Scripture as Propositional (Pt.1)

The Bible depicts man as specially equipped by God for the express purposes of knowing God’s rational verbal revelation, of communicating with God in praise and prayer, and of discoursing with fellow men about God and his will. – Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, Volume 3, 389

Because of the theistic view of language described above we ought not to be surprised when we turn to Scripture and look upon it as information that has been given to us by God.  Information which discloses a cognitive content; things we are to know.

The penalty for neglecting rational criteria in respect to revelational considerations is the constant danger of ascribing subjective impressions and personal decisions to some divine disclosure and demand.” – Ibid, 433

What Henry is speaking about there is the fact that we must approach the Bible, if we approach it as it is…that is the word of God – a revelation of God to man, in an objective way and as an objective disclosure.  It certainly has subjective meaning and makes a subjective impression upon us, but it is objectively true whether we feel anything or are moved one way or another and the objectivity is to be found in the amenability of Scripture to be worded in propositions; evangelical scholars have generally spoken about Scripture as propositional revelation. Holy Scripture is the faithful written testimony of God’s special revelation to man. ‘God has spoken!’  Those three words make all the difference, and the Bible is, by virtue of its inspired nature, the sole source of special revelation. In written form, the Bible is propositional in character; therefore special revelation is propositional in character.

Proposition – an objective disclosure in contradistinction to a purely personal subjective impression.

The Bible depicts God’s very revelation as meaningful, objectively-intelligible disclosure. We mean by propositional revelation that God supernaturally communicated his revelation to chosen spokesmen in the express form of cognitive truths and that the inspired, prophetic, apostolic proclamation reliably articulates these truths in sentences that are not internally contradictory. –  Carl F. H. Henry, Ibid, 456-457

The reason that we are devoting a whole lecture to this issue of propositional revelation is because this is where the battleground is, at least for the next few years, maybe a decade or more. The postmodern ethos challenges propositional revelation and the influence of postmodernism upon evangelical hermeneutics challenges propositionalism and if we don’t have propositional revelation then we don’t have objective truth from God and therefore we have to defend this crucial issue.

The Unsettling Notion of Propositionalism

The kind of definition that I’ve just read from Carl Henry is being challenged even within evangelical circles by theologians who’ve drunk too deeply from the cup of postmodernism and as a result, have over-applied the objections to classical foundationalism; that is that classical or Cartesian foundationalism just deals with certain undeniable truths and as a result leaves everything else up to scientific inductive experimentation. As we have discovered, that idea has been overthrown now and few people hold it. Unfortunately what has happened is that in evangelicalism people like Stanley Grenz, John Franke, Roger Olson, and others have thrown out foundationalism altogether and they have moved on to a different kind all epistemology. Now, we don’t need to throw at foundationalism; we can speak of ‘soft foundationalism’ as many evangelical scholars do today.  Or we can even prefer the kind of transcendental work of Cornelius Van Til which is better than even ‘soft foundationalism’ for an epistemological base.

These writers are attacking the idea of propositional revelation because they claim that to refer to the Bible as propositional turns it into a rationalistic concordance for theology. One writer of the evangelical left has recently objected that this leads to,

…viewing Scripture as a source of information for systematic theology, as such, it is viewed as a rather loose and relatively disorganized collection of factual, propositional statements.” John R. Franke, The Character of Theology, 88 [in a footnote on the same page Franke notices that Carl Henry develops his definition of theology based on biblical propositions in the first volume of his God, Revelation, and Authority.  But interestingly, Franke neglects to refer his readers to Henry’s thorough examination of the pros and cons of propositional revelation in volume 3 of his magnum opus, pages 403-487]

“A Repository of Proof Texts”

Now this idea of propositional revelation necessitating a concordance view of theology, where we just reduce everything down to certain statements to use at the behest of systematic theology, reveals a reaction to certain statements made by men like Charles Hodge in the 19th century which seemed to imply that the Bible was simply a repository of proof texts to be sorted out into the respective corpora of systematics.

This concordance view was not what Hodge intended. Besides whatever definitional failings may be found in Hodge the same cannot be said of Carl Henry; indeed that author offers one of the clearest and best definitions of propositional revelation available when he writes:

The inspired Scriptures contain a body of divinely-given information actually expressed, or capable of being expressed, in propositions. In brief, the Bible is a propositional revelation of the unchanging truth of God. – Ibid, 457

God has revealed factual information about himself in Scripture; this revelation is not put over in visuals or sound bytes but is set down rationally through linear argumentation and objective declaration. Of course, he uses illustration, narrative, and real-life historic situations to tell the story and to unveil his truth because theology is lived out in the world. But nevertheless, whether it has to do with Jesus healing a leper, or dealing with the Pharisees, or Paul in the Book of Acts, or with Jeremiah in his pit, or Ezekiel laying on his side, or Abraham and Lot or whatever, these stories reveal propositional truths and that is what Henry is speaking about.

The prophet Isaiah outlined the method of learning Scripture:

“To whom will he teach knowledge, and to whom will he explain the message? Those who are weaned from the milk, those taken from the breast? For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little.” – Isaiah 28:9-10

This is basically saying that we learn from the precepts of Scripture, from its propositions, and we learn by accumulating these into a full understanding of God, of the world, and of ourselves. It is necessary to learn the doctrines of Scripture by laying one proposition upon another so that the truth dawns upon us as it gradually looms larger in our thoughts.

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. – 2 Timothy 3:16

They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them. – Nehemiah 8:8, 12

Now they couldn’t rejoice unless they have some propositional truth to rejoice about; the Book of Nehemiah is hardly about ‘feel good’ experiences.

This consideration that the Bible is propositional revelation given to us ought to give shape to our daily life, not to mention our hearing of sermons. It is the lack of proper attention to the propositional character of the Bible that is partly to blame for the evangelical downgrade that has enveloped the Western churches in our day.

Today scholars from across the theological spectrum, whether neoliberal, neo-orthodox, neo-evangelical, these individuals are quick to argue against a more conservative view of the propositional character of Scripture.

PART TWO

4 comments

  1. Great article, thanks! It’s been awhile since I cracked open Henry’s 6 volume series. It was not easy reading. Since I am downsizing I had thought about selling that series, however your affirmative comments on his work makes me want to pick it up again.

    Is there anything in his work that I should be cautious of?

    1. Paul,

      It might seem peevish to criticize Henry’s work. It is a superlative effort. My only criticism (that I can think of) comes from his form of transcendentalism which is influenced by Gordon Clark. Henry places logic before revelation, which makes him approach Scripture as a hypothesis. He prefers E.J. Carnell’s verification criteria and take Cornelius Van Til to task a bit on Carnell’s behalf (esp. in ch. 14 of Vol. 1).

      It is this criteria which makes it too easy for many left-leaning evangelicals to write Henry off as rationalistic. This is quite unfair, but Clark was, of course, a hyper-rationalist. And, let’s not forget Henry’s young-earth position.

      I think the main argumentation of the work follows Van Til more than Clark and that is a plus. Henry is like Robert Reymond in this regard.

      Anyway, ‘God, Revelation & Authority’ is a goldmine. Please don’t discard it!

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