The uniqueness and the scandal of the Christian religion rest in the mediation of revelation through historical events. The Hebrew-Christian faith stands apart from the religions of its environment because it is a historical faith whereas they were religions rooted in mythology or the cycle of nature. The God of Israel was the God of history, or the Geschichtsgott, as German theologians so vividly put it. The Hebrew-Christian faith did not grow out of lofty philosophical speculation or profound mystical experiences. It arose out of the historical experiences of Israel, old and new, in which God made himself known. This fact imparts to the Christian faith a specific content and objectivity which sets it apart from others.
At the same time, this very historical character of revelation raises an acute problem for many thinking men. Plato viewed the realm of time and space as one of flux and change. History by definition involves relativity, particularity, caprice, arbitrariness, whereas revelation must convey the universal, the absolute, the ultimate. History has been called “an abyss in which Christianity has been swallowed up quite against its will.”
Revelatory History. How can the Infinite be known in the finite, the Eternal in the temporal, the Absolute in the relativities of history? From a purely human perspective, this is impossible; but at precisely this point is found perhaps the greatest miracle in the biblical faith. God is the living God, and he, the eternal, the unchangeable, has communicated knowledge of himself through the ebb and flow of historical experience.
The problem is well nigh insoluble for the man who takes his world view from modern philosophies rather than from the Bible. Yet there can be no doubt about the Bible’s claim for the historical character of revelation. This can be seen in the historical character of the Bible itself. From one point of view, the Bible is not so much a book of religion as a book of history. The Bibile is not primarily a collection of the religious ideas of a series of great thinkers. It is not first of all a system of theological concepts, much less of philosophical speculations. Nowhere, for instance, does the Bible try to prove the existence of God; God simply is. His existence is everywhere assumed. Nowhere does the New Testament reflect on the deity of Christ. Christ is God, and yet God is more than Christ. The Father is God, Christ is God, the Holy Spirit is God; and yet God is one, not three. The New Testament does not try to synthesize these diverse elements into a theological whole. This is the legitimate and necessary task of systematic theology.
Neither is the Bible primarily the description of deep mystical experiences of religious geniuses, although it includes profound religious experience. Much of the New Testament is indeed the product of the religious experience of one man—Paul. Yet the focus of Paul’s epistles is not Paul and his experience but the meaning of Jesus of Nazareth, resurrected and exalted at God’s right hand.
The Bible is first of all the record of the history of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob, of the twelve tribes of Israel and their settlement in Palestine, of the kingdom of David and his successors, of the fall of the divided kingdom, and of the return of the Jews from Babylon. It resumes its history with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and the establishment and extension of the early Church in the Graeco-Roman world.
Yet history is not recorded for its own sake. History is recorded because it embodies the acts of God. The evangelistic preaching of the early Church did not attempt to demonstrate the superiority of Christian truth over the teachings of pagan philosophers and religious teachers. It did not rest its claim to recognition in a higher ethic or a deeper religious experience. It consisted of a recital of the acts of God.
The bond which holds the Old and New Testaments inseparably together is the bond of revelatory history. Orthodox theology has traditionally underevaluated or at least underemphasized the role of the redemptive acts of God in revelation. The classic essay by B. B. Warfield acknowledges the fact of revelation through the instrumentality of historical deeds but rather completely subordinates revelation in acts to revelation in words.
However, as Carl F. H. Henry has written, “Revelation cannot … be equated simply with the Hebrew-Christian Scriptures; the Bible is a special segment within a larger divine activity of revelation.… Special revelation involves unique historical events of divine deliverance climaxed by the incarnation, atonement, and resurrection of Jesus Christ” (Inspiration and Interpretation, J. W. Walvoord, ed.; pp. 254 f.).
The greatest revelatory act of God in the Old Testament was the deliverance of Israel from bondage in Egypt. This was no ordinary event of history, like the events which befell other nations. It was not an achievement of the Israelites. It was not attributed to the genius and skillful leadership of Moses. It was an act of God. “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings” (Exod. 19:4).
This deliverance was not merely an act of God; it was an act through which God made himself known and through which Israel was to know and serve God. “I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage …, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God” (Exod. 6:6–7).
In the later history of Israel, the Exodus is recited again and again as the redemptive act by which God made himself known to his people. Hosea appeals to Israel’s historical redemption and subsequent experiences as evidence for the love of God. “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.… I led them with the cords of compassion, with the bands of love” (Hos. 11:1, 4).
History also reveals God in wrath and judgment. Hosea goes on immediately to say that Israel is about to return to captivity because of her sins. Amos interprets Israel’s impending historical destruction with the words: “Therefore thus I will do to you, O Israel; because I will do this to you, prepare to meet your God, O Israel!” (Amos 4:12). The revelation of God as the judge of his people in historical events is sharply reflected in the designation of Israel’s historical defeat by the Assyrians as the Day of the Lord (Amos 5:18).
Israel’s history is different from all other history. While God is the Lord of all history, in one series of events God has revealed himself as he has nowhere else done. German theologians have coined the useful term Heilsgeschichte to designate this stream of revelatory history. In English, we speak of “redemptive history” or “holy history.” To be sure, God was superintending the course of Egypt and Assyria and Babylon and Persia; but only in the history of Israel had God communicated to men personal knowledge of himself.
The New Testament does not depart from this sense of “holy history.” On the contrary, the recital of God’s historical acts is the substance of Christian proclamation. The earliest semblance of a creedal confession is found in 1 Corinthians 15:3 ff., and it is a recital of events: Christ died, he was buried, he was raised, he appeared. The New Testament evidence for God’s love does not rest on reflection on the nature of God but upon recital. God so loved that he gave (John 3:16). God shows his love for us in that Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8). The revelation of God in the redemptive history of Israel finds its full meaning in the historical event of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
One aspect of this holy history must be emphasized. Sometimes the revelatory event assumes a character which the modern secular historian calls unhistorical. The God who reveals himself in redemptive history is both Lord of history and Lord of creation, and he is therefore able not only to shape the course of ordinary historical events but to act directly in ways which transcend usual historical experience.
The most vivid illustration of this is the resurrection of Christ. From the point of view of scientific historical criticism, the Resurrection cannot be “historical,” for it is an event uncaused by any other historical event, and it is without analogy. With this judgment, the Bible record agrees. God, and God alone, is the cause of the Resurrection. It is therefore causally unrelated to all other events. Furthermore, nothing like it has occurred elsewhere. The resurrection of Christ is not the restoration of a dead man to life but the emergence of a new order of life—resurrection life. If the biblical record is correct, there can be neither “historical” explanation nor analogy of Christ’s resurrection. Therefore its very offense to scientific historical criticism is a kind of negative support for its supernatural character.
The underlying question is a theological one. Is such an alleged supernatural event consistent with the character and objectives of the God who has revealed himself in holy history? Is history as such the measure of all things, or is the living God indeed the Lord of history? The biblical answer to this question is not in doubt. The Lord of history is transcendent over history yet not aloof from history. He is therefore able to bring to pass in time and space events which are genuine events yet which are “supra-historical” in their character. This merely means that the revelation of God is not produced by history but that the Lord of history, who stands above history, acts within history for the redemption of historical creatures. The redemption of history must come from outside of history—from God himself.
While revelation has occurred in history, revelatory history is not bare history. God did not act in history in such a way that historical events were eloquent in and of themselves. The most vivid illustration of this is the death of Christ. Christ died. This is a simple historical fact which can be satisfactorily established by secular historical disciplines. But Christ died for our sins. Christ died showing forth the love of God. These are not “bare” historical facts. The Cross by itself did not speak of love and forgiveness. Proof of this may be found in the experience of those who watched Jesus die. Was any of the witnesses overwhelmed with a sense of the love of God, conscious that he was beholding the awesome spectacle of Atonement being made for the sins of men? Did John, or Mary, or the centurion, or the high priest throw himself in choking joy upon the earth before the cross with the cry, “I never knew how much God loved me!”
Deed-Word Revelation. The historical events are revelatory only when they are accompanied by the revelatory word. Theologians often speak of deed-revelation and word-revelation. This, however, is not an accurate formulation if it suggests two separate modes of revelation. The fact is that God’s word is his deed, and his deed is his word. We would therefore be more accurate if we spoke of the deed-word revelation.
God’s deed is his word. Ezekiel describes the captivity of Judah with the words, “And all the pick of his troops shall fall by the sword, and the survivors shall be scattered to every wind; and you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken” (Ezek. 17:21). Captivity was itself God’s word of judgment to Israel. The event is a word of God.
Yet the event is always accompanied by spoken words, in this case, the spoken words of the prophet Ezekiel. The event is never left to speak for itself, nor are men left to infer whatever conclusions they can draw from the event. The spoken word always accompanies and explains the revelatory character of the event. Therefore, not the deed by itself, but the deed-word is revelation.
This is equally true in the New Testament. Christ died is the deed; Christ died for our sins is the word of interpretation that makes the act revelatory. It was only after the interpretative word was given to the disciples that they came to understand that the death of Christ was revelatory of the love of God.
We must go yet a step further. God’s word not only follows the historical act and gives it a normative interpretation; it often precedes and creates the historical act. The test of whether a prophet speaks the word of the Lord is whether his word comes to pass (Deut. 18:22). For when God speaks something happens. Events occur. “I, the Lord, have spoken; surely this will I do to all this wicked congregation … they shall die” (Num. 14:35). “I the Lord have spoken; it shall come to pass, I will do it” (Ezek. 24:14). “You shall die in peace.… For I have spoken the word, says the Lord” (Jer. 34:5).
The revelatory word may be both spoken and written. Jeremiah both spoke and wrote down the word of the Lord. Both his spoken and written utterance were “the words of the Lord” (Jer. 36:4, 6). It is against this background that the New Testament refers to the Old Testament Scriptures as “the word of God” (John 10:35). It is for this reason that the orthodox theologian is justified, nay, required to recognize the Bible as the word of God.
Revelation has occurred in the unique events of redemptive history. These events were accompanied by the divinely given word of interpretation. The word, both spoken and written, is itself a part of the total event. The Bible is both the record of this redemptive history and the end product of the interpretative word. It is the necessary and normative explanation of the revelatory character of God’s revealing acts, for it is itself included in God’s revelation through the act-word complex which constitutes revelation.
Bibliography: J. G. S. S. Thomson, The Old Testament View of Revelation; P. K. Jewett, Emil Brunner’s Concept of Revelation; “Special Revelation as Historical and Personal,” Revelation and the Bible, Carl F. H. Henry, ed.; Bernard Ramm, Special Revelation and the Word of God.
Professor of Biblical Theology
Fuller Theological Seminary
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.