“God is in heaven and you are on earth.”
– Ecclesiastes 5:2, ESV
The doctrine of revelation within the Church provides the very possibility for Christians to know, love, and experience God. Without the doctrine of revelation, it would be impossible for the individual to say anything about God or His identity. Therefore, the very existence of the Christian life depends upon the concept of revelation! As Trevor Hart notes, “The question of revelation in Christian theology is finally no less than the question of theology’s own ultimate source and norm, of the conditions for the possibility of theology itself as a human activity.” If these bold and rather dramatic claims are correct, what exactly is revelation? And why is it so essential for the Christian confession?
Revelation is the event in which God reveals Himself to His creatures. The necessity of revelation rests upon the understanding that since God’s being, action, and thought far exceed humanity (i.e. His transcendence), we are unable to have any comprehension of God apart from God’s decision to reveal Himself to us. God is infinite, and human beings are finite. The prophet Isaiah highlights God’s magnificence when he testifies “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.” (Is. 55:8, ESV). The truth that God’s thoughts and ways far exceed those of humanity necessarily means that no amount of human effort or energy can alter this state of dependency and helplessness. As my theology professor loves to say, the single-prerequisite for theology (i.e. any speech about God) is a self-revealing God. Thus, Christian theology is made possible solely by God’s initiation. Despite the truth that God is totally transcendent, God truly desires for His creatures to have knowledge about His identity and loving disposition towards us. We know this because God has graciously revealed Himself in and through the person and work of Jesus Christ. This reality becomes all the more unfathomable when the Church recognizes that humanity is sinful and stands in judgment before a holy God. In effect, revelation is nothing short of the miraculous. When the impossibility of knowledge of God becomes possible through God’s revelation, a miracle occurs. Therefore, revelation is a miracle that the Church continually witnesses in its midst whenever creatures have knowledge of God.
Few theologians in the history of the Church understood the need for a robust doctrine of revelation more than Karl Barth. In The Epistle to the Romans, Barth famously and bravely declares that “… ‘God is in heaven, and thou art on earth.’ The relation between such a God and such a man, and the relation between such a man and such a God, is for me the theme of the Bible and the essence of philosophy.” For Barth, this eternal and infinite difference between God and humanity enabled Barth to understand and value the indispensable role of revelation. The distinction between God and humanity is so great that only God can provide knowledge of Himself by choosing to reveal Himself to humanity. Barth maintained that such a gap is ever-present due to the sinfulness of human beings. Since God’s being is holy and set-apart, sinful humanity is unable to comprehend His identity. Rather than possessing the natural capacity for faith and knowledge, human beings only have ignorance and doubt to offer. But God does not leave His children in ignorance. Rather, God pours out the gift of His Holy Spirit upon his people in order for them to have the freedom “to be the children of God and to know and love and praise Him in His revelation.” The Holy Spirit gives God’s children the freedom to recognize and know God in His revelation. At this point, it is important to note that simply because knowledge of God is possible through revelation does not mean that revelation becomes an ordinary event; revelation should always be understood “precisely as miracle, the restoration of life to that which otherwise was doomed to corruption. It is not an inherent human possibility or capacity which simply needs to be realized and embraced, fertilized and nurtured, or tweaked and reconfigured.” Thus, for Barth, the only place where knowledge of God can occur is where faith and obedience are both present as gifts from God. Faith trusts in the holy and transcendent God who has truly revealed Himself in Jesus Christ and by the Holy Scriptures and offers obedience to the Word heard and found therein.
In closing, the reader might be asking at this point where God has revealed Himself. First and foremost, God fully revealed Himself in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Through the event of the incarnation, God stepped into the world and dwelled among us as fully human while never ceasing to be fully God. Second, since Jesus’ ascension into heaven following His resurrection, God continually reveals Himself to His Church by the Holy Scriptures through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. In Jesus Christ and by the Holy Scriptures, God’s identity and gracious disposition toward humanity is truly disclosed. Such revelation is continually made a reality by the Holy Spirit who opens up the new possibilities for every Christian to know and experience the Incomprehensible and Infinite God. When we as the Church attempt to speak about God, we must always remember that such speech only occurs through God’s merciful self-disclosure. In recognizing our dependence and helplessness, the Church remains open to receive afresh the revelation that God has for us as He meets us through the reading and preaching of His Word.
Trevor Hart, “Revelation”, in The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, ed. John Webster (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 37.
Karl Barth. The Epistle to the Romans. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968, 10.
Barth, Church Dogmatics, I.2. Edited by G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance. (New York: T&T Clark, 2009), 203.
Hart, “Revelation”, in The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, 43, emphasis added.
To read the next post in this series, “Imago Dei with Meredith Kline” by Adam D. Rick, click here.
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