“Divine Revelation” in Roman Catholic and Protestant Polemical Discussions, Part 1

What follows is a part of an ongoing discussion I am having with Andrew Preslar, who is linked down below. I think it is vitally important to define our terms, and what follows is my attempt to define what “divine revelation” is. Of course this definition will not be accepted on both sides, but the definitions given here will help a lot of people understand what actually is being discussed during these discussions.


Andrew, this is in response to your comment from February 7, 2014 at 2:06 pm. We had already interacted briefly at several points, and given that this has already gotten away from being a “discussion” (thanks to my lack of punctuality here), I want to try to do some recap as well, based on your follow-up.


You wrote:

In response to your first comment, I have tried to highlight (1) the difference between the deliverances of historical-critical scholarship and divine revelation and (2) how the Church is intrinsic to divine revelation as the bearer of that revelation….

I wanted to say something along the lines of (1) and (2) first, because it is misleading to talk about the Church apart from divine revelation, but sometimes when debating the nature of the Church she can seem, like those debates, to take on a life of her own, in isolation from more fundamental things. My point, however, is that, for the Catholic, the Church does not have a life of her own. Her life depends entirely upon the Holy Spirit, as the life of the body depends upon the soul. And this is of course the Holy Spirit of revelation, “who has spoken by the prophets”. The past tense indicates the once and for all, unchanging, nature of the faith delivered to the saints. The next phrase in the Creed (“in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church”), still under the aegis of “I believe in the Holy Spirit” (the creed is trinitarian from beginning to end), indicates, to revert to Cardinal Ratzinger’s words, “the living organism of the faith of all ages”….

Along these lines, in an earlier comment, you said “My concern was to distinguish between revelation, in Ratzinger’s sense of being addressed by God, and the deliverances of historical-critical scholarship. The former is of a different order than the latter, though historical-critical scholarship obviously addresses itself to data within the ambit of revelation, because (Christian) revelation has an historical character–the one whom we worship as Lord and Christ, together with his Father and the Holy Spirit, is Jesus of Nazareth, of the lineage of David, a son of Abraham, a son of Adam.”

I’m not sure what I said that caused you to think I was conflating the two (the deliverances of historical-critical scholarship and divine revelation). I will certainly admit that “historical-critical scholarship” helps us to understand “what the text of the Bible actually says”. But in and of itself, it is not “divine revelation”. It is “what the text of the Bible actually says” that I would say is itself “divine revelation”.

You said “it is misleading to talk about the Church apart from divine revelation”; and maybe that is true, but we have to set definitions. To that end, I would like to think about and define “divine revelation” on its own, and then talk about “divine revelation” as it relates to “the church” (as defined by the Reformed) in comparison with “the Church” (as defined by Lumen Gentium).

You may think the first part of this is a wrong-headed exercise, but not if you consider the larger context (which I will abbreviate here for the sake of discussion). It seem we will agree that “In the beginning, God created …”, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image … male and female …’”, “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked” … and of course God’s promise in Genesis 3:15, which is recognized as God’s first announcement of the Gospel.

There is something to say about this. John Currid, in his Commentary on Genesis (Vol 1, Genesis 1:1-25:18) says this:

The verses are prophetic (Gen 3:14-16). The prophecy, however, is not announced through a human agent or intermediary, but directly by Yahweh. God is the first prophet. And in this first vision, Yahweh describes in general the forthcoming history of mankind. Because of its grand scale, some theologians have called this section the proto-evangelion, that is, the first gospel presentation (pg 127).

… It should not be forgotten that it is God who is setting up this new order. He is in control, acting in his providence and managing history unto his own ends. History is being played out according to his desire, will, and plan (128).

… The remainder of Scripture is an unfolding of the prophecy of Genesis 3:15. Redemption is promised in this one verse, and the Bible traces the development of that redemptive theme (131).

Maybe here we’ll begin to diverge, because this sets the pattern for “divine revelation”. Yes, God said something to Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, and it is God’s word, and yes, it gets passed down through “tradition”, but it doesn’t get written down until the time of Moses. At the time Moses writes the Pentateuch, it may have been “tradition” that God was wearing a golf shirt while he was in the garden in the cool of the day, but given that that factoid didn’t get written down, it does not become “divine revelation” in the way that the things written become “divine revelation”.

In fact, throughout the Old Testament, we see that pattern: God acts in history, some (not all) of those acts in history are written down, and what is written becomes Scripture. In that way, Scripture itself, being written by men who “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20) is “God’s interpretation” of his own acts in history. God shapes and crafts what is “Scripture”, “His interpretation”, and of this “interpretation”, he expects people to understand it (“if they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” Luke 16:31.)

This, of course, is abbreviated (as is everything that we are saying back and forth), but this is a definition that needs to be in mind as we talk about “divine revelation”. If you have anything to add to this, let me know how and why.


Based on the above, I will say that “only the Scriptures are ‘divine revelation’”. I am an inerrantist in the sense that Warfield described it – as I linked above, “Scripture alone” is divine revelation; the “interpretation” of Scripture is not “revelation”. And in that sense, there is no “Tradition” that “transmits in its entirety the Word of God”. It was not true in the Old Testament (as I described it above); nor does the pattern that God uses for “divine revelation” become altered (and if you believe I am in error about this, please show me how and why this changes).

Thus, I will say (with generations of Protestants before me) “what the text actually says” is what the “divine revelation” actually is. What we think it means may differ, but God himself knows what it is that he intended to say. And with those writers in the Reformed tradition, understanding “what God intended to say” is not difficult, because he accommodates himself to us. Thus, we have the “divine revelation” in Scripture, which is “binding”, and then we have our understanding thereof (corporately and individually), which is not binding on anyone. “Not binding”, however, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have good sense, or that it’s not important.

Grammatical-historical study is critical for understanding what the text actually says, and further, in working to understand the author’s intent – that is, understanding what a New Testament author had in mind (was referring to) when he wrote. The link here refers to an article that I wrote, which generally addresses the CTC article on “The Tradition and the Lexicon”.

If we consider “what the text actually says” to be the the “divine revelation” (which I hold to be true for every and all texts in the Bible), then understanding “what the text actually says” is foundational to what understanding what “divine revelation” tells us.

I’m sure you don’t agree with that. However, I would hope you would agree that, even if there is some “divine revelation” that exists (that we have, today) outside of the Scriptures, I would hope that you would think at least coming to understand “what the text actually says” is foundational to both your understanding of “divine revelation” and mine.

If you can’t agree with that, I hope you would explain what the differences are.


7 thoughts on ““Divine Revelation” in Roman Catholic and Protestant Polemical Discussions, Part 1

  1. John, thanks for the response. I partly agree and partly disagree, but will wait for your follow up post before trying to further articulate my thoughts. Having read some of the links in your comments on the previous thread, I did not doubt that you believe there is such a thing as divine revelation, but it was and is unclear to me on what basis you identify and interpret the written record of divine revelation other than using the historical-critical method.


  2. Andrew: it was and is unclear to me on what basis you identify and interpret the written record of divine revelation other than using the historical-critical method.

    This is a subject matter that has some history. Israel had some very clear guidelines as to what was, and what wasn’t Scripture. What was, and what wasn’t, a true prophet.

    I fully accept that those in the early church bore exceptional responsibility for copying and distributing the writings of the Apostles and their associates. It was not hard, in the first century, to know what was an Apostolic writing. They were identified and revered from the moment they were written. You may be aware of Dr. Michael Kruger’s work “Canon Revisited”, which traces this process in great detail. The writings of the Apostles were revered as Scripture from the first century; They were collected; the early church was never without “New Testament Scriptures”.

    I’m convinced that the impetus toward “authority” in the church of the early centuries was purely a non-Scriptural thing (“it must not be so among you), influenced more by understandings of authority in Roman culture.) Something that was indicative in the 2nd century was not prescriptive for all time. But the Roman impulse to authority wanted to make it so. Such authority was rightly rejected at the time of the Reformation.

    As far as “interpretation” is concerned, very much in the Bible is not difficult. Regarding some of those that are, as the WCF states, “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.”

    This basically is the short answer. It is not rocket science. God is a good God, who creates, redeems, and has the ability to get that message to his people, directly, through his chosen means of the Scriptures. Rome basically refuses to believe that God can communicate directly, and places itself (and its power and authority) between the believer and God.


  3. I think that to say “that which God intended, which is that which only God knows precisely what that is” is extremely profound. As Bible translator I compiled a NT translation from 34 existing translations, penetrating in many cases to the rich veins of rhema word – actual intent. But those who have heard God speak will know that the sophistication of his speech is very far above what any human mind can remotely grasp, and they will also know that the Holy Spirit translates that into crystal clear meaning, which is what we have in Holy Scripture–the end-product. But those who have not heard God speak have no idea of the levels of sophistication involved. What we do know is what we have in Holy Writ is a document the value of which is the highest of anything man has at his disposal. The dynamics of the Holy Spirit should never have been limited by the reformation, and we have a great need to try and find enlightenment in a new effort between Reformist and Catholic, to break through to more advanced levels of theology. So this effort by these brothers is being deeply appreciated and encouraged.


  4. Dr. Van den Berg, thank you for your comment.

    The Reformers did not “limit” the dynamics of the Holy Spirit. The Reformers were among the first Christians in a long while actually to allow God to speak through the Scriptures. What the Reformers did was to return ad fontes, that is, “to the sources, the original languages, to the best of their ability. To the Hebrew and Greek sources in which the Scriptures were written. IN this way, they sought to focus on the true intent of the authors, and ultimately, The Author, who is, as you say, the Holy Spirit.

    I have to question your methodology. In “compiling a NT translation from 34 existing translations”, I think it is possible to say that you increased the possibility that you would miss original intent. That is, we know that in translation, there is a “range of meaning” in translating from one language to another. That is, there are some potential translations that capture the original meaning, and some that miss it.

    In working from “translations”, it seems as if what you have done is to allow for the possibility (and in your case, to multiply it by 34) that mistranslations — those translations that conform less, rather than more, to “authorial intent”, become a part of your own “translation.”

    The efforts of biblical scholarship today are to focus their efforts to understand not what “the greatest range of possible meanings is”, but rather, to focus narrowly upon what the earliest manuscripts (and the earliest translations) said, in order to focus on what the original message was to the original audience. Once we understand that, we can certainly seek to understand what that means for us today. But it seems as if your method has allowed for, and in fact, has enhanced, the possibility of error.


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