The Mysterious Nature of Divine Revelation

Understanding How Divine Revelation is Understood

 This post is really my third post interacting with the question regarding the validity of the use of the term replacement theology to describe the Israel-Church dynamic in certain theological systems. There is a very specific New Testament teaching that is unavoidably related to this discussion that I see missing in my good friend Paul Henebury’s views on the subject. I will interact with Paul’s posts over at Dr. Reluctant as well as his article titled “What is Progressive Revelation?” I will try to keep this post shorter than my previous two on the subject. This post will cover; (1) how Christians know divine revelation, (2) the nature of mystery in NT writings, (3) how (1) and (2) work to contradict the position that Henebury takes on the subject. Paul affirms that the use of the term replacement theology is valid while I contend that it ought to be replaced because of the confusion it creates and because dispensationalists have very often equivocated on the reformed definition.

Understanding the Old Testament Scriptures

Is it true that the Bible is like any other book and as a result can be understood like any other book? While the intention of this view is good, its claim is based on a presupposition that simply cannot work. The Bible is a book but it is not the sort of book that is like anything human beings encounter elsewhere in “book-experience.” The claim suggests that human beings encounter and experience the Bible in exactly the same way they do any other book. And that is simply not true. Christian doctrine denies this top to bottom if one actually pays attention to Christian doctrine about the Bible, about the nature of divine revelation, and about the nature of human beings.

Understanding the Bible requires faith.

“By faith we understand” says the author of the book of Hebrews (11:3). “By faith” is a dative of means. In other words, the means by which understanding is achieved is faith! Paul gives Timothy wonderful encouragement when he writes to him, telling him that the Lord will give him understanding in everything. (2 Tim. 2:7) John tells us that the Son of God has given us understanding. (1 Jn. 5:20) As Helm puts it, Not to understand is not to believe. One cannot understand and not believe.[1] Jesus utters this truth in John 6:45: “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.” Now, faith is not simply a degree of belief or certainty in something. Faith is a gift of God. Without God gifting faith, man is without it. Eph. 2:8-10 clearly teaches that faith is a gift. Men do not possess it as a natural part of their faculties. Faith is not merely a cognitive activity. It is much more than that. Critical reflection on faith does have a positive side, though it cannot compensate for lost faith. The nature of religion requires of theology its own epistemology.[2] Understanding Christian doctrine requires the activity of a Christian mind.

Faith requires regeneration

How does one receive the gift of faith? The answer is very simple according to Scripture: he must be born of God. Only those who have been born of God are given the ability to believe. Jesus was adamant in John 6:64-65 that only the Father could grant someone the ability to believe. And no one is ever granted such ability in an unregenerate condition. Otherwise, what exactly does it mean to be unregenerate? Faith then, requires regeneration.

So then, the argument proceeds as follows: if understanding, then faith, and if faith then regeneration, therefore, if understanding, then regeneration. This is a hypothetical syllogism. There are nineteen rules of inference for constructing formal proofs of validity. This is one of the elementary valid argument forms. Since the argument is valid, and the premises are true, one can conclude that the argument is sound.

The NT claims that the OT truth is hidden, it has been kept secret, it is a mystery.

Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages. (Rom. 16:25) Paul’s gospel is according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for a long period of time. How would such a thing be possible if GHM were the silver bullet that dispensationalists claim. The word secret here is straightforward: to keep something from becoming known. Jesus told his disciples, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.” (Matt. 13:11) The ability to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven must be given. Paul told the Corinthians that the kind of wisdom they received as Christians was a secret wisdom: But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. (1 Cor. 2:7) Even Christian wisdom is a secret, hidden kind of wisdom. For this reason, we can take nothing for granted. The implications for hermeneutics are significant. To ignore these passages is at least an overly simple approach, almost naïve, on the one hand, and could be considered a hasty neglect of obligation on the other.

Paul told the Ephesian believers that God has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (Eph. 1:9-10) BDAG defines it here as the unmanifested or private counsel of God, (God’s) secret. Paul was given charge to bring to light for everyone this mystery. (Eph. 3:9) What is the mystery? It is simply this: This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. Paul said that this mystery was hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to the saints. (Col. 1:26)

In his paper on Progressive Revelation, Dr. Henebury uses the analogy of following bear tracks only to find a leopard at the end of the trail. Apparently, God plainly has promised a physical kingdom to physical Israel unconditionally and that is what we should expect. He says, concerning the Bible, “It should be read from front to back, not in reverse.”[3] It seems to me that this only begs the question. If it is the case that the Bible is one book revealing God from front to back and back to front, why should we need to read it in only one direction. Why is a chronological approach superior to say, a thematic one or a theological one? We do no experience a progressive revelation. What we experience is a completed revelation. The truth is, the structure of the Bible as a whole, as we have it, is purely the product of man. While I agree that it makes sense that letters should be read from front to back given their genre, and some history too, it seems to me that this rule is arbitrary at best. Imagine what would happen, however, if we tried to make sense of Ezra using this logic. It wouldn’t work, and it can lead to much confusion. Now, I realize Henebury means that the earlier revelation is the building blocks of the later one. But even when we build a house, we know that the foundation is not the goal. And when the house is complete, the foundation, remaining ever important and vital to the structure, nevertheless, remains out of sight to the inhabitants.

Dr. Henebury states, “When we apply this basic theory to the Bible as the Word of God things can start to become problematical, although they really shouldn’t! If we take for granted that God as a Communicator: indeed, the Supreme Communicator, wants to be understood by His creatures, then we can assume that He has said what He means to say in such a way that human beings can understand.”[4]

However, we know that it really isn’t this simple. Yes, the essential components of divine revelation are clear. That the Bible is divine revelation is clear. But not all things revealed in Scripture are equally clear. The starting point is how one views Scripture. If Scripture is special revelation, then all bets are off where natural communication concerned. There is a new element in interpreting divine communication that is not present in any other form of communication: supernatural regeneration. The GHM does not adequately account for regeneration and faith in its model. Language is more than semantics, syntax, and linguistics. GHM then does not address the necessary and sufficient conditions for understanding divine communication. From the start, the work of exegesis and goal of hermeneutics is a work of fides quarens intellectum, faith seeking understanding. Kevin Vanhoozer writes, “Evangelical theology deals not with disparate bits of ideas and information but with divine doings – with the all-embracing cosmic drama that displays the entrances and exoduses of God.”[5] The every individual pericope of the Bible must be understood within the context of the whole Bible as one literary unit, one book, one revelation of the one Triune God.

The sense of meaning is far more complex than I have time for in this post. It is an aspect of communication that, if overlooked, can create insurmountable barriers to understanding. Even in natural communication, one has to consider the natural sense of meaning in expressions versus a non-natural sense. That car is hot, said in a parking lot of an amusement park in North Carolina in the month of August could mean something very different than if it were uttered by someone sitting in front of the television watching the spring auto show. The argument that says we should take a sentence at face value only begs the question. It is an argument that naively dismisses the complexities of human language. Moreover, to take a sentence at face value isn’t really saying much. A sentence is intended by the author to do something. And the question is, what was God intending to do when he promise Abraham that his offspring would be the recipient of such blessings? Paul has told us as clearly as he could what God intended. For some reason, the dispensational approach seems to not want to listen.

I have argued that reading the text of the Bible from the whole context of the Bible involves not only reading the Bible in one direction, it involves reading the Bible in every possible direction. This means reading it backwards as my good friend says. And reading it backwards is just something he says he cannot do, as if reading the Bible in that way is a violation of some rule, or perhaps, it could be somehow deemed hermeneutically unethical. However, I have argued that the nature of the Bible actually would merit such an approach and I have argued that this is precisely how the NT writers intended to be understood. The way the NT writers used the OT was both new and not new. But the newness of the manner in which they handled the OT would indicate that it makes sense to start with the NT if I wanted to make better sense of the Old. Can I understand the Old Testament without reading the New? Of course I could understand some portions of the Old Testament without reading the New. But that is not the point. The Old Testament was never intended by God, its primary author, to be read in isolation from itself or from the New Testament that was always to follow. To claim that it is hermeneutically chaste to let the Old speak for itself apart from the New ignores the divine purpose and plan for special revelation from the start. To read the Old apart from the New is to read it out of context. The only way to place the Old in its proper context is to place it in right relationship with the New and to read it within its larger context as part of one message, one revelation, one book.

Clearly, regeneration is required in order to understand the Old Testament. Christ has to open the mind. True knowledge of divine truth comes through revelation applies by faith in the illumined mind. Grammar, syntax, linguistics are all necessary conditions for understanding the covenants, the promises, and the prophecies of Scripture. But they are not, in and of themselves sufficient. God must act supernaturally and therefore, a biblical hermeneutic is one that involves not just the GHM, but the GHM + something more. That something more is seen more clearly in how the New interprets the Old. Not only do we have a glimpse into the Old in a much brighter light, but also have a sense of method to go with it.

 

[1] Helm, Paul. Faith and Understanding, 60.

[2] Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. I, 497.

[3] Henebury, Paul. What is Progressive Revelation?

[4] Ibid.

[5] Vanhoozer, Kevin. The Drama of Doctrine, 39.

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10 Comments

  1. Hi again, Ed. Hope you don’t mind; had a couple more Q’s and observations.

    To return again to Adam and Eve, I’m just wondering what ‘element’ they needed to interpret God’s divine communique re: the tree? Cleary it wasn’t supernatural regeneration. Similarly, what did the righteous priest Zechariah need to interpret his divine communique re: the birth of John? He wanted some surety beyond the plain-sense of Gabriel’s words and ended up getting punished for not taking God at face-value. Wasn’t God’s intention, when He promised Zechariah a son, to literally give him a son?

    “Clearly, regeneration is required in order to understand the Old Testament. Christ has to open the mind.”
    To return again to the scribes Herod inquired of, how does this square with their correct interpretation and understanding of the OT, re: where the Messiah would be born? I agree that some (not sure if all) of them didn’t understand the nature of the Messiah and didn’t believe in Him, but the question put to them is about the location of His birth.

    Kind regards,

    Sam

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  2. Hi Sam,
    I thought I answered your question around the nature of Adam’s understanding. Adam was created perfect. He did not have a sin nature. Problem solved.

    Zechariah is irrelevant. Doubting God’s word should be resisted at all times. God understood God perfectly well but doubted. This is not in the category we are discussing.

    Herod had no clue regarding the nature of the Messiah. That is clearly stated in the New Testament. Had they known, they would not have crucified Him. It seems Herod possessed a natural understanding of the coming ruler, one not far from the sort you fellows endorse. And as Herod did not understand the nature of God’s King or God’s Kingdom, neither did the Jews.

    Something more is required to gain a true and accurate understanding of Scripture than just the grammatical-histortical method. Not only does the interpreter need to be regenerated, so does his hermeneutic.

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  3. Hi Ed,

    Thank you for your reply. There are things in this series of articles that I agree with and am finding useful and encouraging. I have enjoyed what you have written about faith. I guess I see hermeneutics (specifically the GHM) as sitting, necessarily, within epistemology; with epistemology being governed by faith given by God. Paul H wrote a great series on faith and reason, which you may have read; it’s where I would be at. I’m not too fussed on whatever understanding Herod had but I’ve been intrigued by the situation re: the scribes he consults. Anyway, thanks again for your input.

    Kind regards,

    Sam

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    1. If you mean Paul Helm, yes, I have read Helm’s work on Faith and Reason, Faith and Understanding, etc. If you mean Paul Henebury, I have not read his work on that subject. I suppose this is part of the the difference between Paul and I, perhaps. Hermeneutics must be folded into one’s epistemology where Christian belief is concerned. The project of faith seeking understanding seems to me to require it. Think about Peter in Matthew 16. He got the identity of the Messiah right but only because flesh and blood had not “revealed” it to him, but the Father. GHM cannot act on the unregenerate mind to identify Christ. We see this in the very same incident when Jesus, just a few minutes later had to rebuke Peter because even though he had been illumined to understand the Messiah’s identity, he had not be sufficiently illumined to understand the Messiah’s mission. In that one pericope we see the insufficiency of the GHM and the necessity of divine activity. This is why you will read me claiming that a person’s hermeneutic must also be a regenerated one. This is what I mean when I say we read the New back into the Old. I understand Jeremiah 31 through Hebrews 8-9.

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  4. Thanks, Ed; sorry I was referring to Paul Henebury’s writing on faith and reason. As a believer then, should I be prayerfully seeking a level of illumination, where the activity of the Holy Spirit is sufficient enough to persuade me to read NT back into OT, and dissuade me from employing the GHM and taking the OT at face-value?

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    1. Hi Sam. It would be a very bad idea to dispense with the GHM. That has never been my contention or the contention of covenant theologians. What I have said is that while the GHM is necessary condition for understanding the Old, it is not in and of itself sufficient. In some cases it can get one to first base, second base, maybe third base. In some instances, depending on the subject, it can even get you around all the bases. GHM can help me understand a literal Adam, Abraham, Noah, 6th day creation etc. But that isn’t really the point. What is Adam’s place in the plan of God? Unless I read Genesis 1-3 in the light of Romans 5, I don’t understand Adam’s role. The same is true with other components of the OT. The exodus was not simply an event about Israelites or God’s might hand of deliverance regarding them. The exodus serves a much greater purpose in the unfolding of God’s revelation.

      The NT does not change the identity of the Church, contra Henebury. The NT clarifies the identity of the Church. Here are a couple of examples:

      Jer. 31:31 God promises to make a new covenant with the house of Israel and of Judah.
      Matt. 26:28 This is the blood of my covenant, which is poured out for the forgiveness of sins. (Initially, the new covenant was enacted to the Jew first and then to the Gentile) It has always only been the elect, the faithful, the remnant in Israel to which these promises belonged.
      Gal. 4 What Paul does in this chapter is remarkable and very illuminating. Isaac was always a type of New Jerusalem, the Jerusalem from above! We are all, Jews and Gentiles, children of that promise made to Abraham.
      John 8:39 Jesus tells physical Jews that they are not the children of Abraham.
      Romans 9 Paul tells us the same time, that the children of Abraham are the children of promise, which he tells the Galatians is all of us who believe.

      The GHM would never in a million tries produce the kind of arguments Paul is making. There are quotes, allusions, and echoes all over the NT regarding these promises and prophecies. The writers of the NT seem to do all sorts of things with the OT text that the GHM would not condone, and would even claim to be unethical, and improper. That is my point.

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  5. Thanks, Ed. I guess I see a struggle in determing (by what standards?) whos “NT light” we use to sure up our understanding of parts of the OT (also, who determines what parts/subjects and the “bases”?). Peter Enns and John Walton discourage use of the GHM when approaching “the Adam story”. Via their interpretation of the NT, they see in Paul’s use of the OT, a way to derive an argument to see Adam as “proto-Israel” (or a stereotype of Israel). They do this to get away from a literal Adam and an absolute (GHM derived) origins story. I’m not suggesting you would agree with them.

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  6. Matthew took Hosea 11:1 and Jer. 31:15 in a completely different direction, a direction that an isolated GHM would never agree with if it were anyone but Matthew doing this. I pointed this out in my post today. What needs to happen, and I think what Paul needs to do is to start interacting with the numerous texts in the NT that employ a different method for how they understand the NT. You or he will need to show why CT are wrong to employ the exact same method that NT writers are employing.

    I have serious problems with both Enns and Walton in terms of their method. The method employed by ANE scholars is mostly built upon rationalistic philosophy, rather than Christian theology. The supernatural is dismissed, science is uncritically given a pass, and all of Scripture is interpreted through the lens of ANE religious practices. That is not just a little distance from where we are, it is a universe away. Why you even mention it is confusing. There is nothing in the NT writers that suggests the historical may be replaced with the mythical. No author ever suggests that it is acceptable to reject the historical position of these events and people.

    If you think the hermeneutic I am defending swings open such a door, that is your burden to prove.

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  7. Great, thank you. So God acted in a miraculous manner, to sufficiently illuminate the minds of the NT writers, so that they could employ a different method of interpreting the OT – and this situation is normative for believers today. Yet the NT writers (Apostles at least) had a, “special and unique relationship with the Holy Spirit. Isn’t this bordering on, “the erroneous view that Scripture is nothing more than a history of God acts at that time, no different from God acts at subsequent times, and in particular, at this time”?

    I guess the problem I see with the method being advocated, is that the plain-sense of the OT is dismissed (selectively), Covenant Theology is uncritically given a pass, and all of Scripture is interpreted through the lens of the Covenant of Grace.

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    1. Hi Sam,
      If you wish to interact with me, then please interact with my comments directly. You seem to want to disagree with me without dealing with the examples that I put in front of you. This approach ends up leading to unfruitful and unproductive conversation. You have before you Matthew’s use of a couple of texts (and there are dozens of these examples littered throughout the NT). Please feel free to actually engage the substance of this issue. But at a minimum, stop comparing me with men like Walton, and stop constructing straw man arguments about what I do and do not believe.

      Did the NT apostles have a unique relationship with the Holy Spirit? They were the only ones in the history of the church to stand in their position. That is by definition, unique.

      What you mean by plain-sense must be squared with how Matthew handled those two texts for starters and then we can move on to the dozens more that await your “plain-sense” rule. My point is that based on YOUR view, Matthew did not use the plain sense of Hosea or Jeremiah as I have pointed out above, and elsewhere.

      CT is not given an uncritical pass. It took me years to come to this position precisely because I was critical of it.

      Everyone interprets Scripture through a lens. Only the blind man does not think he does so. I would rather be honest and humble, willing to adjust my views which I have done over the years, than to be blind and naive about my supposed objectivity that is as “pure” as the driven snow. But thats just me. Others may feel differently.

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