You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me…

-John 5:39

The Theological, not Epistemological, Question of Divine Revelation

From the outset it is necessary to clarify the background questions and issues which attends to an investigation of a theological understanding of divine revelation, and that is that the theological question is not to be confused with various issues of epistemology which arises in the context of philosophy.

barthcigarTo be more precise, our starting point in understanding the structure of divine revelation is not to begin with the Cartesian starting point of the knowing subject and how we can answer Cartesian skeptical demons or acquire epistemic certainty in relation to our subjective epistemic situation. Rather, drawing from Barth and the Neo-Orthodox Protestants, an understanding of divine revelation begins with the known divine realities, that is, God, Christ, and the Apostles, etc, and the question is how do these realities communicate or reveal divine truths to us. As such, a theological understanding of divine revelation begins with God and his revelatory actions in both Salvation History and nature. Only from this perspective does divine revelation acquire its intelligibility, not via epistemological propositions on the knowing subject and the limits and extent of his epistemic capacities.

52aa58da8178b77ae3114b06f3cef2daTo start with the knowing subject and then ask how this knowing subject can acquire infallible certainty, or how we can build our epistemology from scratch after accepting devastating skeptical doubt premises, is to begin at the wrong end and to impose unto our understanding of the structure divine revelation a wholly alien set of criteria and concerns better answered by philosophy than theology. Divine Revelation was not given to solve philosophical or skeptical problems invented by philosophers. We do not begin from a position of epistemic agnosticism and ask how can we under the thrall of Cartesian demons attain unto knowledge of theological truths. We begin with the divine which divine revelation is meant to reveal and we ask what has the divine done to reveal himself. The half truth of presuppositionalism is that in theology we must obviously presuppose and begin with divine realities. Thus, we need only ask how can we come to acquire theological knowledge in relation to such divine revelation; we do not need to ask or answer, at least not as a theological issue, meta epistemological questions like how can we be certain of what we know or second order questions like how can we know that we know.

Natural Revelation

How has God revealed himself? First nature itself is a source of theological knowledge. Nature, or Creation, reveals God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature” (Romans 1:20), which we can directly perceive from the things which are made. Furthermore, nature also reveals the divine will, or law (Romans 2:14-16). This is not merely an assertion of the Bible but has considerable evidence in the writing of non-Christian and pagan writers like Mozi and Cicero where, before the preaching of the Gospel, they have clearly perceived the Supreme God and what he desires for mankind, using both their common sense and their reason.


As such it is common ground between all major denominations that nature is, properly speaking, a source of theological knowledge. To be sure it is not an infallible source of theological knowledge, it being learned by our fallible common sense and reason, but unless we want to make a nonsense of natural theology and revelation, we must affirm our basic capacity to perceive the divine reality as man qua man, made to be the image of God and by nature to know God,  and not as only as Christians or believers.

Historic Revelation

Natural revelation, what we can know about God merely as man qua man and via our reason, is to be distinguished from historic or special revelation. Natural revelation reveals the general requirements and nature of God, historic revelation however refers to special God initiated acts and interventions in human history for particular ends and purposes of his. These events, whether they are speeches and words from God or divine deeds and actions, they themselves reveal God and his purpose. What is the end of such historic revelation? To put it simply: to reveal Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Lord of the World.

The Bethel Confession of 1933 succinctly summarises this in these words:

God reveals himself by history, that is, by his non-recurring and non-repeatable action that is complete in itself and affects all eternity. It begins with the creation of man and with the promise for man become guilty. It receives its temporal consummation when the elect from every nation enter into the glory of God’s Son.

Thus we need to be clear from the outset. Divine revelation does not exclusively refer to the Bible or Church Tradition. Divine revelation refers to historic events, events which comes to pass as a result of the divine intervention into historic space-time history. Thus, God reveals himself when he creates the world, appear in the burning bush, sends the Ten Plagues of Egypt, brings down the walls of Jericho, becomes incarnate in Christ, performs miracles, calls the apostles, die and rises again, etc. Divine revelation does not exclusively refer only to speech acts by God communicating information, it refers also to divine acts and deeds. The collection of events, deeds and words, which makes up this historic revelation has traditionally been known as Salvation History, the history of divine acts to save the world for Christ.


If God reveals himself in acts and speech acts, how do we come to learn of these revelatory acts? Here we come to the primacy of the concept of a witness as an essential part of Historic Revelation.

The Apostolic Witness

God clearly has done many things in Salvation History. We are however still a long way off from the deeds of Salvation History to our present knowledge of the Christian Gospel and Faith. The vital chain in the link however is itself an event in Salvation History: The calling of the Apostles. Christ called his Apostles, taught them, by word and deed, the will of the Father, and after his ascension, sent down the Holy Spirit unto them to empower them to both teach and act in the name of Christ themselves. The Apostles are both witnesses to the divine revelation in Christ and themselves divine revelation witnessed by the Apostolic Church. They are witnesses to divine revelation by virtue of having direct access to Christ, whether in the flesh or in the spirit, as the latter was the case with St Paul. However they themselves are divine revelation for in both word and deed by their performance of miracles, preaching, and founding of the Church, they reveal the will of God in Christ.


The question we therefore need to ask is, where can we find such “apostolic witness”, by which phrase I refer to both the Apostles’ own witness and testimony of Christ as well as the testimony and witness of the Apostles by others. For that answer we turn to the Irenaeus:

We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith. For it is unlawful to assert that they preached before they possessed perfect knowledge, as some do even venture to say, boasting themselves as improvers of the apostles. For, after our Lord rose from the dead, [the apostles] were invested with power from on high when the Holy Spirit came down [upon them], were filled from all [His gifts], and had perfect knowledge: they departed to the ends of the earth, preaching the glad tidings of the good things [sent] from God to us, and proclaiming the peace of heaven to men, who indeed do all equally and individually possess the Gospel of God. Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.

(Bold and underline mine)

-Against Heresies 3:1


Therefore, what we do know from Irenaeus is that the “plan of our salvation”, or the apostolic witness and preaching, has been committed or written down in the Holy Scriptures. So in answer to the question of how do we come to know of the divine revelation in Christ and the Apostles, we answer, via the Holy Scriptures unto which has been committed, whether by the Apostles very own hand, as we see in the Gospel of St Matthew and St John and the Epistles of St Paul, or by Christian witnesses such as St Luke and St Mark, the divine revelation of Christ and the Apostolic words and deeds in the Apostolic Church. As such, we properly say as in John 5:39, the Scriptures, both the Old and New Testament, testify or bear witness to Christ. Scripture as such communicates the divine revelation by testifying and bearing witness to it. Again in the words of the Bethel Confession:

Holy Scripture, the Old and the New Testament, is the only source and norm of the church’s doctrine. It attests, valid in its unity, that the same Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified under Pontius Pilate is the Son of the living God, the promised Messiah of Israel, the King of the church.

The Holy Scripture is the testimony of divine revelation … The church proclaims this history as God’s revelatory act that is valid for us. By witnessing these acts, Scripture is God’s word to us, and the church is able to do God’s will only in obedience to the command of Scripture.

Objection: “Basing” the Apostolic Witness on Post-Apostolic Church Fathers?

Now at this point it maybe objected: Am I not “basing” my claim that the Apostolic Witness has been committed to the Scriptures on a non-apostolic Church Father? Am not I appealing to other sources, or dare one even say, authorities on divine revelation, besides the Holy Scriptures? The answer to this question is quite a frank and blunt, yes. However, this answer would not be strange even on the Protestant understanding of sola scriptura for we have to remember that right from the start, we have already affirmed other sources of theological knowledge apart from the Scriptures, especially that of nature and reason. As such, it would be a caricature of Sola Scriptura to insist that the Scriptures are our only source of theological knowledge. That is plainly not the case.

Protestants as such do not reject the use of our reason or extra-biblical sources to comprehend and grasp theological truths. We do after all need to use our reason to grasp Greek and Hebrew linguistics or learn and understand Second Temple Judaism and Ancient Near East history, amongst other historical and linguistic facts, in order to better interpret and understand the Bible. Likewise there is certainly nothing wrong with drawing upon the writings of the post-Apostolic Church to determine which books contain apostolic witness and which do not. Nor indeed does drawing upon such extra-biblical sources to justify certain books as containing divine revelation, and being as such infallible and authoritative, imply that those sources must be more, or as, authoritative or infallible as the Bible.


Behind the logic of “basing” or “grounding” is the Cartesian epistemic foundationalist premise. It assumes a world dominated by a Cartesian demon whereby we can know or be certain of absolutely nothing outside of some set of infallibly certain principles and what can be derived from them. Thus they demand some set of infallibly certain foundational epistemic principles by which we can deduce and “ground” other claims or arguments. The epistemological argument goes that without such a set of infallible epistemic principle, from which alone we can deduce or make other claims, we can assert and know nothing. Thus, if I use the Church Fathers to justify the biblical canon, then that would entail a general principle that the Church Fathers possess an authority or certainty equal to the Scriptures, because the certainty of a consequent inference is a function of the certainty of the antecedent premise upon which it is based. A roof, as they say, is only as good as its pillars. And thus must I derive the authority and certainty of the Scriptures from the certainty of its base, the Fathers.

Not only are these highly artificial philosophical premises irrelevant to a theological discussion on divine revelation as already argued, they themselves lead to highly problematic and absurd epistemic consequences from a philosophical point of view. The structure of our knowledge is not foundationalist, we do not need to justify or ground every proposition in relation to some infallible foundational epistemic principle from which we supposedly deduce everything. But if the structure of our knowledge is not foundationalist or deductive then there is no question of deriving the “authority” of a claim or source from some “more authoritative” or certain epistemic base and so on and so forth. The Cartesian epistemic premise, either knowledge be grounded upon an infallible basis or we are left with nihilistic skepticism, must be completely rejected. As the British Protestants have long ago argued against the Roman Catholics, who insisted that without an infallible Church we can be infallibly certain of nothing, we do not need infallible certainty in most areas of life, including theology. What we merely need is moral certainty or “proof beyond a reasonable doubt”, whereby by inductive gestalt judgements we can form morally certain conclusions sufficient for life and practice. What we do not need is some deductive epistemic system whereby the certainty of a proposition is derivative of the certainty of its base. Furthermore, this “infallible or skepticism” premise backfired on the Roman Catholics very badly when it was pointed out that even if we had infallible churches, we would still need to use our fallible reason to locate this infallible church and to interpret what it is saying. For a deeper exploration of those philosophical issues I would recommend the links given.

The Theory of Unwritten Oral Traditions and the Development of Doctrine

Leaving the epistemological field and returning back to the theological, it must be noted that these epistemological concerns were mostly an obsession of Cardinal Newman (see this masterly article on that point). The theological argument of the Roman or Eastern Orthodox position used to be that there exists another source of the apostolic witness, a body of unwritten oral traditions, which was passed on through the ages unto the present day.

A few notes on the word “tradition”: First, it has a completely innocuous meaning. It just means the things which are “handed down”. Thus when the Gospels speak of Christ being “handed over” to the authorities, it is the same Greek word as “tradition”.

download-1As such, if by “Apostolic Tradition” one simply means the passing down of the body of teaching and preaching of the apostles, then Protestants do fervently affirm the Apostolic Tradition handed down through the ages. What do say however is that this apostolic witness and teachings have been “handed down” via or “committed to”, in the words of Irenaeus, the Bible and of course the Church who preserves and hands the Bible down to us.

However by “tradition” both the Romans and Easterns do not simply mean the handing down of the body of Apostolic witness contained in Bible through the ages. They are referring to a set of apostolic preaching and teaching unwritten and unrecorded in the Scriptures or anywhere else. Thus not only is this set of apostolic preaching absent from the Scriptures, it is absent from the early Church Fathers as well. We have to be clear as to the set of theological premises upon which the older unwritten oral tradition theory operates.

First, every side accepted that we cannot know better or more than the apostles. Historic divine revelation has ceased. As Irenaeus so forcefully argues, it unlawful to assert that the apostle’s knowledge were “imperfect” or that anyone else can “improve” on them. As such, it is impossible for us to have a clearer, better, or dare I say, more developed knowledge of the apostolic faith than the apostles.

Second, if the apostle’s knowledge were complete and does not permit of any form of improvement or clarification, then it follows that many latter day doctrines and dogmas taught by the Roman Church, whether it is the two wills of Christ or transubstantiation or purgatory, were explicitly known and taught by the apostles. Those doctrines emerged whole and complete right from the very lips of the apostles. What the unwritten oral tradition theory asserts is that, just as the Church mechanically and studiously copied the biblical manuscripts through the ages and passed it down, likewise did the Church mechanically and piously repeat orally the very same words and teachings which emerged from the apostles’ lips concerning purgatory or the two wills of Christ.

So sum up, everyone agreed that the Christ and the apostles themselves were the sole locus of divine revelation, subsequent churches possess no new divine revelation nor is it possible for their knowledge or understanding of divine revelation to be more improved, more complete, or clearer, than the apostles. Everyone agreed that whatever the apostles taught authoritatively is divine revelation. As such, the only question is, apart from the apostolic teachings contained in the Scriptures, is there another source of oral transmission of apostolic teachings which were not written anywhere?

The Protestant answer is no, while the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox answer used to be yes. St Basil the Great explains the nature of this “unwritten oral tradition” in these explicit terms:

Of the doctrines and injunctions kept by the Church, some we have from written instruction. but some we have received from, apostolical tradition, by succession in private. Both the former and the latter have one and the same force for piety, and this will be contradicted by no one who has ever so little knowledge in the ordinances of the Church; for were we to dare to reject unwritten customs, as if they had no great importance, we should insensibly mutilate the Gospel, even in the most essential points, or, rather, for the teaching of the Apostles leave but an empty name. For instance, let us mention before all else the very first and commonest act of Christians, that they who trust in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ should sign themselves with the sign of the cross–who hath taught this by writing? To turn to the east in prayer–what Scripture have we for this? The words of invocation in the change of the Eucharistic bread and of the Cup of blessing–by which of the Saints have they been left us in writing? for we are not content with those words which the Apostle or the Gospel records, but both before them and after them, we pronounce others also, which we hold to be of great force for the sacrament, though we have received them from unwritten teaching… Are they not all from this unpublished and private teaching, which our Fathers kept under a reserve inaccessible to curiosity and profane disquisition, having been taught as a first principle to guard by silence the sanctity of the mysteries? for how were it fit to publish in writing the doctrine of those things, on which the unbaptized may not so much as look?

-(Can. xcvii. De Spir. Sanct. c. xxvii.)

One must be very clear and careful about the arguments here. The unwritten oral tradition is not merely unwritten in the Scriptures, it is unwritten in the very writings of the saints and Fathers themselves. The Fathers supposedly preserved these body of unwritten oral tradition, which emerged pure and unadultered from the lips of the Apostles, unpublished and inaccessible. We have quite literally no written records of them anywhere. These traditions are passed down quite literally by word of mouth until centuries later someone encoded these teachings.

The problem with the unwritten oral tradition theory is that it became extremely difficult to hold onto in the light of our knowledge of the early Church writings. There doesn’t seem to be explicit awareness of any of the present day Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox distinctives in the writings of the early Fathers. The obvious gaps in our written records about such teachings make it very problematic to hold that they have been transmitted through the ages. Of course one can say, well duh, they are unwritten so obviously there would be no records. But that just means that these claims that certain teachings originate from the apostles orally would simply be unverifiable. One can pretty much claim or project anything unto this body of unwritten oral traditions since ex hypothesi no verifiable records of them exist anywhere. Maybe for all we know the primitive baptists and other Protestant sects really are descended from underground churches invisible to all written records but which pure teachings uncorrupted by Constantinianism were passed on only by word of mouth.

It was these historical difficulties which lead Cardinal Newman to formulate his theory of doctrinal development to justify latter day Roman Catholic teachings. He basically conceded the Protestant point, that the early church were neither explicitly aware nor did they pass down explicitly so many distinctive Roman Catholic doctrines. What he did assert however was that subsequent churches “developed” the teachings and doctrines of the early church. However what is the character of these “developments”? Are they divine revelations themselves? Merely probable inferences upon the original revealed apostolic teachings? Again, there is nothing wrong with us using our reason to develop revealed theological points. Newman explanation however does not seem to be an improvement over the unwritten oral tradition theory:

I conceive then that the Depositum is in such sense committed to the Church or to the Pope, that when the Pope sits in St. Peter’s chair, or when a Council of Fathers & doctors is collected round him, it is capable of being presented to their minds with that fullness and exactness, under the operation of supernatural grace, (so far forth and in such proportion of it as the occasion requires,) with which it habitually, not occasionally, resided in the minds of the Apostles;—a vision of it, not logical, and therefore consistent with errors in reasoning & of fact in the enunciation, after the manner of an intuition or an instinct. Nor do those enunciations become logical, because theologians afterwards can reduce them to their relations to other doctrines, or given them a position in the general system of theology. To such theologians they appear as deductions from the creed or formularized deposit, but in truth they are original parts of it, communicated per modum unius to the Apostles’ minds, & brought to light to the minds of the Fathers of the Council, under the temporary illumination of Divine Grace.

Journal of Theological Studies (9 [1958], 324-335)

His argument seems to be the Holy Spirit directly communicated his insights into the minds of the Apostles and placed in the minds of the conciliar Fathers. Newman could not resist the inference that later churches can possess new revelation. However this idea that there could be new revelation after the apostles were condemned by the Holy Office itself in 1907 in LAMENTABILI. Besides this official censure by the Holy Office, the theological difficulty of Newman’s theory is that it places no limits whatsoever on how far a present day church can “develop” a doctrine for the church can just claim anything whatever to be revelations from the Holy Spirit.

The Roman Catholic difficulty is such is that they want to hold both that divine revelations has ceased with the apostles and that their latter day teachings are not novelties but transmitted from the apostles. However both the theory of unwritten oral tradition merely assert a transmission without the possibility of verification. The only difference between the unwritten oral tradition theory and the development of doctrine theory is that the former asserts that the Church did not change one iota of its teachings which was transmitted orally untainted through the ages, while the latter asserted that the Church has changed but later changes was given by the Holy Spirit directly so it’s all good.

However there is no more reason to believe the claims of such unwritten oral traditions or secret whispers of the Holy Spirit than that of the primitive baptist’s claim to be continuous to an underground church invisible to written records or any charismatic or Pentecostal who claims to have received direct insights into the minds of the Holy Spirit.

Conclusion: Public Witnesses to Divine Revelation

Right after the passage quoted above Irenaeus continues his argument:

 When, however, they [the heretics] are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and [assert] that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition. For [they allege] that the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but vivâ voce: wherefore also Paul declared, But we speak wisdom among those that are perfect, but not the wisdom of this world. 1 Corinthians 2:6 And this wisdom each one of them alleges to be the fiction of his own inventing, forsooth; so that, according to their idea, the truth properly resides at one time in Valentinus, at another in Marcion, at another in Cerinthus, then afterwards in Basilides, or has even been indifferently in any other opponent, who could speak nothing pertaining to salvation. For every one of these men, being altogether of a perverse disposition, depraving the system of truth, is not ashamed to preach himself.

Irenaeus therefore condemns the idea that there were truths “not delivered by means of written documents”, implicating both the unwritten oral tradition theory as well as the telepathic communication theory. When the apostles taught and preached, they did so publicly, writing letters and Gospels which could be read by all. These writings were “traditioned’ and passed down by the publicly ordained bishops and presbyters, whose task it was to preserve and maintain these written traditions which later became the New Testament.

Therefore what we, as Protestants, insist is that if a doctrine claims to have been taught by the apostles, let there be a demonstration of its public transmission via written records or documents, tracing its origins to the apostolic witness. What Sola Scriptura simply means is that the Bible exhaustively contains all the written records of the apostolic witness necessary for salvation. That doesn’t mean that the Bible contains every single teaching or preaching of the Apostles, the Gospel of John makes it clear that it does not. What we do assert and claim is that in the Scriptures alone can we find all the written testimony of the apostolic witness necessary for salvation infallibly committed. If there were any other such records, let those who advance such claims make their case, since everyone already accepts that the books which we do hold do contain such apostolic witness. This isn’t a deductive argument as such whereby we deduce that what we call the Bible today are all inspired or contain the apostolic witness based on some more general principle like the reliability or infallibility of the Magisterium (contra Cartesian epistemology) who tells us all the books contained are inspired. Our argument is a step by step construction of the canon from studying and investigating the particular merits of each particular letter or document to see if it does in fact contain the apostolic witness. The merits for their inclusion and exclusion will draw from our historical records of how the Church or Apostolic Fathers treated and wrote about them, etc. However, just using sources to build a case, as has already been argued, does not entail some sort of epistemic “grounding” on a more general proposition of the overall infallibility or authority of the Church.

One should note that by the time of the Apostolic Fathers, most of their writings were not about reporting what the apostles said, either to themselves or to their teachers who learned under the apostles. Most of it were mostly reflections on the apostolic teachings as communicated in the New Testament letters and drawing applications and inferences from it to their own time. Again, nothing wrong with using our reason to draw out the logical implications of the original apostolic witness for our context or situation. What we do object to however is the attempt to pass off these inferences by non-apostles as original parts of the apostolic teaching by the Apostles themselves. The locus of divine revelation, one must insist, remains Christ and his apostles. There are no others. And while we do not reject the use of our reason to discern the teachings of God in their words and deeds, what we do reject is the attempt to confuse our fallible inferences with the original apostolic deposit.

This does not mean of course that such fallible theological inferences by our reason are completely useless or false. That would be the false dilemma of the Cartesian either infallible certainty or total scepticism. However as to the proper role of “authority” and “reason” in discerning divine revelation, shall have to wait for the next post.

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