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The idea of revelation in Christian faith and thought

Updated on January 27, 2010

Why is the idea of revelation is so important in Christian faith and thought? Though the weight of opinion seems to be toward the importance of revelation, this is not agreed by all. Nor is the nature of revelation agreed. Writers make revelation as important in Christian thinking do so because of what they understand it to be.

We need to consider what revelation is and whether it is a reality, before we can consider its importance to Christian faith. Is Christian faith and thought as we understand it possible without revelation?"

Writers with widely differing understandings of revelation would agree that by simple definition it concerns the making known by another of something that had been unknown. "Revelation always means that something hidden is made known, that a mystery is revealed. ... Revelation means a supernatural kind of knowledge - given in a marvelous way - of something that man, of himself, could never know."[1] The action of revelation whether inanimate, human or divine is performed by that which is outside of the entity to which or to whom it is made known. Thus revelation and disclosure are very similar.

If God is held to be omniscient, then the ability of humankind to know God, (both in the sense of relationship and that of propositional knowledge) is subject to God's willingness to be known. Things revealed to us might be distinguished from things we discover. Yet, there are references in Scripture to God's willingness to be discovered.

"I will let you find me, says the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes ..." (Jeremiah 29:14a NRSV)

"The LORD is with you, while you are with him. If you seek him, he will be found by you, but if you abandon him, he will abandon you". (2 Chronicles 15:2b NRSV)

Hence God may bring about revelation by direct self-disclosure or by inviting and permitting our discovery of God.

This has not always been the understanding of revelation. Baillie notes that from early times in the history of the church there has been a tendency to equate divine revelation with the transmission of a body of information constituting right opinion or orthodoxy.[2] Simplified, the long standing traditional view has been of God's revelation in two broad categories. "General revelation", in which God is revealed in nature and creation at large, leads a "natural theology" of statements about the deity. "Special revelation" indicates specific revelation in word of God's self and purposes in Christ.

With the recovery of the concept of that revelation as the self-revelation of God, writers and critics have varied greatly in their views of revelation. Some have attacked the very notion of revelation in a Christian context. More recently, some have decried or downvalued the notion of natural theology and placed great emphasis and value on the specific revelation of God in words (the Bible) and action (the Christ event). Yet more recently, others have reconsidered the value of God's self revelation through nature - as expressed in "creation spirituality" and in the engagement of theologians with ecology.

Macquarrie, whose Principles of Christian theology[3]begins with "philosophical theology", shows that revelation, of course, is entirely possible outside the context of any religion at all. Revelation in turn may be the foundation of faith.[4] Notions of revelation and consequent trusting faith are straightforward in a simple natural context. Thus, if an airline timetable is revealed in an advertisement, one may receive the knowledge with some degree of trust in the airline and demonstrate faith by waiting at the airport for a flight to arrive.[5] However, such an understanding in a supernatural context is more problematic. Macquarrie deliberately begins his consideration of revelation in the abstract and provides a model of religious revelation beyond the bounds of any particular faith.[6] To debate this would be beyond the scope of this essay. The salient point, however, is that the truth claims of Christianity and of many other religions are bound up with claims of received revelation.

To hold that supernatural revelation exists only as the truth of God in Jesus Christ, does not of itself preclude "general revelation" for:

"... in him [the Son] all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers - all things have been created through him and for him." (Colossians 1:16 NRSV)

Nevertheless, there have been strong attempts to deny the validity of general revelation - most famously, perhaps, by Karl Barth who debated the matter with Brunner and others.[7] Barth holds to the revelation of God's self in Christ the Word as seen through the Scriptures.

Further, views differ as to the manner in which the scripture forms revelation. May we take allegory, image and parable to be revelation as such, or is revelation essentially propositional ("verbal inspiration")?[8] Neibuhr reminds us that God's self-revelation also occurs in history, that the object of faith must be seen in history and in a distinct historical context.

"Christian theology must begin today with revelation", he says, "because it knows that men (sic) cannot think about God save as historic, communal beings and save as believers. It must ask what revelation means for Christians rather than what it ought to mean for all men, everywhere and at all times.[9]"

Some late twentieth century writers seek to recover a connection with God's self revelation in the natural universe. Paul Collins, for example, believes that we are more likely to encounter God's presence in the natural world than in the Bible or in human institutions.[10] This implies change in our understanding of the nature of God and the theology of revelation. "My ultimate purpose...", he says, "is to try to discover something of the transcendent presence that stands behind the natural world and the cosmos, and which alone gives meaning to all of creation."[11]

There are Christian scholars who have denied the essential existence of revelation and hence attribute no value to it at all. Leading among these is F. Gerald Downing.[12] Downing believed that modern interest in revelation is due more to contemporary prominence of epistemological problems in philosophy than the emphasis of scripture. From the fewness of biblical references to revelation, Downing infers that the concept is foreign to scripture. He argues that, God not being a bungler, if the Biblical text was meant to reveal God, it would be convincing and not permit widely divergent interpretations. ("Revelation", after all, means to "make clear".) "The Old Testament writers", Downing says, "do not pretend that the revelation of God and Man is close enough or clear enough for God to be said to have revealed himself."[13] Morris responds by suggesting that we look not at what we suppose a priori that revelation should contain, but at what the Bible itself says of revelation. What can "Thus says the Lord" mean in the mouth of a prophet but that the prophet claims to speak from God?[14]

A.O. Dyson suggests that "revelation" is a questionable theory of 17th and 18th century origin, introduced to buttress Christian thinking against loss of previous acceptance of doctrine as self-evident.[15] James Barr argues that revelation is of marginal importance to both Old and New Testaments.[16] However, McGrath comments that it has become clear that these and other critics have based their conclusions on systematically developed philosophical ideas of "revelation" rather than in-depth consideration of relevant scriptural terminology.[17]

I haven’t discussed the content of revelation in Christian faith: yet this also has great bearing on its importance. This is because the great idea of revelation is that God is revealing God's self, and most particularly, God is self-revealing in the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God continues to be revealed to us in Christian life through the activity of the Spirit. Hope of the future work of God and our understanding of Christian eschatology is likewise based in revelation.[18] The whole of biblical theology may be taken as a discussion of the content of revelation, and likewise of its importance, not to mention the content of the revelation of God in the universe at large.

The argument I find most compelling as to the importance of revelation is a simple argument from necessity. If revelation is denied, how can we make any proposition about God's self or indeed know God in any sense? If we are to know anything of God, because God is God, we may do so only as God makes such knowing possible - even if by simply the merest permission to discover. It is this action by God in making the knowing of God by humankind possible that I take to be the core of revelation.

Revelation in this sense is crucial, because the entirety of Christianity would be either impossible or a fatuous nonsense without it. If what we profess is merely the construction of human mind and in no sense given ("revealed") by God then, "our proclamation has been in vain and [our] faith has been in vain .... [and] we are of all people most to be pitied".[19]

The Biblical account does not prove the resurrection and divinity of Christ. Rather, this is demonstrated in scripture and made alive by the work of the Spirit. Revelation is thus foundational to personal faith. Many would claim no special mystic communication with God, yet would affirm that a knowledge of, or relationship with, "God" has special significance for them. We rely on such tacit knowledge claims to help make sense of our every day world - without necessarily having all the evidence or logic to back them up. "We may hesitate to say that this 'making sense' of what confronts us is a 'revelation' to us", Geddes MacGregor suggests, "nevertheless, it is difficult to call it anything else, unless we really take seriously the possibility that we are spinning the whole of our experience ourselves."[20] Whether or not the theist is correct in his or her theism, MacGregor continues, by adopting a theistic explanation, he or she is claiming a kind of knowledge of God which is not knowledge in the usual sense. It might be called 'faith'. The believer in some sense is claiming to have encountered God. That is, the believer claims to have received revelation, though many would be reluctant to use such words. Thus there is a sense in which revelation is at the base even the most 'commonplace', 'everyday' faith - unless, of course, that 'faith' is utterly deluded.

Just as all scripture is held to be inspired by God,[21] in the Christian scheme of things, revelation of God to us personally, is an action of the Holy Spirit.

But, as it is written, "What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him" These things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. (1 Corinthians 2:9-10 NRSV)

Timothy Gorringe finds an understanding of the work of the Spirit and the event of revelation to be intermingled. "When we speak of revelation, we are in fact speaking of the Holy Spirit, God's presence in the world, creating judging, renewing, sanctifying, keeping things moving".[22]

Gunton observes that, "...revelation is a secondary doctrine, in that its function is to preserve and explain the character of that which is revealed."[23] Our primary relationship with God is one of faith or trust, not of propositional knowledge or information - we speak not so much of God's 'revelation' as of a present personal relationship, Gunton suggests. Thus revelation as a doctrine is secondary for it is a description of the origins in God of the knowledge of God by which we have faith. The primary content of the gospel is not a doctrine of revelation, Gunton argues[24] but doctrines of creation, salvation, and life in the church. "All these suggest in different ways, the limits which our concept [of revelation] must keep if the faith is not to be reduced to knowledge, or the conditions of theology confused with that of which we speak."[25]

Though we are not redeemed by knowledge, we cannot experience a redeeming, knowing, relationship with God in Christ without at least some knowledge. I have argues that that knowledge is revealed knowledge. Therefore, though I agree that the doctrine of revelation is not primary in establishing the ground of our Christian experience, the phenomenon of revelation remains essential to the creation and existence of our faith.


Baillie, John. - The idea of revelation in recent thought. - New York : Columbia, 1956

Berkouwer, G.C. - General revelation. - Grand Rapids : Eerdmans, 1955

Brunner, Emil. - Revelation and reason. - London : SCM, 1947

Colinas, Paul. - God's Earth: religion as if matter really mattered. - North Blackburn : Dove Books, 1995,

Gorringe, T.J. - Discerning Spirit : a theology of revelation. - London : SCM, 1990

Gunton, Colin E. - A brief theology of revelation. - Edinburgh : Clark, 1995

McGrath, Alister E. - Christian theology : an introduction. - 2nd ed. - Oxford : Blackwell, 1997

McGrath, Alister E. (editor). - The Christian theology reader. - Oxford : Blackwell, 1995

MacGregor, Geddes. - Introduction to religious philosophy. - London : Macmillan, 1960

Macquarrie, John. - Principles of Christian theology. - Rev. ed. - London : SCM, 1977

Moltman, Jurgen. - Theology of hope : on the ground and implications of a Christian eschatology. 5th ed., 1965, Eng. trans. - London : SCM, 1967

Morris, Leon. - I believe in revelation. - London : Hodder and Stoughton, 1976

Neibuhr, H. Richard. - The meaning of revelation. - New York : Macmillan 1941 (1960 paperback ed.)

Schaeffer, Francis A. - He is there and He is not silent. - London : Hodder and Stoughton, 1972

[1] Brunner, Emil. - Revelation and reason. - London : SCM, 1947, p.23

[2] The idea of revelation in recent thought / John Baillie - New York : Columbia, 1956, p.28-9

[3] Principles of Christian theology / John Macquarrie - Rev. ed. - London : SCM, 1977

[4] Macquarrie, op. cit., p.103.

[5] My example

[6] Macquarrie, op. cit., ch 4

[7] For a summation of Barth's views on general revelation and his debate with Brunner in their cause c¾lÀbre, see: General revelation / G.C Berkouwer. - Grand Rapids : Eerdmans, 1955, pp.21-57

[8] For a discussion of the notion and nature of propositional revelation, see: He is there and He is not silent / Francis A. Schaeffer. - London : Hodder and Stoughton, 1972, pp.90-4

[9] The meaning of revelation /H. Richard Neibuhr. - New York : Macmillan 1941 (1960 paperback ed.), pp. 30-1

[10]God's Earth : religion as if matter really mattered / Paul Collins. - North Blackburn : Dove Books, 1995, p.10

[11] Collins, op.cit., p.11

[12] in Has Christianity a revelation? London, 1964. For these comments, I rely on discussion of Downing in I believe in revelation / Leon Morris. - London : Hodder and Stoughton, 1976, pp9-31 together with Christian theology : an introduction / Alister E. McGrath - 2nd ed. - Oxford : Blackwell, 1997, p.182

[13] cited (without reference) in Morris op. cit., p.9

[14] Morris, op.cit., p.21

[15] Who is Jesus Christ / A.O. Dyson. - London, 1969, p.21 as cited by Morris, op.cit., p.13

[16] see McGrath, op.cit. p182

[17] ibid.

[18] See for example, Theology of hope : on the ground and implications of a Christian eschatology. / Jòrgen Moltmann. -5th ed., 1965, Eng. trans. - London : SCM, 1967, especially pp.37-94 on "Eschatology and revelation".

[19] 1 Corinthians 15:14,19 NRSV

[20] MacGregor, op. cit., p170

[21] 2 Timothy 3:16

[22] Discerning Spirit : a theology of revelation / T.J. Gorringe - London : SCM, 1990, p.2

[23] A brief theology of revelation / Colin E.Gunton - Edinburgh : Clark, 1995, p.110

[24] ibid.

[25] ibid.


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