Actualistic vs. Propositional Revelation

In every age of the Church certain key issues have to be faced. One of the vital issues of our time is revelation, Archbishop William Temple quite accurately described the situation when he wrote: “The dominant problem of contemporary religious thought is the problem of revelation, Is there such a thing at all? If there is, what is its mode and form? 1s it discoverable in all existing things or only in some? If in some, then in which? And by what principles are these selected as its vehicle? Where is it found? Or believed to be found? What is its authority?”

The purpose of this article is to draw your attention to the fact that there are generally speaking two different views of revelation in the Church today. The difference is not merely academic. The two views have given rise to difference of opinion about doctrine, Christian conduct, church polity and so forth. The two different views may be described at (a) the actualized view of revelation and (b) the propositional view of revelation. It should be noted from the outset at these two views are a basic manifestation of the theological differences within the Church.

1. Actualistic Revelation

Many contemporary theologians argue that revelation is an act (hence actualistic) in which God reveals Himself to man. God gives Himself (not words or propositions) to us. Of course there are propositional statements, but they are not revealed truths. They are the result of man’s reflection on and interpretation of what God has done in history, The Bible writers, using the language and thought form of their day, have given witness to their encounter with God. John Baillie expressed this view as follows: “All revelation is given, not in the form of directly communicated knowledge, but through events occurring in the historical experience of mankind, events which are apprehended by faith as the ‘mighty acts’ of God, and which therefore engender in the mind of man such reflective knowledge of God as it is given him to possess.”2

This view of revelation has far reaching implications. Christian doctrines are changeable as they are drawn up by the church to express its present experience with God. Times do change; therefore the expression of the church changes. Scripture is not authoritative in itself. It cannot be as it is written by fallible and inadequate human writers. These authors give their testimonies of and reflection on their encounter with God. What is recorded as history in the Bible is not necessarily factual truth. The creation story “does not tell us about a first moment of time, any more than the myth of the Fall tells us about a first human being.”3

The creation myth speaks only of God’s deeds. Every moment of time comes from the creative power of God. The virgin birth of Jesus Christ is a myth; a story in which the early church expressed to the contemporary world around it, its encounter with God in Jesus of Nazareth. Since revelation is actualized it has not been completed with the closing of the canon of Scripture. “Revelation keeps recurring continuously in the life of the Church as God acts here and now to reveal Himself to His people.”4

2. Propositional Revelation

Those who hold the view of propositional revelation belicve that God has revealed to man not only a record of events, the mighty deeds of God, but also certain truths about Himself, the universe, Jesus of Nazareth and so forth. If there is an infinitepersonal God, a Being apart from Ihis world, why can’t He communicate to man in word and deed? Man as God’s image bearer thinks and speaks. Why shouldnt God communicate verbally with man created in His own image?

The Old Testament prophets were called the “mouthpieces of God” (Ex. 4:10–16). Matthew 11:22 tells that truth is revealed about future judgment. In Scripture, God warns, instructs and says. The “thus says the Lord” is probably used more frequently to convey to us the idea of revelation than any other. God has not left us in the dark, but has given us in human words (or propositions) the true meaning of His mighty acts. The God who has spoken through the prophets cannot err. Therefore, those who maintain propositional revelation defend the verbal, inerrant, plenary inspiration of the Bible. Scripture is authoritative because it is God’s Word. As such it is unchanging in character and final. Christian doctrines are virtually unchangeable since they are not drawn up by the church to express its present experience with God, but are a “setting forth of what the Bible teaches.” Passage of time may bring improvements here and there, and even correction as Scriptures arc better understood, but on the whole there is no change. Since God has revealed truths, the historic event’s in Scripture are factual. Adam and Eve were real human beings who lived in space and time. For the holder of propositional revelation, faith is not only an encounter and a living relationship with Jesus Christ, hut also an assent to the truths revealed in Scripture.

This view of revelation does neither deny the complexity of Scripture nor supress the human element of thought and style. The penman’s personal traits, the varied types of literary material Scripture contains, are recognized. Yet the writers are only the verbal medium of divine thought. As Dr. Robert L. Dabney pointedly remarked: “But to say that the propositions themselves were the result of the human writer’s education and opinions, is simply to say that he had no inspiration.”5

For historic Reformational theology, the Bible in its entirety is the Word of God. It gives us a message that, when it is brought to bear on human life, can transform man totally. “Therefore if any man be in Christ, the apostle Paul says, ‘he is a new creature: old things are passed away behold, all things are become new’” (II Cor. 5:17). The Bible, having God as its author, can be fully trusted. Only through a totally trustworthy Biblical revelation can we know who God is, what He has done for sinful man, and what the future will hold in store.

The two views on revelation are drastically different. The actualistic view is a serious deviation from the historic Christian faith. I agree with Dr. Francis Schaeffer when he writes: “Christianity and the new theology have no relationship except the use of a common terminology with different meanings.”6

1. The Bible – The Living Word of Revelation, ed. Merrill C. Tenney, p. 53. 2. Maker of Heaven and Earth, A Study of the Christian Doctrine of Creation by Langdon Gilkey, p. 294. 3. Ibid., p. 260. 4. Ed. Merrill C. Tenney, p. 55. 5. Discussions: Evangelical and Theological, Vol. I, by Robert L. Dabney, p. 465. 6. The God Who Is There, by Francis Schaeffer, p. 98.