Part I

(Part II will appear in the next issue)

The history of human thought continually confronts us with questions regarding divine revelation. On one hand, some thinkers reject any possibility of divine revelation in the world on the basis of their atheism or agnosticism. On the other, a great number of thinkers espouse revelation, yet the variety of viewpoints seriously and fundamentally contradict each other. When we specially emphasize a revelation of God in the world, moreover, basic differences emerge over the character and the content of this revelation. In this connection we think not only of non-Christian religions, which often also appropriate the notion of “revelation”—Mohammedanism, for example,—but also of differences among those who, in one way or another, identify divine revelation with the Christian faith.

Specifically, then, we face the controversy over the manner in which divine revelation has come to us. Scholars have frequently opposed the local and historical frontiers of revelation, pleading instead for a more general revelation, a universal unveiling (revelation signifies “apocalypse,” unveiling), and have set themselves against the orthodox vision of special revelation which seemed too narrow and too limited. Especially since the eighteenth century the speculative viewpoint has sharply objected to basing man’s salvation upon historical facts. In particular, Lessing’s now well-known dictum that it is impossible to base eternal truths upon historical actions exercised great influence. More and more the impression grew that historical facts are accidental, changing, fortuitous and relative. It was asserted also that all historical circumstances so interpenetrate each other that any discrimination of the special revelation of God in certain special historical happenings, in distinction from others, would be impossible.

In the idealistic interpretation of revelation, the Christian Church in the nineteenth century came in contact with one of the fiercest attacks upon its fundamental doctrine. This philosophy found divine revelation not in historical occurrences, but in the realm of idea alone. Eternal truth must have an eternal foundation and can not be dependent, so it was contended, on historical circumstances. Especially since the rise of anti-miraculous biblical criticism in the eighteenth century, a desire came to the fore to “secure” revelation by freeing it, in principle, from dependence upon the historical. Historical criticism could attack everything—so it was said in the nineteenth century—including the historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth; and what then remained for the Christian faith, if this depended upon him as an historical Saviour? Idealistic interpretations sought deeper foundations for the truth of revelation in the divine idea. When dogmatics influenced by Hegel expounded the unity of the divine and the human, it protested against Christian dogma which argued for the unity of God and man by special reference to the historical Christ. The great fault of the Church—so it was said—was its limitation and confinement of a universal idea in one person. With the greatest emphasis, therefore, the modern theology of the nineteenth century discarded the confessions of the ecumenical Christian councils, especially the Chalcedonian formula, “very God, very man.”

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What the Church in Christ Jesus had confessed as an isolated historical reality, it was asserted, must be understood as a universal; the historical could never in itself be the revelation of God, but could only have value as illustration of the divine idea. As Strauss expressed it in his much-quoted phrase, the divine idea has not poured itself into but a single mold.

That a revelation of God should come to us in the here and now is the great stumbling block for the idealistic view of revelation. It is not by accident, therefore, that in times of idealistic outlook a crisis inevitably arises over the confession of the absoluteness of Christianity. All religions have a share, in larger or smaller measure, in the truth of the idea, it is said. One cannot speak, consequently, of a radical decision in connection with Jesus Christ, truly God and truly man, the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

God And Modern History

In addition to this idealistic misunderstanding, another theory poses an equally serious threat to revelation. This is the notion that we ought simply to equate revelation and history according to our own insight. In contrast with the idealistic view of revelation of the nineteenth century, let us now contemplate the view of revelation prevalent in the days of National Socialism in Germany. When Hitler came to power in 1933, the church was pressed for a decision on the question of the meaning of this phase of German history.

There were those who from the beginning had grasped and pointed out the demonic structure of National Socialism. Despite all its promises of freedom for the church and religion, they saw the mortal danger of the swastika and totalitarianism against the Cross.

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There were others in the German church (the group, so-called, of German Christians) who professed to hear the voice of God in the events of the thirties. They spoke of the clearly-defined revelation of what was happening; they called upon the Church to seize the opportunities God was now giving it. And everyone who refused to discern the voice of the Good Shepherd in these events was denied the right to leadership in the Church. This event-filled history of the thirties was hailed as nothing more or less than revelation.

So long as things went well for Germany, these people, like the rest of the populace, followed Hitler’s cue. While success followed success, Hitler spoke continually of the guidance and providence of God. Success and blessing were thus identified in an entirely unbiblical manner. Even as Goebbels spoke about the logic of history, so Hitler, at the time of the death of President Roosevelt, spoke of a turning, of a decisive reversal, in which God had come to the rescue with a new prospect of German victory.

In this manner a special event of history was interpreted, without validity, as revelation. The event was not placed under the searching light of the God-given unique revelation in Christ Jesus, but was itself promoted as “special revelation.” It is not difficult to see that such a view of revelation is as dangerous as the idealistic vision of the nineteenth century. Both developments forfeited an awareness of God’s true revelation.

Hebrew-Christian View

This twofold danger zone should be kept in mind as we go into the treatment of the Hebrew-Christian view of divine revelation.

In this we shall have to deal with the biblical vision of divine revelation. That we here use two terms (Hebrew and Christian) signifies not that we are discussing two different views of revelation which are somehow connected with each other, but rather, that we are dealing with one central, harmonious view of divine revelation. The hyphen in the term “Hebrew-Christian” points to the progress of revelation in the course of history before and after Christ.

The remarkable feature of the unified witness of the Old and New Testaments lies always in this, that in its whole course we come in contact not with an idea, but with the revealing acts and words of God in history. The revelation of God, as it is witnessed in the Old and New Testaments, is never concerned with a number of truths that stand by themselves, which are forever “true,” independent of time and place. This idealism is entirely unknown to Scripture.

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The Old Testament makes this completely clear. It fixes attention on the creating and speaking and acting God, who reveals himself in the path of history. This revelation of God in history carries a definite character and supplies the basis for radical conclusions. It is not given to us in the form of a vague universality, but in moving particularity, such as appears especially in the historical act of the choosing of Israel. In this election, assuredly, God does not forget the peoples of the world. Abraham received the promise that with him all peoples of earth would be blessed (Gen. 12:3), but the way to this universal blessing runs through this particular revelation to Israel. The Exodus stands out as a mountaintop above the valleys of Israel’s history, towering in remembrance to the days of the prophets.

God’s dealing and God’s act! Its concern is not with an idea, but with a way which comes into view—the way in which God leads, and in which men must follow him. It is the way of his election and his covenant, of grace and of judgment.

Jehovah, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, is the faithful and unchanging God. His acts in history are a breathtaking performance, great and majestic. The hand of God is directed against the enemies of his chosen people whenever they disallow them freedom and opportunity, but it is directed also against his own people when they forsake his ways. So weighty is their calling and election that the chosen people bear a special responsibility: “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities” (Amos 3:2). When they refuse to serve him, God allows his people to be carried into exile.

The God who deals thus with us, in judgment and grace, is the great unchanging one. In the moving variations of the history of revelation, a light keeps on shining: “and he let none of his words fall to the ground” (1 Sam. 3:19). In these dealings, the teleological character of the acts of God strikes us. The whole Old Testament shows no concern with the cyclical view of history, but only with God’s purposeful dealing.

The important thing in God’s dealings is this, that he even uses the sinful acts of men to serve his plan and his purpose. When in their sinful planning Joseph’s brothers sold him into captivity, then God’s dealings put their deed straight; later we hear Joseph saying, “Ye meant evil against me; but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20). Here we are not concerned with abstract thinking, but with thought as deed. In the deepest darkness of the history of the people of Israel, it remains incontestable that God did not forsake the work of his hands.

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At times, scholars have ventured, upon the basis of the Bible, to speak of a divine defeat or failure. But to do so is to diminish the height and majesty of God.

God is the shepherd of the sheep, the leader of his people. He is not the hidden God full of arbitrary highhandedness, but the God of each day and each night. When the heart turns away from him, then and then only men must reckon on his divine concealment in judgment: “Verily thou art a God that hidest thyself, O God of Israel, the Saviour” (Isa. 45:15). Then he becomes the silent God, until the call rings out again for his word and his presence (1 Sam. 3:1, 10). The moving relationship between God and his people is pictured to us in human terms, but precisely this anthropomorphic manner of speaking in Scripture brings us under the deep impression of the reality of the revelation and of the deep currents of God’s dealing and speaking.

“In all their affliction he was afflicted and the angel of his presence saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them and he bare them and carried them all the days of old” (Isa. 63:9). But presently we see also the judgment of God and the reality of divine anger: “But they rebelled and vexed his holy Spirit: therefore he was turned to be their enemy and he fought against them” (Isa. 63:10).

But when the eye turns again toward God, and the heart goes out to him, then God becomes known once more in his love, mercy, and greatness, and the heart once more is filled with wonder: “Thy way is in the sea, and thy path in the great water, and thy footsteps are not known. Thou leadest thy people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron” (Psalm 77:19, 20).

This God of history is unfathomable and incomprehensible, but that does not remove the fact that he is a God of nearness. In the way of faith he is Father, and although Israel calls him the Almighty, he is also for Israel the hearer of its prayers: “O thou that hearest prayer, unto thee shall all flesh come!” (Psalm 65:2).

He is not the God who is merely a remote first cause, the unmoved mover of all things, but he is the merciful God, the listening God. And precisely because he is merciful, he does not allow his people to wander in ways of their own choosing, but follows them with his anger and again and again calls them to turn back.

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More and more in our time we learn again to understand the deep religious riches of the Old Testament. In the nineteenth century, the tendency was to push the Old Testament aside, because it was viewed as a provincial Jewish writing, with little universal significance. And when anti-Semitism in Germany brought modern minds into confusion, the Old Testament was disparaged as a primitive stage of thinking.

We now understand that whoever casts aside the Old Testament also fails to do justice to the content of the New. The reason is not simply that the one follows upon the other. By this rejection, one shatters the unity of the witness of him who is the God of history and who in a particular way has sought the world.

G. C. Berkouwer is Professor of Systematic Theology at Free University in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. He is author of a monumental series titled Studies in Dogmatics, many of the volumes already translated into English. This essay on “Revelation: the Hebrew-Christian View,” written especially for readers of Christianity Today, is to appear in three parts.

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