When a Christian apologist invokes ‘revelation’ it is often understood by atheists and skeptics to refer to the “writings of the flawed goat herders of a bygone era that have been shown by modern science to be outdated, outmoded, and absolutely in error. Certainly not the stuff we can think of as ‘divine revelation.'” This is the reaction even before the apologist has time to define precisely what he means by ‘revelation.’ Of course, I am not really knocking the skeptic here, for the typical Christian (and even apologist!) likewise makes a leap: “the writings of men who have been inspired by the Holy Spirit that have been assembled into the Old and New Testaments, which we call the Bible.”
That is not what I mean when I use the word revelation in the context of discussions about theism. Note the distinction that I am making between the lower and uppercase ‘R.’ ‘Divine Revelation’ is short hand for the Bible and both sides of the debate regard it as such, though obviously the regard of each is colored by their esteem for it. For the skeptic, the notion that the Bible is Divine Revelation is absurd, because they have the belief that anything so described should exceed and surpass the style and content of what Man would write. And in some ways, I would agree with that, only I would urge that in a context where the very nature of the Scriptures are under discussion, we should reserve the phrase ‘Divine Revelation’ for that material explicitly dealing with the direct Words of God.
For example, the book of Ruth does not contain any material where it is recorded, “And God said,…” By contrast, Isaiah reports in a number of places that what he has recorded is God’s actual words and declarations. See for example Is. 3:16 or Is. 8:11. Ruth is a description of certain events by a human writer but nowhere does the human writer insist that they are narrating an account given to them verbatim by God. So, you could call this, strictly speaking, human revelation.
The fact that Christians have come to view this bit of human revelation as special and unique by virtue of the belief that it was inspired (that is, breathed into by God) allows them to legitimately view any such document so treated by God as ‘Divine Revelation’ paints over and conflates some very important epistemological facts.
To give one example, skeptics are known to go on and on and on about the wild success of modern science in unraveling the secrets of the universe. Common examples I’ve heard are “the microwave oven!” and “it put a man on the moon!” Others include things like the splitting of the atom and vaccines. So you see, the skeptic says that their way of approaching the world relies on evidence and experiment- none of that vacuous stuff about so-called revelation by God! However, in point of fact the skeptic very much relies on revelation. Most Christian apologists… or perhaps I should just speak for myself… I merely ask that the skeptic employs the same methods of evaluating the revelation contained in the Scriptures that they do in evaluating the revelation they already rely on.
I am surprised at how many atheists appear to be unaware of the fact that their worldview is driven as much by revelation as the Christian.
After all, how many atheists today actually set foot on the moon personally? Were they present at the splitting of the atom? Did they personally watch Hiroshima become engulfed in a mushroom cloud? Did they carry out the studies showing the efficacy of vaccines. They say that small pox has been eradicated but every day that goes by there are fewer and fewer people alive who witnessed the disease personally. For most people, the fact that there was every such a disease is known only because previous humans laid down a record of events for the present humans to take note of. How many people were present to watch Alain Aspect carry out his famous experiment evidently ‘proving’ that non-locality is a fact of reality? More to the point, how many people have actually re-created the experiment themselves in order to confirm it? How many people have personally established via their own observation and experimentation that the stars in the sky exhibit red shift, one of the key evidences for the Big Bang? Even things they’ve seen with their ‘own eyes’ such as images from the Hubble telescope have been run through computer modeling that have added colors according to assumptions made by the astronomers.
In short, every person on this planet relies extensively on revelation for virtually every part of what they think they know. Even a scientist who performs one experiment and so witnesses an effect personally relies on the great mass of other scientists to carry out other experiments. The results of these experiments will have to be taken at the word of those other scientists. They do not have the time, energy, and resources to personally verify every assertion that is made presently and has been made in the past. Indeed, none of us do. That is why each of us have to rely on revelation. If our knowledge were limited to our own direct experiences that knowledge pool would be quite shallow!
Does this reality mean that everything we know about the world is suspect, just because it is revelation? Not at all! Intentionally or unintentionally every one of us have erected filters and tests that we apply to the revelatory material that comes before our attention. Unfortunately, skeptics are among the worst in being wholly unaware of this fact. We know they are oblivious to this because if they grasped its significance, they would not smugly deride the revelation they find in the Scriptures- which comes to them in the same manner that they receive most accounts of past events. (Eg, Tacitus).
It is just a simple fact that we all rely on revelation. It is therefore critical that we think carefully about how we evaluate the revelation that comes before us. Much of the sorting of revelation is done automatically and without reflection. This works in many respects but can lead to problems. This is obvious the minute we raise the point.
So, we return to the Christian scriptures. It is actually a point in their favor that so much of it is comes to us by human authors. That means that we can test their revelation according to the same standards and methodologies we test all revelations, past and present. By contrast, if the whole of the revelation were Divine Revelation it would be much more difficult. (I discuss this more here and here).
But having arrived at this conclusion, we surface a handful of other epistemological points of significance. For example, we note that the nature of revelation is such that one entity communicates to another entity information that the latter entity is unable to verify. Strictly speaking, the information can only be corroborated. (eg, if someone comes to you and tells you that they observed by experiment water boiling at 212 degrees you are still taking them at their word about what they witnessed, but you have good reason to believe them if you perform the same experiment and get the same results). But we will always discover that we cannot corroborate everything in the same way. Moreover, some entities will always be in a better position to speak to a matter than someone else.
This is obvious, right? A nuclear physicist is in a better position to speak to the results of atom smashing than I am. In fact, I will never be able to personally recreate the experiment and I will have a lot of learning to do if I wish to interpret it. Or, I will always be at the mercy of someone actually present for an event if I wasn’t there, even if I ‘saw it on television.’
So now we return to the importance of actual Divine Revelation. That is, it is just a simple fact that God (if there is a God as Christians understand him) will be in a better position to speak to certain realities than we are. (Indeed, I think you could safely say that God is in a better position to speak to ALL realities than we are!). When I say, “some things can only be known by revelation” I do not mean that one can only get them by studying the Bible. I mean that only God is in a position to speak authoritatively to them at all. For example, he and he alone knows what his true nature is in detail. We may be able to deduce certain things about him (like Aristotle was able to deduce his existence philosophically) but in the same way that we may deduce that a person exists but not know what his favorite ice cream flavor is… unless he tells us.
Now, testing the revelation of fellow humans is one thing. Testing the Revelation of God himself has its own difficulties, no? However, it is enough to understand we absolutely rely on revelation whether we like it or not, and then proceed to ponder how we would test both human and Divine Revelation.