Propositional Revelation

I remember sitting in my Dad’s car a few years ago and having a ding-dong theological argument with him over the question of propositional revelation. He was telling me about something that he had been reading which suggested that restricting God’s revelation of himself to a merely propositional form was overly reductive. I was stirred to the heights of undergraduate fervour and waded in to defend the Truth of The Gospel.
“How could there be such a thing as non-propositional revelation?” I demanded. “If it is not propositional then it is nothing, it is not intelligible, it is not a revelation.”Proposition - Dictionary Article

Interestingly, propositional revelation was the subject of our doctrine class today, and I find that I’m not completely on the same page that I used to be. Sometimes my whole life seems to be a process of working out what my Dad was talking about.

Our class today was a strong defence of the primacy of propositional revelation. In fact, I’m being generous – there were definite points at which it was claimed that there is no revelation other than propositional revelation. The discussion was heavily guided by D. B. Knox’s article entitled, Propositional Revelation, the Only Revelation. (Have a read).

It was an interesting, stimulating class. It’s always more interesting to be lectured by someone with whom you’re not sure you agree. As I sat and chewed over what we were being taught I had to conclude that I simply cannot agree with that statement, as expressed in the title of Knox’s article, if it is given its normal sense.

Put down your stones…

It turns out I’m not alone, Michael Jensen wrote a helpful blog post about the issue a couple of years ago, I wish more notice had been taken of his point.

There’s a couple of things I would add to Michael’s article.

First, the continued use of the phrase ‘propositional revelation’ with a idiomatic definition of ‘propositional’ fosters poor critique of other theories of revelation. In our class it was suggested that, ‘propositional’ in ‘propositional revelation’ should be “understood in the less rigorous sense, of truthful communication” (yes, that’s a quote). Surely, most people would agree that, on a charitable understanding, ‘truthful communication’ describes revelation per se. The addition of the adjective ‘propositional’ is intended to characterise the form of that truthful communication. If you are allowed to define your position this broadly, you can say whatever you like about competing theories, without really grappling with the questions a rival theory is trying to solve.

Someone like Pannenberg, or Brunner, would be a staunch defender of propositional revelation, if by this you simply meant, ‘truthful communication from God’. When they attack propositional revelation they are attacking a particular understanding of the form of that truthful communication. Either we hold the view they are attacking, or we do not. At least we should be clear.

Secondly, the problem we might have with Pannenberg, Brunner or others, in their attempts to understand revelation ‘non-propositionally’, is not really that they think the concept of ‘revelation’ is broader than ‘propositions’. We’ve already conceded that much. It is that they appear to be seeking a way around (or behind) the Scriptures for a kind of essential revelational bedrock.
As I understand it, Pannenberg wants to find the bedrock of revelation in the public history of Jesus, focussed upon the resurrection; Brunner, in the Divine-Human encounter.
Pannenberg and Brunner both appear to make Scripture a contingent element of revelation. Someone committed to ‘propositional revelation’ (in Knox’s sense) objects to this conclusion. The commitment to ‘propositional revelation’ is really the commitment to the essential role of the Scriptures in God’s revealing of himself.

The long and short of it is this,
I think my Dad was right, in that God’s communication of himself is not reducible to true or false statements about himself. And yet, God in his sovereign freedom communicates himself in an essential relation to the text of Scripture. I’m still working out what I think that means – intelligibly, linguistically, and?
But of this I’m pretty sure:

I believe in scriptural revelation.

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5 thoughts on “Propositional Revelation

  1. Dan, here's some interesting stuff on propositional revelation from Geoff Bingham:

    The knowledge of God—and hence of his divulged mysteries—is not primarily noetic (of the
    mind), propositional (reasoned theology) or mystical (seeking to know God by direct contact,
    through whatever rituals and methods may be used). True knowledge of God is of him as living,
    personally revealing himself, inhabiting the one he knows so that the one who knows him inhabits
    him also. Man in fallenness deliberately rejects that intimate, personal knowledge (Rom. 1:28). At
    the same time he ‘lives and moves and has his being’ in God (Acts 17:28). That is why the
    ‘mystery’ (secret; mysterion) is always hidden from him. Jesus made it clear that only those who
    wanted to hear would hear: hearing and knowing are a matter of the will which is willing to hear
    God who is revealing himself. It is axiomatic in theology that God always reveals himself. He has
    always used the following media—creation, theophanies, his word, the law, the prophets, dreams
    and visions, his acts as ‘the living God’—acts of providence, redemption and judgements—his
    chosen people, his Son and his acts, his apostles, the Holy Spirit, the church and the Scriptures.
    Paul said (i) that he knew the gospel by the personal revelation of Jesus Christ, to him and in him
    (Gal. 1:15), and (ii) that he was given special revelations concerning ‘the mystery of his will’ (Eph.
    3:2–6). These are the revelations which are given to us, and of which we are expected to be
    stewards. If we know the mysteries listed above then we know a vast amount concerning God, his
    being and his works, and can communicate such.

    Quoted from http://www.newcreation.org.au/studies/pdf/PSG1995

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  2. Hey Dave,
    I'm not sure I completely agree with what Bingham is saying in your quote. I think that the term 'propositional' might be unhelpful, but I don't think that we can ever know God, as he has revealed himself, without that event of revelation also being a verbal, intelligible event with an essential connection to Scripture.

    I think that is what Knox is getting at by dividing 'knowledge of God' into 'revelation' and 'fellowship' in the following quote.

    "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." <a href="http://(http://acl.asn.au/resources/propositional-revelation/)

    ” target=”_blank”>(http://acl.asn.au/resources/propositional-revelation/)

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  3. Hi Dan, totally agree. I think Bingham is railing against those (Moore) who advocate scripture as the sole source of revelation

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  4. Hi Dan,

    I had similar thoughts when sitting in my lecture a couple of weeks ago! I was really looking forward to arguing against prop.rev., and then they just kept redefining what it meant (and what 'essentially propositional' means) until the plain sense of the phrase was seen galloping off into the sunset, and there was nothing but a dust cloud left for me to rail against. How disappointing, I do love to rail!

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