Continuing my read through what I would consider the best introductory theology to date, Michael F. Bird’s Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction, section 2.5, “The God Who Reveals Himself”, is quite “illuminating” on several fronts. First I wish to summarize what I believe Mike Bird is getting at and then offer some personal implications.
Specifically, Bird notes that “the center of gravity in revelation can be pushed into one of three spheres,” and then he goes on to ask 1) “Is the Bible a record of revelation?,” 2) “Is the Bible the content of revelation?,” or 3) “Is the Bible a means of revelation?” (p 197). Rather than choosing one over another, Bird highlights the value of all three spheres. Clearly Scripture records events of history; clearly the words of Scripture contain propositions that objectively speak to an actual state of affairs; and clearly God speaks through those events in terms of meaning and significance. Bird says “the revelation of God in the Scriptures is historical, textual, and experiential” (p 198).
He then provides details on an “unhelpful bifurcation” that Scripture is either “personal” or “propositional,” and shows the historical context out of which a penchant arises for favoring one view over the other.
Some theologians retreated from criticism of revealed religion by seeking refuge in the towers of experience. By contrast, conservatives reacted by fortifying their bibliology around the concept of propositional revelation and plenary inspiration….This [later conservative view] led to an emphasis on the Bible as a plenary, verbal, and propositional form of revelation that is fully identical to the revelation itself. Yet it bracketed out the redemptive events behind Scripture and the personal encounter with God at the front of Scripture.
Bird then lays out 5 concerns of this bifurcation (pp 199-201) showing that a strict “propositional” view of Scripture:
- falls short of revealing all there is to know about God.
- does not account for divine “speech-acts” of God that dynamically impact lives.
- misses the progressive and dynamic ways in which doctrine matures over time (e.g., Trinity).
- cannot do hermeneutical justice to the varied genres of Scripture.
- shows “an Enlightenment bias” toward propositional truth that depreciates alternative ways God speaks to us in Scripture (e.g., parables).
This is not to say that Bird himself is guilty of a bias toward all-things-nonpropositional. Instead he argues for a “properly nuanced” version of propositional truth that accounts for the Holy Spirit’s role in understanding the various ways God has spoken to us in Scripture. After all “revelation contains the propositions of a divine person speaking, so that there is no divide between personal and propositional revelation” (p 201). Scripture reveals not only facts, concepts, or raw data about God. Rather it is God himself who is encountered. “The Spirit actualizes the Word in terms of its propositional content and brings about a transforming existential effect” (p 202).
It was at this point in my reading that I had a personal reflection. Without question I err on the side of an “Enlightenment bias” toward viewing Scripture primarily through a propositional lens. Whether due in part to my apologetic and philosophical training or something else altogether, Bird helped me recognize afresh that I too often and too much rationalize my faith at the expense of pursuing a relationship with the God of faith. The need to reach out for, listen to, and yearn for the One who has so graciously and abundantly shown himself to me in the Scriptures is great; indeed greater than any other need I could have.
Of course God has spoken to us propositionally in Scripture and does indeed convey objective facts about actual states of affairs, events that really occurred in time and space, but in so doing he is revealing something much more than content or concepts or facts or actual states of affairs. God is revealing his very person in, through, and by the very words of Scripture. In other words, the revelation of God in Scripture is a means, not an end. Scripture must never be confused with the God of Scripture. What caused the disciples’ hearts to burn within (Lk 24:32) was not some “exercise in exegesis” (Bird, p 204) but a divine illumination “in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Lk 24:27). It was the person of Jesus who so ignited their hearts; it wasn’t the words on a page. It is this experience and it is this One that I long for and wish to discover and rediscover again and again as I come to the inspired text.
At the end of the day (and at the beginning), Bird’s comments should be the mindset when coming to the Scriptures as revelation.
The theological task is not to extract propositions from the morass of genres in Scripture and to file them away in some darkened recess of our minds [or blog post, or systematic theology]. Rather, the goal of theology is to translate divine speech-acts into human response that lead to an increased knowledge of God, an increasing participation in the mission of God, and an increasing Christlikeness in the believer. As such, study of the doctrine of revelation is incomplete unless it results in theological transformation, undertaking mission, and pursuing holiness; only then has revelation been truly revealed.