Is Christianity a Revealed Religion ?
The claim that Christianity is a revealed religion is a long-standing one. It has been made recently by Packer, Morris and Milne but according to Swinburne, it was universally acknowledged as the Christian claim up until the eighteenth century. The manner and extent of revelation have been debated by Christians without a clear consensus emerging, but this only serves to highlight the “impressive agreement on the fact of revelation.” The claim goes back to the founders of Christianity, Christ and his Apostles, and was not simply an invention of the last three centuries thought up in response to the loss of Christianity’s “self-evident validity”.
The Concept of Revelation
The claim to be a revealed religion is made to distinguish Christianity from various other religious systems which claim no origin outside of the created order, and which may be (pejoratively?) described as “man-made”. Christian theology claims not to be the accumulation of ancient wisdom – mankind’s best thoughts on the topics of the day – nor is it “an exercise in religious self-expression”. The idea behind the word “revelation” is the disclosure of something previously unknown. To claim Christianity is a revealed religion is to set it apart from the Aristotelian idea of an inactive God, discovered through argumentation. Usually, it also refers to an active deity involved in a purposeful act of revealing, rather than a passive God who allows himself/itself to be revealed. Integral to the Christian claim is that God himself is both the agent and the object of revelation.
What, it is claimed, is revealed about God is not exhaustive knowledge. It is not possible to know everything about the Christian’s God. It is however possible to know truly, without knowing exhaustively. It has been suggested that we cannot know God as he is in himself but only as we experience him/it. This is a false antithesis: there is no reason why knowledge that is gained in relation to something should be merely relative or unreal. We may have no access to the inner being of God but all this means is that the initiative remains with him to reveal something of himself if he so chooses.
So, revelation is the deliberate and active disclosure by God of something previously unknown which communicates real but not exhaustive knowledge.
How God reveals
“Revelation means the whole work of God making himself known to men and women; the theme embraces on the one hand, all the words and deeds of God in which the biblical writers recognized his self-disclosure, and, on the other hand, all that is involved in the encounter through which God brings successive generations to know Him through knowledge of the biblical facts.” This statement by Packer brings to our attention four areas of revelation. We will look at each in turn to discover more of the meaning of this claim.
The Deeds of God
There are two specific types of God’s works. The first is the whole area of what is known as General Revelation. (We will leave the other type, God’s actions in redemptive history, until the next section where they will be dealt with more fully under the heading of The Words of God.) General Revelation is that revelation which is potentially available to all people everywhere. Classically, there are three areas of general revelation in which God works to reveal himself and his purposes: in man, in nature, and in history.
“God has revealed himself to all men in the conflicts of their moral experience.” A sense of right and wrong, a sense that punishment and reward are appropriate to each and an internal “inkling” that God exists are undoubtedly universal. This argument from experience and reason leads Calvin to the conclusion that “a sense of divinity is by nature engraven on human hearts.” There is biblical support for this argument, particularly Romans 1-2. Mankind, being made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) bears some marks of God’s character within itself: relational personhood, creativity and other human attributes may also suggest similarities with the Creator.
“The greatness and beauty of created things gives us a corresponding idea of the Creator.” (Wisdom of Solomon 13:5). Something of God’s character is mirrored in his creation, not just in mankind, but also in nature. This was one of Paul’s points of contact with his pagan audiences. At Lystra for example, he points out that God has “not left himself without testimony” but has revealed his kindness in his provision of rain, crops, food and the seasons (Acts 14:17). Psalm 19 speaks of the heavens themselves (the skies full of stars, the heat and light of the sun etc.) constantly declaring the glory of God to all. This, according to Paul, points clearly to God’s existence and power (Romans 1:18-21), so that “even unlettered and stupid folk cannot plead the excuse of ignorance… there is no spot in the universe wherein you cannot discern at least some sparks of his glory.”
Some hold that the course of history also displays something of God’s nature. Not just in the rise and fall of nations but in the smaller-scale providential acts of God, we may discern his hand. Evidently this is a much more difficult task, as Psalm 107 points out and following which Calvin comments that, “to weigh these works of God wisely is a matter of rare and singular wisdom.”
The discipline of natural theology seeks to formulate a doctrine of God from such general revelation, but on its own it is an insufficient and potentially ambiguous source. This is not a fault inherent in God’s works themselves, or in general revelation objectively, but one which arises in our subjective appropriation of the revelation. The diversity among philosophers who have attempted to describe the God revealed in this way is shameful, because trying to penetrate into heaven is useless unless our eyes are “illumined by the inner revelation of God through faith”. It is too pessimistic to say that general revelation does not register at all in the “sin darkened mind of the unregenerate” and too optimistic to say it is sufficient for salvation. Rather, we must on balance affirm the objectivity of the revelation alongside its limited utility in mediating knowledge of God. Something of God can be perceived by the sense and grasped with the mind by observing God’s works, but it is always obscured by the faithless eyesight of our sinful nature. There is a possibility of revelation here, but only if God chooses to override this defect in us.
God’s divinity and power are clearly seen, understood and made known to all, but the minds of human beings are blinded (by sin) and they resist and reject it. Moreover, contemplation of God’s works in man, in nature and in history may well call attention to a moral and spiritual defect in us, but it does not and cannot reveal a solution for it. Therefore, Christianity affirms the reality of truth revealed in this manner, but it also affirms its limitations.
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This article is an extract from the writing of Lee Gatiss who is the Editor of Theologian and author of Christianity and the Tolerance of Liberalism and of The True Profession of the Gospel: Augustus Toplady and Reclaiming our Reformed Foundations published by Latimer Trust and also available on Amazon.