August 22, 2014 Broadcast

Revelation: Where Would We Be Without It?

A Message by Stephen Nichols

Most of us probably take the Bible for granted.  With easy access on our mobile devices, the Internet, or just about any bookstore, we forget that, for most of our history, the Bible has been a treasured possession.  In this lesson, historian Dr. Stephen Nichols helps us see the supreme importance of Scripture as he asks, “Where would we be without revelation?”

From the series: Why We Trust the Bible

Get The Holy Spirit Resource Package for a Gift of Any Amount

Further Study On This Topic

  1. blog-post

    The Reformed Doctrine of Special Revelation: What It Is and What It Isn't

  2. devotional

    A Mystery Now Revealed

  3. article

    Thus Saith the Lord?

The Reformed Doctrine of Special Revelation: What It Is and What It Isn't

Keith Mathison

In a previous article, I discussed the Reformed doctrine of general revelation – what it is and what it isn't. We learned that God has implanted knowledge of Himself in all men and that in the creation and government of the universe, He communicates His existence, His power, and His glory, such that men are without excuse (Rom. 1:20). God's revelation, whether general or special, is something He does, and thus God's revelation, whether general or special, is infallible.

We also learned what general revelation is not. General revelation is not to be identified with the human interpreters of general or special revelation. God is infallible, and thus His revelation is infallible. Human interpreters of revelation are fallible. General revelation is also not to be equated with the interpretations of human interpreters. Biblical commentaries are not special revelation, and scientific theories are not general revelation. We must maintain the Creator-creature distinction when thinking about revelation.

What About Special Revelation?

Reformed theology has traditionally distinguished general revelation from special revelation. Article 2 of the Belgic Confession discusses these two means of revelation under the title: "By What Means God is Made Known to Us." After mentioning general revelation, the confessions states: "Secondly, he makes himself more clearly and fully known to us by his holy and divine Word, that is to say, as far as is necessary for us to know in this life, to his glory and our salvation."

The Westminster Confession of Faith also begins with a discussion of the distinction between general and special revelation:

Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing: which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God's revealing his will unto his people being now ceased.

Note first, the phrase, "it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his church." The framers of the confession are appealing here to Hebrews 1:1–2.

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.

The idea of God revealing Himself "at sundry times, and in divers manners" has led Reformed theologians to discuss the various means of special revelation. Louis Berkhof lists three before His discussion of the relationship between special revelation and Scripture (Introduction to Systematic Theology, 134–6).

  1. Theophanies (e.g. Exodus 19:9)
  2. Communications – Under this category, Berkhof includes God's audible voice, dreams, visions, the prophets, and Jesus Himself
  3. Miracles (e.g. Deuteronomy 4:32–35)

Prior to the completion of Scripture, then, God's special revelation was given through more than the written text of Scripture.

Regarding the content of special revelation, it is important first to recall what was said about the content of general revelation in order to note the difference. General revelation communicates God's existence, His power, and His glory, such that men are without excuse. It is "not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation."

The knowledge that is necessary for salvation, on the other hand, is the content of special revelation. This knowledge is not found in general revelation. General revelation does not communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ. While one can know that God exists through an examination of general revelation, one cannot know about the incarnation, atoning death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ by looking through a telescope or a microscope.

For the purpose of man's redemption and His own glory, God has committed that which He had in times past revealed through theophanies, dreams, and prophets "wholly unto writing: which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God's revealing his will unto his people being now ceased." God's special revelation, therefore, is now found in its permanent form in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.

The understanding that Scripture is God's special revelation rests on the conviction that God inspired the human authors of Scripture. Paul writes: "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16). And Peter adds: "For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit" (2 Peter 1:21).

The word "inspiration" that Paul uses is a translation of the Greek theopneustos, which means "God-breathed." When we say that all Scripture is inspired by God, what we mean is that God superintended the human authors of the Scriptures so that their words were the very words of God Himself. Because Scripture is the very word of God Himself, Scripture carries the full authority of God Himself. It is His Word. And because God is infallible (incapable of error), the Holy Scriptures are inerrant.

The Difference Between Scripture and Interpretations of Scripture

Many Christians believe in the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, but many of these same Christians have differences of opinion about the interpretation of particular passages of Scripture. Some of these differences, such as those concerning the sacraments, have given rise to different denominations. Others simply remain the subject of ongoing debate. The men who framed the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, for example, came from a range of denominational backgrounds and held different views on a number of subjects. They agreed that Scripture is inerrant, but they differed on what that inerrant Scripture means in certain places.

Many Christians do not grasp this distinction, and the result is often the misrepresentation of what other Christians believe. The problem is that these Christians confuse a difference of interpretation with a denial of biblical authority. During my final months at Dallas Theological Seminary, when I was slowly transitioning out of dispensational premillennialism toward Reformed theology, I was repeatedly informed that the only reason I was not a premillennialist was because I did not believe the Bible (specifically Revelation 20). My friends there could not grasp the fact that my difference with them had to do with a difference of interpretation, not a difference over the authority of God's Word.

This is an important point and one that has been repeatedly ignored throughout the history of the church. On any number of disputed issues, Christians will often frame the debate in a way that indicates either an inability or an unwillingness to acknowledge the difference between the Word of God and their own interpretations of that Word. "We believe the Bible and you do not" is the implicit (and sometimes explicit) affirmation. Those who disagree are asked, "Why are you rejecting the 'biblical' view"?

Such a way of framing an argument begs the question. The "biblical" view is precisely the question that is being debated, and it needs to be discerned through careful exegesis.

Unless a person has been granted the gift of infallibility, a disagreement with his or her interpretation of Scripture is not necessarily a denial of biblical authority. People who affirm the authority and inerrancy of Scripture differ in their interpretations of some biblical texts. The way to deal with such disagreements is through patient and careful exegesis, and it must be understood that this can take time. The early church took centuries to hammer out the biblical teaching on the Trinity and the Person of Christ. Some of our contemporary debates may likewise take many years to resolve.

We do not despair because of this. God knows what He intended to communicate in every word of Scripture. It is our ignorance and sin that hinders us from grasping everything perfectly. But our ignorance and sin does not alter the fact that the Scripture is the infallible, authoritative, and inerrant Word of the living God.

"The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever" (Isa. 40:8).

A Mystery Now Revealed

Mystery religions that promised salvation to a select group of initiates who received the mysteries — top-secret teachings — of certain religious figures were common in the ancient Greco-Roman world. During the early part of the twentieth century, many historians claimed that Christianity merely co-opted the beliefs of these mystery religions for its own purposes, eventually winning more adherents than any other group. Such theories were proposed largely on account of Paul’s use of the term mystery in Colossians 1:25–26 and many other passages.

Though these theories are still found in many popular-level attacks on the Christian faith, such ideas were debunked long ago. Better historical research proves that the mystery religions borrowed from Christianity, perverting its rituals and teachings to make them compatible with rank paganism. Moreover, it is astounding that anyone could think that the other apostles simply adopted the mystery religions for their own purposes, for the meaning of the term mystery is far different in the New Testament than it was in the surrounding society. Instead of a secret truth that only the “truly spiritual” can understand, mystery in the Bible refers to something that was once unclear under the old covenant but is now seen plainly under the new covenant. Such mysteries are given to all the saints of God, as we see in today’s passage.

We will look at the specific mystery Paul introduces in Colossians 1:25–26 more tomorrow, but for now note that it has to do with the full citizenship of Gentiles alongside faithful Israelites in the kingdom of God (see Eph. 3:6). What we want to stress today is that this mystery, along with every other so-called “mystery” in Scripture, can be grasped by all believers. To be sure, it will take an eternity to plumb the depths of God’s revelation; however, there is no secret teaching that is the possession of merely a few believers. In the body of Christ there are no racial, gender, or economic distinctions before God when it comes to the truth — all have a share in learning and understanding what has been given to us in His Word through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 3:27–28; 1 John 2:27). Undeniably, some people are more gifted teachers of these mysteries than others, just as was true under the old covenant. But there is no hidden truth in Scripture that belongs to only a few.

Thus Saith the Lord?

Rod Rosenbladt


To someone from a Reformed background, it is sort of jarring to hear a statement like that. But the proposition is not all that unusual—especially in Pentecostal circles. I remember once asking a question to a Sunday school teacher in my very young years in pietistic Lutheranism. She did not know the answer, but she replied, “Ask the Lord about it and I am sure He will reveal the answer to you.” As a very young boy, I took this to mean I should listen very, very quietly after I “asked the Lord” my question in prayer! I expected to hear a voice. And given that woman’s counsel, I don’t think my expectation was all that off the mark. What else could such counsel mean?

It is sometimes difficult for us as Christians to be content with a once-given, completed revelation via the incarnate Word and inscripturated words. We all too easily begin to imagine that we have a right to new special revelation to answer our immediate problems. But the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews makes very clear that God has revealed Himself most clearly in the incarnate Son (Heb. 1:1–2) and that, correlatively, we Christians living between the First and Second Advents are not to expect a repetition of the “various ways” of God’s self-revelation in what the writer calls “times past.”

Christians have a rationale for receiving the text of the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments as written revelation, as God’s inerrant Word. Jesus’ view of the Old Testament text is so clear that it is impossible to miss (think of His confrontation with Satan in Matt. 4, a contest in quoting the Old Testament text as divine truth). Jesus undoubtedly believed that the words of the Old Testament text were God’s very words, and, given the evidence of His deity (in particular His resurrection from the dead), we maybe confident that His view of the Old Testament text is the correct one. In the case of the New Testament text, we have Jesus’ promises to those who would (unbeknownst to them) later write the New Testament. The coming Holy Spirit, He said, “ ‘will … bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you’ ” (John 14:26), “ ‘will guide you into all truth’ ” (16:13), and ‘ “will take of what is Mine and declare it to you’ ” (16:14).

Thus, God the Son, prior to His ascension, put His stamp of approval on what some of His then-present disciples would later write. And the same is true for Paul. The objective nature of Paul’s true apostleship is available from his report regarding his visit to Jerusalem prior to his mission to the Gentiles (Gal. 1–2). After examining him, Peter and James did two things. First, they “added nothing to me” (Gal. 2:6). In other words, they recognized that Paul knew everything they knew even though he had not walked with them as one of the original Twelve; Paul had no need for other apostles to “fill in the blanks” in what he knew. Second, “they gave me … the right hand of fellowship” (2:9). They saw nothing in what the risen Jesus had revealed to him that needed correction. Thus, the original apostles confirmed Paul’s true apostleship.

Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones accurately sums up the Reformation position on the issue of “continuing revelation”: “There can be no addition to it [Scripture]. It cannot be added to because there cannot be any successors to the apostles. By definition they can have no successors.… If an apostle is a man who must have seen the risen Lord and who is therefore able to witness to the fact of the resurrection, there cannot be successors. Those originally chosen have had no successors.… There is to be no fresh revelation. There is no need for any. It was given and given finally to the apostles (Jude 3)” (Authority, p. 59).

Even if there were “continuing revelation” (to a “prophet” in every Pentecostal parish, to the Roman Catholic magisterium, or to “revelators” in Salt Lake City), we would have no reason to trust that it was revelation! Why? Because the last apostle is dead, and the apostles are our only confirmatory link to that which is genuinely revelatory.

We see this apostolic priority practiced even in the period of the book of Acts. In the case of local doctrinal disputes, the early Christians did not ask their local “prophet” to “get the Word of the Lord” on the problem.

They asked for, and knelt to, the words of the apostles as final and God-given. As Paul writes, “… you received the word of God which you heard from us … not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God …” (1 Thess. 2:13).

If all Christians of all ages are to align themselves with the teaching of the apostles, then Christians are to kneel only to the text of the Bible. Why? Because, as Anglican divine E. A. Litton put it, “no apostolical teaching is certainly extant except that which is embalmed in the New Testament.” If Christians are to be taught by and be subservient to the apostles’ teachings, then they are to be taught by and be subservient to the surviving writings of the apostles—and nothing else.

What about the Jesuitical (and Mormon!) type of argument that says: “God regularly spoke to the apostles during the period described in the book of Acts. Can’t we reasonably expect that He would continue to do this for His church until Jesus returns?” The simple answer to this is, “No.” Scripture does not tell us to do doctrine on the basis of any past actions or words of God we read in the historical books (including Acts). The text of Scripture is to be the basis of our doctrine—in particular the didactic books of Scripture. The fact that God once acted or spoke something revelatory gives today’s Christian believer no sufficient reason to believe that God is obliged to do or say revelatory things again—unless there is an attached promise on His part to do so. One of the basic rules of Reformation hermeneutics is that we must not universalize promises. A promise given to an individual is a promise solely to that individual (unless the promise is accompanied by words such as “all,” “world,” “whosoever,” “every,” “all,” “always,” etc.). This has implications for every Christian today who has an inclination, like Gideon, to “lay out a fleece” whenever he thinks he needs “a sign from the Lord!”

The early church had to face the issue of “continuing revelation” in the case of Montanism. And the Reformers were confronted by the “Schwärmerei” (“enthusiasts”), who defended their private revelations as Spirit-given—apart from and in addition to the Word. John Calvin confidently opposed these enthusiasts, writing, for example, “… the children of God … know no other Spirit than Him who dwelt and spoke in the apostles, Him by whose oracles they are repeatedly recalled to the hearing of the Word.” Martin Luther’s famous response to Thomas Müntzer was, “I wouldn’t believe you if you had swallowed the Holy Ghost, feathers and all!” The late Dr. Robert Preus accurately summed up the position of Luther and the seventeenth-century Lutheran dogmaticians: “… Scripture alone is the source of all knowledge of supernatural theology.… Scripture must stand alone in this respect or not at all. If it is not the only norm of doctrine, it is not a norm in the true sense of the word” (The Inspiration of Scripture, pp. 4–5).

The old Lutherans made use of the distinction between “gross” (“gross sacramentarians”) and “crafty” (“crafty sacramentarians”). The situation in the case of the “gross continuing revelation adherents” has been well described by Dr. John MacArthur Jr. in the August 2001 Tabletalk and by Dr. R.C. Sproul in “The Establishment of Scripture” in Sola Scriptura! The Protestant Position on the Bible. The “crafty adherents of continuing revelation” are probably best represented by Dr. Wayne Grudem (The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today). One excellent reply to Grudem’s position is Dr. O. Palmer Robertson’s The Final Word, a book I highly recommend. Robertson correctly sees that Grudem’s position creates deep problems, not only with sola Scriptura but with the perspicuity and sufficiency of Holy Scripture, as well.

Given that we have a rationale for accepting the Old Testament text as God’s inspired Word, and given that we have a rationale for accepting the apostolic New Testament writings as God’s inspired Word, Reformation Christians should actively resist and/or reject anything that seeks to supplant these. Even if they do not mean to do it, even if they attempt to offer a rationale as to why their “other revelatory sources” are not revelatory in the sense that Scripture is revelatory, those who argue for “continuing revelation” lead the believer away from sola Scriptura. The Reformers were correct in rejecting the supposed new revelations of the “Spirit-drivers” (Abraham Kuyper) in their day. We must do no less.

Since the beginning,

our aim has been to help Christians know what they believe, why they believe it, how to share it, and how to live it…

More about Renewing Your Mind