Meaning of Revelation
Revelation, from the Latin revelare (which means to uncover or to unveil), is the manifestation or disclosure of truth that is either unknown, or is known but obscurely. If the source of the revealed truth is man, then the revelation is human. If the source is God, then the revelation is divine.
God reveals divine truths in two ways. Firstly, He manifests them to us in the world that He created, thus allowing us to discover them naturally by philosophical reasoning. Out of the order and beauty of the universe, for example, we learn the power and wisdom of God, its Creator. Revelation made in this manner is called natural revelation, and the knowledge of God acquired in this manner is called natural theology. Secondly, God can directly reveal theological truths by uttering words, such as truths spoken by Christ or by a messenger (an angel or a prophet). A direct revelation made by God through a verbal communication of divine truth, with or without the intermediary of a messenger, is called supernatural revelation, and the knowledge of God acquired in this manner is called supernatural or sacred theology.
The term “supernatural revelation” can also be broadly defined to include any communication made by God outside the ordinary course of nature. For example, truths communicated by God through miraculous manifestations, infused knowledge, etc., may be considered as supernaturally revealed. Some theologians – especially the progressive, liberal and modernist theologians – claim that God also reveals Himself in our evolving inner consciousness, in the unfolding events of history, or in the dynamic of human existence. However, revelation made in this manner tend to be vague, obscure and extremely subjective. At any rate, this was not the way that God had chosen to reveal Himself. Historically He revealed Himself directly to Moses, to the prophets, to the Apostles, and to the Church through the medium of words.
For this reason, the term “supernatural revelation” is defined as messages that have been communicated by God through the use of words. In accordance with this definition supernatural revelation is therefore mostly found either (a) in the oral traditions of the people to whom the revelation was first made, or (b) in their sacred writings (such as the Holy Scriptures) where the revelation was eventually recorded.
This website is about supernatural or sacred theology. Therefore, when the word “revelation” is used, it is understood to mean supernatural revelation, and when the word “theology” is used, it is understood to mean supernatural or sacred theology.
Kinds of Revelation
Divine revelation may be classified in various ways:
1. One way is from the type of truth revealed. Some theological truths are naturally attainable by human reason without the aid of divine revelation. For example, God's existence, His power and wisdom, can be known by a philosopher from the data of the physical world. These are natural truths about God, the Creator of the world. But, although attainable by human reason, natural truths can still be divinely revealed. In this case the revelation is said to be supernatural in manner only, but not in substance. However, there are also theological truths that far surpass our knowing powers, that they cannot possibly be known by us, unless they be supernaturally revealed. These are essentially supernatural truths. Examples of these truths are those that pertain to the inner life of God, such as the existence of Three Divine Persons in His single nature, or the Incarnation of the Son of God. These truths are completely beyond our power to attain. We would not know them, unless revealed to us in a revelation. The revelation in this case is said to be supernatural both in manner and in substance.
2. Another way of classifying divine revelation is from the standpoint of the recipient for whom the revelation is intended. In this case the revelation may either be (a) public, or (b) private. A public revelation is one that is intended for the Church at large, while a private revelation is one that is intended for specific individuals. The revelations contained in Holy Scripture and Tradition are public revelations because they were intended for the whole Church and are binding on all Christians, while the revelations of Christ or of the Virgin Mary made to an individual or a group of individuals are private revelations. These revelations remain as private revelations even when they are eventually disclosed to the whole world. According to the teachings of the Church, public revelation was finished and completed with the death of the last Apostle (St. John the Evangelist) and the completion of the New Testament. Therefore there will be no further public revelation until the second coming of Christ (Vatican II, Dei Verbum, #4, second paragraph). After the death of the last Apostle the revelations made to specific individuals, whether singly or severally, made by Christ or by the Blessed Virgin in their apparitions, are private revelations. These private revelations may in fact be beneficial to the Church at large, but they are not binding on all Christians, but only on those to whom they were given. Unlike the revelations in Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition which have already been completed and have stopped, private revelations may continue to this day.
3. Another way of classifying divine revelation is from the standpoint of the medium through whose intermediary the revelation is made. In this case the revelation can either be (a) immediate, or (b) mediate. An immediate revelation is one that is revealed by God without the intermediary of another human person, although an angel may act as God’s messenger. Thus, the revelations made by Christ to the Apostles, or the revelation by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary, was an immediate revelation. Likewise, the revelations received directly by a visionary, such as those received by Blessed Catherine Emmerich, are immediate revelations. But the revelations we learn from a prophet or a visionary are mediate revelations. Ordinarily we receive God’s revelation mediately, for we often learn of supernatural truths not directly from God or His angels, but from the writings of the prophets, the evangelists and the Apostles, the teachings of our parents, teachers, or the Church. Therefore, it is incorrect to think that mediate revelations are not important just because they did not come directly or immediately from God or His angels. Actually, most revelations that are binding on all Christians are mediate revelations. We learn them from the Bible, the teachings of the Church, or our teachers.
A painting by Francisco Goya, 1785
Image source link: WikiArt.org
Q & A
1. How does the Church know that public revelation, which is binding on all Christians, already ended and has stopped? Did the Bible say that?
RESPONSE: It is in the Bible, but not explicitly, for it is a conclusion inferred from Holy Scripture. Christ already came, and there will be no other one coming. This means that there will be no further revelation with the same binding power and authority than what was already revealed by Him: "For one is your master, Christ" (Matt 23:10).
By His coming, death and resurrection, Christ has given us the fullness of revelation. He has fulfilled all the prophecies and has completely manifested Himself to us (Luke 24:27 & 44). That is why, after Christ's death the Apostles knew not to add more to what has been revealed. St. Paul said: "But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach a gospel to you besides that which we have preached to you, let him be anathema" (Gal 1:8). Therefore, the Apostles told us not to add or expect anything more to Christ's revelation besides those that they have themselves preached or written. Public revelation that is binding on all Christians is already finished. All that need to be done now is simply to safeguard the revealed truth and keep it intact: "guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us" (2 Tim 1:14).
As the institution whom Christ appointed to teach all nations (Matt 28:19-20), the Church has the authority to define and elucidate revealed teachings that are obscurely preserved in Sacred Tradition, or which are only implicitly contained in Holy Scripture, but the Church cannot invent new dogmas. To God's revelation, which is found in Sacred Tradition and Holy Scripture, no new revelation will be added.
2. If private revelation continues after the death of the last Apostle, then why is it that most private revelations we have heard of happened only during the 19th and 20th centuries? Were there any private revelations reported during the first few centuries of the Christian era?
RESPONSE: Public revelation is supposed to have ended during the first century of the Christian era when all the New Testament books had been written and the last of the Apostles (that was St. John the Evangelist) had died. However, private revelations continued in succeeding centuries, although not very many have been recorded. Here are a few examples:
In the second century, A.D. 155, St. Polycarp had a vision in which he found out that he was going to be burnt alive rather than be devoured by lions. The vision was recorded in a document, The Martyrdom of Polycarp, Chapter 5, written by Pionius based on an account by St. Irenaeus. Indeed, the Romans tried to burn him alive, but by a miracle he survived it without injury (Ch. 15). On account of this the executioners stabbed him to death with a dagger (Ch. 16).
In the third century St. Gregory Thaumaturgus (A.D. 213-270), otherwise known as Gregory the Wonderworker, had a vision of the Virgin Mary and St. John the Evangelist. The vision helped him understand the mystery of the Blessed Trinity. The vision was recorded in The Life of Gregory the Wonderworker, written by St. Gregory of Nyssa. (Look for the paragraphs that contain the markers M.912 and J.17-J.19.)
In the fourth century, about A.D. 312, we have another example in Constantine the Great (A.D. 307-337), who became an Emperor of Rome. Before his conversion to Christianity he was at war with his rival Maxentius. Since Maxentius' forces were superior to his, he prayed to God for help. It was then that he saw a bright cross in the sky (during mid-day!) and an inscription that says, "CONQUER BY THIS."
Emperor Constantine's Vision of the Cross
before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge
A painting by Theodor Boeyermans (1620-1678)
Image source link: commons.wikimedia.org
Constantine therefore ordered that a banner be made with the sign of the cross on it, and commanded his soldiers to carry it in battle. Under the banner of the cross, he and his forces defeated the superior army of Maxentius in the famous Battle of the Milvian Bridge. He thereafter attributed his victory to the Christian God. Since then he became a staunch defender and protector of Christianity, and the Roman persecution of Christians ended. The vision of Constantine is recorded for perpetuity by Eusebius Pamphilus of Caesarea (A.D. 265-340) in his book, Life of Constantine, Book I, Ch. 28- 32.
More instances of private revelations in earlier centuries can be given, but the above examples should be sufficient. As to the other question, why there seems to be more private revelations and apparitions happening in recent times, we can only guess. Since private revelations and apparitions are granted by God on an as-needed basis, the increased number of private revelations in recent times could be due to the fact that modern man needs them more. On the other hand, it is possible that many apparitions had also happened in the past, but due to the lack of printing press and the Internet, not so many people were aware of them.
3. Were not the revelations made by the Virgin Mary at Fatima public, since they were meant for the world?
RESPONSE: The revelations made at Fatima were private revelations. They were meant to benefit the world, but were not meant to be accepted by the world as dogma. The visions of hell given to the children, for example, were for the children, although the disclosure of these visions to the public also benefits the public. The instruction made by the Virgin Mary to establish the First Saturday Devotion, was an instruction for Lucia to promote the devotion. Although the Virgin Mary wished this devotion to be practiced by the whole world, she did not mean to bind all Christians to its practice. The letter containing the third secret was also a private revelation for the Pope alone, and not for the world. It might be beneficial for the world to know what the content of the letter was. But it was intended for the Pope and, therefore, it was his privilege to decide whether to disclose the content of the letter or not.