Sunday, March 08, 2009

Review of Peter Jensen (2002) The Revelation of God

The Revelation of God by Peter Jensen was published in 2002 in IVP's Contours of Christian Theology series. It has recently been translated into Spanish by CEEB/Andamio in the new Biblioteca José M. Martínez.

In this work, Jensen seeks to formulate a fresh approach to the question of revelation. The Enlightenment critique of the Christian claim to a unique revelation of God remains strong today, and many Christian attempts to answer it have failed. In this review, I will outline the main line of argument Jensen pursues (taking up chapters 1-4 of the book), before briefly mentioning the other areas covered in chapters 5-11 and finishing with some personal response.
The place we must start, Jensen argues, is with the central claim of the Bible that it is through responding to the message of the gospel that people attain to a true knowledge of God. Rather than discussing revelation as a general concept, and then asking if the Christian scriptures fit that concept, a surer approach is to begin with the gospel as that supreme locus of the knowledge of God and take it as the paradigm for revelation.

“The achievement of the gospel is that people come to know God through informative and hortatory words about him.” (35) We come to be friends with God through hearing and responding to the message of the gospel. In this sense, it is not helpful to talk about Christ himself as the supreme paradigm of revelation (e.g. Barth) for, while the centrality of Christ to the gospel is obvious, Christ comes to us through the words of the gospel, proclaimed by human messengers.

The gospel word – fundamentally, the declaration that Jesus is Lord – commends itself to us as the Word of God through three arguments, 1) the claim that Jesus is the Christ, fulfilling the Old Testament Scriptures, 2) the historical testimony of the first witnesses and evangelists and 3) its power to interpret human experience.

The gospel comes to us as a Word from God, with promises and demands. The specific nature of this gospel word gives a definite shape to the type of relationship we can have with God through responding to this gospel. In the gospel, God speaks. That speaking shows us a God who creates, judges and saves. He stands over and against a rebellious humanity with a word of warning about coming judgment. But this word specifically centres on Jesus Christ as Lord through his death, resurrection and exaltation. It is therefore simultaneously a warning of judgment and a word of promise about God’s love and mercy. Finally, this gospel word comes to us with a demand for repentance and faith that we may receive that promise of mercy.

How does the nature of the gospel shape the knowledge of God that can be attained through it? By default, we do not know God, we are in rebellious ignorance of Him. The good news of the gospel is that we can be reconciled to God and know him as his friends. In that friendship, as in any friendship, words play a central role: “language creates that personal union that incorporates without assimiliting.” (67) We talk to God through prayer, but how does God speak to us? In the Old Testament we see God identifying Himself through His deeds and through words about His deeds. In particular, “it his ability to do what he says he will do that identifies the Lord and shows that he is God indeed” (69), in other words, God makes himself known through words of promise and fulfilment.

Next, we see that God often formalises His promises in covenants, defined by Jensen as “a promise given under oath, accompanied by stipulations and sealed with a sign.” (75) We can then trace these ideas of promise/fulfilment and covenant through to Christ Himself and, significantly, the Bible. Scripture is nothing less than ‘the book of the covenant’ “for in it the covenant of God is recorded, expounded and applied.” (81) By this argument, Jensen arrives at the conclusion that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God for us today. It is that which structures and regulates our covenant relationship with God, it is the means through which God speaks to us, and all this flows out of the first point about the gospel message itself being the paradigm of revelation.
Many questions remain to be treated, and Jensen concludes the first part of the book by outlining four fundamental axioms, derived from this key insight that the gospel is the paradigm for revelation, for addressing the issue of revelation more generally. These are:

1) “The gospel is the key element in coming to a saving knowledge of God” (85)
2) “Christian revelation is basically verbal” (87)
3) “Revelation conveys both information and relationship” (90)
4) “Scripture is revelation” (92)

Thus Jensen’s central argument is that “God’s central revelation of himself… is evangelical at heart, covenantal by nature and scriptural in form.” Following from this, Jensen goes on to ask how the gospel helps us to interpret human experience and specifically religious experience, especially whether there are ways to attain true knowledge of God that do not pass through the gospel. (chapters 5-6) He then discusses at length some thorny questions about the authority, nature and reading of Scripture (chapters 7-9). He concludes by examining the work of the Spirit in revelation and whether we can speak of contemporary special revelation today (e.g. prophecy) (chapters 10 and 11).

This is a book to be read and digested slowly. The argument is sometimes dense, but it is worth taking the trouble, because Jensen has fresh things to say on many topics. Often his choice of words is striking and very helpful, and helps us to see things in a new way. Using the categories of knowledge of God, gospel and covenant in relation to revelation do exactly that, and seeing the Bible as the Book of the Covenant is especially helpful, because it reminds us of the centrality of (and nature of) our relationship with God as well as giving fresh meaning to its authority.
Remembering that the Bible is a covenental book should also remind us that God speaks to us as his covenant people. Our tendency to read the bible individualistically ought to be challenged by understanding that Christ rules his church through the Word. (cf.p.223)

Seeing the Gospel as that which enables us to rightly interpret our experience is also important. In Jensen’s words:
“Human thought characteristically moves from what is known to what is unknown. When the gospel is preached, it invariably uses the language and concepts that refer to human experience in order to explicate itself. The gospel speaks of love, wrath, forgiveness, faith, repentance, sin and death. These are all common human experiences: in each case the gospel takes our inadequate understanding of the experience and gives us new and powerful wisdom about it. The reinterpretation is often so intense that it constitutes a revolution, a conversion of thought and practice…” (110)

Using the gospel as that which explains our experience has a lot to say to our evangelism and apologetics. Evangelism is helping others see who they really are! Jensen’s thoughts here coincide nicely with what Andrew Walls writes about conversion not being about substituting something totally new but transforming, turning what is already there. (see my previous post) Brilliant!


John said...

Hi Skippy,

I have linked to your blog. Keep up the good work.

Jonathan Skipper said...

Hi John,

thanks for the link, brother. Blessings,

Anonymous said...


Do you know if any of the other books in Contours of Christian Theology have been translated into Spanish? I work in Equatorial Guinea (Spanish-speaking Africa) in a Bible Institute there and I am trying to locate some more good theology books for our students.

If you have time, let me know at:

All the best,
Jason Carter