Tag Archives: revelation

Rowan Williams on the riskiness of revelation

The touch of God is dangerous, in that it can be a light too sharp to be borne without hurt or breakage; and when the perception is skewed and redirected, it may run close to the destructive and the hellish. Jonathan Smith, the great anthropologist of religion at Chicago, remarked about the horrific mass suicide of the sectarians who followed the prophet Jim Jones that at least it reminded people that religion wasn’t automatically “nice.” For God to come near us is for God to risk God’s own integrity, in the sense that God puts himself into our hands to be appallingly misunderstood, to become the justifier of our hatred and fears, our madness. And it is to put us at risk, since the disorientation we thus experience can unleash some very dark things in us. Revelation itself, as the church’s history shows, is bound up with tragic possibilities.

from A Ray of Darkness, 3rd Ed., (Cowley, 1995), 96.

Readings on the Nature of Revelation

An account of revelation should speak to a variety of questions. Among them: what has God revealed? (the question of content); how does God reveal? (the question of revelation’s media); and not to be forgotten, where does revelation figure in God’s economy? (the question of revelation’s systematic location). More than a few theologians now have warned that the doctrine only suffers when it’s lifted from its proper dogmatic context and conscripted to serve as the epistemic foundation for the rest of a system. Many more interesting subtopics could be included. So for those with an interest in such matters, here’s a list of relatively recent treatments of the topic. I’ve tried drawing from a variety of perspectives. They’ll give you a sense for the history and current state of the conversation. If I come across other titles that deserve flagging, I’ll add them to the list. Feel welcome to offer your own suggestions.

(listed chronologically — since Barth)

  • Karl Barth, (1932) Church Dogmatics,1.1
  • G. C. Berkouwer, (1955) Studies in Dogmatics: General Revelation
  • John Baillie, (1956) The Idea of Revelation in Recent Thought
  • Emil Brunner, (1964) Truth as Encounter
  • Second Vatican Council, (1965) Dei Verbum
  • Edward Schillebeecx, (1967) Revelation and Theology
  • Gabriel Moran, (1967) Theology of Revelation
  • Wolfhart Pannenberg, (1968) Revelation as History
  • Carl Henry, (1976) God, Revelation and Authority
  • Paul Helm, (1982) The Divine Revelation: The Basic Issues
  • Ronald Thiemann, (1985) Revelation and Theology: The Gospel as Narrated Promise
  • Rowan Williams, “Trinity and Revelation,” Modern Theology 2/3 (1986): 197-212.
  • Avery Dulles, (1992) Models of Revelation, 2nd Ed.
  • Christoph Schwobel, (1992) God, Action and Revelation
  • Colin Gunton, (1995) Brief Theology of Revelation
  • Nicolas Wolterstorff, (1995) Divine Discourse
  • Paul Avis, ed., (1997) Divine Revelation
  • Gabriel Fackre, (1997) The Doctrine of Revelation: A Narrative Approach
  • David Brown, (1999) Tradition and Imagination: Revelation and Change
  • Peter Jensen, (2002) The Revelation of God
  • William Abraham, (2006) Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation
  • Richard Swinburne, (2007) Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy, 2nd Ed.
  • John Frame, (2010) The Doctrine of the Word of God
  • Matthew Levering, (2014) Engaging the Doctrine of Revelation

On the Objectivity of Revelation

Revelation isn’t indisputably obvious. It cannot be straightforwardly read off of history, nature, or culture. One must be taught to see revelation. What can this mean? Why think that’s the case? How is it learned?

1. R. P. C. Hanson on the historical record of disputes over the content of revelation

It is … quite clear that the process [of defining orthodoxy] was a process of trial and error. Almost everybody changed their ideas in some way during it. A satisfactory vocabulary, a clear and constructive way of thinking, only gradually emerged. Men learnt by experience, by controversy, by seeing their own mistakes and the mistakes of others. This is how orthodoxy was reached in the fourth century. It is probable that this is the way that orthodoxy is always achieved. There must be a preliminary period of confusion, of groping, of uncertainty. Diverse and clashing views must be given expression. Conference, conversation, perhaps even confrontation, are an unavoidable part of the process.

From The Making of Orthodoxy, (Cambridge University Press, 1989), 153-4.

2. N. K. Verbin on the logic of revelation’s mode of perception

One important feature that distinguishes different perceptual phenomena from one another is the role of a conceptual scheme, of language and a particular type of training and education in some perceptions but not in others. On that score, we can distinguish the perception of objects and colors from the perception of beauty, courage and God. While the perception of objects and colors does not presuppose the mastery of a language and is, therefore, naturally applied to animals, the perceptions of courage, beauty and God presuppose the mastery of a language, and are therefore restricted to people who master the relevant conceptual scheme. While we describe dogs as seeing other dogs, cats and birds, we do not ordinarily describe them as hearing the beauty of a sonata, nor do we describe them as perceiving the courage in an act. The role of a conceptual scheme, of culture, and of a particular type of education within such perceptions reveals the manners in which such phenomena incorporate a different although related conception of “experience.”

Perceiving God, whether through a mystical union, or in the more ordinary experience of seeing God in the beauty of the universe is an experience which presupposes a complex conceptual scheme, a particular type of training and education. As such, it is not applied to animals nor is it applied to little children before they speak. Neither dogs nor babies are ordinarily reported as having mystical experiences. In respect to the role of language, training, and education in our ability to see God, religious perceptions fit better among perceptions of beauty and courage than among perceptions of objects and colors. […]

It is important to notice that trusting the mystic’s experience is not simply a matter of trusting a person’s testimony concerning the features of an object that one was not in a position to observe. Rather, it is more like the case where one is asked to trust another person’s testimony of her perception of an (aspect of) an object or situation that one did perceive, but perceived differently, under a different aspect. The atheist is asked to mistrust her own perception of the world, and to trust the mystic’s way of perceiving the world.

Both the mystic (theist) and the atheist inhabit the same world. They may be participating in the same battle, parenting the same sick child, looking at the same sky, or reading the same book. Unlike the mystic, the atheist does not see the world as revealing of God’s design; she does not see the heavens telling the glory of God, nor does she see God in a cloud. She does not hear God speak to her in the verses of the bible. She does not see floods and earthquakes as God’s Will, nor does she see unexpected victories or recoveries as miracles. She sees cancer, madness and death as the marks of the meaningless and purposelessness of human existence. What reason does she have to trust the mystics’s way of seeing the world when she sees a universe in disarray? What would it be like for her to trust the mystic’s testimonies while she continues to see the world as she does? Calling her deprived, condemning her way of seeing the world as sinful or ungrateful, comparing her inability to see God to color blindness or to a lack of musical ear does not amount to a reason.

from “Can Faith be Justified?” Faith and Philosophy, vol. 18, no. 4, (2001): 505, 510-11.

3. Austin Farrer on the theologically laden character of reason and nature

What [was once taken] to be natural religion was deeply indebted to Christian faith. It was supposed to derive from a view of the world and of man, simply as we see them to be. But these natural realities had been looked at so long with Christian eyes, that they had taken on a Christian sort of look. People could not distinguish naked fact from inveterate interpretation. An old man may find it intolerable to revisit his college, because (he says) the staircases are full of ghosts. The ghosts are not there; but he cannot see the walls and banisters, without expecting the footfall of friends long dead. In some such way the vaunted Age of Reason could not see a natural world, unhaunted by the ghost and echo of ancestral faith.

All reasoning from nature towards God is the recognition of God displayed in his handiwork; it is a reasoning from God to God, from God seen in nature to God considered in himself. If God is not seen, or half seen, in the beginning of the argument, he will not be seen at the end of it either.

The saving events are seen as such only if they are accepted as the acts of God, and the acts of God are not appreciated as such by a mere flat historical judgment, as are the acts of Caesar or Napoleon. They are spiritually discerned. […] Now it is obvious from painful facts of history that the discernment of the divine action in the redeeming facts is not a matter of a simple sensitivity for spiritual things, like the fineness of ear which enables those who have it to hear the cry of bats. We do not either simply appreciate the divine in the facts or else simply fail to appreciate it: we interpret it, and we may do so inadequately or erroneously; and no mere historical expertise or scholarly soundness in settling the human facts will assure a correct reading of the divine meaning. It is had by faith, and faith is the possession of the Church.

All of this evidence is addressed to faith, and to nothing but faith.

from The Essential Sermons, (SPCK, 1991), 193, 36; and The Truth Seeking Heart, (Canterbury, 2006), 39, 86-87.

Commentary on the above: The grammar of revelation is such that it is patient with dispute.  (Think John 20.) Neither what revelation we perceive, how we perceive it, nor the means we have to talk about it are incontestably secure. For some this opens the door to faithlessness. For others it bespeaks the possibility that there may yet be more that can be learned about God. I’m tempted to say that the lesson is that perception of revelation is rather like an aesthetic judgment, in that it’s both subjective and universal. I hesitate to commit to that move, though, because (1) it’s best practice not to couch theological categories in such a non-theological idiom. And (2) Rowan Williams has expressed reservations about the danger of over aestheticizing our understanding of the presence of God due to a latent egoism underneath the supposition. To say the least, this is a topic to which I hope to devote further thought.

David Burrell on truth and friendship

a full-blooded understanding, one which engages the entire person in a discriminating and discerning assent to what one has come to regard as true, can never be a solitary endeavor. We are too much in our own way, and are especially led astray by the multiple desires of our wayward hearts. This observation should remind us that, far from being the first autobiography, Augustine’s Confessions represents anti-autobiography, seeking not for an elusive self but for its transcendent source, which is nonetheless closer to us than our very selves. And it is more dependable, as being the very truth of ourselves, the “light of the light of our souls.” If that sounds like will-o-the-wisp language, the invitation of the Confessions is to entrust our own search for our self to Augustine’s tutelage. If we can place that search in his hands, he will attempt to teach us how to displace it altogether, showing how one of our potential friends – himself – let it be transformed into a search for the source of all, including that precious self. Then we will be empowered to spend it in the service of others, as a part of our project of returning it to the One who gives it so freely and abundantly.

What may have appeared to be an excursus on friendship turns out to show us that a commitment to truth may be barely intelligible in other than personal terms. And attempting to understand the shaping convictions of others persons becomes the best access we can have to a view of truth as personal. It will take a tradition shaped by revelation to give proper voice to truth as personal, where God speaks in a language accessible to us. Significantly enough, those traditions which are shaped invariably speak of a path and a journey of faith. God’s word presents a challenge to understanding rather than a certitude made easily available.

from Friendship and Ways to Truth, (UofNotreDame Press, 2000), 60-61.