Is Propositional Revelation Nonsense?

Revelation and Infallibility

There are two ways to consider the question of propositional revelation and infallibility. The first is through consideration of the presuppositions involved; the second is through consideration of the detailed problems. This article will deal with the first. However, until the first is in place, the second cannot be sensibly pursued.

To modern man, and much modern theology, the concept of propositional revelation and the historic Christian view of infallibility is not so much mistaken as meaningless. It is so in the same way, and for the same basic reasons, that for most modern men and most modern theology the concept of sin and guilt, in any real moral sense, is meaningless. But, of course, one must ask if their presupposition is the proper and adequate one.

The Christian presupposition is that there was a personal beginning to all things—someone has been there and made all the rest. This someone would have to be big enough, and this means being infinite. One still has the question of the personal-infinite someone always having been there; but if this were the case, the other problems would no longer exist. And everyone has to explain the fact that the universe and he, the individual, does exist; thus, something has “been there.”

Now if this personal-infinite someone always having been there is the case, everything else would be limited in contrast to his own enough-ness, or infiniteness. But just suppose that he made something limited, but on his own wavelength—let’s say in his own image—then one would have both an infinite, noncreated Personal and a limited, created personal. On this presupposition, the personality of the limited, created personal would be explained. On this same presupposition, why could not the noncreated Personal communicate to the created personal if he wished? Of course, if the infinite, uncreated Personal communicated to the finite, created personal, he would not exhaust himself in his communication; but two things are clear here:

He Is There and He Is Not Silent

Francis A. Schaeffer

Francis Schaeffer invites readers into a deeper understanding of the philosophical issues that plague the post-modern world by investigating the Christian perspective of who they are, who God is, and how they know what they know.

  1. Even communication between one created person and another is not exhaustive; but that does not mean that for that reason it is not true. Thus, the problem of communication from the uncreated Personal to the created personal would not have to be of a qualitatively different order from the communication between one created personal being and another. It would not be exhaustive, but that would not make it untrue, any more than the created-person to created-person communication would be untrue, unless the uncreated Personal were a liar or capricious.

  2. If the uncreated Personal really cared for the created personal, it could not be thought unthinkable for him to tell the created personal things of a propositional nature; otherwise, as a finite being, the created personal would have numerous things he could not know if he just began with himself as a limited, finite reference point.

In such a case, there is no intrinsic reason why the uncreated Personal could only communicate some vaguely true things, but could not communicate clear propositional truth concerning the world surrounding the created personal—let’s say, truth about the cosmos. Or why he could not communicate propositional truth concerning the sequence that followed the uncreated Personal’s original creation—let’s call that history. There is no reason why he could not communicate these two types of propositions. The communication would not be exhaustive, but can we think of any reason why it would not be true?

The above is, of course, what the Bible claims for itself concerning propositional revelation.

If the uncreated Personal wished to give these communications through individual created personalities in such a way that they would write (in their own individual style, etc.) the exact things the uncreated Personal wanted them to write in the areas of religious truth and things of the cosmos and history—then by this time it is impossible to make an absolute and say that he could not or would not. And this, of course, is the Bible’s claim concerning inspiration.

How God Communicates

Within this framework, why would it be unthinkable that the noncreated Personal should communicate with the created personal in verbalized form, if the noncreated Personal made the created personal a language-communicating being? And we are (even if we do not know why) language-communicating beings. There is only one reason to rule out as unthinkable the fact that Jesus gave a propositional communication to Saul in verbalized form in the Hebrew language, using normal words and syntax (Acts 26:14), or that God did so to the Jews at Sinai—that is, to have accepted the other set of presuppositions—even if, by using religious terminology, one obscures that one has accepted the naturalistic presuppositions.

Now one may obscure what one has done in accepting naturalistic presuppositions by using religious terminology and saying or implying, “Jesus (without in this case having any way to know what or who that really is) gave to Saul some form of a first-order, noncontentful experience, in which the words used in the biblical text to express this inexpressible are just words which reflect views of life, history, and the cosmos which were then current.” If one does this, however, one is left with a faith which is equivalent to saying, “I believe . . .” without ever finishing, or being able to finish, the sentence—or even knowing if a definite or an indefinite article comes next in the sentence.

Further, if the noncreated Personal placed the communication he gave man in a book of history, why would it then be unlikely that the noncreated Personal would communicate truly concerning the space-time history in that book? How strange that if the noncreated Personal is not a liar or capricious, that he should give “religious truth” in a book in which the whole structural framework, implicitly and explicitly, is historic, and yet that history be false or confused. Surely, except on the preconceived presupposition that that book can only be “man feeling upward” within the framework of the uniformity of natural causes, such an idea would be peculiar beyond measure. This is especially so, as the book itself gives no indication of two levels; it gives no indication of a “religious truth” out of contact with the history in the book. It repeatedly appeals to the history open to verification as a proof of the truth of what is given; and it gives no indication of the enveloping space-time history being only so much errorconditioned incrustation.

Why could not the noncreated Personal teach the created personal truly on the level of knowledge which is the basis of so much of what we know on the created personal level: namely, one who knows, telling one who does not know—not exhaustively, yet truly? Surely this is how we have our knowledge from other created personal sources. Further, why could not the noncreated Personal also tell about Himself truly (though not exhaustively)—unless we have already accepted the presupposition that that which is the “noncreated” must be the “philosophic other.” If we begin with a noncreated Personal creating man in His own image, what rules out the statement of the Westminster Larger Catechism that God made known to us, through the Scripture, what God is? Is there any reason why the noncreated Personal could not so tell us truly about Himself, though not exhaustively?

Dealing with the Nonsense Connotation

By this stage, two things should be obvious: first, that from the presupposition that all things started from mass or energy, the idea of either revelation or infallibility is unthinkable; and second, that from the presupposition of a personal beginning, these ideas are not unthinkable or nonsense at all. The reasonableness of the matter thus rests totally on which way one begins—that is, on which presupposition one adopts at the outset.

The Christian presupposition is that there was a personal beginning to all things—someone has been there and made all the rest.

If one starts with the impersonal everything, then the question naturally has nothing to do with even the possibility of an uncreated Personal communicating to a created personal; that, from the premise, is nonsense. Yet if one does begin with a nonpersonal everything, there is a question that now really shouts: Is not manto-man communication equally nonsense?

With this presupposition no one has discovered a way to find meaning either in man’s speaking to man or in man’s hearing, except through an act of faith against his whole basic presuppositional structure. Worse yet, for those who hold this other presupposition, the little men (I and the others) are not content to think that they do not speak meaningfully; and furthermore everything in experience convinces us that the others hear truly, though not exhaustively.

By this time, is this not something like a Francis Bacon painting? One must scream, but the whole situation is a lostness and a damnation, including the scream.

Well now, in the light of this total confusion to which the other presupposition (the impersonal + time + chance) leads us, the presupposition of a personal beginning is worth another very careful look. If everything did begin with that uncreated Personal beginning, then neither communication from the created personal to the created personal, nor from the noncreated Personal to the created personal is unthinkable. Nor is it even intrinsically unlikely.

The importance of all this is that most people today (including some who still call themselves evangelical) who have given up the historical and biblical concept of revelation and infallibility have not done so because of the consideration of detailed problems objectively approached, but because they have accepted, either in analyzed fashion or blindly, the other set of presuppositions. Often this has taken place by means of cultural injection, without their realizing what has happened to them.

Having accepted the other presupposition against the evidence of true, though not exhaustive, man-to-man communication, I wonder what would make them listen? It is strange to communicate the concept that one rejects the concept of a noncreated Personal “being there,” when there is no way then to know the how, why, or what of communication with my own kind. And the strangeness continues if one says that it is unreasonable per se to consider the fact of the noncreated Personal being there, when that would explain the how, why, and what of the communication I do have with my own kind!

Having come to this point, we are in a position to consider the detailed problems—the so-called “critical problems.” But the historic view of the Bible and of the Church about revelation and infallibility is no longer nonsense per se; and even most of the detailed problems look very different once the nonsense connotation is dealt with.

This article is adapted from He Is There and He Is Not Silent by Francis A. Schaeffer.

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