propositional truth claims to which we merely ascend, cognitively. Rather, in Scripture God’s revealed identity is rendered primarily by narrative, but this grand Story in the whole sweep of Scripture.

The 20th Century Swiss Theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, give us something to think about when he says that

Only Scripture itself possesses the power and the authority to point authentically to the highest figure that has ever walked upon the earth, a figure in keeping with whose sovereignty it is to create for himself a body by which to express himself.

Balthasar goes on to say that

Christ’s existence and his teachings would not be comprehensible form if it were not for his rootedness in a salvation-history that leads up to him. Both in union with this history and in his relief from it, Christ becomes for us the image that reveals the invisible God.The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics I, 31-32

It is a narrative, a drama, even, because there is this whole history in our Old Testament that sets the stage without which we could not understand and receive the revelation that is in Christ, and that story is told and lived in the Hebrew Scriptures, which is comprised of the Torah, the first five books of the Law, which chronicles the Patriarchal lineage of our faith — Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and on to the Exodus, with the giving of the Law itself, which then leads the Narrative History of Israel, the Wisdom Literature, and the Major and Minor Prophets.

And in addition to narrative, Scripture contains prophetic oracles, proverbs, commands, cries, lamentations, and apocalyptic visions. So the forms of biblical witness to revelation are diverse and none should be neglected — each is an important way of witnessing to the self-revelation of God who remains ever free and beyond our control. (Neither God nor the Bible is ever our possession.)

When we get to the New Testament, this is what it says regarding the authority of the Old Testament, in 2 Timothy 3:14-17:

14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

“The Holy Scriptures are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ!”

In Article 6 of the 39 Articles of Religion, it says:

Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. In the name of the Holy Scripture we do understand those canonical Books of the Old and New Testament, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church.

This way of describing the authority of Scripture is uniquely Anglican, and it’s very important. It’s a bit different from some of the other modern definitions of the authority of Scripture that we find in other Christian churches.

There’s a saying in the tradition translated roughly as follows: In essentials, unity, in non-essentials, liberty, and in all things, charity. I think this particular Article, which is basically the same statement that we affirm as clergy for our ordination covenant, is particularly suited for upholding this traditional axiom: in essentials, unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity.

That way that Jesus himself claimed the authority of the Hebrew Scriptures as God’s Word seemed to fall in line with this. He knew the essentials, he upheld the essentials. He also knew how the religious leaders were prone to overlook the essentials by clinging to the external security of the non-essentials, missing the very heart of God’s law.

But then we also see as early as 2 Peter 3:15-16 that the early church was regarding Paul’s letter’s as part of Holy Scripture, as the Word of God and as the New Testament. So the authority of both testaments is confirmed in Scripture itself.

Nonetheless, we believe in what Scripture says not just because it is Scripture that says it, but because what Scripture says can be seen as both good and beautiful in the life of Christ, and has been confirmed in our lives by the witness of the Holy Spirit. Because what Scripture gives witness to is not just a fixed, historical, past tense fact, but a real, living and active faith that can be seen and experienced as redemptive.

To further illustrate this point, if we consider Islam, for example, and compare its view of the Quran to our view of the Bible, the Koran is understood, so far as I know, to be the actual verbatum dictation by God in the Arabic language that has to be accepted, whether you understand it or not, simply as God’s revelation of the truth.

And since all translation means some degree of interpretation, and since human understanding is always fallible, it is therefore an article of faith for Muslims that the Quran cannot be translated. In order to hear God’s Word, therefore, you must learn Arabic. It is a purely external authority.

By contrast, when we look at Christian faith: the parallel to the Quran, based on how Muslims understand it — is not the Bible but if anything, it’s Jesus — (because it is Jesus who is the Word of God, in the primary and fundamental sense, but this is not a perfect parallel.) But Jesus did not write a book He gathered a company of disciples, making the things of God known to them. And that in turn is how the church grew. So Jesus really is beyond comparison to anything in Islam.

Because Discipleship means much more than reading a book. This is why we have different accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds in the four Gospels. And from the modern and Muslim point of view, we therefore have no reliable certainty. And actually That we have four gospels is used by Muslims to argue that we have lost the original Gospel.

But of course, that would be to miss the point, which is that true Revelation (capital R) is always an event in the present, that comes to life again and again. As the letter to the Hebrews declares:

…the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. — Hebrews 4:12

The Psalms declare that God’s Word is a “lamp unto our feet and a light for my path”! (Psalm 119:105)

What makes the Word of God alive and active? Is it the letters on the page? No, it’s the Holy Spirit in our hearts!

So while the Reformers were right to insist that the witness of Scripture is normative for the life and faith of the church, this witness does not exist in a vacuum. We can’t take Sola Scriptura out of its context of criticizing the 16th Century Roman Catholic Church. Nor, however, can we simply say “Scripture plus tradition” to fully and effectively communicate the gospel. Rather, it is the Spirit of God who freely uses the witness of Scripture in the context of the life of the church that is able to create and nurture faith in Christ and obedience to Christ as Savior and Lord.

Summarizing John Calvin’s understanding of our knowledge of God and the doctrine of Revelation, Benjamin Warfield says this, and I’m paraphrasing: We do in fact have as human beings an innate knowledge of God, quickened and developed by a very rich manifestation of God in nature and through God’s providence, but this knowledge fails in its proper effect because of our sinful nature; As a result, an objective revelation of God, embodied in the Scriptures, was rendered necessary, and as well [here the second part that we cannot miss!], a subjective operation of the Spirit of God on the heart enabling sinful human beings to receive this revelation. So it is, in sum, by the conjoint divine action, objective in the Word and subjective by the Spirit, that a true knowledge of God is communicated to us.

In many ways Calvin speaks for all of the Reformers when he says this. But it is not just the theology we must take care to consider. Just as important to the tradition are the historical events of this period themselves. We remember those who came before us in the English Reformation who gave their lives so that the people might know this Word of God, hear it and read it for themselves. Because hundreds upon hundreds of them were martyred in the process, for standing up for the authority of Scripture over and against the authority of human beings and the institutional Church’s corrupting the teachings and abusing of power and authority of Scripture. Nicholas Ridley himself chief among these martyrs.

Of course this legacy of sacrifice for the Word of God began long before the Reformation itself as those like Wycliffe, and later on John Hus and William Tyndale, and others were willing to risk their lives to translate the Bible from Latin into the common language of the people. As it says in Article 24 of the 39 Articles:

It is a thing plainly repugnant to the Word of God, and the custom of the Early Church to have public Prayer in the Church, or to minister the Sacraments, in a language not understood by the people.

So as Anglicans we stand on the shoulders of these giants, these courageous and faithful men and women who gave up everything so that those of us coming after them could be shaped and informed by God’s revelation to us.

3. SCRIPTURE TODAY

Now, just as you’ve heard each week so far in the course, when it comes to the Anglican doctrine of Scripture, like the other doctrines, it is not merely an abstract theory but has practical and pastoral application. So invite you to take time at some point to look once more at those two quotes from Thomas Cranmer that are in your reading for this week. There you will see his reflection on the great comfort and encouragement of Scripture, why it’s such a treasure, and how it edifies us, providing for us not just everything necessary for salvation, but also as it says in 2 Timothy, correction and training for righteousness:

Cranmer quote 1:

…the Scripture of God is the heavenly meat of our souls, the hearing and keeping of it making us blessed, sanctifying us and making us holy, turning our souls, it is a light lantern to our feet; it is sure, steadfast, and everlasting instrument of salvation, giving wisdom to the humble and lowly hearts, comforting, making glad, cheering and cherishing our conscience: it is a more excellent jewel or treasure, than any gold or precious stone, it is more sweet than honey or honey comb, it is called the best part, which Mary did choose, for it has in it everlasting comfort.

Cranmer quote 2:

And whosever giveth his mind to Holy Scriptures, with diligent study and burning desire, it cannot be said (St. Chrysostom) that he should be left without help. For either God almighty will send him some godly doctor, to teach him . . . or else, if we lack a learned man to instruct and teach us, still God himself from above will give light unto our minds, and teach us those things which are necessary for us and wherein we are ignorant.

So we’ve talked about general revelation (natural) and special revelation (supernatural), We’ve looked at what the Bible is and how it has functioned and been understood in the tradition of the Church, and now finally I want to make just a few comments about how we receive it in our contemporary church context.

Again, as Calvin said, the authority of revelation, of our knowledge of God is both subjective and objective, or another helpful way to put this would be to say, it’s both internal and external, and based on a rational way of knowing, and an aesthetic way of knowing!

As we already saw, the modern period has given tremendous priority to an objective understanding of authority and knowledge, while what is usually referred to as the postmodern period that we’re living in to some extent now has put far more emphasis on the subjective side of authority and knowledge.

So here’s how this has pretty much played out (Lesslie Newbigin):

In Modernity, with a concern for objective knowledge and authority, there were two general trends: The liberal, and what we’ll just call the fundamentalist.

  • Liberal: reduce objective knowledge to what is measurable by science and reason. And thus relegating what is religious to the subjective realm, what Schleiermacher called the pre-conscious feeling of absolute dependence.
  • Fundamentalist: reducing the Bible to the function of scientific and rational knowledge!

Or to put it another way:

The liberal response: The question was, “How do we get the modern world to listen to the Bible?” How can we make the Bible intelligible to the modern world?

The fundamentalist response: How do we get modern certainty — absolute, objective knowledge — from the Bible? Both questions were mistaken from the beginning.

Newbigin suggests a third and very different question altogether that I find to be profound: The question that we have to put to the world instead is, “how can the world make any sense at all without the gospel?” Again, as Article 6 declares, on the sufficiency of Scripture unto salvation. We look nowhere else but to the person and work of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit.

A Gospel or Christ-centered view of Scripture, in other words, interpreting Scripture with Scripture, but also interpreting Scripture through the lens of the person and work of Christ.

Discrepancies in Scripture: Obviously, when we read the Bible, the are some great tensions. Put the book of Joshua, for example, alongside the sermon on the Mount, and you have a problem, potentially.

  1. First of all, the ultimate clue is in Jesus himself.
  2. Secondly, we recognize in the Bible we have the story of God leading a people to a deeper understanding of his nature, so we have to read the former(the people) in the light of the latter (God’s nature). When Jesus says, “You have heard it said… but I say unto you,” there is not an absolute discontinuity, but Jesus is bringing an old commandment to its full strength and deeper understanding in his own teaching.
  3. Thirdly, that means we have to read every text in the context of the Gospel itself! The Gospel is the clue for our understanding of Scripture. This also means that we read every text in its cultural context, as well as with sensitivity to our cultural context.