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Ask Father: What does “revelation” mean?

Some friends of mine proposed an interesting question. In the Old Testament, we have a lot of stories that seem fantastical. Should we consider these stories myths? Is the Bible a history book? What does the term “Biblical truth” mean?

Each of these questions deserves to be answered carefully. We need context to understand these questions. Today, I want to give some context.

We want to avoid two extremes. Some people interpret everything in the Bible literally and assume this is the only way to respect the truth of revelation. Others prefer to consider everything a myth and put the Bible on par with origin stories from other ancient cultures and societies. Neither viewpoint is correct.

Before discussing this topic, we need to understand what revelation is.

Can we know God?

Pope Leo XIII ushered in modern Bible scholarship with his encyclical letter Providentissimus Deus. [On the study of Holy Scripture] Following the doctrine of the First Vatican Council (1870), Pope Leo XIII affirms that we can know of the existence of God by our own natural reason. This means, that this knowledge is reasonable and that we can see evidence for this truth in our world. However, since God wants us to get to Heaven, he allows us to know some truths surely and easily through his revelation. This could be compared to a chemistry professor who is helping students understand a chemical compound. He could have them working on dissolving the compound and identifying the individual elements. Applying their knowledge and using their tools properly, they could achieve a lot. Nevertheless, getting the answers from the professor seems to be a sure way to go for getting the right answer. He is revealing the solution.

God speaking to us

God chooses to communicate his truth more directly. Sometimes, God does the same thing. This is revelation. Revelation is contained both in written works such as the Bible, as well as unwritten deposits known to us as Tradition. Pope Leo XIII saw that he had to make sure the Bible they read was uncorrupted. He also wanted to make sure that they would be able to access an uncorrupted version of the Bible. Since the Bible is translated from ancient texts in obscure languages, finding the true literal message can pose great difficulty. On top of that, cultural context shapes a lot of the text, so much care must be taken to make sure that the true message comes through clearly.

Bible study

Studying Sacred Scripture is the Pope’s theme. He goes on to show how some people took on a reductionist view of Scripture, considering it to be the only deposit of Revelation. This could be the viewpoint of Protestants who deny the validity of Tradition. It is by its very nature a fundamentalist position since only the written text is taken as a point of reference. At least, that is what happens theoretically, since in practice there is always human interpretation in the mix. On the other hand, rationalists (who claim that human reason is their supreme measuring stick) deny completely the validity of inspiration, which is the way that divine revelation makes it to the written page through the human author.


Reflection on the Bible pertains to theology. Theology, which is the study of divine things, needs revelation. The first principles needed for reflection come from divine revelation, particularly from Sacred Scripture. Just as a biologist has to have contact with living creatures for his study, a theologian needs to have contact with Sacred Scripture, since it is the written deposit of divine revelation.

There are a lot of terms being thrown about, and it takes a while to become familiar with the lingo. I suggest being patient and reading different Church documents. Pope Francis wrote recently about devotion to Sacred Scripture in his Apostolic Letter Scripturae Sacrae Affectus. [Devotion to Sacred Scripture] He commemorates the 1600th anniversary of St. Jerome’s death to speak about devotion to Sacred Scripture. It is a worthwhile read and by looking at the footnotes, you can get a good overview of what documents to read to understand what the Church teaches about the Bible.

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