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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

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Revelation, Book of
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1. Meaning of revelation . The English word, which comes from the Latin, implies the drawing back of a veil, the unveiling of something hidden. It is the almost exact equivalent of the NT word apocalypse or ‘uncovering’ ( Revelation 1:1 ). For our present purpose the word is specially applied to the revelation of God, the ‘unveiling’ of the unseen God to the mind and beart of man. The application of the word is very varied. The widest sense is that in which it is used by Gwatkin ( Knowledge of God , vol. i. p. 5): ‘Any fact which gives knowledge is a revelation, … the revelation and the knowledge of God are correlative terms expressing two sides of the same thing.’ The following specific uses of the term need consideration: ( a ) The revelation of God through nature . This refers to the indications of wisdom, power, and purpose in the material world around ( Romans 1:20 ). ( b ) The revelation of God in man . This applies to the traces of God in man’s conscience with its sense of obligation, in his emotional nature with its desire and capacity for fellowship, in his personality which demands personality for its satisfaction. ( c ) The revelation of God in history . This means the marks of an over-ruling providence and purpose in the affairs of mankind, of a Divinity that has shaped man’s ends, the traces of a progress and onward sweep in history. All these aspects of revelation are usually summed up in the term ‘natural religion,’ and do not touch the specific meaning of revelation which is associated with Christianity. ( d ) The revelation of God in Judaism and Christianity . By revelation, as applied in this way, we mean a special, historical, supernatural communication from God to man. Not merely information about God, but a revelation a disclosure of God Himself in His character and His relation to man. In addition to revelation through nature, conscience, and reason, Christianity implies a special revelation in the Person of Christ.

2. Problem of revelation . The statement of the full content of the Christian revelation is naturally excluded from this article, but for our purpose we may say briefly that its essence is the self-manifestation of God in the Person of Christ for the redemption of mankind. Christianity is the revelation of God’s grace for man through the historic Personality of Christ. The problem is to correlate this supernatural content with the historical process by means of which it has been revealed, and to do justice at once to the superhuman fact and content, and the human media and conditions of the revelation. In so doing we shall be brought face to face with the antitheses of revelation and discovery, of revelation and speculation, of revelation and evolution; and, while we recognize to the full the historical processes by which Christianity has come to us, we shall see that the gospel of Christ is not adequately accounted for except by means of a personal revelation of God, using and guiding history for the purpose, and that it cannot be explained merely in terms of history, discovery, philosophy, and evolution.

3. Possibility of revelation . We argue this on two grounds. ( a ) From the Being of God . Granted a God as a Supreme Being (which for our present purpose we assume), He must necessarily be able to reveal Himself to man. Given God as personal, this includes the power of self-revelation. Belief in a Divine Being at once makes revelation possible. A bare theism has never been a permanent standing-ground, for men either have receded from it or have gone forward in the direction of the Christian revelation. ( b ) From the nature of man . The fact of personality, with all its possibilities, implies man’s capacity for communion with a Being higher than himself, or higher than any other human personality. ‘Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in Thee’ (Augustine).

4. Probability of revelation . This also we argue on two grounds: ( a ) from the nature of God , and ( b ) from the needs of man . Granted a Supreme Personal Being, we believe not only in His ability, but in His willingness to reveal Himself to man. Belief in God prepares us to expect a revelation. Human personality with its capacity for God prepares us to expect a revelation, which thus becomes antecedently probable. The desire for it is an argument for expecting it. Man, as man, needs a revelation to guide him, an authority above and greater than himself in things spiritual and Divine. Still more does man as a sinner need such a Divine revelation. Amid the sins and sorrows, the fears and trials, the difficulties and perplexities of life, man needs some Divine revelation that will assure him of salvation, holiness, and immortality. No one can say that the light of nature is sufficient for these needs, and that therefore a revelation could add nothing. Most men would agree that there is at least room for a revelation in view of the sin and suffering in the world. Our deepest instincts cry out against the thought that sin is final or permanent, and yet it is equally clear that nothing but an interposition from above can deal with it. It is impossible to conceive of God leaving man to himself without a definite, clear, and sufficient manifestation of His own character, His will, His love, His grace.

5. Credibility of revelation . The proofs of a Divine revelation are many, varied, converging, and cumulative, ( a ) Speculatively , we may argue that ‘the universe points to idealism, and idealism to theism, and theism to a revelation’ (Illingworth, Reason and Revelation , p. 243). ( b ) Historically , the Christian revelation comes to us commended by its witnesses in (1) miracle, (2) prophecy, and (3) spiritual adaptation to human nature, ( c ) Behind all these are the presuppositions of natural religion as seen in nature, man, and history, ( d ) But ultimately the credibility of Christianity as a revelation rests on the Person of its Founder , and all evidences converge towards and centre in Him. Christ is Christianity, and Christians believe primarily and fundamentally in the fact and trustworthiness of Christ. Herein lies the final proof of the credibility of Christianity as a Divine revelation. If it he said that God has made other manifestations of Himself in the course of history, we do not deny it. All truth, however mediated, must necessarily have come from the primal Source of truth. The genuineness of Christianity does not necessarily disprove the genuineness of other religions as ‘broken lights.’ Each system claiming to be a revelation, whether partial or final, must be tested by its own evidence, and a decision made accordingly. The real criterion of all religions claiming to he Divine is their power to save. It is not truth in itself, but truth as exemplified in human life and delivering from sin, that constitutes the final proof of a religion. Not the ideal, but the ideal practically realized in human experience, is the supreme test. When this is applied, the true relation of Christianity to other systems is at once seen.

6. Methods of revelation . ( a ) The Christian revelation is first and foremost a revelation of life . Christianity is primarily a religion of facts rather than of truths, the doctrines only arising out of the facts. All through the historic period God’s manifestation has been given to life. Whether we think of the patriarchs, kings, and prophets of the OT, or of Christ and His Apostles in the NT, revelation has ever been connected with human life and personality. ( b ) But mediately it has been given in word , first oral and then written. Both in the OT and in the NT we notice first what God was and did to men, and afterwards what He said . We can and must distinguish between the revelation and the record, the former being necessarily prior to the latter, but nevertheless the revelation needed the record for accuracy and availability. At the same time it is essential to remember that Scripture is not simply a record of a revelation, but that the history itself is a revelation of God. On the one hand, the Bible is a product of the Divine process of self-manifestation; and, on the other, the Bible itself makes God known to man. Christianity, therefore, like Judaism before it, is a book religion (though it is also much more), as recording and conveying the Divine manifestation to man. A revelation must be embodied somewhere to he made available for all generations, and of the three possible media human reason, an ecclesiastical institution, and a hook, the last-named is by far the most trustworthy as a vehicle of transmission. It matters not how God reveals Himself, so long as we can he sure of the accuracy of that which is transmitted. Christ is our supreme and final authority, and our one requirement is the purest, clearest form of His historic personal manifestation. We do not set aside reason because it is human, or an institution because it is liable to error, nor do we accept the book merely as a book; hut we believe that the two former do not, and the latter does, enshrine for us the record of Christ’s revelation in its best available form.

7. Development of revelation . Revelation has been mediated through history, and has therefore been progressive, ( a ) Primitive revelation is the first stage. How men first came to conceive of God must remain a matter of conjecture. As there is so little known about primitive man, so also there must be about primitive religion. One thing, however, is quite clear, that the terms ‘savage’ and ‘primitive’ are not synonymous, for the savage to-day often represents a degeneration from primitive man. All analogy favours the idea that primitive revelation was such a manifestation of God when man was created as would he sufficient to maintain a true relation with Him, that at the Creation man had an immediate capacity, however immature, of entering into fellowship with God; and with this religions endowment we may assume a measure of Divine revelation sufficient to enable man to worship in an elementary way, and to keep true to God. No one is able to prove this, hut there is no reason to deny its possibility or probability. Without some such assumption, all idea of revelation vanishes, and religion is resolved into merely human conceptions of God. Revelation is more than the soul’s instinctive apprehension of God, for the simple reason that the instinctive apprehension itself has to he accounted for. The difficulties urged by some writers on the philosophy of religion against primitive revelation arise out of the assumption that all revelations are mere natural processes. There is no argument against primitive revelation which is not valid against all revelation, Christianity included. The power and possibility of man’s self-development towards God are inconsistent with the fact of sin and man’s bent towards evil. ( b ) OT revelation . However and whenever the OT came into existence, we cannot help being conscious of something in it beyond that which is merely human and historical. There is that in the OT characters and record which cannot be explained solely in terms of historic continuity. The OT does not merely represent an endeavour to obtain an ever worthier idea of God; it records a true idea of God impressed on the people in the course of history, under a Divine direction which we call a revelation. The OT conception of God is so vastly different from that which obtained in the surrounding nations, that unless we predicate something supernatural, there is no possibility of accounting for so marked a difference between people who were in other respects so very much alike. As Wellhausen truly says, ‘Why did not Chemosh of Moah, for instance, develop into a God of Righteousness, and the Creator of heaven and earth?’ It is possible to give a satisfying answer to this question only by predicating a Divine revelation in the OT. ( c ) The NT revelation . The historical revelation culminated in the manifestation of Jesus Christ. It was given at a particular time and place, mediated through One Person, and authenticated by supernatural credentials. In Christ the self-disclosure of God reached its climax, and the NT is the permanent witness of the uniqueness of Christianity in the world. ‘God, who in ancient days spoke to our forefathers in many distinct messages and by various methods through the prophets, has at the end of these days spoken unto us through a Son’ ( Hebrews 1:1 , Weymouth). And the Person of Christ is utterly inexplicable in terms of history, or discovery, and requires the hypothesis of revelation.

This brief sketch of the historical development of revelation will enable us to understand the importance of the truth of the progressiveness of revelation. God taught men as they were able to bear it, leading them step by step from the dawn to the noonday of His self-disclosure. While each stage of the revelation was adequate for that time, it was not necessarily adequate with reference to succeeding stages. This principle of progress enables us to avoid a twofold error: it prevents us from undervaluing the OT by reason of the fuller light of the NT; and it prevents us from using the OT in any of its stages without guidance from the completer revelation of the NT. We thus distinguish carefully between the dispensational truth intended absolutely for immediate need at each stage, and those permanent elements in the OT which are of eternal validity. It is necessary to remember the difference between what is written for us and to us. ‘All Scripture was written for our learning,’ but not all was written to us directly. If it be said that revelation should be universal, and not limited to one time or place or nation, the answer is that the historical method is in exact accordance with the method of communicating and receiving all our knowledge. It is obvious that in the course of history some nations and men have influenced mankind more than others, and this fact constitutes an analogy, and argues the possibility that a special revelation might also be mediated through some particular race and person. Further, by limiting revelation in this way, God took the best means of preserving the revelation from corruption. Continuous and universal tradition has very few safeguards against deterioration, as the Jewish history only too clearly shows. Our acceptance of the revelation enshrined in the NT is based on the belief that it comes through men uniquely authorized and equipped to declare God’s will. Its authority depends on the fact that their special relation to Christ and their exceptional possession of the Spirit gave them the power to receive and declare God’s truth for mankind. Not fitness to edify, or age, or the possession of truth, but with these, and underlying them, the presence of a Divine element in the men whose writings we possess, gives the books their authority for us as a record and vehicle of Divine revelation. This uniqueness may be seen by a simple appeal to fact. The comparison of the Apostolic and sub-Apostolic ages shows the uniqueness of the NT. Between the first and second centuries there is a chasm ‘sheer, abrupt, abysmal’ (Schaff), and no transition exists which was so silent, and yet so sudden and remarkable. The most beautiful product of the second century, the Epistle of Diognetus , is incomparably inferior to any book of the NT. ‘There is no steeper descent in history than that which directly follows the Apostolic age. We pass at once from writings unsurpassed in creative power to writings of marked intellectual poverty, … the distinction commonly made between the books of the Canon and the rest is fully justified’ (Gwatkin, Knowledge of God , ii. 80). This difference marks the distinction between the Spirit of God in revelation and in illumination. Since the close of the NT times there has been strictly no addition to the revelation, but only its manifold realization and application in the Christian Church and the world. It should be carefully noted that we believe in the Divine revelation contained in the Scriptures, without holding any particular theory of inspiration. The supreme question is whether they contain a revelation of Divine truth. Are they true and trustworthy for our spiritual life? If so, they are authoritative whatever may have been the precise method of their delivery. The primary question is not the method of inspiration, but the fact of authority. Yet, however difficult it may be to define its character or limits, we believe in a special inspiration of the Bible based on the authority of its authors and on their unique power to reveal God’s will. This special inspiration is (1) testified to by the Scriptures themselves, (2) has ever been held in the Christian Church, and (3) constantly authenticates itself to the Christian conscience through the ages.

8. Purpose of revelation . The essential purpose of revelation is life : the gift of the life of God to the life of man. Its practical character is stamped on every part. The ‘chief end of revelation’ is not philosophy, though it has a philosophy profound and worthy. It is not doctrine, though it has a doctrine satisfying and inspiring. It is not enjoyment, though it has its experiences precious and lasting. It is not even morality, though it has its ethic unique and powerful. Christianity has all these, but is far more than them all. It is the religion of redemption, including salvation from sin, equipment for holiness, and provision for life to be lived in fellowship with God and for His glory. The ‘chief end’ of revelation is the union of God and man, and in that union the fulfilment of all God’s purposes for the world. The elements of sonship, worship, stewardship, fellowship, heirship, practically sum up the purpose of Divine revelation as it concerns man’s life a life in which he receives God’s grace, realizes God’s will, reproduces God’s character, renders God service, and rejoices in God’s presence in the Kingdom of grace below and the Kingdom of glory above.

W. H. Griffith Thomas.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Revelation'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdb/​r/revelation.html. 1909.
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