IS DIVINE REVELATION A VALID SOURCE FOR THEOLOGY?
Lim K Tham
What is Revelation?
Our starting point is to understand the concept of revelation. A simple definition of revelation is this: revelation is the disclosure or unveiling of something that has been concealed. It is the lifting of an obscuring veil, so as to disclose something that was formerly hidden. It is of a different order from our ordinary matter-of-fact knowing of the world in that the initiative lies with that which is known. In the revelatory process, the knower does not discover something; it is disclosed to him or her. This is the essential element to the idea of revelation: its gift-like character.1
That this is St Paul’s self-understanding of revelation is evident from the following scripture verses which originated from him:
Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all the Gentiles might come to the obedience that comes from faith— to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen. (Rom 16:25-27)
What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived…God has revealed to us through the Spirit. (1 Cor 2:9-10)
Disclosure vs Discovery
In defining revelation, a distinction has been made between disclosure and discovery. These two words are not sufficiently differentiated in common speech. Yet the distinction is key to a proper understanding of revelation. As the following news report effectively illustrates, disclosure differs in meaning from discovery:
The police had arrested a man of whose complicity in a crime they had much evidence. It was said in the paper that they had discovered certain facts about the man which pointed to his implication in the alleged crime. There was not, however, sufficient evidence to fasten it finally upon him. So they went to work upon him with several hours of continuous questioning, until at last he broke down and confessed. In the confession, said the paper, he disclosed to the police certain things which they had not discovered, which, indeed, almost certainly they could never, without the suspect’s aid, have laid bare at all.2
So revelation is self-disclosure of God to humankind, not human discovery. It is a process initiated by God, not a human insight or achievement. In the revelatory experience, it is as if the holy breaks-in upon us.
Necessity of Revelation
Why is it necessary for God to make himself known? We can think of two considerations but there are several more.
God is transcendent----he is wholly ‘other’. Thus, Kierkegaard speaks of ‘the infinite qualitative distinction’ between us and God.
It should be noted that the distinction between God and us is a severe one. Giving his take on God’s transcendence, William Nicholls writes, ‘God differs from ourselves not merely in degree, as would be the case if we were both spirits and he the greatest of spirits, but in kind. He is above us not only morally but ontologically, as he is above everything else that he has made, far removed from us in the mystery of his divine being. He is above everything that we can conceive, and any image that we could form of him, even the highest mental image, would be a travesty of what he really is, an insult to the divine majesty.’3
A number of scripture passages lend support to the concept of divine transcendence:
‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways’, declares the LORD. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.’ (Is 55:8,9)
The LORD is exalted over all the nations, his glory above the heavens. Who is like the LORD our God, the One who sits enthroned on high, who stoops down to look on the heavens and...
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