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Theology and the Scripture Principle (Part I)

One of the first questions that falls within the scope of philosophy of religion is the query as to whether religious language "God-talk" is meaningful. The philosophy of Christianity, however, begins with the presupposition that God has spoken, has revealed himself.

  • Joseph P. Braswell,
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One of the first questions that falls within the scope of philosophy of religion is the query as to whether religious language "God-talk" is meaningful. The philosophy of Christianity, however, begins with the presupposition that God has spoken, has revealed himself. This "axiom of revelation" asserts that among the diverse and sundry ways that God has made himself known in self-disclosure must be included some informative or meaning-contentful communication propositional revelation that was conveyed using the conventions of ordinary human language, and this source of concepts provides the basis for meaningful God-talk to those initiated into the community's corporate forms of life and their associated language-games the appropriate meaning-contexts that stand correlative to this canon. However, the revelational presupposition also posits that there is a point of contact between God and man that makes this communication in language possible, that allows concepts from ordinary human experience to be employed in a meaningful way when applied to the things of God. This point of contact, this principle of continuity, is provided by the doctrine of creation (the world as God's creation) and the special creation of man as the image of God; it is provided by the idea of the general (or natural) revelation the revelational nature of all creation and the idea that man is like God and so reveals him and relates to him in a special way, having been made for communion with God and thus especially fitted to know and communicate with God. In other words, we simply presuppose the world view presented by the Bible.

The Necessity of Christian Revelation
For the Christian-theist, God-talk is possible because it is actual. Therefore, when we ask as to how it is possible, we are assuming its possibility as a given datum (because of the givenness of its actuality) and are inquiring not as to whether it is possible, but as to the transcendental conditions necessary to explain this de facto phenomenon, the necessary conditions that must hold if this actual state of affairs is to exist as it evidently does. We do not begin in the dark, but we rather stand in the light and inquire as to the "how" of this self-evidently illumined situation, operating on the assumption that God has spoken understandably, providing us with the necessary information concerning himself that makes some meaningful theological discourse possible within the bounds of this revelational field of light.

Now, it will not do simply to point to the phenomenon of religious language from a social-scientific perspective that concerns itself with observable human behaviors. We cannot so reduce our concern to that of the anthropologists and sociologists. These investigators note that throughout history and across a broad spectrum of cultures people have employed religious language in seemingly meaningful ways. Positivists were surely wrong to say that such language was meaningless; the users seem to know what to do with the words (how to use them), obey discernible (and learnable) rules governing this linguistic behavior, and communicate something meaningful among the in-group. Nevertheless, this social-scientific approach can view religion only as a human phenomena and deal with it as an aspect of human experience. This looks at such utterances of faith and piety only from the subject-side (including the inter-subjectivity of a social psychology) without making any metaphysical reference to a real object of faith and devotion. In other words, from the perspective of social-scientific study, God-talk does not refer to God as an actual entity; such language is not to be treated as containing existential propositions about God. God-talk confesses belief-states and experiences, phenomena shared by the faith-community; such are the facts that make this language-game meaningful.

The social scientist is methodologically limited to an investigation of those who confess, not to that which is allegedly confessed; it matters not whether that "object" is a real state of affairs. No distinction is or can be made between true and false religion, between the purely human-subjective and that subjectivity that may have an objective referent. The social scientist accordingly can provide no help with the question as to whether human concepts and human language can refer to the transcendent; he is concerned only with a meaningful expression of a type of human experience.

Over against this empirical study of human behaviors (where it must be granted that religions do in fact exist and their adherents do in fact effectively communicate with each other about their experiences of the numinous), we are concerned with the question as to how human language can express divine truth. How can we assert meaningful existential propositions about the transcendent God that accurately refer to him, stating definite things about him and his ways? What are the transcendental conditions necessary for the God-talk that lies at the very foundations of the Christian Faith?

The Conditions of Christian Revelation
The transcendental conditions necessary to account for God-talk are in sum the Christian-theistic theory of reality (or world view). To be more specific, it is the presupposition that humans are created in the image and likeness of God and possess a sensus deitatis indeed, have an actual knowledge of God that explains the possibility of meaningful God-talk.

The Christian-theistic philosophy of revelation begins with the presupposition that the very act of creation by God was an act of revelation. The creation is a revelation of God and is inherently and exhaustively revelational in character. It cannot but express God.

God creates by his Word, the agency of his self-disclosure and the expression of his will. God's Word is meaning-instilling, a Word of original and creative interpretation (or pre-interpretation) of all things, and we discover truth when our interpretation (a derivative reinterpretation) agrees with God's meaning-assignment and evaluation, such that we are "thinking God's thoughts after him." Our knowledge wholly depends on the revelational character of created reality (its disclosure of God's architectural plan); our judgments must refer to the archetypical judgment of God, grasping the meanings his Word has assigned in establishing a meaningful cosmos. Our apprehension of the meaning of created things what they are and how they function therefore reveals to us something of the mind of God (an understanding in part of his thoughts and intents). Were creation not revelational, we could not know anything whatsoever, but creation qua creation is necessarily revelational.

It is of course quite true that Christian-theism insists upon the voluntary character of God's revelation. Revelation is a free act of divine self-disclosure, the act of a personal God who chooses to make himself known, and God remains inapprehensible unknowable and inaccessible apart from his revealing himself. Yet we cannot think of this freedom in a nominalistic way. God need not create or engage in any ad extra work, for he is aseitous (self-contained). Creation is an act of his will; it is not necessitated by some inner law of his being which compels this action, but it is instead a free and sovereign act. Nevertheless, having purposed to create, it is impossible for God to conceal himself, to be unrevealed in and to his creation, even if it remains true that he need not be revealed exhaustively.

If creation stands as other to God, because it is not a part of him or an emanation of his essence (i.e., an extension of the being of God), the two orders of being increate and created must in some way be related in their distinctiveness. And indeed, God sustains a relation to his creation by his Word (a Word that both brings the cosmos into being and upholds it), establishing the Creator/creature relation. It is not possible for God to be unrelated to his work, for creation to be independent of God the Creator. As long as creation continues to exist (continues to consist by the Word), it stands relative to him, thereby expressing its role in the Creator/creature relation. We thus may say that God, by his very nature, must stand within this relation as both transcendent and immanent. It is this immanence (God present to and involved with his creation) that requires creation to be revelational by nature, expressing and referring to this divine immanence.

We may approach this matter from yet another direction. The very character of God requires revelation. Again, it is quite true that God was under no necessity to create anything outside himself; but having willed to do so, the very moral nature of God (his omnibenevolence) obliges him, in faithfulness to himself, to give himself to his creation as its highest good. If it is true that the creation can have no fruition of him as its blessedness and reward apart from his condescending to reveal himself and relate himself to it, it is also true that God is glorified in creation's enjoyment of his glory-presence to it, and, having created for his own glory, delights in tabernacling in the midst of his creation and having his glory declared through it. God's ad extra works cannot but express the goodness of God's character in the immanent workings of divine providence by which God cares for his handiwork.

The Nature of Christian Revelation
We have seen from the content of that which Christianity purports to be the Word-revelation of God a good deal regarding what form such revelation takes. That is, the Biblical world view or metaphysic (philosophy of reality), including the Biblical view of God and man and the doctrine of creation, determines the philosophy of revelation. It is only from the material principle of the actual message and teaching of the Bible its informative content that we can develop an idea of inscripturated word-revelation. The formal principle of an authoritative revelation (the Scripture-principle of Christianity) cannot be abstracted from the actual content of Scripture; the that of Scripture presupposes the what of Scripture. The idea that a text (especially one having the very human phenomena we in fact find) was the inscripturated Word-revelation of God would not be coherent if the teaching of the Bible were different (i.e., presenting a different idea of God, man, the world, human history, etc.). No other religion not Islam, not Hinduism not Mormonism can in principle embrace the philosophy of revelation of Christian-Theism, appealing to a text as literally the inscripturated Word-revelation of God in propositional form. The theologies of other "sacred books" are incompatible with the idea of revelation. There are, accordingly, no other contenders for what the Bible claims to be; there are no alternative claimants alongside the Bible that credibly can purport to be that possibly can be God's revealed Word to man. In other words, we do not have to decide (as many people mistakenly think) among a crowded field of texts, all vying with the Bible for man's faith-investment in a text that allegedly possesses divine authority. The Bible is unique, claiming in self-witness to be God's Word and teaching a theology consistent with the idea of divine self-revelation.

It is by our being as clear as possible what sort of God we are talking about viz., the Biblical God that we have ascertained that the idea of revelation is not only reasonable but is altogether necessary. Only by denying the Biblical (or Christian-Theistic) world view this view of God, man, and the cosmos would the philosophy of revelation seem incoherent or in need of demonstration, as though dubious. The doctrine of creation as we have set it forth entails the assertion that all created being is essentially revelational in character; the idea of the covenantal character of man's situation and of man's very existentiality necessitates the idea of a comprehensive revelation of the will of God. The notion of natural theology must be scrapped and replaced by the notion of natural (or general) revelation revelation that is necessary, perspicuous, sufficient, and authoritative.1

Quite obviously, Christians affirm the existence of the God of the Bible. The only alternative to this God the eternal, self-existent, Triune, infinite-personal, Creator-God who is omnipotent, omniscient, etc. (cf. Westminster Confession of Faith chap. 2) is the ultimacy of impersonal chance. We cannot speak vaguely of a god or gods in general, as though any sort of god-concept will do. It is of fundamental importance that we are clear just what sort of God we are talking about, that we define the term with specific content and refer our affirmation of existence to a very definite God-concept over against all the idols and false gods. A finite god, or an impersonal divine force, or any other god than the God proclaimed in Christian Theism on the basis of the Biblical story, provides no viable alternative to the metaphysics of chance. However, by affirming that God exists (referring to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), we affirm revelation and cannot do theology on the basis of what we may think or feel (as modern religious man and theological liberalism tends to do). Theology can be done only on the basis of what God reveals concerning himself and his purposes, for apart from his voluntary condescension to self-revelation, God would be utterly inapprehensible.


1. For a fuller exposition of the philosophy of general revelation I have in mind, see Cornelius Van Til, "Nature and Scripture," in Paul Wooley, ed., The Infallible Word (n.p.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1946) 263-301.

  • Joseph P. Braswell

The late Joseph P. Braswell did undergraduate and graduate work in philosophy at the University of South Florida, but his real interest was in theology and Biblical studies. He published several articles in various journals, including the Westminster Theological Journal, Journal of Christian Reconstruction, and the Chalcedon Report.

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