Revelation laid on human reason as the principle

Revelation is
‘God’s unveiling or disclosure of the divine character, purpose and will’
Migliore, it is the ‘act of God’s self-disclosure to humanity and the
knowledge of God resulting from this’ McGrath.

It
is generally agreed and indeed fair to say, that from the Christian perspective
an element of ‘revelation’ is essential in order for Christianity to satisfy
it’s own criterion as the religion of the gospel in Christ. However, beyond the
straightforward, foundational affirmations of revelation, as observed above, it
is clear this central theme of Christian theology, to discern the nature and
purposes of God, is ultimately unsuccessful and has produced no genuine
consensus regarding its exact nature. Questions regarding what its exact
sources might be (Scripture, the Magisterium, Christ himself), which is the
most important, and how these are revealed (via general or special revelation)
sit side by side with the wider debates regarding the exact relationship
between God and man in this phenomenon. Whilst most interpretations of
revelation share at least some formal features, there are important differences
between the classical descriptions of revelation and various contemporary forms
of the doctrine: a consequence of the Enlightenment’s fundamental attack on the
former. The emphasis laid on human reason as the principle interpreter of
reality and the ‘qasi-Cartesian search for indubitable certainty’ (McGrath)
went a long way in undermining the relationship between faith and revelation.

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No longer clear exactly what revelation constitutes it will be the answers of individual
theologians in response to these disputes which shall become the decisive
factors informing the spectrum of understandings that now constitute the
variety of conceptions of revelation in contemporary theology. Moreover, it
will be the disputes between these theologians that will establish if revelation is simply the self-revelation of God whence
we are then supposed to believed that “with the rush of a storm,/While
the angels, all pallid and wan,/Uprising, unveiling, affirm/That the play is
the tragedy, ‘Man’?”1 or if mankind determines a
more engaged part in the process.

Each
theologian must develop an attitude toward the ‘authentic’ sources of
Christianity if he or she is to start to piece together a systematic
understanding of revelation. This will involve a level of esteem for Scripture
(ranging from inerrant, down to infallible, to potentially fallible human witness,
to metaphorical, and so on) variant amongst scholars, but which will
necessarily influence an evaluation of the central Christian claim of Scripture
that the revelation of God has been decisively embodied in the proclamation,
ministry, death, and resurrection of the incarnate Jesus Christ in the presence
of the renewing work of the Holy Spirit. Views might range from an
understanding of Christ as the fully self-disclosed Word of God as Second
Person of the Trinity, to the view that he is something more human,
metaphorical perhaps, or simply a reflection of the divine ‘essence’. One’s
response to this question of the completeness of revelation in Christ in
Scripture will determine to some degree whether one holds there to be other
sources of revelation aside from this clearly ‘special’ revelation in Christ,
perhaps to be seen in God’s ‘general’ activity in the natural order and in
universal history. If, after a reading of Acts 17.22, one decides to believe
that there are other sources of revelation than Scripture and proclamation
based on it, then of course one not only opens up one’s conception of
revelation into something broader, but also invites a new evaluation of the
role of the individual, no longer simply as simply receiver but as active
decipherer of experience and phenomena. These introductory distinctions serve
to set up the parameters of this debate by demonstrating how they might inform
a variety of differing general pictures of epistemology, and schemes regarding
the knowledge of God. Each will involve a statement regarding the level of
objectivity and subjectivity in the process of getting to know Him and it is this
fundamental factor, the placing of the human in relation to the divine, which
holds the key to understanding the different nature of different scholars
understanding of what revelation is, and therefore whether it is simply
self-revelation or something more.

The classic 20th century account of revelation
must be attributed to the uncompromising work of the dogmatic German scholar
Karl Barth and his systematic negation of natural theological attempts to know
God and elevation of objective, revealed theology in the person of Jesus Christ
as attested in Scripture and church proclamation. It is perhaps appropriate
then that we may demonstrate the significance of the above considerations with
this particular scholar. Barth’s guiding principle of the relationship between
God and man actually resides in a pithy phrase initially coined by Kierkegaard.

Kierkegaard notes the ‘infinite qualitative distinction’ between God and man’,
somewhat revising the Solomonic precept, ‘God is in heaven and you on earth’
{Ecclesiastes 5:2}. The ramifications for such an observation on Barth, who
meanwhile had been exposed to the shocking and seemingly unwarranted acts of
aggression by the Nazi regime, was that he developed a keen awareness of the
limitations of the human condition. The ‘dialectic’ between the two poles of
God and man were completely insuperable and, as such, a complete re-orientation
of contemporary ‘liberal’ theology, which had tended toward naturalistic
explanations of epistemology coupled with a prominent sense of general
revelation, was absolutely necessary. Natural theology, with its man-made
construction of a God deduced from phenomena, and its rendering of God as an
object and not eternal subject, was for Barth the culmination of human
presumption. Epistle teaching further taught that we as humans are bound to sin
(perhaps understood as an inevitable adjunct of our human condition as opposed
to in a naïve Adam and Eve sense) and therefore it follows that any attempt to
define our own existence is bound to self-contradiction due to a manifest
inadequacy of our knowledge. With this in mind, Barth struck out in stark
contrast, in Nein! directed against
Emil Brunner, firmly asserting that only God can tells us what God is like,
namely in the person of Jesus Christ as attested by the Scriptures, and not
vice-versa. 

The image of God in man is totally
destroyed by sin. Every attempt to assert a general revelation has to be
rejected. There is no grace of creation and preservation. There are no
recognizable ordinances of preservation. There is no point of contact for the
redeeming action of God.

My opinion concerning the task of our theological generation has
been this: we must learn again to understand revelation as grace and grace as
revelation and therefore turn away from all “true” or “false” theologia
naturalis. Nein

His attack ridiculed Brunner’s six
theological theses that appealed to a natural human knowledge of God, and the
belief that by natural reason alone we must
be able to know something about God. These included the analysis that the world
is “somehow recognizable” to the natural man as God’s handiwork, that the world
offers a “point of contact” with revelation, and that the incarnation has
restored the capacity for knowing God. In Barth’s view this was all false; only
God created contact with revelation and only by revelation is it possible for
God to be known.

In Church
Dogmatics Barth systematically explains the mechanics of his theology in a
comprehensive fashion. With regard to the specific nature and functioning of
revelation, it is explained in two doctrines concerned specifically with
special revelation; The Doctrine of the
Word and The Doctrine of
Reconciliation. The former argues that the true Word and object of faith is
Jesus Christ himself, known to us only through the incarnation. The same Word
is made clear to us in the Bible (both Old and New Testament) and in preaching,
but only in Christ is all of God made known, since the text and preaching are
both susceptible to fallibility in their human element. To clarify this, a
concentric model is postulated with revealed at its centre, the incarnate
Christ, to whom access is only possible first by prophetic and apostolic
witness, Scripture, which is in turn mediated to us by the proclamation of the
church, preaching. The good news is received by us, therefore, indirectly but
by three forms of the same Word. Any attempt to do perform critical
interpretation of God or preach about him is thus rendered false if not related
to the witness of the self-disclosure of God in the Second Person of the
Trinity, that is Christ. In the Doctrine
of Reconciliation, Barth then extends this theory of revelation and
explains how it operates as a means of redemption. Through Second Person alone,
the incarnation, that we can have knowledge of sin and means of redemption, and
that humanity is ultimately elected into fellowship with Father. The critical
moment comes on the cross where Christ takes on all sin, dies as both sinner and saint, and elects all humankind to fellowship with Father.

Needless to say, aspects of Barth’s
theology have both been corroborated and opposed by work that both preceded and
followed it. Whilst fruitless to list, it might be well to see where certain
writers choose their ground for dispute. Pannenberg writes strongly against
Barthian themes of revelation as direct theophany in Christ and rather for a
model of ‘Revelation as History’, indirect and brought about through God’s acts
in history, the most universal revelation being that of the fate of Jesus.

Equally Emil Brunner’s account, reflected in Tillich’s existentialist view,
whilst avoiding the liberal tendency to become overly subjective, starts with a
more generous account of this side of the experience:

Revelation
is indeed that which is made manifest to us through a definite action of God
but it also, means that we, whose eyes were formerly closed, have now opened
them to a certain light…Thus revelation only reaches its goal in the subject,
man. Brunner

Others
such as H.Richard Neibuhr take up a stance that accommodates both general and special revelation as
potential channels of enlightenment, conceptualizing a ‘permanent revolution’
of revelation, in which special revelation is constantly challenging,
correcting and transforming all earlier knowledge of God for what is good and
true in it.

The
third strand of contemporary thought on revelation attempted to reintegrate
revelation and history. Both reducationist and positivist accounts appear
unsatisfactory for the former posits general revelation at the expense of
special revelation and God’s self-disclosure and the latter vice versa
suggesting that God’s self-disclosure bypasses human reason and mankind’s
regular experience of the world. Pannenberg however, developed a theological
scheme in which revelation is understood in terms of an eschatological
manifestation of the meaning of the whole of history anticipated in the
resurrection of Christ: God’s self-revelation is not manifested directly via
the Word but through historical acts verifiable by reason – for ‘the revelation
… of the biblical God in his activity is no secret or mysterious happening’
(Pannenberg 1969). The resurrection, as the historical evidence of Christ is of
eternal significance for without it mankind could not attain to knowledge of
God: it’s occurrence is the manifestation of God’s communication with ‘natural
eyes’ (Pannenberg). 

 

And so, if taken on its own traditional terms Christianity
must be said to have ‘revelation’ of some form. However, beyond the most basic
classifications of what ‘revelation’ is, it seems that there is little room for
being overly specific. Whilst we may reflect, however, that it could only ever
have been a fruitless task to attempt to garner consensus over the finer
points, we have at least been able to uncover the major determining themes that
scholars attempting a systematic account need consider. Essentially, differing
expositions relate to different attitudes toward key texts and sources
considered ‘authentic’, subsequently varied understandings of how to handle
them, and a choice along the polarized spectrum of epistemological claims
regarding the knowledge of God. In each, this involves a critical response to
the particular traditional claim that Jesus Christ’s ministry, death and
resurrection, as attested in Scripture represents the supreme revelation of
God.

1 E. A. Poe, The Conqueror Worm