The Nature of Revelation

The authors of the Bible give data to depict the truth in fields of metaphysics, ontology, anthropology, ethics, epistemology, and teleology. The Bible is not a quest for what is true; but, rather assumes truth is there and attempts to depict it. The biblical author, inspired by the Holy Spirit, does not go on a quest via trial and error to discover what is the nature of truth as if it were contingent upon man to uncover by himself. Philosophers, skeptics, and scientist are in the dark and use various means to discover truth. Skeptics use doubt; philosophers use reason; scientists use observation. All of these fields seek to uncover a priori or a posteriori truth. After these truths are uncovered, justification ensues to prove that these truths are actually true.

The quest for what is true and what is real is a daunting task for people who start in the dark. This can be pictured by a dark labyrinth with thousands of dead ends. Several philosophers have entered claiming to have reached the prized end of truth; all the while, skeptics follow the path those philosophers trailblaze, get to the end, and show that prized truth is nothing more than fool’s gold. Modern man’s prevailing tendency is to understand the labyrinth of truth an exercise of futility. The pessimistic outlook says the concept of truth is so elusive that it is undiscoverable; whereas, the more optimistic perspective says there are multiple truths (that all happen to contradict). Millennia witness to the fact that men who start from darkness fail in their quest for true truth.

Biblical authors, on the other hand, start with the light. “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light” (Psalm 36:9). To be clear, light is supernatural, divine revelation. Within the Bible, the originator of reality, the essence from which all else flows, depicts reality.[1] The Holy Spirit inspires human authors who depict truth with various styles (i.e. genres). Biblical authors compose poetry, tell stories, dictate laws, scribe letters, and copy down prophecies in order to portray truth. They do not discover truth, but it is given to them by God.[2]  “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).

Generally speaking, the nature of the data the Biblical authors wish to convey is concentrated in areas that man cannot discover in the darkness. Therefore, there is very little information in the Bible on quantum physics, calculus, virology, architecture, musical theory, grammar, et.al. This is not to say that these various studies are irrelevant or unimportant; but rather they answer a question of another kind: how? A biologist can technically parse the human body down to every single minutia and can still have difficulty defining the essence of humanity. Is a human merely a sum of their various material parts? If one cuts off an arm or has a heart transplant, do they cease being who they are? Biblical authors are not concerned with the how of the world or merely parsing the physical parts of the world. Rather the biblical authors seek to answer certain major questions: Who is God? Who is man? What is the relationship between these two beings?

Certainly, the content of the Scriptures goes beyond just the answers to those three questions. The answers to these questions will inevitably intersect with other disciplines and concepts. However, at the essence, the Biblical authors seek to convey truth to answer these questions that humanity would be incapable in an ultimate sense of discovering on its own.

“The people who walked in darkness

   have seen a great light;

those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,

    on them has light shone” (Isaiah 9:2)

The Practical Process

The interpreter of the Bible has to deal with a substantial amount of data. The internal data includes the text, its grammar, syntax, and lexicon. Following the flow of thought or argumentation or plot line of a given work (i.e. individual book), but also recognizing the canon operates as a synthetic whole. Therefore, the layers of literary context operate from the whole Bible down to the smallest pericope. The external data includes the cultural and historical data that can be extrapolated and reconstructed surrounding the author, the audience, and the situation.

The amount of data can be overwhelming and debilitating to an untrained and unskilled interpreter; however, the process is straightforward: collect, observe, analyze, evaluate, synthesize. For textual data: select an appropriate pericope as divided by its author (collect), read the selection as a whole noting syntax, grammatical constructions, and lexical choices (observe), make connections between the observations and inferred authorial intent (analyze), within the various points the author conveys with his signs, determine the main point(s) (evaluate), produce one to two sentences which specifically and completely convey this author’s main point (synthesize). Certainly this process within textual data would happen simultaneously with the processes within the historical/cultural data and literary data. See chart below:

 Textual dataHistorical/Cultural dataLiterary data
CollectSelect an appropriate pericope as divided by its authorSelect appropriate, accurate, and reliable tools (commentaries, et. al.) that give historical/cultural information on the selected text/bookSelect the rest of the book surrounded the pericope, as well as other works written by the same author, as well as relevant text with similar themes or meanings
ObserveRead the selection as a whole noting syntax, grammatical constructions, and lexical choicesRead the data taking note of important information on the author, audience, and situationRead the various texts taking note of how similar themes or meanings are developed
AnalyzeMake connections between the observations and inferred authorial intentMake connections between the text and the historical/cultural dataMake connections between the themes and meanings of the surrounding literature with the selected text
EvaluateWithin the various points the author conveys with his signs, determine the main point(s)Determine what data is relevant to the text and aids the interpretation without conjectureDetermine what data clarifies or enhances the meaning of the selected text
SynthesizeProduce one to two sentences which specifically and completely convey this author’s main pointRefine the sentence(s) in accordance to the distilled dataRefine the sentence(s) in accordance to the distilled data
The distilling process within various data groups

The Biblical Principle

                All of this process leads to the one or two sentence summary of the author’s intended main point from the selected text. J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays give five important rules for these principles:

  1. The principle should be reflected in the text.
  2. The principle should be timeless and not tied to a specific situation.
  3. The principle should not be culturally bound.
  4. The principle should correspond to the teaching of the rest of Scripture.
  5. The principle should be relevant to both the biblical audience and the contemporary audience.[3]

These five rules are excellent tests for a biblical principle after they are developed. On top of this, five general guidelines will assist the formulation of biblical principles.

Utilize a Present Tense Verb

                This can be a subtle and challenging concept. This coincides with the rule that the principle should be timeless. This guideline is even applicable to eschatological texts. Take 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 for example:

13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 ESV

                Without even doing much research behind this particular text, one may formulate a biblical principle, “Jesus will return.” Now, looking at the 5 rules above, this principle does meet those qualifications. It is reflected in the text (cf. vv. 15-16, “coming of the Lord. . . the Lord himself will descend from heaven”). It is timeless to an extent (one might argue that after Christ’s return, saying, “Jesus will return” is not applicable sense it has already occurred). It says nothing about culture. It does correspond with the rest of Scripture (cf. Acts 1:9-11, Revelation 19). It is also relevant to both audiences. Saying those words to the original audience and modern audiences are both valid.

                However, there is a way to reformulate it with a present tense verb without detracting from the meaning, and perhaps even enhancing it. Take the action of the principle and turn it into a participle or verbal noun: “Jesus’s return.” Now we can qualify this verbal noun with something the text: “Jesus’s return is definite (“a word from the Lord” v.15) and encouraging (“therefore encourage one another. . .” v. 18).” Not only does this principle use present tense verbs, it’s also a little more specific to the text.

Make the Text’s Main Point be the Principle’s Main Point

                Take a look again at 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 above. Notice what the text starts talking about in v. 12? The main topic is “those who are asleep.” “Asleep” is a figure of speech in this case a euphemism). Most cultures don’t practice grieving when someone goes to bed to get their nightly rest (notice “may not grieve” in v. 14). Texts don’t always plainly tell you what the figure of speech’s literal meaning is; however, this text gives the meaning in v. 15b: “And the dead in Christ will rise first.” Thus, “asleep” is equivalent to death. Notice, the above biblical principle about Christ’s return mentioned nothing about the dead in Christ which is arguably Paul’s main point in this passage. So while the above principle was true, used present tense verbs, met all the five rules, it did not make the main point of the text be the main point of the principle. Here’s another potential principle: “Christians’ grief is unlike the rest of the world.” Notice, this principle pulls especially from v. 13; however, it leaves out a lot of other data included in the text. Can you think of a better way to word the principle to be more inclusive of the data?

                Here’s my attempt: “Christians are encouraged by Christ’s resurrection, definite return, and abiding presence when their loved ones die in Christ.” Notice some of the synthetization in the principle. The first word “Christians” is the broader (i.e. more universally understood) concept from “brothers” in v. 13. “Encouraged” comes from v. 18. “Christ’s resurrection” comes from, “Since we believe that Jesus died and rose again,” in v.14. “Definite return” explained above. “Abiding presence” comes from the fact Paul envisions the dead and the living joined together in the air with the Lord, “and so we will always be with the Lord” (v. 17). “When their loved ones in Christ die” being the central focus of the whole paragraph (and of course, the concept of “in Christ” could be further parsed and added to the principle; perhaps simplified as “when their Christian loved ones die”). This wholistic principle that synthesizes the whole passage is ready to be applied in believing and unbelieving lives alike.

No Imperatives

Generally, don’t make the theological principle into a command. The commands should be saved for the application portion. Take Deuteronomy 4:1-8 for example:

“And now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the rules[a] that I am teaching you, and do them, that you may live, and go in and take possession of the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you. You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you. Your eyes have seen what the Lord did at Baal-peor, for the Lord your God destroyed from among you all the men who followed the Baal of Peor. But you who held fast to the Lord your God are all alive today. See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?

Deuteronomy 4:1-8 ESV

Now there are some imperatives given in this text; as certainly there are throughout the law. It would be easy to try to distill a simplistic imperatival principle from this text: “Obey God.” The verse plainly says about the commands, “You should do them. . .Keep them and do them.” Wouldn’t “obey God” be an appropriate biblical principle? Well, in what way should someone obey? Who should obey? What should they obey about God? You see this command leaves too much in question. The command does not suffice, nor is it specific enough to the text. But notice the text does not just tell people to obey God, it also says something about obedience. Instead of just relying on a generic command, the biblical principle can incorporate the entire passage, “Complete obedience to God leads away from destruction and toward all people recognizing God as the one, true, and holy God.”

Consider the application of that biblical principle compared to the previous one. Sin, generally speaking, leads to destruction. Destruction of relationships, destruction of God’s good gifts, and ultimately destruction of life. Continuing down paths of sin leads to destruction; whereas, obedience to God leads to an abundant life. This abundant life ultimately promised via the gospel. Think about how the believer’s behavior represents who God is. This ethical motivation is surely more moving than just “Obey God.” A Christian’s behavior tells other people who don’t know God exactly who God is!

Be Text Specific, Not Situation Specific

1 Samuel 8 recounts the story of Israel demanding the last judge, Samuel, to install a king over them. Samuel is upset about the whole thing and gives them an extensive warning of what the king will do. The people practically ignore the warning and demand a king to which God relents and gives them a king, one exactly like they demanded. Now there is certainly a substantial amount of data in this narrative plot. It may be easy to jump to a simplistic command, “Don’t ask for a king.” But then the interpreter may remember to not use imperatives and change this principle: “Asking for a king is bad, very bad.” Here the verb that was an imperative was changed to a participle to communicate the same basic idea. This does break one of the rules of developing principles: “The principle should be timeless and not tied to a specific situation.” When you think about asking for a king, in the American context, not very many people would be eager to do that. The American government was set up in rebellion to a monarchical system.

However, there is a danger of concentrating a large amount of power in one person (esp. 1 Sam. 8:10-18). So, the principle could be further defined: “Concentrating lots of power in one person could end with disastrous results.” The Lord Acton put it this way, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Certainly there is some biblical truth in this principle that is reflected in the text. But, remember the main questions the biblical authors elucidate: Who is God? Who is man? And what is the nature of the relationship between these two? The above principle certainly explains an anthropological truth, but it leaves out God who is a primary actor in the narrative. God told Samuel to obey the voice of the people then chose someone who met their qualifications (fight their battles). God purposefully chose the wrong candidate first, rather than choosing the man after the Lord’s heart (1 Sam 13:14). So, not only does the biblical author bring light the condition of man, but also the character of God: “God sometimes gives people what they sinfully and selfishly want as a form of judgment.”

Be Gospel Focused, Not Moral Focused

Morals are found throughout the Bible. Morals, of course are not bad. For an example or moralism, think back to the previous narrative in 1 Samuel 8. Moralism would bring a sermon akin to this one fictionalized below:

Look at what Samuel did! He didn’t raise his sons right! He didn’t find a good judge to come after him! Samuel failed! Now listen close to what I’m about to say, because this is getting to the very heart of what Samuel is trying to tell us here. Listen up! Especially you leaders! If you don’t find and train your successor, you will fail as a leader and your vision will be replaced by someone else! Don’t you want to succeed? Do you want your vision to come to fruition? Then start finding and training your replacement now!

Fictional Moralistic Sermon on 1 Samuel 8

Look through the emotional appeals of this fictional preacher (or perhaps motivational speaker) and examine the biblical principle: “Training successors makes someone a successful leader and causes his vision to thrive.” Now, people can argue back and forth about how this principle may or may not fit the five rules for developing principles, and whether it follows proper exegesis and authorial intent. However, the major problem with this principle is that its moral focused. It doesn’t even talk about God. This principle could be applied by the worst wolf of Wall Street to train more sinners to capture the vision of their wicked leader.

The moralist sees the Bible as a book of dos’s and don’ts’s and interprets everything through that grid. Moralism essentially teaches that people don’t need the gospel as long as they can learn the right things to do. The fictional moralist motivational speaker wastes his congregation’s time with trite expressions of do-goodery which either numb their damned consciences to hell or starve their regenerated hearts to inefficaciousness.

Returning to the more God-centered principle will bring gospel meaning back into the text: “God sometimes gives people what they sinfully and selfishly want as a form of judgment.” Gospel preaching turns people to Christ:

God tells Samuel to give the people exactly what they want! Isn’t that something? These selfish people, who know they’re asking for something bad, are asking for it anyways like little children, “gimme, gimme gimme!” Well, gimme gimme sometimes gets. God gave them exactly what they asked for, not as a blessing, but as a judgment. What about us? What do we want? A comfortable retirement? The American dream? A family without quarrelling? Less responsibility? A different form of government? A new life? We have the same problems. “gimme gimme gimme!” The whole Christianity as a religion doesn’t just teach us what to do, it trains our “want to’s.” It shouldn’t just be WWJD, but WWJW: What would Jesus want? A lot of times we focus so much on our behaviors, we forget that we can want wrong things. We could even want good things that aren’t God’s will. What we should want is to be conformed to the image of Christ! Ask God to make you more holy and you will see just how much you need Jesus!

Paraphrased Gospel-driven sermon on 1 Samuel 8

[1] Of course, other frameworks claim supernatural revelation. The Bible also accounts for other supernatural beings; therefore, there is a possibility even within the Christian worldview to have revelation from other supernatural beings. Angels can reveal things (e.g. Daniel 9-10). Likewise, demons can reveal things (e.g. Acts 16:17). Supernatural revelation should be tested to determine whether it originates from God (1 John 4:1). The direction of this essay is for interpretation of biblical revelation rather than testing the spirits; however, testing revelation can involve examining who wrote it (an approved prophet/apostle or their associate?), internal consistency of the argumentation, it’s rational and empirical outworking, etc.

[2] There are some complexities in the Bible that would seemingly go beyond this simplistic statement. For example, Job does go on a long journey and conversation to discover truth; however, ultimately that truth is given to him by God. In Ecclesiastes, the Preacher constantly recounts his experience (practically going through the labyrinth himself). He constantly goes from dead end to dead end. However, this very journey to discover truth (and failing) is essentially the very revelation God is seeking to depict; therefore, the author of Ecclesiastes is not “starting in the dark” even though his style places the author there in the beginning.

[3] Duvall, J. Scott, and J. Daniel Hays. 2012. Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-on Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. Scott and Hays call these “theological principles” which is great. I prefer “biblical principles” because I’ve had students thinking their principles have to say something about God; “biblical” in that they are principles derived from the Bible.