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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