Revelation and Differences Within the Church

The purpose of this article is, first, to draw attention to the fact that generally speaking there are two different views of the nature of revelation current in the Church today. And secondly, to attempt to show how these two different views of the nature of revelation give use to differences of opinion over matters of doctrine, polity, etc., in the Church. These two different views of the nature of revelation may be conveniently described as (a) the propositional view of revelation and (b) the actualistic view of revelation.

It should be noted at the outset that these two views of revelation spring ultimately from two differing concepts of the nature of reality, God and man. They are, as it were, the visible manifestation of a much deeper and more basic difference within the thinking of the Church. The reader is also asked to bear in mind that the descriptions which follow of these two views of the nature of revelation do not purport to explain fully all the details of either view. Only some basic points of each have been mentioned. It is hoped that these will be sufficient to enable the reader to appreciate the difference between the two views.

Propositional Revelation

Propositional revelation (which is the older view) may be described as the belief that God has revealed to mall authoritative knowledge of himself and of the way of salvation “by meaningful statements and concepts ex· pressed in words.” Those holding to propositional revelation reason along the following lines:

This universe, by the very fact of its creation, is assumed to be a direct revelation of the nature of God (ep. Psalm 19 v. 1 and Romans 1 v. 19, 20). This revelation of the nature of God confronts men of every race and age, and thus it is described as general revelation. Further, since man is a creature of God, it is also assumed that man contains within himself a knowledge of his Creator (cp. Romans I v. 21). However, because of sin (due to the historical disobedience and fall of man) this knowledge of God in man has been distorted. In fact, it is even purposely suppressed by sinful man (cp. Romans 1. v. 21 f). Thus while all men everywhere have some knowledge of God (cp. Acts 17 v. 22 ff ) nevertheless this knowledge, it is maintained, is not sufficient to lead men to salvation. Men can know about God’s salvation only through a special revelation. And this special revelation, it is said, is to be directly identified with the 66 canonical books of the Old and New Testaments. (That is to say God’s special revelation to sinful men has been “inscripturated.”) These writings (i.e. the 66 books of the Scriptures) are looked upon as recording accurately God’s acts in history for man’s salvation, and also as containing God’s meaning (or his interpretation) of these acts of his in history.

According to this view of revelation, the Scriptures are to be regarded as the written word of God. They are to be thus regarded because they are the product of His creative activity. It is maintained that through his overruling providence, and by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, God has given to mankind his written Word, the Scriptures. The words of Scripture are thus regarded as having a Divine origin, as having been given by God. And this very fact, it is said, gives to Scripture an objective and permanent authority. In other words, according to this view the authority of Scripture rests solely on the fact that Cod is its author (cp. Westminster Confession, ch. I, section 4). “The authority of Holy Scripture for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself ), the author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the word of God.” Through the inward, illuminating work of the Holy Spirit in their lives, men come to recognise the inherent authority possessed by the Scriptures. It is the Spirit of God who causes the Scriptures to become vital and living to men. However, this subjective response created in men by the Spirit of God is in no way conceived as creating or adding to the divine authority already possessed by the Scriptures. For this reason the subjective response created in men by the Holy Spirit is not referred to as “God’s revelation” but as “God’s illumination,” “God’s enlightenment,” etc.

The term “God’s revelation” is reserved to describe the written Scriptures, the corpus of truth given to men by God.

To sum up: those who hold to propositional revelation maintain that God has not only given to man in the Scriptures an accurate record of his deeds for man’s salvation, hut has also given in human words (or propositions) the true meaning of those deeds, This special revelation of God to man is regarded as objective, as belonging to history, and as possessing divine authority irrespective of man’s response to it.

It is very important to note that this view of revelation makes a sharp distinction between God and his revelation. This means, for instance, that when a person picks up the Scriptures, he picks up God’s special revelation—he does not pick up a book to which God has been confined.

Actualistic Revelation

This is the second (and more recent) view of revelation. It has many different forms and is thus rather difficult to describe. Basically it teaches that revelation consists in a personal confrontation by man with God himself. Revelation is an event—something dynamic. It is an act (hence actualistic revelation) in which God reveals himself to man, Revelation thus requires two persons—God and man. That is to say man’s presence is necessary for revelation—he participates in the event of revelation—his response (or faith) to God’s encounter is a part of God’s act of revelation. Further, in his revelation, God does not reveal truths or propositions concerning himself but instead he reveals himself wholly to man. In other words God does not exist independently of his revelation. In fact God is identical with his revelation.

According to this view the canonical Scriptures are not to be directly but indirectly identified with God’s revelation. They are to be looked upon as containing not revealed truths or propositions about God, but rather as containing men’s witness to, or expression of, God’s divine revelation. This view, of course, does not deny that the Scriptures contain propositional statements. The Scriptures, it is said, do contain propositional statements (e,g. Genesis 1 v. 1). But these statements are regarded as the results of men’s reflection on, and interpretation of, God’s acts and deeds. They are not regarded as divinely given statements. The Old Testament Scriptures, for instance, contain Israel’s reflection on its encounter with God. Naturally the O.T. writers expressed their experience of God’s revelation in the language and thought forms of their day (cp. Genesis 1). In like manner the New Testament writers, using the language and thought forms of their day, have given expression to their encounter with God in Jesus of Nazareth.

Furthermore, according to this view, revelation is not confined to the past. God, it is said, confronts us today as he did his people of old. God still reveals Himself to us. He does so through the changing events of our everyday life, through the “community atmosphere” of the Church, but especially through the Scriptures. Thus we today (using the Scriptures as our standard or norm) must also express (in the language of this 20th century) Our experience of God’s revelation (or encounter). This expression of our encounter with God is our Gospel.

Lastly, according to this view, the Scriptures are not authoritative in and of themselves. Rather they become authoritative when through their fallible medium God reveals himself to individual men. The Scriptures are thus only the authoritative Word of God when through them men are confronted by God.

To sum up: according to this view revelation is an act of God in which he gives himself (not words or propositions) to us. Revelation thus has no propositional content—it cannot be repeated or preserved. And so the Scriptures are to be indirectly identified with revelation, i.e. they are a witness to revelation.

The influence of this actualistic view of revelation is reflected in the statement made by the Third New Zealand Faith and Order Conference, concerning the nature of the Authority of the Bible. In “Massey 1964,” p. 47 it is stated that “the Bible has an intrinsic authority of such a nature that through it the authentic voice of the Lord is heard. His living word, breaking through the words of Scripture, continues to address men. He thus draws them to Himself.” Notice first of all that this statement makes a distinction between the Bible and the “authentic voice of the Lord.” The authentic voice of the Lord is heard through the Bible. And secondly notice that this statement makes a distinction between the words of Scripture and the Lord’s living word. The Lord’s living word is something which breaks through the words of Scripture.

Revelation and Bibliolatry

Now it is not difficult to see how these two different views of the nature of revelation can give rise to differences of opinion within the Church. For instance, to directly equate the Scriptures and God’s revelation would be quite an unthinkable action for a person who holds to an actualistic view of revelation. For his view of revelation as an act means that if he did equate Scripture and revelation he would be limiting God’s freedom and even confining God to an historical book. This is but to say that those who regard revelation as an act or encounter are, according to their basic presuppositions, guilty of bibliolatry if they equate God’s revelation directly with Scripture.

However those who hold to propositional revelation are faced with no such dilemma. Their basic presupposition of a clear distinction between God and His revelation allows them to directly equate the Scriptures and God’s revelation without embarrassment. This point is too often overlooked when those holding an actualistic view of revelation charge those holding a propositional view of revelation with bibliolatry. Only when revelation is conceived of as an act or as an encounter does the charge of bibliolatry have meaning.

Revelation and Faith

Furthermore, these two different views of the nature of revelation give rise to two different views of the nature of faith, A person holding to propositional revelation maintains that God has revealed in the Scriptures certain truths about Himself, about the universe, man, Jesus of Nazareth, etc. And these truths he feels obliged to accept and to believe as true. For example he accepts as literally true the teaching that Jesus of Nazareth was conceived without a human father. Thus for him faith not only gives rise to a real and vital relationship with the living Christ, it also includes assent to the divinely given propositions contained in the Scriptures.

On the other hand a person holding to an actualistic view of revelation maintains that there is no such thing as revealed truth. Thus he regards faith not as involving assent to certain divinely given propositions, but rather as a response to a Divine encounter in an I—Thou relationship with God. And this means for example that he can regard the virgin birth stories in the gospels, not as teaching literal fact, but rather as one of the ways in which the early Church expressed, to the contemporary world around it, its encounter with God in Jesus of Nazareth. But while he maintains that the Scriptures do not contain any divinely revealed truths to be assented to, he does not therefore dispense with the Scriptures. He values the Scriptures very highly. For they are a witness to revelation—they contain other men’s expressions of their encounters with God. Hence the Scriptures are for him the norm or standard whereby he today must express to others his own encounter (response, faith with God).

Thus the person who holds to propositional revelation regards faith as including (along with other things) assent to divinely revealed truth. And the person who holds an actualistic view of revelation regards faith not as assent to revealed truth but as a response to a Divine encounter.



Revelation and Doctrine

Closely connected with this point is the fact that these two different views of the nature of revelation give rise to two different views of the nature of doctrine. A person holding to propositional revelation maintains that Christian doctrines are “a setting forth of what the Bible teaches.” For him doctrinal statements arc summary statements of the once-for-all truths which God has revealed in the Scripture. That is to say for him the subject matter of Christian doctrine is fixed. This means that once the great doctrines of Scripture have been stated they continue to remain virtually unchanged with the passing of time (cp. the doctrinal statements of the Reformation Period). There may of course be improvements in statement here and there, and even correction as the Scriptures are better understood, but on the whole these doctrines remain unchanged.

However a person holding an actualistic view of revelation does not regard the subject matter of Christian doctrines as fixed. For him Christian doctrines are statements drawn up by the Church to express its present experience of God. While these statements are in conformity with the Living Word of God as it comes in the power of the Holy Spirit through the Scriptures, yet the experience of the church is continually changing with time. Hence the Church must continually he restating its doctrines. It must, in other words, be a “Reforming” Church.

Thus a propositional view of revelation gives rise to the idea that Christian doctrine is something fixed, something with permanent and final authority. And an actualistic view of revelation gives rise to the idea that Christian doctrine is something which must continually change with the times, something which has no final authority.

Revelation and the Creeds

In addition it can be seen that these two different views of revelation will also give rise to different understandings of the nature of creeds, doctrinal statements and confessions of faith. A person holding to propositional revelation will naturally regard a confession of faith as a statement containing propositions to be assented to. He will regard it as being a concise summary of the divinely revealed truths contained in the Scriptures. But a person holding to an actualistic view of revelation will look upon a confession of faith, not as a summary of propositions to be believed, but rather as a convenient expression of his encounter with God. Or he will look upon it as a summary of how other men have expressed their encounter with God. One thing is quite certain—a person whose basic presupposition is that there is no revealed truth cannot regard a confession of faith as being a summary of revealed truth. Thus the emergence of a new actualistic view of revelation has, for those who hold that view, completely undercut the authority of all creeds, doctrinal statements and confessions of faith. No matter how orthodox a confession of faith may be, a person holding an actualistic view of revelation could, with a clear conscience, subscribe to it and yet believe none of its contents to be literally true. For in subscribing to it he is in accordance with his actualistic view of revelation, merely stating that he regards it as a convenient expression of his own encounter with God.

Revelation and Church Unity

Finally it seems reasonable to see in these two different views of revelation a reason why some in the Church today are enthusiastic for Church unity and yet why others are not so enthusiastic. On an actualistic view of revelation it is possible to regard different theologies as but different expressions by various denominations of their experiences of God’s revelation. If revelation is encounter with God, and if God has revealed Himself to men through the ages, then it would he possible to regard Augustine’s Confessions; Wesley’s sermons; the Confession of the Westminster Divines; the dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church, etc., as hut different expressions of the same basic encounter which various people have had with God. And if all denominations share the same basic experience of God’s revelation then why should there not be more outward, visible unity? And also why should there not be more union and cooperation with those of other religions? Could not the teachings of other world religions merely be the ways by which men of other cultures have expressed their encounter with God? The point however to be noted is this—that a person holding an actualistic view of revelation is in a position to sacrifice, for the sake of unity, some of the traditional modes in which he has expressed his encounter with God.

A person holding to a propositional view of revelation is however in a completely different position. When asked to make sacrifices for the sake of Church unity he feels that he is being asked to sacrifice much more than simply some beloved traditional mode by which he expresses his encounter with God. On the contrary he feels that he is being asked to deny the very truths which he believes God has revealed in the Scriptures. Such a person will be unenthusiastic towards Church unity until (a) he feels that the basis of union summarizes adequately the divine truths revealed in Scripture and (b) he is persuaded that those who subscribe to this basis will regard it not merely as a “confession of faith,” not merely an expression of the Church’s experience, but as a summary of revealed truths to be assented to.

In this article the Rev. D. W. Anderson, pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Woodville, New Zealand, and for several years a scientist who served in the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, contrasts the conservative (or “propositional”) view of revelation with the modern (or “actualistic”) view. Many Christians apparently do not realize how radical and inimical of the historic Christian faith these modem views are. This fact should be seriously dealt with by all who seek unity and truth and truth in unity among the churches.