Chapter 3


It is the second, and arguably the most central, tenet of Reformed epistemology that God has given to man a self–authenticating revelation.

Wolterstorff writes:

“It has characteristically been held that one may well be within one’s rights in believing immediately that the Christian Scriptures are the revelation of God, or the Word of God.   This … does not have to be believed on the basis of reasons, arguments.   One is not doing something intellectually irresponsible if one believes it immediately.  Scripture, it was often said, is self–authenticating.   It does not require external authentication.   Indeed, such prominent Reformed thinkers as John Calvin and Karl Barth suggested it would be dangerous to believe on the basis of arguments that Scripture is the Word of God.”1

There is the suggestion in this quotation that Reformed thinkers have held that the only locus of revelation from God is in the Christian Scriptures.   I am not sure that this is what Wolterstorff intends but it is certainly the case that many in this tradition of thought have held and do hold that God has revealed himself elsewhere than in the Bible, notably, in Jesus Christ and in nature, including the nature of man himself.   Further, as we have seen earlier, the like of Kuyper and Van Til held that all divine revelation is self–authenticating, whether in the Scriptures or elsewhere.   This particular theme of Reformed epistemology might therefore be better summarised in the statement: divine revelation is self–authenticating.   However, my main concern in this chapter will be with scriptural revelation, albeit always with an eye to this more general statement.

I shall first attempt an analysis of what is meant in ordinary language by talk of revelation.   I shall then apply this to our knowledge of other persons as this seems particularly relevant to the idea of God revealing knowledge of himself.   I shall next attempt to respond to some arguments that could be directed against the possibility of divine revelation.   Then to the heart of the study in a look at the question of the authentication of divine revelation and at four types of approach.   I shall look in more detail at those of them which make revelation self–authenticating in some sense of the term and from them I shall attempt to move on to develop  a positive account of how a revelation of God could be self–authenticating.


The word ‘reveal’ and its cognates are used both in ordinary language and in the language of theology.   Of course, theological usage may well enter into the ordinary language of religious believers but even among them such usage may not exclude the possibility of a wider usage as well, one in which the activity of revealing is not predicated of God, and it is with this more general usage that I shall start.

For a start, I shall take it that revelation, in the sense of the term with which we are concerned, is a matter of personal communication.   Admittedly, the term can also be used in a sense that does not require communication from one person to another, e.g., circumstances or the experiences of life may be said to reveal things to us, but talk of divine revelation seems to be about communication from God to people.

I shall start with a paradigm–case of revelation through personal communication.   Any choice of paradigm is likely to be less than perfect and open to question because of the way in which it can restrict subsequent discussion.   However, one that I find helpful in that for me at least it seems to bring out the main features of our use of words like ‘reveal’ is that of the kind of situation often portrayed in the closing scene of a murder mystery.   The scene in which ‘all is revealed’ typically shows the all–seeing, all–knowing good lady detective in the drawing–room surrounded by all the suspects who have survived to this point and by other interested participants, among whom the reader or viewer projects himself.

The first feature of this situation of importance for our analysis is that the activity of the revealer is necessary if a revelation is to take place and, in relation to this activity, those to whom the revelation is given are relatively passive.   The detective must act in order for a revelation to take place and the waiting group are just that – they are waiting for her to speak.   They are not necessarily wholly passive because, as the details of the crime are being revealed to them, they may well be attempting to keep one step ahead or putting their own construction upon events.   However, insofar as revelation is to take place, something is being uncovered rather than discovered and, for the clever reader who has already worked out for himself all the details of how the butler did it there is no revelation of the details of the crime.

Secondly, it is normally the case that the activity of the revealer is intentional, although, of course, it is possible that the butler might well in the course of the proceedings ‘let slip’ the accidental revelation of some detail that clinches the case against him.

Thirdly, the object of this intentional activity – or the effect of the accidental revelation – is to bring about a learning experience, i.e., an experience of acquiring knowledge of something new or not already known.   However, it may not be altogether unknown.   It could be a matter of coming to see ‘in a new light’ or with a fresh significance facts already known or it could be a matter of coming to ‘face up to’ something already known.   In any case, there has to be some ‘newness’ about the knowledge revealed and this placing of the facts in a new light is fairly typical of what the detective does in the last chapter.   It also seems unnecessary for revelation that the facts revealed could not have been otherwise known, say, by discovery on the part of the clever reader.   For such a person who had worked it out already there is no revelation but for the others who could have done so but did not there is the possibility of revelation.   From this it would seem to follow that every revelatory experience is a learning experience although not every learning experience need be a revelation – and this at least partly because they are not brought about directly as a result of the activity of the revealer.

What if nobody actually learned anything new from the activity of the detective?   Could the mere making available of the new knowledge in itself constitute a revelation?   It would seem not, for to reveal something is to make it seen or known rather than merely to make it visible or knowable.   So, fourthly, reveal is an achievement verb.   Gilbert Ryle distinguished ‘achievement verbs’ from ‘task verbs’,2 and the essence of the distinction is that it is not enough for such verbs as ‘cure’, ‘teach’, ‘remind’, ‘win’ that certain tasks be performed but also that the goals of these tasks be achieved.   For something to be revealed in the events of the last chapter of our novel, it is necessary that at least one person should come to know something that he did not know before or, at least, to come to see things in a light in which he had not seen them before.   Until then, the detective’s revelations may be potential but they are not actual.

Fifthly, certain things follow from the nature of the goal that is achieved.   Assuming that what is acquired is knowledge, the conditions for knowledge must apply.   I shall take it that knowledge is at least justified true belief (although Gettier may have shown that something more may be required and others may argue that knowledge is something other than justified true belief).   If revelation brings about new knowledge or places what was already known in a new light then it is necessary that the person to whom it is revealed should believe what has been revealed to him.   It is also necessary that it be true – it does not make sense to say that it was revealed that the parlourmaid did the deed if, in fact, she did not do it.   This is because it does not make sense, in these circumstances, to say that somebody knew that she did it.

But is this all that is required for revelation – that a new belief is acquired as a result of the revelatory activity and that this belief is true?   I think not because if revelation must result in knowledge then something more than accidentally true belief is required and this something more must consist, at least in part, in that the person given the revelation is justified in believing that which has been imparted.    Further, it would seem necessary that the justification of the belief be a direct consequence of the revelation.   If it is the case that the detective revealed to me that the butler carried out the foul deed then I thereby know that he did it.   My further consideration of the evidence might make me more certain that he did it but it would not affect the truth of the fact that I knew as a result of his revelation that he did it.   In other words, although revelation may not be necessary for knowledge – I might have discovered it for myself – it is sufficient for knowledge if and when it takes place.   If it is sufficient for knowledge then it is sufficient for justified belief.

A sixth and final point I would make in this analysis of the concept of revelation is that revelation is an example of what is sometimes termed a polymorphous concept.3   It does not pick out a particular activity but it is rather something that is accomplished through a variety of activities such as speaking, writing, gesturing, miming, etc.   Having said this, it remains the case that verbal communication must occupy a central place in revelatory activity.   Indeed, it might be argued that non–verbal communication is insufficient for revelation for, as Paul Helm says, “actions without propositions are dumb”.4   This question of actions and propositions is of particular relevance to recent theological discussions of revelation and one to which I shall return later.   Also, there are certain kinds of activity through which revelation can hardly take place if it is to result in justified belief.   For example, it would seem strange to suggest that the detective made his revelation to us by means of a purely causal process, e.g., while we were under hypnosis or in the course of a brainwashing session.

Revelation therefore takes place when one person imparts knowledge to another of something which is not already known by that person and which becomes known to him as a direct consequence of the activity of the revealer.   This leaves somewhat hazy the line of demarcation between revealing and an activity like teaching which at first sight seems to meet all my conditions for revelation.   I would suggest that the two ideas overlap in the area of bringing about learning and that the distinction between them lies in the newness of the knowledge gained by revelation which is not so much to the fore in the idea of teaching.   Teaching could well be a confirming or reinforcing of something already known whereas revelation has a strong connotation of something new (“What a revelation!”), an element of surprise or unpredictability (which, perhaps sadly, is not necessary for teaching!).   Surrounded by the bright–eyed and keen students of the Fourth Form group of my dreams, I might teach them the good old–fashioned and, to them, partly familiar method of proving Pythagoras’ Theorem or, instead, I might reveal to them the steps of a novel approach I read about in a recent issue of the ‘Mathematical Gazette’.


My discussion of the paradigm situation of the detective’s revelations has at least one major limitation: it focuses fairly exclusively on revelation which leads to one kind of knowledge, that of facts.   But there is not only knowing that such and such is the case but also knowing followed by a direct object.   Similarly, we may use ‘reveal’ followed by a direct object as well as ‘reveal that …’ statements.5   In particular, we may talk of self–knowledge and of knowing other people and of self–revelation that leads to others knowing us.   Here we are concerned with personal knowledge and the kinds of relationships between persons that bring it about, with coming to know the detective herself as a person in and through her words and actions.

In fact, the distinction between personal and impersonal knowledge does not at all correspond to that between knowing followed by a direct object and ‘knowing that …’.   Impersonal knowledge is not coextensive with  propositional knowledge.   In the first place, the direct object of knowing can be impersonal as well as personal.   We may know Murphy and Flanagan but we may also know a town, a house, a horse or a rocking–chair.   In all these cases, knowing is relational in that ‘Murphy knows Dublin’ can be presented as ‘MkD’ whereas ‘Murphy knows that Dublin is a fair city’ would be presented as ‘Mkp’.

Secondly, although knowing in this relational sense and especially when applied to persons cannot be reduced without remainder to a set of ‘know that …’ statements, however large that set, some but not any particular propositional knowledge is necessary to relational knowledge.   It would be odd if I could claim to know Murphy and not be able to state a single proposition about him beyond that but it would not be odd if the propositions I stated were not identical with those stated by Flanagan who also knows him.

Thirdly, there is an appropriateness as well as a necessity about the relation between propositional knowledge and knowledge of persons and things in that, if it is the case that I do know Murphy or his rocking–chair, the more I know about him or it the better I know him or it.6   So relational knowing and propositional knowing cannot be sharply distinguished as mutually exclusive kinds of knowledge.7   It follows that what I have said in the previous section about ‘revealing that …’ is also of importance for revelation that leads to personal knowledge.

Personal knowledge and impersonal knowledge are therefore both forms of relational knowledge and, as such, both involve propositional knowledge.   If so, what more is there to personal relational knowledge than the knowledge of certain propositions that are true of the person who is the object of the relation?   Whatever it is seems to make personal knowledge non–transferable.   I may reveal everything I know about a friend to another person but this is not sufficient to make it the case that this other person now knows my friend.8   I shall suggest that the extra that is required for personal knowledge is that at some time there must have been mutual immediate awareness between persons if they can claim to know one another.   However, this raises questions about situations like that between penfriends who have never met or even spoken to one another on the telephone.   Here the immediate awareness – if it can be called that – is certainly mediated, even through the miles that intervene.   This brings us to that paradoxical phrase used by several writers in relation to knowledge of persons – ‘mediated immediacy’ – which I referred to in the previous chapter9 and which I think may be helpful at this point.

Awareness of persons is immediate in that it is psychologically direct and non–inferred but it is also mediated in that it comes to us through words and actions.   This is certainly paradoxical.   If I am only aware of another person in or through his bodily movements etc., surely I must be inferring his existence as a person and his attitudes, intentions and the like from these movements with the assistance of some kind of analogy with my own self–consciousness?   And if the process is non–inferential, surely it must involve some extra sense or telepathic ability which enables me to bypass the media of actions and words to go directly to their source in the mind and its thoughts?

It is not easy to resolve this paradox.   To take first the sense in which this awareness is ‘mediated’, I take it that what we observe through the use of our senses is the bodily movements and actions of another person but not his mental activities, his thoughts, feelings and intentions or his ‘subject self’.   On the other hand, we would have no awareness of that which is mental apart from the physical and observable so, if we are to have such an awareness, it must come to us ‘through’ the physical and observable.   This is what I mean by saying it is ‘mediated’ and this seems to concur with what writers such as Owen have intended.10   There seems no reason why this should not also include the second–order mediation of reflection in mirrors or transmission by radio, television or telephone.   There would seem to be no great difference between the ‘live’ and the ‘recorded’ in this respect so that letters or video–recordings could also form part of the mediating process but, of course, this provides a knowledge of the person as he was at the time of writing or recording rather than as he is at the time of reading or viewing.   Admittedly, when we move out into the area of reported speech or actions the position becomes less clear as far as knowledge is concerned but as regards revelation – my main concern in this chapter – it seems evident that we do not have a case of revelation or self–disclosure by the person whose speech or actions are reported.

Turning from the mediateness of our awareness of other persons to its immediacy, it seems plausible to claim that we do not normally infer – either formally or informally – the existence of another’s person as a thinking, feeling, subject self, an ‘I’, from his observable actions and words.   We immediately experience others not just as objects or moving bodies but as selves.   It may well be the case that we have had to learn to experience them in this way but that does not make the present activity inferential any more than it does in the case of any other immediate awareness.11   It is the awareness of the other person as such or the other mind as mind that is immediate; it is the fact of his mental activity rather than its content that is immediate, albeit mediated through his words and actions.   The content of his mental activity seems more likely to be inferred from his words and actions.

I am suggesting that it is by no means obviously wrong – indeed, can be quite plausibly maintained – that it is normally the case that we are as immediately aware of the self of the other person as we are of his body, his actions or his words, i.e., as of that in which the self is mediated.   I say ‘normally’ because there may be circumstances in which, say, in a fog, we are unsure whether we see a man or a man–shaped tree or, after an accident, we see a man or just his body.

But, it may be objected, is not this knowledge of other selves based upon analogical reasoning from our knowledge of our own selves?   If so, it cannot be immediate, can it?   But why should we assume that genetically this is how it has been in the growth of personal knowledge or how it has to be in any reasoning we engage in or ought to engage in about the objects of personal knowledge?   Must we follow Descartes in beginning with ourselves?   It is surely arguable that we could just as easily reason analogically from the existence of other minds to that of our own without assuming a logical priority of the latter.   Perhaps there is no logical priority of either – perhaps they both grow together so that neither need be used to justify the other.   Of course, this could be extended to include the knowledge of God.   From Calvin on there have been Reformed thinkers who have argued for such a relationship between self–knowledge and knowledge of God.   Thomas F. Torrance, for example, writes of “a profound mutuality” between them.12   Some talk of our awareness of other persons as being of that which is both ‘other’ and ‘not–other’.13   It is not therefore obvious that we do infer knowledge of others from our self–knowledge.   And if an inferential process is not normally present in such situations of coming to be aware of another person as such, it would seem reasonable that it should not be required.  Otherwise a lot of generally accepted beliefs are not justified.

Personal knowledge  is not a matter of being all the time immediately aware of the other person but, at some time, there has to be a ‘directness’ about the relationship which is summed up in the element of immediacy in this idea of mediated immediacy.   This mediated immediacy is necessary for there to be any awareness of the other person as a person.   Knowledge of his thoughts, attitudes, intentions, character and the like are gained progressively in the relationship.   And for this knowledge of another self we are dependent upon his self–revealing activity.   To a great extent – apart from resort to hypnosis or torture or such like – we cannot know the other against his will.   As far as knowledge of his thoughts is concerned we have to submit to his authority.   Granted, inference from involuntary actions and also inferential building upon what he chooses to reveal of himself can help to build up the picture, but, in the final analysis, there is a sense in which the knower is dependent upon the to–be–known for so much that cannot be inferred.   There may be knowledge of him available to be discovered – a ‘general revelation’ of him – but for much that matters there has to be the ‘special revelation’ given in the other’s activity and, especially, in his words.   It is this that makes the concept of revelation so appropriate to persons rather than things or events.   The observer is not confined to conjectures based on what he observes in a passive object but the object is active and capable of engaging in dialogue, enabling us even to make some checks on the accuracy of our apprehensions.

The striking disjunction is not between personal knowledge and propositional knowledge but between personal knowledge and knowledge of things.   The person can normally by means of language enable another to become acquainted with or better acquainted with him by revealing himself and his thoughts and feelings, especially by the use of propositions.   Of course, it is true that the propositions can never fully describe but this does not mean that the person cannot be truly known at all.   Even the simplest object in the natural world can perhaps never be exhaustively known but it seems counter–intuitive to take this to mean that there could be no knowledge of it at all.


Assuming that  the foregoing analysis of the idea of revelation and of its application to our knowledge of persons is on the right lines, I turn now to its application to divine revelation  and man’s knowledge of God.   If it can be so applied so that it is possible to speak of God revealing himself and revealing truths expressed in propositions to people, and that this is such that they can be immediately justified in believing that God is speaking to them, then the whole view of the proper basicality of belief in God is radically transformed.   It is this that makes the content of the previous chapter incomplete in itself, dealing as it did with religious experience in a way that tended to treat God as a passive object in relation to the activity of man’s perceiving of him.   Persons are not appropriately dealt with in this way and if God is personal – as is assumed in this study – then it would seem just as inappropriate in relation to him.   It would seem particularly inappropriate if it were the case that, as George Mavrodes puts it, “every experience of God is a revelation”14 and even more so if  it were the case, as at least some Reformed writers seem to hold, that every human experience is revelatory of God.   However, it is not necessary to make such claims to establish the possibility of divine revelation.

I have talked of revelation taking place through a person’s actions and especially his words.   Against the application of this account to divine revelation, it is sometimes argued that God cannot be detected by the senses and so cannot be experienced or that he does not have a body and so he cannot act in the world and speak to people.   These arguments raise quite a number of theological and philosophical issues about the meaningfulness of saying that God is personal, the nature of divine action and speech, the nature of divine inspiration and other related issues.   Most of these are beyond the scope of this present study so I shall merely point towards how a response might be made to the particular arguments mentioned, some of which has been touched upon already in the previous chapter.

For a start, it is possible to question whether allowing that God cannot be seen or directly detected by any of the other senses does indeed rule out detection of his presence by the senses.   It would seem quite conceivable that there should be beings who cannot be perceived by the senses but who possess a power to produce effects which can be detected by the senses and which indicate that these beings are present.   Robert Oakes suggests that there might be such beings whose presence has an invariant effect of generating a very strong magnetic field so that they attract all light–weight objects within a radius of about fifteen feet.15   In a similar way, Basil Mitchell responds to arguments about action requiring a body with his development of Wisdom’s Parable of the Invisible Gardener.   He writes:–
“… we could make sense of the notion of his doing things in the garden even though we could not trace the ‘actions’ to any bodily behaviour on his part, so long as there were unexpected  alterations in the appearance of the garden as only a gardener would intend to produce.   To infer a particular gardener, we    should only need to have some idea of the sort of effects he as an individual generally sought to produce.”16

In such situations, observers could see that a being was present or had done something in spite of their inability to see the being in question.   This is not to suggest that God’s presence creates a magnetic field but simply that it is possible in principle that there occur cases in which the presence of God is detected by the senses and that, if God exists, he has the power to bring about whatever it is possible in principle for him to bring about and that he can do this when and where he wishes to.

At this point it might be objected that, not having a body, God is as incapable of direct verbal communication as he is of body–language.   Obviously, God’s speaking cannot be a matter of producing sounds by expelling air through vocal cords but I see no problem in suggesting that God may ‘speak’ by causing the person addressed to have an experience of the kind he would have if a human being were speaking to him or even by bringing about some kind of direct telepathic communication.17   I am not sure that it matters very much precisely what vehicle or vehicles God may use to speak to men as long as there is no reason why it should be held to be impossible that there should be anything analogous to human speaking in the way he communicates with human persons. In addition, it could be pointed out that God, being incarnate in Christ, does have a body in which “the Word became flesh”18 – a full audio–visual presentation of God – and that he is also claimed to have appeared in human form in the Old Testament theophanies.

It is sometimes objected that the idea of revealed truths is of something timeless, abstract or static as against that which would be more appropriate to the dynamic, concrete and ever–changing nature of personal relationships.   But it is difficult to see why talk of divinely revealed truths should be rejected on such grounds unless we also jettison talk of any person revealing a true proposition to another.   Such  activity may well include assertions of generalisations and abstractions but this does not necessarily make the encounter less personal.   Indeed, as Paul Helm points out in one of his responses19 to this kind of argument against propositional revelation, not only are statements like ‘God is good’ timelessly true but so also are dated historical statements like ‘God led the Israelites out of Egypt at 128O B.C.’.   If they are true, they are true at all times, and if true they are truths about God and can therefore be revelatory of him.  If the essence of this kind of objection is, as seems to have been intended by Bultmann for example,20 that to know God is not a theoretical matter and that revelation is response–demanding, then again it is not clear that this rules out the idea of propositional revelation.   Indeed, as Helm says,

“… there is good reason to think that in many if not all cases, for a sentence to be ‘response–demanding’ it must have a truth–value.”21

Helm gives the example of the statement ‘There is a bull in the next field’ which could in certain circumstances be regarded ‘neutrally’ but not if the person given the information intended to cross the field.

The foregoing is a very brief account of some objections to the idea of God acting and speaking to reveal himself to people but I hope that I have at least indicated ways in which they might be met.   This may do a little to establish the possibility of divine revelation but it says nothing about how it might be known or, rather,  justifiably believed to be actual.   To this issue I now turn.


In this section, as indicated earlier, I shall be concerned mainly with what might be required of a set of propositions if they are to be held to be a self–authenticating revelation of God.   As I said earlier, I think it is characteristic of Reformed epistemologists to hold that all divine revelation is self–authenticating and that they do not limit divine revelation to the propositions of the Christian scriptures.   But since the idea of propositional revelation seems to be a central ingredient of this theme, the main focus of what follows will be upon this aspect.

The idea of propositional revelation has not been at all popular with many theologians of the present century.   The claim has been made by a number of them that God reveals himself not propositions.  This has been in part a reaction to the sort of emphasis that talked of revelation as being essentially propositional and which, allied to a crude dictation theory of inspiration, tended to give the impression of an impersonal transmission of information and orders as, say, in an official handbook.   But to say that divine revelation is essentially personal is not to say that it is not propositional.   Indeed, on the basis of the earlier analysis of the idea of revelation and of how it can give knowledge of persons, it would seem surprising that personal revelation to any significant extent could take place without propositions.   It is therefore a false antithesis to oppose personal revelation to propositional revelation.22  They are not mutually exclusive, for a person may and, indeed, normally does reveal himself by means of propositions expressed in words.   In a sense, the propositions are not the revelation for they point to the reality beyond of the person’s thoughts, intentions, feelings, etc. – as Owen, borrowing scholastic terms, puts it, they are “the ‘objecta quibus’, not the ‘objecta quae’ of faith”.23

We are concerned now with the justification of the belief that the Christian scriptures are a divine revelation.   Possible approaches can be classified according to whether its justification is taken to be mediate or immediate, i.e., according to whether the belief is justified inferentially or non–inferentially.   This is a matter of the way in which the belief is grounded.

There is also another way of classifying approaches and this is a matter of where the grounds are to be found – whether they are internal to the scriptures or external to them.   From this it can be seen that talk of self–authentication  in relation to the scriptures is ambiguous.   It can be understood as requiring that the belief that the scriptures are the Word of God be immediately justified and this is clearly what Wolterstorff and some other contemporary Reformed writers understand by ‘self–authenticating’ in this context.  In other words, it is the belief that is immediately justified.   But the scriptures can also be seen as self–authenticating in the sense that the evidence for their being the Word of God is internal to them.   It is then the scriptures that are self–authenticating in that they provide their own evidence of their being a divine revelation.   This latter seems to be the kind of approach taken by Paul Helm in a couple of recent attempts to set forth what he terms “an internal pattern of justification”.24

These two independent ways of classifying approaches provide between them for four different types of approach.   They are as follows:

Type 1 (immediate–internal): the grounds for the immediately justified belief (that the scriptures are the Word of God) are internal to the scriptures, e.g., where the subject is immediately aware that God is speaking to him through the words of scripture.

Type 2 (mediate–internal): the evidence for the mediately justified belief is internal to the scriptures, e.g., when it is found in the characteristics of the scriptures and their effect upon the subject of the belief.

Type 3  (immediate–external): the grounds for the immediately justified belief are external to the scriptures, e.g., where the subject is immediately aware of God speaking to him through something external to the scriptures and telling him that the scriptures are the word of God.

Type 4 (mediate–external): the evidence for the mediately justified belief is external to the scripture, e.g., when it is found in independent historical corroboration of events recorded in scripture.

The distinction here between grounds and evidence is not co–extensive with that between experiences and beliefs since, as we saw in the last chapter, experiences may function either as evidence or non–inferential grounding for a belief.   Wolterstorff’s definition of the theme of the self–authentication of revelation places it in Type 1 and probably also in Type 3.   Helm’s approach seems to be an example of Type 2.   Type 4 cannot be termed ‘self–authenticating’ in any sense of the term.


Helm contrasts what he terms “an internal pattern of justification” with the “externalism” of such as John Locke, William Paley and Archibald Alexander.   Helm’s ‘internal pattern’ corresponds more or less to my Type 2 above and his ‘externalism’ to my Type 4.  He says that the internal pattern takes the Bible to be the Word of God for chiefly religious reasons, i.e. reasons relating to a person’s duty to God, and on the basis of chiefly internal evidence, whereas externalism accepts the Bible as divine revelation if and only if it meets certain criteria which are established independently of it.25

Externalism typically assumes the success of the efforts of natural theology to establish the (at least probable) existence of God without making use of the data of special revelation and then seeks to ascertain whether the Bible is likely to have been revealed by him.  The conclusion is that it is probable that the Bible is God’s Word if it meets criteria like consistency with what is known independently of it,  historical reliability, and accompanying signs, e.g., miracles and fulfilled prophecies.   Helm argues that the main defect of this pattern of justification is that it supposes that there is some a priori standard of reasonableness that the Bible must meet if it is the Word of God but if, as is usually also assumed, there is no other special revelation from God of which we have prior experience, any criterion proposed is bound to be Procrustean.26

In his accounts of the internal pattern of justification, Helm mentions several different kinds of internal evidence (internal coherence, moral character, and what the scriptures say about themselves).   These seem to be kinds of evidence which one may examine and consider and find to be evidence to a degree – even good evidence – of the divine origin of the scriptures.27   Helm then goes on to look at further evidence for the scriptures being the revelation of God and this is not simply in that they say that they are so but in that they function as the Word of God.   This Helm takes to be “the chief sort of (internal) evidence” for the divine authority of the scriptures.28

Helm says that the Bible does not merely provide information to its reader but that its “basic stance” is “that of a document that, on the basis of the information that it provides, makes claims on and offers invitations to its readers”.   Helm goes on to try to break this down into a number of different elements and he writes:–
“One element is the idea that the Bible purports to give an analysis or diagnosis of the reader.   The Scriptures offer this diagnosis as the truth about the reader.   Now if the Scriptures are what they claim to be, the Word of God, then one would expect that careful examination and self–scrutiny would reveal that the diagnosis ‘holds good’ in the life of the reader.   Connected with this is the power of the Scriptures to raise and satisfy certain distinctive needs in the reader, particularly the recognition of his sin before God and the enjoyment of forgiveness and reconciliation to God through Christ.   Connected with this is the displaying in Scripture of excellent moral standards that focus and integrate the life of the reconciled person.   And connected with this is the provision of new motivation to reach out for the newly set standards.”29

It is not therefore a matter of what the Bible says but what it says to the reader and what it says may be confirmed to him in his experience of how it functions in his life.

Helm’s emphasis throughout is on evidence for the divine origin and authority of the scriptures.   It would therefore appear that  he is concerned with mediate justification of these beliefs concerning the scriptures and this comes out clearly in the following extract:

“The data of Scripture, in which the divine authority of Scripture is grounded and which provide evidence for the Bible being the Word of God, are known a posteriori.   Fundamental, therefore, to accepting the Bible as the Word of God is considering the relevant evidence for that claim honestly and seriously.   This point cannot be overstressed, for it is common to find on both sides of this debate those who tell us what the Scriptures must be like without stopping to look and see if the Scriptures are actually like this.”30

The consideration of evidence is of central importance but this is not a matter of a detached rational observer weighing up evidence which is external to him because Helm ascribes a large role in this process to experience.   He talks of an experience which is neither a revelation additional to that contained in the scriptures nor a different sort of evidence for the claim that the Bible is the Word of God.   Rather it is “the discovery that the claims of Scripture bear the weight of experience”.   Helm links this with the theological doctrine of the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit which he regards as a different way of talking about the power of the scriptures to do the things he has described.   He continues:–
“The internal testimony of the Spirit is not to be thought of as in some way short–circuiting the objective evidence or making up for the deficiencies in external scriptural evidence, nor as providing additional evidence, nor as merely acting as a mechanical stimulus, but as making the mind capable of the proper appreciation of the evidence, seeing it for what it is and in particular heightening the mind’s awareness of the marks of divinity present in the text in such a way as to produce the conviction that this text is indeed the product of the divine mind and therefore to be relied on utterly.”31

Elsewhere, he talks of this internal testimony of the Spirit as functioning “like a telescope or a new perspective”.32
It would appear, in the light of this, that the involvement of the Holy Spirit in this process and the role given to insight does not make it any less a matter of coming to have a justified belief on the basis of the consideration of evidence.   What the Holy Spirit does is to bring it about that the evidence can be seen for what it is and it is this seeing of the evidence that results in the justified belief that the Bible is the Word of God.   Why he thinks this activity should be necessary Helm does not say but that it is necessary seems to be strongly implied.

Notwithstanding the central role of the experience of coming to see the evidence, Helm is insistent that this account is not subjectivist.   There is an objective side in that there is something external to the believer and his experience – the text and its meaning – which is, as he says, “something public and verifiable”.33    But the subjective element means the believer is not in a position to bring about in another by rational argument a belief that the Bible is the Word of God.   The other person has to investigate the promises and claims of the scriptures for himself so that he may find them confirmed in a similar way in his own experience.34

Further, the justification which is given under these circumstances to the belief that the Bible is the Word of God is prima facie.  The belief is not unchallengeable and this is where such issues as the historical reliability and internal coherence of the scriptures come into the picture.   They do not establish that the Bible is the Word of God but contradiction of historical claims of the scriptures by overwhelming independent evidence or the existence of absolute self–contradiction within the scriptures could overthrow its divine authority.35

Helm’s account seems to be clearly an example of what I have termed a Type 2 account.   My definition of that category is wide enough to provide also for a coldly rationalistic account.   This would be one in which the detached observer weighs up the evidence of coherence and other characteristics of the scriptures and comes to his conclusion without being involved or ‘engaged’ with the claims and promises of the Bible.   He might consider its literary qualities or even – in the manner of the author of a book I have come across with the sub–title “An Unanswerable Challenge to an Unbelieving World”! – make much of what are, on the face of it, some quite remarkable facts about the patterns apparently discernible in the Bible when numeric values are assigned to the Hebrew and Greek letters used.36   In this form, the only difference between this approach and the mediate–external kind of approach is in where the evidence is found, whether within or without the scriptures.   Evidence of fulfilled prophecies or of an ancient date for the Turin Shroud and or of Bible numerics seem, in a way, all of a piece and may constitute evidence that the Bible is a remarkable book or even a degree of evidence for its divine authority.   Helm’s account of the internal testimony of the Spirit  – with its emphasis on the involvement of the reader with its claims – is not detached in this way but, in the last analysis, it too is a matter of the consideration of evidence.


Having looked briefly at both kinds of mediate approach, we come now to approaches of Types 1 and 3.   These have in common that justification is held to be immediate.   The belief that the biblical propositions are the Word of God is not arrived at as a result of a process of considering evidence of any kind, whether internal or external to the Bible.   It is not based on other beliefs but it isgrounded, not groundless.

The distinction between internal and external types of approach can, I think, still be made.   It is a matter of whether the authentication comes through the propositions of the scriptures or is somehow given in a way that is appropriately described as being apart from things the Bible says.   An external pattern here could give immediately the belief that the Bible is the Word of God.   I do not intend to develop this – partly for considerations of space and partly because I do not think it is what the Reformed writers we have looked at had in mind – but I shall indicate a possible direction in which it might be developed.   The charismatic movement is quite influential on the contemporary Christian church scene (although not generally so in churches of a more Reformed outlook) and I think it is quite easy to conceive of a claim to this kind of immediately justified belief being made in such circles.   For example, use of glossolalia is quite common in such circles and I can readily conceive of the possibility of somebody being ‘given’ a message in tongues which he takes to be God telling him that the Bible is his Word.   If he takes this as basic and in need of no further support, then he is claiming to be immediately justified in his belief in a way that is external to the actual propositions of the Bible.   Whether or not he would be justified in this claim is another matter.   Some would raise a theological objection on the grounds of the doctrine of the sufficiency of the scriptures as special revelation.   A possible philosophical objection could be raised against the necessity of this kind of external authentication on the grounds that it would seem to suggest that a claim to revelation requires a further revelation for its validation so it may in its turn require yet a further revelation for its validation and so on ad infinitum.   It is on such grounds that Helm argues that the testimony of the Holy Spirit cannot be a further revelation37and similar considerations would seem to apply here.

Leaving Type 3 justification to one side, I shall seek to outline a possible version of a Type 1 approach.   In some respects it is quite similar to Helm’s internal pattern but it differs from it fairly fundamentally as well.   In fact, an earlier account by Helm of what he termed at the time “self–authentication”38 provides a very good starting point.   In that account,  Helm took the positions of Calvin and the Puritan theologian John Owen as illustrating a distinctive model of religious belief which he summed up as follows:

“A religiously believes p if A assents firmly to p (where p is taken to be revealed proposition) because A intuits, in grasping the meaning of p, that it is revealed by God.”39

Helm is quite deliberate in this appeal to intuition and he relates it to Anthony Quinton’s logically intuitive beliefs.   As we saw earlier,40 these are beliefs which do not require other beliefs to support them or to make them worthy of acceptance.   The intuition in question is not therefore that of either Quinton’s vernacular intuition or simply his psychological intuition.   Helm also differentiates it from that of knowledge of analytic truths and from that of anything known universally or as a result of some Cartesian ‘natural light’.

Quinton’s logically intuitive beliefs do not need support from other beliefs but they are not necessarily excluded from such support.  On this point, Helm points to John Owen’s distinction between external and internal reasons for believing.   External reasons for believing biblical propositions include such as “the fact that the Bible was an ancient book, wonderfully preserved, coherent and so on”41 but although they may have “apologetic value (to rebut certain objections)”, they do not provide the grounds for religious belief.42   These grounds are only in “reasons that are internal to the teaching of the Bible”.43

Does this appeal to internal reasons mean that biblical propositions have the property of being self–evidently true?   Not so, says Helm, or, at least, not in the same sense as that in which analytic truths are self–evidently true.   Simple mathematical truths and tautologies are such that to understand their meaning is sufficient for the justified belief that they are true but, although Helm says in his definition that the intuition in question comes with “grasping the meaning of” the propositions, it is important to note that what is intuited is that the propositions are revealed by God.   The intuition is not of their truth but of their revealedness.   Of course, if a proposition is asserted by God then it follows from his omniscience and the impossibility that he should lie that it is true.   This would not be so of all biblical propositions, e.g., the words of “the fool” quoted in the Psalms (“There is no God”).44   It is therefore the revealedness of biblical propositions that is intuited and is the evidence that they should be believed.45   This is not at all how it is with simple mathematical truths and tautologies.

Helm also says that, on this model of belief, the propositions believed are certain because they are regarded as being the assertions of God.   Because the evidence for their truth is their revealedness, they are not held to be probably true or even very probably true – as they would be if inferred from ‘external reasons’ obtained from historical evidence and the like.46   Of course, it does not follow that the belief that they are the assertions of God is itself incorrigible or even psychologically certain. Insofar as the scriptures authenticate themselves as divine revelation to a person, he is certain of the propositions believed but, since this is partly a matter of his condition and disposition which may change with time, the firmness of his belief is a matter of degree.   As Helm puts it, it is only in the case of “full–formed religious belief”47 that the believer is certain that the proposition believed is certainly true.

What is it then to grasp the meaning of a biblical proposition?   Surely many who read the Bible and agree totally with believers on the meaning of some of its propositions and even, possibly, on their truth are very far from being convinced that they are revealed by God.   The subject of meaning and understanding is a major theme of Helm’s study and he makes the point more than once that there is a distinction between, on the one hand, meaning as sense and reference and, on the other, meaning as point, function or meaningfulness.48   Of the Calvin–Owen model Helm writes:

“Coming to believe in the testimony of God revealed in the Bible is like becoming aware of a complicated ‘gestalt’ … it is an awareness of the point or meaningfulness of certain propositions.”49

It is in this sense of seeing the point of biblical propositions rather than merely understanding their reference that their revealedness may be intuited.

But how do some come to see the point in this way?   Helm finds in Owen and Calvin the idea of “the power” of such propositions “to arouse and satisfy distinctive religious needs” in the life of the believer.   He also writes of the need to become “engaged” so that certain promises in the Bible, e.g., promises of forgiveness, come to be seen not merely as reports of promises to certain individuals in history but as promises to the reader in that he regards them as relevant because he finds himself in need of forgiveness.50   Here Helm’s account clearly begins to overlap with his more recent outline of the internal pattern of justification but they differ fairly markedly in that the earlier account contains the clearly foundationalist emphasis on intuiting the revealedness of the biblical propositions as against that on the consideration of evidence of the more recent account.

It is this emphasis on logical intuition that moves this Calvin–Owen model clearly into my Type 1 category.   Although Helm talks of internal reasons, it does seem that the intuition of the point of the biblical propositions is not the basis of an argument from reasons or evidence to the belief that they are the Word of God, for Helm says: “this intuition or illumination is not the grounds for the believer believing what he does” but “the means or ‘power’ by which what is present in the Bible is believed”.51   It seems from what he says that it is in having this experience of grasping their point, that the revealedness of the biblical propositions is also grasped.  Their point is that they apply personally to the present–day reader and are not just a record of words from God to readers or hearers of Old or New Testament times.   This entails that they are the Word of God.

However, there is, I think, another way of accounting for this intuition of revealedness which is rather more in line with what I take to be entailed by talk of personal revelation and which brings in the idea of an immediate awareness of God.   Borrowing Buber’s terminology, I think it moves the discussion from talking in terms of an ‘I–it’ relationship to that of an ‘I–Thou’ relationship or, perhaps more accurately, a combination of both kinds of relationship.   Rather than it being the case that the reader of the Bible comes to an awareness that the biblical propositions were written for him – an awareness of a fact about a person – it could be that he becomes aware of God actually speaking to him in the present moment and addressing him with the propositions of the Bible.   This is to move from an account which seems to focus fairly exclusively on propositional revelation to that which is more clearly both propositional and personal.

It seems to me that both Helm’s internal pattern of justification and his Calvin–Owen model lack an emphasis upon the idea of Godspeaking through the Scriptures.   Although he does talk of “God’s personal address to people … that calls for a response”52 and, as we have seen, of the importance of the Scriptures ‘engaging’ in the life and experience of the reader or hearer, he seems to regard this as being to do with what makes the Scriptures the revelation of God rather than with the justification of the belief that they are so.   The effect of his insistence upon a process of considering the internal evidence of the Scriptures is that a person can never be justified in believing that God is speaking to him now.   Even in the Calvin–Owen model with its element of intuition, it seems to more a matter of God speaking to the prophets and other biblical writers so that what we have is a record of his revealing activity, albeit intended by him to be for us now a means of our coming to know his will for us.

But when somebody speaks to me, I do not normally engage in a process of inductive verification or of grasping the point of the words spoken before I form the belief that somebody is speaking to me.    In other words, there is normally an immediacy of awareness of the other person – in the sense of psychological directness – about such situations.   If this is the case with ordinary human relationships, why should it not be so if a person is addressed by God?   And why should the immediate justification of the belief that God is speaking to me not be grounded in this immediate awareness of him mediated through the words of the biblical propositions?

Of course, one will not be able to see God but that is hardly surprising and should not therefore provide a reason for doubting that one is being addressed by him.   It would seem perfectly possible for him to cause us to have an experience of being spoken to by him but this is not at all the same thing as causing us to believe that we are being spoken to by him.   At least, it is not so in any sense that is any more objectionable than, say, in the situation where I call out to someone unaware of my presence and thereby cause him to become aware of me.   Helm is concerned to repudiate any suggestion that the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit is a case of indoctrinating or brain–washing into the belief that the Bible is God’s Word as, for example, when he writes:

“The internal testimony of the Spirit is not to be thought of … as merely acting as a mechanical stimulus.   … (T)he words or propositions of the revelation are not the cause or occasion of the experience; rather, they engender it through the meaning of the propositions and their force (as commands, questions, invitations, or whatever) being appreciated.53

“This interpretation rules out another, that the internal testimony has a causal role, simply causing the mind to have the conviction that the Bible is God’s special revelation.   But this would make conviction unrelated to evidence of any kind, and the work of the Spirit would be like brainwashing.”54

But it is only if the possibility of immediate justification grounded in some form of immediate awareness is ruled out that consideration of reasons/evidence and brainwashing–type processes can be taken as exhaustive of the possibilities.   It is not that a process is causal but that it is merely causal that renders it liable to be termed a case of brainwashing or the like.   A conviction grounded in an immediate awareness of being addressed by somebody cannot therefore be on that account a case of such unacceptable practice on the part of the person doing the addressing.

Nor, if we talk in terms of immediate awareness, is this to be considered as something apart from the meaning of the words of Scripture any more than internal justification is on Helm’s account.   For something to be a case of one person speaking to another it is necessary that intelligible language be used and normally it will be intelligible to both addressor and addressee.   Our understanding of the words being used, our knowledge of the existence of these words in written form and the like are conditions for the truth of the claim that God is speaking to us through the words of Scripture but this does not necessarily make the justification of the claim a matter of these facts or any other facts providing evidence or reasons why we should believe it.   The awareness that God is speaking to a person is in grasping the meaning of the propositions being used rather than because the believer grasps their meaning.   And this grasping of the meaning of the words is a realisation not only that they are meaningful but also a grasping of their point as part of God’s present personal address to the reader or hearer.

Thus modified by a greater emphasis upon the immediacy of being now personally addressed by God, it seems to me that Helm’s Calvin–Owen model becomes more adequate.   It takes on board the directness of accounts that put their stress upon experience of personal revelation but without their mysticism and subjectivism.   It provides for the possibility of a personal God speaking to persons in propositions which are identifiable independently of the experience of being spoken to.   It does not insist upon incorrigibility and can therefore be fitted into the more moderate foundationalist framework for which I argued in the last section.   It provides for the possibility of defeaters and defeater–defeaters.   As in the case of alternative conceptual schemes in the last chapter, the fact of the existence of alternative purported divine revelations does not, in itself, defeat the prima facie justified belief that the Bible is God’s Word.


In this chapter, I have argued that revelation through personal communication involves the intentional activity of the revealer, activity that can take many forms but centrally that of verbal communication, and which leads to belief that is prima facie justified and which has some newness of content.   Revelation that involves coming to know another person involves propositional knowledge of him but is non–transferable because of the element of an immediate awareness of him albeit mediated through his words or actions.   I also argued that the fact that God cannot be seen does not mean that divine propositional revelation is impossible.

I outlined four types of approach to the authentication of divine revelation in scriptural propositions.   One of these was a mediate approach arguing from evidence internal to the scriptures and therefore an example of self–authentication in a sense.   To find an approach more in line with this theme of Reformed epistemology, I went on to consider an approach that involved intuiting the point of the scriptural propositions but I amplified this by incorporating reference to immediate awareness of God speaking through these propositions.   In this way, I attempted to develop an account which incorporated the features of personal revelation already outlined.

In this chapter, the focus was shifted from that on a person experiencing God to God’s revealing himself to the person.   I turn now to the implications for all this of the third characteristic theme – that of the noetic effects of sin.