- First off, there is the necessity for God to take action to reveal Himself to us in order to know more than the basics (for example, we can reason that there is a God through such things as the beauty, intricacy, and abundance of nature, but we would not know much more about Him through that alone). This type of sensory knowledge that we know without God’s direct intervention is known as knowledge through reason, and also includes the practice of science.
- Knowledge through revelation, the other kind of knowledge, must come from God himself directly or through someone He has granted authority to speak on His behalf (of course). It is not our decision that God should reveal Himself, but His. Knowledge through reason can be considered our first knowledge through revelation.
- Knowledge through revelation must display an understanding of the human condition, as He made us.
- This knowledge does not necessarily need to be fully understood by us, but we should be able to take action on it.
We see in the Bible that God does not appear directly to everyone in particular, but just to a few, and then indirectly to the rest of us. This raises the question of how we know people have truly received God’s authority. This topic is covered in the article on biblical canonization, but here’s a summary: the books of the Bible meet a standard of divine inspiration. Was God Himself (or later Jesus) prominent in the events in the book? Did the book’s author even claim divine inspiration? Did the prophecies contained in the book come to pass? Is the book consistent with books that came before it? Is it widely accepted? Not all questions apply to all books, but the answers to these go a long way to determining whether a book of the Bible is considered to be divinely inspired or not. Consistency does not mean that something new cannot be introduced, but it cannot run counter to anything that has already been accepted.
God Himself has revealed a couple things about how He works: If people ask you to follow other Gods, EVEN IF they perform miracles, they are not to be believed (Deuteronomy 13:1-3). The fact that the doctrine is consistent with that previously given by God is a necessary condition. Hebrews 16:8 states that it is impossible for God to lie. Yet, miracles are important for confirming who God gave authority to. In Exodus, Moses was sent as a representative of God to Pharaoh, and through Moses God performed miracles in the form of the 10 plagues on Egypt, and many times afterwards as well (parting of the Red Sea, bringing water from a rock, etc.). Jesus, of course, was known for his miracles. In summary, divine revelation is determined as something that is consistent with all doctrine that came before it, and its giver is backed by miracles from God.
You might be wondering if it would be easier for God to appear to everyone directly and reveal His knowledge that way. As our recent article on Exodus says in the ‘other notes’ section, even when God appears to everyone it does not necessarily mean that people will heed Him any more than they would than how He chooses to do it now. In fact, some of the Old Testament books would seem to suggest the opposite. There is also the fact that God wishes to maintain free will, briefly mentioned in the post on sovereignty vs. free will.
The knowledge of reason explained in point 1 of the list at the top of this article can be used to confirm knowledge through revelation (point 2). For example, biblical authors or those around them were able to confirm the presence of miracles through their senses. Reason is also used to evaluate a new doctrine for consistency with older doctrines.
In summary, we can reasonably expect knowledge from a God who made us and wants to communicate with us to follow a basic set of criteria.
Chapter 3 of Abstract of Systematic Theology by James Petigru Boyce (Warning: the book is a fairly advanced read, and the fact that it’s a century old does not help. The book IS, however, in the public domain!).