The central question of religion is that of revelation. May God be known? Has he revealed himself? If he may, if he has, where? In the Christian faith this question is asked side by side with that of salvation: If this God may be known, how may I come to him? What may be known of him? translates into How may I come to know him for myself? To put these questions alongside each other is to show how central is the question of the knowledge of God.
The Idea of Revelation. The claim of the Bible, from beginning to end, is that God has spoken. The repeated refrain, "And God said" tells how he called the universe into being and instructed his creatures to live. In Genesis 1 we read his mandate to the first humans, then in chapter 2 his specific instructions for life in Eden, and in chapter 3 his discovery of and response to the sin in all of which we read of this characteristic divine activity in speech. And the pattern established in the opening chapters of Scripture is repeated, with a dramatic range of variation, right through to the Book of Revelation. In law, prophets, and history we read the speech of God; the most common of all the Acts of God in history is the use of quotation marks. Small wonder that Christians have relished the apostle's use of the term "the oracles of God" for his Bible. Certainly, the prevalence of quoted divine speech, which peppers the canon, suggests a presumption in favor of speech as the category within which to understand God's communication with his creatures. That is why the Bible's own statements about the speaking God are in sharp focus when we address the question of the authority of "the books." For its religion is the religion of the speaking God, and a concern to maintain the continuity of contemporary Christianity with the religion of the biblical communities suggests a like understanding of God as the speaking God, and a like use of the texts that are held to record the divine speech. Such a reflection helps anchor our understanding and use of Scripture in the religious veneration and doctrinal authority of the Bible books in their original communities, which reaches its remarkable climax in the use made of the Old Testament Scriptures by Jesus himself, which set the pattern for the Christian understanding of both Old and New Testaments. And in the New Testament we witness a double focus, on Jesus as the incarnate Word of God, and as, himself, God who speaks and whose speaking is recorded at length. These factors together provide an anchor for the use of Scripture as a source for a doctrine of Scripture, in just the way in which Scripture is universally employed in the church as the source of every other doctrine. And they fill out a pattern of understanding of the God of biblical and Christian religion as a God who speaks.
Yet not only does he speak, he surely must. For how else would we know of God? Across the double barrier of our creatureliness and our sin, he has chosen to reveal himself and his saving purposes. To recognize Holy Scripture as the chief locus of that revelation is not to deny that there is also revelation elsewhere. Christians have customarily seen general revelation in creation and in conscience, distinguished from special, saving revelation in word (Holy Scripture), history (the "acts of God"), and the Person of Jesus Christ (incarnation). Much of the theological debate of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has been taken up with the relative significance of these loci of revelation. Evangelicals have sought to maintain a balance, tied firmly to the teaching of Scripture itself. Most have accepted general revelation, while resisting the suggestion that it might provide an adequate ground for salvation. They have welcomed the fresh stress on the revelatory significance of the Acts of God recorded in Scripture, though recoiled from the suggestion that such a historical focus to revelation should somehow be accessed in any other way than through Holy Scripture in which the revelatory speech of God himself records and interprets these events. And they have professed themselves uncomprehending of the accusation that their high view of Holy Scripture somehow demeans or undermines the personal revelation of God himself in the incarnate Jesus Christ not least because that historical person is mediated to us in Holy Scripture and presented as one who himself believes in the revelatory character of the Old Testament Scriptures. It is in the fact of his teaching that we find the analogical connection between incarnation and inscripturation the Word made flesh, and the word of Scripture. The whole of Scripture testifies to Jesus himself, in prospect, in record, and in retrospect.
Part of the reason why evangelicals have resisted moves to emphasize other loci of revelation at the expense of Scripture is a recognition of the role of Scripture as the control on our theological formulation, as the definitive source for our knowledge of God, as the record and interpreter of the biblical history, and as the depository of the teaching of the living Jesus Christ. The need for such a control is evident from a consideration of the logic of divine revelation. For since God is not part of the world that we directly experience, we are unable to study him in the manner in which we study other objects of human research. There are parallels between our study of God and the scientific study of his world, but there is also radical dissimilarity. As we have noted, this means that unless he reveals himself he remains hidden. In so far as he does reveal himself he becomes accessible to us, whether in the shadowy and outline form of general revelation" his eternal power and deity" ( Psalm 19 ; Rom 1 )or in the particularity and detail of the special revelation in history, in Scripture, in Jesus Christ. Yet by virtue of the same fact we can study him only under the impress of revelation; we do not have other data by which to assess or interpret that revelation. Of the sources of revelation we have discussed, it is Scripture that offers us the opportunity for sustained study of its subject; its author. And we should note this also. It has become fashionable to stress the Acts of God in history as over against his speech. That stress may be welcomed as redressing what has sometimes been an imbalance. Yet it has led to an imbalance of another kind, in which mute Acts are severed from their spoken interpretation. From such a perspective we must say that the Bible is not simply the record and interpretation of the Acts of God in history, but itself compiled as it was over more than a thousand years of history not least among those mighty Acts in its faithful recording of that most frequent of all those Acts, the speech of God. And as the book which, supremely, testifies of Jesus and records his teachings, which was written under the impress of his Spirit, "who spoke by the prophets, " and which is today illumined by that same Spirit as it is read, preached, made the subject of theological formulation it serves most appropriately as the "supreme rule of faith and practice" of his own church.
Moreover, those who seek to claim the authority of Scripture in some lesser fashion undermine their own position. For every appeal to Holy Scripture as a source of theological authority entails the general authority of the whole; that this massive collection of texts is in fact one single, highly complex text, the work of the one Holy Spirit of God.
A Biblical Theology of the Speaking God. Divine speech plays a central role in Scripture, both in the texts themselves and in the history to which they witness. The sheer abundance of the speech of God in the canonical texts may actually help explain the lack of attention that has been paid to this very remarkable fact, which is surely the most evident of all phenomena in the canon. The variety of forms divine speech takes (from the writing on the wall in Balshazaar's palace to the familiar prophetic formula "Thus says the Lord" and the supernatural speech of Balaam's ass) should not obscure its common character. It offers a highly specific context to the general biblical claim to offer an account of a revealed religion.
Though Scripture itself testifies that there are other forms employed to accomplish the revelation of God, the direct divine speech is both chief among them and paradigm for them all. Two straightforward examples can be offered from the psalms. In the first part of Psalm 19 we learn that "The heavens declare the glory of God Day after day they pour forth speech. " And throughout Psalm 29 we read that the voice of the Lord is heard in the great events of nature. In both cases God's revelation in nature is presented as his speech. These are striking illustrations both of the ready Old Testament acceptance of general revelation and of the overarching significance of revelation by the divine speech. They suggest that we should be wary of setting nonverbal models of revelation over against revelation by word and statement, since there is no such antithesis. And they encourage us to examine Scripture for the wealth of evidence of God's speaking, where several kinds of divine speech become evident. The creative speech of Genesis 1 is immediately evident. It is in only the second verse of the Bible that we first read "And God said, " the phrase that initiates every stage of the creative process. Here is the first instance of revelation, as it is by speech that the Creator orders his time-space universe from the beginning of its creaturely existence; "Praise the Lord, for he has spoken, " as the hymn notes, and in response to these first statements by Creator to creation, "Worlds his mighty voice obeyed." If we pause to ask how we are to imagine the circumstances thus described, and conclude that they are beyond our understanding when conceived as speech, we nevertheless note that here, once again, the fundamental category of divine revelation is taken to be speech even in address to the subpersonal creation. If in Psalms 19 and 29 speech is the paradigm of nonverbal witness in the created order, here it is the model of divine address to creation itself. And as in creation, so in sustaining providence, he upholds all things by his powerful word. Hard on the heels of these words uttered into an obedient and yet impersonal universe, in Genesis 1:28 we read the first words of revelation addressed to God's human creatures: "Be fruitful and increase in number." And then, as the cosmogony resolves into the narrower dimensions of Eden, we read that the Lord God commanded Adam concerning the trees of the garden which to eat, and which not to eat ( 2:16-17 ). A chapter later, the next divine words" Where are you?" (3:9)represent the opening salvo in the sustained interchange that exposes sin and announces its penalty for Adam, Eve, the serpent, and the world. The pattern continues, with recorded exchanges between God and Cain, and then at much length the sustained conversation with Noah; and then with Abraham, and others in the patriarchal period. Then comes Moses. His lengthy interviews with God are followed by the giving of the law, the most sustained and formal example of the divine speech in Holy Scripture which offers us in the Ten Commandments, but also in the whole of the extensive Mosaic legislation the paradigm of divine speech issuing in divine writing of, precisely, inscripturation. As with the law, so with the prophets: The form changes, but the extensive first-person accounts given as from the mouth of God serve as the chief content of the prophetic books. In the New Testament several different situations are found, but at their heart lie the four Gospels, whose major content is the teaching of Jesus. Since we are introduced to him as God incarnate, his teaching brings to a climax the biblical witness to the speaking God as the divine speech incarnated, God who "spoke by the prophets" speaking now by himself. Indeed, we could go further: Our understanding of the inspiration of Holy Scripture is signally illumined by the phenomenon of the speaking God taking flesh and, therefore, actual vocal cords. Here we find the key to the incarnational analogy of the Word made flesh and the word made Scripture. The twin foci of law and gospel in the giving of the Mosaic legislative corpus and in the human speech of the incarnate Jesus Christ offer dynamic illustrations and also controls of the method of inspiration and the character of revelation, as the very words of God are issued as the words also of writing and speaking human beings.
One question this raises is the relation between the text we possess (a text about which there are many, if generally minor, uncertainties, in the light of its long history) and that text to which our bibliological formulations apply. The conventional and reasonable response has been to focus on the "original" text, the autograph of the human author. This matter is more complex in the case of multiauthor or multiedition documents, whether deriving from one writer who made different use of his material (as may be the case with some of the prophets) or several writers whose work was collected (as with the psalms). The discussion is anchored in a concern to recover specifically canonical authority, and inevitably we must engage in complex historical and theoretical discussion about the process of canonical recognition. Here again our identification with the ancient believing communities in common canonical obedience is both a goal and a means of resolving our own uncertainties.
Needless to say, such observations do not absolve the theologian of the need to address the range of interpretive questions posed by any ancient texts, and therefore by the texts contained in the canon. On the contrary, they underline the need for such an address to be energetic since it is required in order that the text should properly be heard. But they help explain the centrality of the tradition of the Christian God as the speaking God, and that understanding of Holy Scripture as the deposit of his spoken revelation. And they underline the role of Holy Scripture, above all, in the theological formulation of the church, offering explicit and coherent resolution to the (still) widespread though haphazard use of Scripture to authorize theological proposals in many streams of contemporary theology. If it is the task of evangelical theology to understand God in accordance with his own nature, as he has revealed himself just as it was the duty of the ancient Hebrews to order their worship of God in accordance with his revelation through Moses then evangelical theology will be done "according to the Scriptures."
Nigel M. de S. Cameron
See also Bible, Inspiration of the
Bibliography. D. McDonald, Ideas of Revelation; P. Helm, The Divine Revelation; C. F. H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority; L. Morris, I Believe in Revelation; B. B. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Revelation, Idea of'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".