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Part II: The Immanence of the Transcendent

Lecture XII: Revelation and Its Mode

We have found reason to assert without mitigation the full Personality of that ultimate Reality in which the whole universe is grounded. That is another way of asserting the doctrine of Creation. If we begin with the conviction of a Personal God, the relation between Him and the world must be that of Creator to creature; if we begin with the world and find that it points us to a personal ground of its existence, the relation of the world to such ground of its being must be that of creature to Creator. For the essence of the doctrine of Creation is not that God inaugurated the existence of the world at a particular moment of time, but that it owes its existence—not only its beginning—to His volitional activity. The doctrine of Creation denies that the world proceeds from the Divine Being by any process of inevitable emanation; it denies that God and the World are correlates, so that each depends upon the other for existence in the same way; it asserts that the world exists because God chose to call it into being and chooses to sustain it in being. If He is personal, and if He is the ground of the world’s existence, this follows as an inevitable consequence. The word “choose” may have associations that are out of place, and the same may be true of all other human language. But the word “choose” expresses what chiefly needs to be expressed—that God is under no external compulsion to make and sustain a world; He does it because it seems good to Him so to do. “Thou hast created all things, and because of thy will they were, and were created.”1

But our enquiry did not lead us to the bare assertion that the world owes its origin and continuous existence to the Divine Will, but also to the consequent conviction that all things are in their measure an expression of that will which sustains but also moulds and guides all things, so that the unity of the world, its principle of rational coherence, is the Divine Personality in self-expression.2 Further we were brought to the view that because the world’s principle of unity is personal its manifestation will not be through invariable uniformity but in such variability of adaptation as expresses the constancy of the divine character in face of the various moments of universal history. For the most part we shall expect to find, as we find in fact, a widespread uniformity; because where there is no special and sufficient occasion for variation, its occurrence would argue caprice rather than constancy. Moreover, we have seen that, so far as the moral quality of human life is matter of concern to the Creator, it supplies a reason, not so much for variation to meet special contingencies as for a uniformity sufficiently general to be the basis of purposive action. But where there is sufficient occasion, the creative will may vary its more usual activity; when this occurs, it is not through the intrusion of some normally inoperative cause, but through the action of what alone accounts for all existences and occurrences, the volition of personal Deity. It is thus characteristic of God that He should usually act by what to us is uniformity (though the appearance even of this may conceal variations too delicate for our perception and too small to affect our confidence in action), just as it is characteristic of Him to vary His action when the occasion is sufficient. Yet there is inevitably a peculiarly revealing quality in the occasional variations, both because they show what occasions are in the divine judgement sufficient, and because they are the issue of a specially directed activity in face of the sufficient occasion, whereas the general uniformity obviously does not issue from such specially directed activity. That God did not intervene in answer to my prayer to save the life of some friend during the Great War by deflection of a bullet may perhaps be indirectly a manifestation of His love both for my friend and for me; but if He raised Jesus of Nazareth from death, that is a much more direct manifestation of His relationship to the Life and Death of Jesus.

Now many religions have in their traditions the record of events which from the standpoint of a believer in absolute uniformity must appear abnormal. To the historical critic this is an occasion for vigilance, if not for suspicion. He is aware of the tendency towards belief in miracle as a characteristic of religion, and is bound accordingly to discount the evidence for such events to some extent. On the other hand, the student of religions is bound to notice the fact that this tendency is present in religion. It is possible, of course, to set it on one side as one of the superstitions which continually beset religion; but before this is done, care must be taken to ascertain how much of what is regarded as essential to religion is bound up with this tendency. For it may be that even though our intention be only to distinguish between superstition and genuine religion, yet the repudiation of what has been condemned as the former may carry with it the evisceration of what has been commended as the latter.

Professor Otto lately called attention to the characteristic element in religion to which he gave the name of “the numinous”. It is possible to be grateful for his general insistence upon the presence of this element in all vital religion without accepting the whole of his account of it. In primitive forms of religion there is no distinction drawn between the veritably awe-inspiring and the occasion of shuddering fears. But on the whole these last go with conceptions of Deity as uncanny and capricious, a cavernous darkness out of which unknown terrors may leap upon us. And with that conception of Deity religion parts company as it develops to the height of its own stature. The Infinite must for ever remain incomprehensible to the finite; but this is not because it is in itself the unintelligible; it is because of the limitation of our power to understand. “God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all”;3 towards such a declaration all progress in religion is, and ever has been, pressing. God is the utterly reliable. There is nothing of the morbid or the occult in our awe before Him; but in that awe is the very heart of worship and of religion itself.

The whole course of our argument forbids us to draw any sharp distinction between the works of God so as to regard some of these as constituting His self-revelation and the others as offering no such revelation. We can make no truce with any suggestion that the world for the most part goes by itself on its own way while God intervenes now and again with an act of His own. The course of thought, which enables us to hold together religious faith in the living God and the picture of the world with which science provides us, renders the whole notion of such divine intrusion from without intolerable and incredible; for this course of thought has perpetually recurred to the insistence that all occurrences find their ultimate ground in the Divine Volition. But if we stopped here we should only have affirmed that in the entire course of cosmic history there is to be found the self-revelation of God; and that, no doubt, is true; but as no man can ever hope to contemplate that history in its entirety, it cannot be said to afford a revelation to us or for us. Moreover, this affirmation by itself concerns cosmic history as a whole, as though it proceeded on its course uninfluenced by any agents within it who are completely or partially free to influence that course. If there is ground for holding that such agents exist, then we must expect to find instances of divine action relevant to the situations which their free acts create, and while such action will be no more divine than the constant purpose which sustains all things in being, it will have a specially revelatory quality, because it is an expression of the divine character in face of critical situations, and not only an episode in the age-long energy of God. It is always in dealing with persons as persons that personality most truly expresses itself. It tells us something about a man’s character if we know that he rises from bed every day at the same hour; it tells us much more about him if we know that he even once rose a great deal earlier to do some act of kindness. The main field of Revelation must be in the history of men, rather than in the ample spaces of nature, though it is also true that if nature were so severed from God as to offer no revelation of Him at all, it would mean that there was no Being fitly to be called God, and therefore no revelation of Him either in human history or elsewhere.

We saw at an earlier stage that man’s relationship to Truth, to Beauty and to Goodness is such as to imply that in each of these a Personal Spirit is calling to him and claiming him.4 This prepares us for a more intimate expression of what thus receives august but not unfamiliar intimation. The revelation to which Religion in many of its historical forms appeals is therefore nothing alien from such a view of the world as we have been led to form, but is something very much more than is discoverable except in such supposed revelation. Here the Divine Mind in which all Nature is grounded speaks direct to that Human Nature which, of all Nature known to us, is nearest to itself because, like itself, it is personal and spiritual. The personal God can only be adequately revealed in and through persons; but then such revelation must be distorted by any defects in the persons through whom it comes. The revelation given in the majesty of the starry heavens may be perfect in its kind, though its kind is markedly inadequate; the revelation given through the reason and conscience of men is more adequate in kind, but in that kind is usually imperfect.

We have not yet spoken of the problem of evil except to refer to it as the distinctively religious problem among all those which call for intellectual solution, and the discussion of it must be postponed until we can give undivided attention to it. But the existence of evil in its worst form, that of sin, introduces a defect, and it may be a distortion, into all revelation given through the medium of human personality, unless there be found an instance of this which is free from sin. This defect or distortion is something more than limitation in fullness or completeness; it affects the quality of the revelation in ways that are not capable of ascertainment in advance; and this fact must be borne in mind in any attempt to set forth the general conditions of the possibility of revelation.

We affirm then, that unless all existence is a medium of Revelation no particular Revelation is possible; for the possibility of Revelation depends on the personal quality of that supreme and ultimate Reality which is God. If there is no ultimate Reality, which is the ground of all else, then there is no God to be revealed; if that Reality is not personal, there can be no special revelation, but only uniform procedure; if there be an ultimate Reality, and this is personal, then all existence is revelation. Either all occurrences are in some degree revelation of God, or else there is no such revelation at all; for the conditions of the possibility of any revelation require that there should be nothing which is not revelation. Only if God is revealed in the rising of the sun in the sky can He be revealed in the rising of a son of man from the dead; only if He is revealed in the history of Syrians and Philistines can He be revealed in the history of Israel;5 only if he chooses all men for His own can He choose any at all; only if nothing is profane can anything be sacred. It is necessary to stress with all possible emphasis this universal quality of revelation in general before going on to discuss the various modes of particular revelation; for the latter, if detached from the former, loses its root in the rational coherence of the world and consequently becomes itself a superstition and a fruitful source of superstitions. But if all existence is a revelation of God, as it must be if He is the ground of its existence, and if the God thus revealed is personal then there is more ground in reason for expecting particular revelations than for denying them.

The massive impressiveness of nature’s apparent uniformity leads some religious students of natural science to suppose that it is more consonant with Divine Majesty to impose upon nature one order never to be varied than to meet successive situations with appropriately varied activity. We have already commented on this view, which seems to make the Divine Will more external to the natural order than the course of our argument would suggest, and also ignores the fact that personal wisdom is not shown in rigid uniformity of behaviour, but in constancy of purpose expressed through infinitely various response to different conditions. Our task now is rather to consider what forms religious people have supposed that special revelation to have taken, in which their trust is reposed, what is implied in such forms of revelation, how far they are philosophically justifiable, and what are the conditions of a fully satisfactory revelation. For our purposes it will be sufficient, and will prevent confusion, if we confine ourselves, except for occasional illustration, by way of similarity or contrast, to the religious tradition with which we are familiar.

Most people who share our cultural tradition, if asked where Christians supposed that a particular revelation of God is to be found, would probably answer that it is in the Bible. At once the question arises whether the Bible is supposed to be itself the revelation, or to be the record of the revelation. Is the revelation in the book or in the events which the book records? Plainly it could not be in the book unless it is first in the events. And this is the witness of the book itself; for the prophets, who claimed that the word of the Lord came to them, were largely occupied in reading the lessons of history to the people whose history it was. Living by faith in the personal and living God, they saw His hand in all that affected the people with whom they were concerned. This is a conception in full harmony with the general position that we have outlined. But it is to be frankly recognised that it is by no means the traditional doctrine of Christendom. The traditional doctrine has rather been that the Book itself is the revelation than that it contains the record of it. The position stated with emphasis in the Vatican Decrees and still more pointedly reaffirmed by Leo XIII. in his Encyclical Providentissimus Deus of 18936 is that which has been traditional in Christendom throughout the greater part of Christian history. For our present purpose the importance of this fact resides in the testimony which it affords of the natural craving of religion for a final and unquestionable authority.

The Natural Theologian is not concerned with the question whether there has in fact been given an authoritative revelation of this kind. But he is very much concerned with the question what would be involved in its occurrence, and also with the question whether there is not another view of revelation more consonant with such a conception of the universe in relation to God as we are led by general considerations to frame. Now this traditional doctrine of revelation implies, first, that God has so far overridden and superseded the normal human faculties of those through whom the revelation was given as to save their utterance by voice or pen from all error in its communication. That God is able to do this we need not be concerned to deny; the question is whether it is consonant with what we otherwise know of His dealings with men that He should wish to do so, and also whether this view of the general nature of revelation is consistent with the actual content of the revelation supposed to be so given. In order to deal with the first of these questions we must anticipate some results of future arguments, and especially that concerning human freedom before God. For it seems that while it cannot without spiritual disaster be contended that man apart from God is free to do the will of God, it is also indispensable to faith and to morality to hold that God empowers men to do His will through the enlightenment of their natural faculties and the kindling of their natural affections, and not by any supersession of these. But to provide, by some process of suggestion, oracles directly expressive of divine truth—that is, of the divine apprehension of the reality which includes Creator and created universe—would be to repudiate this principle alike as regards the prophet and as regards the hearers. If Amos and Isaiah and the unknown author or authors of the Books of the Kings wrote (as Leo XIII. phrased it) “at the dictation of the Holy Ghost,”7 in any sense of those words which could at all justify the use of them—for what “dictation” means in this context is by no means obvious—then no doubt their content must be regarded as truth, but it is truth conveyed in a manner wholly without either parallel or analogy in the normal relationship between God and man, and even contradictory of that relationship.

That would not be a fatal obstacle to belief in this theory if it could be shown that there is sufficient occasion for a departure from the norm, and also that the particular departure in question is consonant with the revelation given by means of it, and appropriate for the purpose for which it is given. That there is sufficient occasion is beyond dispute. Whether we take the view that apart from any “Fall” man’s nature is such that he can have no true knowledge of God through normal processes, or the view that only by the “Fall” has he come under that disability,8 or even the view that he is in principle capable of reaching the saving knowledge of God but has not in fact by his own powers attained to it—in any case the conveyance to man of this knowledge is a matter of import so transcendent, and an activity of love so characteristic, that it must be regarded as offering as adequate occasion as any could ever be for a departure from normal procedure.

But there are far greater difficulties when we turn to the relation of this method of revelation to the content of the revelation so conveyed. The Fathers of the Church saved the situation by means of allegorical interpretation. Thus St. Thomas quotes with approval the teaching of St. Augustine that there are two rules to be observed:

“The first is to hold the truth of Scripture without wavering; the second is that since Holy Scripture can be explained in a multiplicity of senses, one should adhere to a particular explanation only in such measure as to be ready to abandon it, if it be proved with certainty to be false; lest Holy Scripture be exposed to the ridicule of unbelievers, and obstacles be placed to their believing.”9

The necessity of recourse to the second of these principles as a means of adhering to the first is sufficiently obvious. But it destroys the whole value of this form of revelation. I am to believe whatever is the true meaning of Scripture; but I have no way of knowing what that is; what I take to be the true meaning may be proved to be in part false, whereupon I am to say that the mistake was mine and that this was not what Scripture meant. Unless the revelation is not only indubitably true but also unmistakeable, it fails to fulfil the function which this theory of revelation assigns to it. We need not wonder that where once men had set their hearts on having some infallible authority in the realm of spiritual truth, they were driven by the logic of their own desire from the infallible Book to the infallible Church and to the infallible spokesman of the infallible Church. Only by those expedients can the desire for infallible guidance be satisfied, or the theory of oracular revelation perform its function.

When we turn to the consonance of this theory with the content of the revelation to which it is applied a similar result follows. For the Historical Figure in whose career the story finds its culmination, and who is acclaimed as its crown and illumination by those whose theory is under review, is in nothing more remarkable than in His unfailing respect for the spiritual liberty of those with whom He had dealings. Though the record presents Him as capable of miraculous action, and as having recourse to it for purposes of mercy, it also presents Him as steadily refusing to allow such acts to become the basis of men’s adherence to Him or to His cause. He appears as desiring none but willing disciples; and to them He gave teaching designed rather to stimulate and direct their thought than to provide formulated doctrines claiming acceptance on His authority. The revelation, if given at all, is given more in Himself than in His teaching, and the faith in which His early followers believed that they had found salvation did not consist in the acceptance of propositions concerning Him nor even in acceptance of what He taught in words concerning God and man, though this was certainly included, but in personal trust in His personal presence, love and power. Doctrinal or credal formulae had their importance as pointing to Him, by trust in whom His followers had found peace; they were not themselves the revelation, but sign-posts indicating where the revelation was to be found.

All this was in line with the earlier and supposedly preparatory revelation. For this, as has been already suggested, consisted primarily in historical events, and secondarily in the illumination of the minds of prophets to read those events as disclosing the judgement or the purpose of God. What we find in the Old Testament Scriptures is not mainly, if at all, authoritative declarations of theological doctrine, but living apprehension of a living process wherein those whose minds are enlightened by divine communion can discern in part the purposive activity of God.

Revelation so conceived is the full actuality of that relationship between Nature, Man and God which throughout these Lectures we are seeking to articulate. First there is the world-process, which, in its more complex components, if not throughout, is organic in principle; secondly, we have the fact that certain organisms, to wit ourselves, occurring as episodes of the world-process, are able to apprehend and in part to comprehend that process; thirdly, we infer from this that the process, in order to give rise to such episodes in its course, must be regarded as itself grounded in a mental principle; fourthly, enquiry into that interaction of the intelligent organism with its environment, which we call thought, compels the assertion that the principle in which the world-process is grounded, is not only mental but spiritual and personal; fifthly, this leads us to the conviction that the process itself and all occurrences within it—including the intelligences of men—are due to the purposive action of that Person whose reality has been established as the governing fact of existence. He guides the process; He guides the minds of men; the interaction of the process and the minds which are alike guided by Him is the essence of revelation.

But His action in guiding the world is not constant in a mechanical sense; rather its constancy, as that of all personal action, is found in its infinite adjustability to present conditions. It is true that the conditions are themselves due to the divine action, but that does not affect the argument if we recognise two facts: first, that the divine action in or upon the world is not the essentially dead action of an immanent principle, but the essentially living action of a transcendent Person; and secondly, that among the conditions are the attitudes adopted by, and the situations created by, the relatively free acts of finite intelligences like ourselves.

Much of the divine action which sustains the world is such as to produce apparent uniformity in the world-process. We have already seen why this should be so, even from the standpoint of human interests. But of course this apparent uniformity may itself be due to an elaborately designed balance of multiform adjustments. If those scientists are right who regard recent developments as having introduced indeterminacy into the basis of Physics, so that laws of causation are to be understood, not as real uniformities but as statistical averages,10 the theistic philosopher will be prepared with the account of the (physically) indeterminate behaviour of electrons and of the resultant constancy of natural processes, which has just been offered. If on the other hand the older scientific view of uniform causal processes ultimately prevails, for this also the theist has his explanation, both in the constancy of the Divine Nature which will vary its activity only for sufficient reason, and in the need for substantial uniformity as a basis for moral action. The more modern view supplies a greater measure of that continuity between different stages of evolutionary complexity, and this may recommend it to theists who share the common scientific interest in such continuity. The Natural Theologian is not concerned in the dispute; either alternative is equally agreeable to him.

Whatever be the final view of that matter, it will remain true that, while the apparently uniform process of the world is in its measure a revelation of God for those whose minds are alert to its significance, it is less fully revelatory than specially adapted activities for the meeting of such contingencies as give sufficient ground for such activities. It is therefore not unnatural or inappropriate that the term Revelation should be commonly used with a specialised reference to these occasions. But these must be understood as particular and conspicuous illustrations of the principle of revelation already stated—the interaction of the world-process and the minds, both being alike guided by God. In these events too—be it a deliverance of a nation from bondage in despite of all calculable probabilities, be it the Incarnation in a human life of that Self-Utterance of God which is the ground of the created universe—there is no imparting of truth as the intellect apprehends truth, but there is event and appreciation; and in the coincidence of these the revelation consists.

There is obviously neither need nor possibility to draw any dividing line between the revelation which is continuously given in the whole course of the world-process as men’s minds are enlightened to appreciate this, and the revelation which is given in special and signal occasions. Among the events which are conspicuous in the record accepted by Christendom as in a special sense Revelation, those which accompanied or facilitated the Exodus or the retreat of Sennacherib may be more easily referred to normal processes, while those which preceded the birth or followed the death of Jesus Christ are more difficult to classify under that head. Yet even here, for those who start, not from efficient causation but from divine intention and efficacy, it may be that we have the most strictly natural way of bringing about a divine self-incarnation, and a strictly natural issue of the bodily death of humanity when rendered sinless by divine indwelling.11 If we make the mistake of beginning with the thought of God as normally acting by way of immanence, while holding His transcendent resources in reserve against emergencies, we may fairly be challenged to say under which heading any particular occasion should be classified; and scientifically trained minds then appear to have some justification for the protest, to which they often are inclined, that it would be more consonant with divine Majesty so to order the world that no interventions disturbing to its order should be required. But if the contention of the last Lecture is sound, and divine immanence is always and only the activity of a transcendent Personality, and operates, after the manner of personal action, by infinitely various adjustments which exhibit constancy of character in face of varied situations, then there is no need for any dividing line, nor any possibility of drawing one. All things are grounded in the divine volition, which acts on each occasion as is appropriate for the fulfilment of the divine purpose. All therefore is alike revelation; but not all is equally revelatory of the divine character. We find revelation at its highest where God finds occasion for unusual action, and we find it then both in the choice of occasion for such unusual action (for the divine character is revealed in its estimate of such and such an occasion as sufficient) and in the mode of action taken.

But whether we think of the unceasing revelation afforded in the whole world-process or of the occurrences which constitute revelation in the specialised sense of the word, the principle of revelation is the same—the coincidence of event and appreciation12 Here we have at its fullest development that living intercourse of mind and world-process which we found to be the true life of thought. For here the mind, which arises within, and out of, the process, apprehends the process for what it truly is—the self-expression of that Creator-mind in the kinship of which created minds are fashioned. From the occurrence of our finite minds within the process we were led to believe that the process which contains them must be grounded in mind; the finite mind in developing its intercourse with its environment finds itself the subject of intellectual judgements, aesthetic appreciations, moral obligations, thus becoming aware of the reality of Truth, Beauty and Goodness in that environment; considering these experiences it finds in all of them evident marks of personal relationship, and learns to recognise the environment as the self-communication to itself of a personal Creator. In the characteristic moments of revelation this apprehension and appreciation is at its highest point of development.

Its essence is intercourse of mind and event, not the communication of doctrine distilled from that intercourse. The contrary opinion, which has so long held the field, is due to the false estimate of conceptual thinking held by Greek and Scholastic and Cartesian philosophers. Through the greater portion of Christian history it has been held by Christians that

“the kind of knowledge which Revelation gave consisted in exact, clear-cut truth-statements. It was an immediate communication of truths as they existed in the Divine mind, even though their communication might involve some measure of accommodation to the human mind’s power of reception.”13

So writes Canon Lilley in his recent Paddock Lectures, and comments as follows:

“The fact that the actual revelations of Scripture had very seldom anything approaching this character was for tradition something of a scandal, a difficulty to be explained away. For us the difficulty does not exist. The scandal becomes the clearest witness to what we should expect in man’s attempt to translate the knowledge he had received through God’s immediate action upon his rapt and expectant soul. The effect of that action upon man is to exalt him into a mood of perception in which the mind is as it were dazed by the wonder revealed. Through figure and image and symbol it translates the awed impression of a truth whose vastness and sublimity must ever evade its clear grasp. The typical medium of revelation is not the thinker but the seer.”14

That is finely said. But it seems to me to be only a part of the truth, and it can only be true at all if conceptual thinking is, as it was described earlier,15 an interim procedure. If such thinking as finds expression in the propositions of traditional Logic were the actual apprehension of reality, revelation must offer itself in such propositions or forfeit the right to its name. But if that mode of thinking properly corresponds to the analytical study of the score between two occasions of hearing great music, we shall not expect the divine self-disclosure to be made at that stage or in that form. Rather we shall expect to find it in the tumultuous surge and the serene calm of the world’s music itself. Theologians will play the part of musical critics, analysing and summarising; but they too will return from theology to worship, as St. Thomas passed from the Summa Theologiae to the Lauda, Sion, Salvatorem. From all this it follows that there is no such thing as revealed truth. There are truths of revelation that is to say, propositions which express the results of correct thinking concerning revelation; but they are not themselves directly revealed. On the other hand, this does not involve the result that there need be anything vague or indefinite about revelation itself. Canon Lilley does not wholly avoid the suggestion of such indefiniteness, because, while denying revealed truth, he docs not altogether escape the influence of the view that revelation is primarily something which happens within the mind. It is true that “the typical medium of revelation is not the thinker but the seer”. But it is also true that the typical locus of revelation is not the mind of the seer but the historical event. And if the revelation is essentially an event or fact, then it can be perfectly definite, although it neither is nor can be exhaustively represented in propositions. Moreover, it can be a focus of unity for people whose interpretation of it is various.

But we have to add that though the revelation is chiefly given in objective fact, yet it becomes effectively revelatory only when that fact is apprehended by a mind qualified to appreciate it. Like Beauty,16 Revelation exists or occurs objectively but is subjectively conditioned. Revelation is given chiefly through events to minds enlightened to receive it. Some direct self-communication no doubt there also is from God to the soul. It would be strange if He acted only in the inorganic and non-spiritual, and dealt with spirits akin to Himself only by the indirect testimony of the rest of His creation.

This intercourse of the human mind with God will be more fully considered in the next Lecture under the heading of religious experience. It is conditioned by religious tradition, but may carry its recipient beyond that tradition. The signal instance of a conviction that must be credited to a divine self-communication given by means of such intercourse is the prophetic faith in the righteousness and holiness of God of which the intellectual formula is Ethical Monotheism. This was certainly not an inference from experience; it was an illumination arising from communion with God in the activity of conscience and in adoration, in the light of which the prophets read the history of their times. Even so, it was not a communicated “faith”, but a crystallisation of thought and feeling under pressure of facts experienced or anticipated, as when Abraham exclaimed, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”17

The spiritual impulse within us is as yet rudimentary, and is called into action chiefly by way of response to the acts of God objectively presented to us. In the language of Christian theology, God utters Himself in His Word as Creator and Providential Ruler; that same Word, according to Christian belief, becomes incarnate in the world created by its agency; to all this activity of God in His Word or (to us) objective self-utterance, a response arises from within us who are parts of that world, and this response is the movement in us of the divine Spirit. It is powerful in proportion as the objective self-disclosure is complete in itself and also completely apprehended,18 so that it is only as response to the fullness of revelation that the Spirit is known in plenitude of power.

For two reasons the event in which the fullness of revelation is given must be the life of a Person: the first is that the revelation is to persons who can fully understand only what is personal; the second is that the revelation is of a personal Being, who accordingly cannot be adequately revealed in anything other than personality. Moreover, if the Person who is Himself the revelation is to be truly adequate to that function, He must be one in essence with the Being whom He reveals. Professor Pringle-Pattison, in his Gifford Lectures on The Philosophy of Religion, comments on the traditional Christian doctrine as follows:

“In every religion the question at issue is the character of its God or Gods; for on that depends its whole conception of human duty and its views of human destiny. The lesson of Christianity is that we have to think of God in terms of Christ—sub specie Christi, if we may adapt a great phrase—in terms, that is to say, of his recorded teaching and of the spirit of his dedicated life and death. And in order to give us authentic tidings of the character of God, Jesus did not require actually to be God.”19

Professor Pringle-Pattison betrays the weakness of his position by the use of the phrase “give us authentic tidings of the character of God”. It is a phrase that belongs to conceptual thinking. Tidings about God are such accounts of Him as can be expressed in propositions and communicated by speech. It is true that the Professor had spoken of “the spirit of his dedicated life and death”, but he evidently regards the life and death as rather the symbol of ideas than as themselves the unveiled life of God. He is still under the influence of the intellectualist conception of truth, and not free from the attitude of condescension towards all symbolic presentations which is characteristic of intellectualism, Tennyson’s expression of this attitude is familiar;

Tho’ truths in manhood darkly join,

Deep seated in our mystic frame,

We yield all blessing to the name

Of Him that made them current coin.

For wisdom dealt with mortal powers

Where truth in closest words shall fail,

When truth embodied in a tale

Shall enter in at lowly doors.

And so the Word had breath, and wrought

With human hands the creed of creeds,

In loveliness of perfect deeds

More strong than all poetic thought;

Which he may read that binds the sheaf,

Or builds the house, or digs the grave,

And those wild eyes that watch the wave

In roarings round the coral reef.

Still clearer is the suggestion of an earlier and less poetic stanza:

O thou that after toil and storm

Mayst seem to have reached a purer air,

Whose faith has centre everywhere,

Nor cares to fix itself to form,

Leave thou thy sister when she prays

Her early Heaven, her happy views;

Nor thou with shadowed hint confuse

A life that leads melodious days.20

The suggestion clearly is that the highest truth is something purely conceptual. The embodiment of it in a tale may make it acceptable to simple folk like farm labourers, and bricklayers, and grave-diggers, and South Sea Islanders; and the cultivated young man who is exhorted not to unsettle his sister—(the poem is of the Victorian era)— may find that even he needs the help of the tale or else in this naughty world may “fail for want of such a type”.21

Now if the whole contention of these Lectures is sound, knowledge of God can be fully given to man only in a person, never in a doctrine, still less in a formless faith, whatever that might be. There is a use for vague aspiration, though it is a very limited use until the vagueness gives place to some measure of determination; and there is great use in formulated doctrine, because it points us to that in which many have believed themselves to find the revelation of God. But the life of faith is not the acceptance of doctrine any more than the life of the natural man is the acceptance of mathematical equations, or the life of the artist is the acceptance of aesthetic canons. The canons and the equations assist the effective adjustment and intercourse of organism and environment, but the life of art, or of mere organic continuance, has its being in that adjustment and intercourse. So too sound doctrine assists the psycho-physical organism, which is a man, an organism now recognised to be spiritual as well as aesthetic and animate, to achieve satisfactory adjustment to and intercourse with its environment, now known to be divine as well as beautiful and nutritive. But it is in that adjustment and intercourse that living faith consists. In more familiar language, faith is not the holding of correct doctrines, but personal fellowship with the living God. Correct doctrine will both express this, assist it and issue from it; incorrect doctrine will misrepresent this and hinder or prevent it. Doctrine is of an importance too great to be exaggerated, but its place is secondary, not primary. I do not believe in any creed, but I use certain creeds to express, to conserve, and to deepen my belief in God. What is offered to man’s apprehension in any specific Revelation is not truth concerning God but the living God Himself.

The enquiry whether such and such a creed is well founded, or whether any particular type of revelation has in fact been given, lies beyond the province of Natural Theology; but it is very much the business of Natural Theology to describe the mode of Revelation which is consonant with the conclusions which on other grounds are found to be most probable concerning the nature of God and of His relation to men. It is still open to question whether any such Revelation exists, and it is still possible to accept on grounds of its supposed inherent authority a revelation that derives no support from those conclusions. Natural Theology has fulfilled its function in this regard when it has shown what mode of Revelation is consonant with the conception of God, man and the world, which its own course of argument has led it to adopt. Our argument has led to a conception which suggests as the essential principle of Revelation the appreciation by divinely enlightened minds of divinely directed occurrences, and further requires that for fullness of Revelation the occurrence should take the form of personal life of such sort as to be intelligible to, and elicit sympathy from, those persons to whom the revelation is given; it must be no mere theophany, but an Incarnation.22

The question still remains—By what means does the revelation authenticate itself? From the nature of the case it must offer its own credentials; that revelation should have to appeal to anything beside itself to establish its character as revelation, would be patent absurdity. The older tradition found the authentication in miracle and fulfilled prediction. God, being the supreme power in the universe, was held to give evidence of His special activity in it by setting aside its normal process and accomplishing some transformation by His creative fiat. So Moses was to convince his people of the authenticity of his mission by the conversion of his staff into a snake.23 Whether God ever does such things in accommodation to primitive minds is not a question for Natural Theology; if He could want to do it, He could also do it; but the probable explanation of this and similar episodes is to be sought in hypnotism. At a more developed stage there arises a demand for fitness in the sign offered, and some coherence with the spiritual content of the revelation. I could not expect my hearers to be any the more ready to accept my philosophy if I were able before their eyes to turn my pen into a stick of sealing-wax.24 So it is also with fulfilled prediction. Great attention has been given, for example, to the close resemblance between the details of Psalm xxii. and those of the story of Our Lord’s Passion, but this is a false line of argument; not by any irrelevant thaumaturgy in either the physical or the psychological realm does the Lord God Almighty make His presence known. Yet when we turn from essentially trifling details to broad principles, the old attention to miracle and prophecy is seen to be justified. The evidence of God’s special activity is indeed not to be found in what baffles the intelligence, but rather in power active for such purposes as may reasonably be supposed divine. Where power and mercy are combined, there is God manifest; where we see righteousness or love, we see the character of God; where we see these triumphing, there we see God in action; where we see them achieve their purpose despite all calculable probabilities, there we acknowledge God signally self-revealed. We do not know that it costs Him more (to speak humanly) to work the most startling so-called miracle than to maintain the habitual motion of the planets; but where that happens which former experience leads us to expect, we are less impelled to ponder on the divine nature as therein disclosed than when our expectation is negatived by an exhibition of that character in ways unpredictable by us. All is of God, but not all things equally display His character, and not all things equally call our attention to His character as displayed.

So too with prophecy: if God makes Himself known we shall expect to find progress in man’s apprehension of Him, and even in that which He discloses. But if He is active in the progress, the progress must bear the marks of His continuing guidance; its earlier stages must be incomplete, and one condition of advance is that men become aware of the incompleteness of what they have. So the earlier look forward to the later, groping after it, adumbrating it. Some parts of the adumbration will be mistaken, arising from the human limitations of the prophet or seer; but some parts will be filled in and completed, being gleams of the light that lighteth every man, which, if it ever shines in full brilliance, must be recognisably their completion. This continuity of development along constant and converging lines is evidence of a continuing illumination; and if in some event the converging lines of development meet and all find their fulfilment, that is corroborative evidence of authentic revelation alike in the preparatory and in the culminating stages.

These, then, are the marks of a true revelation of which we have already described the necessary mode: a union of holiness and power, before which our spirits bow in awe, and which authenticates itself by continuous development to some focal point in which all preparatory revelation finds fulfilment, and from which illumination radiates into every department of life and being. Whatever claims to be revelation makes good that claim in the degree in which it approximates to the ideal thus described.

Appendix E

A Reply to Professor Pringle-Pattison

Professor Pringle-Pattison, in his volume on The Philosophy of Religion, pays me the high compliment of associating me with Professor H. R. Mackintosh as typical representatives of the traditional Christology which he is concerned to discredit. He quotes with approval some sentences from my essay on “The Divinity of Christ” in Foundations, and contrasts these with some sentences in Christus Veritas. But the contrast is fallacious. It is indeed most true that “the wise question is not ‘Is Christ Divine?’ but ‘What is God like?’” The whole point of my essay in Foundations was to insist that the religious importance of the belief in the Deity of Christ is that it alone supplies an effective answer to that question. Professor Pringle-Pattison thought the answer could be detached from that belief; my contention is that he could only think this because his concern was with intellectual belief about God, not with personal communion with Him. For this latter purpose it makes an entirely vital difference whether Jesus of Nazareth is an inspired man who “gives us authentic tidings of the character of God” or is Himself personally God.

The Professor held that I had fallen back upon those categories of substance which I had declared to be in essence materialistic (p. 246). I can only refer to the relevant chapters in Christus Veritas and say that I made, at least, an elaborate attempt to substitute other, and personal, categories. He represents me as differing from the Kenotic theory of Professor Mackintosh by adopting a “view that the Kenosis did not go so far” (p. 249). In fact my view, set out at length in Christus Veritas is that there was no Kenosis at all. The Second Person of the Trinity laid aside nothing, but added to His divine attributes the experience of a strictly human life.

That this view leads to difficulties insoluble for minds which are human only, I readily admit. But I deny that these constitute “a sufficient reductio ad impossibile of the dogma which gives rise to them, the deity, namely, of Jesus in a metaphysical (or shall we not rather say, in a physical?) sense”. If God became Man, the psychology of the God-Man must necessarily be beyond our grasp; a theory which professed to comprehend it would be thereby condemned. What we may require is that the difficulty should arise at the point where, from the nature of the subject-matter and of our own minds, it ought to arise, and not elsewhere. In that case the difficulty is no proof that the alleged event from which it arises did not occur. If the Professor were still among us, I should urge him to read again in Browning’s Ferishtah’s Fancies the poem entitled “The Sun”.

I will deal with one more point. The Professor writes as follows:

“Dr. Temple says at one point in his book that ‘if standing before them in the flesh, Jesus had said to those devout Jews, “I am God”, he would have reduced them to mere bewilderment,’ He fails to realise that his own language in presenting the same claim often produces in his readers a similar sense of stupefaction.”

It is needless to observe that I have never failed to realise this. But I regard the stupefaction now as unreasonable, whereas then it would have been not only reasonable but inevitable. The difference is made—for Christians—by the Cross, the Resurrection, and experience of communion with the Risen Christ.

Having thus entered for a moment into controversy with the Professor, I would add the expression of my personal admiration and gratitude for his work, and my sense of the loss to British philosophy involved in his death. At least I am sure that his scrupulous fairness would support me in the contention that, if he could rightly use a Gifford Lecture to discredit the traditional doctrine of Christianity, I am guilty of no breach of trust when, in an appendix to a Gifford Lecture, I offer some rejoinder to his argument.

  • 1. Revelation iv. 11.
  • 2. This is the conviction which finds expression in St. John i. 1–3 and Colossians i. 17.
  • 3. 1 John i. 5.
  • 4. See Lectures VI. and VII.
  • 5. Amos ix. 7.
  • 6. See below, p. 309.
  • 7. Dictante Spiritu Sancto. The full passage in the official translation runs as follows: “All the books, which the Church receives as sacred and canonical, are written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Ghost; and so far is it from being possible that any error can co-exist with inspiration, that inspiration not only is essentially incompatible with error, but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God Himself, the supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true.”
  • 8. The Thomist and Augustinian views, respectively.
  • 9. Summa Theologiae, Part I. Q. lxviii. A. i. (E.T. by the English Dominicans) “Sicut Augustinus docet, in hujusmodi quaestionibus duo sunt observanda. Primo quidem, ut veritas Scripturae inconcusse teneatur. Secundo, cum Scriptura divina multipliciter exponi possit, quod nulli expositioni aliquis ita praecise inhaereat, ut si certa ratione constiterit, hoc esse falsum, quod aliquis sensum Scripturae esse credebat, id nihilominus asserere praesumat ne Scriptura ex hoc ab infidelibus derideatur, et ne eis via credendi praecludatur.”
  • 10. A sociologist may know how many people will commit suicide in Great Britain next year, but he cannot know which individuals will do 39.
  • 11. The phrase attributed to St. Peter with reference to this event in Acts ii. 24—“because it was not possible that he should be holden of it (sc. death)”—suggests such a view.
  • 12. The appreciation need not be contemporaneous with the event. But till it comes, the event, though revelatory in its own character, is not yet fully revelation. If no one had recognised Christ, the Incarnation would have occurred, but it would have failed to effect a revelation of God.
  • 13. Lilley, Religion and Revelation, pp. 144, 145.
  • 14. Lilley, Religion and Revelation, pp. 144–145.
  • 15. See pp. 116–118.
  • 16. Cf. pp. 15–155, 210–212.
  • 17. Genesis xviii. 25.
  • 18. By “Holy Spirit” St. Paul and St. John, at least for the most part, understand the fullness of response called out from men by the fullness of divine self-manifestation in Christ; cf. Romans viii. 9–27, specially 14–17 and 23; St. John vii. 39; xvi. 7.
  • 19. Pringle-Pattison, The Philosophy of Religion, p. 252. What the believer needs to know is not only that “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself”, or that Christ is the truest representation of God up to date, but that he may worship and trust in the eternal God as actually known in Jesus Christ. See Appendix E.
  • 20. Tennyson, In Memoriam, xxxvi. and xxxiii.
  • 21. Ibid. xxxiii.
  • 22. See Appendix E.
  • 23. Exodus iv. 1–3.
  • 24. Cf. Matthew Arnold, Literature and Dogma, p. 95.
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