Revelation, Theology of

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The English word is derived from the Latin revelare, meaning to unveil or disclose. In common usage, even outside a religious context, revelation means a sudden and unexpected receipt of knowledge of a profoundly significant character, especially that which gives the recipient a new outlook on life and the world. It frequently designates the free action whereby one person confides his inner thoughts and sentiments to another, enabling the latter to enter into his spiritual world. In theology the term generally denotes the action by which God communicates to creatures a participation in His own knowledge, including His intimate self-knowledge. Such a communication is supernatural since it transcends all that a creature could discover by its native powers. Some authors use the term in a wider sense to include "natural" or "general" revelation, that is, the knowledge of divine things that God imparts through nature and conscience. This usage has the advantage of making it clear that all man's knowledge of God depends on God's free initiative. But to avoid repeating what is said elsewhere (see theology, natural), we shall here speak only of supernatural revelation.

No adequate theology of revelation can be derived by mere analysis of the formal, abstract notion. The Christian view emerges from a concrete consideration as presented in Scripture and tradition (see tradition [in theology]). Building on the biblical idea of revelation, this article first surveys the main statements of the Catholic magisterium and then sketches a general theory of revelation as understood in modern Catholic theology.

Documents of the Church

Until recent centuries the existence and knowability of revelation were taken for granted by Christians; little was therefore said concerning revelation as such.

Refutation of error. Church decisions were concerned rather with specifying the contents of revelation in answer to particular heresies. In the Middle Ages it was repeatedly declared against Manichaean denials that the same God had spoken in the Old Testament and in the New Testament (e.g., H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum [32d ed. Freiburg 1963] 685, 790, 854). Lateran IV, amplifying this point, affirmed in 1215 that God had given His "salutary doctrine" to the human race "through Moses and the holy Prophets and His other servants, according to a most orderly disposition of times," culminating in the action by which "the only-begotten Son of God, Jesus Christ more evidently disclosed the way of life" (ibid. 800801).

The Council of Trent touched incidentally on the nature of revelation in its discussion of the divinely authoritative sources of doctrine. The Christian gospel, said the council, having been "previously promised by the Prophets in the Holy Scriptures," was first promulgated by Jesus Christ with His own lips. Then it was disseminated by the Apostles on the basis of what they had heard from Jesus Christ and been taught by the Holy Spirit (ibid. 1501).

In the nineteenth century, a number of fundamental errors concerning revelation and faith were condemned. The fideists were censured for their view that faith was not solidly supported by the evidences of credibility (cf. ibid. 27512756, 27652769) (see fideism). The rationalists and agnostics were reprobated for denying respectively the possibility and knowability of revelation (cf. ibid. 29012907) (see rationalism; agnosticism). Likewise rejected was the semirationalist position, which maintained that once human reason had developed to full maturity all the Christian dogmas could be established by human science and philosophy, without appeal to authority (cf. ibid. 2856, 2909) (see semirationalism).

Positive teaching. The Church's doctrine regarding the possibility, existence, and nature of revelation was most authoritatively set forth by Vatican I, which canonized the doctrine that human knowledge is of two distinct orders: natural knowledgereasonand supernatural knowledgerevelation (ibid. 3004, 3015). Although human reason is able to attain some knowledge of God by its natural light, God has graciously consented to reveal Himself and His eternal decrees in a supernatural way (ibid. 3004). This revelation has a twofold aim. First, it permits the most important naturally knowable truths of religion to be grasped by all, with full certitude, and without admixture of error. Secondly, it enables man as an intelligent creature to orient himself to the supernatural end for which God has destined him (ibid. 3005). (see destiny, supernatural.) If man had a merely natural destiny, revelation would be only morally necessary, but in view of man's gratuitous call to the intuitive vision of God, revelation is absolutely necessary for salvation. The revealed object accordingly contains not only truths that human reason could discover by its own efforts, but also, more importantly, divine mysteries that could by no means be grasped without revelation (ibid. 3015, 3041). These mysteries, even after their revelation, remain so hidden in God that man can apprehend them only obscurely in this life (ibid. 3016) (see mystery [in theology]).

Vatican I dealt with the relations between revelation and reason. Reason, it affirmed, can discern no absurdity in the fact or contents of Christian revelation (ibid. 3017,3027). Indeed it can establish the reasonableness of believing, thanks to the abundant signs of credibility, notably miracles and prophecies (ibid. 3009, 3014, 3019,3033). Once the act of faith has been made, reason can ponder fruitfully on the data of revelation. If this meditation is made with due diligence, piety, and modesty, reason can achieve a very profitable, though limited, understanding of mysteries themselves. Such an understanding can arise from comparing the revealed mysteries with one another, with man's last end, and with things naturally known (ibid. 3016).

The Modernist heresy at the opening of the twentieth century gave occasion for further clarifications. The Roman magisterium declared that revelation is not a mere emotion or sentiment welling up from the depths of the subconscious; it has a definite intellectual content accepted not on the basis of intrinsic evidence, but on the authority of the revealing God (ibid. 3542). Such acceptance is commended by the external signs of credibility, especially miracles and prophecies, which have not lost their efficacy for the modern mind (ibid. 3539). Revelation, moreover, was complete in apostolic times (ibid. 3421). The Dogmas of the Church are revealed truths (ibid. 3422); they do not evolve in the course of time into dogmas having another sense (ibid. 3541) (see modern ism).

Vatican II devoted an entire dogmatic constitution, Dei Verbum, to the subject of revelation. The doctrine of that council will be closely followed in the exposition that follows.

Theological Reflection

From the time of the enlightenment until the midtwentieth century, a heavily apologetic slant was given to the treatise on revelation. Primary attention was focused on what reason, unaided by faith, could demonstrate concerning the possibility, fittingness, and knowability of revelation. Contemporary theology is more concerned with exploring from a position within faith the nature and attitudes of revelation. This inquiry is favored by the interests and achievements of the twentieth century with regard to the theory of language, communication, symbolism, and interpersonal relations (see apologetics, 2).

Modern Protestant scholarship has given added impetus to the study of revelation. Biblical scholars such as C. H. Dodd, Oscar Cullmann, and Alan Richardson have called attention to the historical dimension of revelation, as witnessed by the mighty deeds of God recounted in Scripture. Dialectical theologians such as Karl Barth and Emil Brunner have stressed the mysterious attributes of God's word to man, which cannot be fully captured in human concepts and language (see dialectical theology). Existential theologians such as Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich have pointed out the value of revelation in liberating man from the anxieties and pettiness of ordinary existence (see existential theology). In general it may be said that recent Protestant theology tends to look on revelation primarily as event and experience. Catholic theologians, without ignoring these aspects, are more concerned with safeguarding the doctrinal and transmissible features, as accentuated in the documents of the Church.

The contemporary theologian will find valuable elements for a theory of revelation in the Greek Fathers and in St. Augustine. Among the scholastic doctors St. Thomas Aquinas has contributed most importantly to the field in his treatises on faith and prophecy (Summa Theologiae 2a2ae, 116; 171178).

Aspects of revelation. The Judeo-Christian revelation, which primarily concerns us here, is the noetic component of God's total work of redemption. Through revelation man becomes a sharer in the knowledge proper to God, inchoatively on earth, definitively in the life after death. Revelation therefore introduces man into the blessedness of God's own life. If he is to view reality, as it were, through God's eyes, man's mental horizons must be enlarged; otherwise he would reduce God's message to purely human perspectives. Therefore, revelation has a subjective aspect, consisting in the inner transformation of man's apprehensive faculties. This modification, however, occurs when the divine message comes from without through a definite intervention of God in history. The subjective and objective aspects of revelation are inseparable, but the former are more explicitly treated under the headings of grace and faith. We shall therefore focus primary attention on the objective side, considering first the process by which revelation comes to man and then the inner structure of the revealed datum.

Process of revelation. Two phases may be distinguishedthe original communication of God's message to man and its subsequent transmission.

Immediate Revelation. According to Christian belief, immediate revelation was given in biblical times to the Prophets and Apostles (see prophecy [theology of]; apostle.) The prophetic experience sometimes involved external sensation, dreams, visions, imaginary words, and even the direct infusion of new ideas, but none of these elements, according to St. Thomas, is essential. The primary and indispensable element is the illumination of the Prophet's understanding, giving him a divine insight into the meaning of what is presented to his mind (Summa Theologiae 2a2ae, 173.2; C. gent. 3.154).

The Apostles received revelation through the spoken words of Christ, in the context of His conduct. But in order for these words to take on the value of revelation, the recipients had to be inwardly attracted and enlightened by grace (Mt 16.17; Jn 6.64, 66). Some of the Apostles were later favored by ecstatic experiences (Acts, ch. 9 and 10; 2 Cor 12.1), but such experiences are not constitutive of apostleship as such, which depends rather on personal association with the risen Lord and on a special commission from Him.

According to the Bible, revelation comes primarily through the word of God. The word may be spoken or written symbol, or it may be an interior utterance whereby God articulates His message in the consciousness of the recipient. But the word of God, in Hebrew thinking, is not merely a vehicle of knowledge. Besides being noetic, it is dynamic: it effects what it signifies (cf. Is 55.1011; Heb 4.12).

Even human words, as understood in modern speech-theory, are not devoid of efficacy. When one person addresses another or opens up his heart to him, the other becomes personally involved. If he responds appropriately in faith and trust, a new interpersonal relationship is established. God's revelatory word opens up to the believer a salutary communion with God and with his fellow believers. St. John of the Cross, in his Ascent of Mount Carmel (2.31), connects the sanctifying power of God's word with its dynamic efficacy [E. Allison Peers, ed., The Complete Works of St. John of the Cross (London 193435) 1.218219].

The word of God, in its full biblical sense, includes God's revelatory deeds. The early books of the Bible describe numerous theophanies (e.g., the burning bush, the pillar of fire) in which God visibly manifests His presence. The whole Bible bears witness to the salvific and punitive actions by which God intervenes in history. These deeds have value not simply as confirmatory signs, bearing out the Prophets' declarations, but also as significant gestures. They are themselves revelatory, at least when accompanied by the commentary of prophetic interpretation. Words and deeds are closely interconnected; only in their mutual union do they constitute the full event of revelation. In the words of Vatican II, "the deeds wrought by God in the history of salvation manifest and confirm the teaching and realities signified by the words, while the words proclaim the deeds and clarify the mystery contained in them" (DV 2).

Mediated Revelation. The Prophets and Apostles received revelation not for their own sake but for the people of God. They were conscious of a divine mandate to hand on the message faithfully. This they did primarily through their preaching; and authorized preaching in the Church continues to be a vehicle of revelation. Like the original divine word, the preached word is charged with mysterious power. Besides its objective reality, it has a spiritual dimension which gives it value as God's word. The Fathers (Augustine, Gregory the Great) and St. Thomas (De ver. 27.3 ad 12) look upon Christian preachers as instruments or disposing causes in the transmission of revelation. Their human words became revelatory when the grace of God fecundates the minds of their hearers (see preaching, iii [theology of]).

The inspired words of Scripture likewise convey revelation. Not all the biblical writers were immediate recipients of revelation. Some of them merely wrote down what they had learned from ordinary experience or from the testimony of others. Many statements in the Bible, taken in themselves, are merely secular pieces of information, and in that sense not revelation. But the entire Bible, according to Catholic faith, was composed under a divine impulse (or charism) known as inspiration. Therefore it constitutes a divinely guaranteed objectification of the religious consciousness of God's people in its supernaturally guided existence, lived out under the impact of progressive revelation. In this sense, the whole Bible is revelatory. Some theologians hold that the Bible, like the preached word, has quasi-sacramental value; that is, that one who reads or hears it under favorable circumstances receives grace to enter into a new relationship with God in faith. The Bible becomes in fullest actuality the word of God when it is being read in a spirit of faith.

The same combination of word and deed already noted in the original communication of revelation is characteristic of its further transmission. The Prophets often preach by dramatic actions (e.g., ch. 20 of Isaiah; ch. 27 of Jeremiah; Hos 1.29). So too, in the Church the Christian revelation is transmitted not only by spoken and written sentences but by the liturgy and by the whole conduct of Christians, which reflects the teaching of Christ and visibly incarnates His grace at definite points of space and time.

Stages of revelation. The Judeo-Christian revelation was given progressively in the course of centuries. St. Thomas distinguishes three great periods of sacred historybefore the Mosaic law, under the law, and under grace; these he connects with the great revelations made respectively to abraham, moses, and the Apostles (Summa Theologiae 2a2ae, 174.6). The revelation was from its inception public; it was addressed not simply to individuals but to a whole people. The Israelite revelation in the Old Testament period was particular, being directed to a single nation, rather than, like Christianity, to all mankind. Moreover, it was preparatory for it pointed forward to a later fulfillment. From a Christian point of view, the Old Testament revelation appears as totally ordered toward Christ and the Church by way of type and prophecy. Christ Himself is depicted in the New Testament in terms borrowed from the Old Testament. He is the second Adam, the new Moses, the son of david, the messiah, the Servant (see suffering servant, songs of the), son of man, son of god. Jesus Himself declares that the great personages of the Old Testament looked forward to His coming (Mt 13.1617; Jn 5.45; 8.56).

Vatican II stated that Christ is "the Mediator and at the same time the fullness of all revelation" (DV 2). This full revelation is present in Christ not only objectively but subjectively. Revelation should not be thought of as merely objective, existing outside of human minds. At its most perfect, it exists in the human intellect of Christ, which grasps the divine as fully as a finite mind can grasp it. Because Jesus as man was totally receptive to God's word and perfectly faithful to His vocation as witness, He gave supreme expression to God's message for mankind. And this He did by both words and deeds. "Because Christ Himself is the Word of God, the very deed of the Word is a word to us" [Augustine, In evang. Ioh. 24.2 (Corpus Christianorum. Series latina 36:244)].

Through the teaching and life of Christincluding His Passion and glorificationGod communicates in an unsurpassable way His message of pardon and reconciliation, manifesting His eternal attributes and freely chosen attitudes toward man. When it is said that the deposit of faith was closed with the Apostles, this does not have the merely negative meaning that God decides to say nothing more. It has a positive aspect inasmuch as God has so completely expressed Himself in the Christ-event that any real addition would be superfluous. Whatever comes later has no function except to illumine the meaning of what Christ said and did and was.

Although Christians await no further public revelation within history (Vatican II, DV 4), much remains to be done by way of clarification. To penetrate more deeply the meaning of the deposit is the ceaseless task of theologians and of the Church (cf. H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum [32d ed. Freiburg 1963] 3020, quoting St. Vincent of Lerins). But since mystery is the very heart of revelation, theological understanding does not aim to remove the essential obscurity of faith or render the revealed datum evident to reason (see dogmatic theology). So long as man remains on earth, he must be content to walk by faith, reverently inclining his mind and will before the Word of God. At the end of time, faith will issue into vision, and the revelation will be clearly perceived by the help of the light of glory.

Contents of revelation. The contents are described by Vatican I as "God Himself and the eternal decrees of His will" (ibid. 3004). Vatican II teaches that "God chose to reveal Himself and to make known to us the hidden purpose of His will" (DV 2). The mighty deeds of God are the central theme of the confessions of faith found in the Old Testament (e.g., ch. 7 and 26 of Deuteronomy) and in the earliest Christian preaching (e.g., ch. 2 and 10 of Acts). The focal message of the Old Testament is the liberation of Israel from the slavery of Egypt through Moses; that of the New Testament, the deliverance of mankind from the death of sin through Jesus Christ. In the course of centuries, this "recital theology" was gradually supplemented by more abstract, ontological formulas, as needed to settle questions that came up at a later stage of reflection. The successive creeds and dogmatic declarations of the Church exhibit this trend. The intelligible content of the Church's dogmas, according to the Catholic view, is not an addition to revelation, but is an authentic aspect of the revealed datum itself (cf. ibid. 3011).

In the final analysis, one believes in neither the salvific events nor the doctrines for their own sake, but in God who manifests Himself through these. The primary object of revelation is God Himself in His gracious approach to man. Because revelation includes this element of divine encounter, it can never be fully contained in dogmatic propositions (cf. ibid. 3886). Thanks to his faith-relationship to the Light of the World (Jn 8.12), the Christian is inwardly renewed in his mind (Rom 12.2).

Church and revelation. The Apostles hold a unique status in salvation history by reason of their immediate contact with the Incarnate Word (1 Jn 1.1) and their Pentecostal experience. The post-apostolic Church receives revelation dependently on them, through Scripture and tradition. The Church is commissioned to preserve, defend, and interpret the contents of faith, adapting the presentation to the capacities and needs of successive ages. As this process continues, the implicit contents of the deposit are progressively unfolded. The explicitation is not a mere matter of logical deduction from the primitive formulas. Thanks to the Spirit of Christ that animates it, the Church enjoys a kind of "connaturality" with the revealing God and a privileged insight into His word. In proclaiming dogmas, the Church therefore speaks with prophetic authority (see doctrine, development of).

Revelation outside the Church. Judaism continues to profess the revelation given under the Old Testament. Islam accepts certain elements from Judaism and Christianity. Non-Catholic Christian communities retain and teach large portions of the Christian revelation and can, to that extent, communicate authentic revelation to their adherents. Through the inspirations of the Holy Spirit, who is operative among them, non-Catholic Christians can achieve valid insights into the Gospel and in this way contribute to the development of doctrine. Since the whole patrimony of Christ, according to Catholic belief, was passed on to the Catholic Church, the presence of revealed truth in these other confessions is a bond between them and Catholicism (see Vatican II, Decree on Ecumenism, 2-3).

Can revelation be present in other religions, independently of any influence upon them of biblical religion? Formerly it was widely believed that elements of the primitive revelation made to Adam or Noah had been kept alive in these religions, but this theory, in the light of what is now known about the antiquity of man, has been largely abandoned (see revelation, primitive). However, few would deny that God in some way reveals Himself to the unevangelized. Since supernatural faith is absolutely necessary for salvation, no other view seems fully compatible with God's universal salvific will. St. Paul seems to take it for granted that God has revealed Himself to the pagans of Paul's time (Acts 14.16; Rom1.1920; 2.1415). And St. Thomas, as is well known, maintained that every man can make an act of justifying faith when he reaches moral maturity (cf. Summa Theologiae 1a2ae, 89.6). It is therefore probable that the non-Judaic religions embody certain reflections of a supernatural experience of God. Vatican II, in its Declaration on Non-Christian Religions, speaks of them as being based on a certain perception of the divine (NA 2). Unlike the biblical revelation, these religious expressions are not protected against serious distortion. But thanks to the elements of truth they contain, the non-biblical religions may be providential channels of grace for those who have had no opportunity to hear an accurate and persuasive presentation of the gospel.

Private revelation. Since it is the object of a separate article, private revelation requires only a brief mention here to point out how it differs from the public revelation of which we have been speaking (see revela tions, private). Whatever God has communicated since apostolic times to privileged souls can add nothing to the deposit of Christian faith. Private revelations of this character may be granted for the personal good of individuals and also to stir up among Christians a more faithful adherence to the gospel. St. Thomas holds that prophetic revelation, insofar as it is ordered to doctrine, ceased with the Apostles, but that such revelation, insofar as it is directive of human action, will always continue (Summa Theologiae 2a2ae, 174.6 ad 3). In view of the dangers of delusion, fraud, exaggeration, and the like, reports of private revelations should be treated with caution. The Church never teaches that their contents must be accepted on a motive of divine faith, but sometimes it certifies that they contain nothing contrary to sound faith and morals.

Demonstrability of revelation. As declared by Vatican I and by John Paul II in his encyclical fides et ratio, God has furnished sufficient external signs to render the assent of faith fully reasonable. Without being able to give apodictic proofs of the truth of Christianity, reason can prepare for, and support, the decision of faith. Philosophy can show that the idea of revelation contains no absurdity. Why should God not be able to communicate with man? Considering man's actual condition, as attested by human history and personal experience, a revelation would unquestionably be a great source of encouragement and guidance to man on his earthly pilgrimage; it seems entirely worthy of a beneficent God.

The philosophy of religion can specify to some extent the form that a divine revelation might be expected to take. God would undoubtedly accommodate His revelation to man's nature; He would speak so that man could hear. But man is by nature a historical and social being. He fulfills himself through free personal actions unfolding in time, interrogating the experience of his contemporaries and forbears. It seems likely, therefore, that God would communicate to man in a social and historical mannerthrough spatio-temporal symbols (words) given and transmitted in history. The religious inquirer, therefore, should turn to history to look for signs of whether God has spoken.

Apologetics can carry the investigation a stage further. It can assess the value of the various signs of credibility and exhibit the prudence of believing. But in view of the complexity of the evidences, the astounding and mysterious contents of the Christian message, and the heavy demands that it makes on fallen nature, apologetics will hardly be able to bring a man to the point of professing Christianity. The firm assent of salutary faith does not directly result from the arguments of credibility but from the grace of God.

See Also: symbol in revelation; revelation, concept of (in the bible); faith and reason; miracles (in the bible); miracles (theology of); revelation, virtual.

Bibliography: Catholic Literature. r. latourelle, Theology of Revelation (Staten Island, N.Y. 1966). e. schillebeeckx, Revelation and Theology, 2 v. (New York 19671968). k. rahner, Hearers of the Word (New York 1969). a dulles, Revelation Theology: A History (New York 1969); Models of Revelation (Garden City, N.Y. 1983). a. shorter, Revelation and Its Interpretation (London 1983). h. de lubac, La Révélation divine (Paris 1983). Protestant Literature. j. baillie, The Idea of Revelation in Recent Thought (New York 1956). h. d. mcdonald, Ideas of Revelation: An Historical Study, a.d. 1700 to a.d. 1860 (London 1959); Theories of Revelation: An Historical Study, 18601960 (London 1963). h. r. niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation (New York 1941). h. e. brunner, Revelation and Reason, tr. o. wyon (Philadelphia 1946). p. tillich, Systematic Theology, 3 v. (Chicago 195163) v. 1. w. pannenberg et al., Revelation as History (New York 1968). g. fackre, The Doctrine of Revelation (Edinburgh 1997).

[a. dulles]