DULLES’ MODELS OF REVELATION AND THE EVANGELICAL VIEW

The issue of this post centers on the book “Models of Revelation” by Avery Dulles. In this book, he describes different models or constructs that he believes God reveals Himself and His Will to believers. Dulles’ attempt to separate the different models is quite good but unfortunately lacks clarity on what a true evangelical Christian model of revelation is. This will be broken out into two post with the remaining models in a separate post as well as what an evangelical model is believed to really include.

Can the Unfathomable ever be scaled down to a single, limited view of how He works? Is there a model that can be used for finite beings to know an infinite God? In the book “Models of Revelation” by Avery Dulles he explains how various Christians over the years have tried to know and experience the divine revelations of God. He chooses five different views that have been prominent since the 20th century and breaks them down into theological models. “Their purpose is not to present replicas of God or of the divine action, but to suggest ways of accounting for theologically relevant data and for explaining, up to a point, what Christians believe on a motive of faith.”[1] But, Dulles himself recognizes that “a given system, even though correct in what it affirms, will inevitably fall short of fathoming the mystery of the divine being or the divine activity.”[2]

Therefore, to truly respond to Dulles’ limited view of the evangelical model, we must observe each models strengths and a weaknesses as Dulles defines them. As Dulles breaks down each model, we shall see how limited his evangelical model is and why it needs to be redefined.

Model One: Revelation as Doctrine

In this model, also known as the evangelical model, revelation “is principally found in clear propositional statements attributed to God as authoritative teacher.”[3] The “crucial moment of revelation” for this model is the formulation of teaching in a clear conceptual form. This model is understood on the analogy of authoritative teaching where God is seen as the infallible teacher who communicates knowledge by speech and writing to His recipients, as pupils.[4]

Dulles does show this model as believing in general revelation where God has revealed himself in nature, but that His revelation in nature is not sufficient for salvation. He believes that all special revelation is necessary for salvation, which is not completely accurate since it is limited by space and time and that is what sets it apart. The treatment of inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture is accurate and seem to reflect mainstream evangelical understanding.

The major problem with Dulles’ understanding of this model is how he labels a very narrow use of proposition. Part of the issue is that most of the Bible is not propositional in the strict sense and it is not doctrinal. He confuses revelation and a response to revelation, which is doctrine. He essentially equates revelation with the meaning of the Bible. In contrast, an evangelical would see doctrine as a response to revelation and not all revelation as doctrine.

Dulles does offer a good amount of positives in this model, specifically the stress of God speaking and being our teacher, which is lost in other models. His emphasis on inspiration and inerrancy, the emphasis on developing doctrine in response to the Scriptures and finally the emphasis on progressive revelation are all items the evangelical can agree with. This is a good start, but it is insufficient and narrow as a model of revelation for the evangelical in order to have a greater experience and knowledge of the Almighty.

Model Two: Revelation as History

This model “maintains that God reveals himself primarily in his great deeds, especially those which form the major themes of biblical history.”[5] The “crucial moment of revelation” for this model is the occurrence of historical events through which God signifies his intentions.[6] This model offers a greater deal of diversity which was missing in the first and stresses the priority of event over interpretation. The event is revelation and the interpretation of it is a response to the event. This model declares that the Bible is not revelation but an interpretation of history and it might even be a divine interpretation of history. The content and form of revelation is primarily the great deeds of God throughout history.

The strengths of this model is that is helps us to see that events are a form of revelation. It emphasizes the redemptive events of the Exodus and the events of Christ. It refocuses the attention on the great acts of God delivering and redeeming His people. But, to consolidate all of God’s work in history as revelatory is too narrow; while this model is a form of revelation, it cannot be the only form of divine revelation.

Model Three: Revelation as Inner Experience

Revelation occurs when God reveals Himself in an inner experience in the individual person that is personal and continuous. Revelation is a “privileged interior experience of grace or communion with God” that “depends on the mediation of Christ, who experienced the Father.”[7] God is both transcendent and imminent, particularly present in the inner experience. The “crucial moment of revelation” is “an immediate, interior perception of the divine presence.”[8] The content of revelation is God as He reveals Himself through a direct, unmediated encounter.

The major strengths of this model is that God is the content of revelation and that He reveals Himself in a personal and intimate way with His faithful followers. While there are many good things about experiencing God, it also raises concerns when this is the dominant form of revelation. This model rejects the distinction between general and special revelation because it denies general revelation. “One characteristic defect, it is not its emphasis on experience but rather its excessively narrow concept of experience.”[9] Dulles also points out is that it “makes rather selective use of the Bible and even contradicts many biblical texts.”[10] This model “deprives Scripture of revelational value and considers it the framework for a ‘language-event,’ an internal encounter in which one experiences authentic being.”[11]

[1] Avery Dulles, Models of Revelation, (Maryknoll: Orbis Books 1992), 32.

[2] Ibid, 32.

[3] Ibid, 27.

[4] Ibid, 33.

[5] Ibid, 27.

[6] Ibid, 28.

[7] Ibid, 27-28.

[8] Ibid, 28.

[9] Ibid, 81.

[10] Ibid, 78.

[11] Carl F. H. Henry, “The Authority and Inspiration of the Bible,” in The Expositor’s Bible

Commentary, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979), 24.

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