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Chapter 20: The Relationship between God and Sinful Humankind

Question A: What is divine revelation?

1. Revelation is a communication of God to humankind. By it he makes himself known as personal and invites human beings to share intimately in his life.1

2. As Vatican I and Vatican II teach, God manifests himself in creation (see DS 3004/1785; DV 3). But neither council calls this “revelation.” This manifestation, which can be grasped by the natural light of reason, scarcely provides a basis for knowing whether God is personal.2 It is inadequate to establish a relationship of intimacy between him and us (see S.t., 1–2, q. 109, a. 1; 2–2, q. 1, a. 1; q. 2, aa. 2–4).

3. Hence, as Vatican I solemnly teaches, besides manifesting himself in creation and so making some knowledge of himself accessible to humankind by natural reason, God has also chosen “. . . to reveal himself and the eternal decrees of his will to the human race in another and supernatural way, as the Apostle says: ‘In times past, God spoke in fragmentary and varied ways to our fathers through the prophets; in this, the final age, he has spoken to us through his Son’ (Heb 1.1–2)” (DS 3004/1785). By this revelation even certain truths naturally accessible to reason are known with certainty and without error (see S.t., 1, q. 1, a. 1; S.c.g., 1, 3–5). But it is not on their account that supernatural revelation is absolutely necessary. Rather, “It is necessary only because God, out of his infinite goodness, destined man to a supernatural end, that is, to a participation in the good things of God, which altogether exceed the human mental grasp; for ‘eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it so much as dawned on man what God has prepared for those who love him’ (1 Cor 2.9)” (DS 3005/1786). Thus by supernatural revelation, especially God’s revelation in the Incarnation of the Son, we come to know God, not simply as creator but also as three persons who invite us into fellowship with themselves (see S.t., 1–2, q. 62; 2–2, q. 2, a. 3; q. 4, a. 7).

God freely chose to call human persons to share in his own divine life; this calling involves a special, supernatural, and personal communication by God to those he wishes to call (see DS 3004–5/1785–86). Vatican I’s teaching on the necessity of revelation so that human persons might reach heaven precludes the view that what one can know by reason alone is sufficient for living a Christian life.

It is important to notice that while the words “natural” and “supernatural” are not found in Scripture as a pair, the distinction they mark is in the New Testament. It is the distinction between human begetting and divine begetting (see Jn 1.12–13), for only they can enter the kingdom who are begotten, not merely of flesh and blood, but of water and the Spirit (see Jn 3.3–8). Persons human by nature are children of God by adoption (supernature) and so are called to everlasting life (see Rom 8.14–17; Gal. 4.3–7; Eph 1.4–6; 1 Jn 3.1–2).

4. Because it is personal communication, revelation does not essentially consist in information which could be obtained in some other way (see S.t., 2–2, q. 1, aa. 4–5). At the same time, although not limited to propositional truths, it includes such truths: God tells us that he is our God and we his people, that he loves us, and much more (see Jer 31.33; Hos 1.6, 9; Rv 21.3; LG 9–17). These are truths to be believed. It would be nonsense to say one has faith in God but does not believe such propositions. More than this truth and that, however, God reveals himself (see S.t., 2–2, q. 1, aa. 1–2). So faith, while it includes assent to truths, is also more than that.

5. God does not depend on anything apart from himself, but revelation does: There would be no revelation without a human recipient who grasps the communication (see S.t., 2–2, q. 171, aa. 1, 4–5; q. 174, a. 6). Hence, while God primarily reveals himself, his revelation is not identical with him. Though it manifests God in a personal way, revelation belongs to the created world and can be grasped in human terms. Yet its content remains mysterious and draws the believer into the mystery. Otherwise it would not point us toward God and initiate a personal relationship with him.

6. Revelation is a set of created entities; God’s personal communication is carried out by human words and deeds. By a human mediator God supplies a set of verbal expressions which call attention to and explain what he is doing, while what he does substantiates the truth of the discourse he provides (see DV 2). Thus, God adapts a certain set of created entities to serve as signals to us.

7. Since revelation is a particular set of created entities which can be grasped humanly, it should not be said that it is ineffable or that no human expression is adequate to it. This confuses revelation with God and implicitly denies that God has succeeded in revealing himself.3

8. Moreover, since revelation comes to human beings in a human form and a social context, one cannot say its content is given to the mind by some sort of nonconceptual intuition. On the contrary, the content of revelation is conveyed publicly in words and deeds, which can be observed and grasped by human beings together in community. For example, God’s revelation in Jesus was experienced and appropriated by the Twelve. Faith comes to others through hearing the gospel of Christ preached by those appointed and sent to proclaim it (see Rom 10.13–17).4

Even as God reveals himself, his inner reality remains hidden and mysterious, as Vatican I teaches (see DS 3016/1796). In this life “we see in a mirror dimly” (1 Cor 13.12). This mirror is the relationship God has established with us. We still know him not in himself, but as one who is, in a way we cannot comprehend, all he must be to sustain with us the relationship into which he has drawn us. And even though Jesus is God, the truth he reveals still must be accepted by faith (see Jn 1.12–14). God for us is he whom we have met in Jesus.

As personal communication, divine revelation is not completed in the utterance of words or the performance of deeds, but only by a people’s hearing of the words and response to the deeds. Thus the apostolic witness is to “that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life” (1 Jn 1.1). With the death of the last apostle, the appropriation of what God reveals in Jesus was completed.5 Now we expect no further public revelation (see DV 4).

9. Since revelation occurs in the world of the human and is humanly accessible, it includes many familiar things. God could not, for example, have revealed himself to Moses without using existing language and institutions, such as the institution of covenant. However, to attract our attention and initiate a special, personal relationship, revelation also requires a distinctive signal; it must include elements—words and deeds—which cannot reasonably be interpreted as anything except divine communication. This is to say that it necessarily includes signs and wonders: states of affairs brought about by God without the usual conditions which, if present, would dispose people to regard these happenings as part of the normal course of events (see S.t., 1, q. 105, aa. 6–7; 2–2, q. 6, a. 1; q. 171, a. 1). In the face of signs and wonders, the Israelites could not reasonably refuse to accept what they experienced as the words and deeds of God (see Ex 4.1–9).6

Revelation occurs in a world in which humankind already has some awareness of God—incomplete and partly mistaken but nevertheless real. If this were not so, missionaries could not make clear that the gospel message they bring is not merely a human message but a message from God, for “God” would have no meaning to those to be evangelized. This prior awareness of God is based on the fact that everything created depends upon him for its borrowed reality.

Revelation, however, is more than this natural awareness; it is essentially connected with the miraculous (see LG 5; DV 4; DH 11). Miracles and the fulfillment of prophecies are presented to experience in such a way that certain states of affairs can be discriminated from the normal order of things and reasonably accepted as signals—conveying personal communications—from God (see DS 3009/1790). Vatican I definitively teaches that external signs can render revelation credible, that one is not moved to faith exclusively by inner experience, that miracles are possible, that accounts of miracles in Scripture must not be dismissed as fables and myths, that miracles can be recognized with certainty, and that the divine origin of the Christian religion can be established by them (see DS 3033–34/1812–13). Anyone who denies the miraculous implicitly denies that divine revelation really has occurred.

Events which can be called “miraculous” in a strict sense are signs of an especially striking type. But God’s revelation is not a sequence of isolated, spectacular occurrences. Once he gains the attention of those with whom he wishes to communicate, God sets up a continuing process of conversation, many of whose elements, taken by themselves, might seem perfectly natural. But the whole process hangs together with a systematic unity. Vatican II explains: “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” (DV 2). In this way, God, who is naturally known by the relationship of all created things to him, becomes personally known by the relationship which those who believe in him have with him in the order of salvation.

1. A useful introduction to many of the points treated in this chapter: Michael Schmaus, Dogma, vol. 1, God in Revelation (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1968). A more specialized treatise on revelation: René Latourelle, S.J., Theology of Revelation (Cork: Mercier Press, 1968), esp. 313–424.

2. On the possibility and limits of knowledge of God by rational reflection: Germain Grisez, Beyond the New Theism: A Philosophy of Religion (Notre Dame and London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1975), 241–72.

3. For an explicit statement of the position here rejected, see Gabriel Moran, “The God of Revelation,” in God, Jesus, and Spirit, ed. Daniel Callahan (New York: Herder and Herder, 1969), 3–15, esp. 12: “The danger to which faith is continually exposed is that God will no longer be sought but that his revelation will be identified with something finite. The distinctive character of Judaic-Christian revelation is that God has left us no revelation.”

4. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches clearly that while the assent of faith depends upon an interior grace directly given by God, the content of faith must be received by hearing the gospel preached (see S.t., 2–2, q. 6, a. 1). In his early commentary on the Sentences (1, pro., q. 1, a. 5), Thomas teaches that the habit of faith demands more than the light of faith, because faith must be specified to definite content received by preaching, just as the light of principles naturally known must be specified through sense experience. For a clear explanation of the basis in divine transcendence for the limited role of experience in Christian faith: Robert Sokolowski, The God of Faith and Reason: Foundations of Christian Theology (Notre Dame and London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), 133–42.

5. Concerning apostolic reception as not only normative for us but constitutive of revelation: Latourelle, op. cit., 369–72.

6. Concerning miracles: Grisez, op. cit., 326–42, 357–65, and the works cited, 404, n. 24.