What is revelation?

In a comment below his post entitled ‘some false precision’ Alec made the claim that revelation is ‘God calling creatures to conversion’. I want to write a brief rejoinder to this claim.

My problem is a) it is too narrow and b) it is too modern (I.e. It is an understanding of revelation which the fathers would not have shared, nor arguably the writers of the OT and NT; rather it sounds a bit too similar to Bultmann for me). My fear is that the way it’s phrased puts too great an emphasis on the existential effect of revelation; this emphasis is (ironically given the nature of Alec’s post) a very modern view of the significance of revelation.

From a patristic perspective (at least this is the view emerging from my reading of the fathers) revelation’s primary significance is theophanic – that is to enable knowledge of and encounter with the one true God. Whereas theophanies inevitably have some sort of ‘conversion’ effect (the confessions of Peter and Thomas are a case in point) this is not merely an existential conversion. There are other dimensions as well: most notably, ontological transfiguration – eg Moses face shining after coming down from Sinai, or the claim in 1 John 3.2 that ‘when he comes we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is’. Thus the existential dimension is just one aspect of what revelation is – an aspect which is encompassed by the broader patristic sense of revelation as theophany.

I also suspect this understanding of revelation lies behind much of scripture – the prologue to John’s gospel being a prime example of this (‘and we have beheld his glory’ etc.)



17 thoughts on “What is revelation?

  1. Why do you think “conversion” is especially existentialist and Bultmannian? And what do you take the difference between “ontological transformation” and “existential conversion” to be? (Sorry if this sounds like tutorial-style questioning. I really want to know!)


  2. My immediate and poorly considered reaction to this is that a few Biblical theophanies may not initially seem aimed at conversion. Isaiah 6 is of course controversial in this regard, and chunks of Amos (which we all know and love!) seem to presume that it’s too late for Israel to turn. To which I’d respond:

    (1) I’m not 100% sure that’s how we ought to read those texts even in their historical contexts.
    (2) I’m not sure it’s legitimate for a Christian theologian to read them without putting them in the wider context of divine revelation (because scriptura scripturam interpretatur), whereby judgement and punishment and rejection by God is part of a larger movement towards conversion in the economy of salvation.

    With this in mind, I suspect that you’re using ‘conversion’ in a much narrower sense than Alec and I would.


  3. I’m not sure theophanic and existentialist accounts of revelation need to be contrasted with each other, do they? Maybe important to begin with theophanic, but one could then say that encounter with the one true God necessarily has existential implications (just not necessarily good ones, in the case of Amos…).


  4. I’d also say that ‘theophanic’ might be too narrow a word for you; it has strong connotations of an actual vision of God. I’d put theophany as a subset of revelation.


  5. Ah. I did not say ‘calling creatures to conversion’, but rather ‘calling creatures into conversation’. I do agree that this is narrow: it is focussed on revelation in its verbal aspect, even though I think that revelation cannot be reduced to the verbal. My point was that, even in the verbal aspect, revelation is more about specific events – acts of conversation – than about what we might call ‘the textual residue’ of such events, even though we can only now access past such events through texts. So more Barth than Bultmann – I had said I was being Barthian.

    I suppose if I were being more general I would call revelation a call to communion – which communion may take the form of a conversation, even an argument, with God, or may simply be an abiding in God. It also tends to lead towards a communion with others – again maybe conversational, maybe argumentative, or maybe just an abiding. I do, however, think that it’s instructive to consider communion in terms of theophany, construed more broadly than Ezekiel-style vision. In particular, I think we ought to see Christian worship, and especially the Eucharist, as theophanic in orientation. In worship we encounter God, and are transformed by that encounter.


  6. So I take it that the point you’re making Brendan is that a “call to conversion” puts stress on the personal experience of the receiver, rather than speaking about the the presence or act of God which is the key point with revelation? It is interesting to note that at least some modern accounts of revelation do focus on the presence of God and encounter with the believer, in the attempt to avoid being propositional in focus (Barth is characteristic). But this comes I guess with a stronger emphasis on subjectivity than in the Patristic understanding, and of course in many thinkers there is a stronger tendency to doubt the possibility of a God who acts in the world directly, and so to look for revelation where we think it is to be found.

    Being very broad in specification of what revelation might involve is probably worthwhile; though I think it is important that revelation is not a purely human event (and I don’t really mean to restrict to events.) I also think it’s worth thinking about how revelation understood as an event and encounter relates to understanding revelation as a content, as something handed down in the Church and Scripture (also the sort of thing Pannenberg says about revelation in history).

    And….just because it’s modern, doesn’t mean it’s wrong! (Without saying that Alec would be anything so unpatristic as “modern”)

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  7. Thanks for all your responses. I’m pleased my post has sparked so much conversation. I’ll try and respond to everyone’s post in turn. My initial comment was too legnthy, so I’ve turned it into a series of comments.


  8. First of all I want to apologise to Alec for misreading you original comment. This shows an inexcusable lack of attention on my part. For what it’s worth I think I prefer calling creatures into conversation, although I do think (as with conversion) this forms part of a broader movement towards knowledge of God (more on this at the end of this comment). So my ‘conversion’ comment is a straw man – but still an interesting straw man which has provoked debate, so I’ll continue working with it for now.


  9. RE: Bill. A) Conversion, to my mind, suggests a re-orientation away from one way of life/way of thinking to another – the question it brings to mind is ‘conversion from what?’ This has existential connotations. Although this obviously isn’t a concept which Bultmann invented (and indeed I don’t think he’s wrong to see existential conversion as an important element of biblical revelation), but I do think the emphasis of it as the primary account of revelation is somewhat Bultmann-esque.
    B) In order to understand fully the difference between existential conversion and ontological transformation I would have to give precise technical definitions of what is made by each claim. A very demanding task! I will elide this job (for now at least) and instead give one or two examples of changes to a person which are ontological rather than existential, in order to illustrate the difference. E.g.1 Being rendered immortal and incorruptible is an ontological transformation, not an existential conversion. E.g.2 Receiving the indwelling Holy Spirit is an ontological transformation (although this one is perhaps a bad example, since it does have some very strong and closely associated existential effects.


  10. RE: John (1st post). I’m not sure exactly what you point was here, so correct me if I get it wrong. I think what you’re saying is that the main function of theophany in biblical texts is to achieve conversion, and that even when this is not the case we should read such passages within the broader theological context, which is the revelation of God given to man in order to initiate/propagate ‘a movement towards conversion’. I whole-heartedly endorse you claim that we should read individual passages within a broader theological context, but I think we are disagreeing as to what that context is. For me it’s a context of divine self-manifestation with a view to bringing creation into the knowledge of God. This theme of knowing God (and thus worshipping him – the two are inseparably linked) is the broader context within which I read these passages, not a call to conversion. Conversion is the first step (or in the instances of some, steps – since one can have several conversion moments – more on this below) towards knowledge of God, and thus a theophany whose primary effect is a conversion of some sort can also be read as part of a broader movement towards the revelation of God to his creation. Yet some other theophanies don’t have a conversion element. Moses’ encounter on Sinai does not result in a movement from one way of life/thinking to another. It is not a conversion because there is no ‘conversion from x’. Rather Moses is drawn into a more intimate encounter with the divine.
    Your claim that I’m using a ‘conversion’ in a narrow sense is a good point, and a serious challenge. I think it’s true that I was thinking of it quite narrowly as a ‘moment’, whereas it can of course be a series of moments, or even a process. At its most potent your challenge might suggest that the process of conversion is in fact synonymous with the process of coming to know God. In response to this I would point out that (in my eyes) conversion implies a simultaneous move away from something else (conversion from x, as I put it above), whereas one can, as in the case of Moses, grow in knowledge of God without necessarily being simultaneously converted from some other way of thinking/being. (I am open to the suggestion that any increase in knowledge of the divine necessarily implies a re-orientation of our previous way of thinking, in which case the two could be synonymous, and we may merely be debating semantics).


  11. RE: Ed – my intention wasn’t to set theophanic and existentialist accounts of revelation against each other. I wholly agree that theophany (inevitably?) has severe existential implications. My point is that the existential effect is a subset of the broader notion of revelation as a movement towarss knowledge of God.


  12. RE: John’s second comment. You’re right to warn that ‘theophanic’ is a potentially narrow term and has strong connotations of an actual vision of God. For what it’s worth I’m using it with reference to patristic modes of thought, in which the notion of theophany encompasses purely epistemic knowledge, as well as visions, ecstatic experience, worship, sacramental encounter, love etc. I also admit that the word in this context is functioning to some extent as a placeholder. That said it is a placeholder which I feel, when understood in a patristic sense, has broad enough connotations to do the job. Feel free to suggest an alternative though.


  13. RE: Alec – again, sorry! I prefer call to communion to call to conversation. I think the latter, like conversion, is a subset of a broader movement towards knowledge of God. I think former, properly understood, may be synonymous with my understanding of revelation. I like what you say about worship being theophanic in orientation; although I think one should also add that the knowledge of the divine brought about by revelation results in (and is essential to) true worship of God.


  14. RE: Emily. That isn’t my primary problem with ‘call to conversion’, since there is a genuinely personal element to revelation. My objection is more that it is too narrow, and focusses on one of God’s means in the divine economy, rather than its ultimate end. Interestingly I think you objection could actually be levied against my notion of revelation. My response would be to say that revelation doesn’t merely seek to bring the individual into the knowledge of God, but rather all of creation – especially the church – and that this movement towards true knowledge is also, as I intimate above, a movement towards true worship.
    (Finally!) I realise that just because something is modern doesn’t mean it’s wrong. However I do think a lot of bad theology (and especially bad exegesis) comes about when people start viewing the nature of revelation in a fundamentally different way to its initial receivers and interpreters.


  15. Sounds to me like what we have here is a case of needing to navigate an ambiguous concept constituted by a series of overlapping family resemblances (with God doing the whole revealing thing being a necessary condition ofc) without overly narrowing our use of terminology at the outset… Just sayin’.


  16. Came across this quote from Barth today: touches on a lot of the things talked about here.

    ‘Intrinsically, there can be no objection to the fact that in its exposition [the older Protestant theology] made such active use of the instruments of Aristotelian and Cartesian philosophy. How can we find fault, and not take as a model, the comprehensive thoroughness and accuracy which it obviously sought and in such surprising measure revealed? If only it had kept itself freer from the temptation to be inspired to go further and to seek that which is theologically impossible, a systematics of revelation, a system in which revelation can be used as a presupposition! It attempted to bring in the witness of revelation as such in its unity and entirety.’ CD 1/2, 484


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