Revelation is the very soul of theology. Without it, theology would be at best an exercise of abstract philosophy, reflecting on a first principle of the created order and without knowledge of whether it is personal or relational. In other words, without revelation, theology could only ask what God is but not who God is. It is in our study of who God is, by virtue of God’s self-disclosure to us his creatures, that we are able to have access to the very personal aspect of God and have a relationship with him.
When engaging in the theology of revelation, there are three principles that are at the heart of any effective study: man’s openness to God’s revelation, the objective character of God’s revelation, and the source of revelation.
In order for revelation to occur, it needs two actors: someone who reveals and someone to receive the revelation. If man has a heart that is absolutely closed to God’s breaking into our world, then the work of revelation becomes fruitless, since there is no one open to receiving the gift.
This is why revelation will always have a subjective character. By this we do not mean relativism, which is to say that truth is not absolute. But, rather, revelation’s subjectivity means that it is always addressing a subject — namely, all of humanity. God has created us with a desire to be with him because that is at the heart of his original purpose in creation. We are created for God, and that purpose has never left us, even with the fall of Adam and Eve. This means openness to God is built into our very nature. This also means, then, that God’s revelation has to address our humanity in a way we can understand. Thus he will not simply enlighten individual minds, but he will act and speak in history, in ways that can be perceived and understood by man.
The Objective Character
This need to address the human heart also has a flip side, since hearing God requires obedience on our part, necessary to respond to the Word of God in faith. If God is God, then God knows best about what is best for us. It means that God’s revelation — what he reveals about who he is, and what he teaches us about how to live — require an obedience on our part. This revelation is not to be fooled around with or treated flippantly, but rather something to which we humbly submit and pattern our lives around.
The Source of Revelation
The Second Vatican Council’s constitution Dei Verbum (On the Word of God) is perhaps one of the greatest magisterial treasures of the 20th century. It clearly and succinctly places the source of revelation in Jesus Christ, who, as the Word of God, is the one through whom all things are created. He is, therefore, the one in whom all creation finds its source and goal in this Word, which is made incarnate in Jesus Christ. As the fullness of revelation himself, Jesus is the revelation. He is the source — in secret — of God’s revelation to Israel, and he fulfills this covenant in his very person.
This helps us put Scripture and Tradition in their proper order. Tradition is the Word of God handed on in the life of the Church. Tradition hands on from one generation to the next everything that the Apostles first handed on to the Church in those earliest days of preaching and teaching. Tradition is protected by the grace of the Holy Spirit, yet, in order to be communicated as widely as possible, it also gets written down and becomes the inspired texts of the New Testament. The Old Testament is equally important, crucial and inspired because it prepares the way for and points to Jesus. Scripture and Tradition, then, are rooted in the person of Jesus because he is the true revelation to which Scripture and Tradition give witness.
Father Harrison Ayre is a priest of the Diocese of Victoria, British Columbia. Follow him on Twitter at @FrHarrison. Read more in the “Introduction to Theology” series here.