Avery Dulles’ book, Models of Revelation, presents what Dulles believes to be five different models of divine revelation. In this blog post, Dulles’ first model, “Revelation as Doctrine,” will be examined in light of the evangelical view of revelation. In order to understand Dulles’ model of revelation as doctrine, it is first important to note how he defines revelation.
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Dulles defines revelation this way, “Revelation is implied in biblical and Christian faith . . . as a permanently valid body of truths communicated by God in biblical times, preserved and commented on by the church” (p. 6, 14). Now that a definition of revelation has been provided by Dulles, it is important to look at how he narrowly defines the model of revelation as doctrine and then attributes it to the evangelical view of revelation.
Dulles limits his definition of revelation as doctrine to the idea that “revelation is principally found in clear propositional statements attributed to God as authoritative teacher. . . . Revelation is generally identified with the Bible, viewed as a collection of inspired and inerrant teachings” (p. 27). Another way he defines revelation for evangelicals is this,
Revelation, for these orthodox Evangelicals, is thus equated with the meaning of the Bible, taken as a set of propositional statements, each expressing a divine affirmation, valid always and everywhere. What God has revealed, they insist, is truth and is capable of being communicated to human minds through articulate speech (p. 39).
Several important implications of this definition must be discussed to show how it is narrow and limited for evangelicals.
- Dulles says that revelation is “clear propositional statements attributed to God,” which implies that the only parts of the Bible which reveal a clear propositional statement of God are relevant for doctrine and for application. This view is faulty because the Bible is not simply a collection of God’s clear propositional statements. Instead, the Bible is filled with poems, laments, and stories. Only a small part of Scripture can be considered “clear propositional statements.” Among these clear propositional statements could be words from God in Exodus, Leviticus, prophetic visions, Jesus’ teachings, New Testament epistles, as well as the book of Revelation. These all can be considered clear propositional statements; however they represent only a small portion of the Bible. This view negates the role of history in God’s divine revelation.
- Dulles’ definition of revelation as doctrine diminishes the importance of specific events in the Bible that are meant to have theological and doctrinal meanings. If the Bible is merely a “collection of inspired and inerrant teachings,” then this view significantly diminishes the importance of events such as Adam and Eve’s sin, the reign of King David, the fall of Jerusalem and captivity of its people, and perhaps even Jesus’ death on the cross. I realize that saying Jesus’ death on the cross might be a stretch here, but it is worth considering that if revelation is only viewed as God’s propositional statements and teachings, then Jesus’ crucifixion on the cross could be overlooked unless specific direct language about Jesus was spoken by God.
- Dulles’ definition of revelation as doctrine for evangelicals also severely limits the role of the Holy Spirit, the experience He often produces in believers, and His work in the lives of believers. According to Dulles and the evangelical authors he cites, revelation is derived from the Bible, not from experience or the Spirit as a possible second source of revelation. According to Dulles, the element of experience and the Holy Spirit have no role in assisting believers to understand what Scripture says. 1
- Dulles’ definition of revelation as doctrine incorrectly downplays the role of tradition and historical theology within evangelical circles. He correctly identifies a “Catholic neo-Scholastic” view that connects some significance within the Catholic Church to traditional ways doctrinal revelations have been developed and practiced. However, Dulles only applies this concept to the Catholic faith, not to evangelicals. In doing this, Dulles incorrectly dismisses the idea of historical theology over time within the evangelical Christian faith.
- Dulles’ definition of revelation also incorrectly indicates that evangelicals place their “interpretation” of divine revelation as doctrine. Because God’s divine special revelation must always be interpreted—and that interpretation results in doctrine—Dulles incorrectly states that evangelicals believe that their interpretation of Scripture is divine revelation (manifested in the form of doctrine). Many, if not all evangelicals will admit that their interpretation of Scripture is just that, an interpretation. Evangelicals believe Scripture is God-breathed and inspired but that the interpretation they make of Scripture into doctrine is not inspired.
To summarize Dulles’ view of revelation as doctrine, “The Bible, in this approach [revelation as doctrine for evangelicals], is viewed principally as a collection of propositions, each of which can be taken by itself as a divine assertion” (p. 48). With Dulles’ definition of revelation as doctrine now clearly shown to be severely limited for evangelicals, it is important to see how an evangelical view of revelation is broader and more complex than Dulles defines it. That topic will be explored in my next blog post.
Question: What do you believe is the correct definition of revelation for evangelical Christians?
- C.F.H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, vol. 4 (Word Publishing), 284 quoted in Dulles, Models of Revelation, 41. ↩