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REVELATION . The concept of revelation is a fundamental one in every religion that in any way traces its origin to God or a divinity. Revelation is a divine communication to human beings. This broad description allows the phenomenologist of religion to include very different manners and degrees of revelation. In fact, the most diverse experiences, ranging from an obscure clue given by a supernatural power to the self-communication of a personal God, are possible from the standpoints of psychology, religious philosophy, and theology.

In general, religious phenomenologists use five different criteria (characteristics or factors) of revelation:

  1. Origin or author: God, spirits, ancestors, power (mana ), forces. In every case the source of revelation is something supernatural or numinous.
  2. Instrument or means: sacred signs in nature (the stars, animals, sacred places, or sacred times); dreams, visions, ecstasies; finally, words or sacred books.
  3. Content or object: the didactic, helping, or punishing presence, will, being, activity, or commission of the divinity.
  4. Recipients or addressees: medicine men, sorcerers, sacrificing priests, shamans, soothsayers, mediators, prophets with a commission or information intended for individuals or groups, for a people or the entire race.
  5. Effect and consequence for the recipient: personal instruction or persuasion, divine mission, service as oracleall this through inspiration or, in the supreme case, through incarnation.

It is to be noted that the historians of religion derived the concept of revelation from the Judeo-Christian religion where it received its theological elaboration and then in the course of research into the history of religions was transferred in a broad and analogous sense to other religions. The answer to the question whether one may speak of revelation in the proper sense in animistic, polytheistic, and polydemonistic religions will depend on the understanding of religion maintained by a given Christian scholar. In theologian Karl Barth's view Christianity alone possesses a revelation; historian of religion van der Leeuw, on the other hand, develops a much more inclusive understanding of revelation and therefore a series of types that culminates in the Christian concept of revelation.

It is certain that revelation must be clearly distinguished from magic, since magical practices aim at power over and disposal of the divine, while revelation means in principle a free announcement by the divinity. This announcement even goes beyond hierophanies and epiphanies and involves the manifestation of something holy or the rendering apprehensible of a divine depth, inasmuch as it always clearly includes the distinction between revealing subject and revealed object, between self-revealing God and mystery made known. In any case, this fuller meaning is regularly intended by the Latin revelatio and the Greek apokalupsis.

Whether gnosis and mysticism are to be regarded as forms of revelation or, on the contrary, as the opposite of revelation depends essentially on the role assigned to divine grace (as help from and self-communication of God) in these manifestations of religious life. Whenever ultimate knowledge and the vision of supreme wisdom are regarded not as the fruit of human effort alone but as a gift from God, then, as in the experience of a profound union with God that cannot be acquired by force or produced by the human being but can only be received as a gift, a self-communication of a personal God comes into play and the concept of revelation is correctly applied.

Natural Revelations

It may therefore seem at first sight contradictory to speak of "natural revelation," since the knowledge of God derived from nature seems to involve no personal, here-and-now turning of God to human beings but to result rather from the intellectual efforts of the latter. The objection overlooks the fact that religio-philosophical statements about God can never take the form of knowledge gained by the natural sciences, which turn the object of their investigations into an object of human experience and human categories of thought. God cannot be fully grasped by human thought or defined or adequately described in concepts derived from experience of the spatiotemporal world. This fact is reflected in "negative theology," which regards it as possible to say unreservedly of God only what he is not. Positive statements about him always fall short and are compatible with his absolute transcendence, his wholly-otherness (totaliter aliter ) and ever-greaterness (semper maior ), only insofar as they are made with a realization of the analogous structure of human language. In this context "analogy" does not mean mathematical similarity; it refers rather to a fundamental relation of similarity-dissimilarity, due to which every positive assertion of a formal perfection in God (being, goodness, justice, etc.) must immediately be negated. That is, it must be purified of the experienced finiteness that attaches to these concepts in the spatio-temporal world, and then applied to the trancendent God in a nonmaterial sense and in the highest possible degree of perfection. It is clear that in this three-step operationassertion, negation, and reassertion in the mode of supereminencenegation plays the decisive role.

To make the point more simply: God is a hidden God (Deus absconditus ). Only if he discloses himself and only to the extent that he makes himself known can he be known by human beings. This is the basic idea behind the concept of "natural revelation," which is proposed at various points in the Western tradition of philosophical theology.

The Bible

In his Letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul vividly states the possibility (not the actuality) of a natural knowledge of God: "The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened" (Rom. 1:1822).

The most important statement here is "God has shown it to them." This clearly brings out the revelational character of the knowledge. The cosmos is not simply phusis or nature in the form of an eternally self-subsisting world, such as the Greeks understood it to be; rather, it is ktisis or creation, that is, God's handiwork that had a beginning and that as finite nature points to the infinite God as its creator.

Ever since the creation of the world, the invisible being of God has been known by reason. Human beings understand themselves to be creatures and therefore by reason know God's power and deity.

The apostle Paul was evidently referring to a passage in the Wisdom of Solomon, which was probably a Jewish composition written in Egypt in the first century bce. Rejecting Egyptian polytheism, the author says: "All men who were ignorant of God were foolish by nature; and they were unable from the good things that are seen to know him who exists, nor did they recognize the craftsman while paying heed to his works; but they supposed that either fire or wind or swift air, or the circle of the stars, or turbulent water, or the luminaries of heaven were the gods that rule the world. If through delight in the beauty of these things men assumed them to be gods, let them know how much better than these is their Lord, for the author of beauty created them. And if men were amazed at their power and working, let them perceive from them how much more powerful is he who formed them. For from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their creator" (Wis. 13:15).

In this passage myths about the origin of the world and philosophical explanations of the world as emerging from primal matter (water, air, etc.), such as were offered by the Ionian natural philosophers, are being rejected in favor of an understanding in which the beauties of this world are explained as produced by a first cause.

Philosophy of Plato

The very wording of the passage from the Wisdom of Solomon betrays the philosophical influence of Plato, who speaks in his dialogue the Symposium (178ac) of the ascent of the soul, via the various degrees of bodily and intellectual beauty, to the primordially beautiful, that is, the idea of Beauty as such. Here as elsewhere in Plato's elaboration of his doctrine of the Ideas, his thinking takes as its point of reference the origin (arche, proton ) of things. Such is the case in the Lysis, where is found the concept of the Primordially Lovable (philon ), and especially in the Republic (505511), where Plato describes the function of the idea of the Good as such, which is the cause of being and knowledge in everything else that is. In conceiving the world as having its ground in the ideas, Plato provides the philosophical presupposition for understanding everything finite as conditioned and as sustained in being by the idea of God. The world is not intelligible in itself either ontically or noetically, either in its being or in its knowableness. Once this fundamental insight is grasped, it becomes easy to understand the viewpoint of Jewish and Christian thinkers who saw the world as a message conveying God's greatness, beauty, power, and goodness, and therefore as a revelation in the proper sense.

It is for this reason that in the passage from Romans Paul says human beings should have advanced from knowledge of God to acknowledgment of him and the payment to him of honor and gratitude. Even natural revelation implies and calls for existential consequences such as reverence and obedience.

Luther for his part interpreted Paul as saying in Romans that they are foolish who endeavor to gain a natural knowledge of God from creation as the "work" of God's power and glory. Over and against such a "theology of glory" he set a "theology of the cross" that maintains that "insofar as God's being is made visible and is turned to the world, it is represented there in suffering and the cross" (Heidelberg Disputation of 1518). But, valuable though this emphasis on God's revelation in Christ is, in Paul's view human beings are "foolish" not because they attempt to learn God's eternal power and divinity from creation but because "by their wickedness [they] suppress the truth." In general, evangelical theology still has a negative attitude toward natural theology.

Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas

In the Constitution on Faith of the First Vatican Council (18691870), on the other hand, the Catholic church insisted on the possibility and point of natural revelation: "God, the beginning and end of all things, can be known with certainty from the things that were created through the natural light of human reason, for 'ever since the creation of the world His invisible nature has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made' (Rom. 1:20)" (Henricus Denzinger and Adolfus Schönmetzer's "Enchiridion symbolorum, no. 3004," The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church, 36th ed., no. 113, Rome, 1976). The passage goes beyond what is said in Romans and speaks of God as not only the ground but also the destination of creation. It is clear from this, as it is from the expression "the natural light of human reason," that the council fathers were here following the teaching of Thomas Aquinas.

In his five "ways" of obtaining knowledge of God (Summa theologiae 1.2.3), Thomas was basing his thought on Aristotle rather than Plato. The background of this link in the history of ideas must be briefly sketched. Aristotle had accepted several points made by Plato: the priority of movement proceeding from within over movement initiated by what is outside (Laws, Phaedrus ); the idea that what is first in the cosmos is an idea, or eidos ("spiritual entity"); and, finally, the view that first cause and end are necessarily identical. In the framework of his own theory of potency and act, Aristotle then elaborated his doctrine of God as the First Unmoved Mover (to proton kinoun akineton auto ), who as self-sufficient intellectual reality (actus purus ) is not dependent on anything outside of himself, while at the same time all other intellectual and corporeal beings have their ground in him. God is the origin and source of the world and at the same time its ultimate end, since all things strive toward him and he moves them as "that which is loved," that is, as a supreme value that draws them (Metaphysics A, 69).

All these "movements" of which Aristotle speaks are not to be interpreted in mechanistic terms but intellectually or metaphysically: They are a striving for form or fulfillment in reality or value.

Thomas Aquinas reduces these arguments of Plato and Aristotle to concise systematic form. The first three ways take as their starting point certain facts of experience: that the beings of this world are in movement (in potency); that they do not have their efficient cause in themselves (they are conditioned beings); and that they do not exist necessarily but are finite, temporal, and contingent. These three ways conclude to a First Cause that "moves" everything (in the Aristotelian sense of the word "move"), is the ground of all further causal series, and has the ground of its own being within itself, or, in other words, exists necessarily and eternally.

The inevitability of this conclusion is underscored by the consideration that an infinite regress does not offer an alternative solution and that one must abandon the endless series of causes and conditions (ab alio ) and accept a First that is of a different kind (a se) if anything at all is to be explained. The idea that an infinite regress is impossible bears the clear mark of Platonic thinking, according to which something finite and conditioned is explicable only in terms of something infinite and unconditioned (anupotheton ). Platonism thus conceived is indispensable for the philosophy of religion.

Thomas's fourth way is likewise based on the gradations of being and value that is found in the doctrine of the ideas. The ground of every goodness is located in the supreme Good as such (in Platonic terms: in the [divine] idea of the Good), which distributes of its goodness and gives a participation in it.

The fifth way concludes from the order found in the world to an orderer who possesses intellectual knowledge and who is all-powerful and so infinitely good that he can bring good even out of evil. The Aristotelian idea of God as end (destination) of the cosmos merges here with the Platonic idea that evil in all its forms is simply a lack of goodness.

If now is added the assertion that these insights (for these are not empirical proofs as this term is used in the natural sciences) are acquired by "the light of reason," the place of this entire body of considerations in the history of ideas becomes clear once again. Just as in the material world the sun gives light and makes things knowable, so the idea of the good gives things being and the power to know (analogy with the sun in the Republic 508509). Augustine therefore says that in every act by which one knows the truth one is illumined by the eternal Truth, and Thomas teaches that human reason participates in "the divine light" (Summa theologiae

The circle is now closed. Natural revelation means that it is possible in principle to think about the finitude of the world and one's own existence and come thereby to know something of God's wisdom and creative power, because God himself makes it possible to know him through traces, reflections, and images in his creatures.

In regard to the actual fulfillment of this potentiality Vatican I showed itself rather reserved, noting that "such truths among things divine as of themselves are not beyond human reason can, even in the present condition of mankind, be known by everyone with facility, with firm certitude and with no admixture of error" because God has in fact granted a supernatural revelation (Denzinger-Schönmetzer, no. 3005; Neuner-Dupuis, no. 114). This appraisal of the situation is fully in accord with that of Thomas Aquinas (Summa theologiae 1.1.1), for in his view the knowledge made available by natural revelation is indeed possible for the human race in its present condition, but it is by no means easily gained or accessible to all. One is thus brought to a consideration of "supernatural revelation," which will here be called "biblical revelation."

Kant did not join Thomas in this approach. His criticism of the proofs for the existence of God is based on the principle that knowledge is valid only within the realm of sense experience and that there is no correspondence between thought and the truth as it exists in itself.

Old Testament and Judaism

Jewish theology regards it as inconceivable that human beings should know God by their own powers and apart from God making himself known, that is, revealing himself, to them. Like the rest of the Near East, Israel had certain techniques for penetrating the mysteries of God, such as soothsaying, the interpreting of omens and dreams, and the casting of lots. The Old Testament accepted some of these techniques (Dt. 33:8, 1 Sm. 14) and always refused others, for example, astrology. On the other hand, God's action toward Israel in the course of its history is always understood as revelatory in the strict sense. The people experience the nearness of God through external signs and events such as thunderstorms (Ex. 19:16), pillars of cloud and pillars of fire (Ex. 14:24), and the wind (1 Kgs. 19:12). Descriptions of theophanies in human or angelic form (Gn. 16:7, 18:2, 48:16) are also found in the early stage of the patriarchal tradition; the "angel of God" (malakh Yahveh), in particular, seems obviously to be a device for maintaining the transcendence of God.

As the history of salvation advanced it became increasingly important to interpret God's guidance of Israel. The result was revelation through words, taking the form of auditions and going beyond visions or else interpreting these. God's spirit filled the prophets; his hand was laid on the human beings he chose for this revelation.

Various verbs were used to express the divine act of revelation:

  1. glh ("to uncover, unveil"). Yahveh opens the eyes and ears of human beings so that they are able to see and hear (1 Sm. 9:15, Ps. 119:18); he unveils himself (Gn. 35:7, Is. 22:14) and his mysteries (Dt. 29:29), his glory (Is. 40:15), and his justice (Ps. 98:2).
  2. ydʿ ("to proclaim, make oneself known"). The essence of revelation according to the Old Testament consists precisely in this self-communication of God to his people as he makes himself known to them (Ex. 6:2), speaks to them (Ex. 25:22), and, above all, brings them out of Egypt (Ez. 20:9) and enters into a covenant with them. It is for this purpose that he makes known to Israel his name (Is. 64:2) and his ways (Ps. 25:4), that is, his commandments and his law (the Torah), as well as his wisdom (Ps. 119).
  3. nggd ("to report, communicate"). This is the most frequent of all the words for revelation and means to manifest something that is hidden: God's name (Gn. 32:30), his plan (Gn. 41:25), his salvation (Is. 42:12), and his hidden wisdom (Jb. 11:6). All these contexts have this in common, that God directs his word to human beings. For this reason,
  4. dvr can frequently be used for this decisive communication on God's part. God's word to Israel is his most precious gift; in it he communicates himself: "I am the Lord" (Gn. 28:13; Ex. 6:2, 6:29) and "there is no other" (Is. 45:5, Jl. 2:27).

The word of God is spoken in a special way to Moses (Ex. 20:18). The people perceive only the thunder and lightning, the trumpet blast and the smoke, that accompany the word; they see the "glory" of God but receive the commandments only through a mediator who is therefore regarded as the greatest of the prophets (Dt. 18:15). In like manner, all the later prophets are also proclaimers of God's word. He speaks through their mouths, his spirit moves them, his word is given to them; when they speak, "It is I, Yahveh, who speak" (a frequently occurring expression).

The goal and purpose of revelation is the call of Israel to be a covenanted people. This purpose is served by the revelation of God as "the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob" (Ex. 3:6), as well as by the announcement of his name, which is at one and the same time a promise of his presence as helper ("I will be there as the One who will be there"; Ex. 3:12) and a concealment and withdrawal of God from any control by human beings ("I am who I am"; Ex. 3:14). The paradigmatic saving action of God becomes a reality in the deliverance and exodus from Egypt (Ex. 14) and, climactically, in the conclusion of the covenant at Sinai (Ex. 1920). The entire religious practice and tradition and the entire liturgical cult of Israel, as well as the attribution of all laws to Moses and the constant warnings of the prophets, all show the fundamental importance of this encounter with God. Not only does the individual Jewish believer live by the light and power of that encounter; the entire social and political life of the people also takes its direction from it.

Since history is the reduction of the covenant to practice it too acquires a theological significance. Successes and catastrophes alike are explained as having their basis in God's plan of salvation, which thus subsumes all the destinies of individuals and all events under a universal saving will that orders everything to the "day of the Lord" (Am. 5:18, Is. 2:17). That day will bring the definitive fulfillment of God's reign over all of humankind. Revelation thus has a comprehensive meaning; it looks to world history in its entirety, since it sets forth and wins recognition of God's holiness and love. For this reason a special importance is attributed to the end time (eschatology) in Jewish apocalyptic. What is to come and the one who is to come (the Messiah) take on central meaning.

The "revelation of mysteries" (a notion that occurs first in Daniel 2:18) becomes a commonplace in the Qumran documents. The devotees at Qumran believe that they possess a special revelation for the end time, a revelation available only to the "wise and initiated."

By contrast, the Judaism of the scribes (beginning with Ezra, fourth century bce) shows a tendency to regard revelation as closed and to see the prophetic movement as now past. The Jewish tradition generally accepted these positions. Only Jewish mysticism (Qabbalah, Hasidism) regarded not only the once-for-all historical act of divine revelation but also the repeated mystical experience of God as revelatory; the function of the latter is to bring out the implications of the historical revelation and make it intelligible.

New Testament and Christianity

Building on the Old Testament understanding of revelation, the New Testament writers see revelation as the self-communication of God in and through Jesus Christ. This communication is regarded as the supreme, final, irrevocable, and unsurpassable self-disclosure of God in history (Heb. 1:1f.). It is unique because, as Christians understand it, in Jesus of Nazareth, agent of revelation and content of revelation (the person, teaching, and redemptive work of Jesus) are identical and make up the sole object of revelation. The theological elaboration of the New Testament concept of revelation is to be found especially in Paul and John.


To express the idea of revelation, Paul uses above all the words apokaluptein ("uncover, remove from concealment") and phaneroun ("make apparent, show"). His basic theme is the uncovering of the mystery that has previously been hidden and is now made manifest (Eph. 1:9, Col. 1:26). Revelation, therefore, means the uncovering or unveiling of the divine plan by which God reconciles the human race to himself in Christ. Revelation is a divine creative activity, an eschatological saving deed, rather than a simple announcing of messages or items of knowledge. God is the really active one in the process of revelation. It is he who from eternity decides that in his Son he will turn in love to the human race. The incarnation of his Son in the womb of a woman (Gal. 4:4), this Son's expiatory death on the cross, and the recapitulation or unification of the cosmos under him as head and firstborn from the dead (Rom. 3:25, Col. 1:18) are the fulfillment of this hidden plan. In this plan Christ himself is what is revealed. The death and resurrection of Christ, and even the church as his body, are elements of this mystery of salvation.

In a derivative application of the term, the apostles also "reveal" the salvific justice of God (Rom. 1:17) inasmuch as they proclaim the good news brought by Jesus (2 Cor. 2:14). In the fullness of time (Gal. 1:16) the gospel is preached to all peoples (Rom. 1:16, 16:26), not like an esoteric doctrine of the Hellenistic mystery religions but as a message meant to profit the entire human race, provided men and women are ready to accept the scandal of the cross (1 Cor. 1:1825). For it is of the very essence of revelation that it must be accepted in faith and obedience. It does not supply empirical evidence that forces acceptance; on the other hand, neither may it be accepted or rejected at whim, for it makes a claim upon its hearers and may not be rejected without resultant guilt.

In short, revelation is still incomplete within historical time. Only in its definitive stage of development at the return (Parousia) of Christ will it be complete. At that point, too, the glory promised to the redeemed will be manifested, for it will be clear beyond doubt that the redeemed are risen and that they are the children and heirs of God (1 Cor. 1:7; 2 Thes. 1:7; Rom. 8:1823).

The synoptics

The revelation accomplished in Jesus is extremely important to the early community as well. As a result, the statements made in the synoptic Gospels are in principle the same as those in the preaching of Paul.

There is no doubt that the Old Testament is a vehicle of revelation; nonetheless the fullness of revelation comes only in Christ (Mt. 5:1719). Jesus differs from the other agents of revelation because not only does he claim a complete and direct knowledge of God's saving will (Mt. 11:27, Lk. 10:22), but his messianic work is also the definitive revelation and calls for an unconditional decision (Mt. 4:20, 8:22, 10:3739; Mk. 1:18; and others).


The concept of revelation emerges most clearly in John, even though he almost never uses the term apokaluptein. He prefers the verb phaneroun ("make apparent, show") and likes to use pairs of concepts that were popular in the Hellenistic religious movements of his time, especially gnosticism: light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death. The expression "bear witness to the truth" is typical of Johannine theology.

John regards the revelatory event as the center of his message. Not only is Jesus the redeemer by means of his "work"; he is also and above all the proclaimer of God's truth and the life and light of the world (Jn. 1:4). God is invisible and unknowable; the Son alone knows the Father, and in him the Father is made visible and understandable (Jn. 1:14, 1 Jn. 1:1). He has brought knowledge of God and borne witness to him (Jn. 1:18, 3:1113); he speaks in plain words of the Father (Jn. 8:38). Revelation is therefore given together with the person of the Logos (the Word); it is the manifestation of the life and love of God (Jn. 4:79). Because Jesus is the only-begotten Son, he reveals the Father in what he says and does. "He who has seen me has seen the Father" (Jn. 14:9).

In keeping with the realized eschatology of the gospel according to John, faith, as response to revelation, can even now be described as a "seeing" (Jn. 6:40, 12:45, 14:19). What is revealed is already present. Yet, although revelation is essentially completed with the first coming of Jesus, John, like Paul, can speak of the "revelation of Jesus" and of the "glory of the children of God" at the return of Christ (1 Jn. 2:28, 3:2).


The Revelation to John is a New Testament book that focuses its attention on the final age and the return of Christ. It presupposes the proclamation of salvation as achieved through the cross and resurrection of Jesus and, in John's vision on Patmos of the Apocalypse, it interprets the persecutions and sufferings endured by the communities in the light of the hope of their coming fulfullment. The book's images and symbols, taken from Jewish apocalyptic, are intended to urge the reader to perseverance and fidelity. The various hymns of the heavenly liturgy reflect the response of the church to God's judgments, which have for their ultimate purpose the salvation of his creation; this salvation will be achieved despite the terrors that are announced.


Islam's understanding of revelation comes closest to that of the Bible. Way, or revelation, comes from God, usually through the agency of the archangel Gabriel. It is concerned with God's decrees, his mysterious will, the announcement of judgment, and his commandments, the divine law (sharīʿah ). Revelation is given to the prophets and, in its definitive form, to Muammad (c. 570632), who receives it in dreams, visions, and auditions. It is set down in the Qurʾān, the uncreated archetype of which has been taken up to the throne of God in heaven. This uncreated word is not, however, the source of God's self-knowledge (as it is in Christian theology). To this extent, the Muslim conception resembles the Jewish, while at the same time it is distinguished from the latter by the absence of any promise. In the Qurʾān the content of revelation is wisdom and guidance for living and, above all, warnings and the announcement of final judgment. Because it is divine in origin revelation may not be altered.


Zarathushtra (seventh to sixth century bce) was another nonbiblical prophet. He too saw revelation as having its source in the voluntary action of a unique and personal God. The dualism that is otherwise prevalent in the Iranian world is based on an original revelation to the extent that this last calls for an unqualified ethical decision. Like Ahura Mazda, the Mazdeans opt for the good and against evil. This tension soon hardens, however, into an ontic dualism. The world is divided between good and evil and thus reflects at all cosmic levels the opposition between the virtues and their contraries. History becomes the field of a struggle that is predetermined by God and will end with judgment and transfiguration.


Even in Hinduism it is possible to speak of revelation as this concept is understood by historians of religion. The Vedas have the status of sacred revelation: śruti ("heard," i. e., revealed directly by the gods to seers) is clearly distinguished from smti ("remembered," i. e., composed by humans). According to Hindu belief, the Vedic literature has existed from eternity, is supernatural in origin, and has been transmitted to human beings by unknown seers of the primordial period.

In the gveda, forces and elements of nature are viewed as divinities. Later on the question arises whether behind the multiplicity of divinities there is hidden an ultimate ground of the world. The Upaniads are concerned with the question of the identity of ātman and brahman (the principles of the individual and the cosmos respectively), and with the transcription of souls and redemption.

Notions of revelation and a consciousness of transcendence are also discernible in other religions, although often only in an obscure and confused form, despite the fact that an especially clear idea of God is evident in archaic forms of religion. Because of this last-named fact many scientists of religion in the past accepted the existence of a primordial revelation in the form of an originally given knowledge of God in the early phase of human history; today, however, this view is generally not accepted.

See Also

Divination; Enthusiasm; Hierophany; Inspiration; Oracles; Prophecy.


For basic information concerning the topic, entries in several reference works can be profitably consulted: "Offenbarung," in the Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, 2d ed., vol. 7 (Freiburg, 1962); "Offenbarung," in Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 3d ed., vol. 4 (Tübingen, 1960); and "Révélation" in the Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, vol. 6 (Paris, 1937). Karl Rahner's article "Revelation," in Sacramentum Mundi: An Encyclopedia of Theology, vol. 5 (New York, 1969), is especially valuable.

Those aspects of revelation accessible to the phenomenology of religion are summarized in Gerardus van der Leeuw's Religion in Essence and Manifestation, 2 vols. (1938; reprint, Gloucester, Mass., 1967), and in Th. P. van Baaren's Voorstellingen van Openbaring, phaenomenologisch beschouwd (Utrecht, 1951), which includes an English summary. There is also a very good discussion in Herbert H. Farmer's Revelation and Religion: Studies in the Theological Interpretation of Religious Types (New York, 1954). For the history of religions approach, see the standard work of Mircea Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas, 3 vols. (Chicago, 19781986).

On the treatment of the topic within Islam, see A. J. Arberry's Revelation and Reason in Islam (London, 1957). On Hinduism, see K. Satchidananda Murty's Revelation and Reason in Advaita Vedānta (1959; reprint, Livingston, N. J., 1974).

For discussions of natural revelation, see Fernand van Steenberghen's Dieu caché (Louvain, 1961), translated as Hidden God: How Do We Know That God Exists? (Saint Louis, Mo., 1966), and Johannes Hirschberger's Gottesbeweise: Vergängliches-Unvergängliches in denkender Glaube (Frankfurt, 1966).

The following works treat the biblical concept of revelation: H. Wheeler Robinson's Inspiration and Revelation in the Old Testament, 4th ed. (Oxford, 1956); Erik Voegelin's Order and History, vol. 1, Israel and Revelation (Baton Rouge, 1956); Ernest Findlay Scott's The New Testament Idea of Revelation (New York, 1935); and Frederick C. Grant's Introduction to New Testament Thought (New York, 1950). For theological discussions of revelation, see Rudolf Bultmann's "The Concept of Revelation in the New Testament," in Existence and Faith: Shorter Writings of Rudolf Bultmann, edited and translated by Schubert M. Ogden (New York, 1960); Romano Guardini's Die Offenbarung: Ihr Wesen und ihre Formen (Würzburg, 1940); Karl Barth's Das christliche Verständnis der Offenbarung (Munich, 1948); Paul Tillich's Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (Chicago, 19511963); Karl Rahner's Hearers of the Word (New York, 1969); and Revelation as History (New York, 1968) by Wolfhart Pannenberg and others.

Johannes Deninger (1987)

Translated from German by Matthew J. O'Connell


views updated Jun 11 2018


REVELATION , an act whereby the hidden, unknown God shows Himself to man. To be sure, this phenomenon belongs to the realm of human reality, but it is experienced by man as coming from God. Phenomenologically, every religion finds its starting point in a revelation. The ancient Hebrews expressed this idea in different ways. The reflexive form, nifʿal, of the verb galah ("to uncover, reveal"), is used only rarely to denote divine revelation (Gen. 35:7; i Sam. 2:27; 3:21). In the biblical tradition, revelation consists less in the disclosing of a secret or a mystery, than in the manifestation of the invisible God, unknowable to man on his own. This view of revelation results unmistakably from the widespread use of the nifʿal of the verbs raʿah ("to see"), and yadaʿ ("to know"), to express in biblical Hebrew the idea of revelation.

The word nirʿah, "he let himself be seen, showed himself," refers originally to a visionary manifestation of God in a holy place. It occurs principally in narrative passages whose aim was to explain the origin of a holy place. In fact, holy places are often regarded as sites where theophanies took place. The accounts of such divine appearances belong to the genre of etiological tales. They are found in the Bible too, insofar as the ancient Israelites attributed the sacredness of several holy places to the fact that they were sites of divine revelations. According to Genesis 12:6–7, for instance, Abraham passed through the land to the holy site of Shechem, i.e., to the terebinth of Moreh (cf. Judg. 9:37). There the Lord "showed Himself " to Abraham, and there Abraham built an altar to the Lord. The particular holiness of the altar marking the sacred place is explained by its origin, namely, the appearance of the Lord to the patriarch. It should be noted, however, that no attempt is made to describe the apparition, and only what words were uttered and what promise was made are recorded. Nevertheless, since in this narrative there is no suggestion of a dream, the revelation probably took the form of a vision accompanied by divine words. These words are an essential element, for revelation as an event generally needs further explanation. It is only after the Lord has spoken that His manifestation can be understood and acquires importance for human life. These characteristics are common to most divine revelations in the Bible when marked by the use of the nifʿal nirʾah.

There is, however, the belief, which originated in ancient times, that it is deadly for man to see the Deity (Ex. 33:20; Judg. 13:22). Dreams and the mediation of angels have no mitigating effect, since the dream gives a stronger vision and the malʾakh yhwh ("angel of the Lord") is the epiphanic medium of the Lord, even "the Lord Himself in self-manifestation or, in other words, a personification of the theophany" (J. Skinner, Genesis (1910), 286). It is only rarely and to special persons, therefore, that yhwh makes Himself visible, and communicates to man His purposes and intentions. He does so to Abraham (Gen. 12:6–7; 17:1–2), Isaac (Gen. 26:24), Jacob (Gen. 35:9–10; 48:3–4; cf. Ex. 6:3), Moses (Ex. 3:2ff., 16–17), Manoah (Judg. 13:21–22), and Solomon (i Kings 3:5ff.; 9:2ff.). Nevertheless, He may show Himself to the whole of the people at the Tent of Meeting (Lev. 9:4, 6, 23; Deut. 31:15; cf. 31:11), which is "a kind of permanent image of the revelation on Mount Sinai" (M. Haran, in: jss, 5 (1960), 50–65, esp. p. 58). What the people see, however, is the kavod, the "Presence of the Lord" (Lev. 9:6, 23), or the ʿammud he-ʿanan, the "pillar of cloud" (Deut. 31:15). The latter indicates the Lord's Presence, but, at the same time, veils Him from sight. The kavod, whose original conception goes back to early times (cf. i Sam. 4:21; i Kings 8:11; Ps. 24:7–10), likewise signifies a veiled appearance of God, an appearance in a manner in which no precise form can be discerned. It probably alludes to a manifestation by fire, light, and smoke, connected initially with the circumstances in which the cult operated.

Other texts use the word nodaʿ, "he made himself known," which avoids the anthropomorphic connotations of the root meaning "to see." The author of the Priestly document of the Pentateuch, however, uses both words, but opposes nodʿa to nirʾah in Exodus 6:3, the latter denoting the Deity's self-identification by name. Exodus 6:2–8, in turn, is obviously the inspiration of Ezekiel 20:5–9 and hence also of Ezekiel 35:11–12, 38:23, and 39:7 as well, where the causative form hifʿil is used with the Lord's Name as object (cf. Isa. 19:21). In all these texts, nodaʿ is connected with the formula ʾani yhwh ("I am the Lord"). These texts may be compared with similar expressions known from Mesopotamia: "I am Ningirsu," "I am Ishtar of Arbela," "I am the god Nabú," etc. The difference between these Oriental self-revelation formulas and the biblical one consists in the fact that the Tetragrammaton (yhwh) is usually followed by the statement that the Lord is the God Who brought lsrael out of Egypt, and Who guides them through history. The God of Israel thus reveals Himself as acting in historical events. It may reasonably be inferred, therefore, that, according to the Bible, history is the milieu of God's revelation.

It has been objected that God's acting in history plays no real role in the biblical wisdom literature. This has, in fact, been a very awkward point for those who assert that revelation in history is central to Hebrew thought. The difficulty, however, seems to have originated in a confusion between revelation as understood by ancient Israelites and as viewed by modern scholars who are aware of a systematic biblical theology.

In the Pentateuch and the Former and Latter Prophets, God reveals Himself, His plans, or His will, through words or events. The other books of the Bible are generally thought not to contain revelations of this kind. In relation to modern theology, it must be emphasized that both revelation and wisdom phenomenologically proceed from experiences of life. Wisdom characteristically classifies the elementary experiences of daily life, whereas revelation results from "prophetic" interpretations of exceptional events in the life of the people or even of the "prophet" himself. (For the revelation on Mt. Sinai, see the Book of *Exodus.)

[Edward Lipinski]

In Talmudic Literature

The manifestation of God in acts or appearances which overawe man (gillui Shekhinah) is the theme of many passages in talmudic and midrashic literature. However, the main concern of talmudic thought is not so much with God's revelation of Himself or of His attributes (although this too is an important topic), but rather with God's revelation of His word to man (devar Adonai). Much is said regarding the revelation of God's word to the forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as well as to other biblical characters, and especially to the prophets; a vast number of talmudic sources deal with the revelation of God's word par excellence, the Torah. Favorite topics of the Midrashim are the giving of the Torah (mattan Torah), the importance of the Torah for the world and for the people of Israel, the nature of the Torah, its permanence, etc.

Much less attention is devoted to the nature of the act of revelation, and what is said regarding the process in which God's world is revealed to the Jewish people and to the prophets is not nearly so systematic as the treatment of these topics in philosophy and in patristic literature. Talmudic sources assume a hierarchy of different forms of revelation, varying from inspiration by the Holy Spirit (*Ru'aḥ ha-Kodesh) to *prophecy itself; and of prophecy there are different degrees, of which the prophecy of Moses represents the highest. However, this scheme comes to demarcate the Torah, which represents the prophecy of Moses, from the works of the prophets, and these again from the other books in the Bible which are inspired by the Holy Spirit. It is bound up, therefore, with the sanctity and authority to be assigned to the different holy writings. Similar remarks apply to the talmudic sources regarding the psychological aspects of revelation. Sometimes the divine manifestation takes place in a vision or in a dream or through the mediation of an angel; but Moses speaks to God face to face whenever he wishes. He beholds God as in a translucent mirror, whereas the other prophets see as in a dark glass (Lev. R. 1:14; Yev. 49b). The stature of Moses as a prophet thus guarantees the sanctity and authority of Torat Moshe – the Pentateuch.

The Torah is identified with the wisdom which had existed before the creation of the world (Sif. Ekev 37; Gen. R. 1:4) and is regarded as the instrument with which the world was created (Sif. Devarim 48; Avot 3:14). The concept of Torah is thus broadened to include not only God's commandments, the admonitions to observe the commandments, and stories of the forefathers, but also the admonition of all the other prophets and the ethical maxims of the other books of the Bible. Thus there occurs the notion that all the prophecies of all the prophets were included in the revelation on Sinai – they were formulated and publicized by later prophets when the need arose (Ex. R. 29, 6; Tanḥ. Yitro 11).

The notion of the sanctity of the Torah as being the word of God is, therefore, the core of the talmudic teaching regarding revelation, and forms the theme of several passages which are specially important as representing the sources for the doctrines concerning revelation which came to be formulated in medieval Jewish philosophy.

One such passage is the Mishnah (Sanh. 10 (11):1) which tells that among the Israelites who have no portion in the world to come are those who deny that the Torah is from Heaven (Torah min ha-Shamayim). An expansion of this is afforded by the Sifrei (Shelaḥ, ed. Horowitz, p. 121) which says that also he who admits that the Torah is the word of God but maintains that one particular matter was said by Moses of his own accord is to be regarded as "a despiser of the word of God" (Num. 15:31). The baraita parallel to this is quoted in the talmudic discussion as an explanation of the Mishnah in Sanhedrin 99a and differs from the Sifrei only in emphasizing in more detail that even he who says a particular verse, a particular point, a particular a fortiori argument, or a particular inference by analogy was said by Moses of his own accord is to be regarded as a despiser of the word of God. Thus the concept of Torah min ha-Shamayim is associated primarily with the notion that every syllable of the Bible has the verity and authorship of the word of God. The contents of the sacred books are to be regarded throughout as conscientious and homogeneous, with not only no contradiction in them, but also no real differences (G.F. Moore). This concept of the underlying unity of the Scriptures, and especially of the Pentateuch, is connected with the notion of layers of deeper meanings beneath the words of the Written Torah of which the plain literal meaning is only the surface. Such a conception not only leads to the mystic notion of the oneness of the Torah, which is hinted at in several talmudic passages and comes to be expressed in particularly striking form by the medieval mystics (particularly Naḥmanides); it also forms the basis (cf. Y. Baer) for the explication of the traditional distinction between the Written and the Oral Law, the latter providing the real significance and true interpretation of the words of the written text.

Scholars such as Joel, Kohler, Boaz Cohen, and Heschel (see also below) have argued that Abbaye's statement (Meg. 31b) that the curses in Deuteronomy were said by Moses "of his own accord" (mi-pi aẓmo), and other statements in similar vein (see A.J. Heschel, Torah min ha-Shamayim, vol. 2, chs. vii and ix), reflect the dissenting view that there are parts of the Torah that are not literally inspired. However, this may be an error based on the ambiguous meaning of the expression "of his own accord" (for traditional sources concerning this see M.M. Kasher, Torah Shelemah, 19 (1959), 333–42).

The concept of the literal inspiration of the Torah is an important premise of the *hermeneutics of the Oral Law (Torah she-be-Al Peh) which sometimes treats the written text as little more than a series of mnemonic signs. Such an attitude is especially characteristic of the hermeneutics of R. Akiva and his school, but even R. Ishmael and his school, although they maintained that the Written Torah speaks the "language of men," nonetheless regarded each word as divinely inspired. The contrary has been argued by A.J. Heschel (Torah min ha-Shamayim, vol. 1, p. 16 and vol. 2, chs. vi and vii) in a work attempting to show that the two schools held basically different concepts of the Torah and of the nature of revelation.

The chief revelation of God to Moses and to His people took place at Mount Sinai. It is not explicitly stated either in the Pentateuch or in talmudic literature that this was a case of mass prophecy. Differing views concerning this are expressed in medieval Jewish philosophy. However, the revelation of the Torah to Moses is naturally interpreted as a prophetic phenomenon. That the revelation at Mount Sinai consisted of the giving to Moses of the whole Torah (including the Oral Law), and not merely the Ten Commandments, is stated in many talmudic and midrashic sources. This would seem to imply that the whole of the Torah was revealed to Moses, detail by detail, during his 40 days on Sinai in such a way that when he came down there was nothing left to be revealed. However, other commandments are said to have been given in the Tabernacle and at Arboth Moab. Talmudic sources offer different opinions to reconcile these statements. Different opinions are also offered regarding the writing of the Torah. The Mishnah in Avot 1, which is one of the primary talmudic sources associating the Torah with Sinai, seems to be referring particularly to the Oral Law. Some sources, however (tj, Shek. 6:49d and Sot. 8:22d; Song R. 5:11 and Deut. R. 3:12, etc.), mention a scroll which was given at the same time. Other opinions maintain that the Torah was written piecemeal (scroll by scroll) during the 40 years of wanderings in the desert, or that it was written down all at once at the end of those 40 years (Git. 60a). There are also sources which speak of the existence of scrolls before Sinai (Kasher, pp. 356–62).

The attribution of the Written Torah to Moses is affirmed by a tannaitic source (quoted in bb 14b and tj, Sot. 5:6–end) which relates that Moses wrote his own book, the portion of Balaam and Job, while Joshua wrote the book which bears his name and the last eight verses of the Pentateuch. In the discussion arising out of this passage a dissenting opinion is quoted which ascribes even the last eight verses of the Torah (describing his own death) to Moses. The authorship referred to in this passage is ostensibly comparable to Joshua's authorship of the book bearing his name. However, such a straightforward conception of literary authorship will be modified by the claim that the Torah is literally inspired and is the revealed word of God to Moses. Nevertheless, that the Torah is written by Moses is everywhere assumed in talmudic and midrashic literature, and the Torah is frequently described as Torat Moshe – the "Torah of Moses."

It has been plausibly argued (J.J. Petuchowski) that of the two traditional notions, the heavenly origin of the Torah (Torah min ha-Shamayim) and Mosaic authorship, the former is dogmatic in character in talmudic thought, whereas the latter is more in the nature of an accepted truth about literary authorship. The two notions are at any rate disparate in importance.

In receiving the Torah, Moses acted as a scribe writing from dictation, as was the case with Baruch and the prophet Jeremiah (bb 15a). This is the passage that has been dominant in subsequent attempts to describe the nature of the Mosaic revelation in medieval Jewish philosophy. But there are midrashic sources which would seem to support a less mechanical and more instrumentalist conception of revelation. Thus the Midrash (Ex. R. 47–end) relates that the angels, jealous of the role entrusted to Moses in bringing the Torah to mankind, voice suspicions that Moses might write his own ideas into the Torah. God replies that Moses would not do so; but even if he did he could be trusted to represent reliably the divine will. There is, however, no attempt in talmudic thought to provide the sort of instrumentalist analogies of revelation which are offered in patristic thought – the inspired writer as a vessel which the Holy Spirit proceeds to fill, etc. On the other hand, revelation, like prophecy, comes to each individual in accordance with his capacities. When the voice went forth at Sinai, God addressed each person with a voice he could endure (Ex. R. 5:9).

The voice from Sinai (kol mi-Sinai) is a characteristic talmudic theme. This voice already included all the words of the prophets, and indeed the rabbis of later ages received what they say at Sinai (Ex. R. 28:6; Tanḥ. Yitro 11, etc.). This may be interpreted (E.E. Urbach, p. 270) as a talmudic attempt to restrict revelation so far as possible to a onetime act in order to emphasize the irrelevance in matters of halakhah. On the other hand, according to other sources, the voice from Sinai has not yet stopped; so that even though the Holy Spirit has departed from Israel with the cessation of prophecy and subsequent revelations are confined to a Heaven-inspired echo (bat kol; 13:2; Sanh. 11a), this heavenly echo still goes forth each day from Sinai to announce that woe will befall all those who slight the Torah (Avot 6:2).

[Jacob Joshua Ross]

Ancient and Medieval Jewish Philosophy

Understanding the nature and process of prophetic revelation and especially its relation to reason constitutes one of the major areas of interest in Jewish religious philosophy. The question of the authority of the Mosaic revelation appears in its purest form in the works of *Philo, who wrote before the rise of Christianity and Islam. In later periods the differing claims of the other two monotheistic religions had to be taken into account: Islam, primarily in the Judeo-Arabic phase of medieval Jewish philosophy, and Christianity, in the Hebrew phase from the 13th through the 16th centuries in Spain, southern France, and Italy.


The Mosaic revelation is central for Philo. In his view, statements in the Pentateuch can be divided into three categories: that of the direct revelation of God Himself by means of a created voice which Moses heard; those which came about as a result of the questions of Moses; and those which are the result of divine inspiration (Mos. 2:188). Moses himself is viewed as a philosopher king, in accordance with Plato's Republic, as well as a legislator, high priest, and prophet. "Moses necessarily obtained prophecy also, in order that through the providence of God he might discover what by reasoning he could not grasp" (ibid. 2:6). The allegorical method of interpreting revelation is the tool by means of which the conflict between the demands of philosophy and the apparent meaning of revelation can be reconciled. The use of allegorical interpretation is mandatory in respect to anthropomorphic expressions about God which must not be taken literally. The purpose of the revealed law is to serve as the constitution of the ideal state, caring for both the spiritual and material welfare of mankind.


In the age of *Saadiah Gaon the claim of the Mosaic revelation to authority had to be justified against the Christian and Islamic assertions that it had been abrogated (Book of Beliefs and Opinions, 3). Confirmation of the prophet's mission lies in the miracles performed by him. The confirmation of the truth of revelation for those living after the time of its promulgation lies in tradition which, for Saadiah, is the fourth source of authentic knowledge in addition to sense perception, the first principles of reason, and logical inference. The commandments themselves fall into two major divisions: the rational and the nonrational or "obediential." Saadiah supposes that even rational commandments need to have been revealed in order to fix the details of their performance. Furthermore, he is of the opinion that revelation is necessary for those who would take a long time in arriving or never arrive at the truth by unaided reason. Allegorical interpretation plays a much more restricted role than in the case of Philo.


It is interesting to note that the chief representative of the neoplatonic trend of Jewish thought, Solomon ibn *Gabirol, does not even consider the problem of the relation of reason to revelation, nor does he quote Scripture in his Mekor Ḥayyim. His predecessor, Isaac b. Solomon *Israeli, does deal with the problem of the prophet and prophecy in passing. The prophet and the sage on the highest level, he who has achieved union with the Divine, are identified. But the prophet expresses himself in imaginative language in order to teach and guide the vulgar masses. One of the functions of the imaginative faculty of the prophet is to express in figurative symbols and sensible images material derived from reason, a view which is related to that of al-*Fārābĩ and which is to be found in Maimonides' Guide.

judah halevi

With *Judah Halevi, the autonomous character of revelation and its superiority to reason come to the fore. In Judah Halevi's thought, the "divine command" (alamr al-ilāhĩ), which is the link between God and man, clings to the prophet chosen by God to reveal His will to man. The prophet is superior to the philosopher by the very fact that his knowledge is derived directly from God, whereas the science of the philosopher is subject to doubt. Judah Halevi's concept is based on the neoplatonic concept of nature being ordered hierarchically in a great chain of being, that is, an upward progression from ordinary man to philosopher to Israel and the prophets and then the Divine. Contrary to his predecessor, Judah Halevi considers the unique quality of revelation to lie in its nonrational character. The ritual commandments are the true link between the people of lsrael and God. In the first treatise of his Kuzari, the claims of Christianity and Islam to have supplanted the Mosaic revelation are dismissed on the grounds that the beliefs of Christianity are inherently improbable while the Muslim claims lack supporting evidence at the same time that the divine origin of the Mosaic revelation is conceded.


Maimonides returns to a more Aristotelian concept of revelation in which he follows in the footsteps of his Islamic predecessors al-Fārābĩ and *Avicenna. Essentially Maimonides treats prophecy as a natural phenomenon: "Know that the true reality and quiddity of prophecy consists in it being an overflowing from God … through the intermediation of the Active Intellect, toward the rational faculty in the first place and thereafter toward the imaginative faculty" (Guide, 2:36). If the rational faculty alone comes into play, the individual is a philosopher and if only the imaginative faculty is brought into play, the individual belongs to the class of statesmen. Therefore, essentially the prophet is a philosopher statesman in accordance with the Platonic tradition. Thus Maimonides takes a position similar to that of Philo mentioned above. The position of Moses in this scheme is problematic since, according to Maimonides in both his Guide and his Mishneh Torah, the imaginative faculty did not play any role in his prophecy and he prophesied whenever necessary. In a famous passage Maimonides states that "the Law as a whole aims at two things: the welfare of the soul and the welfare of the body" (Guide, 3:27). For the masses, belief has a political role to play, for the masses cannot achieve the heights of metaphysical speculation which alone insure true happiness and the immortality of the intellect. For the philosopher, the Law insures his political well-being and allows him the necessary leisure to indulge in the delights of the mind. Therefore, the function of revelation may be defined as essentially political in nature, not as a means to individual salvation. In order to reconcile any conflicts between philosophy and the apparent meaning of revelation, the allegorical method of interpretation is used. It would seem just to conclude from Maimonides' historical analysis of the origin of the sacrificial cult that he was satisfied with the status quo existing in his time and envisaged the possibility of the abrogation of part of the Mosaic code, although in speaking as a legist he took of course a completely different position in his Mishneh Torah.


Maimonides exercised great influence on the development of philosophy in Hebrew by way of both support and criticism. Ḥasdai *Crescas, writing in 14th-century Christian Spain, and pressed by the attacks of the Catholic Church and its inroads on the Jewish community, emphasized the idea that the happiness of man lies essentially in the love of God and in the service of God through the observance of the commandments of the Torah. Here revealed religion is given intrinsic value contrary to the view of the Aristotelians.


Joseph *Albo tries to steer a middle course between the conservative position of Judah Halevi and the more rational position of Maimonides. He begins his Sefer ha-Ikkarim by stating that "human reason is not capable of comprehending things as they are in reality … There must therefore be something higher than the human intellect by means of which the good can be defined and the true comprehended in a manner leaving no doubt at all. This can only be done by means of divine guidance …" (Book of Principles, ed. and tr. by I. Husik, 1 (1929), 5). For Albo, intellectual perfection is not the ultimate goal, but rather "belief in God and His Torah brings man to eternal happiness and causes his soul to cleave to the spiritual substance" (ibid., 1, ch. 21). His definition of prophecy is worded very much like that of Maimonides (ibid., 3:8, p. 71), but emphasis is laid on the intervention of the divine will which interferes with the natural process more drastically than in the case of Maimonides. It would seem that Albo's limitation of the rationalistic approach of Maimonides is due to the pressure of Christian polemics.


Baruch *Spinoza in his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus ("Theological Political Treatise"), combating both the conservative and rational attitudes represented by his Jewish predecessors, clearly strips revelation of all authority except in the sphere of morals and ethics, and pleads for freedom from the thrall of revealed doctrine, thus laying part of the foundation for the emergence of the modern era.

[Lawrence V. Berman]

Modern Jewish Philosophy

In modern Jewish philosophy the term "revelation" embraces a variety of meanings, ranging from the supernatural communication of divine truth and instruction to the apprehension of God's will and attributes through the exercise of man's spiritual or rational faculties.

In conformity with deistic doctrines concerning "natural religion," Moses *Mendelssohn maintained that the "universal religion of reason" contains all the doctrinal elements and moral perceptions needed for salvation. The supernatural revelation received by lsrael at Sinai does not impinge upon the domain of the "universal religion of reason," for Judaism is not a revealed religion but revealed legislation, providing specific laws for the regulation of conduct but not concepts (Jerusalem (1862), pt. 2, ch. 3).

Idealistic thinkers reformulated the concept of revelation as a gradual process. Divine truth is revealed to man through his intellectual faculties in an educational process of "continuous" or "progressive" revelation. Nachman *Krochmal, whose views were influenced to a large extent by Hegelian categories of thought, considered revelation the process of ever-increasing consciousness of the immanent Divine Spirit. Similarly, Solomon *Formstecher and Samuel *Hirsch maintained that revelation constitutes the recognition of the Divine Spirit manifesting itself in man, not the communication received from a transcendent sphere. The last vestiges of opposition between reason and revelation are overcome in the neo-Kantian system of Hermann *Cohen. God reveals His will by creating man as a rational creature who through his reason is capable of apprehending the laws of logic and ethics. Thus, revelation no longer refers to any historic event nor even any special mode of cognition; it characterizes a trait of man, who through the possession of his rational faculties becomes the bearer of divine revelation (Die Religion der Vernunft aus den Quellen des Judentums (1919), 82–92).

In radical opposition to all idealistic trends, Solomon Ludwig *Steinheim emphasized the inadequecy of speculative reason in the realm of religious truth. Objecting also to Mendelssohn's position, he stressed the primacy of the doctrinal, rather than legislative, elements in the content of revelation. Only through revelation can belief in a freely creating God arise (Die Offenbarung nach dem Lehrbegriffe der Synagoge, 1 (1835), 318). Although Steinheim did not regard revelation as a process, but as a particular event in which the word of God is communicated to man, he was not committed to the doctrine of the verbal inspiration of the Scripture. The latter doctrine is the basis of Samson Raphael *Hirsch's system, which stresses the belief in the divine origin of both the Oral and the Written Law.

Existentialists opposed the theories that consider revelation primarily as the transmission of content consisting either of metaphysical principles or moral and ritual laws. Martin *Buber advocated a conception of revelation involving a dialogic relationship between man and God. Revelation is the encounter of the Presence of God, not the communication of ideas or instructions. Revelation constitutes a wordless address, which in turn stimulates a human response (Eclipse of God (1952), 135). This response, according to Buber, never gives rise to a general law, but only to a unique, subjective deed or commitment.

Although Franz *Rosenzweig subscribed to the premise that revelation represents the manifestation of a relationship in the form of a dialogue, he emphasized that it depends upon the will of God, Who chooses to reveal Himself at specific times to different individuals. Through revelation a covenantal relationship is established between man and God. As a responsible partner in this dialogue, man is expected to respond to God's demand, embodied in the revelational event, by concrete action. Thus, the commandments arise through man's response to God's revelation (N.N. Glatzer (ed.), On Jewish Learning (1965), 109–24).

According to Abraham J. *Heschel, revelation represents an event in which God communicates His teachings and concern for man. The act of revelation is a unique, mysterious event that cannot be reduced to the categories of mystical experience or psychophysical processes. The recipient plays an active role in casting the content of the revelation into the mold of his own personality, but he must not be considered merely an inspired visionary: he is a witness to a specific act of "God's turning towards man" (A.J. Heschel, God in Search of Man (1955), 198).

Naturalist thinkers such as *Aḥad Ha-Am and Mordecai *Kaplan do not see in revelation anything more than a purely subjective experience. Opposed to them, Orthodox thinkers are committed to the traditional view of revelation as the disclosing of God's will to man in the form of specific commandments. They view the process of the development of the Oral Law as an extension of the original revelation at Sinai, which continually provides new insights into God's will for man. Yet, revelation as a process is not necessarily limited to the elucidation or development of the content of the Sinaitic revelation. Drawing upon kabbalistic categories of thought, Abraham Isaac *Kook maintained that revelation is the apprehension of reality in the the light of the Shekhinah, or "Divine Presence," resulting in the perception of the underlying unity of all existence (Orot ha-Kodesh, pt. 1 (1963), 73). In the view of Joseph B. *Soloveichik, the height of religious development is the experience of the Presence of God. It is in the "covenantal community" that man in dialogue with God "re-experiences the rendezvous with God in which the covenant … originated" ("Lonely Man of Faith," in: Tradition (1965), 46).

[Walter S. Wurzburger]


J. Morgenstern, in: za, 25 (1911), 139–93; 28 (1914), 15–60; G. von Rad, in: G. Friedrich (ed.), Theologisches Woerterbuch zum Neuen Testament, 2 (1935), 240–5; W. Zimmerli, in: Geschichte und Altes Testament. A. Alt zum 70. Geburtstag dargebracht (1953), 179–209; idem, in: Evangelische Theologie, 22 (1962), 15–31; H. Haag, in: Theologische Zeitschrift, 16 (1960), 251–8; J. Barr, in: vtSupplement, 7 (1960), 30–38; idem, in: Interpretation, 17 (1963), 193–205; S.H. Hooke, Alpha and Omega, a Study in the Pattern of Revelation (1961); J. Lindblom, in: huca, 32 (1961), 91–106; idem, in: zaw, 75 (1963), 263–88; J. Jeremias, Theophanie. Die Geschichte einer alttestamentlichen Gattung (1965); J. Scharbert, in: Muenchener Theologische Zeitschrift, 18 (1967), 93–118; B. Albrektson, History and the Gods (1967); F. Baumgaertel, in: Zeitschrift fuer Theologie und Kirche, 64 (1967), 393–422; B. Gemser, Aduc loquitur (1968), 150–76; H.C. Brichto, in: huca, 39 (1968), 35–53. in talmudic literature: M. Joel, Blicke in die Religionsgeschichte, 2 (1883), 176f.; K. Kohler, in: je, s.v.inspiration; J.F. Moore, Judaism (1927); B.J. Bamberger, in: huca, 16 (1941), 97–113; Y. Baer, in: Zion, 17 (1952), 1–55; 18 (1953), 91–108; 27 (1962), 117–55; idem, Yisrael ba-Amim (1955); B. Cohen, Law and Tradition in Judaism (1959), 7–17; M.M. Kasher, Torah Shelemah, 19 (1959), 328ff.; J.J. Petuchowski, in: Hibbert Journal, 57 (1958/59), 356–60; S. Schechter, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (1961), chs. 6–10; E.E. Urbach, Ḥazal; Pirkei Emunot ve-De'ot (1969). ancient and medieval jewish philosophy: Guttmann, Philosophies, index; L. Strauss, Philosophie und Gesetz (1935), 87–122; H.A. Wolfson, in: jqr, 32 (1942), 345–70; 33 (1942), 49–82; idem, Philo, 2 vols. (1947), index; S. Pines, in: eiv, s.v.hitgallut; A. Altmann and S.M. Stern (eds.), Isaac Israeli (Eng., 1958), index, s.v.prophecy and prophet; E. Schweid, in: Tarbiz, 35 (1965), 48–60; S. Pines, in: Scripta Hierosolymitana, 20 (1968), 3–54; Husik, Philosophy, index, s.v.prophecy. modern jewish philosophy: Guttmann, Philosophies, index; J. Heinemann, Ta'amei ha-Mitzvot be-Safrut Yisrael, 2 (1956), index, s.v.hitgallut; E.B. Borowitz, A New Jewish Theology in the Making (1968), passim; S.H. Bergman, Faith and Reason: An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thought (1963), passim; S. Noveck (ed.), Great Jewish Thinkers of the Twentieth Century (1963), index; N. Rotenstreich, Jewish Philosophers in Modern Times: from Mendelssohn to Rosenzweig (1968), index.


views updated May 14 2018


The notion of "revelation" is central to three of the major world religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Through Christianity in particular it has long been an important element in the religious thought of the West, and the present entry will treat it in this context, especially that of Christian theology.

During the twentieth century, but beginning in the nineteenth century, manyespecially Protestanttheologians radically revised their conception of revelation. The view that was virtually axiomatic for all schools of thought in the mid-nineteenth century and that still remains the majority position (for it continues both in Roman Catholicism and in sections of conservative Protestantism) may be called the prepositional view of revelation.

The Propositional Concept

In the prepositional view, that which is revealed is a body of religious truths capable of being expressed in propositions. Because a knowledge of these truths is necessary for man's salvation, God has supernaturally made them known. Accordingly, in the words of the Catholic Encyclopedia, "Revelation may be defined as the communication of some truth by God to a rational creature through means which are beyond the ordinary course of nature" (Vol. XIII, p. 1).

The fuller significance of this prepositional understanding of revelation appears when we view it in relation to three other basic theological categories with which it is closely connected. A particular conception of the nature of revelation involves a particular conception of the nature of faith, as man's response to revelation; of the Bible and its inspiration, as a medium of revelation; and of the character of theological thinking, as thought that proceeds on the basis of revelation.

When revelation is conceived as the divine disclosure of religious truths, faith is necessarily understood as the obedient believing of these truths. Thus faith was defined by the First Vatican Council (1870) as a supernatural virtue whereby "with the inspiration and help of God's grace, we believe that what he has revealed is true, not because its intrinsic truth is seen with the natural light of reason, but because of the authority of God who reveals it" (Enchiridion Symbolorum, edited by H. J. D. Denzinger, 29th ed., Freiburg, Germany, 1952, No. 1789).

The Bible finds its place in this system of thought as the book in which divinely imparted truths are written down and thereby made available to all humankind. Indeed, throughout considerable periods of Christian thought the Scriptures have been called the Word of God and have been virtually identified with revelation. The Bible is accordingly thought of as being ultimately of divine authorship; it has been written by human beings, but in the writing of it, their minds were directed by the Holy Spirit. Thus, the First Vatican Council said of the Scriptures that "because they were written as a result of the prompting of the Holy Spirit, they have God for their author" (Deum habent auctorem ; Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum, No. 1787); and in a similar vein, in the twentieth century, the Protestant evangelist Dr. Billy Graham said, "The Bible is a book written by God through thirty secretaries."

The propositional conception of revelation has also been integral to an understanding of the structure of theology that until recently has held unquestioned sway in Christian thought since it was established by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century. This hinges upon the distinction between natural and revealed theology. Natural theology comprises all those truths about God, and about the created universe in its relation to God, that can be arrived at by human reasoning without benefit of divine revelation. Accordingly, the core of natural theology consists in the traditional philosophical arguments for the existence of God. Revealed theology, on the other hand, comprises those truths about God, and about the created universe in its relation to God, that are not accessible to right reasoning as such and that can be known to men only because God has chosen to reveal them. (For example, it is held that while the existence of a supreme being is a tenet of natural theology, the further fact, stated in the Trinitarian dogma, that this being is "three Persons in one" belongs to revealed theology.) These various truths constitute the materials with which the theologian works, his primary task being to bring them together into a systematic body of doctrine.

These conceptions of faith, the Bible, and theology are linked together by the propositional character of revelation, with which they are all concerned. The revelation that is imparted by God, believed by men, published in the holy Scriptures, and systematized in the church's dogmas is a body of theological knowledge. This propositional conception of revelation began to form soon after the end of the New Testament period; reached its fullest development in medieval scholastic thought; was largely abandoned by the first Reformers in the sixteenth century, particularly Martin Luther, but became reestablished in the Protestant scholasticism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; began to be questioned in the later nineteenth century; and was finally set aside by considerable sections of Protestant thought in the twentieth century.

The Heilsgeschichtlich Conception

The fundamental premise of the propositional view has no place in the nonpropositional conception of revelation that was widely adopted by Christian theologians in the twentieth century. This view maintains that revelation consists not in the promulgation of divinely guaranteed truths but in the performance of self-revealing divine acts within human history. The locus of revelation is not propositions but events, and its content is not a body of truths about God but "the living God" revealing himself in his actions toward man. The nonpropositional view thus centers upon what has come in recent theology to be known as Heilsgeschichte (salvation history) identified as the medium of revelation.

It is not supposed that God has marked his presence by performing a series of miracles, if "miracle" is taken to mean an event that compels a religious response by eluding all natural explanations. It is not characteristic of those theologians who think of revelation in nonpropositional terms to regard the biblical miracles as constituting theistic proofs. Rather, the Heilsgeschichte is the way in which a certain segment of human historybeginning with the origins of the national life of Israel and ending with the birth of the Christian community as a response to Jesuswas experienced by men of faith and became understood and remembered as the story of God's gracious dealings with his people. What Christianity (and, confining itself to the Old Testament, Judaism) refer to as the story of salvation is a particular stream of history that was interpreted by prophets and apostles in the light of a profound and consistent ethical monotheism. They saw God at work around them in events that accordingly possessed revelatory significance. The Heilsgeschichte is thus a portion of history seen "from the inside" by the illumination of a particular religious faith. The publicly observable series of events forming its basis belongs to secular world history and is capable of a variety of political, economic, psychological, and other analyses besides that of theistic faith. As a central instance of this capacity of history to be construed both nonreligiously and religiously, Jesus of Nazareth, who has been seen by those outside the Christian community in various waysfor example, as rabbi, prophet, or political revolutionaryis seen by Christian faith as the divine Son incarnate in a human life, seeking to draw men into a new life in relation to God.

Revelation, understood in this way, presupposes faith as its correlate. That God is at work in a certain situation, which accordingly serves a revelatory purpose, is always a judgment of religious faith. The part played by faith is thus integral to the total event of revelation, if we use "revelation" to refer to the completed communication that occurs when God's approach has met with a human response. In the words of William Temple, whose formulation of this conception of revelation has become classic, "there is event and appreciation; and in the coincidence of these the revelation consists" (Nature, Man and God, p. 314).

As in the case of its older rival, the fuller significance of what may be called the heilsgeschichtlich conception of revelation can best be indicated by sketching its implications for the understanding of faith, the Bible, and theological thinking. Clearly, in this view faith is not primarily the believing of revealed propositions, but is rather (in its cognitive aspect) a mode of discernment or interpretation in which men are convinced that they are conscious of God at work in and through certain events of both their personal experiences and world history.

The Bible is not a collection of divine oracles, but a record of the events through which God has revealed himself to a special group, a record that itself functions as a further medium of God's self-revelation beyond that group. It has not been written at the dictation of the Holy Spirit, but has been composed by many different writers at different points within the period of the thousand years or so that it documents. It is distinguished from secular records of the same sequence of events by the fact that it is written throughout from the standpoint of faith. The Old Testament is dominated and unified by the God-centered interpretation of Hebrew history taught by the great prophets, in the light of which the story of the nation came to be understood and celebrated and its chronicles edited. The New Testament is dominated and unified by the witness of Jesus' first disciples and of the Christian communities that grew up around them to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, whom they had received as the Christ. The faith by which alone the several writers could produce this particular literature constitutes the "inspiration" that has presided over its production.

Finally, there is no body of divinely authoritative theological propositions. Religious doctrines are not revealed, but represent humanand therefore fallibleattempts to understand the religious significance and implications of the revelatory events depicted in the Scriptures. Theologians who regard revelation in this manner have generally abandoned the traditional natural theology, with its theistic proofs, and base their doctrines instead upon faith as it responds to the scriptural records.

Some Questions

One of the questions that Christian theologians have repeatedly discussed is whether there is both general and special revelation. Are nature and history as a wholeincluding the whole religious history of humankindrevelatory of God, as well as the special occasions of the biblical Heilsgeschichte ? Many theologians of all communions today hold that God is indeed universally active and that his activity always discloses something of his nature, even though his fullest personal self-revelation has occurred only in the person of Christ.

Another question that has at times been hotly disputed is whether there is an image of God (imago dei ) in man that constitutes an innate capacity to respond to divine revelation (Emil Brunner) or whether, on the contrary, human nature is so totally corrupted by the Fall that in revealing himself to men God has to create in them a special capacity for response (Karl Barth).

The main philosophical question that arises concerns the criteria by which revelation claims may be judged. For proposition-centered religious thought the answer is provided by natural theology considered as a preamble to revelation. This establishes the existence of God and points, by means of miracles and fulfillments of ancient prophecy, to Christ and the Scriptures as the sources of revealed truth, supplemented in Roman Catholicism by the church as its divinely appointed guardian. For those theologies, on the other hand, that find God at work in historical events whose significance is discerned only by faith, there can be no proof of revelation. Such theologies arise within a community of faith (whether Jewish or Christian) that lives on the basis of what it believes to be an experience of divine revelation. It embodies in its life and literature the "memory" of momentous events in which God has opened a new and better life to humankind. The form of apologetic appropriate to this view is one that defends the right of the believer, as a rational being, given the distinctively religious experience out of which his faith has arisen, to trust that experience and to proceed to live upon the basis of it.

See also Barth, Karl; Brunner, Emil; Faith; Liberation Theology; Luther, Martin; Miracles; Thomas Aquinas, St.


The biblical basis of the idea of revelation is discussed in H. W. Robinson, Inspiration and Revelation in the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1946; 4th ed., 1956), and E. F. Scott, The New Testament Idea of Revelation (London and New York: Scribners, 1935).

R. Garrigou-Lagrange, De Revelatione per Ecclesiam Catholicam Proposita, 2 vols. (4th ed., Rome, 1945), is a classic Roman Catholic exposition. See also G. H. Joyce, "Revelation," in Catholic Encyclopedia, edited by C. G. Herbermann and others, 15 vols. (New York: Appleton, 1907), Vol. XIII.

John Baillie, The Idea of Revelation in Recent Thought (New York: Columbia University Press, 1956), traces the modern move in Protestantism to a nonpropositional conception of revelation. B. B. Warfield, Revelation and Inspiration (New York: Oxford University Press, 1927), provides a conservative, and C. H. Dodd's The Authority of the Bible (London: Nisbet, 1928), a liberal, Protestant view of the place of the Bible in divine revelation. J. K. S. Reid's The Authority of Scripture (London: Methuen, 1957) represents a postliberal Protestant point of view.

The nonpropositional conception of revelation is expounded in William Temple, Nature, Man and God (London: Macmillan, 1935), Ch. 12; Emil Brunner, Offenbarung und Vernunft (Zürich, 1941), translated by Olive Wyon as Revelation and Reason (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1946); H. R. Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation (New York: Macmillan, 1941); Karl Barth, "The Christian Understanding of Revelation," in Against the Stream, edited by R. G. Smith (New York: Philosophical Library, 1954); and H. Thielicke, Offenbarung, Vernunft und Existenz (Gütersloh, 1936). John Baillie and Hugh Martin, eds., Revelation (London: Faber and Faber, 1937), is a useful symposium.

For a contemporary Jewish discussion, see Abraham Heschel, God in Search of Man (New York: Meridian, 1956). For the Islamic conception of revelation, not touched upon in this entry, see I. Goldziher, Die Richtungen der islamischen Koranauslegung (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1920), or A. J. Arberry, Revelation and Reason in Islam (New York: Macmillan, 1957); and for Hindu conceptions, K. S. Murty, Revelation and Reason in Advaita Vedanta (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959).

For contemporary skepticism concerning revelation, see Julian Huxley, Religion without Revelation (London: Watts, 1941; 2nd ed., London: Parrish, 1957), and Ronald Hepburn, Christianity and Paradox (London: Watts, 1958).

other recommended titles

Abraham, William. Divine Revelation and the Limits of Historical Criticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Avis, Paul, ed. Divine Revelation. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997.

Dulles, Avery. Models of Revelation. New York: Doubleday, 1983.

Mavrodes, George. Revelation in Religious Belief. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988.

Swinburne, Richard. Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.

Trembath, Kern. Divine Revelation: Our Moral Relation with God. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Ward, Keith. Religion and Revelation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.

Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim That God Speaks. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

John Hick (1967)

Bibliography updated by Christian B. Miller (2005)


views updated May 14 2018


Prior to the twentieth century, it was usually assumed that revelation was received in two modes. "Special" revelation represented communication of knowledge about God through supernatural agency. "General" revelation consisted of what could be known of God through either abstract philosophy or reflection on the nature of the universe.

Twentieth-century challenges

In the twentieth century, however, there were strong challenges both to the concept of revelation as disclosure of propositional knowledge and to the validity of a "natural theology" based on general revelation. The work of the Swiss Protestant theologian Karl Barth (18861968), in particular, had led, by the middle of the century, to both a new emphasis on the centrality of special revelation for theological thinking and a perspective in which theological propositions represented no more than human reflection on God's historical acts. This emphasis on "revelation in history" had a major influence in making propositional understandings of revelation unfashionable.

This tendency was subsequently reinforced, for some, by instrumentalist understandings of religious language, such as those associated with existentialism, with "linguistic" understandings, and with more specifically postmodernist approaches. As a result, except in neo-orthodox circles, which still looked to Barth for inspiration, the focus for many shifted from historical revelation towards existential criteria and existing religious communities. Despite the ways in which this gap was bridged by the work of people like Yves Congar, on revelation, and of Janet Soskice, on religious language, these perspectives resulted in a widespread belief that theological reflection was essentially unaffected by scientific understanding.

Perspectives from science and religion

The dialogue of science and theology during the second half of the twentieth century was based, in large part, on a reaction to this "independence" thesis, as Ian Barbour called it. The simplistic separation of science and religion that had arisen from seeing the one as based purely on empirical problems, and the other as based purely on special revelation, was strongly challenged. Beginning with the work of Barbour himself, it was increasingly stressed that science itself was more complex in its rationality than was commonly understood, and that there were important parallels between the ways in which religious and scientific languages were employed.

Two factors were characteristic of this phase of the dialogue of science and theology. One was that the dialogue was often seen in apologetic terms, its goal being to vindicate the consonance of scientific and theological worldviews. This consonance was interpreted, however, largely in terms of the way in which both disciplines could be seen as using revisable models of reality. This owed much to Karl Popper's (19021994) analysis of the sciences, and manifested little recognition of broader, postfoundationalist perspectives. The other, and related, factor was that theological language was often approached from a perspective that stressed the more conservative aspects of the sort of "critical realism" that had become, among philosophers of science, the dominant understanding of scientific language.

Modifications that might have been made to this position, through an awareness of recent thinking about revelation, were conspicuous by their absence. At the level of epistemology, dissenting voicessuch as that of Thomas Torrancetended to look back to Barthian viewpoints. Only in the last decade of the century were there significant challenges based on new perspectives, which attempted either to modify the realist position in a major way (Christopher Knight), to dispute realism in favor of an emphasis on methodological parallels (Nancey Murphy), or to emphasize the importance of postfoundationalist insights ( J. Wentzel van Huyssteen). Despite these challenges, however, the older, quasi-propositional approach remained influential.

One of the more fruitful aspects of this approach was, even for some who were otherwise critical, the attempt to challenge the Barthian rejection of the concept of "natural theology." Few attempted to defend its historical formsrecognizing, for example, that neo-Darwinian understandings had rendered design arguments such as William Paley's (17431805) redundant. Nevertheless, although it was acknowledged that no "proof" of God's reality could now be provided, people like John Polkinghorne advocated a "revived and revised natural theology"persuasive but not logically coercivebased on issues such as the anthropic cosmological principle. Similarly, people like Arthur Peacocke urged the relevance of the concept of inference to the best explanation.

The propositional understandings of revelation implicit in these approaches were, however, further undermined by another issue that took on new importance towards the end of the twentieth century. It was the question of whether, and how, religious faiths other than one's own can be seen as having arisen from God's revelation of himself within different cultures. Keith Ward, in particular, attempted to develop an understanding of revelation that took up the pluralist insights of earlier investigators into the relationship between different faiths.

One of the most comprehensive responses to this issue from within the science and religion debate was that of Christopher Knight, who advocated a pluralist understanding of revelation based on an essentially naturalist understanding of divine action. Using the experiences of the risen Christ as his prime example, Knight explored the psychological basis of revelatory experience to affirm what he called a psychological-referential model of revelatory experience. As Ward's own position indicated, however, Knight's type of naturalism was not the only approach through which a pluralist understanding could be affirmed. A more conservative understanding of divine action can also give rise to a pluralistic position.

It is perhaps in the context of postfoundationalist understandings of rationality that the concept of revelation will most markedly affect the dialogue of science and theology in the near future. J. Wentzel van Huyssteen's approach, for example, is one that assumes, in the views of some, too great a distinction between theological and scientific rationality. Nevertheless, his way of acknowledging crucial areas of overlap provides a challenge to the simplistic distinction between empirical problems and God's revelation, which is often still held to separate science and theology. This acknowledgement is likely to be of considerable influence in an era profoundly influenced by postmodernist perspectives. A more subtle understanding of revelation than is yet common can, arguably, allow the implications of his insights to be fully explored.

See also Anthropic Principle; Critical Realism; Divine Action; Epistemology; Language; Natural Theology; Postfoundationalism; Postmodernism


barr, james. biblical faith and natural theology: the gifford lectures for 1991. oxford: clarendon press, 1993.

brook, john hedley. science and religion: some historical perspectives. cambridge, uk: cambridge university press, 1991.

congar, yves. the revelation of god, trans. a. manson and l. c. sheppard. new york: herder and herder, 1968.

henn, william. the hierarchy of truths according to yves congar, o.p. analecta gregoriana 246. rome: editrice pontificia università gregoriana, 1987.

knight, christopher c. wrestling with the divine: religion, science and revelation. minneapolis, minn.: fortress press, 2001.

peacocke, arthur r. intimations of reality: critical realism in science and religion. notre dame, ind.: university of notre dame press, 1984.

polkinghorne, john. faith, science and understanding. london: spck, 2000.

soskice, janet martin. metaphor and religious language. oxford: clarendon press, 1985.

torrance, thomas f. reality and scientific theology. edinburgh, uk: scottish academic press, 1985.

van huyssteen, j.wentzel. "postfoundationalism in theology and science." in rethinking theology and science: six models for the current dialogue, eds. niels h. gregersen and j. wentzel van huyssteen. grand rapids, mich.: eerdmans, 1998.

ward, keith. religion and revelation: a theology of revelation in the world's religions. oxford: clarendon press, 1994.

christopher c. knight


views updated Jun 11 2018


A revelation is any event that is interpreted subjectively to be a message from the otherworld, understood variously as the realm of the ancestors, spirits, deities, or God. As such, revelations lie at the heart of every religion. Through revelations the faithful receive knowledge about ultimate reality, guidance for constructing meaningful lives, and the possibility of relationship with the divine.

In a pluralistic society such as the United States, any definition of revelation must apply equally to all faiths. Mircea Eliade, who taught the history of religions at the University of Chicago in the latter part of the twentieth century, also used the term "hierophany" to provide a more universal understanding of the phenomenon. Hierophany combines the Greek words for sacred and appearance and describes the human perception of a separate and sacred realm making itself felt. Thus both the reality of the sacred and its distinction from ordinary experience are part of the subjective experience. In some religions, the hierophany is believed to have occurred primarily in the past, as recorded in scripture. In contrast, other traditions are built around ongoing revelation, where it is felt that the entire creation serves as a window onto the divine. "The cosmos in its entirety can become a hierophany" (Eliade 1957, p. 12).

Apart from the source of the revelation and its content, there are many ways in which messages from the otherworld are conveyed. Joachim Wach, Eliade's predecessor at the University of Chicago, argued for a phenomenology of the types of revelation: "In my view, a theory of the types of revelation is a task for the history of religions, a task that must be undertaken independently from the philosophical question about the essential nature of revelation" (Carpenter 1995, p. 8, n. 8).

The most common type of revelation is that of visions and voices, encountered in dreams and in the light of day. Here the message from the otherworld is experienced by means of the senses and the imagination, which derives from sense experience. The Lakota Indians relate how White Buffalo Calf Woman visited their ancestors during a time of starvation, gave them the sacred pipe, and taught them how to treat one another. After instructing them in the Seven Sacred Rites, the basis of Lakota religion, she turned into a white buffalo calf and then left them. Sometimes voices are heard and interpreted as sacred messages. American Muslims are guided by the Qur'an, their sacred scripture comprising the words that God spoke to Muhammad. The Prophet recited what he heard, and this was written down. Further, revelation might take place during dreaming. Christine Downing began to study ancient goddess traditions after feminine images of the divine spontaneously appeared in her dreams: "For me the quest for the goddess began with a dream" (Downing 1988, p. 30). In one dream she is sent out in search of the goddess; then falling asleep in a cave, the dreamer dreams of yet another cave deep below the surface of the Earth. She enters and feels the presence of the goddess, although she cannot see her.

In visions and voices, the message is seen, heard, or felt, as in ordinary sense experience. In divination, the message is encoded in patterns that are found in the natural world, and a specialist "sees" and interprets the message for others. Traditions of divination popular in American culture include astrology, palm reading, reading tea leaves or coffee grounds, and the tradition of interpreting tarot cards.

A third type of revelation is spirit possession, during which a spirit from the otherworld enters a person or object to convey a message. Spirit possession can be partial or complete. In partial possession, the medium is conscious and senses a guiding presence; this is sometimes referred to as inspiration. The inspiration of the Holy Spirit is a central theme of Christian experience. Total possession occurs in vodun (voodoo), where the spirit medium serves as a vehicle for the ancestors and saints. When the spirit arrives, the medium's own ego consciousness ("big guardian angel") is forced to leave the body and wander, as it does during sleep. Once the spirit departs, the medium has no memory of what happened.

In the spirit journey, the soul—or spirit—of the person leaves the body in a coma or trancelike state and travels to and from the otherworld. Only a trained specialist, a shaman or holy person, is able to make the journey without dying or going crazy. The Lakota medicine man Nickolas Black Elk recounts how he lay in a coma for twelve days while his spirit ascended into the presence of the grandfathers. There he learned sacred teachings about the destiny of his people.

Incarnation, another form of revelation, takes place when a being whose home is primarily in the otherworld takes on a mortal life—is born, lives, dies—to help people in one way or another. Christians regard Jesus Christ as a divine incarnation, revealing the presence and nature of God. Tibetan Buddhists, many of whom have resettled in the United States after the occupation of their country by the Chinese, regard the Dalai Lama as the incarnation of the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteśvara.

Finally, mysticism, too, is a form of revelation. In the mystical experience the boundary between the two worlds briefly dissolves so that the human comes into union with the divine. Mystics of all traditions insist that the initiative for union comes from the otherworld, although there is much that a person can do to prepare for such an encounter. J. Krishnamurti, who spent most of his life living and teaching in the United States, emphasizes the receptivity of the mystic: "[T]here must be total emptiness and only then that otherness, the timeless, comes" (Krishnamurti 1976, p. 168).

Approaching revelation as a historical event that involves subjective interpretation—the event is interpreted as a message from the otherworld—allows us to see the value that revelations hold in various religious traditions. Discerning the different types of revelation further elucidates the variety of religious expressions encountered in contemporary American religions.

See alsoAstrology; Divinity; Dreams; Mysticism; Near Death Experiences; Paranormal; Spirit; Spirit Possession; Trance.


Carpenter, David. Revelation, History, and the Dialogueof Religions: A Study of Bhartrhari and Bonaventure. 1995.

Deninger, Johannes. "Revelation." In The Encyclopediaof Religion, edited by Mircea Eliade. 1987.

Downing, Christine. The Goddess: Mythological Images ofthe Feminine. 1988.

Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane: The Natureof Religion. 1957.

Krishnamurti, J. Krishnamurti's Notebook. 1976.

Neihardt, John G. Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Storyof a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux. 1932.

Wach, Joachim. The Comparative Study of Religions. 1958.

Beverly Moon


views updated Jun 11 2018

Revelation (Lat., revelare, ‘to unveil’). The disclosure or communication of truths which would not otherwise be known, at least in the same way. A distinction is often made between, on the one hand, ‘natural revelation’ or ‘general revelation’, whereby such truths are discerned within the natural order (either by reason or by conviction that absolute value, especially beauty, has invaded a contingent moment or object or circumstance); and on the other hand, special or supernatural revelation, which comes from a source other than that of the human recipient, usually God. The method of supernatural revelation is variously understood, ranging from direct dictation (in which the limitations of a human author are overridden) to concursive activity (in which the source is God, or the Holy Spirit, working with the human author—a view which, in the Jewish and Christian case, recognizes the contingency of the words produced, but raises difficulties for traditional claims of inerrancy in revealed words).

Muslims hold a strong doctrine of revelation, believing that ‘the mother of the book’ (umm al-Kitāb) is with God in heaven. The Qurʾān, therefore, is sent down to prophets as they and their circumstances can bear it—and consummately so through Muḥammad, whose recipient community preserved it without corruption or loss. The major terms for ‘revelation’ are tanzīl and waḥy.

Whereas in W. religions revelation is usually related to particular persons and occasions, in Hinduism the concept is more subtle and diffused. The Veda is believed to have no human author, and in some sense is revealed—the exact sense is not agreed. Śabda (sound) is a source of knowledge with many different aspects. Within the context of sound, anubhūti (direct experience of Brahman) arises from meditation on texts from the Upaniṣads as they are heard—not simply as they are read in silence. But this experience is possible only because the Upaniṣads themselves arise from the Vedas which are the constant (or in some views eternal) revelation of the truth about dharma and Brahman. In Vedānta, the Vedas are no more real than anything else (māyā), but they serve to point beyond themselves to what is real, much as a picture points to that which it endeavours to portray.


views updated May 23 2018

rev·e·la·tion / ˌrevəˈlāshən/ • n. 1. a surprising and previously unknown fact, esp. one that is made known in a dramatic way: revelations about his personal life. ∎  the making known of something that was previously secret or unknown: the revelation of an alleged plot to assassinate the king. ∎  used to emphasize the surprising or remarkable quality of someone or something: seeing them play at international level was a revelation.2. the divine or supernatural disclosure to humans of something relating to human existence or the world: an attempt to reconcile Darwinian theories with biblical revelation | a divine revelation. ∎  (Revelation or inf. Revelations) (in full the Revelation of St. John the Divine) the last book of the New Testament, recounting a divine revelation of the future to St. John.DERIVATIVES: rev·e·la·tion·al / -shənl/ adj.


views updated May 17 2018

rev·el / ˈrevəl/ • v. (rev·eled, rev·el·ing; chiefly Brit. rev·elled, rev·el·ling) [intr.] engage in lively and noisy festivities, esp. those which involve drinking and dancing: [as n.] (reveling) a night of drunken reveling. ∎  (revel in) get great pleasure from (a situation or experience): Bill said he was secretly reveling in his new-found fame.• n. (revels) lively and noisy festivities, esp. those which involve drinking and dancing.DERIVATIVES: rev·el·er or rev·el·ler n.ORIGIN: late Middle English: from Old French reveler ‘rise up in rebellion,’ from Latin rebellare ‘to rebel.’

Revelation, Book of

views updated May 14 2018

Revelation, Book of. The last book and the only apocalypse in the New Testament. The book is a series of visions, prefaced (chs. 1–3) by letters to seven churches in Asia Minor. The hostile attitude to Rome suggests a date during Nero's persecution, c.64, or later under Domitian (81–96). In Christian history the book has become important in times of persecution and in the context of millenarian movements.


views updated May 09 2018

Revelation ★ 2000

In the continuing adventures based on the “Left Behind” novels (a conservative Christian interpretation of the Book of Revelation), a counterterrorism expert (Fahey) goes up against a Messiah (Mancuso) out to rule the world, etc., etc. 97m/C DVD . Jeff Fahey, Nick Mancuso, Carol Alt, Leigh Lewis; D: Andre Van Heerden; W: Peter LaLonde, Paul LaLonde; C: Jiri (George) Tirl.