The Doctrine of RevelationWhile treated here as the third, among Protestants, this doctrine has traditionally been the first. Both John Calvin and Karl Barth began their theologies with the question of how one comes into knowledge of God. The (Presbyterian) Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) and the Second [Baptist] London Confession of 1677 began with Scripture. It is an important doctrine because Jn. 17:3 says that it through knowing God and Jesus Christ that one obtains eternal life. Yet there is a difference between knowing God and knowing about God. The passage in John deals with the former--knowing in an experiential, relational way. That was the understanding of "knowing" that characterized the Hebrew thinking peoples from whom our Scriptures came. One must know God like one knows one's parents or children--not the way that one might know the answer to a question on a television game show.
Are the Bible and the Word of God really the same? Most evangelicals today will usually answer "Yes" to this question, but one must ask whether such an answer is really biblical. The Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8 was struggling to understand Isa. 53 and was making no headway. He was reading the Scripture, but he was not getting the Word of God. Along came Philip, who was sensitive to what God was doing and who "preached" to him. Suddenly the Eunuch understood the Word of God with clarity and was baptized on confession of faith. Put another way, the Eunuch actually come to know God because he had encountered the transforming power of the Word of God. This example tells us that the "Word of God" was not the Isaiah text itself. Yes, the Scripture was the center of the narrative, but the presence and work of the evangelist (Philip) and the Holy Spirit (who appears repeatedly in this passage) were also necessary for the Eunuch to appropriate the Word of God in this case.
The Doctrine of Revelation must embrace the whole process of God revealing himself to us. The role of the Scriptures is foundational, but they are not the whole of the process. It is, of course, possible for God to reveal himself completely outside of the Bible, as he did to Abraham. But without having the Scriptures to validate one's experience with God one can never be sure that one is appropriating the knowledge of God or of the pizza one may have had the night before. So the Bible has a part, but to read the Bible without the other ingredients is to read mere human words, devoid of any possibility of achieving the Knowledge of God. Calvin summarized it this way--one needed the "spectacles of faith" and the Holy Spirit to read the Bible properly.
God is always in control of the process of revelation. He remains hidden from attempts by science or philosophy to probe Him (Eccl. 8:17). God also reserves his "secret things" (Deut. 29:29). So the doctrine of Revelation acknowledges God's sovereignty in how and when He reveals himself. That is, God chooses to reveal himself, and is always the initiator in that process. Barth said that, were God to do otherwise, He would loose His freedom and would no longer be God. God must be free to reveal or not reveal at His own pleasure. God's revelation always glorifies God, not some human scientist, theologian, or philosopher.
Inspiration properly embraces a larger process than just writing down the right words. The words may be placed in an oral tradition that is later written down, or the work of writing may fall to a protégé. It also includes the process that leads to the adoption of the text in the canon of Scripture. The Holy Spirit should be seen as guiding this entire process in order that the biblical text that is passed along to us is exactly as God intends it.
Illumination takes place most clearly in the group, not in a pastor's study. While a pastor may have acquired language and "hermeneutical" skills at seminary that will bring clarity from a biblical passage, there may be some in the community of faith that have gifts of perception and discernment that would bear even more importantly within the context of a given church and situation (see the Doctrine of Church).
SummaryLet's return to the Eunuch. Centuries before the Eunuch was born, God manifested himself to Isaiah in some way. Through the Holy Spirit, the prophet was inspired to correctly interpret what God wanted to say and formulated the words that would find their way into the Hebrew Scriptures. The words made no sense to the Eunuch as he first read them, but Philip and the Holy Spirit illuminated the text and the Eunuch understood the Word that God had for him. (Another individual reading the same words in a different place and time may, through illumination, receive a different Word of God, so it would not be at all correct to conclude that the Isa. 53 passage had been put there just for the Eunuch. See 2 Pet. 1:20).
The Scriptures are important to us, but the illumination of the Holy Spirit cannot be overlooked. One might say that the difference between the Bible and the Word of God is of the same sort as the difference between knowing about God and knowing God.