Biblical Inerrancy IV: Revelation, General and Specific
God’s friendship with men begins and grows through speech; His to us in revelation, and ours to Him in prayer and praise. Though I cannot see God, He and I can yet be personal friends, because in revelation He talks to me.
- J.I. Packer
We previously covered the ground rules and introduction to the series, reduced confusion by separating terms and ideas often confused with inerrancy, identified the faulty arguments against inerrancy, and defined inerrancy. If you haven’t reviewed these, please do!
There are two basic building blocks to any faith system – ontological (who God is) and epistemological (how we know God). While the two are certainly intertwined, we can only develop ontological ideas through epistemology. How can we know God?
Unlike the gods of the imagination and the gods made of wood and stone, our God speaks! (Deut 4:33). We call the ways God speaks “revelation”, how he reveals himself to us. If it were not for the fact that he has spoken, we could not know him. Revelation can be practically defined as "the unveiling of something that is hidden so that it may be seen and known for what it is.” It is not the creation of truth into existence, but exposing the truth present and making it known. A simple metaphor: an auction of a painting under cloth, and the moment when the cloth is pulled away is revelation. The auctioneer did not make the painting, but he revealed it. God’s truth is not created in revelation but made known in it. Thus, every truth we know given to us by revelation is given to us as an act of God’s grace. Without it we would be left in the dark. Karl Barth wrote, “God did not have to tell us these things but in his grace did. There can be arrogant professors of science, English, history, etc, but there can be no proud theologian, because every truth they study is given to them by grace.” Revelation is not a matter of human discovery, but of divine disclosure.
The Bible speaks of the revelation of God; that he has chosen what to reveal of himself. In Psalm 19 we read of how the created order speaks of God’s nature. Matthew 11 shows that God reveals some things to some and keeps them from others, and only God himself knows everything about God: At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. See also Matthew 16:13-17. We need revelation because God is transcendent because He is so much greater than us, He is holy, He is pure, He’s beyond our comprehension. We’re fallen and finite. Thus we need Him to do something to bring us to Him. This gulf can only be reached, not by man reaching in through human exploration of someone, but given by God. The fullest and most direct is the Incarnation (God coming to Earth as the man, Jesus Christ), but all revelation is from God. He must bridge the gulf.
There are two primary divisions of revelation – general and specific (often called ‘special’).
General revelation is general in its scope and its substance. It reveals God’s power, wisdom, etc. There are two avenues of general revelation – creation and the conscience of man.
Romans 1 gives a detailed description of the revelation of creation: For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools. Creation attests to God’s existence, power and glory.
Man’s conscience is the other avenue of general revelation. As demonstrated in Romans 2, man’s conscience is the revelation of God written on man’s hearts, expressed in moral sensibility, moral action and moral judgment; “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”
These things are true across time and across cultures. When Abraham tells the king of
It is specific in scope and substance. Scope – it is given to some, not to all: to Abraham, and no one else; to
1) Personal Encounter: God confronting and talking to people. Examples include Adam, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Samuel, Elijah, Isaiah, Daniel, and Mary. Think of the burning bush – God speaking directly to an individual, which is not shared (at least in actual experience) with anyone else.
2) Mighty Act: God’s action (aside from speaking) that is an amazing work – creation, the Exodus, the Assyrian plague (2 Kings 19 & Is 36-39), the Cross & the Resurrection. While acts such as the burning bush or Jonah’s survival in the belly of a whale are also mighty acts, they are acts between God and an individual. Mighty acts are acts of God that involve whole groups, in a revelation that can be attested to by more than one individual.
3) Propositional Revelation: Revelation in the form of human language. It includes poetic, narrative, parable, didactic statements. It is a larger category than Scripture (an obvious example of propositional revelation), because it includes things said that were not recorded (as stated at the end of the Gospel of St. John for example). Read Peter’s sermon to Cornelius in Acts 10. It only takes 20 seconds to read aloud – do we think Peter spoke a 20 second sermon that lead to the conversion of a whole group of Gentiles? Obviously not!
4) Incarnation: Is all three of the avenues of special revelation taken together. In fact, it is the greatest example of each. Deut 18:15 was fulfilled! Jesus quotes Moses – “You have heard that it was said” then goes on to say, “But I say unto you”! How can he speak with more authority than Moses? Because he is the Incarnation of God himself! Moses brought them the words from God, but Jesus, as God, could tell them exactly what his intent with the giving of the law was!
What is the importance of special revelation? It is the only way that the gospel is delivered (Psalm 19:7-11, Hebrews 2:3, 2 Tim 3:15) and because it is specific, it must be obeyed. Also, if special revelation is the only method of salvation, we must bring the gospel to all – 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 shows how it is through the preaching of the word that men are saved, and Acts 4:2 and Roman 10:8-17 demonstrates that faith in Jesus Christ specifically heard through the proclamation of propositional revelation, is the only way to come to eternal life.
Without God’s interpretations of His actions, they would not have been fully understood. Many witnessed the Exodus out of
A revelation through words is also necessary for personal relationship. The warm personal relationships of life are carried on by means of conversation, and the deaf man is largely severed from those relationships. The soundless world is far more frustrating than the sightless world. Radio drama is entertaining, but a television drama without its soundtrack is robbed of meaning. In life as in drama it is the word which carries the meaning; it is the word which is the element of cohesion; and it is the word which is the necessary presupposition for warm personal friendships. God’s special revelation is designed for personal fellowship, and this requires words so that we might understand the actions of God and respond to them.
It is necessary to note here that there is no conflict (despite the assertions of some) between Christ as the personal Word of God and God’s verbal Word. It is, of course, possible to focus on the words of Scripture without fellowshipping with the living Word of whom it speaks – this is a real danger in legalist fundamentalism in particular. Indeed, some of the Jews in Jesus’ day studied the Scriptures intently, believing (truthfully) them to give the way of life. But Jesus told them, “It is these [Scriptures] that bear witness of me; and you are unwilling to come to me, that you might have life” (John 5:39-40). Unfortunately some “Bible-believing” people know all about the Bible, but they do not have a living relationship with Christ.
Yet, according to the Scriptures, there can be no real separation between the written words and the personal Word. In our own communication with another person, his or her words are the way we get to know that person’s thoughts and feelings. In a real sense a person’s words are an extension of that individual as he or she seeks to bridge the distance between himself or herself and another. The assertion that we cannot know someone through their words is illogical, for “out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaketh”. We cannot understand actions without words to express the intentions and beliefs of the person who makes those actions. I and Mary Beth both have read books by Marcus Borg, but unless we tell you what we think of those books and why we read them, you have no idea how we relate to those books. Similarly, the living God who came to earth in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, reveals his heart and mind to humanity through the medium of language, the verbal word of God.
A warning comes with these revelations – these specific revelations exist, which eliminates the use of our intuitions to determine if or how they happened or not. Our intuitions, unless we are people who spend hours a day for years investing in Scripture, are shaped primarily by our culture, our experiences, and our emotions, and are hence notoriously unreliable, because they are not a revelation by God, but a creation of man and his surroundings.
Jesus no longer walks among us as a man. The Holy Spirit communicates with men, but how can one man know if the Spirit has communicated with another man, or if he is mistaken? We cannot exclusively rely upon personal communication with God for our doctrine and directions. A good example is the Worldwide Anglican Communion. The Western, affluent arm of the communion has significant numbers who claim that homosexual ordination is acceptable. The rest of the communion disagrees. Both claim communion with the spirit and agreement in their local church communities. Therefore, the only final and authoritative source of revelation must be an inerrant Scripture, which can be read by all men, and can help us discern when men are speaking from the influence of the spirit, or from the influence of something else in matters of doctrine, faith, and practice.
Obviously many do not always agree. Those who disagree on the roles of these types of revelation and how they relate to an inerrant scripture are the subject of the next post, “Alternate Views of Scripture”, which will be followed by the conclusion to the series, “Why It Matters” that will defend the need for inerrancy.