Perhaps one of the most important elements in any religion is revelation. Since God is far beyond our ability to comprehend, revelation is essential for us as human beings in order to know and understand God. Also, since God is eternal and so beyond our comprehension, the only things that we can know of God is what He has revealed to us. Everything that we know about God, who He is, His nature, etc., we only know because God himself has revealed it to us. The topic of this paper is the Christian doctrine of revelation, the Biblical understanding of the word revelation, and the different types of revelation that God has provided us with (general, special, and through Jesus Christ).
First to begin with the Biblical understanding of the word “revelation.” The Biblical Greek word “ἀποκάλυψις” (apokalypsis), is where we get the English word “revelation.” The literal meaning of the word is “the act of uncovering,” and corresponds with the same meaning of the English translation of the word “revelation” (Spicq, 1994). BDAG defines the word as, “making fully known.” The word is also used in the Bible in three main ways:
- A revelation of truth (Rom 16:25; Eph 1:17).
- A revelation of a particular kind, through a vision for example (1 Cor 12:1; Gal 1:12; Eph 3:3; Rev 1:1
- The disclosure of secrets belonging to the last days (1 Pet 4:13; 1 Cor 1:7) (Danker, 2000).
As implied in the introduction, since we as finite beings need help in understanding that which is infinite (God), the act of revelation on God’s part is essential. It is also reasonable to suppose that God would speak to His own creatures that he created, as well as communicate to us in a meaningful way. Because revelation is the communication or unveiling of something otherwise unknown or not understood, it must be communicated or revealed in a way in which we as finite beings can understand. Thus, God has given three different types of revelation, namely, general revelation (by creation), special revelation (by written word), and ultimately revelation through Jesus Christ (by the living Word) (Chafer, 1976).
The first type of revelation that God provides mankind is referred to as general revelation. This form of revelation does not come to man in verbal or written communications, but rather through facts, forces, and the laws of nature (Berkhof, 1938). Perhaps nature itself is the biggest and most clear form of general revelation. This is because the fact that the existence of a creation implies a creator. Everything that we can see, this world, stars, the universe, etc., all of these things point to a creator, God. This is called general revelation because it is general to all people. Every person throughout the entire history of mankind has had this general revelation because every person has lived in God’s creation and each person is also a creation of God. Of course the fact of general revelation is contested by Atheists and Agnostics who do not believe in it. Pantheist sometimes speak of revelation, though it is not a part of their system of thought. Deists admit and believe in general revelation of God in nature, however they deny any form of special revelation like Scripture (Berkhof, 1938).
Some of the Bible verses that most clearly speak of general revelation are:
- “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.” (Psalms 19:1–2 ESV)
- “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” (Romans 1:19–20 ESV)
- “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them” (Romans 2:14–15 ESV)
In these verses it is plain to see that not only through nature can mankind know that God exists, but nature (general revelation) is also enough of a testimony of God’s existence that on judgement day people will be “without excuse,” no person will be able to say “I did not know that God existed.” Even further in Romans, Paul states that God has written His law on the heart of every person, so that not only do all people know that God exists through general revelation, but because of the conscience that God has given them they also know right and wrong.
While there general revelation has some benefits and forms the necessary background to special revelation, general revelation by itself is not enough and is therefore insufficient. Due to sin entering the world general revelation became obscured and therefore cannot convey any fully reliable knowledge of God. Berkhof states, “The handwriting of the Creator was not entirely erased, but became hazy and indistinct.” General revelation is insufficient because it does not give an adequate basis for religion. General revelation, while important, cannot convey the knowledge of Christ, the Gospel, or salvation. Therefore; it fails to meet the true spiritual needs of sinners, special revelation is needed for this task (Berkhof, 1938).
Therefore; in addition to general revelation God also gives what has been named special revelation. While there are a few different forms of special revelation, today the primary and preeminent form of special revelation is Scripture, the Bible. As briefly noted above, due to sin entering the world special revelation became necessary. Mankind, marred with spiritual blindness was unable to fully see the revelation of God through nature, therefore, it was necessary for God to re-interpret the truths of nature by providing new special revelation (Berkhof, 1938). Warfield writes, “According to the Scriptures, therefore, special revelation is a historic process, an organic system, a continuous divine activity directed to destroying the power of sin, to the building up of the Kingdom of God, to the restoration of the Cosmos, to the summing up of all things in Christ” (Warfield, 1999).
In Scripture we can see that God has used a few different kinds of special revelation:
- Theophanies (visible manifestations of God). Examples of theophanies are: God revealing his presence in fire, clouds, and smoke (Ex. 3:2; 33:9; Ps. 78:14; 99:7); in stormy winds (Job 38:1; Ps. 18:10-16); and in a “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12).
- Direct communications. God spoke directly to people through various means, he spoke to Moses and the children of Israel with an audible voice and to face (Deut 5:4). God also spoke to people through prophets (1 Pet. 1:10-12). Furthermore; God spoke and revealed Himself to people through dreams and visions (Num. 12:6; 27:21; Isa. 6). And lastly in the New Testament, Jesus was sent by God to reveal the will of the Father, and through the Holy Spirit the apostles had further revelation (John 14:26; 1 Cor. 2:12, 13; 1 Thess. 2:13).
- Miracles. In the Bible miracles are manifestations of God’s power and special revelation, they are an essential part of special revelation. Miracles show God’s power, presence, and often symbolize deep spiritual truths. Miracles were also signs of the coming Kingdom of God and were used to authenticate those who spoke by proving they spoke for God. The most important miracle was the coming of the Son of God in flesh, in order to redeem and restore God’s creation (Rev. 21:5) (Berkhof, 1938).
Today, it is the whole Bible, and Bible only, which gives us God’s special revelation. Along with revelation, inspiration is also an important Christian Doctrine. This Doctrine states that the entire Bible was inspired by God as special revelation, and is therefore the only infallible rule of faith and practice for mankind. Proofs of inspiration can be seen in a few facts: Old Testament writers were instructed to write what the Lord commanded them (Ex. 17:14; 34:27; Num. 33:2; Isa. 8:1; 30:8; Jer. 25:13; 30:2; Ezek. 24:1; Dan. 12:4; Hab. 2:2). The prophets were aware that they were giving/speaking the word of God (Jer. 36:27, 32; Ezek., chapters 26, 27, 31, 32, 39). The apostle Paul claims Christ speaks to him, that his words are Spirit taught and the word of God (1 Cor 2:13; 2 Cor 13:3; 1 Thess. 2:13). When quoting passages from the Old Testament the Epistle to the Hebrews calls them the words of God or the Holy Spirit (Heb. 1:6; 3:7; 4:3; 5:6; 7:21) (Berkhof, 1938). Lastly, the most important passage of Scripture about inspiration is 2 Tim 3:16 which states, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” (ESV).
Jesus Christ the Living Word
Scripture ultimately points us to the perfect revelation of who God is, that is the Son of God, God in flesh, the living Word, the Logos, Jesus Christ. Speaking of Jesus Christ, the Epistle to the Hebrews opens by stating, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (Hebrews 1:1–2 ESV). What is clear from these verses is that while God has spoken to humanity in different ways, the last and most full revelation of God is Jesus himself. John 1:18 also states that no full revelation of God had been given until Jesus Christ came. Jesus as the Logos (word) and monogenes (the unique and beloved one) was simultaneously with God and was God, therefore, was able to break the barrier between mankind and God so that we could know God (Carson, 1991).
Christ as the incarnate Logos came into the world to reveal God as perfectly as possible. Christ manifested both the wisdom of God (John 7:46; 1 Cor. 1:24) and the power of God (John 3:2). The principal reason however that Christ came was to declare the bosom of the Father, that is, the love of God and ultimately to die a sacrificial death (John 3:16; Rom. 5:8; 1 John 3:16). Jesus Christ as the Logos is the speech and reason of God. As Scripture declares God to man, Jesus the living Logos perfectly declares God to man. Comparing Jesus and the written word, both are called truth (John 14:6; 17:17), everlasting (Ps. 119:89; John 8:58), life giving (John 14:6; James 1:18), saving (Acts 16:31; 1 Cor. 15:1–2), purifying (Titus 2:14; 1 Pet. 1:22), sanctifying (John 17:17; Heb. 10:14), glorifying to God (Acts 13:48; Rom. 15:9), judging (John 5:27; 12:48), living (John 11:25; 1 Pet. 1:23) (Chafer, Systematic Theology, 1976).
In conclusion, we can see that Christianity is a religion based on revelation. While the tenets of other religions may be products of human ideas, in contrast, the doctrines of Christianity are based on revelation (Warfield, 1999). Thus, without revelation Christianity would not exist. Through the general revelation of nature God has revealed Himself as the divine creator. However because of sin every person is ultimately lost and blinded to the truth of God’s general revelation. Throughout history God has provided special revelation by different means, namely, manifestations, prophets, visions, and miracles. God has also clearly spoken to humanity throughout history by Scripture. Scripture is our preeminent form of special revelation today, by it we can know everything that God has deemed necessary for us to know. Ultimately the Bible points to the greatest revelation of God, Jesus Christ, who is the “Logos” who was with God since the beginning, who is God, and who came in the form of human flesh to truly reveal God to mankind.
Berkhof, L. (1938). Summary of Christian Doctrine. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Carson, D. A. (1991). The Gospel According to John. In PNTC; Accordance electronic ed. (p. 134). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Chafer, L. S. (1976). Systematic Theology. Dallas: Dallas Theological Seminary.
Chafer, L. S. (1976). Systematic Theology. In Kregel/Accordance electronic ed. 8 vols. (pp. 227-228). Dallas: Dallas Theological Seminary.
Danker, F. W. (2000). ἀποκάλυψις. In K. A. Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature (BDAG) (p. 112). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Spicq, C. (1994). καλύπτω, ἀνακαλύπτω, ἀποκαλύπτω, ἀποκάλυψις. In C. Spicq, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament (pp. 244-250). Hendrickson Publishers.
Warfield, B. B. (1999). On Revelation, Inspiration, and the Scriptures . In Select Works of B. B. Warfield; Accordance electronic ed. Altamonte Springs: OakTree Software.