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Asbury Bible Commentary – Special Revelation
Special Revelation

Special Revelation

To love and serve God, one must first know him. John Wesley believed that the general knowledge of God's existence, the “light which lights every man,” was known in some measure in the creation and in the conscience of persons. His comment on Jn 1:9 expresses this view: “By what is vulgarly termed natural conscience, pointing out at least the general lines of good and evil. And this light, if man did not hinder, would shine more and more to the perfect day.”Wesley, Explanatory Notes, 303.

Although this general revelation of God is valuable, it does not give specific knowledge of the way of salvation. This general knowledge must be supplemented by the special revelation by which God discloses his nature and purpose for humanity. Wesley writes:

We had, by nature, no knowledge of God, no acquaintance with Him. It is true, as soon as we came to the use of reason, we learned “the invisible things of God, even His eternal power and Godhead, from the things that are made.” From the things that are seen we inferred the existence of an eternal, powerful Being, that is not seen. But still, although we acknowledge His being, we had no acquaintance with Him. As we know there is an Emperor of China, whom yet we do not know; so we knew there was a King of all the earth, yet we knew Him not. Indeed we could not by any of our natural faculties. By none of these could we attain the knowledge of God. We could no more perceive Him by our natural understanding, than we could see Him with our eyes. For “no one knoweth the Father but the Son, and he to whom the Son willeth to reveal Him. And no one knoweth the Son, but the Father, and he to whom the Father revealeth Him.”John Wesley, Wesley's Standard Sermons, ed. Edward H. Sugden (London: Epworth, 1961), 2:215.

From this passage it is safe to conclude that Wesley believed in the necessity of special revelation by God himself so that humanity could know him in a saving way. Building upon this, Dunning points out that the Christian faith is a response to God's self-disclosure. The OT, through the history of Israel, is in one sense a preliminary self-disclosure, while the complete and final self-revelation is in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. To respond to this revelation of God's character and saving purpose is to act in faith. The result of this response is the gift of salvation. This is the objective of the self-disclosure of God.Dunning, Grace, Faith, and Holiness, 97.

For three major reasons God must make himself known by his own initiative:

(1) the transcendence of God—the corresponding finitude of man

(2) the personal nature of God

(3) the fallenness of humanity—the resultant lack of ability to discern himIbid., 98. Dunning devotes two chapters to an extensive study of the philosophical and theological background and implications of the doctrine of revelation.

Furthermore, the purpose and context of God's self-disclosure is salvation. God makes himself known in order to save. Since humanity is fallen, the ability to perceive the personal character of God is affected. Therefore, God must directly bridge the gap between his existence and humanity's blindness. This he does by revealing his own loving and saving nature.

How this divine revelation occurs is another issue of concern. Abraham notes that theologians have usually blurred the distinction between inspiration and revelation, or divine speaking. This has led to the mislabeling of inspired Scripture as revelation. When this misidentification occurs, the formation of Scripture appears to involve the direct intervention of God in a way that minimizes human participation in the process.

This confusion of inspiration with divine speaking also limits revelation to words or propositions. One problem with this is that revelation occurs through many kinds of events and activities. In John 21, the despondent disciples are confronted with the risen Christ. Yet it was not until they followed his directions and caught fish that they recognized him. They immediately perceived who he was because of the meaning the event carried for them (Jn 21:7). Jesus did not tell them verbally who he was, but revealed himself through his act. It was the context in which the event of catching fish occurred that established this event as revelation. As Abraham says, “Revealing is an activity that is accomplished in, with, and through other acts and activities.”William Abraham, Divine Revelation, 11. Abraham deals extensively with the distinction between inspiration and divine speaking. He takes issue with a number of scholars who do tend to identify Scripture with divine speaking and who thus erase the distinction between inspiration, which involves the participation of humans, and revelation, which humans receive but in which they do not participate except to record or interpret their perception of the revelation. Inspiration, on the other hand, is the process in which human beings and the Holy Spirit work together to provide the interpretation of revelation that forms the sacred writings.

Revelation involves divine speaking as well as divine acting. Information about the nature of God and his purposes is necessary in order to interpret what he is doing or has done. Without divine speaking, we have no knowledge of the character or performance of God. His promise to forgive sins cannot be known without his making known the information that enables us to respond to him in order to be forgiven. The same holds true for all his promises and all his commands. This does not mean, however, that divine speaking must be couched as propositions of written or oral communication.

Some philosophers have objected to the idea of God's speaking on the grounds that he is a spirit and therefore does not have vocal cords. Abraham notes that it is logically meaningful to think of a personal being communicating information without the use of physical means such as vocal cords. The concept of telepathy affirms the communication of impressions from one mind to another without the normally recognized oral or written means. He sees telepathy, in this sense, as analogous to divine speaking.Abraham, Divine Revelation, 22. From this position it is not necessary to limit the concept of divine speaking to those forms of communication that involve dictated or written proposition, or audible, verbal communication.

Special revelation does not exclude divine speaking, as neo-orthodox or liberal theology often concludes, neither is it exclusively propositional as fundamentalism insists. Revelation and inspiration are distinct but related aspects of God's process of communication. Revelation occurs through various means and in various contexts such as visions, dreams, the urim and thummim, theophanies, angels, divine speaking, historical events, and the incarnation of Jesus Christ. The writer of Hebrews expressed it as follows: “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb 1:1-2, nasb). The Bible is the means by which the revelation of God, in redemptive acts and words, is interpreted and recorded by the inspired writers. The truths of revelation impact the readers of Scripture who are prepared by the Holy Spirit to understand the divine message revealed by God. As Horne explains it, “Revelation has to do with what is communicated; inspiration with how it is communicated; illumination with why it is communicated” (emphasis mine).C. M. Horne, “Revelation,” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 5, ed. Merrill C. Tenney (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 89. Horne distinguishes between revelation and inspiration, but then falls back into the merging of the two concepts by noting that the Bible is the product of revelation. He says that the interpretation of revelation, which is involved in inspiration, is also revelation so that the Bible is revelation in word. This places the inspired prophets and apostles in the role of the recorders of the divine interpretation of revelation and is inconsistent with a concursive view of inspiration.

Thus, the purpose of God's revelation in creation, history, and the conscience of humanity is to bring us to himself. God has revealed his character and saving love through the special revelation of divine acts and words in history, and ultimately through Jesus Christ. The writers of Scripture have reported and interpreted these words and events with the full cooperation and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The result is an inspired account that communicates to us the character and saving work of God in a way that is completely trustworthy and reliable to bring us to salvation. The Holy Spirit applies this Scripture to our hearts in a way that enables us to respond in faith to God's salvation message. This is the purpose for which Scripture was written (Jn 20:30, 31; 2Ti 3:16).