The twentieth century has been a period of rapid change. The advent of the atomic bomb, rapid communication and travel, and multiplied social and economic problems have set the present age apart from any similar period of history. The modern mind accordingly is asking new questions about what God is saying to our generation. In theology especially, the leading questions are, How does God speak to man and What is He saying today?
In discussing the nature of divine revelation to man, one is approaching the central questions of theology and philosophy. The problem is first of all related to the nature of God. If God is infinite in His wisdom and is the Creator of all things, He is obviously greater than what He created. The question must be faced as to whether such a Creator would desire to communicate to His creatures. Those who believe in God as Creator generally believe that He created for the purpose of revealing Himself and to display His infinite perfections. This explains how God has revealed Himself in nature.
In the creation of man, God deliberately made a being with intellect (mind), sensibility (feeling), and will (power of moral choice). Man, although on a finite plane, was made like God, and therefore was the kind of creature to whom God could communicate. Under these circumstances—God being what He is and man being created in the image and likeness of God—communication between them would seem possible and reasonable.
Into this picture, however, came the problem of sin with its dulling of man’s sensitivity to divine revelation and a natural blindness to truth about God. It is because man is a sinful creature that a need arises for a special work of God to make divine communication to man effective. This introduces and makes necessary the role of the Holy Spirit as the divine Communicator of truth to man.
Revelation in Nature
The universe as a product of divine creation is one of the important means of divine revelation to man. According to Romans 1:20, “The invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead.” The universe in its immensity, complexity, design, and beauty testify to the God who created it; and as Romans bring out, it is a testimony to the power of God and to the personality and deity of God. This revelation of God in nature, which is perceivable by man in his normal intelligence, is stated in Romans to be so clear that according to Romans 1:20, “they are without excuse,” that is, all men should worship the Creator. This is the ground of condemnation of the heathen world. Scripture frequently calls attention to the wonder of the created universe as a display of the glory of God. Psalm 19 is an excellent illustration of this, beginning with the familiar statement, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handy work.”
The revelation of God in nature is such that even man in his fallen condition is held accountable for this display of the perfections of God. Christians who are aided by the indwelling Holy Spirit can appreciate more than others how beautiful and significant the natural world is. However, even an unsaved person should be able to recognize the testimony of nature to its Creator. It is an illustration of the utter sinfulness of man that, although he finds evidence of human personality behind anything that man makes, too often he is willing to ignore the evidence that God created the world. This blindness of man is held in Scripture to be without excuse and a proper basis for divine judgment of man.
Revelation in the Bible
All that is implied in revelation in the natural world is stated explicitly in the Scriptures. Within orthodoxy, the claim of Scripture to be inspired of God is accepted as the explanation of this supernatural revelation.
According to the central passage of 2 Timothy 3:16, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” This passage teaches that the Scriptures were breathed by God. This means that the authors were the channels of divine revelation and the Scriptures were something that God produced through human instruments. It is because of this that Scriptures are authoritative and the only infallible rule for faith and practice. Inspiration extends to all Scripture, to every word and every phrase, and therefore assures the factual accuracy of what is said.
As indicated in connection with oral revelation in 2 Peter 1:20-21, the revelation of divine truth was possible because “holy men of God spake as they were moved [borne along] by the Holy Ghost.” All who are willing to accept the Bible as the Word of God recognize that inspiration is a work of the Holy Spirit and that the Scriptures would have been impossible apart from this supernatural ministry of the Holy Spirit.
The proofs for the inspiration of the Bible are both internal and external. There is abundant testimony of Old Testament writers to their belief that they were writing by inspiration (2 Sa 23:2-3; Is 59:21; Jer 1:9). The terminology of the prophets and the expressions such as, “Thus saith the Lord,” as found in hundreds of instances, testify to the hand of God in the production of the Scriptures. The very titles of the Bible, such as “the Word of the Lord,” “thy Word,” and similar expressions, are found over a hundred times in the Old Testament, and in many cases refer to direct quotations of what God has actually said and in other cases to what the prophets said as God’s representatives (Ps 107:11, 119:11; Pr 3 0:5). Hundreds of prophecies were made in the Bible; and when these were fulfilled, often with minute accuracy as for instance in the birth of Christ in Bethlehem (Mic 5:2), it serves to prove that the Bible, unlike any other book in the world, is accurate in its prophecies. As about one-fourth of the Bible was prediction of future events when it was written, fulfillment of prophecy becomes an important proof of the inspiration of the Bible.
One of the most decisive evidences for inspiration is the testimony of Christ to the Scriptures. Often, in quoting the Old Testament, Christ affirmed that it was inspired of the Spirit—as in Matthew 22:42-43 and Mark 12:36 quoting Psalm 110:1. In the New Testament as a whole, the apostles frequently quoted from the Old Testament, indicating their belief that it was inspired of God—as in Peter’s quotation of Psalm 41:9 in Acts 1:16, and in the quotation of Psalm 2 in Acts 4:24-25. Paul quotes Isaiah 6:9-10 in Acts 28:25. Similar references may be seen in Hebrews 3:7 and 10:15-16. These sample indications of common recognition by Christ and the apostles of the inspiration of the Old Testament, as well as the claim of inspiration of the New Testament in 1 Timothy 5:18—quoting Deuteronomy 25:4 and Luke 10:7—and 2 Peter 3:16 referring to Paul’s epistles as Scripture, tend to support the claim of inspiration of both Testaments.
Inspiration extends to all forms of Scripture and relates to the unknown past, to history, to moral and religious law, to devotional literature, to the contemporary prophetic message, as well as to the eschatological portions dealing with prophecy of the future. Inspiration extends equally to all kinds of Scripture, whether direct quotation from God or whether the statements of men, and is the basis for the conclusion that the Bible is factually true. The abundant evidence in support of the inspiration of the Bible, which is discussed here only briefly, is so extensive that some of the finest scholars of all time have found this evidence quite sufficient to affirm the infallibility and inspiration of the entire sixty-six books of the Bible.
Historically and logically, belief in the Bible has been inseparable from faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and unbelief in relation to the inspired Word of God has inevitably also questioned the validity of Christ, the incarnate Word of God. The proofs for the one are proofs for the other.
Revelation to Man in Bible Times
In addition to revealing Himself through the written Word, it is clear from Scripture that God gave man special divine revelation. God often spoke to individuals, revealing Himself, His will for them, and His direction for their lives, apart from Scripture itself. Two large books of the Bible, Genesis and Job, record numerous instances of such direct communication with man from Adam to Moses and contain allusions to general knowledge of God which must have come by special divine revelation. Important truths such as the nature of God, His moral law, His purpose for man in time, and His plan for man in eternity were revealed to man in this way.
The extent of such divine revelation is illustrated in the book of Genesis where God spoke to Adam, Enoch, and Noah. Abraham is an outstanding illustration of the period before Scripture was written of one to whom God gave broad revelation concerning his posterity, his title to the Holy Land, and the broad purpose of God to produce through Abraham blessing to the entire world, fulfilled in Christ and in the Scriptures. Moses was given detailed revelation, recorded in the Pentateuch, for the guidance and direction of the nation Israel. Throughout Old Testament times, God raised up many prophets who delivered divine messages to their generation, only portions of which have been preserved in the Bible. The outstanding personalities of Samuel, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, the minor prophets, and many of the psalmists (some of them unnamed), were used of God to declare His message. The basic method of special revelation alongside written Scripture is continued in the New Testament, much on the same pattern as found in the Old Testament but with more explicit testimony to the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Divine revelation was given in various ways. Sometimes God appears to have spoken to man as if He were a man Himself and communication was in words. This was true in the case of God’s relationship with Adam as well as with many who followed. A second means of revelation was through dreams, of which there are many instances in the Bible (Gen 20:3-7; 31:10-13, 24; 37:5-20; 40:5-16; 41:11-13, 15-32; 42:9). Even after Scripture began to be written, dreams continued to be used in some cases as a means of divine revelation (Num 12:6; Dan 2:1-35; 4:1-18; 7:1-14). Along with dreams were visions as a means of revealing divine truth—in which case the word “seer,” or one who sees visions, became characteristic of prophetic revelation. Illustrations are Isaiah’s experience (Is 1:1; 6:1), Ezekiel’s experience (Eze 1:3), Daniel’s visions (Dan 8:1-27; 9:20-27; 10:1-12:13), and Micaiah’s vision of heaven (1 Ki 22:19). A similar method was that of trances, as in Ezekiel 8:3 and 11:24. Whatever the means of divine revelation, the important point is that God sought by supernatural means to communicate Himself.
Divine revelation, of course, received a tremendous addition when Jesus Christ came in the flesh. He was a revelation of God in His person and life as well as in His prophetic utterances. Throughout the apostolic period, special revelation continued as God communicated truth to individuals and to churches. The Lord appeared, for instance, in a vision to Stephen in Acts 7:55-56, to Paul in Acts 9:3-9 (see also Ac 26:13-19), and to Ananias relative to his relationship to Paul (Ac 9:10-16). Cornelius was given a vision in Acts 10 in relation to Peter. Peter also was given a vision of his relationship with Cornelius in the same chapter. Another illustration is found in Acts 11:28 in the revelation given to Agabus of the coming famine. Many other illustrations could be cited, including the special revelation given to Paul in Acts 27:21-26 and in the vision of 2 Corinthians 12:1-7. The whole book of Revelation records the special revelation given to John.
From these many instances it is clear that God is not limited as to the means and channels of divine revelation, and in each case the means of revelation is suited to the end.
Revelation to Man Today
The major problem in the contemporary doctrine of revelation relates to the nature and extent of divine revelation today apart from the facts of revelation found in the Bible. In a word, does God give special revelation today as He did in the Old and New Testament periods? To what extent does God communicate directly to those who are believers in the Lord Jesus Christ?
One aspect of contemporary revelation is the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit, predicted by Christ (Jn 16:12-15). As discussed in 1 Corinthians 2:9-3:2, the Holy Spirit teaches by illuminating the Scriptures, making the revelation of God understandable. While the natural man cannot understand spiritual truth, the spiritual man is taught the meaning of Scripture by the Holy Spirit. Such revelation, however, does not go beyond what is actually in the text of Scripture.
It is understood in contemporary theology that God can give guidance today. Guidance does not necessarily require an additional revelation but is rather the application of the Scriptures in general principles to the particular need of the individual seeking direction from God. Guidance is not in itself infallible, although God never misguides a person. Christians, however, can misinterpret guidance and can misunderstand God’s directions. Further, guidance is never normative; that is, what God guides one to do may not be what He will guide another to do. It is part of the personal ministry of the Holy Spirit to show the individual what the will of God is for him (Ro 12:1-2); and being led by the Spirit is one of the marks of being a Christian (Ro 8:14). The guidance of the Spirit is personal and adapted to God’s individual purpose for the individual life and, as such, is in contrast to general law (Gal 5:18).
The particular problem that arises in contemporary study of revelation by the Holy Spirit is whether the Holy Spirit can give normative truth suitable for formulation of doctrine apart from explicit teaching of this truth in the Bible. Here in a word is the issue between orthodoxy and neoorthodoxy, between the historic doctrine of revelation in the church and the contemporary teaching of Barth, Brunner, and Reinhold Niebuhr and many others. In order to understand the issues, a brief review must be undertaken of the background of this movement, its premises, and its conclusions.
Liberal theology in the early twentieth century had reduced the Bible to a natural record of religious experience and to various degrees had eliminated its supernatural element as well as its authority. The transcendent God who had created the universe was replaced by an immanent God indistinguishable from the process of evolution and for all practical purposes pantheistic in His relation to creation. Such a view left little room for a divine doctrine of supernatural revelation, a real communication between an infinite God and finite man, or other concepts taught in the Bible. Revelation was simply human discovery on a natural plane.
Liberal theology was challenged by Karl Barth in his Epistle to the Romans published in 1918. Karl Barth found that the naturalistic doctrines of liberalism did not meet the needs of men in war time, and he concluded that the problem was that a supernatural form of communication was required between God and man. Although this was naturally impossible, Barth asserted that God did speak directly to man although this constituted nobody as an infallible prophet.
Barth also reasserted that God was transcendent and man was sinful and finite. In revealing Himself to man, the incarnate Christ is the supreme fact of divine revelation; but according to Barth, revelation is not something to be put on paper but something experienced personally by the individual.
Although Barth did not accept the infallibility of Scripture, the historicity of Adam, or any detailed prophetic revelation, he nevertheless opposed liberalism in many points. Barth seems to have accepted the virgin birth of Christ, the deity of Christ, the death of Christ on the cross, and His bodily resurrection. Most of his followers, however, did not go as far as Barth in reasserting these doctrines.
The difficulties confronting Barth’s neoorthodox interpretation of revelation are evident in contemporary theology. Neo-orthodoxy lacks any norm for divine truth as it is based on individual experience. Hence, there is a wide variety of doctrines held by those who are neoorthodox. Even their doctrine of Christ tends to be their experience of Christ rather than the Christ of Scripture and history. The whole concept that God can speak clearly and authoritatively in communicating divine truth to man today apart from the Scripture is highly questionable. Neoorthodoxy to date has not been able to produce one normative truth not already taught in the Bible. Accordingly, it must be concluded that neoorthodoxy actually is a serious and deceptive error, even though it includes some doctrines which are orthodox.
God is speaking today—speaking through nature and speaking through the Bible—and guiding man in his daily life. Primarily, however, God speaks to man through the Scriptures, and He does not reveal normative truth except as it is already revealed in the Scriptures themselves. The test of truth must remain not what man experiences today but what the Scriptures have stated long ago.