Is Christianity a Revealed Religion ?
The claim that Christianity is a revealed religion is a long-standing one. It has been made recently by Packer, Morris and Milne but according to Swinburne, it was universally acknowledged as the Christian claim up until the eighteenth century. The manner and extent of revelation have been debated by Christians without a clear consensus emerging, but this only serves to highlight the "impressive agreement on the fact of revelation." The claim goes back to the founders of Christianity, Christ and his Apostles, and was not simply an invention of the last three centuries thought up in response to the loss of Christianity’s "self-evident validity".
The Concept of Revelation
The claim to be a revealed religion is made to distinguish Christianity from various other religious systems which claim no origin outside of the created order, and which may be (pejoratively?) described as "man-made". Christian theology claims not to be the accumulation of ancient wisdom - mankind’s best thoughts on the topics of the day - nor is it "an exercise in religious self-expression". The idea behind the word "revelation" is the disclosure of something previously unknown. To claim Christianity is a revealed religion is to set it apart from the Aristotelian idea of an inactive God, discovered through argumentation. Usually, it also refers to an active deity involved in a purposeful act of revealing, rather than a passive God who allows himself/itself to be revealed. Integral to the Christian claim is that God himself is both the agent and the object of revelation.
What, it is claimed, is revealed about God is not exhaustive knowledge. It is not possible to know everything about the Christian’s God. It is however possible to know truly, without knowing exhaustively. It has been suggested that we cannot know God as he is in himself but only as we experience him/it. This is a false antithesis: there is no reason why knowledge that is gained in relation to something should be merely relative or unreal. We may have no access to the inner being of God but all this means is that the initiative remains with him to reveal something of himself if he so chooses.
So, revelation is the deliberate and active disclosure by God of something previously unknown which communicates real but not exhaustive knowledge.
How God reveals
"Revelation means the whole work of God making himself known to men and women; the theme embraces on the one hand, all the words and deeds of God in which the biblical writers recognized his self-disclosure, and, on the other hand, all that is involved in the encounter through which God brings successive generations to know Him through knowledge of the biblical facts." This statement by Packer brings to our attention four areas of revelation. We will look at each in turn to discover more of the meaning of this claim.
The Deeds of God
There are two specific types of God’s works. The first is the whole area of what is known as General Revelation. (We will leave the other type, God’s actions in redemptive history, until the next section where they will be dealt with more fully under the heading of The Words of God.) General Revelation is that revelation which is potentially available to all people everywhere. Classically, there are three areas of general revelation in which God works to reveal himself and his purposes: in man, in nature, and in history.
"God has revealed himself to all men in the conflicts of their moral experience." A sense of right and wrong, a sense that punishment and reward are appropriate to each and an internal "inkling" that God exists are undoubtedly universal. This argument from experience and reason leads Calvin to the conclusion that "a sense of divinity is by nature engraven on human hearts." There is biblical support for this argument, particularly Romans 1-2. Mankind, being made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) bears some marks of God’s character within itself: relational personhood, creativity and other human attributes may also suggest similarities with the Creator.
"The greatness and beauty of created things gives us a corresponding idea of the Creator." (Wisdom of Solomon 13:5). Something of God’s character is mirrored in his creation, not just in mankind, but also in nature. This was one of Paul’s points of contact with his pagan audiences. At Lystra for example, he points out that God has "not left himself without testimony" but has revealed his kindness in his provision of rain, crops, food and the seasons (Acts 14:17). Psalm 19 speaks of the heavens themselves (the skies full of stars, the heat and light of the sun etc.) constantly declaring the glory of God to all. This, according to Paul, points clearly to God’s existence and power (Romans 1:18-21), so that "even unlettered and stupid folk cannot plead the excuse of ignorance... there is no spot in the universe wherein you cannot discern at least some sparks of his glory."
Some hold that the course of history also displays something of God’s nature. Not just in the rise and fall of nations but in the smaller-scale providential acts of God, we may discern his hand. Evidently this is a much more difficult task, as Psalm 107 points out and following which Calvin comments that, "to weigh these works of God wisely is a matter of rare and singular wisdom."
The discipline of natural theology seeks to formulate a doctrine of God from such general revelation, but on its own it is an insufficient and potentially ambiguous source. This is not a fault inherent in God’s works themselves, or in general revelation objectively, but one which arises in our subjective appropriation of the revelation. The diversity among philosophers who have attempted to describe the God revealed in this way is shameful, because trying to penetrate into heaven is useless unless our eyes are "illumined by the inner revelation of God through faith". It is too pessimistic to say that general revelation does not register at all in the "sin darkened mind of the unregenerate" and too optimistic to say it is sufficient for salvation. Rather, we must on balance affirm the objectivity of the revelation alongside its limited utility in mediating knowledge of God. Something of God can be perceived by the sense and grasped with the mind by observing God’s works, but it is always obscured by the faithless eyesight of our sinful nature. There is a possibility of revelation here, but only if God chooses to override this defect in us.
God’s divinity and power are clearly seen, understood and made known to all, but the minds of human beings are blinded (by sin) and they resist and reject it. Moreover, contemplation of God’s works in man, in nature and in history may well call attention to a moral and spiritual defect in us, but it does not and cannot reveal a solution for it. Therefore, Christianity affirms the reality of truth revealed in this manner, but it also affirms its limitations.
The Words of God
William Temple wished to retain the concept of Christianity as a revealed religion in his book Nature, Man and God . However, he sought to avoid linking revelation too closely with Scripture by claiming that, "There is no such thing as revealed truth. There are truths of revelation, that is to say propositions which express the results of correct thinking concerning revelation; but they are not in themselves directly revealed." What he wanted to avoid was saying that God had spoken in some kind of verbal revelation and to affirm instead that God had revealed himself in certain events of the past. These special events, like the Exodus, the Exile and the Cross of Christ constitute redemptive history, the main arena of God’s revelation. But in the oft-quoted words of Knox, "if revelation is in the event rather than in the interpretation, revelation becomes like a nose of wax to be reshaped according to every man’s whim." The sort of revealed religion we would be left with if Temple was correct would be susceptible to change with every passing season, and we would not be able to know God at all. The plain fact is that "no event is self-interpreting" ; God must explain his actions in redemptive history if they are to function as revelation. Without his words to explain the significance of what he is doing we are left to grope in the dark with only our best guesses to guide us to the divine.
God is truly concerned to reveal himself and does not simply "guide our minds into right thoughts about Him as we watch Him in action." His self-revelation is too important to be left to such a blunt instrument. He has spoken through the prophets, through his Son and through the apostles to explain and interpret his mighty deeds. This is the unmistakable force of the phrase, "Thus says the Lord" found constantly on the lips of men like Moses and Ezekiel; it is Peter’s claim in Acts 10:42, that the Lord Jesus had commanded him to preach and to bear witness to specific truths about God’s purposes; and it is the clear teaching of Jesus when he claims that his words are not his own (John 7:16; 14:24). Not only does God explain himself whenever he acts ("Surely the Sovereign Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets." Amos 3:7) but often prefaces those acts, even at long distance, by verbal predictions and explanations.
How Jeremiah or Malachi (for example) knew that the message they verbally delivered was of God we are not told, but they were convinced and compelled to speak and act as if it were. At certain points in Israel’s history signs and wonders accompanied the words of the prophets (particularly Moses and Elijah) as a seal of authentication/confirmation on their words. Even when these were not forthcoming however, God’s voice was somehow recognised. This verbal revelation, mediated through the prophets, is God’s usual method of revelation in the Old Testament; only once do the people of Israel hear God’s voice unmediated, and it so terrifies them that they beg Moses to never let it happen again! (Exodus 20: 18-19). Moreover, God speaking is itself an event in redemptive history; even the Creation was preceded by God’s instrumental "Let there be light." We cannot separate word and deed.
Encounter With God
"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." (Hebrews 1:1-2). God has not simply revealed himself in deeds, or even in word and deed together. His definitive revelation was made personally, in his Son. To a particular group of people at a particular time in history, God revealed himself in human form. As Jesus himself told his apostle Philip, "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father." (John 14:9). Personal encounter with Christ, not just revelation in words or deeds, is a distinctively Christian revelation. Such personal encounters did not cease with Christ’s ascension; in Acts, Luke describes how Jesus continued to encounter men and women through his Spirit (Acts 1:1, with the implication that volume 2 is about the continuing acts of Jesus). The apostle Paul describes his own personal encounter with Christ thus: "when God ... was pleased to reveal his Son in me" (Galatians 1:15-16).
This aspect of divine revelation has been stressed in recent years. It is said that revelation is personal, not propositional. So, William Temple can affirm that, "What is offered to man’s apprehension in any specific Revelation is not truth concerning God but the living God himself." This, however, is just another evasion of verbal revelation. For, in the words of Leon Morris, "How can we know God unless we know something about him?" This idea that revelation is more personal than propositional is another manifestation of the twentieth century’s obsession with the idea of personality and relationship; it fails to realise however that relationships require propositional content to function. "Revelation is certainly more than the giving of theological information, but it is not and cannot be less... To say that revelation is non-propositional is actually to depersonalize it." It is a wonderful truth that God loves us and wants to enter into a personal relationship with each one of us, but if he cannot speak we have a dumb "Lover-God who makes no declarations."
Personal encounter with God is vital to revelation, but it does not usually occur in the absence of verbal communication of some kind. Indeed, the usual means of experiencing God is through his word. Revelation is not just the broadcasting of divinely guaranteed information, but a personal confrontation. When we meet his word, we meet God, and are called to respond to him as the author of that word.
The Word of Scripture
The fact that God speaks to us in his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, must not allow us to detract from the means whereby we come to hear of him. As Henry succinctly puts it, "We must distinguish between the ontological Word incarnate and the epistemological word inscripturate." It is vital to stress this, not only in view of the attacks made on the Scriptural revelation by William Temple and non-propositional ideas of divine disclosure, but because of the more heavy-weight opposition of Karl Barth’s neo-orthodoxy. It is Barth’s claim that we know God in Christ, and in him alone. He denied the possibility of constructing a natural theology of even a limited kind from general revelation, and relegated Scripture from being the Word of God to being merely a testimony to that Word. Only Christ should be called the Word of God. The Bible contains only the words of men who experienced Christ and then bore witness to him in writing (and proclamation, of course). This seems to elevate Christ even above Scripture. Whilst it is not a bad motive to seek to elevate Christ, Barth went too far in his denials.
God’s word to humanity is more than just an existential encounter with the risen and ascended Lord Jesus. Even in the early days of the Church this was recognized to be so. Paul thanks God that the Thessalonians received, heard and accepted the gospel, the Word of God, not as the words of men but as God’s word (1 Thessalonians 2:13). This shows quite clearly that Paul did not consider "the Word of God" to be limited in definition to the ontological Word incarnate; the "word" is not just a personal but also a verbal revelation. Therefore, if special revelation gives us propositional truth and verbal communication from God himself, it is not surprising to find it written down in a book: "Only written documents are capable of preserving the insights communicated in revelation over time and making them available to the people who come later."
What the Scripture contains is not just a record of God’s deeds, or even of his explanatory words which accompanied those deeds. In Scripture itself we possess a revelation, which stands as valid for all time as a disclosure of the character and purposes of God. If it were merely the testimony of fallible men about Christ (although it most assuredly does remain human) and not God’s own authorized word, we would still be uncertain about whether we possessed revelation. For men can get it wrong, but in Scripture, God "opens his own most hallowed lips" to testify. It is not just a record of his word, it is his word. In comparison to General Revelation, the Scriptural Revelation is "a more direct and certain mark whereby [God] is to be recognized."
So, God reveals himself in man, in nature, in history, in redemptive acts, interpretive words, personal encounter and supremely in Scripture.
Objective Revelation, Subjective Appropriation
Despite the many and various ways in which Christianity can be seen as a revealed religion, it does not claim that the mechanism of revelation is an automatic one. We cannot compel God to speak, and our part in the process is by no means unimportant. The revelation is real but not coercive. "One of the many divine qualities of the Bible is this, that it does not yield its secrets to the irreverent and censorious." Profitable appropriation of revelation requires illumination through faith. Only then can it be accepted and become true revelation.
The Validity of the Claim
We have been considering the validity and coherence of the claim that Christianity is a revealed religion throughout this essay. Different theories have been examined as to the manner and extent of that supposed revelation, and we have examined the validity of those which seek to modify the traditional position.
Is the claim to have any revelation at all a valid one? Whether it is a true claim or not, it is certainly a strong possibility. For the atheist there is no God and therefore there can be no revelation. For the agnostic, if there is a God, he is unable or unwilling to speak clearly. If, however we may assume that there is a God is it valid to claim he has revealed anything? Several factors suggest that it is:
1. A supreme God "must necessarily be able to reveal himself."
2. "A deliberate, total self-effacement on God’s part [would be] a denial of love."
3. The kind of revelation we possess is of a kind to be expected.
4. Our own personal/relational nature might indicate a similar divine attribute issuing in
revelation, with the purpose of establishing relationship.
5. It is the only adequate explanation for Christianity.
6. It is the only adequate explanation for the distinctiveness of Old Testament religion.
7. It is the best explanation of the claims of the prophets, of Christ and of the apostles.
8. It is the best explanation for the Church’s claim to revelation.
Christianity is a revealed religion. We have explored the meaning of this claim. It is a valid one, and indeed, a true one. Therefore, let us not forget the words of Packer:
"God’s purpose in revelation is to make friends with us."