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God Spoke: Biblical Theology and Revelation

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Question

“Does God still speak today?” This is a large question that many Christians ask today–even Reformed and orthodox Christians. On the one hand there are many who agree that the Bible is a closed canon and is the only rule of faith and practice. On the other hand, there are many who claim to have had certain “experiences” that lead them to believe God still speaks today. We hear of such experiences like: “God spoke to me and told me to do this.” Others, “God revealed to me what I should do with my life.” And others, “God just really spoke to me through this or that.” But is it right to say that God still speaks today?

Cessationism and Continuationism

There are two primary positions that seek to address whether God still speaks today. The one position, “cessationism,” argues that God’s miraculous (or sign) gifts have ceased today. That with the closing of the canon there is also a ceasing of revelation. The other position, “continuationism,” argues that God still speaks in diverse ways today, though his speaking today is not on par with the Bible. God still uses the miraculous gifts like prophecy and tongues to convey his will to his people. While these different positions can be further broken down and nuanced, these two positions appear to be commonly held even among conservative and Calvinist congregations. I believe, however, that the Biblical pattern gives preference to the “cessationist” position. While there are a number of ways in which I think the Bible shows this, our intent will be to briefly examine the argument of the biblical theologian Geerhardus Vos, and we will focus almost entirely on the pattern of Biblical revelation. (ATTN: Vos does not directly address the cessationist or continuationist issue, but what he says is beneficial to this discussion.)

Redemption and Revelation

Vos helpfully delineates between redemption and revelation in his book Biblical Theology:

“In reclaiming the world from its state of sin God has to act along two lines of procedure, corresponding to the two spheres in which the destructive influence of sin asserts itself. These two spheres are the spheres of being and knowing. To set the world right in the former, the procedure of redemption is employed; to set it right in the sphere of knowing, the procedure of revelation is used” (pg. 15).

In summary, in order to deal with man’s problem of “being,” God employs different acts of redemption. In order to deal with man’s problem of “knowing,” God reveals truths to him. In this way, redemption and revelation work together to bring man into an estate of salvation by his Redeemer. As others have helpfully said: God acts (redemption) and then God interprets (revelation).

Redemption

But when it comes to redemption, Vos further delineates: “Redemption is partly objective and central, and partly subjective and individual” (pg. 6). Objective redemption is: “Those redeeming acts of God, which take place on behalf of, but outside of, the human person” (pg. 6). These redeeming acts would include such things as the exodus, the return from exile, the institution of the covenant of grace, and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Subjective redemption is: “Those acts of God which enter into the human subject” (pg. 6). These acts include our effectual call, regeneration, faith/repentance, justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification. I don’t think it is necessarily wrong to see that Vos is essentially dividing redemption into what John Murray labeled redemption accomplished (objective) and applied (subjective).

Revelation

These distinctions are helpful because Vos goes on to coordinate objective redemption with revelation: 1) Revelation comes to men both outside of them and inside of them. Of the former, we have abundant examples as when God spoke to man. Whether it is to Abraham through the mouth of the angel, Moses on Mt. Sinai, or by the mouths of the prophets to the kings, God often revealed things to man. But there are also examples where God spoke in man. Take for example the book of Psalms. Many of the psalms are “subjective” revelation in that God caused certain thoughts or feelings to be expressed. But Vos is clear, both objective and subjective revelation are infallible (see pg. 12). 2) But Vos doesn’t see objective and subjective revelation pertaining to objective and subjective redemption, respectively. Rather, he is quite clear that revelation always accompanies objective redemptionHe helpfully explains:

“Now revelation accompanies the process of objective-central redemption only, and this explains why redemption extends further than revelation. To insist upon its accompanying subjective-individual redemption would imply that it dealt with questions of private, personal concern, instead of with the common concerns of the world of redemption collectively” (pg. 6 emphasis added).

To summarize Vos’s view then, he argues that (objective and subjective) revelation only pertains to objective redemption–those great acts where God accomplished salvation for his people. And revelation, biblically understood, does not pertain to subjective redemption or the application of salvation.

The Pattern

But the question can still be and should be pressed: Is Vos being biblical? After all, Hebrews 1:1–4 tells us that God spoke at many times in many different ways to the fathers. Is Vos’s system so reductionistic that it doesn’t deal honestly with the varied ways in which God revealed himself? Further, we have examples in the Bible where individuals received dreams or had visions or seemingly “personal” words from God. So is it accurate to insist that revelation only accompanies objective redemption?

This is where I believe it helps to see the pattern of the Bible by asking this simple question: “Did God ever reveal anything, in the Bible, that didn’t further his cause of objective redemption?”

Take for example Joseph’s dreams in the book of Genesis. Were these dreams for Joseph’s benefit? Or where they for the whole benefit of the covenant community? In the greater context of Genesis, we would undoubtedly say the whole covenant community. Joseph’s dreams, and his telling his brothers of these dreams, was the impetus of being sold into slavery which resulted in his imprisonment which gave rise to his opportunity to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams which in turn resulted in him being exalted as the second in Egypt which ended in God saving his covenant people by bringing them to Egypt and all in fulfillment of God’s covenantal promise to Abraham (Gen. 15:13). Or take for example Isaiah’s prophecy concerning Hezekiah’s illness and eventual restoration (2 Kings 20). Was this whole event only for Hezekiah? No. As Hezekiah was the king of Judah, he was a typical figure of the Messiah to come. And his repentance, especially in the context of Kings, was a clear message to exilic Israel that repentance could still be sought from the presence of the Lord. This whole scene was for the further advancing of God’s redemption of Israel. Example after example in the Bible we see that whenever God reveals something, it is for the common or communal good of the covenant people of God (cf. 1 Cor. 14:12). But we can also address this by asking another simple question: Do we ever see reason in the Bible to think that God reveals things to individuals for individual use only (i.e. subjective redemption) (cf. 2 Peter 1:21)? So many of the phrases that Christians often use in relation to God “speaking” to them individually, are completely absent from the Bible. Rather, what Vos helps us understand is that the pattern of revelation in the Bible is that it always accompanies the objective redemptive acts of God.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I think this pattern addresses the cessationist and continuationist debate. Cessationists want to maintain that God’s former ways of speaking have ceased because God’s objective redemption has ceased in the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and session of Jesus Christ. And the particular pattern we see is when objective redemption ceases, so too does (objective and subjective) revelation. This is why God is silent for over 400 years between Genesis and Exodus and the Old and New Testament–there were no great acts of objective redemption. And from my perspective, the continuationists have a loose Biblical footing, because they want to introduce a type of “revelation” that speaks to subjective redemption when we have no biblical warrant to properly speak in this way. But finally, Vos provides us with a better way of speaking that I believe both my charismatic-leaning and cessationist friends can benefit from: “Still this does not mean that the believer cannot, for his subjective experience, receive enlightenment from the source of revelation in the Bible, for we must remember that continually, alongside the objective process, there was going on the work of subjective application, and that much of this is reflected in the Scriptures. Subjective-individual redemption did not first begin when objective-central redemption ceased; it existed alongside of it from the beginning” (pg. 6, emphasis added).

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