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(Gr. theos, “God,” phainesthai, “to appear”). A manifestation of God in some empirical form. The OT contains many such, but scholars are divided in their interpretations as to whether God Himself, or some divine agent, made the appearance. The problem revolves around the divine assertion, “God is spirit” (John 4:24), “No man has ever seen God” (John 1:18), and “You cannot see my face” (Exod. 33:20 RSV). But against this, see Genesis 32:30, “I have seen God face to face.” There is no need to assume that in each case an angel or some other divine being appeared in the place of God, if we understand that it is the Father who remains spirit, and that the Son has manifested the Godhead empirically throughout history. This would be more correctly the concept of “Christophany.” It would be a needed corrective to thinking that Christ assumed the likeness of the human form beginning at His conception in Mary's womb, however much His previous forms may have possessed superhuman powers. John 1:18 seems to hint at this interpretation.

THEOPHANY (Θεοφάνια, compounded from the Gr. words Θεός, God and φαὶνειν, to appear).

Its use.

Theophany is essentially a theological term, and is used of any temporary, normally visible, manifestation of God. It is to be distinguished from that permanent manifestation of God in Jesus Christ, called the Incarnation (q.v.). Most of its examples must be sought in the OT, though there are cases in the NT, e.g., the heavenly voice and “dove” at Jesus’ baptism (Matt 3:16f.), the voice at the Transfiguration (17:5) and in the Passion week (John 12:28), the visible coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:2f.), Stephen’s vision (7:55f.) and Paul’s (9:3ff.).

Theophanies are relatively common in Genesis. This is easily explicable by the lack of written Scriptures and by the isolated position of the few faithful men whose lives are recorded. They are found again in the decisive events of the Exodus, the conquest of Canaan, and in some of the narratives of the Judges. After this they are rare except in the accounts of the prophets, esp. in the visions accompanying their call.

The angel of the Lord.

This term is found over fifty times in the OT. In the majority of cases “an angel of the Lord” would be the more idiomatic Eng., and in a few cases KJV renders thus. The apparent definiteness is often due to the nature of Heb. grammar. There are, however, a number of cases where the term is best understood as “Jehovah present in definite time and particular place” (A. B. Davidson, Theology of the OT, pp. 297f.). Sometimes, when the angel seems to be identified with God, no more may be intended than that he is speaking and acting as God’s representative. In other cases this is clearly inadequate.

The forms of theophany.

In the Bible no stress is laid on the manner of the theophany; what is important is what God does and says. Normally the theophany is for the ear, the visible merely attracting and riveting the attention. This perhaps is most clearly seen in the story of the burning bush (Exod 3:2-6) and of the giving of the law with all its physical manifestations (19:18f.; 20:18); the physical is merely secondary, and in the latter case it is stressed that no form was seen (Deut 4:12, 15).

When Moses received the supreme revelation of the character of God (Exod 34:6f.), he had been promised that he would see God’s “back” (33:23), but in the fulfillment, whatever physical vision may have been given him, it was of such insignificance compared with the spoken words that it remains unmentioned.

The importance of the theophany.

The above means that the main importance of a theophany always lies in its revelation of God, esp. in the verbal message. The physical aspects are there to magnify and authenticate the revelation, but essentially that is all. That is why even the OT has no real room for holy places. Even Sinai is never mentioned as a holy place or a site to which pilgrimages should be made. A legitimate sanctuary was to have been marked out by some form of theophany (Deut 12:5, 11, 14, 21; passages limiting the number of legitimate sanctuaries, but not demanding only one), but in practice this was so unimportant that one is not told how Shiloh came to be chosen, and the site of the Temple (Solomon’s) was marked out purely by the angel’s hand of destruction being stopped (2 Sam 24:16f.). Nathan’s message to David (2 Sam 7:6f.) clearly indicated that God was not concerned with special spots for worship. Israel’s maintenance of traditional holy sites showed its misunderstanding of God’s revelation.

The theophany today.

The theophany, whether essentially visionary, partially subjective, or entirely external and objective, is always distinguishable from the normal prophetic vision or reception of the divine message. Its recipient could always affirm, “God acted and spoke in this place.” Each was essentially a peak in a long range of God’s acting and speaking that runs throughout Scripture, reaches its towering summit in Jesus Christ, and continues in His Church to this day. Therefore, although wisely the term theophany is confined largely to events recorded in Scripture, there is no doubt that in the history of the church there have been outstanding events, where all concerned bore testimony that God had been there and had spoken and acted. Similarly many, though not all, believers can look to an experience when they cannot deny that God was with them and had acted in and through them. Such testimonies must be received with great care, for it is in this sphere, as nowhere else, that subjective self-deception can be most active. Even so, one must be prepared to recognize that theophanies of God the Holy Spirit still occur. The difference is that they cannot be used for doctrinal and authoritative purposes. They arise from the supreme revelation in Jesus Christ and look back to it.


A. B. Davidson, The Theology of the Old Testament (1904); G. A. F. Knight, A Christian Theology of the Old Testament, Ch. 6 (1959); G. Von Rad, Old Testament Theology (1962, 1965); J. B. Payne, The Theology of the Older Testament (1962).