Propositional Revelation, the Only Revelation – D.B. Knox

Propositional Revelation, the Only Revelation

by Canon D.B. Knox, B.A., B.D., M.Th., D.Phil.
Principal of Moore Theological College, Sydney, Australia,
1959-1985

THE PROBLEM

For some time now it has been fashionable to deny what is called “propositional revelation”. The term has been coined by those who are opposed to the concept, and by it they appear to mean that revelation is not given to us by God in the form of truths couched in words, or propositions, but that all the revelation that God has given has come to us primarily as acts and events. Thus, Dr. Leonard Hodgson wrote:

“The ‘Word of God’ is not a proposition or a series of propositions prescribing what we are to believe or think. It is a series of divine acts, when they are reflected on by the mind as it seeks to grasp their significance. The revelation of God is given in deeds; the doctrines of the faith are formulated by reflection on the significance of those deeds.”

Hodgson denies that there exists for us “revealed doctrine, presented by God, ready-made in propositional form.”

Archbishop William Temple, in Nature, Man and God (page 317) wrote: “There is no such thing as revealed truth. There are truths of revelation, that is to say, propositions which express the result of correct thinking concerning revelation; but they are not themselves directly revealed.” The explicit denial of “propositional revelation” may be traced back as far as George Tyrrell, the Roman Catholic modernist, who wrote: “revelation is not a statement but a showing… God speaks by deeds, not by words.” (Through Scylla and Charybdis, page 287).

THE BIBLICAL VIEW OF REVELATION

The denial of “propositional revelation” is the denial that God reveals Himself to men through the medium of words, that is to say, through meaningful statements and concepts expressed in words; for such is the only sense that can be given to the word “propositional” in this phrase. The denial that revelation is propositional in form, though widespread and repeated nowadays from writer to writer, runs counter to the biblical view of revelation.

The view of the Bible is that revelation is essentially propositional. This may be established in two ways. First, by considering how the Bible describes revelation, and secondly, by examining biblical revelation to see what in fact its nature is.

On the first point, it should be noted that the Bible regards words spoken and, in particular, written, as the means of revelation. For example, Paul describes the Old Testament as “the oracles of God” (Romans 3:2). It is the words of the Old Testament which are referred to as “oracles” (or logia). The same term is employed by Stephen in Acts 7:38, where the law at Sinai is described as “living oracles”; and the phrase “oracles of God” is used in Hebrews 5:12 and in 1 Peter 4:11.

An oracle is a revelational utterance, or, in other words, a revealed truth. Its revelational character lies entirely in the words. The words may be descriptive of an event, or of a concept; but in both cases the words form propositions, and it is the proposition which is revelational, because it is a proposition uttered by God. This is the meaning of the phrase, “oracle of God”. The apostolic writers regarded the Old Testament as a series of oracles, of which God is the author, though different prophets and law-givers were the penmen.

The concept would be commonplace to the Greek readers of the New Testament. (We need not, of course, follow the pagan Greeks in their unduly mechanistic concept of the methods of inspiration). Nevertheless, the phrase, “oracles of God” can imply nothing else than that the end-product, viz., the words uttered and written down, are God’s words, and if God’s words, then revelational of His mind and purpose and so properly called “His oracles”.

The biblical doctrine of revelation is concerned with the end-product – the words written down. Words written meaningfully are, of course, propositions. Yet it is such written words which the Bible avers to be “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 2:16). It is the written word, the Scriptures, which Christ declared cannot be broken (John 10:35). The Gospel, which St. Paul says is God’s power to save, is adumbrated in “holy scriptures” (2 Timothy 3:15). Jesus asked the Sadducees “Have you never read what was spoken to you by God?” (Matthew 22:31) i.e., the written word is God’s word to the reader.

An examination of the nature of revelation in Scripture confirms that this revelation very frequently is plainly in the form of propositions. For example, the opening verse of the Bible: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”, reveals one of the most fundamental facts in our knowledge of God and ourselves; and insofar as this verse is revelational (and it is profoundly so), it is because it is in the form of a proposition. No-one was present when the act of creation took place, to perceive it.

The act in itself revealed nothing to us. Our knowledge that God is creator is a revealed truth, and this revelation is exclusively propositional. The writer to the Hebrews affirms as much (Heb. 11:3). The same is true of all that has been revealed, for example, with regard to the Second Coming, or about Heaven and Hell. By the nature of things, such revelation must be propositional; for the action of the Second Coming has not yet taken place; while heavenly things cannot yet be experienced by men. Consequently, our knowledge of future events, or of heavenly realities, must be revealed to us prepositionally, that is to say, through meaningful words, if we are to have any knowledge of them whatsoever.

Yet the revelation which God has given us of the Second Coming, of the judgment day and of Heaven and Hell, form a very large and important part of biblical revelation, and are exclusively propositional. we are enjoined in Scripture to orient our lives by these propositions about God’s actions in the future. If they are not reliable and inerrant, this would be an improper injunction.

Similarly, the knowledge of God’s providence comes to us through propositions. For example, our Lord’s statement that God is “Lord of heaven and earth” (Matt. 11:25) is a proposition. Yet by this title a profoundly important truth has been revealed to us. God’s providence is not deducible by observation of events; though having been given to us through propositional revelation we can see this doctrine reflected in events.

In the Bible, God is constantly represented as revealing facts about Himself in propositional form, e.g., “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” All the great “I am” sayings of Christ, too, are propositions. Nor would these truths about Christ have been apprehended by the weak minds of men had they not been given as propositions.

A great deal of the Old Testament revelation was given to the prophets in the form of vision. So characteristic of prophecy is vision, that the whole book of Isaiah is described as “the vision of Isaiah” (Isaiah 1:1, 2 Chron. 32:32). In revelation through vision, the event (i.e. the vision itself) is not revelational, but it is the content of the vision (i.e., the concepts which God makes known through the vision) which is the revelation.

These concepts are all apprehended by the seer and passed on to the hearer prepositionally; that is to say, through meaningful words expressing the concepts which God put into the mind of His servant. One of the most important revelations through vision is Daniel’s vision of the Son of Man in Daniel 7. Both the vision itself, and the vital interpretation of it, cannot be described otherwise than as “propositional revelation”.

THE CONSEQUENCES OF DENYING PROPOSITIONAL REVELATION

Hodgson’s statement that the revelation of God is not given in words but in deeds minimises the fact that, if the deed is to be meaningful, it must be interpreted correctly; and that it is the interpretation which brings about the revelation.

Hodgson’s position, by confining revelation to deeds and making the Bible merely a witness to the deeds and not itself part of the revelation, leads to conclusions self-evidently wrong. In his view, “the Word of God is a series of divine acts, to which the Bible bears witness… the revelation of God is given in deeds; the doctrines of faith are formulated by reflection on the significance of those deeds.”

Such a view means that the New Testament Epistles are excluded from being revelation. They would be, according to Hodgson, the propositions formulated by the mind, as it reflects on the deeds of God and seeks to grasp their significance. A similar consideration applies to such statements of Christ as “God is a Spirit, and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship Him.” (John 4:23,24). This is a statement about God and His worshippers. To deny that this proposition is revelational is foolish.

If the words of the Bible are made merely witnesses to the revelation of God, the unique position of the authority of the Bible is undermined and it becomes merely one witness no more infallible than the witness of the Church and the witness of the human spirit and reason to the acts of God in experience. The dichotomy between event and the interpretation of the event, with the singling out of the former as the important element, or indeed as the sole element making up the revelation, leads, as might be expected, to the ignoring of the interpretation given in the Bible in favour of any interpretation which commends itself to the reader.

Thus Brother George Every, S.S.M., writes of Father Herbert Kelly, the founder of his Community: “In his own reflections on the Old Testament, Father Kelly had a way of going directly to the event without even noticing the interpretation given by the Prophet or the prophetic historian”. (The Gospel of God, 1959, page 34). It will be seen that if revelation is in the event rather than in the interpretation, revelation becomes like a nose of wax to be reshaped according to every man’s whim. In fact, if revelation is only in event, then there is no revelation in the sense of God-given knowledge of God.

THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD AND REVELATION

In the last resort, the concept that God’s revelation is in deeds can only be maintained by a forgetfulness that God is all-sovereign over the world. The fact is that there is no event which God controls more than another and, therefore, every event equally reflects some aspect of His character. Yet no event is revelational in itself.

For example, God controlled the migrations of the Syrians from Kir and the Philistines from Caphtor as completely as He brought up the Israelites out of Egypt (Amos 9:7). What is it then that makes the tribal migrations of the Israelites pregnant with revelation throughout the Old and New Testaments, while those of their related tribe, the Syrians, reveal only the one fact of God’s general providence to which Amos alludes?

Similarly, why are the invasions of neighbouring countries by the Assyrians, and the fate that overtook the Assyrians, revelational of God’s character (see Isaiah 10), while the intertribal warfare of, say the Maoris, are not? It is not as though God’s sovereign control is exercised any the more over the one or any the less over the other of these different events but simply that to the one have been added interpretive propositions and statements, but not to the other. It is the proposition which is the revelation giving meaning to the event. It is the meaning of the event which reveals the character of God, yet the event by itself means nothing. The conclusion is that revelation is essentially propositional. Modern theology largely ignores the doctrine of the sovereignty of God, and the important consequences of this are seen in modern theories of revelation.

Temple saw the danger and sought to guard against it. Temple’s view of revelation has been summed up by Dr. Alan Richardson thus:

“Revelation is due to the twofold form of the activity of God: God controls the historical events which constitute the media of revelation, and also inspires the minds of the prophets and thus enables them to interpret the events aright. ‘He guides the process; He guides the minds of men; the interaction of the process and the minds that are alike guided by Him is the essence of revelation’”. (Christian Apologetics, page 146).

But God guides every event, none is more under his guidance than another.

The new element is the infallible guidance of the prophet’s mind so that he interprets the event aright. Thus, it is the interpretation which brings revelation to us and this interpretation is in the form of inerrant propositions. The biblical doctrine is that it is the work of the Holy Spirit not only to formulate these propositions in the mind of the inspired prophet, but to secure their embodiment in the written scripture. The activity of God in controlling events is continuous and unchanging (though the purposes of His control will vary); but the gift of interpreting the event aright is sporadic.

REVELATION AND FAITH

For an event to be revelational, it must be interpreted by God Himself. This, and not merely some human reflection on the occurrence, is the real differentiating factor. God interprets through His Word, given in the form of propositions and statements about that event. Thus, for the prophets, the word of the Lord was not the event but the interpretation of the event which had been given them by the Spirit. The same is true of that supreme event, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. There would have been no revelation in Christ’s ministry were it not for the interpretative statements of our Lord and His apostles. it is the proposition then that is the revelation, not the act itself.

Temple states, on the contrary: “the faith in which His early followers believed that they had found salvation did not consist in the acceptance of propositions concerning Him nor even in acceptance of what He taught in words concerning God and man, though this was certainly included, but in personal trust in His personal presence, love and power”. (Nature, Man and God, page 311).

This statement contains an inner contradiction. Faith cannot be exercised except towards propositions. Certainly, Christian faith (and in particular the disciples’ faith) was not exercised towards propositions about material things, but towards propositions about a Person, His power, and His promises. Nevertheless, the disciples’ trust in Christ’s presence, love and power was ultimately based on the acceptance of propositions about these things which had been formulated in their minds.

The case is no different, though more obvious with regard to those who “not having seen, yet have believed”, for their knowledge of Christ’s presence, love and power (from which their personal trust in Him springs) it conveyed to their minds exclusively by propositions. Trust in Christ is a religious experience which is a consequence of a revelation given and received. (“He who comes to God must believe that He is”, Hebrews 11:6). This trust and religious experience is to be distinguished from revelation. Such experience of God is, of course, more than propositional; but the revelation on which it is based and by which it must be judged is essentially propositional. A confusion arises, unless the meanings of the word “knowledge” are clearly distinguished.

Knowledge of God in the sense of revelation of Him, is entirely intellectual; it is apprehended by the mind alone. It is, therefore propositional. But knowledge of God in the sense of fellowship with Him, goes beyond intellectual apprehension and is experienced through all the avenues of our being.

In this latter sense, knowledge of God is not exclusively, or perhaps not even essentially, propositional, that is, not articulated consciously into propositions.- but this knowledge of God is not in itself revelational, though it illuminates revelation and suffuses revelation. Yet such religious experience must be based on revelation, and be conformable to, and judged by revelation if it is to be regarded as true, and not spurious knowledge of God.

Revelation is the test and criterion of such religious experience as to whether it is knowledge of God, and the revelation which forms this test is the words of the Scripture and the propositions which these words form.

Denial of “propositional revelation” makes Christian faith impossible in its fullest and deepest expression of trust, for it is impossible to trust absolutely unless we have a sure Word of God; such denial restricts Christianity to a religion of works, i.e., to following and obeying Jesus Christ as best we can. Moreover, denial of propositional revelation makes the lordship of Christ impossible of actual realisation, for it is only by the sceptre of His word that He can exercise that absolute lordship over men’s consciences and wills which is His by right. For it is wrong to give absolute obedience to an uncertain command or to place absolute trust on an uncertain promise.

INERRANT REVELATION

Denial of propositional revelation goes hand in hand with a denial of inerrant revelation. An illustration of this may be taken from The Christian in Philosophy by Professor J.V. Langmead Casserley, who wrote (page 190)

“For the most part, the biblical conception of revelation is not propositional but historical. The God of the Bible is made known, or rather makes Himself known, not in words but in events. The Bible is not a series of saving propositions… but a propositional record of saving events. Its actual language, as is inevitable when human speech grapples with the problem of describing the singular, is partly adequate and partly inadequate.”

It is commonplace nowadays to assume, as Casserley does, that the words of the Bible, being human words, must inevitably (either through natural human inadequacy or the presence of sin) distort God’s revelation. But the assumption ignores the power of God expressed in the divine rebuke, “Who made man’s mouth?” (Exodus 4:11). To assert that its Creator (who saw all from the Beginning) cannot fulfil His purposes which He determined on from eternity, namely to reveal Himself infallibly through human speech, betrays great impiety.

It is sometimes further asserted that, from the nature of truth, it is impossible that there should be such a thing as inerrant revelation. A simple illustration will show the falsity of this. If when the clock strikes four, I state “The clock has struck four”, I have made a propositional statement which is true if words mean anything and this truth remains characteristic of the proposition, even if

(a) my hearer misheard me through deafness,

(b) failed to apprehend my meaning through faulty knowledge of English, or

(c) there was no-one present to hear me.

If it is possible for an ordinary human to make a completely true proposition which is a revelational fact for those who have ears to hear, it is again the height of impiety to say that God cannot ensure that His servants do so, if He will; and not make one such true proposition only, but to make a whole series of them within the pages of the Bible, and to exclude from among them any erroneous propositions, if He will. That God has in fact done so must be believed by all who give credence to the teaching and attitude of Christ and of His apostles and of the whole of Scripture with reference to the character of Holy Scripture.

The apostles explicitly affirmed that their words were the words of God, and that the propositions that they composed were verbally inspired by the Holy Spirit, e.g., “We teach not in words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Spirit teacheth”. (1 Cor. 2:13).

It is highly inconsistent to accept the authority of Christ and the apostles, and Scripture in general with regard to God and His relation to His creation, while rejecting that authority with regard to God’s relation to part of that creation, namely, to the words of Scripture.

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David Broughton KnoxDr. Broughton Knox was Principal of Moore Theological College, Sydney, from 1959 to 1985. For many years his “Protestant Faith Broadcast” was heard on Sydney radio station 2CH.

Reproduced with the permission of the Committee for External Studies of Moore Theological College, 1 King Street, Newtown. N.S.W. 2042, Australia.

A collection of essays by Dr. Knox – “D. Broughton Knox: Selected Works” – has been published by Matthias Media in Sydney. It includes this essay.