by Rick Curtis
In preparation for this work I was confronted with so many differing opinions and ideas that truly sought to explain what a theophany was that this work soon became a blessing as God opened up new understanding to me about who he is and how he works. This work will both seek to explain what a theophany is in understandable terms and back my conclusions with a substantial amount of hard evidence. Issues will be weighed enabling an earnest student of God's word to formulate their own opinion. To claim some definitive answer as to what theophanies are would be both proud and illogical, for that reason this paper will be more of an intense investigation of the evidence. The reader should not however think that my opinions will not be present within the body of this work, for they will. The best place to start, perhaps, is with an attempt to define what a theophany is.
A traditional evangelical definition will suffice for now. As the reader will see, it is my opinion that this definition, although close, falls short of being concise. Once we define what a theophany is in semi-clear terms, we can then investigate and eventually come to the definition which I feel best summarizes all the evidence at the conclusion of this work. I feel this is a necessary course of action so the reader will see the subtle but important differences in my definition. The traditional, evangelical definition is best made by Nelson's Bible Dictionary which states, "any direct, visual manifestation of the presence of God." Below, please note the list of other definitions, grouped by category, and a summary of each category. Traditional evangelical definitions are the definitions we will build upon for this paper. The other definitions are listed for the reader's investigation, review, and ultimate acceptance or dismissal.
A manifestation of God in some empirical form.
Charles Augustus Briggs in his work, Inspiration, Authority & Criticism in the Thought of Charles Augustus Briggs writes, "The means which God employed to disclose Himself to man was theophany. It was theophany which distinguished Biblical History from all other history. And it was theophany which was the guarantee that the contents of scripture were genuine revelation rather than human religious speculation. God took the initiative and personally revealed Himself to man. In these encounters God assumed various forms: fire, cloud, angel, man and occasionally a disembodied voice. The form by which God disclosed Himself was not important. The fact at issue was that the one to whom God revealed Himself recognized Him as physically present. God did not intend for these forms to be mistaken for an "inerrant representation of the invisible God."
TRADITIONAL (adding auditory):
A theological term used to refer to either a visible or auditory manifestation of God.
The only difference in this definition is the addition of the word "auditory". The auditory qualifier is a minority view and thus will not be expanded on below as we investigate each area of manifestation.
NON - CHRISTIAN and LIBERAL:
A theophany is a moment of unexpected insight.
This definition would seek to define every incredible revelation of man as a theophany. God has created us with unique abilities of thought and reason. To relegate any new thought or inspiration to do something great as a theophany, I feel, mistakes who God created us to be. to shed more light on this definition we could quote, as above, David E. Bumbaugh: "Musicians -- at least from the time of Mozart -- have sometimes reported that compositions appeared unexpectedly in their minds, demanding that they be put down on paper. It is as if a power not one's self suddenly takes over the mental process, puts reality together in a new way which transforms understanding and demands expression."
A theophany is [a] manifestation or appearance of a deity or of the gods to man.
Johannes Scotus Erigena, a 9th Century Christian philosopher stated ". . . every visible and invisible creature can be called a theophany, that is, a divine apparition." The major problem with this definition is that if one accepts it, they must then believe that every rock, tree, animal, person, demon, insect, etc. is a manifestation of God. Interestingly enough, Johannes Scotus Erigena is considered a Christian philosopher. This process of thought leads to many other errors, namely a traditional hiduistic view. If all is a piece of God, how can we then eat an animal, chop down a tree, step on a spider. This IS quite a dilemma which inevitably leads to ultimate pacifism. Many religions are pacifist to their detriment. The eighteenth century Quakers, having founded Pennsylvania, gave over all control of it rather than opt/vote for war. Today, Quakers are still extreme pacifists. I am in no way insinuating that Quakers hold to this view of theophany, only making a point about pacifism. An eventual outgrowth of a belief in this definition of theophany.
A manifestation of God due to psychedelic drugs.
Huston Smith, Ph.D. in his paper Psychedelic Theophanies and the Religious Life states, "The psychedelic experience can be religious. Subjects often say it is, and their reports can read like accounts of classic theophanies." [9/b] Obviously, we will not investigate this definition within this work. It is here simply for a complete overview of theophanies. Yet, many religions use psychedelic drugs as their main avenue to contact the "spirit world" in much the same way others use mind altering meditation. These practices are inherently non-Christian, therefore, will not be considered in the body of this work.
Although it could be argued that theophanies consist of human, angelic, non-human and auditory interaction between God and man, most scholars gravitate toward a visual qualifier. The etymology itself (theophany) means "an appearance of God". There are scholars who would seek to include audible, verbal communication with God under the definition of theophany, for this work we shall not.
Explanation of Three Types
In several instances, the appearance of God was in corporeal form. A tangible, audible form which interacted with man. One could make the case for the incarnation of Christ as being "the ultimate theophany", and this will be discussed further on. God's choice to reveal himself in corporeal form tended to be for reasons of fellowship or blessing, whether it was God's imparting of a blessing as in Gen. 32: 24-30 (below), or for fellowship, these are by far the most spectacular of Theophanies.
24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob's hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, "Let me go, for it is daybreak." But Jacob replied, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." 27 The man asked him, "What is your name?" "Jacob," he answered. 28 Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome." 29 Jacob said, "Please tell me your name." But he replied, "Why do you ask my name?" Then he blessed him there. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared."(NIV)
By fellowship, I refer to the passages of scripture where we see God interacting with his creation in intimate, specific ways. These appearances model a friendship between God and his creation and resoundingly announce the abounding love our creator has for us individually.
The Bible tells us that Enoch walked with God (Gen 5:24);
24 Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away. (NIV)
Noah also had similar fellowship with God (Gen 6:9);
9 This is the account of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God. (NIV)
God can be seen using corporeal form for the announcing of his promise to Sarah (Gen 18:10)
10 Then the LORD said, "I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son." Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. (NIV)
Interestingly, we really don't see the appearance of God in corporeal form for anything other than what would be considered blessing. To our benefit perhaps, I know that I would prefer the audible chastisement of the Lord as opposed to the visual. It has been suggested that a possible exception to this is the account of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Although from the text it appears that it was audible for the text makes no reference of God appearing and the passage repeatedly says they (Adam and Eve) heard... (Gen 3:8-24).
The most frequent theophanies were angelic appearances of God. By angelic, I mean God's word refers to the appearance as "the angel of the Lord". Clearly this reference to "the angel of the Lord" refers to the Lord himself. The examples sighted below will make that abundantly clear. For example, consider Exodus 23:20-23;
20 "See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared. 21 Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him; he will not forgive your rebellion, since my Name is in him. 22 If you listen carefully to what he says and do all that I say, I will be an enemy to your enemies and will oppose those who oppose you. 23 My angel will go ahead of you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out. (NIV)
The apparent difficulty with this passage is the third person reference to "the angel of the Lord" by God himself. This difficulty dissolves when understood in the greater scope of scriptural passages. A recurring theme that we see is that the angelic presence appears, speaks of God's will. The hearer answers, God changes his speech from third person to a personal "I the LORD..." Please see the example below (Jud 6:11-16) being careful to notice the transition taking place;
11 The angel of the LORD came and sat down under the oak in Ophrah that belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, where his son Gideon was threshing wheat in a winepress to keep it from the Midianites. 12 When the angel of the LORD appeared to Gideon, he said, "The LORD is with you, mighty warrior." 13 "But sir," Gideon replied, "if the LORD is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our fathers told us about when they said, 'Did not the LORD bring us up out of Egypt?' But now the LORD has abandoned us and put us into the hand of Midian." 14 The LORD turned to him and said, "Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian's hand. Am I not sending you?" 15 "But Lord," Gideon asked, "how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family." 16 The LORD answered, "I will be with you, and you will strike down all the Midianites together." (NIV)
Extremely common in the text of scripture is the non-human theophany. These are the theophanies we thrilled to as children. We wondered within ourselves how the God which we were coming to understand could dwell within a burning bush. How God could float above the people of Israel in a cloud by day and a pillar of flame by night. Consider Exodus 3:1-6;
1 Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. 3 So Moses thought, "I will go over and see this strange sight-- why the bush does not burn up." 4 When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, "Moses! Moses!" And Moses said, "Here I am." 5 "Do not come any closer," God said. "Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground." 6 Then he said, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob." At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God. (NIV)
PATTERN FOR TIMES APPEARANCES WERE MADE
There is a definable pattern to when we see theophanies taking place: The establishment of a covenant, the calling of a prophet, and every major advance in revelation. The purpose / resulting effect of the theophany was to impress the recipients and to authenticate the revelation that was given. Charles Augustus Briggs, in his work Messianic Prophesy states:
"Theophanies initiated Biblical prophecy and were present at every advance in revelation. The theophanies of God in the Old Testament formed a great series of divine disclosures culminating in the Incarnation. They were the "divine seals to the roll of Hebrew prophecy, sealing every page with an objective divine verification and authentication."
LITERARY FORM OF A THEOPHANY
J.K. Kuntz, in his book The Self Revelation of God, makes a case for an interesting study of the literary form of a Theophany. He sights the passage in Genesis 26: 23-25 as a very typical example. Although this pattern is very common, we should not lock a theophany into this sequence of events. Theophanies sometimes occur without given items from Kuntz's list.
23 From there he went up to Beersheba. 24 That night the LORD appeared to him and said, "I am the God of your father Abraham. Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bless you and will increase the number of your descendants for the sake of my servant Abraham." 25 Isaac built an altar there and called on the name of the LORD. There he pitched his tent, and there his servants dug a well. (NIV)
Kuntz calls attention to the following form;
HISTORICAL CHURCH BELIEFS AS TO WHOm
The very early church really hadn't reasoned out this problem, and quite honestly probably hadn't even considered it. It wasn't until the time of Saint Justin that it was pondered. Justin lived from somewhere around 100AD to 165AD. From his time on it has been generally accepted that theophanies are the preincarnate logos, Jesus Christ. There are a select few who would argue for the Father so we will briefly touch on this idea in the next section.
THE CASE FOR THE FATHER:
The case for the Father: Although the abundance of the evidence points toward theophanies being the preincarnate logos, there are those who insist it is the Father. The major problem with this view is that it is a defensive one. The position needs chip away at each piece of evidence that clearly points to Christ. The position in and of itself has no definitive "offensive" passages. This position would claim that in cases where the scripture states "no man can see God and live" (paraphrase mine), that the trinity is being referred to. Thus no man can look upon the shekinah glory of God (trinity) and live, but one should be able to survive the encounter with just the Father. This position has little scriptural support, unlike the case for Christ. Also the scripture says:
1 John 6:46 Not that any man hath seen the Father, save he which is of God, he hath seen the Father. [KJV]
THE CASE FOR THE SON:
The case for Christ: It seems very likely that the theophanies which we see in the Old Testament are Jesus Christ, the second person of the trinity, the preincarnate logos. While true, this argument is based on purely a logical progression of ideas, it is no less valid.
The Bible is very clear in that no man has seen God:
Who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see: to whom be honour and power everlasting. Amen. (1 Tim 6:16)
No man hath seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us. (1 John 4:12)
Not that any man hath seen the Father, save he which is of God, he hath seen the Father. (1 John 6:46)
Also, if we should see Him we would perish:
And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live. (Exo 33:20)
That God is spirit:
God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth. (John 4:24)
Yet, we are told of men seeing God and living:
24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob's hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, "Let me go, for it is daybreak." But Jacob replied, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." 27 The man asked him, "What is your name?" "Jacob," he answered. 28 Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome." 29 Jacob said, "Please tell me your name." But he replied, "Why do you ask my name?" Then he blessed him there. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared." (NIV) (Bold Mine)
This leaves us a logical problem unless we speculate that the preincarnate Christ is the one making the appearances to man. It is He who wrestled with Jacob, He that was the fire of the burning bush, He who went before the armies of Israel. After all, we are told in the New Testament that Christ revealed the Father:
No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him. (John 1:18)
Christ himself said:
I and my Father are one. (John 10:30)
Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? he that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Show us the Father? 10 Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? the words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me: or else believe me for the very works' sake. 12 Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father. 13 And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it. (John 14:9-14)
How else can this by understood than as Christ. Another interesting fact in support of this position is that once we saw Christ, who revealed the Father, and he was lifted up, theophanies ceased. The ultimate revelation of who God is was made so no further theophany was needed. Also, consider the following passages:
Gen 16:13 And she called the name of the LORD that spake unto her, Thou God seest me: for she said, Have I also here looked after him that seeth me? 14 Wherefore the well was called Beerlahairoi; behold, it is between Kadesh and Bered. 15 And Hagar bare Abram a son: and Abram called his son's name, which Hagar bare, Ishmael. 16 And Abram was fourscore and six years old, when Hagar bare Ishmael to Abram. 17:1 And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect. 2 And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly. 3 And Abram fell on his face: and God talked with him, saying, [KJV] [Bold Mine]
Judges 6: 11 The angel of the LORD came and sat down under the oak in Ophrah that belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, where his son Gideon was threshing wheat in a winepress to keep it from the Midianites. 12 When the angel of the LORD appeared to Gideon, he said, "The LORD is with you, mighty warrior." 13 "But sir," Gideon replied, "if the LORD is with us, why has all this happened to us? Where are all his wonders that our fathers told us about when they said, 'Did not the LORD bring us up out of Egypt?' But now the LORD has abandoned us and put us into the hand of Midian." 14 The LORD turned to him and said, "Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian's hand. Am I not sending you?" 15 "But Lord," Gideon asked, "how can I save Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family." 16 The LORD answered, "I will be with you, and you will strike down all the Midianites together." (NIV) [Bold Mine]
Judges 13: 21 But the angel of the LORD did no more appear to Manoah and to his wife. Then Manoah knew that he was an angel of the LORD. 22 And Manoah said unto his wife, We shall surely die, because we have seen God. [KJV] [Bold Mine]
These passages refer to the above passages:
See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared. Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him; he will not forgive your rebellion, since my Name is in him. If you listen carefully to what he says and do all that I say, I will be an enemy to your enemies and will oppose those who oppose you. My angel will go ahead of you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out. (Exodus 23: 20-23) (NIV)
Therefore now go, lead the people unto the place of which I have spoken unto thee: behold, mine Angel shall go before thee: nevertheless in the day when I visit I will visit their sin upon them. (Exo 32:34)
In the later two passages we see God the Father referring to the Angel of the Lord in the above passages as a different person. Yet in the prior three passages they are called God. This necessitates that the person refereed to as God in the prior passages, while as God, is different than the person of the Father, thus the Son.
EXTRAORDINARY CASES OF THEOPHANY
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. John bare witness of him, and cried, saying, This was he of whom I spake, He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me. And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace. For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him. (John 1:14 -18)
The incarnation of Christ could and should be considered the ultimate theophany. It is the last theophany humanity will encounter until the return of Christ which will be the theophany par excellence and the last with which humanity will have to do.
For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: 17 Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. 18 Wherefore comfort one another with these words. (1 Thes 4:16-18)
I think it is abundantly clear from scripture that the theophanies of the Old Testament are clearly the preincarnate Christ. It is, in my opinion, the only satisfactory conclusion we can make given the evidence. Yet, as with other non-essential doctrines of our faith, we are free on this subject to believe as we desire without fear of committing some unpardonable sin.
As for my revised definition of a theophany: A theophany is a visual manifestation of God by, through, and in the Son. Thus "if you have seen me you have seen the Father".
For this reason I wouldn't define theophanies, as some do, as Christophanies. Where practically this is true, It leads one to a less complete idea of what a theophany is. I think more is being revealed than simply the presence of Christ although Christ is the agent by which it is being revealed. We are, I believe, seeing a glimpse into the shekinah glory of God in a theophany.
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