Skip to content

Am I an Evangelical? Part II: The Doctrine of Revelation

I begin this study with the doctrine of revelation basically for two reasons. First, one has to begin somewhere and theologically speaking I am convinced that we have nothing to say unless God has first spoken to us, rendering possible any future speech we might make to or about God. Revelation is the sole criterion of the possibility of an authentic theology. Second, central to the doctrine of revelation is the doctrine of Scripture, which all Christians believe is among the primary means through which God reveals himself. Certainly Christ and Christ alone is truly the revelation of God, this I believe we must embrace following Barth. However, Scripture stands as the church’s primary witness to the revelation of God that Christ is and is the vehicle through which the revelation of God is brought to the church through the Spirit in the time of Christ’s session at the right hand of the Father.

Now, anyone who knows anything about Evangelicalism will certainly know how important the doctrine of Scripture is to adherents of the movement. The roots of the evangelical tradition lie in the “Fundamentals” of the early 20th century, first among which was the verbal inspiration of the text of Scripture and its inerrancy and an affirmation of the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture remains in the doctrinal statement of the ETS to this day.

What is important to me is not to try to lump Evangelicals into some bunch of now derided fundamentalist wackos. Rather, my question concerns what to make of how Evangelicals construe the Bible in relation to the revelation of God. What is most central here is the “identity thesis”, namely that the Bible is the word of God written. The Bible does not become the word of God when the Spirit illuminates the reader to understand it, thereby revealing Christ, rather it is objectively and always the word of God written in and of itself. The Bible likewise does not merely bear witness to the word of God, for it simply is God’s word. This is central to Evangelical thinking as I understand it and was exposed to it growing up. By far the most nuanced and thorough exposition of the “identity thesis” has been given to us by John Morrison in his book, Has God Said?: Scripture, the Word of God, and the Crisis of Theological Authority, which I heartily commend to those seeking an exposition of such a position.

This is my most central issue with the Evangelical approach to Scripture. Revelation, by definition involves the act of self-disclosure on the part of the one who is revealed and the reception and understanding of that self-disclosure on the part of the one to whom the other is revealed. In other words, revelation seems to inherently involve dialogical interchange. Evangelicalism, however, by identifying divine revelation with Scripture itself, rather than what God does through Scripture seems to reduce revelation to the codifying of propositions about God. Rather than seeing revelation as actually disclosing the nature and character of God’s triune reality in and through Christ and the Spirit, for evangelicals, revelation ceases to be revelation of God and becomes merely revelation about God.

Moreover, I also have trouble with identifying Scripture itself with revelation because Scripture does not seem to read this way. If the whole of Scripture is read it seems to read awfully like a story, or better a drama in which is recorded the history of God revealing himself to and relating to his people. God reveals himself to Moses, showing him his glory (Ex. 33:7-34:10) and this event is recorded in Scripture. Scripture records the fact that this revelation did occur to Moses. Scripture does not reduplicate this revelation, or somehow encode it into the structure of the text. Rather, Scripture plays the humble role of a witness to God’s revelation, pointing away from itself to the God who has acted and revealed himself in and among his people in history.

Most centrally, it is problematic to identify Scripture with the word of God because Scripture itself identifies Christ as the Word of God. It is Christ who is the word, the true image and revelation of the Father. He and he alone discloses to us who God is in the fullness and plenitude of his triune character. The Scriptures are witnesses to the reality of the Word made flesh. They constantly and consistently point to him as the sole revelation of the Father from whom we have received “grace upon grace” (Jn. 1:16).

Thus, if Christ is the Word of God we are driven (by Scripture itself!) to affirm that the the Word becomes incarnate, not in a text but in human form. It is the concrete, Jewish human Jesus who is the Trinitarian Son, the logos of the Father. It is, he the head of his body, the church who is the Word of God. Scripture’s function, like that of the church is the role of the Servant. Scripture is not the Word, but the handmaiden of the Word. Through Scripture the reality that the Word has been made flesh is recorded, recalled and enacted as the church, the body of the Logos reads and re-reads the testimony to how the Triune God has been revealed in Jesus.

Based upon an orthodox christology which recognizes the character of Jesus as the Word of God and understanding the nature of Scripture as a dramatic narrative recording the history of God and his people, I feel compelled to reject the “identity thesis” as invalid. Scripture is not, in itself the word of God, but rather bears witness to the living Word, Jesus Christ crucified, the power and wisdom of God.

However it is important to recognize that Scripture does indeed become the word of God when Christ makes himself present to the church through the preaching of the Scriptures. Thus, we are right to declare “The word of the Lord” when we read Scripture in the church, not because we are proclaiming something about the inherent or magical properties of the text in itself, but rather about how that text is appropriated by the Spirit to become the voice of Christ animating his body and filling it with new life. As the history of God and his people is recalled and remembered through the ecclesial reading and performace of Scripture, the church is brought always deeper into communion with Christ through the Spirit who renders Christ present through his story as it is retold and reenacted. Thus, Scripture does indeed become the Word of God, but not because of its own character, but rather because of the missions of the Son and Spirit in the triune drama of salvation in which Scripture becomes the medium through which the Spirit makes present the Logos of the Father: Jesus Christ.

To sum up, I find myself denying what I take to be a central feature of Evangelicalism, namely that Scripture itself is the Word of God. Insofar as the Word of God is Christ and Christ alone, I take this facet of Evangelical theology to be any example of the ever-common bibliolatry that permeates that tradition. Indeed it is this issue, namely that the “the Bible alone and
the Bible in its entirety is the word of God” (ETS doctrinal statement) which troubles me the most in the Evangelical Scripture principle. I actually have no trouble with affirming that Scripture is infallible, if that is taken to mean that, due to the work of the Spirit, the Scriptures never cease to do the work that God has appoined them to do in the world. They are in-fallible, incapable of failing at the purpose they serve in the triune drama of salvation. This is the work of the Spirit in his theo-dramatic mission. Moreover, I don’t even have a problem with inerrancy insofar as this is understood as affirming that the Bible does not err in communicating to us what God intends them to communicate. Central here is the issue of literary genre of which there are many in Scripture. The way a poem or parable does not err is very different from the way a theological-historical narrative does not err (and the description theological-historical is intentional, there is no such thing as pure, objective history).


However, what I cannot accept is that there is any Word of God other than Christ. Scripture is not the Word of God, but bears witness to Word and is the Servant of the Word. It becomes the Word to the church through the work of the Spirit who mediates the presence and action of Christ, through the Scriptures to his Body. But it is ultimately not the text that is the Word, but the the Living Word, the Trinitarian Son of the Father who, through the Spirit is revealed in and speaks through the text.

Does this square with an Evangelical (and the big “e” is important) understanding of Scripture? While I still see myself as having much in common with it, I think my denial of the “identity thesis” puts me at a distance from an Evangelical doctrine of Scripture. But, it also seems to put me closer to a properly christological, indeed properly biblical doctrine of Scripture. And there I stand.

4 Comments

  1. Christopher Layton wrote:

    But the question must be, since truly the doctrine of Inerrancy is central to Evangelical identity: would other Evangelicals accept your definition of Inerrancy as falling within the boundaries of the given Evangelical definition (like, say, ETS’s)?
    This is really the point at which I have to wonder if I’ve moved outside of the fold. I am not so interested in answering the Inerrancy question in the negative, but the way I think about the authority of scripture does not require me to invoke the “identity principle,” and therefore does not require me to ask the Inerrancy question. Am I, not being terribly interested in asking the question whose answer determines the boundaries of Evangelicalism, therefore not an Evangelical?

    Thursday, November 23, 2006 at 8:07 am | Permalink
  2. Jeff Barrett wrote:

    Well thought out article, Halden. I appreciate the excellently stated truth that, “We have nothing to say unless God has first spoken to us.” However, being the stick in the mud that I am, I would like to pose a counter view for constructive purposes.

    I think the weakest point in your argument is your brief traversal of the Scriptural terrain regarding the Word of God. That is, you only cited from John chapter 1. As you mentioned later in your article, there are multiple genres within Scripture. Since John chapter 1 verses 1 through 18 are a highly poetic introduction to the gospel, set off from the rest of the text as a chiasm, I think they alone are weak proof for your argument that Scripture itself points away from itself and toward Jesus Christ as being the Word of God. Could you exposit some other texts regarding this point?

    On the opposite side of Scriptural quotes, I refer to the foremost text in my mind regarding the Word of the Lord: 1 Peter 1:24-25.

    for

    “All flesh is like grass
    and all its glory like the flower of grass.
    The grass withers,
    and the flower falls,
    but the word of the Lord remains forever.”

    And this word is the good news that was preached to you.

    I think all the Apostles understood this definition of the Word of the Lord when they wrote passages such as Hebrew 4:12, Ephesians 3:1-5, and Titus 1:3. After all, they didn’t have John’s Gospel as a reference.

    Thursday, November 23, 2006 at 9:16 am | Permalink
  3. R. Scott Clark wrote:

    There are a couple difficulties with your account of the evangelical doctrine of Scripture. The Chicago Statement has great affinity with the doctrine of Scripture held for more than 1000 years before the rise of neo-evangelicalism.

    Second, your account does not acknowledge the historic Protestant (confessional Reformed and Lutheran) distinction between theology as God knows it (theologia archetypa) and theology as he reveals it to us (theologia ectypa). Your account seems to imply that to identify Scripture with the Word of God is to identify the archetypal with the ectypal. This is not so. Since at least 1518 Protestants have distinguished implicitly and explicitly between God’s understanding of truth and ours.

    It’s true that neo-evangelicals such as Carl Henry (who was deeply influenced by Gordon Clark, who rejected this distinction explicitly) did not make it in their work. So I can understand that it is not widely known today, but it does lie back of the historic Protestant doctrine of Scripture. On this see Muller’s magisterial 4 vols, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics and Robert Preus’ excellent study of the historic Lutheran doctrine of scripture.

    Nor is it necessary to juxtapose the “story” or the “drama” of Scripture with the identity of Scripture with the Word of God. Protestants have been doing what moderns call “Biblical Theology” for hundreds of years. BT does nothing if not focus on the story of the progressive self-disclosure of Christ in Scripture. Geerhardus Vos wrote on the “story” of Scripture and the drama of revelation and redemption at great length. See his Biblical Theology for example. More recently Michael Horton is writing a four vol series using the metaphor of drama but he identifies Scripture with the Word of God, as does Kevin Vanhoozer who is also making fruitful use of this metaphor.

    Finally, your approach is what has become the standard American progressive evangelical appropriation of Barth. What’s ironic about it is that it’s just another kind of pietism. You’ve exchanged Schleiermacher’s Gefuhl for the existential encounter with the Word. Instead of every locus being the vehicle to recovering Jesus’ experience of divine dependence, every locus is reduced to a theology of revelation (existential encounter with Christ the Word). It’s quite unclear to me how to relate THAT construct to historic Christianity. Certainly the Father knew nothing of the sort. Irenaeus was nothing if not a biblical-theologian, a theologian of redemptive HISTORY (not shouting just emphasizing). The same would be true for Thomas in the middle ages and Calvin and Luther in the Reformation. So, Barth’s account of the faith is distinctly MODERN and the fruit of the very subjectivist pietism he professed to hate.

    How is this an improvement over historic Christianity?

    R. Scott Clark

    Thursday, November 23, 2006 at 5:58 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Thanks to all for the comments.

    Jeff,

    Thanks for the irenic contribution. I appreciate it very much. I would certainly agree that I have not exposited a full on biblical theology of “the Word”. I suppose that would have to wait for another time. I will say, though that I do think the Word in 1 Peter 1:24-25 is refering to Christ. He is the good news that is preached.

    Scott,

    Your critique rests on positing a distinction between God’s being in se and his being pro nobis. At least that’s what I assume your distinction between arechtype and ectype implies. This is exactly what I would deny, again following Barth. If we posit a distinction between who God is in Godself and who he is toward us we have abolished the reality of revelation itself.

    With Barth, I would firmly argue that God’s being and God’s act are identical. The “archetype” in your terminology is precisely what is revealed to us in Christ and the Spirit, otherwise God is not revealed at all.

    I am familiar with Horton and Vanhoozer’s work and I find it impressive. But I think they equivocate on this issue and fall into an inconsistent appropriation of Barth. But I continue to learn from them and find them very helpful theologians.

    As to your association between me and Schleiermacher all I can say is that if the distinction between him and what I (and Barth) have written is not apparent to you, then you have not read any of us closely enough. Schleiermacher’s theology is not based on a theology of triune divine action extra nos which I (and Barth) espouse. His existentialism is grounded anthropocentrically in the “feeling of absolute dependence”. You will find no trace of that here. What I posit is not an anthropocentric existential encounter of the individual with the Word, but rather the recognition of the dynamic action of the Word vis a vis the body of Christ. I am no pietist in any way whatsoever. I will firmly and continually reject it. If I hold to some kind of mysticism it is an ecclesial mysticism. For a good description of such thinking I recommend the last chapter of John Zizzioulas’ Communion and Otherness.

    Your question about how my approach is an improvment over historical christianity is silly rhetorical nonsense. You assert a great many things without any actual argumentation about what the Father’s thought or how this is “modern” (which sounds awfully like how the fundamentalists argued). However, I would contend that what I have put forth is situated profoundly within the tradition of the church, varied though it certainly is. Your assertions do not invalidate that, only an actual argument could.

    Friday, November 24, 2006 at 1:26 am | Permalink

Switch to our mobile site