Posts

Revelation and our mode of understanding

It could perhaps be more helpful if we were to begin to see that all of God’s revelation to us is anthropomorphic. It is, then, essentially accomodated revelation; it is revelation accommodated to our mode of being and our mode of understanding. It is not, therefore, that God’s revelation is accommodated to us when it speaks, say, of God’s eyes or his arm or his repentance, while it is not accommodated to us when it speaks of his eternity. One quotation from Calvin may help us see the matter more clearly:

“What, therefore, does the word “repentance” mean? Surely its meaning is like that of all modes of speaking that describe God for us in human terms. For because our weakness does not attain to his exalted state, the description of him that is given to us must be accommodated to our capacity so that we may understand it. Now the mode of accommodation is for him to represent himself to us not as he is in himself, but as he seems to us. Althought he is beyond all disturbance of mind, yet he testifies that he is angry toward sinners.”

While there can be no question that there are truths given to us in God’s revelation that point to his essential character, and others that point to his covenantal character, we should be careful to note that those covenantal attributes of God’s are no less “literal” than are his essential attributes. God’s repentance, then, is not simply something that “seems to us” like repentance. It is literal repentance, he is (covenantally) changing directions because of his faithfulness to his covenant. But it is repentance of a condescended, covenant God who has come down, taking on the form of a creature, in order to glorify himself, and it is repentance that does not in any way sacrifice, undermine, or otherwise alter his essential character as a se. He repents, all the while remaining the eternal, immutable “I AM.”

K. Scott Oliphint,  in Reasons for Faith: Philosophy in the Service of Theology (P&R Publishing Company 2006), page 253-4.

Is Biblical inerrancy a late innovation of the Church?

One of the most persistent arguments against the inerrancy of the Bible is that it is late innovation in the history of the church. Inerrancy is said to be the product of the rationalist, Enlightenment mindset that prevailed in the nineteenth century and today, with the collapse of modernism, the rejection of foundationalism and other Cartesian assumptions, it is argued that inerrancy should be jettisoned with the now defunct philosophy that generated it.

While there are many ways to define inerrancy, the theological doctrine is usually understood as the view that the Bible is without error in all that it affirms (the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy remains a useful evangelical benchmark). Certainly, the Bible isn’t a catalogue of facts, and its truth canvasses literary genres that are rich and complex and must be appropriately grasped – but if God Himself does stand behind the production of the Bible, then it must be entirely truthful. Many Christians, however, are uncomfortable with the perceived contradictions between the Bible and discoveries in history and science or even internal difficulties within the Bible itself. Some have therefore sought to articulate more modest positions for what we can say Scripture is. Critical of inerrancy and what they see as a strict modernist understanding of the Bible, some promote a return to a more primitive, pre-modern understanding, where the Bible can be viewed as primarily concerned with questions of salvation and faith. Without a high view of the Bible, greater latitude can be allowed in its claims (and errors) concerning other fields of knowledge.

But does this suggestion hold up to scrutiny? Was the notion of an inerrant, infallible Bible a recent theological innovation, and merely the product of particular Enlightenment assumptions?

Without getting into a full discussion of inerrancy, several quick comments can be offered:

1. While it is true that the earliest proponents of inerrancy in the modern period, B. B. Warfield, A. A. Hodge and others, were shaped by the Enlightenment, this influence has been exaggerated. Critics have often argued that both Warfield and Hodge, writing in the late 1800s at Princeton University, were too heavily dependent on a modernist philosophy, known as Scottish Common Sense Realism. Scottish Realism was an outlook that affirmed the human ability to know, and set out conditions for what could count as knowledge. The outlook opposed the skepticism of David Hume and sought to revive the European Enlightenment commitments to science, rationality and the Christian tradition. What is ignored, however, is the fact that the contemporary opponents of Warfield and Hodge and of the doctrine of inerrancy they defended, were no less dependent on this same philosophical position. It is a simply a mistake to conclude that a high view of Scripture is anchored to one philosophical outlook when those who denied that high view were equally reliant on the same outlook.

2. The fact that the Dutch and Germans adopted a similarly high view of Scripture cannot be avoided, and especially when these theologians were not dependent on the same philosophical outlook, and at times, even fought against it. Among the European Reformed heritage, heavyweights like Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck both put forward a view of Scripture that accorded with Warfield and the other Princetonians. For example, Kuyper, while recognizing the diverse literary categories of the Bible, argued that if Scripture contained error, than “God is guilty of error”. (For a deeper discussion on these two, check out: ‘God’s Word in Servant-Form: Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck on the Doctrine of Scripture’ by Richard B. Gaffin Jr.)

3. While there may not have been any attempt to articulate a comprehensive theory of inerrancy before Warfield et al, it is wrong to suggest that inerrancy was not the default view of the church. The best endeavours to assign inerrancy to a late stage of historical development have been ably criticized and do not bear up to rigorous historical research. Church historian Mark Noll has observed: “Most Christians in most churches since the founding of Christianity have believed in the inerrancy of the Bible . . . . [This] has always been the common belief of most Catholics, most Protestants, most Orthodox, and even most of the sects on the fringe of Christianity”.

John Woodbridge has marshaled many examples from church history to show that the suggestion that there was no idea of an infallibly inerrant Scripture before Warfield is mistaken. For example, Justin Martyr, an early Christian apologist in the second century, wrote:

“…but if (you have done so) because you imagined that you could throw doubt on the passage, in order that it might say the Scriptures contradicted each other, you have erred. But I shall not venture to suppose or to say such a thing; and if a Scripture which appears to be of such a kind be brought forward, and if there be a pretext (for saying) that it is contrary (to some other), since I am entirely convinced that no Scripture contradicts another, I shall admit rather that I do not understand what is recorded, and shall strive to persuade those who imagine that the Scriptures are contradictory, to be rather of the same opinion as myself”.

Or Augustine of Hippo, a Latin church theologian and philosopher, writing in the fourth century said, ” I have learned to yield this respect and honor only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error”. Or again: “therefore everything written in Scripture must be believed absolutely”.

Others have shown that inerrancy has been a central church doctrine from the patristic times. Donald Bloesch notes that inerrabilis (roughly “inerrant”) was used by Aquinas and Duns Scotus to describe Scripture, while both Martin Luther and John Calvin characterized the Bible as being infallible and without error. Calvin, for example, described Scripture as an “unerring rule” for Christian life and faith (“So long as your mind entertains any misgivings as to the certainty of the word, its authority will be weak and dubious, or rather it will have no authority at all. Nor is it sufficient to believe that God is true, and cannot lie or deceive, unless you feel firmly persuaded that every word which proceeds form him is sacred, inviolable truth.” The Institutes of Christian Religion)

The notion that a high view of Scripture is tied to a particular philosophical outlook late in the history of church is simply misleading. Christians have sought to articulate the truthfulness of the Bible, on the same exegetical grounds, irrespective of their position in the history of the church. Don Carson, research professor of the New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, writes:

“If one insists that a high view of Scripture cannot or should not be maintained today, one should at least acknowledge that one is walking away from the ancient and central tradition of the church, and from the teaching of Scripture itself.”

General and Special Revelation

Last time we looked at different sources and norms for Christian belief, and found there were at least four legs that makes the stool a theologian sits on. These legs were Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. We also suggested there is another source and norm, and as we begin our overview on the Doctrine of Revelation we will be exploring this fifth leg – creation.

Romans 1:20

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 men are without excuse.

Psalms 19:1-4

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.
There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.

From these verses we find that it is possible to gain knowledge of God through nature. It does not say how much knowledge, but it does say that it is clearly evident. In church history there has generally been acknowledged that God is revealed in some way through that which he created. [1] We call this knowledge of God that is derived from nature general revelation. General revelation is contrasted with special revelation.

What is meant most often meant by special revelation is Scripture, but knowledge of God – and of other theological truth – can also be gained directly from the Holy Spirit, through miracles, through preaching, or perhaps through a personal word of prophecy. As noted last time in Sources and Norms all of these should conform to the norming norm of Scripture, which testifies of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God, who is the most authoritative and reliable special revelation possible.[2]

There are at least five features of General revelation that set its apart from Special revelation:

(1) General revelation is continuous whereas Special revelation is not continuous. It is continuous because there has never and will never be a time when it has not been available. Special revelation is given at certain times, but general revelation is there at all times.

(2) General revelation is natural whereas Special revelation is supernatural. To be natural is to be in accordance with the order and design of the universe. To be supernatural is to transcend (be beyond) that order and design.

(3) General revelation is available to all people whereas Special revelation is available to only certain people. Special revelation is distributed through the personal agents God chooses to use, including missionaries, evangelists and preachers. He may also use angels to spread the good news of the gospel. Jesus Christ, the greatest evangelist of all, witnessed to Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus. Because God chooses to use personal agents restrictions of time and place are involved. General revelation however is accessible to all people to clearly see.

(4) General revelation is non-specific whereas Special revelation is specific. That is Special revelation has the same content as General revelation, but it has more details and is far more clearly defined. In Romans 3:1-5 Paul explains that Jews, who were entrusted with the very words of God, saw more clearly their unrighteousness and God’s righteousness than did the Gentiles, who were not the recipients of the written law.

(5) General revelation is non-redemptive whereas Special revelation is redemptive. Though the revelation from nature is not sufficient for salvation, God can use it to prepare peoples hearts to accept the Special revelation that is sufficient. The lesser light of general revelation can draw people to accept the greater light of the Lord Jesus Christ.

On this last point we want to be careful, for there is nothing to tell us that there was not once a time when general revelation alone was efficacious to salvation. Some suggest that the point at which general revelation ceases to be efficacious for salvation is the point at which special revelation becomes available. This could be, for instance, when the gospel enters into a culture for the first time. It remains the case however that for most people general revelation is not enough to save, and that special revelation is also needed.

Two questions immediately arise here concerning general revelation. The first is, “Are people who are born blind and deaf able to receive general revelation? The answer is Yes!

Romans 2:14-15

Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.

Here we see that human conscience is a part of God’s creation. A ‘moral law’ is written on the heart of every person and testifies of God in some manner. So even a person whose experience of the world is impaired by blindness and deafness, they are still able to receive general revelation from their own conscience. Thus it is the case that no one is without excuse.

The second question is more difficult. If there is ample proof of God’s existence in the world so that all people are without an excuse, why are there so many people who do not believe in God?

In the previous verse Paul clearly states that people ‘suppress the truth by their wickedness.’[3] That is not to say that atheists are intentionally lying when they say there is no God. That is to say that human nature is so depraved we can deceive even ourselves. Because people refused to acknowledge God, even though his existence was made plain to them, they were coming under judgment. The following gives us clue on how they found themselves in this tremulous predicament. Paul writes:

Romans 2:21-22

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, . . . [they] exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

What was the result of this? “Their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.” (v.21) This was the first step in a downward progression of depravity and wickedness. So pernicious is this trend that Paul, after carefully expounding the gospel, implores his readers to worship God (unlike those who refused to acknowledge him) and be transformed by renewing the mind (countering the effects of not acknowledging him).[4]

Thomas Aquinas (c.1225–74), the Dominican monk from the scholastic tradition, is referred to as the father of Natural Theology. Natural Theology is the task of discovering what we can know about God and his truth wholly apart from special revelation. Aquinas is famous for his five arguments for God’s existence, which all find something in the world that, together with reason confirm that the book of scripture and the book of nature both agree with each other. We will explore in greater depth what Natural Theology can tell us when we cover the Doctrine of God, but for now it is enough to note that general revelation is the field in which Natural Theology is grown, and that Aquinas’ views on how nature and reason together speak of God’s existence became the official view of the Catholic Church.

Martin Luther (1483–1546), the great German reformer, though suspicious of philosophy and the scholastic tradition, nonetheless affirms that there is general revelation. Still, he wanted to stress that without Christ the picture was only ever limited and incomplete.

There is a twofold knowledge of God, genaral and particular. All people have the general knowledge, namely that God exists, that he has created heaven and earth, that he is righteous, that he punishes the wicked, etc. But people do not know what God proposes concerning us, what he wants to give and to do, so that he might deliver us from sin and death, and to save us – which is the proper and the true knowledge of God. Thus it can happen that someone’s face may be familiar to me but I do not really know him, because I do not know his intentions. So it is that people know natually that there is a God, but they do not know what he wants and does not want.[5]

John Calvin (1509-1564), the French theologian and reformer, is sometimes accused of having views that are anti general revelation. If we allowed him to speak for himself, we would see that this is not the case.

In order that no one might be excluded from the means of obtaining happiness, God has been pleased, not only to place in out minds the seeds of religion of which we have already spoken, but to make known his perfection in the whole structure of the universe, and daily place then in our view in such a manner that we cannot open our eyes without being compelled to observe him […] To prove his remarkable wisdom, both the heavens and the earth present us with countless proofs – not just those more advanced prods which astronomy, medicine and all the other natural sciences are designed to illustrate, but proofs which force themselves on the attention of the most illiterate peasant, who cannot open his eyes without seeing them.[6]

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), widely considered to be America’s greatest theologian, also recognizes that something of God’s person and character is communicated to us through the natural realm.

It is very fit and becoming of God, who is infinitely wise, so to order things that there should be a voice of His in His works, instructing those that behold him and painting forth and shewing divine mysteries and things more immediately appertaining to Himself and His spiritual kingdom. The works of God are but a kind of voice or language of God to instruct intelligent beings in things pertaining to Himself. And why should we not think that he would teach and instruct by His works in this way as well as in others, viz., by presenting divine things by His works and so painting them forth, especially since we know that God hath so much delighted in this way of instruction.[7]

For Edwards the magnificence of the visible world was a helpful way to describe God’s own greatness.[8] In this he took his cue from the pages of scripture.

Psalms 103:11

For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him;

Psalm 36:5-6

Your love, O LORD, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies.
Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your justice like the great deep.

Next time we will be looking at the doctrine of Inspiration.


[1] Roger E. Olson. Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2002) p. 74.

[2] Paul’s experience of the risen Lord on the Damascus Road was special revelation.

[3] The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. see Romans 1:18-19

[4] Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will. see Romans 12:1-2

[5] Martin Luther, Commentary on Galations; in Martin Luther Werke: Kritsche Gesamtausgabe, vol. 40 (Weimar: Bohlaus, 1911), 602.18-603.13, 607.19-609.14

[6] John Calvin, Institutes I.iii.1, 2; in Joannis Calvini: Opera Selecta, ed. P. Barth and W. Niesel, vol. 3 (Munich: Kaiser Verlag, 1928), 37.16-46.11.

[7] Jonathan Edwards, The Images of Divine Things, ed. Perry Miller (New Heaven, CT: Yale University Press, 1948), p. 61.

[8] Ibid., p. 134.