Is Propositional Revelation Nonsense?
In the appendix of his book, He Is There and He Is Not Silent, Francis Schaeffer wrote a little piece called “Is Propositional Revelation Nonsense?” Schaeffer explains that, “To modern man, and much modern theology, the concept of propositional revelation and the historic Christian view of infallibility is not so much mistaken as meaningless” (345). The 20th century came with many challenges to theological formulation, not the least of which was the assault on propositional truth and revelation. Such camps as existentialists and logical positivists attempted to remove religious truth from the reason and revelation while others sought to justify meaning, reality, and truth with other criterion of verification such as experience and perception. However, center to the Christian faith is the belief that God has spoken and revealed himself in the written Word of God. In this revelation, God used language as the medium to carry and convey biblical truths and realities. This is not to say that God has revealed himself exhaustively, but it does mean that he has revealed himself truly and definitively. Schaeffer makes two points which I would like to mention here:
- Even communication between one created person and another is not exhaustive; but that does not mean that for that reason it is not true.
- If the uncreated Personal really cared for the created personal, it could not be thought unthinkable for him to tell the created personal things of a propositional nature; otherwise, as a finite being, the created personal would have numerous things he could not know if he just began with himself as a limited, finite reference point.
Schaffer makes some salient points here that deserve to be brought up in the 21st century. While we do not disagree that revelation is also personal, we cannot flinch on the assault on propositional revelation. God has revealed himself to us, his nature and his acts, through propositional revelation (i.e. the Bible), and the implications of this truth is that we do not have the rights to reinvent or rename the God Who Is There. If we do not begin with God and his revelation, Schaeffer is correct to conclude that there are many things we could not know about God based on such a limited, finite reference point as ourselves. It is no coincidence that, at the time of Schaeffer’s publishing of this book (1972), John Hick was advancing his pluralistic hypothesis which argued for the ineffability of the “Real” which argued that one cannot know anything about God as he is (ding an sich). Adapting the Kantian model of the noumenal and phenomenal worlds, Hick argues that God (“Real”) has not and cannot reveal himself truly and definitely; furthermore, it is impossible to know anything at all about the Real (except that it is ineffable and that it exists which is something he claims to know). The result when God is not the beginning, the reference point, the apriori grounds of knowledge and revelation, then knowing and defining God is a free-for-all to anyone who wants to postulate their phenomenological interpretations as religious truth. Schaeffer concludes his little article with this important paragraph in which he said:
“The importance of all this is that most people today (including some who still call themselves evangelical) who have given up the historical and biblical concept of revelation and infallibility have not done so because of the consideration of detailed problems objectively approached, but because they have accepted, either in analyzed fashion or blindly, the other set of presuppositions. Often this has taken place by means of cultural injection, without their realizing what has happened to them” (349, emphasis added).
In the days ahead, I hope to share how propositional truth is foundational to personal truth and give a few examples of the redefinition of revelation in contemporary contexts.
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. Hebrews 1:1-2