by Young Oon Kim
Revelation And Reason
A classic definition of revelation can be found in the opening pages of Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica. 1 He states that for our salvation it is necessary to have knowledge revealed by God, in addition to ordinary knowledge built upon human reason. Even though man is naturally directed to God, he needs revelation because God is beyond the grasp of reason. Although some truths about God can be discovered by reason alone, even here revelation serves a useful purpose. Only a few people have the time or skill to reach knowledge of God by reason. It would take them a very long time, and their conclusions might be mixed with human errors. Hence, sacred doctrine derives its principles not from any human knowledge but from divine truth. Since theology is based upon revelation, whatever is found in other sciences contrary to the truth of this sacred science must be condemned as false, St. Thomas declared.
Aquinas' definition of revelation is important because it concisely formulates the various elements in this doctrine. He distinguishes between truths of reason and truths of faith. He shows the practical value of revelation as well as its logical necessity. He relates the realm of reason and faith by making one higher than the other without conflicting with it. Finally, he assumes that sacred doctrine is to be found in the teachings of Scripture because the Bible is the book revealed by God.
Aquinas' well-balanced doctrine of revelation no longer commands the respect it once did. What are its defects? First, it puts revelation and reason into separate compartments. Since the Middle Ages, however, philosophers have generally denied that the truths of revelation exist in a realm beyond the reach of reason. They maintain that revealed doctrines like the Trinity and Incarnation must be examined and validated by reason. Secondly, the secular sciences refuse to live on the first story of a house while theology resides undisturbed upstairs. What the human sciences of physics, astronomy, biology and psychology teach about man and the universe greatly affects the truth of Christian doctrine. Thirdly, philosophers and theologians have doubted Aquinas' belief in natural theology. Repeatedly they have criticized the Thomistic proofs for God's existence which are supposed to be based upon reason alone. Finally, Aquinas assumes that the Bible is an infallible textbook of revealed truths. Since scholars have reexamined the Scriptures using the method of historical and literary criticism, it has become very difficult to think of the Bible as inerrant revelation.
Hence we must examine each aspect of the problem. First, let us consider the relationship between faith and reason. Aquinas assumed that revelation refers to sacred doctrines. Revelation for him means information about the nature of God and man which is imparted supernaturally. Emil Brunner claims that this definition of revelation is too intellectualistic. 2 What does revelation mean? It involves a personal encounter between God and man. God reveals Himself. Revelation refers to a dialogue God conducts with us. From revelation man is not given doctrines: ideas about the Trinity or atonement, for example. God does not give men ideas. Revelation originates in a person-to-person encounter with the supernatural. So revelation reveals a Who rather than a What.
How can I know God? According to Brunner, our experience of God cannot come from within. Then we are only talking with ourselves. Revelation must originate from outside. Christianity affirms the transcendence of God. He is not our deepest self or an immanent force inside nature. God is a person as different from us as other persons are. We must know God as we know another human. God is the Other One who has to communicate Himself to become known. You cannot know a man by merely looking at him. You have to relate to him. He reveals what he is like by speaking with you. So it is with God, but on a deeper level. His words become a clue to His character. Hence the personal God must reveal Himself to us personally. God does not speak out of us. He speaks to us and with us.
Revelation then means that God breaks through into our present world. He reveals Himself in spite of a social order which is antagonistic to Him. Because He speaks, He requires us to decide between His will and our own. When we encounter God, we are shown the fundamental difference between His holiness and our sinfulness. By revealing Himself, He forces us to decide to be on His side or against Him.
Brunner carefully distinguishes between faith and reason. Revelation is interested in man's nature and destiny. Its knowledge is existential rather than theoretical. The decisive truth about ourselves is not to be found in the same place or in the same way as scientific knowledge. Science deals with the external aspect of things. Its thinking is therefore superficial. It does not touch the heart of our reality as persons. Science tells us about how our world is constructed. What it cannot do is show us what we are here for: the purpose of human existence and its final destiny.
Nor can metaphysics give us the answer. Metaphysics attempts to provide an integral view of the totality of existence. It does its work in the cool atmosphere of objectivity and serenity. In metaphysics, man is only a spectator. Truth for the metaphysician is merely an aesthetic object, a wonderful spectacle of universal harmony. Theology by contrast reveals the Whence and Why of man. The question of God is deeply personal and terribly urgent for each one of us. We seek passionately because the whole meaning of our life is at stake. We must find the center of our own existence.
Brunner's neo-orthodoxy provides valuable insights. He rightly insists upon the personal nature of God and the personal quality of revelation. He clearly differentiates between the functions of reason and revelation, insisting upon the need for more than science to encounter God. Also by refusing to identify revelation with sacred doctrines, he goes beyond the old notion that revelation refers to Biblical ideas or church dogmas. Nevertheless, many scholars feel that neo-orthodoxy minimizes the value of reason in religion and overlooks the historical dimension in the Biblical doctrine of revelation.
Professor L. Harold DeWolf of Boston University criticized the neo-orthodox disparagement of reason in matters of doctrine. 3 We need reason, and its function in religion is indispensable. Reason serves revelation in four ways:
1) Reason is required to accept revelation, because revelation comes to a rational creature who has to relate its truth to other truths which are received through natural means.
2) Reason is needed to decide when revelation has occurred. Apart from reason an individual cannot decide that the authority of the revelation he accepts is superior to other alleged revelations.
3) Reason is required to interpret revelation and apply it to changing human situations.
4) Reason is necessary in order to transmit revelation to others. We have to show that our revelation is true, and only a reasonable defense can overcome doubts or opposition.
DeWolf is right about religion's need for reason. For example, note how Philo of Alexandria used reason to explain the Mosaic revelation in the Graeco-Roman world or how Justin Martyr and other early Church Fathers relied upon reasonable explanations of their Christian beliefs to persuade pagans.
If we claim to have new revelation beyond that accepted by traditional Christianity, it is imperative to recognize the value of reason. We have to show how new revelation is not completely irrational. We must demonstrate its rational superiority to what is generally accepted. We must point out its logical applicability to a variety of serious human problems.
Wolfhart Pannenberg's theology grows out of neo-orthodoxy, yet tries to correct some of its weaknesses. In the book Revelation as History (E.T 1968), he makes valuable suggestions for our doctrine of 4 revelation. First, according to him, the Bible teaches that revelation comes not directly as saving truths, but indirectly through God's historical acts like the Exodus and the mission of Jesus. It is a fundamental affirmation of the Judeo-Christian tradition that God acts in history. What this means is that besides the personal I-Thou encounter which Brunner emphasizes, there is a corporate historical dimension to revelation.
God's revelation is not an isolated event given to individuals but is part of God's redemptive work with Israel. Where did God reveal Himself? In the whole history of the Hebrew nation. God inspired Abraham, gave the commandments to Moses, guided Joshua, crowned David, consoled the Hebrews in exile and encouraged them with the hope of a future messianic age. Consequently, a doctrine of revelation must take into account the collective aspects of God's redemptive purpose.
Pannenberg asserts that revelation can be fully understood only at the end of history. This means that all past revelation and all present signs of divine activity should be viewed in the light of the eschatological consummation of history. None of the previous acts of revelation has worth as an end in itself. Both Moses' Torah and the mission of Jesus point forward to the coming messianic age. No matter how impressively God has acted in the past, His full revelation awaits us in the future.
Pannenberg further goes beyond neo-orthodoxy by insisting that God reveals Himself in the totality of man's history. There is no "sacred" history (namely, that of Israel and the Christian Church) which is superior to and apart from "secular" history. For Pannenberg, all history is a revelation of God's activity. This view is important because it broadens the scope of revelation. Particularly in recent years, as our knowledge of other cultures and faiths has increased, it has seemed strange to limit God's redemptive acts to one nation or one religion. Pannenberg stresses the global love and all-inclusive concern of God. But is he completely right to assume that all faiths and all peoples have been equally responsive to God's will? Surely He has used particular groups for a special purpose in furthering His dispensational program.
Another question needs to be raised. If revelation is limited to events, then we restrict God's revelatory power to His actions. Since God is personal, can He be speechless? Is He not revealed in His Word as well as His deeds? Traditional Christianity has always assumed that God could communicate messages to men. Therefore there must be some intellectual content to revelation. Faith involves God's acts in history plus the revelatory interpretation of those events. Otherwise, we degrade some of the most fundamental doctrines of Christianity.
A second major problem concerns how we interpret the relationships between the natural and the supernatural. Aquinas related the two by putting them together, one on top of the other. The natural and supernatural are two closely connected levels of one cosmos created by God. Like all Roman Catholics, Aquinas assumed that there was constant communication and interaction between these two realms.
Protestants in general and Karl Barth in particular sharply separate the supernatural from the natural. 5 As he expressed it, there is an infinitely qualitative distinction between the temporal and the Eternal. God is in heaven and man is on earth. There is a barrier between this world and God which God alone can break through. God is Wholly Other. There is no way for us to climb up to Him; He must descend to us, as He did at only one time, when He became incarnate in Jesus Christ.
Later in his life Barth admitted that he may have exaggerated in 6 order to reassert the transcendence of God . In any case, a modern redefinition of the supernatural should recognize, as Aquinas did, that man lives in a multi-dimensional and many-leveled universe. The natural and the supernatural are always closely related and often interact in a very dramatic manner. To recognize their closeness is valuable in working out a doctrine of revelation. As many contemporary theologians now admit, neo-orthodoxy overstressed the absolute transcendence of God and ignored the equally traditional doctrine of divine immanence.
As mentioned earlier, the doctrine of revelation has become problematic in recent centuries because of the declining authority of the Bible. Until the Enlightenment, nearly all Christians accepted the Scriptures from cover to cover as the infallible Word of God. This notion has been widely attacked and generally been abandoned by modern theologians in all of the main-line denominations.
For example, in a systematic theology textbook prepared at a Methodist seminary, a whole chapter is devoted to the topic "The Fallibility of the Bible." 7 Six kinds of evidence are given to show that the Scriptures are not an infallible book:
1) There are obvious contradictions within the Bible. For example, Ex. 37:1-9 says that Bezalel made the ark of the covenant but in Deut. 10:1-5 Moses claims to have made it. Similarly there are two contradictory stories of Noah's ark which have been clumsily combined.
2) As there are important variations in the Biblical manuscripts we now possess, we cannot be certain what the 8 originals contained. Furthermore, we would also have to accept the infallibility of the early church which decided what books to put in the Scriptures and what to reject. 3) The Bible contains contradictions of known truth. It includes statements based on disproved mythology and false science. The Bible assumes that all diseases are caused by demonic possession, and Genesis records the folktale that snakes have no legs because Satan took that form to tempt Eve. The Scriptures also suggest that the earth is immovable and that the universe is earth-centered.
4) There are many evidences of legend-making in the Bible. The hero tales in Judges resemble those of the Greeks. Also, by reading the New Testament chronologically, it is easy to see how the Markan materials are edited by Matthew, Luke and John to make Jesus a more supernatural figure. In regard to Jesus' dying moments, notice how the words from the cross are developed.
5) The Bible contains morally unworthy passages. In 1784 Wesley omitted some of the Psalms from his Methodist prayer book because as he put it, they were "highly improper for the mouths of a Christian congregation." Furthermore, no one today would advocate imitating some of the acts recorded of Abraham, Jacob, Samson, Saul or David. The Scriptures record a gradual evolution of ethics, and the moral standards of one part of Scripture are far inferior to another part.
6) Jesus did not accept the infallible authority of the Old Testament. As the Sermon on the Mount indicates, he "unhesitatingly and repeatedly" rejects some Old Testament teachings.
According to DeWolf, this evidence proves that we cannot believe in the verbal inspiration or infallible authority of the Bible as a guide to either faith or morals. All one can truly say is that the Scriptures as a whole are inspired because some passages are literary masterpieces, some parts are religiously elevating, some of its ideas are magnificently true; therefore the book has had an unparalleled influence over mankind. The supreme evidence of the Scriptures I inspiration is that they have caused men to seek and find God.
Those who still affirm the divine authorship of the Bible show that they have never studied it carefully or seek to "improve" it by ingenious rationalizations. In any case, careful Biblical scholarship for over a century has tended to undermine its authority as literal revelation. What then is to be done?
According to Rudolf Bultmann, the whole world-view of Scripture is unacceptable to modern man. 10 Today we acknowledge as reality only phenomena which are comprehensible within the framework of a rational order of the universe. The Biblical world-view is mythological, whereas the modern world-view is scientific. Therefore, it is mere wishful thinking to suppose that the ancient Scriptural world-view can be revived. We must demythologize the Bible. Otherwise we would be forced to sacrifice our intelligence in order to remain Christians.
Naturally, one may say it is useful to study the Scriptures as historical documents. But is that our true and real interest? No. We want to hear what the Bible has to say to us, to listen to its truth about our life and our soul. The revelation of God is realized only in the concrete events of life here and now. Our temporal life is the sphere of the relation between man and God. Hence, the Bible must be demythologized; or as Tillich puts it, Biblical doctrines must be deliteralized." This means that Scripture has to be reinterpreted or updated. A purely literal acceptance of the Biblical world-view keeps one from seeing how God speaks to each of us.
Bultmann clearly recognizes how the authority of the Bible has been weakened in our time. He realizes that the traditional explanation of revelation has no meaning for modern man. Nor can we be satisfied with a merely historical treatment of the Bible. No Christian is content by reading the Scripture simply as "living literature." Consequently, Bultmann advocates a radically new Christianity which preserves the revealed message of the Judeo-Christian tradition but expresses it in a form which contemporary men can understand. However, many feel that the existentialist reinterpretation of Scripture he works out overlooks some essential dimensions. In other words, his goal is right but his method of attaining it seems inadequate. 11
Many lament the fact that the Scriptures have increasingly lost their appeal in the modern world. At least a large part of the influence of the Barthian theology between World Wars I and II was due to its efforts to attract Christians to the "strange new world" of the Bible. 12 Similarly, the popularity of Billy Graham's evangelistic campaigns can be traced to a nostalgia for the Biblical authority of an earlier day. But the Barthian theology of the Word has gone into eclipse and the expensive rallies of the neo-Evangelicals have not reversed the trend away from the older denominations. For example, at the 1978 Lambeth council of bishops it was reported that Anglican churches lost about a half million members in the last decade. In the same period, the Disciples of Christ denomination reported a 21% decline in membership. Similar figures have been given for Methodists, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics and the United Church of Christ in recent years.
Yet there may be a positive side to this rapid decline in church membership and the widespread erosion of faith in the Biblical revelation. As conventional Christianity has lost its appeal, many churchmen have become open to new ideas and aware of new challenges. Similarly, tens of thousands of young people have begun an exciting quest for a vital spiritual faith when their parental religion was unattractive. At the same time that the Biblical authority was being weakened, was God opening up new paths to His presence? If the modern world has more lapsed churchmen, it also has a multitude of God-seekers. Possibly then the virtual collapse of the Christian establishment is God's way to broaden man's horizons, deepen his insights and prepare him for a new revelation of His plans. Just as the tragedy of the Babylonian captivity stimulated the creation of rabbinic Judaism and the breakup of medieval Christendom paved the way for the vitality of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations, so the unsettling religious situation of our day may herald a New Age in salvation-history.
1 Summa Theologica, la, 1:1.
2 E. Brunner, The Theology of Crisis (1929) chap. 2.
3 L. H. DeWolf, Theology of the Living Church (1953), pp. 33-36. Cf. also his Religious Revolt against Reason (1971).
4 W. Pannenberg, "Dogmatic Theses on the Doctrine of Revelation:' pp. 125-158,
5 U. K. Barth, Epistle to the Romans (1968 ed.).
6 K. Barth, How I Changed My Mind (1966).
7 L. H. DeWolf, A Theology of the Living Church (1953), pp. 68-74. He taught at Boston University School of Theology for many years and later at Wesley Seminary, Washington, D.C.
8 For example, Biblical manuscripts have two endings to Mark's Gospel, as the RSV shows. Also the incident of the woman taken in adultery is found in different places in the manuscripts.
9 The types of evidence listed above come from DeWolf, op. cit., pp. 68-79. He gives additional illustrations and in some cases different examples have been added to his argument.
10 Cf. R. Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology (1958).
11 Bultmann's aim is to make the Bible meaningful today; his method is to interpret everything in the Bible in terms of Heidegger's existentialist philosophy. Many agree with his goal but they do not accept Heidegger's existentialism.
12 K. Barth, The Word of God and the Word of Man (1957), pp. 28-50.
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