Science in Christian Perspective



Revelation, History, And the Bible

From JASA 9 (September 1957): 15-18.

At the heart of biblical religion is revelation. The presupposition of biblical religion is that man's predicament is so involved that he is incapable of finding God. Left to himself, man's religious quest leads to futility. However, God has not left man to himself. God has taken the initiative to bring men that which they could not achieve: knowledge of God, and the fellowship which grows out of that knowledge. This divine activity involves both revelation and redemption. God has acted to impart to men, who are in bondage to ignorance and sin, knowledge of and fellowship with God.

What does revelation involve? How is it accomplished? And in particular, what is the place of the Bible in revelation? This last question is vigorously debated in contemporary theological discussion. Orthodox theology has maintained that revelation has taken place in the Bible, that the Scriptures themselves are divine revelation, that the Bible is the Word of God. There has arisen a powerful reaction to this traditional position on the part of some theologians. Such thinkers insist that the medium of revelation is redemptive history rather than a book. The content of revelation is not truth about God to be stated in propositional form,

Paper given at the 2nd Joint ASA-ETS meeting at Wheaton, Illinois, June 1957.

but it is God himself, who through revelation imparts himself to men. Revelation conveys not knowledge about God but knowledge of God.

A vigorous presentation of this modern point of view may be found in John Baillie's American Bampton lectures delivered at Columbia University.1 Baillie has some excellent passages on the historical character of biblical religion. Other sacred books consist of oracles setting forth timeless truths to instruct man in his conduct and worship. The Bible records what God has done to bring man into fellowship with himself. The Mosiac law is set apart from other legal codes in being based upon a covenant between Israel and God which is conceived as taking place in history. The prophetic oracles differed from other oracles in antiquity in that they are concerned with the meaning of definite historical situations rather than with timeless truth. While the great philosophies offer a new interpretation of old and universal facts and pagan religions, attempt to provide man with a new relationship to an old situation, biblical religion has something new to announce. God has done something. New events have occurred which place men in a situation in which they have never been before. The Gospel is indeed "good news."

Through this historical revelation culminating in Christ, God has not merely made himself known; He has given himself that men might enter into fellowship with God. If revelation consisted chiefly of theological propositions, the reaction required of men would be intellectual assent. This, however, is not what God requires; it is rather complete committal, trust, that there might ensue a life of fellowship with and dependence upon God.

There is indeed, Baillie admits, an element of assent; but this intellectual element plays a distinctly subordinate role in man's response to revelation. Only wholehearted trust which responds to God's giving of himself in revelation is an adequate response. In fact, such a response is necessary for revelation actually to exist. Revelation is never complete, i.e., the process of the divine impartation is never consummated without this human response.

In this process, the Bible is not revelation but a witness to revelation. It is both a record of what God has done in revelation and it is the response of men contemporary to the divine act which completes the revelation. As men in subsequent ages read the witness and, led by the Spirit, respond to God's revelatory act in Christ as did the prophets and the apostles so that the prophetic response becomes our response, then revelation becomes a completed reality.

This theology of revelation as recital and response rather than as proposition is offered as a challenge to the traditional view that the Bible is a part of the revelation itself. The traditional view which is no longer acceptable is described as an "ecclesiastical formulation which identified revelation with the written word of Scripture and gave to the action of God in history the revelational status only of being among the things concerning which Scripture informed US."3 In other words, Baillie accuses orthodox theology of emphasizing the role of the Bible in revelation to the practical exclusion of revelation in historical events.

The "ecclesiastical formulation" as it is described by Baillie is not the only interpretation held by modern theologians who stand in the traditional stream of interpretation. Perhaps there is a type of traditional or thodoxy which has not given adequate recognition to the revelational character of redemptive history. Indeed, Earle E. Cairns in his excellent survey of "Philosophy of History" in the recent volume on Contemporary Evangelical Thought rejects the concept of Holy or Redemptive History because of his desire to emphasize that God has exercised a providential control over all of history. The idea that God has uniquely revealed himself in one strand of history or that there is a sacred history which bears a revelatory significance over against secular or general history suggests to Professor Cairns a denial of the unity and continuity of history.5 "God comes into the historical process in the Incarnation of Christ.'16 However, we do not feel such a denial of special or redemptive revelatory history is an essential element in an orthodox understanding of revelation. On the contrary, the recognition of the historical character of both biblical theology in general and revelation in particular seems essential to an adequate interpretation of biblical religion. However, a cordial recognition of history as the vehicle of revelation does not lead to a denial that the Bible is itself a part of revelation, as Baillie suggests; and the demonstration of this fact is the main thesis of this paper.

The role of redemptive history in revelation is recognized, if not stressed, by Carl F. H. Henry in his essay "Divine Revelation and the Bible."7 "Special revelation involves unique historical events of divine deliverance. . ..The category of revelation is therefore broader than the category of the spoken and written words of Scripture, since it covers special historic events which the Bible normatively interprets.... Revelation cannot, therefore, be equated simply with the Hebrew Christian Scriptures; the Bible is a special segment within a larger divine activity of revelation."8

Certainly Henry's view squares with the teachings of Scripture. The Bible is very conscious that God has spoken unto the fathers in the prophets in diverse manners (Heb. 1:1). One of these modes of conveying the Word of God is historical events. We need not be afraid of the af irmation that God has revealed himself in redemptive history. God has spoken in many ways, through more than one medium.

We should agree with Baillie that the historic character of Biblical religion provides both its distinctiveness and its glory. Theology is not simply a set of universal truths, a system of philosophical concepts. The so-called "Old Liberalism" of men like Adolf Harnack is subject to the criticism that it reduced the kernel of Christianity to a few religious truths of universal character: the Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the infinite value of the human soul, and the ethic of love. This is not biblical Christianity. The Bible asserts that God does indeed exercise a providential control over all human history, but that in one strand of history God has been uniquely active in special revelation. Revelation asserts that God has done something, that the divine activity is to be seen in the stream of redemptive history as nowhere else, and that God himself has finally entered history in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, to bring man into fellowship with himself. God is indeed revealed in the Jesus of history. "He that hath seen me hath seen the Father" (John 14:9). The providence of God may be recognized in general history, but God has not revealed himself redemptively to men in the history of Chinese civilization, Greek philosophy, Roman law or Egyptian religion. Only in holy history, in the history of the covenant people Israel, has God made himself redemptively known.

There is indeed one important circle of contemporary theological thought which is embarrassed by the historical character of revelation, for it seems to make theology dependent upon the relatives of historic research. The modern understanding of history is such that many thinkers are offended by the idea that one i1piece" or strand of history can contain meanings which are absolute and by which all other history is judged. The effort has therefore been made to free Christian theology from its involvement in history-an effort which has not been successfully accomplished.9

While we may cordially agree that the events of redemptive history are revelatory, that God has spoken in the events of the history of Israel and above all in Jesus Christ, we must emphasize that the revelation in acts is not left to speak for itself. Revelation in historical events might not always be recognized as such. Baillie recognizes this fact and, following C. H. Dodd, admits that "history" consists of the historical occurrence plus its interpretation or meaning. It is the total structure of the historical event plus the interpretation which is God's Word to man. The events by themselves are capable of other explanations, but the prophetic interpretation recognizes the divine activity in the historical event, and the prophetic interpretation becomes itself a new event. 10

This is a correct statement of the biblical pattern, so far as it goes. However, the problem arises at this point: Does the biblical concept of revelation recognize anything that is normative and authoritative in the interpretation of the revelatory historical this prophetic event? Neo-orthodox theologians see nothing in human interpretation which is authoritative. The prophetic interpretation is a purely human response which completes the divine act in history so that it becomes revelation to the person responding. The Bible is the witness to the act-revelation and the record of the human response which completes it. The man who today reads the witness to revelation and responds as did the prophets and apostles enters into the same experience of revelation. God becomes reality to him as He did to them.

This, however, is not the biblical pattern. Rather, the interpretation is not merely a human reaction to the divine act but is itself a divine act. The prophetic interpretation is itself the Word of God, which is necessary to convey the divine meaning of the historical event. Redemptive history has a character of once-for-allness. The death of Christ is an unrepeatable event. The apostolic interpretation of the death of Christ also shares this character of once-for-allness. There is a divinely intended meaning in the events of redemptive history which is not always self-evident. This meaning is conveyed in the prophetic and the apostolic interpretation. Therefore, the total event includes the historical act plus the prophetic interpretation; and both share the character of once - for - all ness. There must indeed be a human response to revelation as each individual embraces the redemptive act of God for his own experience. This, however, is not revelation but illumination.

We may illustrate this fundamental principle that the revelatory event consists of occurrence plus authoritative meaning at two points. God singled out Saul to be king over Israel. The divine selection was made clear to Saul and the people through the prophet Samuel (I Sam. 10:24). Both Saul and the people accepted this .appointment as the act of God. Yet Saul forgot the source of his appointment. He lost sight of the divine hand upon him and assumed that the authority was his own to exercise as he desired. The result was the divine announcement, again through the prophetic voice of interpretation, that God had now rejected Saul and was to cast him aside (I Sam. 15:17-28). Not only was God active in the elevation and subsequent rejection of Saul from the throne; God also spoke through the prophetic interpretation of these events. "Then came the word of the Lord unto Samuel" (I Sam. 15-10). Saul's apostasy was against the Word of the Lord (I Sam. 15: 23). The Word of the Lord through Samuel, the interpretative prophetic utterance, is itself a part of the event. God spoke through the events; but these were made meaningful by a further word, the prophetic interpretation, which is also God's act. The revelatory event, therefore consists not in "bare" historical events, nor in an historical event plus a human reaction to it. Revelation consists of occurrence plus an authoritative interpretation which comes from the Lord. The prophetic word is not a mere witness to revelation; it is itself a part of the revelatory event; indeed, that part of it without which the "bare" fact might not be understood.

We have cited an event which does not convey theological meanings; but the same principle is essential to understand the relationship between history and theology. The death of Christ is an historical event. Paul says that it is the proof, the demonstration of the love of God (Romans 5:8). How do we know that Christ's death discloses the love of God? Were the Roman soldiers conscious of God's love as they watched Jesus die? Were the few disciples who stayed close to the cross drawn there because they realized that in this act God was demonstrating His love for them? Was the love of God in Christ's death self-evident? On the contrary, they thought the end of their world had come. Their reaction was, "We had hoped . (Luke 24:21 R.S.V.).

How did the idea that Christ's death revealed the love of God arise? Floyd V. Filson's stimulating book, Jesus Christ The Risen Lord,11 tells us that the early interpretation of the cross grew out of Christian experience. The early Christians became aware that Christ had died for their benefit, that God in Christ had done for them what they could not do for themselves. "Out of their failure had come a realization of the forgiving goodness of God and His Christ, . . This theology grew out of the personal experience of those who were nearest to Jesus."12

As one tries to understand the accounts of the disciples' reaction to Jesus' death, it is difficult to reconstruct the steps or the process by which their experience led them to a theology of the love of God in the death of Christ. Nor does Filson attempt this reconstruction. He leaves the reader with serious gaps in the historical reconstruction. He fails to demonstrate the sources of the disciples' experience. Experience produced theology: but what produced their experience?

It is true that the formulation of primitive Christian theology grew out of Christian experience; but the fact seems to be that Christian experience could only arise where there was a given theological interpretation of the meaning of Christ's death. Christ's death at first seemed to be utter, tragic defeat. Only when the Resurrection of Christ reversed the apparent catastrophe of his death, and when the risen Christ himself interpreted for them the meaning of his death (Luke 24:26-27), did it begin to convey new meaning and to become the act of God's love. Experience was based on the death of Christ as interpreted by Christ himself. We know that Jesus' death shows the love of God only because of our Lord's own prophetic interpretation of that event. This interpretation is normative, authoritative. It cannot be displaced by any alternate interpretations, for it is itself revelation which comes from God.

This analysis indicates the role of the Bible in revelation. The prophetic words were sometimes spoken, sometimes written; but they are always necessary. God's revelatory act was consummated in Jesus Christ. He is an historical character, and the Gospel stands or falls with the historicity of His person and ministry. But the event of Jesus Christ is not "bare" event; the meaning of the "Christ event" is set forth in the apostolic interpretation, i.e., in our New Testament. This interpretation is itself revelation. It is a divinely initiated, normative statement of what God did and said in Christ. The events of redemptive history can never be repeated, nor can the prophetic interpretation ever be repeated. Both are normative; both participate in the character of once-for-allness.

The inspired interpretation includes propositional truth. "God is love." This is a proposition, but much more than a proposition. It is a truth which can be understood only through the historical event of Christ's death, as that event is prophetically interpreted. Such truth requires the assent of the reader, but intellectual assent is not enough. It demands personal response, commitment, trust. It is true that in revelation and as a result of revelation, God gives Himself. Revelation has a redemptive purpose. But this divine self-giving includes knowledge about God as well as knowledge of God. I must know something about God before I can commit myself to God. The continuing human response to the divine revelation includes both mind and heart: in fact, the whole man. It is the business of orthodox Christianity to defend the truth. Apart from assured truth we have no certain message to proclaim. But it is even more imperative for orthodox Christianity to propagate revealed truth, to proclaim to sinful men the reality of the self-revealed God, that lost men may be brought back to fellowship with the living God.

(1) The Idea of Revelation in Recent Thought (New York, 1956).
(2) Ibid., p. 52f.
(3) Ibid., p. 62.
(4) Ed. by Carl F. H. Henry (New York: Channel Pr., 1953) pp. 181-211.
(5) Op. cit., p. 203.
(6) Ibid., P. 208.
(7) In Inspiration and Interpretation, John W. Walvoord, ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957) pp. 253-278.
(8) Ibid., p. 264f.
(9) Cf.
Paul King Jewett, Emil Brunner's Concept of Revelation (London, 1954).
(10) Op. cit., p.
(11) New York: Abingdon, 1956.
(12) Ibid., p. 124.