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From the Wikipedia article on special revelation:

Special revelation is a Christian theological term that refers to the belief that knowledge of God and of spiritual matters can be discovered through supernatural means, such as miracles or the scriptures—a disclosure of God's truth through means other than through reason.

From the Wikipedia article on biblical inspiration:

Biblical inspiration is the doctrine in Christian theology that the human writers and canonizers of the Bible were led by God with the result that their writings may be designated in some sense the *word of God. [1] This belief is traditionally associated with concepts of the biblical infallibility and the internal consistency of the Bible.[2]

To me, the two concepts seem to overlap a lot semantically, but I'm curious about the nuances and differences.

Questions

  • What is the difference between special revelation and biblical inspiration?
  • Is special revelation a broader concept of which biblical inspiration is just a particular case?
  • Are there examples of special revelation which are not biblical inspiration or vice versa?
  • Can inspiration be non-biblical? If so, would that be considered special revelation?

Note: I'm not sure if I should scope this to a particular denomination. Do different denominations understand these concepts differently?

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About terminologies and "authenticated"

The first thing to say is that "special revelation" is a useful terminology but not a doctrine like "biblical inspiration". Therefore, the definition of "special revelation" is not set in stone, while the doctrine of "biblical inspiration" is set by a Christian group to guide their reading of the Bible. Being a terminology but not a doctrine, I tried to define "special revelation" from usage (de facto) rather than from what it should have been.

Secondly, what one group considers God's revelation may be different than another group. For example:

  1. Muslims consider the Quran to be God's special revelation to the prophet Muhammad, even to the point of each word being the literal word of God. But to Christians, the Quran is not revelation.
  2. The LDS church considers the Book of Mormon to be God's special revelation to the prophet Joseph Smith. But to mainstream Christians, it is not revelation.
  3. In Jeremiah 28, the OT prophet Hananiah claimed to speak for the God of Israel and most people believed him. But Jeremiah's prophecy in Jeremiah 27 turns out to be the true revelation. Thus the special revelation to Jeremiah 28 can be said to be "authenticated".
  4. For Catholics, the deuterocanonical books are special revelation, but for Protestants these are pious books.

For this reason, I will be using the term "authenticated" to mean God's special revelation that has been accepted by a certain group. What's authenticated for Muslims is obviously different for Christians. When reading Christian books about "special revelation", this "authenticated" status is implied, which we should take to mean "authenticated by the group endorsing the book".

For this answer, I'm trying to speak for all mainstream Christian denominations, noting minor variations when applicable.

What is the difference between special revelation and biblical inspiration?

  • "Revelation" is God's disclosing of Himself, primarily his character, his plan, his desire, and his law.

  • The counterpart of "special" is "general", which has to do with both the channel and the mode of disclosure. For general revelation:

    • the channel is reason alone
    • the mode is the regularities observable in nature (thus does not include occassional message).

    Thus we can derive the existence of God from nature, or derive some of his attributes from nature (his power from observing natural forces, his creativity from noticing the variety of plants and animals, his interest in right conduct from our conscience, etc.).

  • Everything that is not "general" is thus "special", so it's always occassional, one-time event. But the usage of the term "special revelation" is generally restricted to refer to authenticated content (as coming from God) that applies / directed to the community (or all people) for general use and for all time. Therefore:

    • a prophet delivering message to a local church is said to deliver a "prophecy", not a "special revelation"
    • a person witnessing a miracle plus accompanying impression in his heart to interpret that miracle, will call it a "sign" / "message", not a "special revelation"
    • a person receiving an impression that he needs to do something will call it "an impression", not a "special revelation"
  • "biblical inspiration" refers to special features relating to God's providence over hundreds of years to safeguard:

    • the integrity of the content, which includes the precision at the level of wording, proposition, concept, or message (depending on the inerrancy models)
    • the transmission: from oral record until the editing of the final form of the books
    • the provision of special channels of special revelation:
      • inspired reason
      • sign & wonder plus message to interpret it
      • prophet
      • angel
      • God in bodily form (Jesus)
    • the selection of which content to be preserved, because usually only canonized content is deemed to be "inspired" (obviously, different groups define the selection differently, since we have different canons)

Is special revelation a broader concept of which biblical inspiration is just a particular case?

This is a tricky question depending on the doctrine of biblical inspiration. There is a wide spectrum of biblical inspiration doctrines adopted by different Christian camps, ranging from

Two typical middle-of-the-spectrum positions:

  • Evangelicals who hold the doctrines of plenary verbal inspiration and biblical inerrancy starting with the mid 19th century Princeton Theological Seminary scholars Charles Hodge and Benjamin Warfield, updated in the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. In this model, the content of biblical inspiration is a proper subset of special revelation, PLUS additional special features connected to God's providence.

  • Christians holding a less strict doctrine of biblical inspiration which allows a biblical author to make factual error (especially relating to scientific facts), although usually God's providence safeguards the final form. For these Christians, they read the Bible using a hermeneutics that does NOT expect the Bible to be treated as science books, using the Framework interpretation for the 6-day creation, for example. In this model of biblical inspiration, some "general revelation" can be part of biblical inspiration.

Biblical inspiration models change over time, even within the evangelicals movement (!). See a 2020 article Inerrancy and Evangelicals: The Challenge for a New Generation.

Are there examples of special revelation which are not biblical inspiration or vice versa?

  • The following are "special revelation" which are not "biblical inspiration" since they are not included in the Bible:

    • many things that Jesus taught and did (John 21:25)
    • non-deed and non-verbal aspects of God's incarnation as Jesus
    • authenticated prophecies
    • authentic interpretation / messages that accompanied a miracle
    • revelation to saints (see Private Revelations)
    • appearances of Mary
  • The following are examples of "biblical inspiration" that are not "special revelation", but (depending on the doctrine of biblical inspiration) MAY have been safeguarded through divine providence (maybe just a subset of the features identified above):

    • general revelation
    • literary reworking of myths from other cultures
    • wisdom literature: either creation from scratch or incorporation of the wisdom literature from another culture

Can inspiration be non-biblical? If so, would that be considered special revelation?

Of course. God can inspire people for various capacities, not just for the purpose of producing the Bible. Whether they are called "special revelation" depends whether it is for authenticated, general use, and for all time. For example, I can be inspired to write music. Many thinks that enduringly renowned artists / poets such as J.S. Bach, Mozart, and Shakespeare are inspired by God, but we don't call their works "special revelation".

God can also inspire people to do special works for Him:

  • Join a religious order as a monk/nun
  • Become a missionary
  • Choose a certain career
  • Write a book for specific need of the church
  • Perform specific acts of love
  • etc.
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  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator As I'm writing this I notice more and more that determining whether something is inspiration, revelation, etc. is mostly an ex post facto discernment that maybe the agent himself may not realize, let alone the community, let alone everyone else. All these shifting doctrines of inerrancy, spiritual gift, etc. also influence this ex post facto determination. So if you hope to get a clear epistemologically-based criteria for inspiration/revelation, I don't think you will ever be able to say for sure. Jan 28, 2022 at 21:38
  • Informative answer (+1). A couple of questions: you said that special revelations must be authenticated. 1) What do you mean by authenticated? What counts as authentication? 2) Where does this requirement come from? Did you take this idea from some source (#citationneeded)? The Wikipedia article on special revelation says nothing about authentication (or at least it doesn't use that word).
    – user50422
    Jan 29, 2022 at 14:54
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator Yes, I owe you an explanation about the "authenticated" aspect. Preliminary response: 1) "special revelation" is a helpful terminology but not a doctrine; 2) I need to gather some references to substantiate my claim that general usage of the term implies "authenticated"; 3) the wikipedia article may not capture all nuances of how the term is used within mainstream Christianity, which I have chosen to be the scope of my answer. 4) If we include LDS and JW I'm afraid the answer becomes too diluted to become useful; 5) other religions for sure see revelation differently Jan 30, 2022 at 11:47
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator I updated my answer; now I don't owe you anymore. Jan 31, 2022 at 23:44
  • Great update. Debt canceled :-)
    – user50422
    Feb 1, 2022 at 1:53

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