The Mysterious Nature of Divine Revelation

by | Apr 14, 2017 | Adult Christian Learning | 10 comments

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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