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A First Primer on the Doctrine of Divine Revelation

Most fundamentally, what distinguishes Christianity from all other religions is that Christianity is a revealed religion. That is, it is not in any sense the result of our making our way to God. It is in its entirety the result of God making himself known to us. Christianity therefore is marked by its message, a message from God to us in which he has made himself known.

The Knowability of God

Is God knowable? Both the question and the answer need qualifying. On one level only a glance at the Bible will reveal that God is indeed knowable. This is the very purpose of the Bible and of all divine revelation. But on another level, Scripture reminds us often that God is incomprehensible. “Can you find out the deep things of God? Can you find out the limit of the Almighty? It is higher than heaven — what can you do? Deeper than Sheol — what can you know? Its measure is longer than the earth and broader than the sea” (Job 11:7-9). Later Job says, “How great is God — beyond our understanding!” (Job 36:26; cf. Job 37:5; Ps. 139:6; 145:3; Is. 40:18; Rom. 11:33-34). All this emphasizes that God is transcendent — beyond us and unreachable. By reason of the limitations of both our creaturehood and our fallenness, God is beyond us. We simply have no access to one so exalted, holy, majestic, and “other” than us.

So we may know him only as he has revealed himself. Because he has revealed himself we may know him truly and accurately. But we will never have the capacity to know him fully. Understanding this ought to make us worship. It forces us to recognize his transcendent majesty on the one hand and our own limitations as creatures on the other. Understanding this ought also to keep us from trying to imagine what God is like. He is beyond the reach of our imagination. We are to worship him as he has revealed himself to us.

This understanding should also make us understand that any knowledge of God must come from his side. We cannot “by searching” find out God. The study of “theology” is the one study in which the subject comes to us! And so he has! Although God is beyond us, the knowledge of him is not something forced from him unwillingly. Our knowledge of God is his gift to us. Graciously he has come to us and made himself known.

The Knowledge of God

This knowledge of God, in turn, is our highest privilege and most satisfying pursuit, the only thing that is truly worthy of our boast (Jer. 9:23-24). The crowing promise of the New Covenant is that “they will all know me” (Jer. 31:31-34).

We read in the Bible that at the beginning of history God talked with the newly created pair, Adam and Eve, our first parents. Of course this fellowship was disrupted by sin, but God did not withdraw himself from humanity altogether or leave us to ourselves. Immediately and throughout human history God took steps to restore fallen humanity to fellowship with himself and thus bring us to the joy of knowing our Creator. He made himself known to Abraham and promised that by him the entire world would be blessed (Gen. 12:1-3). Having chosen a people for himself, Israel, God made himself known to them in a way no other people were so blessed (Ps. 76:1; 147:19-20; cf. Eph. 2:12). And God promised that through his people Israel he would bring the knowledge of himself to the world.

God’s revelation of himself to us, then, is a redemptive act. Our knowledge of God has been lost in the fall (into sin), and we have forfeited this joy for which we were created. Created in God’s image we were given the capacity to know him, but in sin we have refused him and even “suppressed” the truth about him that is revealed to us in the created order (Rom. 1:18ff). But God has not left us to ourselves. In grace he has taken steps to restore us to fellowship with himself. And so it is not surprising in Scripture to find salvation described as knowing God (Mt. 11:27; Jn. 17:2-3; 2Cor. 4:6; Gal. 4:8-9; 1Jn. 5:20).

The process of divine revelation, then, is a gracious one and a redemptive one. God takes the initiative to restore us to the great joy for which we were created.

God Makes Himself Known Everywhere

There is a sense in which God has revealed himself to all people, everywhere. By his very maintenance of the created order — the seasons, the rain, the food supply — God never left the world without a witness to his kindness and providential care (Acts 14:17). The very creation itself declares his mighty power (Ps. 19) and even his just requirements over us (Rom. 1:18ff). We often call this “general” revelation because it is given to all people everywhere, indiscriminately, and its message is not marked by specificity and detail. Created in God’s image we have the capacity to know God, and even though in sin we have suppressed this knowledge (Rom. 1:18) we cannot rid ourselves of it altogether.

In Matthew 12:12, Jesus exclaims, “How much more valuable is a man than a sheep.” Now, on one level that is not profound at all. We all instinctively recognize that a human being is more valuable than an animal. But why? What is it that makes a man more valuable than a sheep? Is it simply that we are more intelligent? That we have self-consciousness? Reason? All this is part of the answer. But at bottom what makes a human being more valuable than an animal is that we all have within us an irresistible sense of dependence upon God and an unavoidable sense of obligation to him. The sheep is no less dependent or obliged — that is just the nature of the Creator-creature relationship. But the sheep is not aware of it. What makes us more valuable than the animals is our constant and unmistakable awareness of our dependence on and obligation to God.

We are dependent, and we know it. We are obliged — responsible — and we know it. And so we are unavoidably religious and moral beings. The animals are not religious. They do not gather on Sundays and pray. And they are not moral beings, teaching their children right from wrong. But intuitively we are aware of this relationship to God, and in our heart of hearts we are inescapably religious beings. It is the fool that says in his heart, “There is no God” (Ps. 14:1). Honestly — intuitively — we know better. In the human consciousness, just as in the Bible, God is a given. The knowledge of God in humanity is “suppressed,” but it can never be altogether eradicated.

To recap, we were created to know God. This knowledge of God was forfeited in sin. God continues to display his glory in the created order and in our own consciousness. But in our sin we seek to rid ourselves of this knowledge of him. And so our condition calls for something still more. We need more revelation from God if we are to know him. And so God has taken further steps, graciously and redemptively, to make himself known.

God Speaks

In addition to and building on this “general” revelation of himself God has taken steps to make himself known more fully. We call this “special” revelation, and this subject will take up the rest of this study. The first consideration here we should note is simply that God speaks. He is a talking God. In Psalm 94:9 the psalmist reasons that if we have ears and eyes then surely our Creator also both hears and sees. Certainly we may say the same in regard to our mouth — our Creator can speak. Indeed, often in Scripture this is part of what distinguishes God from the false gods — he speaks (cf. Ps. 115:5-7; 135:16; Hab. 2:18-20; 1Kgs. 18:24-35). And so we read many times in the Biblical narrative that God spoke to men such as Adam, Noah, Abraham, Job, Moses, Samuel, Elijah, Isaiah, Jonah, all the prophets, Peter, and so on. It is not enough to say that God speaks in the created order or that he speaks “in history.” God has revealed himself as a talking God, able to communicate to us in words that we can understand.

God Speaks Through His Spokesmen

Many times in the Bible we read that God spoke to his prophets and that they, in turn, speak to us for him, giving us his word. This is the meaning of the word “prophet.” A prophet is not simply one who tells the future, although that was often involved. A prophet is, simply, a spokesman. He is one who speaks for God, delivering the message God had given him.

And so we often read in the Old Testament that recurring announcement of the prophets, “The word of the Lord came to me, saying…” And then the prophet would often cap off his message with the phrase, “says the Lord,” reminding us again of the ultimate source of his words. In the New Testament the apostles frequently said the same, that their message was one that was God-given (1Thes. 2:13; 1Pet. 1;12, etc.).

Perhaps the clearest example of this is in Exodus 4:11-12 where God says to Moses that he will supply Moses with the words he must speak. Again in Deuteronomy 18:18-19 we read that the words of the prophet are, in fact, God’s words in his mouth. And at the end of his life David was able to say, “The Spirit of the Lord spoke through me, and his word was on my tongue” (2Sam. 23:2). Jeremiah says the same (Jer. 1:9). And all through the Biblical narrative we read of those who spoke for God. Their word was God’s word. We call this the doctrine of inspiration — God’s word given through his spokesmen. When they spoke, God spoke. And so to obey their word was to obey God, or to disobey their word was to disobey God.

All this is to say that God himself speaks. And one of the ways in which he speaks is through his appointed spokesmen.

God Speaks Through the Written Words of Scripture

God’s “special” or spoken revelation of himself does not culminate merely in the words that were spoken by the prophets and apostles. God took steps to preserve his spoken word for all generations, guiding men to write his word also.

We find this emphasized frequently in Scripture. “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Write this’” (Ex. 17:14). “And Moses wrote all the words of the Lord” (Ex. 24:4; cf. 34:27; Dt. 21:24). Similarly God says to the prophet Jeremiah, “Write in a book all the words that I have spoken to you” (Jer. 30:2). And to the prophet Habakkuk God says again, “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets” (Hab. 2:2). (See also Is. 34:16-17; Jer. 25:13; 36:27-32; 51:60-61; Dan. 9:1-2; Acts 2:30

One way the Biblical writers emphasize this point is particularly interesting. The New Testament writers will sometimes quote words spoken by God in the Old Testament, prefacing the quote with the words, “Scripture says” (e.g., Gal. 3:8; Gen. 12:1-3; Rom. 9:7; Ex. 9:16). But the New Testament writers work the other way also. They will quote the human writers of the Old Testament (Moses, Isaiah, etc.), prefacing the quote with the words, “God says” or “God said” (e.g., Mt. 19:4-5; Gen. 2:24; Heb. 3:7; Ps. 95:7; Acts 4:24-25; Ps. 1; Acts 13:34-35; Is. 55:3 and Ps. 16:10; etc.). The point is obvious: the New Testament writers make an absolute identification of the words of Scripture with the words of God himself. That is, what the Bible says, God says. Again, this is the doctrine of inspiration (cf. 2Tim. 3:16; 2Pet. 1:21).

And so it is not surprising that Scripture is referred to with such terminology as “the word of God,” “the oracles of God,” “the law of God,” and so on. Even the term “Scripture” and “holy Scripture” reflect this conviction on the part of the Biblical writers that the Bible is God’s revelation written. What Scripture says, God says.

Saving Revelation

All these steps God has taken in grace to make himself known. But we, his rebellious creatures, continue to rebel and “suppress” the knowledge of God. He has made himself known in the created order, recognized as such by the human heart made in God’s image. He has spoken to men. He has spoken to us by men. And he has spoken to us in Scripture, his word. And in his word is offered the inestimable gift of knowing him, fellowship with God. This is the gospel promise. But due to our fallenness his offer is considered “foolish” and spurned (1Cor. 1:18ff; 2:14; 2Cor. 4:3-4; etc.). As “enemies” of God we refuse his overtures of grace.

In the face of this universal rebellion God would have been very just in allowing us all to perish in our chosen rebellion. But his purpose, promised to Abraham, was to bring blessing to all the families of the earth. To accomplish this great end, more was required than general and spoken and written revelation. For the willing reception of the gospel on our part it was required that God somehow bring us to see the attractiveness of his offer and thereby convince us to come to him trusting his promise. And this precisely is what God does. He gives us an “inward revelation” of himself, enabling us to see his glory and respond to his offers of grace. And so the apostle Paul tells us that his conversion was due to the fact that God “was pleased to reveal his son in me” (Gal. 1:15-16). Jesus says that those who know God know him only as a result of his gracious disclosure of him (Mt. 11:27). The “natural man” cannot understand, but those to whom God has revealed himself enjoy the high privilege of knowing him (1Cor. 2:6-16). Simply put, embracing the gospel is the result of God’s self-disclosure in our hearts (1Cor. 1:18-31; 2Cor. 4:3-6). Our response to God’s offer of grace stems from his inward revelation of himself in our hearts (Mt. 16:13-17).

To recap: First, the knowledge we have of God is given, not acquired. It comes from his side. It is not a mere religious experience or discovery of truth but of divine self-disclosure. Second, the knowledge we have of God is incomplete. It is even skewed by our ignorance and natural distaste for it. We need “special” revelation. Third, whatever is plain about God in general and special revelation, it is also plain that we still need something more. And this God gives by the powerful work of God’s Spirit. We who know God know him only because he has made himself known to us.

The Climax of Revelation

This gift of the knowledge of God is provided for us in the New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-34). But Scripture holds out the prospect that the knowledge of God we possess now is only a foretaste of a fuller and more intimate knowledge of God we will be given in the age to come. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Mt.5:8). Theologians have sometimes referred to this as “the beatific vision,” when at last we are brought into God’s immediate presence (cf. Is. 11:9; 1Jn. 3:2; Rev. 21:23; 22:4). In this respect the Holy Spirit who indwells us today is referred to as “the firstfruits” (Rom. 8:23) — by his presence we know God! But this is just the foretaste. In the age to come we will dwell with him and he with us, and for the ages of eternity we will doubtless grow in our knowledge of him, to his glory and our ever-increasing joy.

Fred G. Zaspel

Fred G. Zaspel (PhD, Free University of Amsterdam) is one of the pastors at Reformed Baptist Church in Franconia, PA. He is also the executive editor of Books At a Glance and Adjunct Professor of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of several books including The Theology of B. B. Warfield and Warfield on the Christian Life.

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