The Doctrine of Revelation

While treated here as the third, among Protestants, this doctrine has traditionally been the first. Both John Calvin and Karl Barth began their theologies with the question of how one comes into knowledge of God. The (Presbyterian) Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) and the Second [Baptist] London Confession of 1677 began with Scripture. It is an important doctrine because Jn. 17:3 says that it through knowing God and Jesus Christ that one obtains eternal life. Yet there is a difference between knowing God and knowing about God. The passage in John deals with the former--knowing in an experiential, relational way. That was the understanding of "knowing" that characterized the Hebrew thinking peoples from whom our Scriptures came. One must know God like one knows one's parents or children--not the way that one might know the answer to a question on a television game show.

Are the Bible and the Word of God really the same? Most evangelicals today will usually answer "Yes" to this question, but one must ask whether such an answer is really biblical. The Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8 was struggling to understand Isa. 53 and was making no headway. He was reading the Scripture, but he was not getting the Word of God. Along came Philip, who was sensitive to what God was doing and who "preached" to him. Suddenly the Eunuch understood the Word of God with clarity and was baptized on confession of faith. Put another way, the Eunuch actually come to know God because he had encountered the transforming power of the Word of God. This example tells us that the "Word of God" was not the Isaiah text itself. Yes, the Scripture was the center of the narrative, but the presence and work of the evangelist (Philip) and the Holy Spirit (who appears repeatedly in this passage) were also necessary for the Eunuch to appropriate the Word of God in this case.

The Doctrine of Revelation must embrace the whole process of God revealing himself to us. The role of the Scriptures is foundational, but they are not the whole of the process. It is, of course, possible for God to reveal himself completely outside of the Bible, as he did to Abraham. But without having the Scriptures to validate one's experience with God one can never be sure that one is appropriating the knowledge of God or of the pizza one may have had the night before. So the Bible has a part, but to read the Bible without the other ingredients is to read mere human words, devoid of any possibility of achieving the Knowledge of God. Calvin summarized it this way--one needed the "spectacles of faith" and the Holy Spirit to read the Bible properly.

Figure: Revelatory Triad

For the purposes of study, theologians have divided the doctrine of Revelation into a process characterized by three stages: Manifestation, , and Illumination. The figure above gives a simplified overview but other factors, such as preaching, mission, and evangelism also play a part in appropriating the Word of God. Before discussing these phases, however, it is necessary to present an important caveat:

God is always in control of the process of revelation. He remains hidden from attempts by science or philosophy to probe Him (Eccl. 8:17). God also reserves his "secret things" (Deut. 29:29). So the doctrine of Revelation acknowledges God's sovereignty in how and when He reveals himself. That is, God chooses to reveal himself, and is always the initiator in that process. Barth said that, were God to do otherwise, He would loose His freedom and would no longer be God. God must be free to reveal or not reveal at His own pleasure. God's revelation always glorifies God, not some human scientist, theologian, or philosopher.


God initiates the process of revealing himself by some form of act. This might be a miraculous event (Mt. Carmel, 1 Kings 18), or it might be a quiet word spoken into the mind of a prophet. This stage is so named because God "manifests" himself in a way that impacts history and which is witnessed by one or more human observers. When God speaks, it is often through a "theophany"--perhaps through a storm (Job 38). Outsiders will only hear a sound, perhaps thunder. But those to whom God intends his message will hear God's voice. Acts 9:3-8 presents us with an interesting study of this phenomenon, various observers hearing and seeing differently as the Lord spoke to Paul on the road to Damascus.


The biblical writer witnessing a manifestation of God then writes down that which has been seen and/or heard. This is done in the writer's own words and necessarily within the context of that person's culture and experience. This step of the revelatory process is not a purely human activity, however. The writer functions under the influence of the Holy Spirit, which enables the written text to have the intended interpretation of the manifestation. Any observer at the crucifixion might be able to write "Jesus died." But an inspired writer will be able to say "Jesus died for our sins." The Holy Spirit, operating through inspiration, enables the writer to interpret the event the way God intends it to be understood.

Inspiration properly embraces a larger process than just writing down the right words. The words may be placed in an oral tradition that is later written down, or the work of writing may fall to a protégé. It also includes the process that leads to the adoption of the text in the canon of Scripture. The Holy Spirit should be seen as guiding this entire process in order that the biblical text that is passed along to us is exactly as God intends it.


This final stage takes place in "real time," as the contemporary reader scans the Bible and attempts to appropriate it as the Word of God. The Holy Spirit guides the reading and contemplation of the text. This is absolutely essential for the Christian life, as one needs the Word of God, not just the ancient, inspired words. The Holy Spirit guides the reader "into all truth" (Jn. 16:13). That is, the doctrine of Illumination converts the inspired Scripture into words that enable the contemporary believer to interpret contemporary events and formulate contemporary responses as he or she co-operates with God. It is only at this point that the Bible becomes the "sword" of Heb. 4:12.

Illumination takes place most clearly in the group, not in a pastor's study. While a pastor may have acquired language and "hermeneutical" skills at seminary that will bring clarity from a biblical passage, there may be some in the community of faith that have gifts of perception and discernment that would bear even more importantly within the context of a given church and situation (see the Doctrine of Church).


Let's return to the Eunuch. Centuries before the Eunuch was born, God manifested himself to Isaiah in some way. Through the Holy Spirit, the prophet was inspired to correctly interpret what God wanted to say and formulated the words that would find their way into the Hebrew Scriptures. The words made no sense to the Eunuch as he first read them, but Philip and the Holy Spirit illuminated the text and the Eunuch understood the Word that God had for him. (Another individual reading the same words in a different place and time may, through illumination, receive a different Word of God, so it would not be at all correct to conclude that the Isa. 53 passage had been put there just for the Eunuch. See 2 Pet. 1:20).

The Scriptures are important to us, but the illumination of the Holy Spirit cannot be overlooked. One might say that the difference between the Bible and the Word of God is of the same sort as the difference between knowing about God and knowing God.

Appendix on Prophecy

Prophetic Scripture is an important aspect of revelation, partly because it provides divine proclamation and partly because it occasionally provides a predictive "sign." God told Amos that he could count on Him to reveal future events through the prophets (Amos 3:7). The "Angel of the LORD" functions in lieu of prophets in cases where a prophetic office has not been established (see Gen. 18, where the Angel of the LORD has a remarkable soliloquy in Gen. 18:17 that proclaims God's righteous outrage and also gives a predictive sign in Gen. 18:14).

It is very popular today to treat prophecy as divine blueprints. Prophetic texts are compared with contemporary events in an effort to make the Bible predict human history. Authors who do this well are rewarded with large incomes from the sales of their books. The fact that many in history have placed their hopes on this and have failed (the ancient Essene community, the Jews who perished at Masada in AD 73, etc.) have not daunted scores of hopefull followers. We are left with a question: "If God intended prophecy to be used this way, why is it so hard to follow?" Perhaps the solution is in a second question: "Who, after all, would receive glory if such a blueprint scheme panned out?" God? Or some cult leader who made a lucky guess?

It is better to see the function of prophecy as "promise and fulfillment." An excellent example is Isa. 7:14, which the audiences of Handel's Messiah have for centuries understood as being a blueprint for the first Christmas. But a careful study of the Isaiah text shows that all the actions necessary to fulfil this prophecy took place within a relatively few years! That is, by the time it would take a young woman to marry and have a child (v. 14), and for that infant to be weaned and to then reach the age of accountability (v. 15), the kingdoms of Aram and Israel would both be plundered. Yet this is exactly the kind of verse that Paul would have used in the synagogues to show the gospel in the Old Testament. Why? Because the Hebrews understood prophecy as promise and fulfillment. God made a promise, and it was fulfilled. Then, years later, there would be an even grander fulfillment! All prophecy has the fullest meaning in Christ (see 2 Cor. 1:20).

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