‘I wish the lecturers to treat this subject as a strictly natural science… without reference to or reliance upon any supposed special exceptional or so-called miraculous revelation’. When Lord Gifford made his will he took for granted what was in 1885 the generally accepted way of conceiving the relation between scientific inquiry and reliance on revelation. In my first two lectures I have shown how, in both philosophy and theology, the political convulsions of the present century have been accompanied by a curious combination of reliance upon particular scientific investigations with scepticism concerning the possibility of what Lord Gifford called ‘the greatest of all possible sciences,… that of Infinite Being’. When philosophers, denying the possibility of metaphysics, confine themselves to describing one another's presuppositions or analysing the linguistic usage of scientists, it is not surprising that theologians feel justified in looking to divine revelation for knowledge of truth beyond the reach of reason.1
Throughout the period covered by those lectures, that same way of conceiving the relation between reason and revelation continued for the most part to be taken for granted. It underlay the thought of those liberal theologians who sought to secure the basis of theology by substituting discovery by human reason for the acceptance of supernatural revelation; in the reaction against liberalism it underlies the thought of those for whom the acceptance of revelation involves the rejection of natural theology.
The aim of this lecture is to expose this idea of revelation, to show that its prevalence is due to a combination of psychological and historical factors, to argue that it is inconsistent with the actual revelation that God has seen fit to give us, and to draw conclusions of importance both for our understanding of Lord Gifford's will and for our attempt to make sense of the world of our experience. Here on earth ‘we walk by faith’, said St. Paul, ‘not by sight’,2 a text on which words by John Locke make an apt commentary: 'He that demands a greater certainty than this demands he knows not what, and shows only that he has a mind to be a sceptic, without being able to be so.3
It is at first sight a curious fact that the most virulent theological disputes are concerned with questions to which it is impossible for men to know the answers. Reflection shows that this is not really curious: on the contrary, it is what might be expected. Men do not quarrel over ascertained facts or clearly provable theories; and where the subject of an inquiry is such that patient examination of available evidence is likely to reveal incontrovertibly the truth of the matter, we are content to wait and see. Controversies concerning such subjects as predestination, transubstantiation and the apostolic ministry are disputes about questions to which God alone knows the answer, on which it has not pleased Him to supply us with evidence that places the solution of the problems beyond all manner of doubt. Quite rightly we exercise our minds in trying to understand such mysteries. Quite rightly we form theories to try to account for what evidence there is. But only too easily we slip over into treating our theoretical constructions as sacrosanct dogmas which it would be impious to impugn. For some Christians this status is given to a certain interpretation of the ‘Tu es Petrus’ passage in St. Matthew xvi; for others to a certain interpretation of St. Paul's teaching about justification by faith. We find it hard to live and worship together in common acknowledgment of the ignorance which God has seen fit to impose on us, to make our own, for example, the admirable self-restraint expressed in the four lines which have been ascribed to Queen Elizabeth I:
Christ was the Word that spake it;
He took the bread and brake it;
And what that Word did make it,
That I believe and take it.4
The field within which we have knowledge and clear understanding is surrounded by a penumbra of mystery. We peer into it and seek to extend the range of our knowledge, interpreting the unknown by the light of the known. We want knowledge so badly that we let the wish be father to the thought. We not only treat as knowledge what are in fact our own hypotheses and theories; we assume that it must have been the will of God to give us what we want so badly.
In The Doctrine of the Trinity (p. 20) I have traced the origin of this element in Christian theology to ‘the Greek tradition in which rational philosophical thought and mythology were regarded as parallel sources (either rival or complementary) of human knowledge’. To what I wrote there I would now add this further point. It looks as though the psychological factors I have just been describing combined with the Christian belief in the goodness and love of God to give this notion a ready welcome into Christian minds. Yet I am convinced that it is one of those elements in pre-Christian Greek thought which is inconsistent with the special revelation of God that is the basis of our Christian faith. The revelation of God in Christ came in mid-history, at a time when men's minds were already well stocked with notions and ideas. Some of these it came to illuminate and confirm, others to uproot and cast out.5 This notion of revelation I hold to be one of the latter. Its attractiveness to human psychology and Christian belief about God were such as to give it not only an unquestioned welcome but a long persistence in Christian thought.
Just where the notion originated that the Bible is a divinely guaranteed manual of information about matters not open to human observation and reflection, I have not been able to find out. My suspicion is that it cannot be traced to any definite starting-point. Under the influence of the two-source theory of knowledge traditional in the Hellenistic world it was simply taken for granted that for Christians their Scriptures played the part assigned in the tradition to mythology. By the time of St. Thomas Aquinas this has become common stock of Christian thought: his Summa Theologica opens with a rationalization of the wish-fulfilment embodied in the idea that God must have given to man a revelation of this kind and that He has done so in the Bible. Four centuries later comes the following conversation between Christian and Pliable in The Pilgrim's Progress:
Chr.:… If you believe me not, read here in this book; and for the truth of what is expressed therein, behold, all is confirmed by the Blood of Him that made it.…
Pli.:… And do you think that the words of your book are certainly true?
Chr.:… Yes, verily; for it was made by Him that cannot lie.
On May 10th, 1890, little more than half a century ago, Dr. Ernest Walker wrote in his diary:
I have not read all these twelve essays yet, but as to the one of Gore's on Inspiration… I must say that I think his opponents have the stronger position.… Little by little fragments have been dropping off—and now in Lux Mundi, and all books of education, the old theory of ‘plenary inspiration’ is dead. It is seen that the Bible is no ultimate resort on all points, but when we once get there, I don't see what there is of dogmatic Christianity left.6
The theory of plenary inspiration has never been literally applied in a thoroughgoing fashion by responsible theologians. That has been left to the world of comic fiction, as in the story of the man who said he would believe that Jonah swallowed the whale, if the Bible said so. Instead, it has produced satellite theories of allegorical, metaphorical, mystical and spiritual interpretation. Those who, like Bunyan, might repudiate such expedients as popish subterfuges to avoid the plain meaning of the text, employ what may be called the method of eclectic quotation, the choice of texts and their interpretation being dictated by the ecclesiastical tradition in which they stand. Nevertheless, they all, catholic and protestant alike, thought that what they had to do was to discover and expound the hidden meaning which God had caused to be contained in the words of the sacred text in much the same way as the composer of a crossword puzzle gives the key to its solution in the wording of the clues. Where they differ is in the determination of what they take to be the clues. Exponents of so-called ‘biblical theology’, whose motto is that the Bible should be allowed to explain itself,7 employ the method of eclectic quotation in their choice of what passages shall control the interpretation of the rest.
It was this view of the Bible that was beginning to crumble when Ernest Walker was writing his diary in 1890, and his comment gives us some idea of the agony of soul through which our Christian forefathers had to pass in the next generation or two. To what I said of that period in my first lecture I would now add this: what was being undermined was not the theory of plenary inspiration (which no one had ever really held), but something more fundamental: the belief that in the sacred text of the Bible God has given us a manual of information about truths which he beyond the range of human discovery.
One immediate effect was to minimize, if not to deny altogether, the element of revelation in the Christian faith. The traditional two-source theory of knowledge had postulated a disjunction between two fields of reality, assigning one to human discovery and the other to divine revelation: it seemed as though to treat a truth as a matter of human discovery were to remove it from the sphere of divine revelation. When the Bible could no longer be accepted as a handbook of divinely guaranteed doctrinal statements, there was substituted the thought of it as a record of man's progress in discovering truths about God. In an attempt to preserve the sense of its importance as a revelatory medium the word ‘revelation’ was kept in the description of it as a record of ‘progressive revelation’; the Hebrews' growing discoveries about God could only have been possible through God giving insight to their prophetic leaders. But by clinging to the notion that revelation is fundamentally a communication of ideas, a matter of words rather than deeds, those who put forward this theory undermined the uniqueness of the Bible as a revelatory medium. If man's discovery of truth be the human apprehension of God's self-revelation, why should we claim that the Bible is ‘inspired’ or ‘revelatory’ in some other way than the writings of Greek philosophers or oriental sages? As I look back to meetings of Anglican and Free Church Fellowships, Church Congresses and similar gatherings, held thirty to forty years ago, I have memories on the one hand of singularly unconvincing papers arguing for the unique importance of the Bible, and on the other of proposals in our church services to place extracts from other sources on a par with the reading of Holy Scripture.
This way of reading the Bible coincided with an anti-supernatural bias current in contemporary thought. The denial that God had miraculously communicated information about Himself to man walked hand-in-hand with the denial that in the history of this world of space and time God performs any particular actions at all. If man's only way of learning the truth about God is by observation of what happens in the universe and reflection upon it, God must be thought of as the immanent spirit of the processes of evolution and history, not as one who stands over and above them, expressing His will in particular acts as well as in the general tendencies of the whole.8
We have lived to see this compromise rejected as unsatisfactory. In the theological world of to-day we are recovering our grasp of the truth that Christianity is a faith based on a unique divine revelation. What I now wish to maintain is that this recovery does not require the rehabilitation of the old Greek two-source theory of knowledge, that it is a mistake to try to find some up-to-date way of seeing in the Bible the kind of revelatory book that that theory requires.
The pursuit of this will-o'-the-wisp has of late taken the form of treating the Hebrew way of thinking as the key to deciphering the divine communications believed to he hidden in the words of Scripture. As I have already said, this emphasis on the difference between Greek and Hebrew ways of thinking and on its importance for our understanding of the Bible, has undoubtedly been one of the most valuable contributions of our day to theological study.9 It is not only that because the New Testament is written in Greek our standard commentaries in the past have tended to expound its language in the light of classical Greek thought. We in Western Europe have become so Hellenized in our dunking that we find it hard to realize that the writers of the Old Testament did not think as we do.10 It is clearly of assistance to our grasping of the revelation contained in the Bible that we should know as accurately as possible what its books meant to those who wrote them, that we should read the New Testament as the work of men who, though they wrote in Greek, thought as Hebrews, whose traditions were not those of Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato and Aristotle, but of the Old Testament and the Apocrypha. But recognition of the importance of this aid to right exegesis should not be confused with the notion that in it we have a satisfactory substitute for discarded views of inspiration based on the two-source theory.
Hebrew thought did not proceed by taking successive steps in logical argument but by accumulating images which bring before the mind different aspects of some complex truth. To recognize this, and not to criticize its authors as though they were trying to argue logically after the Greek pattern, is the first thing we have to learn when we try to understand the Bible. But there are passages in Dr. Austin Farrer's Bampton Lectures,11 notably in Lecture III, which seem to suggest that the presentation of truth in images is what constitutes the Bible a revelation of divine truth. Taken by itself, this book suggests that when he was writing it, Dr. Farrer was searching for some way of re-establishing the Bible in its place in the two-source theory, and thought he had found it in the discovery of the Hebrew habit of image-thinking. The impression it gives is that it is the presentation in images that makes the Bible revelatory, and that if we would receive God's revelation we must think in images, too.
From his other works it is clear that, if at the time when he was writing his Bampton Lectures Dr. Farrer was tempted to fall into this trap, he has resisted the temptation, and does not ignore the need of a criterion by which to distinguish between images which mirror what is true about God and His universe and images which picture what is false. But other theologians have not been so successful in avoiding the snare.
I can best illustrate this by quoting what I wrote when reviewing Dr. Lionel Thornton's Revelation and the Modern World for the Journal of Theological Studies:12
Starting from the principle that the content and form of revelation are bound up with one another, Dr. Thornton concludes that there is some special virtue in the thought-forms of the ancient Hebrews and early Christian Fathers. God's revelation is not only given in His actions which they and we seek to understand and to expound in the thought-forms of our own cultures; it is given in forms of words from which it is to be extracted by studying the writers' habits of thinking and writing. The next step is the hypothesis that whenever a writer whose ways of thinking were Hebraic used a word in one sense, he had in mind, and expected his readers to have in mind, all its other senses. Then the hunt is up, and Dr. Thornton is in full cry, tracking down the assumed intentions of biblical and patristic authors by the aid of lists of synonyms in Hebrew lexicons. Examples of the fantastic results that may be reached by these methods can be seen in the references to St. Luke's ‘topology’ on p. 221 and St. John's nuptial symbolism on p. 251.
Dr. Thornton may or may not be right in this account of the working of the Hebrew mind. If he is, it is an important and valuable aid to exegesis. But of his use of it in developing his idea of revelation I can only repeat what I wrote in the following paragraph of that review:
This search for hidden meanings in the words of Scripture has the same kind of fascination that one finds when reading expositions of the Baconian authorship of Shakespeare's plays, or the late Dr. T. S. Lea's interpretation of the New Testament through the numerical value of Greek letters—not to mention calculations based on the geometry of the Pyramids. The fundamental objection to (this) strain in Dr. Thornton's account of revelation is the contradiction in involves in the idea of God. If God be for us the God revealed in Jesus Christ how can we also think of Him as adopting a mode of revelation after the manner of a composer of cross-word puzzles? It would fit in with the speculations of Sir Edmund Gosse's father better than with the theology of the author of The Incarnate Lord.
My second example of this pursuit of the false trail is given by the Swiss theologian, Oscar Cullmann, in his book Christ and Time.13 He begins to go astray in his Foreword, when on p. 12 he writes:
In what docs the specifically Christian element of the New Testament revelation consist? That is to say, precisely what is there which it does not have in common with philosophical or religious systems?
We shall see later that there is a right and proper way of asking and answering this question. But Dr. Cullmann takes it to mean that he must look for some metaphysical conception which may be accepted as divinely revealed and must therefore be preserved free from adulteration by other views. He finds this in the fact that the Hebrew mind had what may be called a linear conception of the relation between time and eternity. Christian theology has been corrupted by infection from Greek sources with the idea of timelessness. It should have kept to the straight, narrow path of biblical thought in which eternity is the infinite projection before and after of temporal succession.
There is much that is valuable in Cullmann's exposition of the contrast between the Christian and the Jewish views on the centre of history, a contrast already familiar to English-reading theologians through the emphasis laid on it by Paul Tillich and Donald Baillie.14 Indeed, his treatment of God's revelation of Himself in and through the time-series from the creation to the parousia is in many ways admirable. But when he tries to deal with what in his way of thinking must be called the pre-creation and post-parousia periods, he falls into inevitable contradictions through not having allowed himself to ask the questions which the Greeks saw to be involved.
It is, of course, true that the revelation given to us through the Bible comes through Hebrew minds, and that questions which troubled the Greek thinkers apparently never occurred to them. But to draw from this the conclusion that God wills us neither to raise these questions nor to seek to learn from those who have thought profoundly about them is ludicrously absurd. Why, in order to be a good Christian, should it be more important to have a Hebrew type of mind than to have a Hebrew cast of countenance? If we must be limited to the Jewish idea of eternity, why not also to the Jewish shape of nose?
Thinking in images, thinking by verbal associations, thinking of eternity as time prolonged: here are three expedients by which men have sought to replace the Bible on a pedestal as a manual of divinely guaranteed information about truths too high for human discovery, three keys to unlock a door which will enable us to walk by sight instead of faith. They have in common the aim they set out to achieve and their failure to achieve it.
Such attempts do at least imply awareness of a need to find new grounds for the old way of using the Bible. More disconcerting is the fact that many exponents of so-called biblical theology take for granted the assumption on which it is based, in blissful ignorance of its unsoundness—a deficiency which seems to be endemic in much contemporary continental theology, both Lutheran and Reformed.
In 1953, for example, there was published in England, under the title Kerygma and Myth,15 a collection of essays by German theologians discussing a paper on ‘New Testament and Mythology’, by Rudolph Bultmann. More than one of the contributors describe this paper, and the debate to which it gave rise, as being for the best part of a decade the outstanding feature of interest in the German theological world. To my mind the whole discussion has an air of unreality. It is based on the assumption that the task of theologians is to take the Bible as a source-book of revealed truth and dispute about the interpretation of texts. The truth revealed concerns a divine economy to which the researches of scientists, historians, and philosophers are irrelevant. ‘Eschatology tells us the meaning and goal of the time-process, but that answer does not consist in a philosophy of history.… Indeed, eschatology is not at all concerned with the meaning and goal of secular history, for secular history belongs to the old aeon, and therefore can have neither meaning nor goal. It is concerned rather with the meaning and goal of the history of the individual and of the eschatological community’.16 This passage follows shortly after the statement that ‘the chief aim of every genuine religion is to escape from the world’.17 If theology means searching the Bible for a message from God telling us how to escape from the world, a message which is immune from criticism at the bar of science, history or philosophy, then we theologians are indeed doomed to spend our lives bombinantes in vacuo.
We can only be saved from this fate by a radical revision of the idea of revelation which underlies this way of using the Bible.
In one of his early works, Problems in the Relation of God and Man, published in 1911, Dr. C. C. J. Webb gave the quietus to the two-source theory of knowledge. He showed that the traditional division of truth into that which may be discovered by human reason, and that which must be accepted from divine revelation, cannot be maintained on either side. If God be the God of the first article of the Nicene Creed: ‘Maker… of all things visible and invisible’, all discoveries in the field assigned to human reason are discoveries about God as He makes Himself manifest in His handiwork. We cannot think that man is able to discover truths about God as it were behind God's back, nor can we approve the intellectual pelagianism involved in the idea that there is a field within which man can discover truth without divine assistance. On the other hand, it would be no use for God to give revelations to creatures incapable of receiving them, and the only way in which truth can be received is by a mind that can distinguish between truth and falsehood, in other words, by the exercise of reason. Revelation and reason are not alternatives appropriate to different fields of inquiry. They are correlative, the divine and the human sides involved in all man's growth in knowledge.
At first sight this might seem to lead straight into the evacuation of the word ‘revelation’, as ascribed to the Bible and the Christian faith, of any distinctive meaning—an evacuation which we have seen to have been widely characteristic of the theology of the period in which Dr. Webb's book was published. What was needed was a re-thinking of the whole question, and it was Dr. Webb who in his next book, Studies in the History of Natural Theology, published in 1915, pointed out the true line of advance. It is interesting to remember that professionally Dr. Webb was not a theologian but a philosopher. In those days, when theology was largely concerned with the literary and historical criticisms of the Bible, men in Oxford like Dr. Webb and Sir Walter Moberly, the one philosophy tutor at Magdalen College, the other at Lincoln, were wrestling with the question of the status in reality of this world of space and time. Their background was in post-Kantian idealism of Lessing, Fichte and Hegel, for whom events in space and time were the mode in which the eternal reality appears to our finite minds: these events are of importance simply as illustrations of the timeless truth which is our goal in all our quest for knowledge.
It is easy to see how this idealistic philosophy fits in with views which minimize or deny the uniqueness of the biblical revelation. Turning from his philosophical studies to contemplate the world of theology, Dr. Webb found both Roman Catholic modernists and many liberal Protestants adopting an attitude to the Bible which implied the philosophy he had examined and found wanting. It was thus that he wrote words which deserve to become famous as a landmark in the history of English theological thought:
… observing that, so far as by ‘historical element in religion’ we mean the element of sacred history, a belief in which forms an important element in some religions, it is a mark of higher development in a religion to emphasize this element. For in the recognition of such a sacred history religion comes to recognise itself as the most concrete and individual form of human experience, concerned not with mere abstract universals but with concrete individuals, those and no others, in which, and not elsewhere, the universals with which we have to do are, as a matter of fact, particularized, and apart from which they possess no actual reality. A religion which involves as part of its essence a sacred history is, in this way, at a higher level than one which, while setting forth certain universal principles, moral or metaphysical, is ready to symbolize them by anything that comes to hand, as it were, and is comparatively indifferent to the particular symbol chosen. Thus a religion which, having developed a theology, regards the narratives which are associated with it as mere illustrative stories, ranks below one which regards them as the actual form which the universal principles have taken…18
This passage deserves to become famous because, at that critical stage in our theological studies, in pointing to the importance of the historical element in the Christian creed it pointed out the way to a recognition of the uniqueness of the Christian revelation which should not involve the two-source theory of knowledge. It suggests that the right answer to Cullmann's question:
In what does the specifically Christian element of the New Testament revelation consist? That is to say, precisely what is there which it does not have in common with philosophical or religious systems?
may be given in the well-known words of St. Augustine:
Thou didst procure for me… certain books of the Platonists.… And therein I found… the same truth fortified with many and divers arguments.… But that ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’, this I found not there.19
The specifically Christian element in our creed is the belief that in Jesus Christ we see God at work in the history of this world, personally incarnate for the purpose of rescuing His creation from the evil with which it had become infected. God gave the specifically Christian revelation by doing some particular things in space and time. But particular events in space and time cannot be insulated from their historical context. Jesus Christ was ‘born of the Jews’, and Christian faith began with the acceptance of His claim to be the fulfilment of God's messianic promises given through the Old Testament prophets. Had there been no previous history of Israel, there would have been no one to make this act of faith, and no New Testament. Hence our recognition of God in Christ involves a recognition of His redemptive activity extended backwards over the history of the chosen people. The specifically Christian revelation is not to be found in divinely given forms of words conveying doctrinal revelation, but in the divine redemptive activity shown forth in the Incarnation and in events preparatory for and consequent upon it.
But now there is a further point. Among the divine acts which appear as events in human history we must reckon the inspiring of certain men to see their significance. Had there been no one to recognize in Christ the fulfilment of the messianic prophecies, and later to come to worship Him as God, there would be no New Testament. There would have been no such disciples if earlier there had been no prophets who saw the story of Abraham as this response to God's calling, who saw the story of the Exodus as God's rescuing of His chosen people, who saw the whole story of God's calling and rescuing within the context of faith in God as universal Creator and God of Righteousness—a faith which required the re-writing of inherited mythological cosmologies, and the education of man to know his moral responsibility to God and his sinfulness.
How did these men, first the prophets and after them the disciples, come to see all these things? They did not undertake the kind of investigation, argument and demonstration that we are accustomed to use in scientific research and philosophizing. What they had to say came to them by the exercise of a gift of insight, an illumination of the mind to see into the meaning of things.
The occurrence of this historical phenomenon is well described on pp. 194–6 of the late Dr. Wheeler Robinson's book, Inspiration and Revelation in the Old Testament.20 Here again we have to beware of the temptation to fall back into the two-source theory of revelation, to try to establish the uniqueness of the Bible by postulating in the case of the Hebrew prophets a mental endowment of a unique kind which invests with sacrosanctity their thought-forms, their imagery, or the words in which they express them.
We are saved from this by taking note of the parallel between Dr. Wheeler Robinson's account of what he calls the ‘intuitional character of prophecy’, and the opening chapter of Sir Maurice Bowra's The Romantic Imagination,21 in which he is explaining the sense in which the word ‘imagination’ was used by Blake, Wordsworth and the other Romantics.
The Romantic emphasis on the imagination was strengthened by considerations which are both religious and metaphysical. For a century English philosophy had been dominated by the theories of Locke. He assumed that in perception the mind is wholly passive, a mere recorder of impressions from without.… His system was well suited to an age of scientific speculation which found its representative voice in Newton. The mechanistic explanation which both philosophers and scientists gave of the world meant that scanty respect was paid to the human self and especially to its more instinctive, though not less powerful, convictions.
For Blake, the imagination is nothing less than God as He operates in the human soul.
… the English Romantics… believed that the imagination stands in some essential relation to truth and reality, and they were at pains to make their poetry pay attention to them.
… poets who believe that the imagination is a divine faculty concerned with the central issues of being.… Their approach is indeed not that of the analytical mind, but it is none the less penetrating. They assume that poetry deals in some sense with truth, though this truth may be different from that of science or philosophy.
So far from thinking that the imagination deals with the non-existent, they insist that it reveals an important kind of truth. They believe that when it is at work it sees things to which the ordinary intelligence is blind and that it is intimately connected with a special insight or perception or intuition. Indeed, imagination and insight are in fact inseparable and form for all practical purposes a single faculty. Insight both awakes the imagination to work and is in turn sharpened by it when it is at work.
The perception which works so closely with the imagination is not the kind in which Locke believed, and the Romantics took pains to dispel any misunderstanding on the point. Since what mattered to them was an insight into the nature of things, they rejected Locke's limitation of perception to physical objects, because it robbed the mind of its most essential function.
To these quotations I may add a brief passage from The Growth of the English Novel, by Richard Church:22
… the novel is fundamentally an aspect of poetry, a process of the imagination of man working through imagery and not through logic, to a presentation of himself and the world of which he is a part. Writers who do this… are likely to hold a higher authority than all the proselytisers and doctrinaires, who seize the novel-form with zealous hands and wrench it to purposes other than that of poetry, the ever-flowering tree of truth, and of understanding.
Let us assume for the moment that there are two ways of thinking by which men seek for and lay hold on truth, ways which for convenience we may call the scientific and the intuitional.23 It is by the interaction of the two that human knowledge and understanding are advanced. We must not think that because the prophets mainly made use of the intuitional they were for that reason doing something unique. The uniqueness of the biblical revelation is not to be found in the thought-forms, the imagery, or the language used by its writers. It lies in the uniqueness of its content, the uniqueness of the events to which it bears witness, and of their significance as seen by the eye of faith.
These words, ‘their significance as seen by the eye of faith’ bring us to the crux of the matter. It is all very well to say that God reveals Himself in what He does, in the events which make up the history of redemption. But history consists of facts together with their interpretation, and the events which form the substance of the Christian revelation include the interpretations put on the facts by the writers of the Old and New Testaments and by successive generations of Christian believers. How can we treat as objective divine relevation what must inevitably include so much of objective human interpretation? What in all this interpretation is to be the criterion of the objective, the divine, the revealed?
This latter question rests on the premise that if there be a revelation at all it must contain such a criterion, that if God has given us a revelation it must have been of this kind. It is this assumption which leads men to seek to find the criterion in the types of imagery, the verbal associations, or the metaphysical thought-forms which are characteristic of the Hebrew mind. But what is the ground of the assumption itself? Is it anything more than a human notion of what a revelation ought to be, a notion that needs to be corrected by attention to the kind of revelation that God has actually thought fit to give us?
This idea of revelation was taken for granted in much of the so-called liberal theology which flourished in the days of my youth. It underlies the notion that somewhere in the Bible there are to be found irreformable statements of doctrine which by scientific criticism we can disentangle from accretions and distortions. A recent instance of this is provided by Dr. R. S. Franks. In a book published in 1953, he finds in the preaching of St. Peter in the early chapters of Acts the primitive Christian kerygma, as it existed before St. Paul and St. John got to work on it, and says: ‘since all subsequent theologies stand as an interpretation of the original kerygma, it is by their faithfulness to the kerygma that they must be judged’.24 But the revelation itself, the depositum fidei, is not to be identified with any verbal expression of it. All subsequent theologies are not to be judged by their faithfulness to the original kerygma, but by their faithfulness to the revelation of God in Christ to which the primitive kerygma bore witness. If at the time of his preaching St. Peter was not able to see in the revelation all that St. Paul and St. John came to see, that does not mean that he was entrusted with a purer form of doctrine, and that we get closer to the depositum fidei by ignoring their insights. What the Holy Spirit opened the eyes of St. Paul and St. John to see was part of the revelation itself, just as much as what was preached by St. Peter.
To tie up the content of the revelation with Hebrew thought-forms or linguistic usage is to perpetuate the kind of liberalism against which Thornton and Cullmann most deeply feel themselves to be in revolt. It locates the criterion of revealed truth in the human characteristics of a certain race, which was essentially what was done by those for whom all truth comes by human discovery and the claim of our Christian faith rests upon the claim that the Hebrew prophets were men specially endowed with religious genius and insight. Now I believe it to be true that we should have no revelation if there had been no men with the insight which enabled them to see the significance of what God was doing and to make the right response to it. It is also true that these men were Hebrews, and that what they saw they both saw and wrote about in ways characteristic of Hebrew thinking and speaking. But the substance of the revelation lies in the enduring significance of the divine action rather than in the transitory characteristic of their human thought and speech.
The first of our two questions was: How can we treat as objective divine revelation what must of necessity include so much of subjective human interpretation? I will not say much about out this now, as it will form the main subject of my next lecture.
To accept the Christian revelation means to see certain events in the history of this world as the story of God in action rescuing His creation from evil. It means, that is to say, seeing in the events to which the Old and New Testament bear witness what the prophets and the apostles saw in them. The Bible becomes to us the bearer of God's revelation as our eyes are opened to share their insight and see what they saw. God reveals Himself not only in the earthly events but also in the illumination of minds to see their significance. We must hold fast to the principle that what makes the revelation revelation is the work of God and not of man. The Bible gives us the events as seen by prophets and apostles. When our eyes are opened to see what they saw it is because one and the same God the Holy Ghost ‘Who spake by the prophets’ has opened our ears to hear what He wills to say to us through them.
Down the ages the Bible becomes the medium of revelation as in successive generations God the Holy Spirit opens the eyes of readers to see through the words the truth to which it bears witness. Theologians of necessity think in the forms of thought and express themselves in the linguistic usage of their own age and culture. Careful exegesis of the text, seeking to understand what it meant in the minds of its original writers and readers, must be the basis of all attempts at exposition or the formulation of doctrine. But then the further question has to be asked: ‘What must the truth have been if it appeared like this to men who thought like that?’ St. Peter saw it with the eyes of a Palestinian Jew who up to the Day of Pentecost had not, so far as we know, travelled further from Galilee than Jerusalem; St. Paul, a Pharisee who had been born a Roman citizen, after his schooling by Gamaliel had had a university education at Tarsus; St. John (if Dr. Dodd is right) had a mind at home in the Hellenistic culture of Ephesus. If the truth about God's revelation in Christ be such that those men saw it and wrote of it like that, what must it be for us?
In traditional theology the Roman Catholic distinction between ecclesia docens and ecclesia discens, and Calvin's emphasis on the need of Testimonium Spiritus Sancti internum, both point to this side of the truth about revelation. Both imply that the Bible only becomes revelation to readers guided by the Holy Spirit, readers who (in Pauline language) have the eyes of their hearts enlightened, to whom the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, gives a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him.25
We who to-day in Great Britain seek to find God's revelation by reading the Bible under the guidance of the Holy Spirit with the eye of faith are not prophets of ancient Israel or Palestinian apostles or Hellenistic Fathers of the Church. We are men and women of the twentieth century, reared in the traditions of Western European civilization, our ways of thinking and speaking conditioned by the culture of our age and clime. In order to see with their eyes we need all the help that scholarship can give us towards understanding how the minds of biblical and patristic writers were conditioned in their turn. But we need this understanding of their habits of thought and speech in order to discount them, not to adopt them; in order to answer the question: ‘What must the truth have been if it appeared like this to men who thought and spoke like that?’ The God Who reveals Himself in events and their interpretation is one and the same, yesterday, to-day, and for ever. We men, through whom He wills to act in thought and word as well as deed, are finite creatures of space and time. We must be content to see what we can see from the standpoint of our own circumstances. Our task is to expound the revelation as we see it to our contemporaries, leaving it to future generation to discount whatever in our vision and exposition has been of only passing worth.
What God has done cannot be altered or undone. Therein lies the unchanging deposit of the faith. But through the insights of different men in different ages and different cultures He, who never contradicts Himself, gives increasing understanding of its significance. One remembers, for example, how from their missionary experience men like Father H. H. Kelly and Canon W. E. S. Holland were impressed by the way in which Japanese and Indian Christians would seize on aspects of the character of our Lord which we Westerners might never have noticed until they pointed them out to us. Again, a paper by Mr. T. S. Garrett in the issue of the periodical Theology for April, 1951, opens up a whole range of questions by asking what will be the effect of taking into account as post-biblical revelation the continued action of God in the history of the Church.
‘We walk by faith, not by sight’. False theories of revelation spring from a refusal to be content with our creaturely status, an insistence that the only revelation worth having is one which gives us the kind of knowledge open only to a spectator of all time and all existence. But it is not for us to dictate to our Creator. We must be content to see and think and speak as men of our own age and culture. The measure of our faith in Him is our willingness to walk by the light of the kind of revelation that He has thought fit to give us.
Faith is not simply believing that God has done certain definite things in the past. It is that, but it is also trust in the living Lord of to-day and to-morrow, trust in Him that He will fulfil His promise to send His Spirit to take of the things that He has done and show them unto us, guiding us onward into all truth. The revelation of the past is to be interpretated by the light of the revelation of the present and the future.
Lord Gifford made his will five years before Dr. Ernest Walker put down in his diary his thoughts about Lux Mundi. As a matter of exegesis it is clear that in contrasting it with science he uses the word revelation in the sense that derives from the two-source theory of knowledge. That way of drawing the contrast implied a difference of logical method between the use of human reason to scrutinize evidence and the holding of beliefs accepted on authority. On the view which I have been developing in this lecture that contrast no longer holds good. When we say that what we believe as Christians has come to us by revelation, we do not mean that it consists of doctrines taken over from some allegedly divine source, in the acceptance of which our minds have been passive. It means that to us a certain series of events in the history of the world are significant as expressing the redemptive activity of its Creator. So far as logical method is concerned, argument from the occurrence of those events to the specifically Christian doctrine of God is of the same kind as argument from the nature of the world in general to God's existence. The formulation and exposition of the Christian revelation is as much a matter of natural theology as what Lord Gifford described as ‘the science of Infinite Being’.
The distinction we can draw is not between so-called natural and revealed theology, but between the revelation which God gives of Himself as Creator and that which He gives of Himself as Redeemer. The former is apprehended by observation of and reflection upon the nature of the universe in general; the latter by observation of and reflection upon certain events to which the Bible bears witness.
In studying both we have to bear in mind the fundamental truth that revelation and reason are not alternatives appropriate to different fields of inquiry, that they are the divine and human sides involved in all man's growth in knowledge. This carries with it the corollary that in the last resort the content of an alleged revelation must be the criterion of the source, and not vice versa. All that I have said in my second lecture about the method of our thinking in our attempts to make sense of our experience remains true when we regard the knowledge that comes to us as coming by revelation. When an idea is presented to us as claiming to come from a source that is revelatory, we must ask how it will fit in with what else we know of the nature of things. It may be that the result will be to show that our existing categories are in need of revision. It may be that the alleged revelation will have to be rejected as a false pretender. Until this question can be settled we must suspend our judgment on the credentials of its source.
I was once asked by a publisher for an opinion on a manuscript which had been submitted to him. It had been received by so-called automatic writing, and claimed to be a revelation of truth concerning profound mysteries given by supernatural beings entitled the Watchers. Unfortunately these Watchers, in their celestial sphere, were apparently ignorant of much that had been thought, said and written by human philosophers on earth during the last twenty or thirty years: their revelations were the king of thing that might have passed for a quasi-philosophical article in a popular magazine, one of those articles in which the thoughts of the previous generation of scholars linger on and filter through to a wider public. I could not regard as revelation from heaven material which was inferior to what was being produced on earth.
To make the content the criterion of the source is the only safeguard against being at the mercy of any and every superstition. But if we are to apply it to those who bring us messages gained by automatic writing and similar supernormal phenomena, we must, if we are honest, be prepared equally to use it when considering the contents of the Bible or the decrees of councils of the Church. Why, indeed, should we not so treat the Bible and the Church when God Himself has revealed His will to submit His revelation to us in this way, when He has bidden us to be wise as serpents, to use for grasping revelation the same kind of intelligence that is used for meteorology, to find in His actions the credential of His claims?26 The disciple who bade his fellow-Christians ‘prove the spirits’ was true to his Master in making the content the criterion of the source.27
In the historic creeds of Christendom the first two articles deal successively with the two modes of divine revelation which I have distinguished. We begin by saying ‘I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible’. This, by asserting the whole universe to be the creation of the one and only God there is, asserts our faith in Him as He is revealed to us in and through His handiwork in general. Then, in the second article, beginning with the words ‘And in one Lord Jesus Christ’, we affirm that what is specifically Christian in our belief is our understanding of certain empirical facts in the history of this world.
In the third article we say that we ‘believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord, the Giver of Life… who spake by the prophets’. This turns our thoughts to that element in God's revelatory action which I have spoken of as His inspiring men to see the significance of events as revelatory. One more lecture will have to be given to this side of the subject before I am done with the introductory part of my course. After that, in the remainder of this first series, I shall confine myself to the study of what I may call the universe in general, of the way in which, to us Christians, God reveals Himself in His handiwork as Creator. In the second series I shall be trying to show how the Christian understanding of the events which we believe to express His redemptive activity throws light on our attempt to make sense of the whole. I cannot describe these as dealing successively with natural and revealed theology. If all theology is both natural and revealed, that distinction is no longer tenable. I may perhaps, however, use the phrase natural theology for the whole field within which Christian theology has its distinctive place, and follow this usage in giving titles to the subdivisions of my work.
In this contrast, and elsewhere, I use the words ‘reason’ and ‘rational’ as general terms for ma's power to apprehend truth, including both immediate acts of apprehension and reasoning processes. This usage differs from that of those who confine them to the latter activity, employing ‘intellect’ and ‘intellectual’ for the former. See, e.g., H. A. Hodges in Mascall: The Angels of Light and the Powers of Darkness (London, 1954), pp. 2–8.
2 Cor. v. 7.
An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book IV, ch. ii.
Stevenson: Book of Quotations (1934), p. 262, also quotes a slightly different version from John Donne.
Cp. The Doctrine of the Atonement, p. 14.
M. Deneke: Ernest Walker (Oxford, 1951), p. 23.
Cp. e.g., ‘Wherever a non-Biblical principle derived from contemporary secular thought is applied to the interpretation of the Bible, the Bible's Facultas se ipsum interpretandi is violated, with fatal results’. H. Thielicke, in Bartsch: Kerygma and Myth (E. Tr. London, 1954), p. 149.
Cp. e.g., K. Lake: The Religion of Yesterday and To-morrow (Boston and New York, 1925).
Above, Lecture I, p. 21.
On this see E. Bevan: Hellenism and Christianity (London, 1921), Essay I.
The Glass of Vision (London, 1948).
October, 1951, pp. 223 ff.
E. Tr. London, 1951.
See the reference to Tillich in D. Baillie: God was in Christ (1948), p. 74.
Edited by H. W. Bartsch, translated by R. H. Fuller (London, S. P. C. K., 1953).
Op. cit., p. 116.
Op. cit., p. 29.
Confessions (Tr. Bigg), VII, ix.
London, 1951, p. 213.
It would here need too long a digression to raise the question whether they are not both in fact intuitional. On this see my chapter on ‘The Nature of Human Thought’ in Towards a Christian Philosophy (London, 1942), and below, Lecture V, pp. 97 ff.
R. S. Franks: The Doctrine of the Trinity (London, 1953), pp. 5 ff., 195.
Eph. i. 17, 18.
St. Matt. x. 16; xvi. 1–4; xii. 27; xi. 4–6.
1 St. John iv. 1–3.