Revelation: Word or Deed?

How has God revealed himself to us – in word or deed? Is the Bible God’s revelation to us or is it a record of his revelation to us?

This isn’t just a semantic argument. It’s incredibly important. Some have argued that God has revealed himself in mighty acts throughout history. God has revealed himself by baring his arm and showing himself to be the redeemer and deliverer of his people. What we have in the Bible is a record of God’s revelation. The Bible is man’s record and interpretation of these events. The words are not what’s important – they merely point to the deeds.

On the flip side, others have emphasized that it’s the words that are inspired revelation. It’s the words that are important, not the mighty deeds of God to which they refer. In fact, many argue that whether or not the deeds actually happened is largely irrelevant. The exodus, whether it happened or not, is a wonderful story of God’s determination to liberate and save people. The resurrection, whether it happened or not, is a story of newness of life that we can find in God.

I hope it’s clear from what’s above that we need a robust understanding of revelation that includes word and deed. What the Bible says God has done, he has actually done. The deeds of God recorded in Scripture are not simply metaphors (though they often serve as such, i.e. typology). They are also historical facts. Just because the exodus serves as a type (metaphor) of salvation does not mean we are to treat it as unhistorical or ahistorical. Moreover, when the writers recorded God’s mighty deeds, they were not just offering their interpretation. They were carried along by the Holy Spirit to write what they wrote (not in a mechanical way, but in a way that respected their indiviuality, experiences and personality) . The words they wrote are inspired. They are part of the revelation, not just testimony to the revelation. Though John offers a perspective on Jesus’ life and ministry that is different from Mark’s, Matthew’s and Luke’s, it is a complimentary perspective inspired by the Spirit. It isn’t just his interpetation.

If we surrender either of these poles of revelation we do so at great peril to ourselves and the church. The Chicago Statement of Biblical Innerancy protects both poles well:

Article III.


WE AFFIRM that the written Word in its entirety is revelation given by God.

WE DENY that the Bible is merely a witness to revelation, or only becomes revelation in encounter, or depends on the responses of men for its validity.

Article IV.

WE AFFIRM that God who made mankind in His image has used language as a means of revelation.

WE DENY that human language is so limited by our creatureliness that it is rendered inadequate as a vehicle for divine revelation. We further deny that the corruption of human culture and language through sin has thwarted God’s work of inspiration.

Article VII.

WE AFFIRM that inspiration was the work in which God by His Spirit, through human writers, gave us His Word. The origin of Scripture is divine. The mode of divine inspiration remains largely a mystery to us.

WE DENY that inspiration can be reduced to human insight, or to heightened states of consciousness of any kind.

Article VIII.

WE AFFIRM that God in His work of inspiration utilized the distinctive personalities and literary styles of the writers whom He had chosen and prepared.

WE DENY that God, in causing these writers to use the very words that He chose, overrode their personalities.

Article XII.

WE AFFIRM that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit.

WE DENY that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.

7 thoughts on “Revelation: Word or Deed?

  1. This seems as if it were written with something specific in mind. Was there an article or something that argued for one thing or the other? Offhand I can’t think of anybody (much less anyone reputable) who would argue that God has used only his words or his deeds to reveal who he is to us.

    It is also hard to retain a solid Christology if one views Gods words and actions as an either/or deal. John 1:14–“the Word became flesh…”–makes no sense if “Word” or “became” are viewed as insignificant.

  2. Mateo,
    the blog post was written as I was reading Leslie Newbigin’s Gospel in a Pluralistic Society and Paul Knitter’s No Other Name (very liberal). Newbigin discusses the Biblical Theology Movement (of the 1960’s and ’70’s) that emphasized the events over the words and James Barr who emphasized the words over the events. I read that six or more weeks ago but it came to mind as I was reading the uberliberal views of Knitter’s book that refer to the ‘myths’ of the Bible. They focus on the inspired nature of the words – the events don’t matter and probably aren’t historical.

    There are plenty of reputable liberal theologians that fall into one camp or the other. I fear a lot of the present emphasis on narrative (narrative theology, NT Wright, a lot of the emerging folk) err on the side of emphasizing the events over the words while other liberals dismiss those events as mythical and focus on the language of faith experiences. I believe the evangelical church must hold both relentlessly.

  3. Oh, I see what you meant. I was thinking of someone who more or less literally advocated one of the other. That was hard to imagine, but now I think I understand what you had in mind.

  4. Dan, I’m finding it hard to grasp what overemphasising events over words looks like in an emerging/NT Wright context. Can you give some examples of what you were thinking of when you wrote that bit to help me understand better?

  5. Doug,
    Thanks for asking for a clarification – it’s needed because my comments were slightly inaccurate. I haven’t read anything emergent in quite a while – for that I’m thankful 😉 I picked up some of the books on my shelf from emergent authors and realized that there are those who fall on both sides. I don’t want to say that any overemphasize words or overemphasize deeds, rather that some underemphasize words or underemphasize deeds.

    Here’s a series of quotes from Tomlisons book The Post Evangelical (published by emergent ys):

    “Evangelicals tend to make an idol out of the Bible…In evangelical churches on e will often find an anti-biblical criticism attitude. Evangelicals tend to bury their heads in the sand with slogans like , ‘the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.’ Go to your average evangelical church and suggest that we don’t really know who wrote the fourth Gospel or that the story of Jonah might be mythical and you will quickly see what I mean.” (pg. 74)

    Also, “To say that Scripture is the word of God is to employ a metaphor. God cannot be thought of as literally speaking words, since they are an entirely human phenomenon that could never prove adequate as a medium for the speech of an infinite God” (pg. 114). On the same page he quotes approvingly Schneider who refers to the “patent human errors in the text”. He continues, “I’d say the Bible is the word of God in that it is the symbolic location of divine revelation.” A page later, “Evangelicals objectify the text by asserting that the Bible’s words are literally God’s words, and they must stand up to detailed scrutiny as to their accuracy. Understanding the word of God as symbolic revelation, however, leas the interpreter away from subject-object relationship into ta more intuitive involvement with the revelatory process” (pg. 116).

    Tomlison is just all over the map on Scripture. NT Wright is much more responsible I believe. I think everyone knows I love NT Wright on most things, though I also disagree on some. He is a strong proponent for the accuracy of the Bibles historical claims, especially the resurrection, but he is also careful to say that Scripture is more than just a ‘record of revelation’. He understands the authority and accuracy of Scripture to mean that it authoritatively/rightly renders to us reality. I like that, but leaves me wanting/needing more. Here is what John Frame says in review of The Last Word (NT Wrights book on the authority of the Bible):

    “He [Wright]identifies as “the central claim of this book” the thesis “that the phrase ‘authority of Scripture’ can make Christian sense only if it is shorthand for ‘the authority of the triune God, exercised somehow through scripture.’” (23) This implies,

    ‘ …that scripture itself points—authoritatively, if it does indeed possess authority!—away from itself and to the fact that final and true authority belongs to God himself, now delegated to Jesus Christ. It is Jesus, according to John 8:39-40, who speaks the truth because he has heard from God. ‘(24)

    The idea that Scripture “points away from itself” reminds us of the theologies of Barth and Brunner. For their followers, this implies that we should look at the Bible only as a human text, erring as humans do. But inerrantists also believe that Scripture “points away:” to the God who saves and who speaks to us the word of Scripture. This is to say that the metaphor of “pointing away from itself” is a truism that theologians of very different views appeal to.”

    Also, Wright defines ‘inspiration’ in the following terms, “by his Spirit God guided the very different writers and editors, so that the books they produced were the books God intended his people to have.” Okay, but as Frame points out, precisely the same could be said of all the books in his (or my) library: God providentially arranged for them to end up there, even though some of them are good books and some of them are bad books. For Wright, divine inspiration implies divine providence, but the real question is whether inspiration implies divine endorsement.

    This is long, but I hope I was able to clarify some of my concerns. With the emerging church stuff I didn’t have a chance to reread/scan Bell or McLaren, but know similar concerns came up when I did.

  6. Thanks for taking the time to clarify Dan. It helped.

    I’m with you on the Post-Evangelical stuff. However, I do think Tomlinson has a valid point that a lot of evangelicals balk at criticism of Scripture when they encounter it, rather than communicating well why we have confidence in John as the author of the 4th gospel or of Jonah’s story being historical narrative, for example. Not true of all of us mind you, but true of many as a first and defensive reaction.

    I’m not not sure about if I can agree with the Frame stuff. At least not without reading more. It comes across to me that he’s eisigetically reading fault into what he has quoted NT Wright as saying.

  7. Doug,
    I can totally understand your reaction to Frame. Even he says he doesn’t have much of a problem with what Wright says, but it’s what he left unsaid that is problematic.

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