Types of Christian Revelation

Richard L. Anderson

Richard L. Anderson, “Types of Christian Revelation,” in Literature of Belief: Sacred Scripture and Religious Experience, ed. Neal E. Lambert (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1981), 61–78.

Professor of ancient scripture and history at BYU when this was published, Professor Anderson trained himself academically in law, in Christian texts, and in early Mormon history, combining his linguistic and analytical backgrounds to produce groundbreaking works, especially in the field of Mormon history.

In this presentation, he challenges the underlying theory of form criticism: that the Gospels of the New Testament are basically oral tales, elaborated as proof texts to serve the theological needs of a later generation. In the New Testament epistles themselves he finds the “raw Gospels” that predate the actual composition of the evangelical Gospels and testify to the existence of preexisting source materials.

A second evidence is the unity of purpose that ties both Gospels and epistles together: both testify—repeatedly, persuasively, and insistently—to the reality of Christ’s resurrection. In cataloguing only the revelations Paul mentions in his letters to the Corinthians, those rich sources of basic Christian doctrine, Professor Anderson points out a variety of types of revelation that includes gifts of the Spirit, direct manifestations of the Lord, the ministry of angels, and guidance by the Holy Spirit. Yet for all their richness, these manifestations show “a certain economy” that, to him, “adds significantly to the integrity and impressiveness” of Paul’s testimony. Paul testifies of Christ; Christ testifies of the Father. And that witness to the personality of God has a vitality that has withstood generations of critical depersonalization.

New religions and new offshoots typically start with a creative or inspired founder, followed by a later definition of the new teachings—the stage of canonization. Primitive Christianity differs distinctly from this pattern in the length of its first generative stage, continuing roughly from the annunciations of Jesus and John the Baptist to the closing ministry of John on Patmos and his subsequent letters to the churches of Roman Asia. Thus there is a century of revelation that founded the religion rather than a single originator. Without serious question Jesus of Nazareth is the founder of Christianity. Yet there is a valid point in the gross simplification that Jesus established the religion but the apostle Paul created its theology. The valid point lies in the continuity of Christian creativity from Jesus to Paul.

Scholars who study Jesus follow an inverse procedure from Christianity’s own chronology. They typically begin with the assumed latest writings, the Gospels, and work to the earliest, the letters. However, in studying Joseph Smith, I have worked from journals of those who recorded his life and his pronouncements, plus his own occasional handwritten letters. With such firsthand records, going to the Brigham Young period for light on the earlier Mormon founder would be an inferior approach. But in the case of Jesus, I am assured by many scholars that there are no authentic records from his time, that the Gospels are traditional stories, repeated orally and theologized. This is essentially form criticism, the hypothetical study of how Gospel episodes were expanded. The majority of vocal scholars today see the Gospels as overlays of successive traditions about Jesus—early stories modified during a period of oral transmission, imaginatively expanded with theological purposes in mind. In short, there is widespread professional skepticism on the general validity of the Gospels as sources for Jesus’ life and teachings.

But one can be just as skeptical of form criticism as form criticism is of the Gospels. Investigating how the Gospel accounts have changed begs the question of whether they have changed. The Gospels present parallel stories of Jesus’ life with occasional contradictions in details, but each Gospel represents a rich supplement to the information on the life of Jesus available in any other Gospel. Form criticism assumes a creativity on the part of the early Christian community different from the “continuity of revelation” creativity I spoke of; it is, instead “invention” creativity—the assumption that the early Christian community adapted these stories to their preaching needs at any given time. Then form criticism “recovers” the doctrinal issue that influenced the metamorphosis of the particular story being transformed. If Pauline Christianity was combating Jewish works, for instance, then an anonymous preacher supposedly added useful proof texts to the episodes of Jesus’ life.

Such a theory contradicts all that the early Christians said about the integrity of their texts. Form criticism is just one hypothesis to explain the differing detail of an incident in two or three Gospels. It attempts to line up the accounts in sequence and construct a development in the story. But Gospel variation can be the natural differences of accounts written with knowledge but with different personality interests of the authors. For instance, similar variations are found in journals known to be contemporary reports of a discourse of Joseph Smith’s—here a case of simultaneous and partial reporting rather than add-on evolution. Or look at current newspapers. One news service will report details unrecorded by a rival news service, and a third source, a correspondent, will confirm parts of each story, adding other details uncovered by his diligence or stressed by his interests as a responsible reporter. Thus instead of two additional reports being evolving forms of a proto-story, contemporary journalists regularly show simultaneous diversion—not a linear development of a changing episode but concurrent selection of differing relevant details.

In my view, form criticism is also badly out-of-date in its assumption that there was a period of oral transmission of the stories of Jesus. The recovery of hundreds of fragments and of books from Qumran shows an intense religious creativity accompanied by an equally intense fanaticism for the writing of commentaries and handbooks of community living. The Qumran community is, of course, a slightly pre-Christian reformation movement of Judaism. Just the other side of the first century we have the letters of the apostolic fathers, the orthodox bishops of the early second century. We also have the fertile inventions of Gnostic dissidents which developed and continued a tradition from the same time period.

We also have twenty-one letters of the New Testament, proving the capability and inevitability of writing output in the earliest Christian Church. With such impressive evidence of writing among Jewish reformists, orthodox Christians, and sectarian Christians, why should one assume a period of oral transmission divorced from the stability of written records?

Our best evidence indicates that Paul began writing his letters beginning about A.D. 50, but the extant letters suggest even earlier letters. For example, he ends 2 Thessalonians by personally inscribing his salutation which he says is his “token” in every epistle (2 Thess. 3:17). Even the Gospels bear clear traces of being worked up from preexisting written records, since their common material is not just generally parallel but verbally identical in many cases. Thus, for a long time, liberal and conservative New Testament scholars have accepted some form of the Q-document or documents (derived from abbreviating the German Quelle, source), a collection behind the present Gospels. So at this time, the height of the influence of form criticism, there are weighty reasons to reexamine its assumption and challenge its orthodoxy.

Our ability to reconstruct early Christian revelations lies in the New Testament letters, particularly those of Paul. All that we have can be dated with fair precision between A.D. 50 and 68, thus beginning within twenty years of the death of the Master. And Paul’s letters are not propaganda for outsiders. They are spontaneous and candid responses to Christian problems. They report the sins of early Christians with no attempt to gloss them over; they are filled with far more sarcasm and irony than most readers catch in the stately King James translation; they abound with historical allusions to Christian personalities, including Christ. In effect, they are raw gospels preceding the writing of formal Gospels. Good historians like letters for many of these same characteristics. As the editors of Mary Todd Lincoln’s letters said: “Like all letters, these have far greater value as evidence than the most candid diary or autobiography. Each one was written on a particular day under a specific impulse, with no thought that it would be judged in a larger context, or, for that matter, read by anyone other than the person to whom it was addressed.” [1] I’m not willing to concede that we can hold on to Christian history in the New Testament only by selecting a canon of “reliable” letters. But any letters accepted become validations of the history recounted in the Gospels because they furnish historical controls dated extremely close to the events that the Gospels describe.

The comparative quality of these letters as historical sources measures well in terms of our general demands from ancient history—which are not the same restrictions as the demands on modern history. A scholar of American history asked in wonder when introduced to several ancient historians: “Where are your archives?” It would be wonderful to have them, but we don’t. History, like politics, is the art of the possible. To sit in the ivory tower and demand perfection from early Christian writers becomes a game.

Early Gospel authors produced documents and records that compare well with those of the great historians of Greece and Rome, Thucydides and Tacitus. These Christian authors all wrote after the fact but were eyewitnesses or were able to check with survivors of events, and all were men of clear intellect and ruthless honesty. If that seems too high an estimation, remember that they risked their lives—and gave their lives—for what they said and wrote.

Luke, Paul, and John emerge in the New Testament as personalities seen through adequate literary samples. The first two, Luke and Paul, have extensive vocabularies, state clearly a philosophy of reliance on historical truth, and demonstrate the judgment of skilled intellects at work in their writing. Both of them knew well the apostles who walked with Jesus. Paul said that he first met Peter three years after his conversion and spent two weeks with the senior apostle who had walked with the Lord (see Gal. 1:18). Here is historical contact with a major source for the history of Jesus. Luke also insists that he went to the sources. Books were available to him, Luke says in his Gospel preface, from the “eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word” (Luke 1:2). These King James version phrases have historical importance: eyewitness in Greek is just that, and “ministers of the word” were, in application, the officials of the Church, that is, the founding apostles. As Paul’s companion, Luke had access to these men who spoke of Jesus’ life and resurrection firsthand. Thus, both Luke and Paul used historical controls on the Gospels.

Historians of stature have seen Luke as a historian of stature, a proposition which I think must stand despite much prestigious skepticism. And Paul’s letters are also an excellent historical control on Luke, giving verification of missionary events and Christian interchange described in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. A recent opinion is helpful from a scholar who has taken the incredible trouble to digest all major works, including the skeptical treatments, ever written on Acts. After such study Ward Gasque concludes: “There is no reason to doubt the essential reliability of the narrative of Acts.” [2] This historian of the critics faults the theologians who have refused to learn from their fellow scholars who are experts in the history, literature, and archaeology of the ancient world. He feels that Luke passes these tests, ignored by too many analysts of Luke’s apostolic history.

With all these preliminary remarks on our sources, we can go to the records of Christian revelation, realizing that they are records of events as the generation understood them which experienced them. I will work from the base of Paul’s most voluminous body of correspondence to any branch of the Church, that is, his letters to the Corinthians. The two long letters were sent to the major Christian center in southern Greece in the years A.D. 56 and 57. The letters are brilliant. The Corinthians had departed from the faith in several major areas under the counterleadership of, in Paul’s sarcastic phrase, “super apostles,” or in the more stately King James translation, “false apostles” (2 Cor. 11:13).

These letters are such a rich source precisely because the Corinthians had departed so far from Christian basics. Paul here penned his fullest compendium of doctrine to correct them. His goal was to reconvert, and he restates his original Corinthian preaching. Paul says that the Corinthians will be “saved” if they remember the gospel (1 Cor. 15:1–2), implying, of course, that they do not remember it; and so he addresses himself to the issue of what the gospel is. In the opening of his letter he attacks the formation of parties following Cephas, Apollos, and himself (see 1 Cor. 1:12). Paul insists throughout that the issue isn’t a question of which party you follow but a question of following the gospel. He is adamant in insisting that there is only one gospel. “Whether . . . I or they [meaning Peter and the other apostles], so we preach, and so ye believed” (1 Cor. 15:11).

That one verse suggests a great deal, not only for the proposition that Paul and the other apostles taught the same message, but that they agreed because they all obtained that message from historical truth. The great facts of Christ’s death for sins and of his resurrection are prefaced by Paul’s insistent words: “I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received” (1 Cor. 15:3). The independence and quality of that historical information can then be assessed because Paul next lists five resurrection appearances as examples of what he had shared with the Corinthians from his knowledge from the eyewitnesses. Three of these are also detailed in the Gospels—the appearances to Peter, the first appearance to the apostles, and the last appearance to the apostles (see 1 Cor. 15:5–7). The other two appearances are not found in the canonical Gospels—the appearance ance to James and to “five hundred brethren”—though the appearance to James is detailed in a very early and surprisingly reliable source, the Gospel of the Hebrews. [3] So when Paul insists that he is giving accurate information from his contact with reliable sources, his information shows the characteristics of reliable sources in general—basic agreement, plus the individual supplemental knowledge that is the hallmark of an independent source.

Another Corinthian controversy is settled by Paul with impressive historical knowledge of the earthly ministry of Jesus. The problem is chaos in the Christian feast accompanying the Lord’s Supper. Paul finds it terribly inconsistent for “brethren” to discriminate against each other in eating together and shameful that some turned their religious and social association into a time of revelry. Thus Paul calls to mind what the Lord did on the night before he was crucified, narrating Jesus’ breaking, blessing, and offering the bread, “in remembrance of me,” and similarly blessing and offering the wine. Again Paul prefaces this historical recital with the words: “For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you” (1 Cor. 11:23–24). And this account unquestionably recorded in a document some years prior to the writing of Luke’s Gospel, agrees with what was later written in Luke’s Gospel. Thus the intermediate history is the same as the final form of Christian history (see Luke 22:17–20). Paul’s pattern of undergirding doctrine by citing realities from Christ’s life is why I say that these letters are gospels before the Gospels. Because of these two Corinthian instances of authentic historical information given before the writing of the Gospels, we must treat similar references as valid historical samples from the large body of material known, stabilized, and formally presented for outsiders in another literary form when the Gospels were later written. Thus 1 Corinthians is both a letter and an early example of Christian history at work.

In that letter, Paul inventories the type of revelations common in his own life and common among the Corinthian Christians, a fascinating description of their weaknesses and strengths, Paul supplementing their weaknesses with his strengths. Chapter 12 is virtually a catalogue of various types of Christian revelation, despite much overlapping. Yet without going into all the nuances of each spiritual gift, let me stress that Paul’s central issue is still the problem that the letter began with: divisions within the Church deepened by a pseudointellectualism that revises Christian basics.

Paul’s list of spiritual gifts includes a “word of knowledge” and a “word of wisdom” given by the Holy Ghost (1 Cor. 12:8). The informed reader stops short, recalling that Paul criticized both knowledge and wisdom in the early chapters. He condemned the Greeks for seeking after wisdom (see 1 Cor. 1:22) and later said that he would rather speak “five words with my understanding [literally, by my mind] . . . than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue” (see 1 Cor. 14:19). So mind is a positive term, but wisdom and knowledge are frowned upon? There is a greater issue here. Mind, which is translated understanding quite often in the New Testament, nearly always has positive connotations, whereas both knowledge and wisdom have a double use. The ambivalence is not only Paul’s; he sees men in their “sophistication” (related to sophia, wisdom) using their own egotistical perspectives on the amount of knowledge that they have. So Paul is actually developing a contrast between man-made achievements and spiritual revelations. But as he does so, we see that it’s more a matter of supplement than contrast—more a matter of man’s being humble enough (with all the wisdom that he can get) to reach out for higher things. That eloquent passage on the Holy Ghost in 1 Corinthians 2:10–16 says that man may understand the things of a man by “the spirit of man,” but he understands the things of God by the Holy Ghost. The very fact that Paul uses wisdom and knowledge both positively and negatively, shows me that revelation is a process of supplemental knowledge rather than an antirational procedure. Even the revelation is judged by its coherence, by its capacity to make sense somehow to both the spirit and the mind. That is the burden of the message of 1 Corinthians 14: “The spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets” (14:32).

When we see Paul talking about gifts of discernment or prophecy or tongues, he is describing processes that went on in the Christian meeting. In 1 Corinthians, we walk right into the door of the Christian church—even though it is not a chapel but rather Crispus’s home adjoining the synagogue. (Some of you who have been to Corinth may have actually seen the lintel from the synagogue, probably dating from this first century because it’s so badly written.) Paul takes us right into those early Christian testimony meetings. One person stands up and speaks in tongues; another person interprets. Paul says that’s fine, but don’t speak if you don’t have anything intelligent to say—something that will appeal to the mind of the nonmember who walks in. Go ahead and say it to God sometime when you’re privately with him. But if you’re with other people, reach their minds while reaching their souls (see 1 Cor. 14:23–28).

In short, Paul specifies other gifts that are controlled by the “word of knowledge” and “word of wisdom” as we see them in context. Obviously prophecy and tongues are gifts given for Christian meetings, but “word of knowledge” and “word of wisdom” seem to be private gifts until we realize that Paul uses word (logos) in a far more specific context than we’re accustomed to. “My speech [word] and my preaching was not with . . . man’s wisdom,” he says in describing his manner of speech (see 1 Cor. 2:4). So the “word of knowledge” is your inspired capacity to explain knowledge; the “word of wisdom” is the wisdom that you speak. The Revised Standard Version correctly translates these phrases as “utterance of knowledge” and “utterance of wisdom,” which communicates to us better than word.

All religions meet on the ground of claiming some enlightenment. The early Christians, like the Mormons, claimed exclusive access to enlightenment from the Holy Ghost. Of course, neither group claimed that they were the only people God inspired; early Christians acknowledged inspiration as a worldwide, ongoing process, as Latter-day Saints do. However, they felt that their method of enlightenment, the Holy Ghost, was unique in its directness, even though an outsider might not see that distinction as basic. It would be possible for the outsider to see the Holy Ghost simply as the Christians’ name for the spirit working with all men’s minds and enlightening those in many religions.

However, it is precisely at that point that Christianity goes beyond other religions. They may all start from the same base, but Christianity goes on to erect a pyramid consisting of additional patterns of revelation. The next level beyond the spiritual gifts that we have mentioned is visions. Paul’s discussion of visions occurs in the highly personalized and aggressive second letter to the Corinthians. Putting down the people who were a thorn in his side, whom he called “super apostles,” he demanded to know what they had given comparable to his sacrifices for the Church. He then catalogued his sufferings: “Thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeyings often, in perils of waters . . .” (see 2 Cor. 11:13, 23–27). And he goes on and on. Every conceivable peril that could have happened to Paul did happen.

Then he says, still contrasting himself to the false apostles, “I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord” (see 2 Cor. 12:1). And here, surprisingly, the account suddenly shifts to understatement. After a dozen or more examples of dramatic persecution, we might expect a half a dozen episodes of dramatic revelation just to drive his point home. Instead, Paul’s awe, humility, and gratitude for having received those revelations turn him from aggressiveness to reverence—even reticence. The fact that he describes the vision as happening to “a man in Christ” is such an evidence of that humility, though he is obviously speaking of himself. The passage makes no sense if it isn’t his own revelation, since he’s reminding the Corinthians of his credentials contrasted to those of the “false apostles.” Immediately after suggesting his glorious vision, Paul returns to the first person of admitting his need to glory in revelations but acknowledging, “I shall not be a fool.” Yet he has made his point with a single example of what he calls his own “abundance of . . . revelations” (2 Cor. 12:2, 5–7).

He describes that vision as being “caught up to the third heaven” (see 2 Cor. 12:2). The phrase, “third heaven,” will immediately ring bells with those who study Christian and Jewish apocryphal literature. R. H. Charles’s compilation of apocalypses in his Pseudepigrapha volume is studded with references to twelve heavens, seven heavens, and occasionally three heavens. [4] They’re always numbered from the bottom up, so the third heaven, if you follow that cultural pattern, ought to be the highest heaven. Thus Paul clearly believed that there were’ three heavens.

Even more important than Paul’s description is what he hints at but doesn’t say. He says that he saw and heard things that were unlawful to be uttered: “unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter” (2 Cor. 12:4). I immediately ask myself, “But what about his other visions? He not only alludes to his vision of Christ on the road to Damascus in Galatians, 1 Corinthians, and other letters, but Acts describes and details it three times.” This “third heaven” vision of “unspeakable” things, then, was so overwhelming that it superseded even seeing Christ! Such sacredness again shows that this “third heaven” is for Paul the highest heaven. “Whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell,” he adds, letting us know it was far more than an intellectual process or meditative enlightenment (2 Cor. 12:3).

I stress this vision because it was obviously the high point of Paul’s spiritual life, but his “first vision” of Christ was hardly unimportant. He had earlier reminded the Corinthians: “Am I not an apostle? . . . have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord?” (1 Cor. 9:1) Again, the material in these early letters acts as a check on the later book of Acts. To the Corinthians, he had testified that the apostles saw the Lord, that Peter saw the Lord, that five hundred brethren saw the Lord all at once, and then he added: “Last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time,” a tactful English translation for his very vivid Greek word, by which he compares himself to an aborted fetus, a premature, misshapen mass (1 Cor. 15:5–7). So in Paul’s humility he admits that he saw later, but really saw. It was an actual, objective experience. The book of Acts reinforces its reality by asserting that this vision was partially experienced by those nearby (see Acts 9:7; 22:9). Thus, the experience spilled over into the objective world, not only for Paul but for his companions.

Paul stresses the vivid reality of this revelation because he is teaching his converts the history of Christianity, especially the reality of its central event: the resurrection of Christ. As soon as he has catalogued the appearances of the resurrected Christ, he says essentially: “If you don’t believe in the resurrection of Christ, you have made us false witnesses” (see 1 Cor. 15:15). The ground of Christian commitment to the resurrection is experience and knowledge—not meditation but sight, hearing, and touch. That, of course, is also the testimony of the Gospels. We can see the letters as headlines, with the details given in the closing chapters of each Gospel.

In addition to spiritual gifts and visions, there is another form of revelation—the ministering of angels, indirectly mentioned in the Corinthian letters. It is interesting that Paul does not mention angels very often. Viewed strictly from the point of view of function, angels are simply messengers (the literal meaning of the Greek term), and in function their message could come from the voice of the Spirit or from an audible voice without a vision. But angels are crucial in other portions of the biblical record. Their presence adds authority to the content of messages that could come by other means. Mary sees Gabriel. So does Joseph. Angels minister to the Lord. Cornelius learns about Peter from an angel. John’s guide during his great revelation is an angel, who has to keep telling John not to worship him because “I am thy fellowservant” (Rev. 22:9). Paul mentions angels in his letters in explaining doctrine, but his history mentions a message from an angel only once, before the shipwreck on the way to Rome (see Acts 27:23).

We have been talking about the types of revelation in the New Testament, but let us look at another element in that pattern. How frequently did Paul receive revelations? It is not a matter of simply adding them up. We cannot count revelations by the Holy Spirit because he was obviously led by the Spirit regularly, even when our records take that for granted. Being told not to go preach in Asia and Bithynia is one example of spiritual direction (see Acts 16:6–7). Yet we can catalogue the visions mentioned by Paul or Acts: his conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3–18); the Lord’s appearance to him in the temple, confirming his assignment from the Twelve to go to Tarsus (Acts 9:30; 22:17–21); Paul’s magnificent vision of the third heaven at approximately the time that he was called to the gentile mission (2 Cor. 12:1–6); and the vision of a man from Macedonia, asking him to “come over . . . and help us” (Acts 16:9). After Paul arrived at Macedonia, he was persecuted out of three cities, and we can empathize with Paul’s probable need for the next revelation, just after being excluded from the synagogue at Corinth, the fourth city where he encountered major opposition. There the Lord appeared in vision and assured him: “Be not afraid, but speak, and hold not thy peace; for I am with thee, and no man shall set on thee to hurt thee: for I have much people in this city” (Acts 18:9–10). That is the fifth recorded vision. Afterward Paul went to Jerusalem, and after persecution, rejection by his own people, and dramatic debate in the Sanhedrin, he received another appearance of the Lord, assuring him that he would eventually go to Rome (see Acts 23:11). Enroute he saw the angel already mentioned, promising him safety in the midst of the fearful storm and coming shipwreck (see Acts 27:23).

Thus the total is seven known visions. Paul certainly was not converted any earlier than A.D. 30. If we place his death at A.D. 68, we have a maximum ministry of thirty-eight years. Probably Paul’s ministry lasted from about A.D. 33 to about A.D. 67 or A.D. 68, or, in round numbers, about thirty-five years. Seven known visions in thirty-five years averages a vision every five years. Thus I see a certain economy in the Christian pattern of revelation, which is deeply consistent with Paul’s rationality in teaching the Corinthians about spiritual gifts. Paul’s calling entitles him to direct manifestations from God, but he receives them in serious and unusual circumstances. They are not debased in value by being claimed for every casual question in his life. Of course, we are talking about visions from God, whereas Paul’s directions by the Spirit are a constant and daily matter of direction, corresponding to his daily outreach of thought and soul. But Paul does not cheapen revelation by vision by broadening his definition any further than necessary. And that, to me, adds significantly to the integrity and impressiveness of his testimony.

There is a sort of pyramid of increasingly direct Christian revelations. The broad base rests on the common gifts of the Spirit, moving upwards to prophecy, which Paul designates as more important (and less common) than speaking in tongues (see 1 Cor. 14:5). Then we build up to visions. At the apex is the personal sight of Christ and of God the Father. And in this pyramid frequency appears to be in inverse ratio to directness. The New Testament contains a limited use of theophany. Stephen and John see Christ long after the resurrection—perhaps John also saw the Father as Stephen did (see Acts 7:55–56). Paul, as we have noted, saw Jesus Christ on at least four occasions. But the most impressive appearance for all the apostles was before Paul’s conversion. All of the New Testament letters describing revelation highlight the resurrection experience. Yes, the Lord continually directed the Church afterwards, but the apostles were not inventing new visions to justify their actions or to rationalize their problems. We see this in examining their answer to the greatest problem that the Church experienced: the directive to Jewish Christians not to impose circumcision on the gentile converts. Why didn’t the apostles claim a vision at that point? Peter had in fact had a vision earlier when the gentiles were to receive the gospel—a very dramatic one (see Acts 10:10–16). But when the apostles revoked the law of circumcision, and hence the Mosiac law of the Old Testament for the gentiles, there was no appearance of the Lord, but only: “It seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us” (Acts 15:28). That one example, it seems to me, proves an authentically careful use of theophanies. When they come, they are spectacular; but they don’t come often. The great event that everyone goes back to is not a continuing presence of Christ, but his resurrection. It was historical and unique in that his apostles touched his physical body; but it was an experience not thereafter repeated. Occasional direct visions paralleled the apostles’ experience to the end of the first century.

Paul is persistent and consistent in asserting that the resurrection must be taken seriously, not only because of his own vision but because of the witnesses who saw Christ right after his death. “We stand together,” he basically says, “but I am not even in their category” (see 1 Cor. 15:1–11). So the historically resurrected Christ constitutes the ultimate revelation: the revelation of the Father. The epistles testify that the resurrection of Christ is the revelation of the Father. By Christ’s own witness, if you have seen me, you have seen the Father (see John 14:9). This is a Johannine teaching, and it is also a Pauline teaching: Christ is “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). Invisible, incidentally, is a very unfortunate translation since it implies that God could never appear. Unseen is better, implying the possibility that God will appear—that he is temporarily unseen but not permanently unseeable. Thus for Paul, Christ’s physical form is closely similar to the form of the Father who shall be seen in eternity, for John and Paul thus preach the same message: Christ is indeed the representation and the likeness of the Father.

As Edmond Cherbonnier pointed out in his paper presented at BYU in 1978, a Christian ought to be able to be orthodox and also believe in an anthropomorphic God because that is the way God is represented in the scriptures. [5] And this is where the types of revelation in the New Testament lead us: to the revelation of the personality of God. In the last few years we have certainly seen a revitalization of attempts to define God as personal. It’s too bad that Hugh Nibley doesn’t give his class on Christian creeds anymore, but my old class notes show the pattern he laid out: the modification by Christian creeds of earlier understandings of God as personal—the application of philosophic abstractions to God that were unknown by the generation of Christians that knew God. After fifteen hundred years of saying that God is impersonal, an invisible spirit, we now see creeds like the creed of the United Church of Canada terming him an infinitely loving, personal spirit. Why did God ever become an abstraction? I remember the day Hugh Nibley lectured on Origen and read us that marvelous passage where Origen really struggles with the nature of the Incarnation. Origen was a Christian who studied Greek philosophy, a tremendously honest man, a compulsive worker, and a powerful writer of the third century. He puzzles how Christ—God, and Son of God—could come to earth, be laid in a cradle, how he could need food, cry as a baby, later walk among us, and then be cruelly murdered but resurrected with a physical body. “I don’t understand,” says Origen, and adds, “I think that it surpasses the power even of the holy apostles; nay, the explanation of that mystery may perhaps be beyond the grasp of the entire creation of celestial powers.” [6] Now Origen was honest enough, or should I say informed enough, to admit that you cannot be a Christian according to New Testament standards and deprive Jesus Christ of a real body, either before or after the resurrection. Yet Origen lived in the generation that was at work in depersonalizing God because of a philosophical premise that a perfect God must be nonmortal and therefore nonmaterial.

Early medieval generations defined Christianity more mystically, more abstractly. Here is a typical statement. It’s from Arnobius, a fourth-century father, but you can virtually reach into the theological pool and randomly pick whom you wish. Here is his philosophical, nonintimate approach to God: “For thou art the first cause, the place and space of things created, the basis of all things whatsoever they be. Infinite, unbegotten, everlasting, eternal alone art thou, whom no shape may represent, no outline of body define; unlimited in nature and in magnitude unlimited; without seat, motion, and condition, concerning whom nothing can be said or expressed in the words of mortals.” [7]

Needless to say, in contrast to this praise of an undefined and undefinable God, the New Testament revelation of God is empirical, experimental, observational, and personal. Succeeding theologians, in abstracting possible characteristics of God, thus removed from him his greatest attribute—personality. And in so doing, they denied the living revelation of God that fired the zeal of the early Christians and became the New Testament witness.


[1] Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner, Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972), xxi–xxii.

[2] W. Ward Gasque, A History of the Criticism of the Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1975), 309.

[3] See Jerome in M. R. James, The Apochryphal New Testament, corrected ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1953), 3–4.

[4] See The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963–64), vol. 2.

[5] See “In Defense of Anthropomorphism,” in Reflections on Mormonism: Judaeo-Christian Parallels, ed. Truman G. Madsen, Religious Studies Monograph Series, no. 4 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1978), 155–73.

[6] de Principiis, bk. 2, ch. 6, sec. 2 in Ante-Nicene Fathers, eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1968), 4:281–82.

[7] Cited in Johannes Quasten, Patrology, 3 vols. (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1964), 2:388.