Carl Henry and Propositional Revelation

Carl F.H. Henry has often been called the “dean” of 20th-century American evangelical theologians. When Henry’s God, Revelation, and Authority first appeared, his six-volume magnum opus was praised as “the most important work of evangelical theology in modern times.”[1] Among other contributions, he was lauded for the massive case he made for the authority of Scripture in the first four volumes of God, Revelation, and Authority.

One key plank in Henry’s doctrine of revelation was his insistence that, in his words, “As an achievement of the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, Scripture presents us with the remarkable phenomenon of a canon concerned primarily with the propositional disclosure of God.”[2] Aware that this conviction stood in opposition to the prevailing theological winds, he devoted considerable energy to expounding and defending this central element of his theological program. He clarified what he meant and what he did not mean, and countered common objections from all points on the theological spectrum.

At one time, this belief in propositional revelation would have been assumed by evangelical theologians, but things have changed drastically in the past few decades, and now Henry is widely criticized by leading evangelicals for just this position. Henry worked out his views in dialogue with other points of view, and to refute those he considered erroneous, but he also anticipated criticisms that have been made since GRA was published. In my opinion, most of this subsequent criticism seems to stem from a lack of understanding of what he actually said and meant. That is not to say that Henry’s thought is complete or without error, but only to assert that many of the objections to his stance on propositional revelation appear to reflect either ignorance or a fundamental misreading of Henry’s own words.[3]

To substantiate this claim, I shall briefly explain what Henry meant by propositional revelation, especially in contrast to other views. At the same time, I shall use his own words to respond to criticisms that have been made since he wrote GRA, referring frequently to a recent  unpublished dissertation by Michael White as an example of what I consider to be a major misunderstanding and misstatement of Henry’s intentions.[4] White’s study is important, since it was written under the supervision of Kevin Vanhoozer, a leading evangelical theologian, and reflects a very popular school of thought. Though his dissertation reflects wide reading and careful thought, as well as more appreciation for Henry than some others have expressed, it seems to me that he often either ignores or distorts Henry’s actual position.

What is a proposition?

We begin with Carl Henry’s definitions of propositions and of propositional revelation.[5]

“A proposition is a verbal statement that is either true or false; it is a rational declaration capable of being either believed, doubted, or denied.” 3.456  Most basically, propositions are “intelligible sentences.” 3.302  “God’s word in the creation of the cosmos is not a cryptic, paradoxical or superrational word, but takes the form of intelligible, orderly sentences, e.g., ‘Let there be light” (cf. Gen 1:3…).” 3. 390  These sentences are “units of thought.” 3.430

“If revelation is a communication of sharable truth, it will consist of sentences, propositions, judgments, and not simply of isolated concepts, names or words.” Words alone do not convey meaning; “they become fully intelligible only if they express thought, ideas, beliefs – in short, propositions.” 3.446.

“The historic Christian view is that divine revelation takes the form of propositionally given truths set down in the linguistic form of inspired verba. The locus of the meaning and truth of Christian language is to be found, not in the empirical correlates of words, nor in an inner existential response to which words are said to point, but in the Bible as an inspired literary deposit of divinely revealed truths.” 3.453

Henry’s definition of a proposition clearly includes narrative statements: “Most of the sentences in Scripture are historical assertions or explanations of such assertions.” 3. 456 He writes, “Of course, much of revelation consists of history, and thus is ‘tensed,’ but it is still as timelessly true as is the truth of mathematics.” 3.474

He thus clearly includes historical narrative within the definition of propositional revelation. 3.262  Speaking of historical narrative, Henry calls it revelation as “an inspired propositional-verbal interpretation of God’s literal historical disclosure.” 3. 255 That is to say, the Bible is “a body of divinely revealed truths.” 3. 302

Going further, Henry elaborates, “When we speak of propositional revelation we are not, however, referring to the obvious fact that the Bible, like other literature, is written in sentences or logically formed statements. The Bible depicts God’s revelation as meaningful, objectively intelligible disclosure. We mean by propositional revelation that God supernaturally communicated his revelation to chosen spokesmen in the express form of cognitive truths, and that the inspired prophetic-apostolic proclamation reliably articulates these truths in sentences that are not internally contradictory.” 3.457

“The inspired Scriptures contain a body of divinely given information actually expressed or capable of being expressed in propositions. In brief, the Bible is a propositional revelation of the unchanging truth of God.” 3.457

“Revelation is that activity of the supernatural God whereby he communicates information essential for man’s present and future destiny. . . God shares his thought with man; in this self-disclosure God unveils his very own mind; he communicates not only the truth about himself and his intentions, but also that concerning man’s present plight and future prospects.” 3. 457

From these quotations, we learn that Henry was expressing his position in contrast to other views of revelation. First, he asserts that the basic unit of meaning does not lie in individual words or even names spoken in isolation, but in full sentences. Second, he disagrees with those who say that God’s revelation is composed not of sentences but of concepts. He insists that concepts lack meaning if they cannot be expressed in intelligible sentences. Third, to be intelligible, sentences must be logically coherent and not internally inconsistent. Fourth, he believes that meaning inheres in the biblical text, and not in the response of the reader also.[6] Finally, God’s verbal revelation conveys reliable information, or truth, about himself and his purposes towards mankind. The Bible is not a collection of vague, content-less musings, but a body of intelligible statements that convey abiding truth in the form of particular true sentences.

Contrary to what some critics seem to believe, Henry was well aware that biblical revelation consists of a variety of genres, literary styles, and modes of expression. “By its emphasis that divine revelation is propositional, Christian theology in no way denies that the Bible conveys its message in many literary forms such as letters, poetry and parable, prophecy and history. What it stresses, rather, is that the truth conveyed by God through these various forms has conceptual adequacy, and that in all cases the literary teaching is part of a divinely inspired message that conveys the truth of divine revelation.. . . and of course the expression of truth in other forms that the customary prose does not preclude expressing that truth in declarative proposition.” 3.463

On the other hand, he reminds us that “[i]n rejecting the neoorthdox insistence that divine revelation is non-propositional, however, evangelicals face the danger of rigidly insisting that all divine disclosure is propositional, thereby going beyond the scriptural data and even falling into a rationalistic reconstruction of the biblical representation of revelation. . .” 3.481

Nevertheless, he writes, “Regardless of the parables, allegories, emotive phrases and rhetorical questions used by these [biblical] writers, their literary devices have a logical point which can be propositionally formulated and is objectively true or false.” 4.453

As for imperatives – commands –Henry writes: “Even though commands are not expressed in valid propositional form, they nonetheless yield cognitive inferences: ‘Thou shalt not kill!’ implies at very least that to murder is wrong. Moreover, while imperatives are neither true nor false, they can be translated into propositions. ‘Rise and eat,’ for example, can be expressed as ‘God said to Peter, “Rise and eat.”’”

“As for aesthetic or other experience, it, too, can be expressed propositionally insofar as it has objective cognitive content or includes moral obligation.” 3.477

Responses to objections

He knows that some evangelicals “hesitate to say that God’s revelation is expressed or conveyed exclusively in a rational and objectively true form. They affirm instead that, in addition to God’s frequent and possibly even normal conveyance of revelation in propositional form, God sometimes discloses himself in other than propositional modes,” such as in dreams or visions. 3.457 “But, it should be indicated, the extraverbal and extrarational belong only to the rim of revelation; revelation in its essential definition centers in the communication of God’s Word.” 3.457

Nor is he unaware of the frequent assertion that God reveals not propositions, but himself as a person, and that there is more to be known of God than can be, or has been expressed, in propositions about him. He says: “Sometimes it is said that God’s self-revelation takes two forms: one, that of propositional revelation. . .,  and the other, that of sheer personal presence. In this latter case the revealing of the person is distinguished from the revealing of truths about the person. The revelation of the living God, it is said, surely cannot be exhausted in any system of propositional truths, however comprehensive. Since God is supernatural spirit, and transcends our finite knowledge, which as such can never exhaust the Infinite, there is far more to God, we are told, than what can be stated in propositional terms about him. Here the objection to propositional revelation stems from a confusion of ontology and epistemology. God is indeed ontologically other than man – and would survive the destruction of all mankind and the evaporation of all the truths humanly cognized about him – but we know even this as a revealed propositional truth.” 3.459

“If self-revelation is contrasted with a disclosure of information, then on what basis does one propose to distinguish such nonrational ‘self-revelation’ as authentically divine rather than demonic or merely psychological?”3.458  “Apart from meaningful and true cognitive information, one could not know that a presence is that of Yahweh, or speak confidently of God’s personality and selfhood, or even of transcendent reality.” 3.459 This sort of concept really “opens the door to subjectivity.” 3.459

“We may indeed speak of a divine ‘more’ in relation to the body of revealed truth.” For example, “eschatological revelation [as in Moltmann] will someday assuredly clarify some matters that are now obscure. There are doubtless more propositional truths about God and his purposes than we presently know. But we deny that a contrast between divine self-revelation and propositional truths is therefore necessary. The content of God’s progressive revelation is propositionally given or expressible.” 3.459

Responding to another common, and unfounded criticism, he says, “No evangelical has, of course, ever contended that sinners are saved by propositions; what evangelicals do emphasize is that the inspired prophets and apostles teach divinely revealed truths.” 3.465  Indeed, “[k]nowledge of revelational truths is indispensable for the salvation of sinners; saving faith in Christ involves appropriating divinely disclosed information.” 3.460

One very common objection to the idea that God reveals himself in propositions is the concept that the meaning of a passage of the Bible includes not only the content of what is said, but the effect upon the reader (Michael White often makes this criticism). To which Henry replies:

“Evangelical scholarship should deplore the confusion that results from the hermeneutical tendency of identifying verbal meaning with personal significance. There is no better rule for interpreting the Bible or any other literary work than to find out what the author meant.” 4. 308 In other words, meaning is found in the text, not in the response of the reader; that is an entirely different thing.

As if Carl Henry, who held three graduate degrees in theology, did not understand the most basic rule of biblical interpretation, namely, that context determines meaning, Michael White claims that Henry misunderstands the true nature of propositions. For example, he says, “The sentence is a necessary, but not sufficient component in communicating a proposition. Other elements in written communication, chiefly genre, contribute clues which help insure that the communicative act intended by the author is achieved. The contrast with Henry can now be observed: rather than inhering strictly in bare words and sentences, truth is a function of a larger communicative framework which places the necessary semantic context—words and sentences—within a pragmatic context where the syntactic features serve the communicative will of the author.”[7]

It seems that he did not read the following passage in GRA carefully enough: “We must champion the indispensable importance of historical and philological exegesis in identifying the content of the scripturally given revelation and must acknowledge that authorial cognitive intention is ultimately definitive for textual meaning.” 4. 314-315 Henry advocates “seeking the meaning of a passage through textual analysis with an eye on the author’s intention in view of his time, place and the literary genre employed.” Note that meaning resides in a passage, not isolated sentences. He endorses Richard France’s statement urging “the fullest possible use of linguistic, literary, historical, archaeological and other data bearing on that author’s environment.” [8] He constantly talks about the necessity of “historical-grammatical exegesis,”( 3.104) the first rule of which, of course, is that context determines meaning.

All too frequently, Henry’s position is caricatured as a narrow focus on so-called “bare,” or “static” propositions that only communicate information, as if he did not believe that the reader’s response to scriptural revelation was important. Michael White’s dissertation makes just such a claim, in a variety of ways. For example, he says that for Henry, “knowing God is primarily a matter of apprehending propositions.”[9]  He asks, rhetorically, “But does present-day, belief-ful response profit nothing to the reader of Scripture?”[10] Joined to this are charges that Henry believes that God’s purpose in giving us the Scriptures was only to convey information. He writes, “Above all Henry is concerned to preserve Scripture as an objective, communicative word from God. And surely Scripture is this. But Henry’s preservation of the objective nature of Scripture has the unfortunate result of reducing Scripture to a mere object.152 This can be seen in at least three emphases. 1. “An  Over-Emphasis on Epistemology. Henry consistently treats the Scriptures as an epistemological source book whose chief end is to convey information . . . While the Bible certainly informs, such a view of Scripture unfortunately neglects broader functions of God’s Word, such as mediating the presence of God, creating a Christocentric community, and judging sin and calling forth righteousness.”[11]

In other words, like some others, White accuses Henry of believing both that God’s main reason for revealing himself in Scripture is to communicate information, and that the only response intended is an intellectual apprehension of the “bare” meaning of the Bible. We can only guess at where such an ill-founded notion came from, but it could not have arisen from a close reading of GRA, for Henry would have been aghast at both of these suggestions. After all, he was at heart an evangelist, as his countless evangelistic sermons and lectures attest. Let us listen to his own words on the necessity of a proper appropriation of revelation for one’s eternal salvation. In his thesis that revelation is for the benefit of mankind, Henry says that revelation’s benefits are for “all who personally receive his gracious offer in obedient trust.” “The human response to God’s disclosure is either acceptance or rejection, faith or unbelief. . . …[t]he entrance of God’s light looks far beyond mere conveyance of astonishing information to redemptive enlistment of the whole person. . . [The Bible] insists on the indispensability of spiritual knowledge that correlates life with light and with obedience. But the Bible resounds as well with a divinely initiated plea for a requirement of personal reconciliation. . . By addressing the human mind and confronting the human will, God’s revelation requires a decision that encompasses the whole self. It calls us to inner repentance, to a reversal of life-style, to redemptive renewal and to obedient fellowship. The truth of God . . . is not simply to be known, but is also to be done.” 2.44-45

In words that could not be clearer, he says “Salvation is conditioned upon personally accepting and appropriating the truth of revelation. . . The comprehension of revelation must therefore not be confused with the appropriation of salvation.” 2. 45 Again: “Knowledge of revelational truths is indispensable for the salvation of sinners; saving faith in Christ involves appropriating divinely disclosed information.” 460

As for the purpose God has in revealing himself through his written Word, Henry is both clear and eloquent:

“Thesis Two: Divine revelation is given for human benefit, offering us privileged communion with our Creator in the kingdom of God.”2 .30 “God’s purpose in revelation is that we may know him personally as he is, may avail ourselves of his gracious forgiveness and offer of new life, may escape catastrophic judgment for our sins, and venture personal fellowship with him.” 2.31  “His revelation is not some impersonal mass media communication… it is rather, a personal call and command to each individual. . . . Because of it human beings everywhere at this very moment have the prospect of peace and hope, of purity and happiness.” 2.31

“The Holy Spirit attends the gathered church to nurture the obedient hearing of God’s Word by rebuking, convicting, exhorting and enabling the listener.” 4. 479 “God’s revelation fulfills its divine purpose when knowledge of it transforms life and living in the modern world as fully as it did when the first believers responded to God’s grace.” 4. 481

“What God proposes to write upon man’s heart deals at once with both divine knowledge and human obedience.” 4. 496 “The New Testament writings repeatedly associate the truth of God’s revelation with the transforming power of divine redemption.” 4. 496 “The emphasis on the transforming Word and the transforming Spirit (Eph. 2:5) by which believers are fashioned by divine ‘workmanship’ into doing the good works that God intends them to perform in Jesus Christ (Eph. 2:10, RSV) is prominent throughout Paul’s letters.” 4. 497

“The penitent reborn renegade will gladly concede that in Scripture the Spirit of God personally addresses each of us, speaking to us what he first spoke to the inspired writers and still speaks through them as he becomes our lifelong companion and counselor.” 4. 282-283

White further accuses Henry of   “A Preoccupation with Propositions. The Bible is further objectified in Henry’s account as Henry focuses on propositions as the locus of divine revelation and biblical truth. But while undoubtedly the Bible contains propositions—and Henry is to be thanked for affirming this strongly against modernist critics—Henry takes the additional step of locating truth in propositions instead of God’s overarching communicative act. But as I have argued above, while biblical truth contains propositions and can be expressed propositionally, it is properly an illocutionary act—which is comprised of propositions—that conveys truth and not bare propositions. Yet the latter is Henry’s emphasis.”[12]

First of all, the question is whether meaning resides in the text or also in the mind of the reader. Once again, he confuses purpose and effect with content and nature; the latter are what Henry is talking about here. Secondly, and more importantly for my purposes today, White thinks that Henry objectifies the Bible as if it were an inert, passive repository of bare information.

This charge ignores vast swaths of GRA and could be refuted by not only paragraphs, but chapters! For example:

“Divine revelation is personal,” Henry asserts clearly, and alludes to Israel’s response as “worship in prayer, praise, and confession,” (2. 154) and he recalls Jesus’ promise that he  “would both send the COMFORTER and himself come to indwell his followers personally as intimate spiritual experience.” 2.243  Or, “Revelation occurs on God’s R-Day  as an act of transcendent disclosure. It pulses with the surprise of foreign invasion, and opens before us like the suddenly parted Red Sea waters. It stirs us like the angelic hosts who appeared unscheduled to proclaim Messiah’s birth, or overawes us like the rushing mighty wind of Pentecost” 2.20

Again, “The wonder and astonishment elicited by the revelation of God permeate both Old and new Testaments, and the recurring themes of God’s remarkable love and terrible judgment and his rule and direction of his people evoke the awe of the faithful.” 2.27

Responding to the charge that he holds a view of revelation that is “static” and not “dynamic,” Henry writes, “While the personal appropriation of revelational truth is life-transforming, revelational truth is not properly called dynamic, if by this one promotes the supposed efficacy of nonintellective confrontation or presumes to define the nature of divine disclosure as the Scriptures teach.” 475

So far, I have shown how Henry had anticipated criticisms and objections, and how strange it is that he is being accused of believing things that he must surely did not believe. It makes one wonder how well some of his critics have read God, Revelation and Authority.

Michael White has other criticisms of Henry, however. For example, he writes, “Henry’s account of propositions falters on another front: the problem of paraphrase.”[13] That is, whether non-propositional expressions can be expressed properly in propositions. He goes on: “The question is not whether non-propositional communication can be propositionally expressed, but rather whether it can be expressed without cognitive loss. Literary critics are united against the translatability of, for example, poetic language because the power and beauty of such language is inherently untranslatable. But Henry’s desire for the objective revelation seemingly blinds him to this reality.”[14]

To this criticism, I would suggest, first, that White is, once again confusing the meaning of the content of a passage with the effect which it has upon the reader.  Does he believe that Henry is blind to the aesthetic power of the Scriptures? Maybe not, but here he seems to imply that for Henry style, as distinct from content, is not important. We know that Henry was fully aware that the Bible contains passages of poetry and even prose that are aesthetically powerful in their effect upon a humbler reader, and his own works are replete with long passages of great beauty and eloquence, but that is not what he is talking about when he says that the meaning of the passage can be expressed in propositions. As always, he distinguishes between what the author of a passage in the Bible meant, and how that passage affects the reader.

Second, though there is of course a difference between cognitive content and affective power, Henry is only saying that the objective content of even a poetic passage in the Bible can be expressed propositionally, without loss of cognitive content, even if unadorned prose has less of an impact upon the reader that the original poetic form. In other words, what loss of cognitive content occurs when a poetic or highly rhetorical prose passage is re-stated propositionally?

In another aspect of this criticism White, based on the same view of meaning, White writes that “while we recognize the utility of the truth-conditional semantics, meaning is not merely correspondence to truth conditions but the success of a speaker’s communicative act.”[15] 

First, I would say that this depends upon what you mean by “meaning.” The author’s meaning, or the meaning as understood by the reader? Henry chides Donald Bloesch for his distinction between ‘”external” and “internal” meaning. He says, “[M]eaning is meaning, and attaches to logical propositions stated externally in print or verbally, or internally thought and either volitionally acted upon or disregarded. The test of whether one personally believes the propositions to be true as a basis for action lies in one’s personal appropriation or nonappropriation of them in daily life. But such appropriation or nonappropriation does not establish the truth or falsity, the meaningfulness or meaninglessness, of propositions.” 4.282

Michael White and others like him make many other accusations against Henry’s doctrine of revelation, which we don’t have time to consider here. I have only focused on the nature and purpose of propositional revelation in this paper, for it is central to Henry’s overall program.

My major purpose has not been to show that Henry is correct, though I believe he is, but to demonstrate that many criticisms of him appear to stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of what he actually said, and to show that Henry anticipated, and responded to, most charges that have been made since the publication of GRA. Perhaps some of his critics would benefit from a more careful reading of his text before reading their own “meaning” into it.

 G. Wright Doyle (Author of Carl Henry: Theologian for All Seasons, and Christianity in America: Triumph and Tragedy. Visiting Professor of New Testament and Systematic Theology, China Evangelical Seminary.)


[1] Kenneth Briggs, New York Times, quoted on dust jacket of Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority (Waco: Word Books, 1976-1982). Hereafter referred to as GRA.

[2] GRA 3.96

[3] See G. Wright Doyle, Carl Henry: theologian for All Seasons (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2010), for more elaboration on this point.

[4] Michael D. White, “WORD AND SPIRIT IN THE THEOLOGICAL METHOD OF CARL HENRY.” Unpublished dissertation.  Wheaton College, 2012.

[5] Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations are from God, Revelation, and Authority.

[6] See William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 189, and Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1991), 408-410, and elsewhere, for a similar point of view.

[7] White, “Word and Spirit,” 141-142

[8] France, “inerrancy and New Testament Exegesis,” p. 13, Themelios, cited in GRA 4. 394.

[9] White,” Word and Spirit”, 110.

[10] White,” Word and Spirit”, 159.

[11] White, “Word and Spirit,” 144.

[12] White, “Word and Spirit,” 145.

[13] White, “Word and Spirit,” 142.

[14] White, “Word and Spirit,” 142-143.

[15] White, “Word and Spirit,” 142, note 144.