“Revelation” is a mysterious-sounding word.
Sometimes it conjures visions in our minds of the end of the world. That happens when we think of the last book of the Bible—the Book of Revelation.
But even when the word isn’t being used that way, it suggests something powerful and mysterious.
This is a bit of a paradox, because of what the word “revelation” actually means.
Revelation is something that is revealed—something that is now known. If I reveal what I’m doing or thinking, that’s a revelation.
Since the term refers to what is known, it’s ironic that it would have such mysterious overtones.
Human vs. Divine Revelation
If we only used the word “revelation” to refer to ordinary, mundane, human revelations—the kind of things people reveal in their Facebook status—then it would never have acquired such mysterious overtones (indeed, it would sound trivial to us rather than momentous).
But we also use it for things that God reveals to us, and God is very mysterious indeed.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts [Isaiah 55:8-9].
It’s understandable that, by its association with the mystery of God, the word “revelation” itself would come to sound mysterious.
Despite the fact that we can never fully grasp God, never fully comprehend an infinite Being like him, we can understand something about how he reveals himself to man.
More Than Words Can Tell
In the past, some theologians have conceived of divine revelation as if it’s just a matter of words—as if everything that God has revealed to man could be stated as a proposition, like these:
- There are three Persons in the blessed Trinity.
- God is all powerful.
- God had no beginning.
- God loves man.
And so forth.
It is possible to phrase many of the things God has revealed to us as propositions, but not all of them.
Some of the things he has revealed go beyond what we can simply put into words.
Though we don’t often think of it, a lot of what we know cannot be put into words.
Suppose you come home one day and your spouse smiles at you cheerfully and gives you a warm hug. You know your spouse is pleased to see you. You even have a sense of how pleased—but not in a way that would be easy to put into words.
Human languages are just not designed for those kind of subtleties.
In the same way, God reveals things to us that can’t easily be put into words, though over the centuries, theologians have tried to do so more and more, the same way you might sit down and try to write about your deepest feelings for your spouse and put them into words.
“Talk is Cheap”
What’s more, God doesn’t just reveal himself to us by words. He also reveals things about himself by his actions—his deeds.
This is similar to the way we relate to each other on the human level. We don’t just say things to each other. We relate and reveal our intentions by what we do as well as by what we say.
That’s why we have sayings like, “Talk is cheap,” and “Put your money where your mouth is.”
A man who tried to show his love for a woman merely by saying “I love you” would be in danger of losing her. He needs to take action—to do things—that show her his love as well.
Deeds and Words
In the same way, God doesn’t just reveal himself by what he says through prophets or apostles.
He also reveals himself by what he does: Creating the world, bringing Israel out of Egypt, sending his Son and his Holy Spirit to us.
These also tell us things about God.
It’s one thing to consider the proposition “God loves man” and another to consider that in light of his sending his Son to die on a cross so that we might be saved.
The Bible tells us:
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life [John 3:16].
But when God backs that statement up through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, it reveals even more. Among other things, it reveals just how much God loves us and just what it took to atone for our sins.
Both Are Needed
Both the deeds and the words are important, and they shed light on each other.
We’ve already seen that what Jesus did sheds light on John 3:16, but the reverse is true also.
If we only knew the bare facts of Jesus’ life—that a man named Jesus was born, was crucified, and then came back to life—we would know that something very important happened, but we would not know precisely what.
We would not know that it was the way in which God saves us. We need God’s words to help us understand the significance of God’s actions.
This is what the Second Vatican Council teaches when it discusses God’s plan of revelation and says:
This plan of revelation is realized by deeds and words having an inner unity:
- the deeds wrought by God in the history of salvation manifest and confirm the teaching and realities signified by the words,
- while the words proclaim the deeds and clarify the mystery contained in them.
By this revelation then, the deepest truth about God and the salvation of man shines out for our sake in Christ, who is both the mediator and the fullness of all revelation [Dei Verbum 2].
A Basic Definition
In view of the above, we could propose the following as a basic definition of revelation:
Revelation is whatever God reveals to man through his deeds and words.
There is more to say about revelation, on topics like:
- What information does God reveal to us?
- What can we learn from God’s deeds?
- What can we learn only by his words?
- How is revelation transmitted down the centuries?
- What’s the difference between public and private revelation?
But those will have to wait for future posts.
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