A. INCARNATION AND HISTORY
1. The Idea of Incarnation
A quite distinctive view of revelation is necessitated by the basic Christian belief that the Supreme is incarnate in the life of one particular man. This is not the belief that God tells humans what God is like or what the Divine purposes or laws are. It is not even that God shows what the Divine nature is like, as if there were one thing which somehow modelled another. It is rather that God makes the Divine reality itself present in a particular historical form. The life of Jesus, for a fully incarnational form of Christian faith, is the self-expression of the Eternal in time. Here the form of Supreme Goodness is fully realized in the particular; revelation is primarily a making-present of Supreme Being and Goodness in a person. This is not, as in Islam, the revelation of a set of propositions, as though God were dictating laws or doctrines to be carefully written down. It is not, as in Hinduism, an inner experience of a supreme Self, as though someone had a particularly vivid or intense sense of the Supremely Real. It is not, as in Buddhism, an experience of release from sorrow, desire, and attachment. It is not, as in Judaism, Divine disclosure through the control of historical events, as though God were causing water, wind, or earth to act in extraordinary or miraculous ways. It is the unlimited Divine Life taking form in a particular human life. It is the realization of the Eternal in a particular historical individual.
How can this one man come to be seen as such a manifestation? It may seem that an infinite Divine Life cannot possibly be contained in one finite individual life, that there must be many forms and many realizations on the way to the final consummation of all things. And that is perfectly true. The life of Jesus cannot contain in itself even a fair number of the range of human possibilities, let alone all the possibilities of the Divine Life. But the incarnational claim is not that Jesus expresses all there is to be expressed of God; otherwise the rest of creation would be superfluous. It is that at a particular, limited point of time and space, the Divine Life transforms a particular human life by uniting it to itself. The particular is taken into God, as a foreshadowing of the destiny that awaits all finite things. As Athanasius puts it, ‘He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God. He manifested Himself by means of a body in order that we might perceive the Mind of the unseen Father.’1 Such a manifestation shows the ultimate goal of human life and begins the process of realizing that goal in others by uniting them to the life of the Eternal Word, who fully assumed humanity in Jesus. Yet why is the human life of Jesus believed to be the one and only place where such a unique assumption of humanity by God occurs?
An understanding of the historical and cultural development of religions helps one to see how it can be claimed that only this man Jesus is truly God incarnate. For incarnation is not just a matter of God picking out some human being, any human being, and uniting that being to the Divine Word in a unique way. Human persons are to be understood in terms of their historical and cultural context, as parts of larger processes in the light of which we can interpret the meaning of their lives.
It is essential to understand Jesus in his place in Jewish history. He was born among the people who found in obedience to Torah their way of relating to God as Father of Israel. The prophetic flame seemed to have burned itself out and the history of Israel was coming to a catastrophic turning-point. Both Greek and Indian ideas had touched the Galilean province which stood near to Alexander's route of conquest and communication between East and West. The Roman Empire had established a European and West Asian community of nations within which a form of Judaism that escaped from its ethnic boundaries might spread. Many groups, some mystical, some militant, some exclusivist, and some universalist, were looking for some sign of God's ancient promises to Israel, which seemed as far from fulfilment as ever. At that very particular and unrepeatable point of human history Jesus lived out his ministry, proclaiming the imminence of God's Kingdom, though apparently not in the socio-political form that most were expecting.2 If one understands incarnation not so much as a disruptive descent of God into just one isolated human life but as a particular act of God in and through a person who is essentially part of a long historical process, then one can see much more easily how one can speak of a totally unique act of God in just one human person. Indeed, in one sense all acts of God will be historically unique, though of course they will not all be decisive in the way that the life of Jesus was.
To see Jesus as the Word of God—though at this stage this is only a provisional statement—is to see the Word of God as manifesting in a unique way through his historically unique life. It is virtually impossible for God to act in that way in any other life, and thus for any other human being to be, in the sense that Jesus was, the ‘Son of God’. God can certainly act in other lives; but the vocation of Jesus, his inauguration of the Kingdom and the particular pattern of his life which historical circumstances made possible, is unrepeatable. The case is different from that, for example, of Buddhas or avatars, who are enlightened beings or teachers of eternal truth. In their case, enlightenment and the teaching of eternal truth is in principle repeatable. However, if it is the precise historical pattern of Jesus’ life which manifests God, then that is unrepeatable.
It can sound unacceptably exclusive for Christians to say that the name of Jesus is greater than any other name, that their Lord is greater than any other.3 How could such absolute supremacy be guaranteed or even stated without arrogance? Yet again one must note the historical nature of the claim that is being made. It is not that Jesus, considered in the abstract as a person of such-and-such intelligence, moral character, and temperament, is intrinsically superior on some common qualitative scale to any other human being who ever has lived or who ever will live. It is rather that God is manifesting the Divine Being decisively in this one historical life; so that this life becomes for ever the image of God, as a historically purposing and redemptive power and value.
In the history of Israel, one particular people had felt themselves called to a unique priestly vocation to all humanity. They believed their ritual and social laws related human life to the life of God in a Divinely authorized and thus appropriate way. They looked for the fulfilment of the Divine promise in a fulfilment of all their gifts and naturally created inclinations, in a community ruled by the Spirit of God. Israel was to be the priesthood, the holy people, and the Kingdom of God, through whom all nations of the earth would be blessed.4 There is a sense in which both Jews and Christians still believe this to be the true vocation of Israel. But it is a broken vocation, for the Temple of God does not exist, the sacrifices are not offered, and Jerusalem is only too obviously not the promised city of peace. Jesus lived just before the time of the final breaking of that vocation with the destruction of Jerusalem in CE 70. The interpretation of his life upon which the early Church was founded saw all these characteristics—of priesthood, holiness, and kingship—both fulfilled and yet wholly transformed in him. On the early Church's interpretation, by the offering of his life Jesus became the high priest of a new sacrifice, the self-offering of God for the redemption of humanity. By his complete obedience to the will of God he established the fully mediating relation to God which God had willed in creation. And by his proclamation of the Kingdom he himself became the Lord of the community of the Spirit by which all are to be related to God. For the Christian Church, Jesus internalizes the sacrificial cult and universalizes the Torah to unite a people of a new covenant to God through their participation in the new form of life which he inaugurates.
For disciples of Christ, the Temple is no longer a building of stone in Jerusalem, but the human body within which the Spirit dwells; the sacrifices are not the bloody offerings of animals, but the self-offering of a life indwelt by the crucified Lord; Jerusalem is not a geographical place but the spiritual city wherein the risen Christ is glorified. Christ does not narrow the Jewish vocation to just one person; he expands it until it spreads throughout the world, by internalizing and universalizing its teaching. Thus, to concentrate devotion on Christ is not to limit it to one half-forgotten apocalyptic prophet of the Near East. It is rather to take this life as an icon of Divine self-disclosure for the whole world and as the foundational event of the community of the Spirit of love. It has a historical point of origin, a real temporality and creativity. The Christ of worship goes far beyond remembrance of a particular historical figure, though its originative point of temporal disclosure was in and through the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
2. The Importance of History
The Christian faith does unequivocally centre its doctrine on one historical figure. The gospels provide the testimony of the early Church that in Jesus God was acting uniquely and historically to forgive sin and inaugurate a new human community, the Kingdom of God. By contrast, in the Indian tradition, even though some humans are said to be avatara, manifestations of Vishnu, they manifest to re-establish the sanatana dharma, the eternal law, in a dark time; their historicity is not important, and it does not matter if they are wholly legendary, as most of the ten classical avatara of Vishnu surely are. Jesus is not an avatar in this sense. He does not re-establish an eternal law; he inaugurates in his own person a new form of life, a historical Divine rule. This is new, particular, social, and historical. It is understood as a unique Divine act which addresses humanity as an invitation and challenge. Thus a critical difference between Christian and Indian views of religion is that one is a testimony to historical acts of God and the other consists of teachings based on yogic experience.
Aldous Huxley said, in The Perennial Philosophy, that Christianity suffers from an ‘idolatrous preoccupation with events and things in time’.5 It is too concerned with happenings in ancient history, with what he rather strangely calls the ‘divinity of the church’ and with the idea of future perfection; whereas, he suggests, Vedanta offers a present experience of enlightenment and is not dependent on any particular historical events. Of course he is right to make this assessment if supreme enlightenment is present realization of one's identity with the Eternal, and if all things are so identical in fact. But what if history and time, particularity, creativity, and novelty, are fundamental features of the real world, and not just illusions of the limited ego? What if human selves are created with a potential which is corrupted by evil, but which is destined to be realized fully in a communal relation to their Creator? What if human history is the arena wherein is played out the drama of the seeking of an active personal God for persons who have become alienated from God but who can return to God through their inclusion in a renewed humanity? Then events in time could hardly be over-evaluated, since the temporal would be the place of a real and developing set of relationships between the Supreme and its creations.
If this is so, how could a whole tradition overlook the reality of the historical? It is not hard at all; indeed, the Christian tradition, despite its rootedness in historical testimony rather than in claims to authoritative experience, might well be said to have overlooked it for centuries! Human speculation seems to be naturally attracted to the timeless and changeless in its quest for ultimate explanation. Much in contemplative spiritual experience, too, seems to lead beyond the conditions of time and space to an ineffable Reality that cannot be limited by them. Does the doctrine of creation itself not suggest that the creator of time must be beyond time? In fact human spirituality almost inevitably moves to the idea of the Timeless, as it explores the limits of human experience and speculation. It is only the obstinate insistence that God has acted decisively for human salvation in Jesus that places an obstacle in the way of this natural theological propensity.
No doubt what Huxley had in mind was that Christianity can be made to seem absurdly parochial if it is seen as concerned to give infinite importance for the whole universe to the short life of one Palestinian freelance rabbi. It can be made to seem overconcerned with ancient historical facts that can never be established with certainty, instead of with the realities of present spiritual experience. It can be thought to have a ridiculously anthropomorphic and limited idea of God as the father of a human being, instead of as the limitless Self of all things. If Christianity is seen in these ways, then the Indian traditions offer a much richer spectrum of spiritual paths, suited to every sort of temperament. They appeal to present experience and to an intuition of the Unconditioned as the changeless basis of all beings. That is the perspective from which Huxley speaks, from which Vedanta can seem to be the perennial philosophy towards which all faiths lead. This is the attractive vision presented by Swami Vivekananda at the first World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, which first staked a serious claim for one strand of Hindu thought to be a universal faith for the world.6
Attractive though this vision is, one must ask if it is true that, beneath the many faces of the gods, there is one supreme changeless reality, expressed in the physical world but ultimately beyond all name and form, which can be realised by ascetic discipline and meditation, bringing a realization of cosmic bliss. A first thoughtful Christian response should be to say that it is true; that there is a way of self-renunciation which leads to experience of the Unconditioned in being and value, and which enables human lives to become the channels of the Divine Life in the world. This vision can be affirmed without reservation; it testifies to the awareness of the Supreme which resonates throughout the Indian traditions and gives them authenticity as paths to Supreme Reality.
Yet, a Christian might go on to say, this is only part of the story, and it can be misleading if it is taken to be the whole. Time, creativity, and the particularity of goodness are features which are lacking from this general picture. From a Christian viewpoint, the cosmos is not an endlessly repeating cycle of ills, from which release is to be sought and which permits of no attachment. The cosmos is the positive, freely willed creation of the Supreme. It has a temporal direction and a goal. That goal is the unfolding and realization of the potential inherent in the constitution of the universe itself. The universe exists in order to realize values of a quite particular and distinctive kind, which are new, unrepeatable expressions of free creativity. It is in the discernment of the temporality of being that the critical Christian insight lies. Finite being exists in order to unfold a set of creative values which are potential in its first constitution. In the temporal process, there is possible a creative and free activity in human history. For the theist, such activity is guided by standards of objective value which are rooted in the Supreme. The particular form the realization of these values takes is truly originative and progressive. It brings genuinely new forms of being and value into existence. Moreover, centres of the creation of value are multiple. Existing in a society, they are not dissolved into one non-dual unity, but find individual fufilment in co-operation and community. Thus the fundamental elements of being are creativity, individuality, and community. The universe brings into existence many individuals who are creatively free and who live in a community which is able to maximize that freedom. The fulfilment of finite being is thus found in a community of creatively free spirits. Any view which tries to transcend these features of being by subsuming them ultimately into a non-dual reality beyond action and desire is, from the Christian viewpoint, reducing essential elements of being to peripheral illusions.
3. The Idea of God as Trinity
It is because these elements are taken to be fundamental both in being and in value that the Christian notion of God, quite distinctively, becomes that of a Trinity, a triadic community.7 This notion suggests that God is not one absolutely undifferentiated unity, the One beyond all distinctions. Though all analogies are imperfect, the Divine as the highest possible reality and value has more the nature of a communion of individuals, related in a love which is both creative and unitive. In the first place, God is supremely intelligible, being properly expressed in the Logos upon which all things are patterned and which is manifested in the life of Jesus. Secondly, God is dynamically creative, being properly expressed in the Spirit of life which moves over the waters of creation and inspires created minds to new works of imagination and beauty. And thirdly, God is the source and goal of all things, holding order and creativity together in a communion whose most basic character is love, or a sharing of delight in the mutual refraction of individual beings in communion. A temporal creation is a natural expression of such a being. In such a creation many finite persons can find their fulfilment in relation to the God in whom their existence is founded and in whose reality they are destined to share.
The Christian discernment of the Divine, the core content of Christian revelation, shows that humans are not merely creative individuals in community who have to form their own goals and pursue them as best they can in a cosmic environment which is hostile or indifferent to them. That is the post-Christian malaise of the West which has eliminated the transcendent but left persons as inexplicably sacred objects in a desacralized universe. For the Christian tradition, the human community is a reflection of the Divine community, the Trinitarian reality of God in which love is the supreme value. The creative goals of humanity are not simply invented by autonomous human reason. They are pursued in response to the discernment of absolute ideals, setting an objective aim which humans are invited to realize in their own creative way. Furthermore, the realization of that aim is assured by the fact that the ideals are grounded in a being whose supreme power is the basis of all beings whatsoever. It is not so much that God is so powerful that he can force finite things to bend to his will. The truth is rather that God is the sole basis of the reality of all finite beings. Thus, in so far as they have any reality, it is solely in dependence upon God. In so far as they are able to manifest their full reality, they can do so only as this dependence finds its proper expression in their actions. Since the reality of God is a reality of supreme goodness, finite things attain their own proper good when they attain the fullest realization of their created potential. God, who created the potential, can and will empower its realization. But in the first place God appears, not as overwhelming power, but as the source of goodness and of the ideal archetypes which underlie the basic structures of created being.
In historical experience, these moral archetypes are perceived as demands or challenges, as discernments of the Ideal in the ambiguities of particular situations. In such discernments arise the Hebrew prophetic insights, the distinctively Hebrew revelations of Divine reality, showing human history to be a realm of moral challenge, calling, and judgement. As humans respond to these challenges and, at least in part, realize something of the values which are grounded in the being of God, the Divine reality is also perceived as grace or as ‘gift’, as that which makes possible the realization of the Ideal. In Hebrew faith the gift of fulfilment was discerned as already present in the demand for creative response. The judgement of God upon oppression and injustice was not merely a negative condemnation; it was essentially also seen as a promise of fulfilment, of a society free from war and oppression, symbolized by a ‘holy city’ wherein God could be truly worshipped in peace. Seen in the aspect of the consummation of value, God is seen as the final goal of all things, including all realized finite values in itself.
The path towards this goal is to be pursued by finite created action, responding to the challenge of the Ideal. Yet even this creativity is not a wholly independent and self-sufficient property of the human will. Creativity itself, in so far as it is oriented to the good, is empowered by the self-realizing Divine energy which human freedom permits to operate in and through human lives. This is the dynamic power of the Spirit of God which the biblical writers saw as prompting the realization of great works of beauty and poetry, as in the designs of Bezalel8 and the Psalms of David. God is the power of creativity which drives the temporal process onwards to fuller realization. God is thus seen from a Christian perspective in a threefold aspect: as the challenge to realize value, as the power which enables the realization of value, and as the sustainer of realized value both in its temporal form and in its eternal consummation. God is the foundation of values, the dynamic creator of values, and the apotheosis of all finite values into its own infinite life. These three aspects of the Divine Being are systematically developed in Christian thought from their Hebraic basis to provide the basically ‘revealed’ idea of God as Trinity, by which the Divine Being is symbolically presented in the image of God as Father of the universe, as creative Spirit empowering finite realities to achieve their potential, and as redeeming Son, in whom the temporal is assumed into the eternal.
This Trinitarian notion of God is not foreign to the Jewish biblical tradition from which it sprang. The idea of God as Father of Israel, and in particular of the kings of Israel, is clearly present in the Hebrew Bible. God is Father, inasmuch as God enters into a specific covenant relation with Israel, a covenant renewed in a specific way with David and Solomon, who are described as the ‘sons of God’.9 In this use of the idea of sonship, there is of course no thought of Divine birth. Rather, to be a son of God is to be specifically called and designated for a special role in God's saving purpose. It is to be called into a special relationship to God, not just of obedience (like a slave or servant) but of a deeper relationship for which the analogy of ‘sonship’ is felt to be appropriate. In the Hebrew Bible God is Father both in the general sense of being creator of all things and in the special sense of calling Israel, especially through its designated kings, into a special personal relationship of filial love.
The idea of God as Spirit is also clear in the Hebrew Bible. God's Spirit moves over the waters of creation; is breathed into dust to form humankind; inspires the prophets and artists and warriors of Israel; and is to be poured out upon young and old alike in that day when God becomes present among his people in a new and inward covenant, written on the heart.10 It was precisely this experience which caused the disciples to believe that the ‘last days’ had come, when God was present in a dynamic and inward way in the community of the early Church. They saw Jesus as having baptized them with the Spirit, and thus as being the vehicle by which the Spirit had been released in a new way.
The idea of God as Son is dramatically new with the early Church, and is an idea against which both the later development of Rabbinic Judaism and also the rigorous unitarianism of Islam reacted strongly. Yet the idea of God entering into creation to reconcile it to Divinity through a passionate identification with the oppressed also has its roots in the Hebrew Bible. Moses and the Judges of Israel were saviours who led the people out of slavery; and they were empowered by the Spirit of God to perform their tasks. The suffering servant of Isaiah, perhaps the people of Israel itself, gives its suffering as an offering to be used by God in the salvation of the world.11 Thus the idea of a suffering saviour king who expresses in his life the purpose of God and who liberates his people from slavery is a natural development of Hebrew biblical themes. It is certainly not out of the question that Jesus should have thought of himself in such a way, and thus could have seen the surrender of his life as a ‘ransom’, that is, an offering to God which might be used to bring in the Kingdom. According to the Torah, first-born sons and the first-fruits of the land which were due to God could be ‘redeemed’ by a sum of money.12 So the idea of a vicarious self-offering to God was present in Hebraic tradition, and great Rabbis were often seen as being able to offer effective prayers for helping others in their distress.13 The offering of a perfect life as a perfect prayer for liberation from evil is an understandable development of the notion of sacrifice, which could be applied to Jesus by those who took him to be Messiah. His life was certainly interpreted in that way by the time the gospels were written. That such a one should be called Son of God and should, after sharing in the most extreme suffering, be vindicated by God in his role as saviour of God's people and mediator of God's Spirit to his people is not wholly surprising. It is a relatively small though dramatic step to see in the life of such a Messiah the manifestation of the reality of God himself. The well-established idea that all salvation comes from God alone, and that Divine grace always precedes human response might suggest, even from the first, the thought that the life of the Messiah would be originated and empowered by God in a unique way, so that a perfected human response would also show forth the Divine nature and calling with supreme clarity.
Even more suggestive is the whole mystical notion of Torah, which is the Wisdom of God, as an eternal Word of God which is given to Israel through Moses, yet remains in itself without beginning or end.14 The prophet on this understanding becomes the mediator of an eternal Word. Not his life, but his words become identified with the Word of God. Again it is a relatively small but dramatic step to conceive of one in whom the prophetic role is enhanced so that his life, too, becomes identified with the Wisdom of God. This happened, at least in part, with Jeremiah, when the Lord called him to live in such a way that his life would be a sign of Divine judgement on the people.15 This idea of a human life as a sign of God developed in Rabbinic Judaism, as the thought took shape that a whole life could embody Torah in such a perfected way that one could speak of it as Torah incarnate, in the flesh.16 This train of thought, too, was surely in the minds of the early disciples of Jesus as they reflected upon a life they had known which seemed to them both beyond the touch of selfish passion and to be a pure vehicle of Divine wisdom.
One can thus see how the ideas of incarnation and of God as Trinity developed in and from the Hebrew tradition, in the light of the apostles’ belief in the resurrection of Jesus and of their empowerment by the Holy Spirit, filling them with new energy and joy. A new notion of revelation as the self-embodiment of the Divine in a human life was a natural consequence of this development. As it took form, some central ideas of the Greek philosophical tradition, which had failed to achieve any positive relation to Greek religious ideas, found a new and creative context. The resources of Platonic philosophy were applied to, and were transformed by, the early Church's meditations on Jesus as the temporal eikon of the eternal God.
4. Greek and Hebrew Thought
The formulation of the doctrine of the incarnation which became definitive of Christian orthodoxy was a slow, gradual development from reflection on the changes Jesus had brought about, or at least had been the primary cause of, in human understanding of the Divine nature. In Alexandrian Christianity, Hebrew strands of thought contributed to seeing Jesus as the anointed Messiah who had suffered for his people, who had mediated the Spirit to them, who had incarnated Torah in his own life and who had been vindicated in his prophetic mission by being raised to the very throne of God (at God's right hand). These ideas combined with strands of Platonic thought to produce the idea of incarnation in its classical form. Plato is sometimes presented as one who sees the world only as a half-real and intrinsically imperfect shadow of the world of pure Forms, and from which it is better to escape. The Platonic view of the body is thus often seen as purely negative, that we would be better off without bodies. In the Republic and in the Phaedrus he does speak in rather this way.17 But dialectic is essential to Plato's method, and in the Timaeus he sees the temporal world much more positively as ‘the moving image of eternity’.18 Finite forms become sacramental of eternal realities; and here is the material for seeing a perfected personal life as a paradigm sacrament of eternal Goodness. In the mutually transformative encounter of Platonic vision and Hebrew prophetic expectation was forged the dramatic new idea that the morally commanding and utterly transcendent God of the desert mountain could also enter into a form of union with finite realities which was able to assume them intrinsically to its own being. Moral dualism and contemplative holism were united in a brilliant reconceptualization of the Hebrew religious tradition.
In this reconceptualization, there is a fusion of spatial and temporal models of the Divine, the implications of which remained largely unarticulated until the nineteenth century. When the Platonic tradition speaks of Theos, it speaks of a depth to experience, of an invisible reality underlying the appearances perceived by human senses. It is as though true reality lies just behind or underneath the appearances. At moments of theophany it almost breaks through; it certainly is able to manifest itself in finite forms which participate in and ‘image’ the eternal Forms in a more adequate manner. This spatial model encourages a view of God as tunelessly eternal, changelessly present at every moment as the perfect Form which is always being more or less imperfectly imaged in the temporal. Christ is naturally conceived as a temporal moment in which the eternal reality is sacramentally present in its fullness, as the ‘visible image of the invisible God’.19
The Hebrew tradition, however, tends to view the Divine reality in a much more dynamic and temporal way. The very text which Christian Platonists used to support their eternalist views—‘I am that I am’20—is actually rendered better from the Hebrew as ‘I will be what I will be’. The emphasis is on God's creative freedom and the future liberation and fulfilment God promises. The biblical perspective sees God, or the disclosure of the full reality of God, as lying just ahead, in the future. But it is not some far future; it is the imminent future, the immediately future moment, carrying the presence and promise of God. Instead of the spatial model of God as just ‘behind’ the appearances, a temporal model is used to depict God as just ‘ahead of’ the present moment. The logical structure of thought is the same. God is not fully captured by any present moment. God is the true reality which can be manifested or foreshadowed in any present moment, but which always lies beyond, whether this is conceived spatially or temporally. Recognition of this point can illuminate what the early Christians meant by their expectation of the parousia, the being-at-hand of the Christ. Christ in glory is just ahead of every time, as either a judgement upon it or as its fulfilment and consummation.
In its fusion of Hebrew and Greek categories, Christian thought has continued to use both spatial and temporal models for its conception of the relation of finite and infinite. The moment of incarnation is both the moment of the manifestation of the Eternal in time and the moment of the foreshadowing of the consummation of all things in the incompleteness of the present. The Divine is both the fullness of actuality which is imaged imperfectly by creatures, and the call to the fulfilment of the creaturely through responsive and creative action, a fulfilment which will be a sharing in the being of God itself. Consequently, God must be conceived both as perfectly actual and as dynamically self-expressive. What is added to God by the creation and redemption of the world does not add to God's intrinsic perfection, which is unlimited and different in kind from all finite realities. Yet the creation of a finite world does actualize new forms of goodness which would not otherwise have existed; and thus it constitutes a form of Divine self-expression which is genuinely creative and free. The Orthodox tradition distinguishes the ousia and the energeia of God;21 and perhaps with the aid of that distinction one can begin to grasp the idea of a God who is changeless in the intrinsic perfection of being and who, precisely in consequence of that changeless perfection, is unlimitedly, dynamically, and creatively free to bring about the radically new.
Thus in the Christian tradition one may properly speak of the dynamic self-expression of the Supreme, sometimes in opposition to and sometimes in co-operation with the free, creative responses of finite beings, as the conceptual paradigm which sets the Christian world-view. The paradigm arises from reflection on the life of Jesus, interpreted both from the internal resources of Messianic Hebrew thought and from a quasi-Platonic vision of the cosmos as the manifestation of a hidden but omnipresent intelligible reality. It sees human history as a free, co-operative self-realization in response to the ideal archetypes which realize themselves specifically through finite centres of creativity. Finite agents are the vehicles of the self-expression of the Supreme, though they may by their very particularity impede as well as expedite the realization of creative harmony in the cosmos. Thus history becomes not only the expression but also a resistance to the self-expressive purpose of the Supreme, but a resistance which cannot be the final word in the creative process.
This means that the Supreme itself has a dynamic, historical, interactive mode of being. History itself, in its particular expressions and its temporal dynamism, must be seen as the self-expression of the Supreme, as it comes to be in relation to the responses of creatures. In this respect the perspective of Platonism is decisively transformed to include temporality and individuality as essential features. The world is not seen as the realm of impersonal law, wherein all acts issue in their inevitable consequences until they burn themselves out through a vast cosmic ennui. It is the realm of judgement and grace, wherein God permits selfish passion to lead to destruction, but is always present as the possibility of renewal and future fulfilment. For the Christian faith, what actually happens in history, in all its particularity, is of vital importance; for it shows the nature of the Divine relationship to the world. It is, as always in Semitic thought, a morally oriented and purposive relation. But the perspective of Hebraic thought is also decisively transformed by the idea of the cosmos as the self-manifestation of God, which moves towards a full sacramental embodiment of the Divine in free response to the Divine inclusion of the finite within its own infinite life.22
At this point Christians do not turn to a general philosophy of history, as though God could be clearly seen at work as one records the history of the rise and fall of nations and dynasties.23 Rather, they turn to a particular history as the key to the hidden nature of all human history. They turn to the history of the life of Jesus as the self-expression of the cosmic Creator. This life has been recorded in the gospels, and its significance interpreted in the letters of the New Testament. Since the New Testament is the only access to the life of Jesus one now has, it is clearly vital to assess the status and reliability of this Scripture as a foundation document for the Christian faith. In the account which follows, the general arguments about Scripture canvassed in Part III will form an important background. The primary focus, however, will be on Christian accounts of the nature of biblical revelation.
B. INSPIRATION AND REVELATION
5. Scripture and Inspiration
In the last two hundred years the sense in which the Bible can be said to be ‘inspired’ has been the subject of much debate, and traditional views have changed under the pressure of criticism. This change has been a response to the major intellectual revolution brought about by the European Enlightenment. That revolution has produced a revision of religious ideas in three main areas. It has produced a more critical attitude to Scripture, a very different scientifically based world-view, and an anti-authoritarian stress on liberty of thought and conscience. In this Part, I will deal with the way in which the rise of historical and literary criticism of the Bible has modified views of its authority as a source of revealed truth. I will go on to argue that a doctrine of incarnation can reasonably take account of such a change. The other two main strands of Enlightenment thought, in their implications for beliefs about Divine revelation, will be discussed in Part V.
The Roman Catholic Church, at the First Vatican Council in 1870, said of the Scriptures that, ‘having been written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God for their author’.24 A crude interpretation of this belief is that God personally wrote the words of Scripture. Indeed, as has been noted, some forms of orthodox Judaism maintain that the written Torah was created by God even before the world existed. It was handed over to Moses by God, either by God directly writing it miraculously on stone tablets or by dictating it to Moses. This is a widely held belief about other sacred Scriptures, too. The Koran is often said in medieval Islamic thought to be uncreated and entire in the spiritual realm; and the Vedas exist eternally, so that even the gods must order the world in accordance with their principles. Even in Buddhism, Sutras of the Mahayana, such as the Lotus Sutra, are said to be virtually eternal, and to be heard by innumerable Buddhas in innumerable worlds. It seems to be characteristic of a certain sort of religious thought to ascribe the content of its revelation to a timeless and changeless realm, and to hold that it has been dictated to human beings by a god or by means of an angelic messenger.
Although a dictation account has been widely held in Christianity, it may be doubted whether it is a very plausible account of the Bible. Christian attempts to explain how Scripture is inspired include the view of Athenagoras25 that the writers were used as instruments by God, hardly being conscious while they wrote; the view that God dictated words into the ears of the writers; the view that God put thoughts into the minds of the writers, leaving them to choose the exact words; and that God illumined the mind of the writers so as make their thoughts conform to his will. Presumably if God is the author of the Bible in a direct sense it will express omniscient knowledge; it will be without error and it will be in a style beyond human capacity to achieve. If the Bible is regarded as the result of dictation, one can easily account for the passages about what happened when no survivors of an event existed, when no one else saw what was happening, or before any person existed at all. God can provide correct information about historical occurrences that were perceived by no one. The real problem is, not that such an account of revelation is impossible, but that it hardly seems consonant with the sort of revelation Jews and Christians have. It has already been suggested that the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Old Testament, contains much primitive material, with moral and factual beliefs which need radical amendment to be acceptable. It also consists of a set of very different sorts of documents, from histories, proverbs, psalms, and laws to prophecies and visionary writings of marked obscurity. It even contains a set of love-songs (the Song of Solomon) and at least one novel (Jonah). It lacks the sort of unity of style and content which would naturally suggest one author, in any literal sense. When one turns to the New Testament, the Greek text is not in a high literary style, such as one might expect God to use, but is for the most part in a rather rough idiom. Moreover, the styles of different gospels and letters vary enormously—to such an extent that it can be estimated on grounds of style which documents had the same authors. For these reasons, it has been generally accepted by Christian theologians that God used the abilities and personalities of the human authors, rather than dictating in a distinctively Divine style which would be the same throughout. The dictation account has accordingly usually been discounted in favour of some form of ‘concurrent causality’ account, according to which God uses the human authors, or governs their activity so that they come to say what God wants to be said. This ‘illumination’ account is perhaps the most promising, though it leaves rather vague just how and to what extent God guides human minds in this process. It would be hard to maintain that God causes human minds to write exactly what God wants them to write, if they recommend exterminating the Amalekites and God does not truly will genocide. Moreover it would leave human thought-processes suspiciously under some sort of hidden control if they always wrote precisely, down to the exact words, what God wanted. It looks as though Divine guidance must be more indirect than ensuring that particular words get put into the text. It must leave room for human fallibility and short-sightedness. The Church, however, has sometimes given the impression that every proposition in Scripture is inerrant. As the encyclical Providentissimus Deus puts it, ‘It would be wrong to concede… that a sacred author himself has erred.’26
This, however, seems an impossible view to defend, since there are many clear contradictions on points of detail in the biblical texts. One case will suffice; it is not from some unimportant text, but from one of central significance for Christian belief. In the case of the New Testament, one only has to compare the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection in detail to see at once many conflicts of description on almost every point. The one example I will take is that in Matthew's gospel the women come to the tomb and find the stone still there; whereas in Luke's gospel it has already been rolled away.27 This is a report of a straightforward historical occurrence, and the contradiction is inescapable. In the case of any ordinary historical memory, such a discrepancy is entirely natural and suggests that what one has are the remembered accounts of diverse witnesses, many times recounted and now edited into a more formal narrative. It is very natural, but it is hardly inerrant.
I would not wish to exaggerate the extent to which error exists in Scripture. The admission that there are errors of detail, of an entirely natural sort, in Scripture, does not imply that the whole thing might be grossly in error. The Second Vatican Council's document Dei Verbum expresses a moderate viewpoint when it says: ‘The books of Scripture teach firmly, faithfully and without error that truth which God willed to be put down in the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation.’28 It goes on to say in traditional vein that ‘everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit’. This I think is acceptable if one takes a rather indirect or illuminationist view of ‘assertion by the Holy Spirit’. The Christian need have little hesitation in affirming that Scripture is inerrant, not in every minute factual detail, but in all those truths which God intends to to be present therein to lead us to salvation. The thought is that there are some truths which God wishes Scripture to contain. They are truths which are helpful to salvation, by showing what salvation is or how to attain it. In fact Scripture teaches that salvation lies in loving relation to God and that the way to it is by participation in the self-giving love of God. This entails quite a number of propositional truths which it would be very difficult for human reason to work out or be sure about and in respect of which Christians are bound to say that the Bible is inerrant—that God is the creator of all things; that God is love; that the goal of human life is to experience and share in the love of God; that Jesus manifests this love and mediates its atoning or reconciling power to humanity.
The mistake is to think that God simply dictates these propositions, in some natural language, to passive human recipients; or to think that a grasp of saving truth consists simply in assent to a set of clearly formulable propositions. That would entirely misconstrue the way in which the New Testament functions and in which it came into existence. It would misconstrue the way in which the truths that the New Testament contains have come to be embodied in the text, and the sense in which they are to be found there.
6. Inspiration as Divine Guidance
The whole of the New Testament is a witness to the words and actions of Jesus, or a spelling out of what his life, death, and resurrection mean for the new community of the Church. It is a remarkable fact that Jesus himself never wrote down or dictated his teachings, as Muhammad or even Gautama Buddha is said to have done. According to the gospels, he taught, rather cryptically, that the Kingdom was at hand;29 rather clearly, that God requires repentance and total commitment and promises eternal life; and at least implicitly that he himself was God's chosen king.30 In a word, he did not provide knowledge by description about God. He judged, warned, called, invited, promised, and forgave. In his own person he brought people into direct encounter with God as one whose judgement is severe but whose love is unlimited. He provided knowledge by direct acquaintance with the majesty, the judgement, the power, and the redeeming love of God. It is important to see that such knowledge is largely tacit; that is, hard or even impossible to put into clear, precise concepts.
The way in which Scripture mediates such ‘knowledge by acquaintance’ to us is complex. It is certainly not a matter of a listing of correct doctrines—as though God could simply have revealed the doctrines of incarnation and Trinity without all the messy arguments that preceded their formulation. Biblical revelation does seem to involve propositions, and yet it does not seem to be a matter of inserting clear propositions into human minds; the process is much more mysterious than that. When Abraham was told by God to leave his own country, when he was promised the land of Israel and commanded to sacrifice Isaac, these are represented as verbal communications with a definite content. It was not just a matter of Abraham encountering some indescribable Divine Being and drawing his own conclusions. The Lord ‘appeared’ to Abraham and ‘spoke’ to him in an active and communicative way. In general, the prophets preface their remarks by the phrase, ‘Thus says the Lord…’; they purport to relate messages from God, not their own cogitations.
Such claims are not unusual in the context of human religions. In many religions, people sleep in sacred groves, hoping for a vision of a particular god. They may hear words spoken to them—as the children of Medjugorje hear the Virgin speak to them in the twentieth century. Or they may become possessed by a god and utter words of the god in a sacred trance. If one judges the recorded experience of Abraham in the light of these widespread phenomena, then one may reconstruct his experience as that of a religious devotee of a particular god, feeling the need to leave the luxury and corruption of Ur and venture over the desert to found a simpler religious community. The words of the god telling him to go out of Ur crystallize his own inner dissatisfactions with his culture and his ideals of a new community, a people set apart for God. Of course this is a reconstruction; indeed, it is a reconstruction of what is itself in all probability a reconstruction of a postulated patriarchal experience projected back from the experiences of the writer's contemporaries; and it is only one of many possible accounts. It is an attempt to understand Abraham's experience—or the account of it we have—by analogy with the experiences of many contemporary religious practitioners and also with our knowledge of the practice of ancient religions of the Middle East.
Some accounts of biblical revelation take the Bible as a totally unique set of documents, without parallel in human history, and suppose that God literally appeared and spoke to Abraham in a straightforward way—as if God were a person who could appear and speak as a human being does. It is a great advance in plausibility to recognize the Bible documents as recording religious phenomena of a very widespread type, however distinctive the tradition becomes.31 Abraham's postulated experiences can be generally assimilated to wider patterns of religious theophany, vision, possession, and guidance; and one may thereby gain a better understanding of their true character.
On this sort of account, it is not the case that God sends a message to Abraham out of the blue, making him completely certain of its truth. Rather, one must think of Abraham as going through normal human experiences of reflecting on his life and values, coming to terms with his personal failures and working out his own ideals; seeking to discern a significance and point in the life he lived within a particular historical culture. As a religious person, he worships a particular god, a being of value and power to help, strengthen, or perhaps caution and warn. His relationship to this greater power enables him to interpret his own changing values and purposes in the light of a dialogue with the god. At times of crisis and change, especially, the believer turns to God for guidance. It would naturally be at such a time that Abraham felt his god telling him to seek a new life and leave Ur.
The ‘word of God’ is a perceived response to Abraham's particular personal crisis and to the sort of guidance he is seeking. God did not reveal Newton's laws to Abraham because Abraham had no concept of such laws. More importantly, it may be a misunderstanding of revelation to see it as the abstract provision of information by God. It can rather be seen as arising out of specific human situations, out of a perceived bringing of one's concerns, purposes, and values before God in a context of worship and prayer, so that they clarify in a particular way. This clarification might then be seen as the ‘guidance of God’. There may be heard words or perceived visions; or there may simply be the growth of a conviction that God wants one to do a certain thing, or holds out a promise of good. It is important that this conviction is not seen as solely the result of one's own pondering and reflection. Nor is it normally a sudden, clear message from God. It is a conviction arising out of a holding-up of one's concerns in the presence of God, so that God, in hidden ways, may shape and guide them until they reach a new, settled form. God is conceived to be an active partner in this process; but God's role is to shape, prompt, and respond rather than unilaterally to dictate.
Revelation is, on this account, not the utterance of words by God, which would then naturally be infallible and unquestionably authoritative. It is the shaping by God of human thoughts and feelings so as to challenge, guide, and motivate the lives of those who seek to worship God and relate their lives to God.32 Two main reasons have been given for this account of revelation. First, it meets the general problem that if revelation consists of infallibly given propositions, it seems implausibly obscure (given in cryptic stories and poems, not literal propositions), rare (occurring only to a few devout but often rather simple people), and disputed (issuing conflicting truths in different religious traditions). Second, it places revelation intelligibly within the general range of observable religious phenomena, rather than giving one particular revelation a totally unique status. In doing so, it helps to explain why disagreements exist between revelations. For very different human cultures, values, and crises may well give rise to diverse revelations which, if turned into absolute and infallible claims, will inevitably conflict. There is a third, even more powerful reason for accepting such an account. That is, it enables one to understand how factual errors and moral limitations can occur in Scripture, if it is a collection of writings shaped and guided by God yet still bearing the imprint of its human writers.
Such an account is quite compatible with the two main passages in the New Testament which speak of the inspiration of Scripture. 2 Timothy 3: 15 speaks of every ‘scripture’ (naturally, the reference is to every part of the Hebrew Bible, so far as the canon was then widely accepted) being ‘divinely inspired and useful for instruction’. The word used for inspired is theopneustos, breathed out by God. This has often been understood to mean that God literally created the words himself, and so implied a passive reception view. Perhaps the best biblical parallel, however, is at Genesis 2: 7: ‘The Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. Thus the man became a living creature.’ Here, what is breathed out by God is the breath of life, which gives life and animation to the formed body. One may think of the breathing-out of Scripture in a similar way as the giving of life and power to the formed words of human writers.
The other main passage is 2 Peter I: 21, which speaks of men being propelled (pheromenoi) by the Holy Spirit and speaking under the agency of God. The metaphor is that they are driven like ships by the wind of the Spirit; not that their agency is taken away, but that what drives or motivates and empowers them is the Holy Spirit. Taking these two texts together one can think of God as motivating and empowering humans to create certain works, and as giving Divine life and power to these works, so that they can be fruitful for evoking worship and prayer, for instruction and guidance.
On this view of inspiration, it may seem that almost any human utterances could be inspired; that there is little difference between Shakespeare and the Bible, since God might be heightening the imaginative powers of playwrights and novelists as well as the poets who got into the Bible. There is surely little problem with saying that God does inspire many poets, dramatists, and artists, and that they can convey a sense of the Divine presence and character through their works. However, one certainly could not say that all art is a medium of Divine revelation. Since art is explicitly a product of human imagination, it is not necessarily aimed at communicating any sense of the suprasensory realm. It may be aimed at destroying any such sense; and it is unfortunately the case that very great imaginative skill may be used in rebellion against the very idea of God. God may work even through atheistic writings; but it is plausible to suppose that God will act to convey knowledge of the Divine primarily through those who themselves are seeking such knowledge. In so far as inspiration is aiming towards a more adequate expression of truths about God, it will naturally be manifested in a special way in communities which devote their lives to seeking truths about God, through the practice of prayer.
It might also properly be said that inspiration should be found in all sincere and rightly directed religious traditions. I see no reason why this also should not be said, so that the Koran and the Gita could properly be spoken of as Divinely inspired, though as containing many limitations and errors. It is clear enough, however, that not all religious traditions give rise to the idea of God as creator, judge, and redeemer; so to the extent that a tradition does so, from the Christian perspective, that community will embody the truth which God desires to reveal more adequately than one which has little room for such concepts. Moreover, if revelation is a developing and cumulative process which gradually builds up a fuller picture of the Divine nature and purpose—as the Hebrew Bible seems to be—then inspired utterances will properly stand in a continuing prophetic tradition, wherein the whole process of revelation can be continued and deepened. Thus the idea of inspiration connects with that of a community within which such a tradition can grow and be sustained. While many such communities can properly be spoken of as ‘inspired’, a reason to take one as uniquely privileged is that it contains a more adequate notion of the supreme spiritual reality. Each tradition may, I think, coherently make such a claim. In this respect the Christian tradition is not being unduly arrogant or imperialistic when it claims a unique witness to the nature and purpose of God. It is simply formulating what each tradition must formulate in its own way, as long as it continues to exist.
7. The Development of the Canon of Scripture
Given such a developmental view of Divine inspiration, one might see the creation of the Old Testament Scripture as passing through four main formative stages, rather in this way: first of all there are the primary experiences of the prophets, men and women devoted to prayer and the worship of God, reflecting upon their own situation and that of their society and seeking some intimation of the purpose of God for that situation. This might be called the stage of primary experience. (I am not using the word ‘experience’ in the restricted sense of some inner mental state. I do mean to refer to the cognitive state of some person or persons; but that state may consist in the apprehension of a publicly observable event or the occurrence of some series of thoughts as well as in the occurrence of a private feeling.) The second step is that their visions, teachings, prayers, and proclamations pass into oral tradition and come to be written down or memorized, in forms which become stylized and systematized and develop rich patterns of symbolic association. In this way, dramatic events like the escape from Egypt come to be expressed in a ritualized way, using images of deliverance, journey, crossing the sea, and wandering in the wilderness, which are referred to and enriched when employed to interpret subsequent experiences. This might be called the stage of primary witness. A third stage is that at which later generations profess loyalty to the tradition, the ‘God of our fathers’, adopting its basic images and developing them imaginatively in the light of new experiences. In the course of history, customs and rituals are codified, explanatory myths are added, and hymns and prayers are created. There is a development of reflection upon and amendment of the earlier tradition, as the implications of central teachings like the loving-kindness of God are drawn out and cruder elements of requiring revenge upon one's enemies or punishment of whole groups for individual sins are reinterpreted in new contexts. Generally speaking, the interpreters and consolidators of tradition—the doctors and the priests—tend to take over from the radical, unsystematic creativity of the prophets, though prophetic explosions may still be liable to recur. This might be called the stage of theological redaction. Fourthly, a canon of Scripture is defined by the communal authorities, marking a significant completion of a matrix of revelation for this community. The decision is made that the core truths of the tradition have been established irrevocably, and the documents included in the canon witness to these truths in an authoritative way—in the case of the Old Testament, that God is the creator of all who exercises a providential and moral control over history and has a special vocation for Israel. This might be called the stage of canonical definition. There may be many other things to be said about God and much still to learn; but canonical scripture is the basic matrix—the mould and source—of the community's subsequent reflections about its life with God.
The same four stages can be traced in the formation of the New Testament as ‘Scripture’. The stage of primary experience is that of Jesus himself, whose unique authority is based on his unique form of acquaintance with God. This stage must, of course, remain inaccessible to us, except by inference from later stages. Jesus’ knowledge of God by acquaintance can never be directly accessible to us; but it is the necessary presupposition of the New Testament documents as we have them. The stage of primary witness is his life and teachings, as experienced by the apostles. This will include their experience of the resurrection and the inspiration of the early Christian community by the Holy Spirit. This stage is only recoverable by us at second-hand, by accounts of their teaching which are found in the gospels and some letters to early Churches; but again the whole authenticity of the gospels depends upon there being such a genuine apostolic witness. The stage of theological redaction is expressed in the gospels as we have them—documents which carry the apostolic testimony in forms which have been edited to bring out the meaning of Jesus’ life and teachings as disclosive of God and effective of human salvation, and set in four rather different theological perspectives. The gospels, one might say, create icons, stylized pictures of Christ intended to express and evoke encounter with God through the icon, the theological presentation of the person whom the apostles had encountered in the flesh. The remembered life is seen through the prism of the resurrected life and interpreted in the light of Old Testament prophecies or subsequent prophetic experiences in the early Church, so as to be used for the building-up of faith in the early communities of disciples. Finally, the stage of canonical definition is expressed in the selection of the set of gospels and letters which constitutes the New Testament; a set which enshrines the definitive matrix of Christian reflection about God in the apostolic witness to the revelatory power of Jesus’ life and teaching. The central truths in this set have been abstracted and summarized in the ‘rule of faith’, of which the Apostolic Fathers speak,33 and the Catholic creeds. But the character of Christian revelation is misunderstood if it is taken to be primarily the promulgation of credal statements. It lies rather in a many-sided meditation on the mystery of God which is encountered in the person of Jesus, as mediated through the inspired and richly imaginative writing of the New Testament canon.
In this process, God does not eliminate the natural differences of memory and interpretation which are characteristic of human experience. In fact one can see how the preservation of such differences might help in the expression of a personal encounter which is essentially many-faced and responded to in many different ways by different types of people. If key saving truths emerge in the Bible, they will do so as inferences, not exhaustively articulated but often left at a tacit level, from encounter with God in Christ, presented in various ways and from various points of view. Once the idea of direct, inerrant Divine dictation or causality has been eliminated, it becomes clear that the process of Divine inspiration must cover quite a long and complex series of human activities. It must cover the selection of remembered material which passed into oral tradition, the way it developed in that tradition, its editing into gospels together with the editor's interpretation of the events and teachings recorded, and finally the process of debate which led to the gospels’ inclusion in the canon of Scripture, quite a number of years later (a definitive canon did not exist until about the end of the fourth century and was not formally defined until the sixteenth century). Compared with the compilation of the Koran, which was orally given by Muhammad and written down within a few years, this is an extremely complex and extended process. It suggests a very different view of scriptural inspiration from that of Divine dictation. It will not be a matter of direct causation of all the details of such a complex process, but rather a providential guidance to ensure that key saving truths come to expression in a source which can be authoritative for the Christian community. God patiently guides the short-sighted and blundering thoughts of the followers of Jesus, not so as magically to eliminate all factual errors and moral limitations from their thoughts, but so as to ensure that the basic saving truths of Christian faith are enshrined in the canonical documents in an appropriate way.
8. Revelation as Encounter
This is a relatively weak doctrine of inspiration, compared to a Divine dictation or an inerrancy model. It becomes impossible to regard sentences from Scripture, taken in isolation, as conveying inerrant Divine truth. It strengthens the suspicion, already suggested by reflection on the nature of revelation generally, that the function of Scripture is not primarily to present a set of correct doctrines. Scripture, at least in Christian faith, consists of a set of human witnesses to Divine revelation, rather than constituting the content of revelation itself. This is what theologians like Karl Barth and Emil Brunner have tried to convey by saying that revelation is not propositional, but primarily lies in encounter with the living and active Word of God, a personal and dynamic reality. Scripture functions as a witness to the occurrence of such an encounter and as a means of seeking to evoke a similar encounter in the reader or hearer. What God wills is that the witness of Scripture should be authentic; which primarily means not that it is literally true in every detail but that it is capable of bringing humans into a real encounter with the God who is manifest in Jesus Christ. Of course such an encounter will entail some true propositions, but it is not itself the relating of such propositions, and it will not by any means answer all the theoretical questions I may have. It may be extremely difficult to put a personal experience of encounter into precise propositions at all. I think it is quite intelligible to suppose that I may become acquainted with something so overpowering and immense that I have no words to describe it. Only on later reflection will I come to work out what is involved in such an encounter, and develop theories such as those of incarnation or atonement which seek to articulate, and then always in a very inadequate fashion, the propositional truths which are implied by the encounter to which Scripture witnesses and which the Church seeks to renew.
Brunner speaks of the ‘fatal equation of revelation with the inspiration of the Scriptures’.34 For Christians, he says, it is wrong to equate Divine revelation with the text of the Bible, though the Bible is the record of revelation. As for revelation itself, however, ‘Divine revelation is not a book or a doctrine; the revelation is God Himself in his self-manifestation within history.’35 God manifests by dynamic activity in history, and does so for the salvation of the world. Thus the centre of revelation is the saving activity of God in history, not the provision of correct information in a written text.
In this saving activity, the prophets encounter God in an experience by which they are claimed and transformed. God is not knowable as an object or by human speculation, for God is the Absolute Subject, who can be known only in self-revelation. ‘Since God gives himself to be known, he gives communion with himself and… a share in his own eternal life.’36 Here one has the elements of a self-revealing act of God on a particular historical occasion; the establishment of a relationship between the Absolute Subject and created subjects; and the redemptive transformation of human life by that Divine, self-giving activity.
On this view, revelation is a historical act which makes the Divine Being known, which establishes a personal relationship in the very fact of that self-expression, and which transforms the recipients of revelation by reorientating their whole life. The nearest, though very imperfect, analogy is with a person who does something which reveals what their innermost character is, as a result of which we fall in love with them, making them the centre of our thoughts and acts from that time on, changing our whole life. There is a particular occasion in history when we take some event to be the self-expressive act of the Supreme Being, putting us into a new relation with it and thereby reorienting our lives towards it.
‘Revelation actually consists in the meeting of two subjects.’37 The moment of revelation is the moment of meeting or encounter, and it is only later that we may try to put it into words. Brunner calls this the ‘biblical conception of faith’, and contrasts it with the ‘Catholic’ doctrine that faith is an assent to doctrines, rather than an act of personal encounter and trust. He stresses the discontinuity of revelation with reason: ‘The God who is discovered through thought is always different from the God who reveals himself.’38 He also stresses the discontinuity between Christianity and other faiths, holding that ‘no other religion can assert revelation in the radical, unconditional sense in which the Christian faith does’.39 I have already criticized these views of Brunner, and one does not have to accept such a total discontinuity between revelation of God as redeeming Subject and human reflection in order to preserve an emphasis on the fact that one important aspect of the Semitic notion of revelation is that it is a personal encounter and entrance into a saving relationship with the Absolute Subjectivity of God.
It is true, however, that only in the Semitic tradition does such a personal encounter with a morally demanding God become the central focus of revelation. In Hinduism there is a much greater stress on inner unity with the Self of all, a unitive rather than a relational sort of experience. And in Buddhism the emphasis is mainly upon the teaching of the Enlightened One. Only in Judaism does belief in God's saving and judging actions in history play a major role. Though this element is not entirely lacking in Islam, the focus there changes to a more general expectation of judgement and universal resurrection. Only in Christianity is God's action seen as fully self-expressive, so that not only does God order history according to the Divine purpose, but the very nature of God is manifested in a human, historical life.
9. Revelation as Historical Action
William Temple has also expounded a view of revelation as personal encounter, but holds as an important part of his case that ‘in the entire course of cosmic history there is to be found the self-revelation of God’.40 In a sense, the whole of the natural order reveals God, because it expresses the mind of God and the sort of being God is. Just as an artist reveals himself in his works, so God is self-revealing in the beauty and order of the natural world. But as well as this general revelation, there is a special revelation of God in particular events which express the Divine nature in an especially significant or striking way. These will be events in history which forward the Divine purpose—such events as the exodus from Egypt or the return from exile in Babylon. But Temple sees that historical events are not self-interpreting. They need to be apprehended as providential acts of God, and that requires a certain sort of prophetic insight to discern the transcendent dimension in what might otherwise seem to be a purely political or social process. So, he says, special revelation ‘consisted primarily in historical events, and secondarily in the illumination of the minds of prophets to read those events’. Thus ‘the interaction of the process and the minds which are alike guided by [God] is the essence of revelation’.41
Temple sees God as acting in particular ways in history, undertaking ‘a specially directed activity in face of the sufficient occasion’.42 So God acts to deliver Israel from Egypt or from exile in Babylon, and in the events of Middle Eastern history surrounding Israel. God also acts to illumine the minds of the prophets so that they can interpret Divine action in history correctly. Event and appreciation go together; so that for Temple there is a propositional element in revelation, even though he says that ‘there is no such thing as revealed truth’.43 There must be such a thing as revealed truth, if God acts to ensure that the prophets interpret history properly, that is, truly. The revealed truth is precisely the correct interpretation of particular parts of history as acts of Divine judgement or liberation. I suspect that what he means is that God does not reveal speculative truths, but acts through historical events, so that ‘the typical locus of revelation is not the mind of the seer but the historical event’.44
The model of revelation that is being used here is not that of God speaking words directly, but of God disclosing the Divine purposes by acting in historical events. This element of objective liberating empowerment by God complements, and does not compete with, the Brunnerian model of encounter. For, Temple says, ‘Faith is not the holding of correct doctrines, but personal fellowship.’45 Again, ‘Every revelation of God is a demand.’46 Here the model is of direct personal relationship, a model expressed in the phrase that revelation is ‘a special form of religious experience’.47 It is perhaps clearer to disentangle three rather different models of revelation and say that Temple uses them all. Using a propositional or inspiration model, he sees God as illumining the minds of prophets to interpret history correctly. Using an objective empowerment or liberation model, he sees God as acting in history to express or realize his purposes. And using an experiential encounter model, he sees God as establishing a personal fellowship in which God is experienced as demand and succour in the personal life of the believer. In the biblical tradition, God is seen as acting in inspired utterances, providential events, and in personal experiences of encounter; all these elements are properly revelatory of God. They reflect the three strands of revelation—oracle, empowerment, and vision—that have been seen to be present in religion in general.48
It seems true to say that since the nineteenth century there has been a major change in the understanding of Christian revelation, which John Baillie has characterized as a change from seeing revelation as propositional to seeing it as personal.49 It would not be right to see this as a change from a ‘Catholic’ to a ‘Protestant’ understanding, since the propositional view is nowhere better set forth than in Calvin's Institutes.50 Reasons have been given for thinking that a ‘depository of doctrines’ view of revelation is not very helpful in bringing out the distinctive character of the revelation that is enshrined in Scripture. It would seem to be an overstatement, however, to hold that there are no revealed doctrines at all. This would neglect entirely the Old Testament emphasis on the Torah as a revealed way of life; and, as Temple himself noted, it neglects the vital element of inspired prophetic discernment which is necessary in order to see signs of transcendent Divine presence in the events of Israel's history.
It cannot be denied that there is propositional revelation in the Bible; but these propositions are not just items of information which God causes people to believe. First of all, they are historically situated. They are not general items of information—things like mathematical theorems or laws of physics or even doctrines about the Divine nature. They are concerned with the transcendent dimension of and future possibilities in a particular historical situation. For example, in Jeremiah 32: 27–35, the prophet receives a word from God in face of the imminent destruction of Jerusalem, telling him that the city will indeed be destroyed, and that this destruction is a Divine judgement. Secondly, they are personally involving. They do not give descriptions of states of affairs which are of no immediate concern to the hearer. They are of vital concern to the hearer, affecting the future of things of great personal concern. The warning of judgement involves Jeremiah also. Thirdly, they demand a wholehearted personal response. They do not say what it is correct to believe, regardless of how one lives. They require one to reorient one's life, to do something new or to commit oneself to a particular course of action, most often to repent and trust that a particular course of action will result in good. Thus, in Jeremiah 32: 14, Jeremiah is ordered to purchase a field at what seems to be a ridiculous time, to show his faith in God. Fourthly, they carry a promise of human fulfilment. They do not just predict the future in a quasi-scientific way. They proclaim a goal of human endeavour which will be an ultimate realization of human good, a vision of the realization of goodness. God promises Jeremiah that fields will again be bought in Israel, and (32: 40) that God will make an eternal covenant with his people when they return from exile.
Revealed propositions in the biblical tradition are typically historical (not timeless truths), existential (not neutral descriptions), morally demanding (not factually informative), and covenantal (not universal). They occur to prophets as they consider the situation in which they live, the good to be achieved and the evil to be avoided; they make particular moral demands and particular promises of good. In the life of Jesus, this aspect of revelation is expressed in Jesus’ discernment of the Kingdom as the eschatalogical goal of all history and the inauguration in his own person of the Kingdom as the new eschatalogical community which foreshadows that goal within history. The prophetic ability to discern Divine action in history and to foresee a renewed covenant community becomes the Messianic ability to discern the final goal, the innermost possibility, of history and to inaugurate the new community of hope which relates all history to its intended goal.
10. Revelation as Inner Experience
In any adequate account of Christian revelation, the notions of Divine inspiration, objective Divine action, and personal encounter must all have a place. In Avery Dulles's illuminating account of models of revelation,51 these three models are termed the doctrinal, historical, and dialectical presence models respectively. Dulles outlines two further models of revelation, which he calls the ‘inner experience’ model and the ‘new awareness’ model. The emphasis in these models is on the personal experience of the recipient of revelation, in contrast to the occurrence of propositional beliefs or of some objectively discernible events. In practice, like the dialectical presence and historical models, these two models usually go together, stressing different poles of revelatory experience—the occurrence of a feeling as a mental state and the opening-up of new perspectives and commitments which springs from its transforming effect on human life. The ‘inner experience’ model is perhaps best seen as a complementary pole of the ‘personal encounter’ view. Both are concerned with personal experience, one with experience interpreted as encounter with an ‘other’ reality, and one with experience interpreted as unity with true reality, of which one is part. A stress on inner experience comes about because many theologians, while accepting the shift in emphasis from doctrinal to experiential, are uneasy with encounter models.
John Macquarrie formulates this unease when he complains that God is not really another object whom I might encounter, with whom I can have a reciprocal personal relationship, and who might speak to me in any literal sense.52 It may seem that encounter models make God too much like another person, another thing of the same sort as I am, even if much greater. Certainly, H. H. Farmer insists that ‘Religion must deal with a Personal Will’.53 For him, God must appear in an ‘I-Thou encounter’, making an absolute claim and guaranteeing final succour to those who respond.54 What might be said about this is not so much that it is false, as that it does not give full expression to a distinctively Christian viewpoint.
The notion of ‘I-Thou encounter’ itself derives from the work of Martin Buber, a Jewish theologian who has been an important influence on much twentieth-century Christian theology. So it is perhaps not surprising that it lacks any specifically Trinitarian emphasis. In particular, it lacks the idea of an inward unity between human and Divine which the doctrines of incarnation and of theopoiesis, the inclusion of humanity in the Divine Life, express. It is not that these ideas are altogether missing. Brunner speaks of a ‘sharing in the eternal life of God’, and Baillie speaks of the work of the Holy Spirit within the believer. What this may suggest is that the model of personal encounter, which is basically dualistic, needs to be supplemented, but not supplanted, by a more unitive model.
If one does not regard God as a person to whom one stands in a basically external relation, but perhaps as the infinite ground of all being, which, as Macquarrie puts it, ‘lets beings be and mediates itself through them’,55 then the model of revelation as a personal self-disclosure through some distinctive action will not be adequate. One will still think of revelation as an active self-disclosure, but as a disclosure of the true nature of ‘being-itself’ or ‘holy being’ which is the root of one's own being, not an ‘other person’. Thus Macquarrie says, ‘The content of revelation is “being” or “holy being”’;56 it is given in ‘revelatory experiences where man becomes aware of the presence and manifestation of holy being’.57 Since such experiences are primarily interior, they are also transformative. That is, if holy being manifests itself in one's own experience, to that extent one actually becomes holy; true revelation is of itself salvific. There is an idea of Divine liberating empowerment, not this time in objective historical events, but in personal salvific experience itself. On such a view of revelation, the propositional element is again usually seen as a reflective expression of and witness to the original revelatory experience.
The historical roots of this view are to be found in the work of Schleiermacher, who writes, ‘What is revelation? Every original and new intuition of the universe is one.’58 What he has in mind is the intuition of the universe as absolutely dependent upon a wholly self-sufficient reality, something which has to come home to each individual in a personal way, through the generation of a feeling of absolute dependence. The feeling, only explicitly named as such in his later work The Christian Faith, is sustained in the Church and derives from the uniquely permanent consciousness of such dependence in Jesus. So he can say, ‘The idea of revelation signifies the originality of the fact which lies at the foundation of a religious communion.’59 In his later work, Schleiermacher was concerned to distance himself from accusations of pantheism, and so to stress the absolute independence of the intuited Divine Being; and to root Christian revelation securely in the Church, which he did by tracing the distinctively Christian feeling of piety back to the unique experience of Jesus.
The weaknesses of this position are well known and severe. First, it is very difficult to feel justified in basing any beliefs about the nature of the universe on the occurrence of human feelings; it seems more common that one describes one's feelings (as feelings of ‘absolute dependence’, for example) as a result of a prior belief which suggests that interpretation as the most appropriate. And second, it is hard to see how one can be sure that Jesus possessed a unique inner state, and that Christian feelings are quite distinctive, when inner states are the hardest of all to discern. It looks as though factual beliefs about the nature of the universe and about more clearly discernible historical events will be required to justify the most adequate description of inner feelings or their ascription to the historical person of Jesus. Feelings cannot be so sharply divorced from facts and beliefs as Schleiermacher supposed. Yet he made the important point that Christian revelation is not simply the promulgation of factual beliefs; it is an inward disclosure of the mystery of the Divine Being which constitutes a particular community of faith. It establishes a form of relationship with the Divine, and thus essentially transforms human consciousness. It is precisely when one sees an event as a disclosure of a reality which calls one into a new relationship that one sees it as revelation. One can witness to the revelation by proclaiming its salvific significance for oneself and by seeking to evoke it in others. But the existential reorientation cannot be either guaranteed or adequately described by any set of propositions.
Paul Tillich is perhaps the best-known twentieth-century theologian who has adopted an ‘inner experience’ view of revelation. ‘There are no revealed doctrines, but there are revelatory events,’60 he says. Such an event has three main characteristics, which he terms mystery, miracle, and ecstasy—terms to which he gives a special meaning. What is revealed is ‘essential mystery’, beyond subject-object relationships. It is a combination of the abyss in which all finite distinctions fall away and of the power of being, which gives the courage to be. This experience of ultimate mystery is found in ecstasy, a state of mind which moves beyond the subject-object polarity to the ground of being and meaning. And it is mediated through miraculous events—not gaps in the structure of the physical world, but sign-events which produce astonishment and are transparent to the ground of being and meaning.
For Tillich, a revelatory event is primarily a sort of human experience; it is an experience in which one participates by ultimate concern. ‘The history of revelation and the history of salvation are the same history.’61 Discerning mystery requires self-transformation; and revelation is the answer of the power of being to our ultimate existential questions. It is a matter of infinite passion, not of the addition of new propositions to our array of theoretical knowledge. Thus revelation comes only when, in infinite passion, we discern the power of being, and its mystery is unveiled, empowering and healing us.
Tillich's account is very helpful in highlighting the ultimate point of Christian revelation—that it is meant to reorient human lives towards their goal in the Divine mystery. It must therefore involve a personal transformative experience. Yet it is in the end important that biblical revelation is not solely a means to or expression of some inner unitive experience. It is also the expression of an interactive relationship between God and a particular community, in which God acts in personal encounter, in providential action, and in inspirational guidance. It is this interaction which enables the inner experience of the believer to be justifiably interpreted as experience of a self-revealing and redeeming God. Such interactive historicity is almost at the opposite pole from Tillich's ‘ultimate mystery beyond the relationship of subject and object’. For it is essentially dual—a dialogue of God and humanity; particular—related to specific historical situations; and temporal—developing in new and creative ways. Tillich's view seems so vague that it might apply to any experience of ultimate mystery, historically based or not. But for Hebrew thought, God reveals through the prophets the proper form of communal relationship to the source of an objective moral leading towards the goal of history. The theologians of encounter and of inner experience are right in stressing the primacy of relationship to God; but they cannot ignore the claims to specific guidance and calling which the prophets make.
Tillich is right that there are no revealed doctrines, in that God does not dictate correct beliefs to anyone. Yet revelation must be seen as a long process in a communal tradition, in which both reflection and Divine influence play an important part, and in which complex propositional expressions of the nature of God and its interaction with human lives can be developed. Divine revelation cannot be separated out and contrasted with human reflection and experience. Such a contrast assumes that human speculation could only go so far (or might even lead in the wrong direction, according to Brunner), and that Divine revelation has to add quite a distinct element which would otherwise be inconceivable by human minds. On the contrary, it is precisely through human reflection and experience that God ‘speaks’, shaping a communal life so that its authoritative documents express what God wants them to express.
One need not think of these models of revelation as mutually exclusive. A theist will naturally believe that God is active in the world, and that some of those actions reveal important aspects of the Divine nature. A Christian will find in the life of Jesus a particular temporal process which reveals with special clarity the Divine nature as redemptive love. Such a perception, however, is only possible when the objective events become channels of encounter with the spiritual reality which underlies and is expressed in them. That, in turn, occurs only as observers are caught up in a response to the events which transforms their lives by a reorientation of vision and feeling. It is the stirring of the Spirit within which enables recognition of the Spirit without. Finally, this whole process is recorded, so that it can be evoked in others, through a process of reflection and imaginative reconstruction, which is not only a record of past events but a stimulus to present response to the spiritual reality which was discerned there. All these aspects—objective Divine action and personal liberation (the aspect of empowerment), human experience of encounter and of union (the aspect of experience), reflective and imaginative interpretation (the aspect of propositional belief)—are involved in the revelatory process.
Christian revelation, then, can be seen as God's self-disclosure, guiding the apostles to discern the Divine nature and purpose, as definitively manifested in Jesus, in a personally transforming encounter. This is made present in the sacramental life and authentic preaching of the Church, making possible a personal salvific experience of sharing in and mediating the Divine Life. Such revelation is witnessed in Scripture and summarily expressed in the creeds. Seen in this light, the Bible does not present a document without error of any sort, and it is not exempt from the most thorough critical study. It nevertheless presents a document which the Church accepts as embodying faithfully that truth which God manifests in the person of Jesus and the present disclosure of which in the Church unites human lives to the eternal life of God. Most religious traditions have their canonical Scriptures; but no other Scripture plays the same role as that of the Bible in Christianity. For Christian faith, Scripture is the faithful witness; the content of its witness is the reality of God, whose final purpose for creation is disclosed in Jesus Christ.
C. TAKING HISTORY ON FAITH
11. The Nature of Historical Criticism
For Christians, the Bible witnesses to the self-disclosure of the Divine nature and purpose in Jesus. In particular, the gospels present a set of icons of the risen Christ, apprehensions of God evoked by the apostolic witness to the life of one who had opened up a new and living way to God for them.62 In this New Testament witness there is an ineliminable reference to historical facts about Jesus. But, whereas this reference to history once seemed a strength of Christian faith, giving it firm evidential support, it now often seems only to pose an additional and even intractable problem. For the rise of critical historical method and the growth of historical consciousness since the eighteenth century have completely transformed attitudes towards the written documents which constitute Scripture in the world's religious traditions.
What happens when a critical historian examines religious documents and assesses them for their historical plausibility? The key features of a critical methodology of history were laid down by Troeltsch at the end of the nineteenth century.63 He suggested that historians must first assent to the principle of criticism. No document should be taken at face value; all should be viewed with initial suspicion for vested interests, propaganda, or political and religious bias. One must always partially discount texts which have a particular axe to grind and distrust any appeals to privileged authority which prevent free historical investigation. Taken to its extreme, this becomes the hermeneutic of suspicion, in accordance with which one must always be on the look-out in any written document for special pleading and falsification of the evidence to support some authoritarian or oppressive structure. But even in its less extreme forms, the principle of criticism compels one to ask how and why documents came to be written, what biases they evince and what evidence they are likely to have been based on. To adopt such an attitude is hardly consistent with unquestioning acceptance of written truth on authority.
Secondly, the historian should accept the principle of correlation, according to which all events must fall within the accepted web of physical causality. Christianity cannot be accepted as being in a privileged position which enables it to formulate absolute truths valid for all time. Like all other historical phenomena, it must be viewed in its total historical context. All its claims must be relativized to the context in which they were made. In particular, special appeal to supernatural causes is ruled out, as beyond normal patterns of causality. Thus all the biblical miracle stories must be rejected as inconsistent with a scientific approach.
Thirdly, the historian should assess the sources on the basis of the principle of analogy, so that things in the past must be very much as they are today, and one cannot treat one text (the Bible) in a different way from any other, or the events it records as quite unlike the sorts of events that occur today. In general, since history is a discipline which tries to assess probabilities, no historical judgement can ever be more than probable; so none can be the basis of an absolute faith-commitment. In so far, then, as the gospels claim to be historical documents, or in so far as Christian faith claims to be based upon history, one can immediately say that they can at best give a historical probability that certain events happened. In fact they give a low historical probability to the events they record, since they are written by believers, they speak of supernatural events which break normal causal laws, and they record events quite unlike those one experiences today in the world. It looks as though a critical historian cannot be a believer, or at least cannot claim any assurance for recorded events in the life of Jesus.
One can sympathize with Troeltsch's rejection of authoritarian attempts to restrict critical study of the New Testament texts. Protecting such texts by appeal to a dogmatic principle of inerrancy will seem an unacceptable move if the documents have sufficient internal problems of consistency to make one suspect such an appeal—and, as I have pointed out, they have! Critical study of the gospels is not merely permissible for believers; it is an intellectual obligation, if belief is to be more than blind acceptance. The difficulty is, however, that if one adopts a wholly critical view of the gospels, soon nothing seems to be left. It is easy to suspect every text as a pious invention of apocalyptic fanatics, an invented fulfilment of Old Testament texts, or a product of religious delusion.64 Of all the hundreds of accounts of what ‘probably’ happened in the life of Jesus, how is one to choose a most probable view? It can seem that the believer must continually, whether eagerly or anxiously, be waiting for the next book by a New Testament scholar, to find out what one is supposed to think about Jesus. And even then, one knows it will be ‘refuted’ by another scholar whose work has yet to appear. This is not a wholly satisfactory situation for believers. But how is one to tread the narrow path between indefensible dogmatism and continually vacillating uncertainty? John Macquarrie at one point suggests that ‘where there are two rival historical views… the systematic theologian should follow the more sceptical point of view’.65 But since the most sceptical view is that Jesus probably never existed at all, this seems an unsatisfactory principle. Moreover, he does not follow it himself, concluding later in the same work that Jesus Christ is ‘different from us in having brought the most central possibilities of humanity to a new level of realisation’.66 That is a historical claim of breathtaking proportions, which it would be hard to make about anyone alive at present, let alone a rather remote historical figure of whom one should be largely sceptical! I think it is clear that no one can plausibly hold that Jesus ‘may indeed tower in incomparable moral and spiritual superiority over his fellows’,67 on purely historical grounds. But if one is making such an attribution on faith, how can that be compatible with a proper degree of historical caution?
12. The Historical Roots of Incarnational Belief
A way towards a resolution of this uncomfortable dilemma is to be found in the recollection that one is here dealing with religious belief, not with a simple ideologically uncommitted historical investigation (as if there were such a thing). That is, one is concerned with an alleged disclosure of the supreme value and goal of life in a particular historical context, which becomes the vehicle or medium of that disclosure. The historian cannot remain untouched by this fact. Among the presuppositions which one brings to any study of human affairs, historical or contemporary, is a basic belief about the existence or non-existence of such a supreme value and goal. If someone records that a certain event was the medium of a disclosure to them of ultimate meaning, the historian can only record that this was said. Whether it is believed to be truly such a disclosure or not will depend on whether one believes there is, or could be, such a meaning; on whether one believes that it could have been mediated in such a context; and on whether the consequences make it likely that it was so mediated.
There can be no serious doubt that the gospels record the belief that the life of Jesus mediated a disclosure of supreme value to the apostles. In Mark's gospel, generally now taken to be the earliest we have, Jesus is unequivocally regarded as the anointed one of God, the Christ or Messiah, who baptizes with the Holy Spirit, who is accepted by God as Son, who announced with unprecedented authority the coming of God's Kingdom and taught its secrets to his disciples, who assumed the authority to forgive sins and to give to his disciples authority to drive out demons.68 He is also represented as assuming a position of supreme personal authority, saying that he would come in glory with the holy angels to judge the world and gather God's chosen to his presence and that he would sit on the throne of the coming Kingdom. He is said to have foreseen his death and resurrection, to have been transfigured in the presence of Moses and Elijah, and to have accepted the role of the coming Davidic king by the form of his entrance into Jerusalem.69
Whatever the underlying historical realities may be, the writer of Mark sees Jesus as proclaiming with supreme authority the coming of a Kingdom in which he himself would be enthroned as king. According to Mark, he even saw his own death as the sealing of a new covenant between God and humanity, and as a ransom to bring humans to God.70 The earliest text of the gospel we have ends with a record that Jesus’ tomb was empty and with a promise that he would be seen by his disciples in Galilee. It is clear that Mark did not see Jesus as merely a prophet or as a proclaimer of coming judgement. Jesus is represented as the suffering king, chosen by God to announce and to inaugurate the Kingdom with Divine authority (shown by his complete power over disease, demons, and the natural order). Jesus is portrayed as teaching the secrets of God's promised Kingdom, unknown even to the angels. He cast out the powers of evil and disease. He was raised from death to the presence of God. He promised to come with glory to establish the Kingdom under his personal supervision. The Kingdom of God, the complete rule of God, is to be mediated through the kingship of Jesus, in such a way that when Jesus is given authority as king, it is God who becomes the true ruler of one's life. Thus the idea of Jesus as king is already incipiently the idea of God ruling in and through a human person, the idea of a man as the mediator of the Divine rule; the later developed notion of incarnation can intelligibly be seen as one development of this central idea.
But what is the critical historian to make of such claims? If one does not think there is a God; or that God has revealed the Divine purpose to Israel; or that a human being could mediate the rule of God in his own person; then some account in terms of delusion and even deceit is needed. Such accounts are easy to construct. One might first note the difference in the recorded style of Jesus’ teaching in John and the synoptics. In Mark, Jesus teaches in short cryptic parables, meant to conceal the secrets of the Kingdom; and he counsels that his Messianic role should be kept secret. In John, however, he openly states his unity with God the Father in ways that shock his hearers. The most plausible account of this difference is to say that John is constructing a theological meditation on remembrances of Jesus, putting into Jesus’ mouth statements which actually reflect a later estimate of his unique relationship to God. Only after the resurrection could such a meditation have been written. John presents the glorified Christ projected back on to the historical record with an openness almost entirely lacking in the synoptics. But, having said this about John, might one not also say similar things about Mark? Perhaps, as Albert Schweitzer once held, Jesus preached a coming Son of Man who was not himself, and looked for a political revolution to be brought about by Divine intervention. Later, when this did not happen, it came to be thought that the coming Son was Jesus himself, who as man had been raised to heaven to wait for the end of all things when he would return to usher in the Kingdom within a generation.71 Still later, the Kingdom would be spiritualized and Jesus the apocalyptic prophet would be transformed into the self-conscious Son of God, always aware of his unity with the Father and even capable of raising himself from the dead by his own Divine power.72 Legendary accounts of miracles and exorcisms would be exaggerated little by little, until the wonder-working of a charismatic rural healer had become the signs of the Divine omnipotence of the Son of God.
In all this there may be no conscious deceit; only a gradual apotheosis of a human prophet into a Divine Being as the first expectations of a political revolution changed under pressure of events (or the lack of them) into a perception of the Divine incarnation in the life of Jesus himself. With the inexorable logic of faith, which continually embroiders and exaggerates its claims with each successive retelling, the expectation of a Divine transformation of the world moved from the hope expressed by Jesus for an imminent Day of the Lord to the hope of the disciples for the expected return of Jesus in glory. As this faded, more stress was placed upon the presence of God in Jesus. At first God was thought to assume Jesus’ humanity at his baptism, his commissioning as Son of God. Then it moved back to his birth, which now became a miraculous transformation in the womb. Finally it was pushed to the beginning of the world itself, when the Word pre-existed from eternity.73 The doctrine of incarnation, on this account, was the final resting-place of a series of increasingly improbable retellings of the Jesus story.
For the critical historian, such an account must be a possible and, if there is no God, even a probable account of the genesis of Christian belief. It is based on the premiss that, unless John's gospel is literally true, it is no more than a fiction. There is another possibility, however: that John's gospel is a theological presentation of Christ as the incarnation of the eternal Word, built around remembered traditions but primarily concerned with teaching and making explicit present spiritual truths. Was John right in seeing Jesus as the incarnation of the Word, if Jesus did not say all that John puts into his mouth? He could be right, after all; for the truth of the incarnation does not depend on someone having remembered Jesus’ words exactly, especially when that was not what they were concerned to do. Any theologian who tries to present a picture of Christ which moves people to commit themselves to him as a disclosure of God will do so from a personal perspective, selecting and explaining whatever basic materials there are in a distinctive way. So one might say that the picture of Jesus as incarnating the eternal Word is precisely such an attempt to evoke a disclosure of God in a particular cultural situation. It is a way of saying that Jesus is the mediator of the Divine Being and the channel of redemptive Divine action in the world. As the Word is the creative and effective will of God bringing new things into being,74 so one might see the life of Jesus as a creative and effective act of God bringing into being a new spiritual community, the Church. A good way of putting this is to say that ‘the Word becomes flesh’; that is, God's creative intention is enacted in a human life.
Those who believe in God and who have found the presence of God made real to them through the preaching of the gospel and through their own experience in the community of believers will give authoritative status to the gospel of John. They will do so not viewing it as an accurate historical document, but as an illuminating, imaginative, and authentic presentation of Jesus as the expression of God's redemptive action and the exemplary matrix of God's continuing action in the Church. The importance of the picture for us is the effectiveness with which it does convey God's redemptive action, forming a model upon which our lives can be patterned and a channel through which that pattern can be formed in us. That does not mean the history is unimportant. On the contrary, the Johannine icon of Christ, though generated by imaginative reflection in the early Church, is created by and patterned upon the historical Jesus with whom the apostles had lived. It was because Jesus had been the effective mediator of God to them that they could construct upon his remembered life an icon of the Divine love for subsequent generations.
One would indeed expect that Mark, too, would present an icon of Christ, having as its basis a threefold foundation: the contemporaneous Spirit-guided experience of the Church, memories of their teacher Jesus, and visions of the risen Lord. Could the Jesus whom they so depicted have been merely a prophet of the end of the world whose expectations were cruelly ended by the cross? Well, he obviously could have been; but if he was, the early believers were mistaken in regarding him as God's designated king who truly foreshadowed the consummation of all things in God (the ‘end’, or final purpose, of the world) and in thinking that God had vindicated his teaching by raising him from death. Albert Schweitzer's theory that Jesus preached a Son of Man other than himself is, after all, pure speculation, requiring that Mark misunderstood Jesus’ ministry almost totally. One of the most basic features of Jesus’ remembered life is that he taught the imminence of the Kingdom and he is represented as claiming by word and deed that he was the designated king. If it is true, as I have suggested it is, that such an assumption of the rule of the Kingdom of God by a man is a claim that God's rule is being mediated in and through a human person, then this is just another way of representing what John put by saying that in Jesus the Word of God was made flesh.
13. The Principle of Trust
One need not represent the incarnation in terms of Jesus being conscious, as a man, that he was omniscient and omnipotent and had been eternally pre-existent. That is a view I criticized in a previous book,75 but it is not entailed by an orthodox account at all. Yet some beliefs about the self-consciousness of Jesus are implied by acceptance of him as the Messianic king. He must at least have felt a calling to speak with the authority of God's anointed Son, to act as the king of the new Israel which God was calling into being through him, perhaps to offer his life as a sacrifice which would bring about the Kingdom, even seeing his death as a self-sacrificial identification with the Divine love. If he had no such sense of vocation, then the basic beliefs of the apostles about him could not have been true. One may properly ask how Jesus could justifiably have come to believe in such a destiny to be God's anointed king and the proclaimer of God's new covenant. To have such an inner certainty of Divine authority, and to be justified in having it, Jesus’ awareness of God must have been intensely vivid and enduring. He would need to have a constant and vivid sense of the presence of God, a sense of utter and undeviating devotion and loyalty to God, and a sense that his words and acts were authentic expressions of the will and purpose of God. Only if such a fairly constant union of awareness, feeling, and will existed might a human being justifiably come to believe that he or she had the authority to proclaim God's purpose and enact God's will in their own life, so as to become a visible focal point of Divine action in the world.
It is not enough to say that the apostles saw God in Jesus, although he was unaware of having any special role. Because of his acceptance of their total commitment to him as Lord, whom they followed at the cost of everything else, and his teaching of the coming Kingdom, Jesus himself must have believed that he was the emissary of God in a virtually, and perhaps actually, unique way. Though we do not have access to the consciousness of Jesus, the apostolic testimony is that Jesus was without sin, that he had authority over the powers of evil and disease, and that he assumed the authority to interpret God's word and purpose in his own teachings about Torah and in his confident proclamation of the Kingdom. If this testimony is credible, it licenses an even higher evaluation of Jesus’ uniqueness, entailing a claim that there was in his person a unity of awareness, feeling, and will with God which was shared by none of his contemporaries, and, more daringly, by none of the great prophets of old.
One cannot reconstruct a historical life of Jesus behind the gospel records without making a prior decision about whether he was a mistaken prophet who looked vainly for God's miraculous intervention in history or a genuine mediator of the Supreme Value and Power, expressed in his context as his call to be King and Saviour (liberator) in the dawning rule of God. If one takes the former view, one is bound to see belief in resurrection as either pure invention or as based on a set of hallucinations, and belief in the incarnation as a later divinization of a remarkable but very human figure. Suppose, however, that one has a fundamental trust in the witnesses of the apostolic age—because one believes in a God whose will had been gradually revealed to Israel, and who is now known in a more directly personal way through the image of Jesus Christ and the renewing life of the Holy Spirit. Believing that the Divine power is given by the Spirit and that the Divine perfection of love is apprehended in the fourfold icon of Christ to be found in the New Testament, one will naturally take these icons to be authentic channels of Divine revelation.
They might indeed have been quite non-historical, pure imaginative myths conveying general truths about the Divine. They do contain imaginative and mythical elements, as they strive to make memories of Jesus into evocations of the present and eternal Word. But it is in fact part of their content to claim to depict a historical individual in whom God was present and active, in whom humanity was seen to be united to Divinity throughout the time the apostles had known him, a unity which was startlingly vindicated at the resurrection, and as a result of which the new community of the Church came into being. This historical claim is ineliminable, since the theological claim is precisely about the historical acts of God. Thus one who accepts these images as authentic disclosures of the Divine is logically bound to accept their rootedness in history and the genuineness of their testimony that ‘in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself’.76 The disciple who has found God in Christ cannot adopt a purely critical—in the sense of suspicious—attitude to the New Testament documents. There must rather be a basic attitude of trust in the general reliability of the witnesses to that original historical person in whom one's faith is grounded.
The adoption of such an attitude by no means destroys one's credibility as a historian. It only means that one will be disposed to believe the testimony of the writers unless there is very good reason not to do so—and of course all historians must trust some testimony, if they are to come to any conclusions about the past at all. This is not a blind and unquestioning trust; it is open to new understandings of the biblical contexts, genres, and meanings. It is open, in principle, to historical evidence showing that Jesus did not exist, or was a political rabble-rouser. If such evidence came to light, Christianity would be falsified. It is no weakness of a belief that it might be false. It is, on the contrary, a great strength. If it could not be false, its truth is likely to be wholly vacuous. So Christian faith is historically falsifiable. The Christian is rational to assume, however, that it will not be falsified, since God is truly disclosed in the events which the Church proclaims as revelatory of God. Thus one can justifiably assume that the general depiction of Jesus as one who saw himself called to a uniquely authoritative mediating role in the Divine purpose for Israel is correct. There is no need to speak of a later ecclesiastical divinization of Jesus. That developing doctrine was a spelling-out of the Divine-human unity which was already implicit in the apostles’ acceptance of Jesus’ assumption of Divine authority. It does not at all imply the absurd belief that Jesus went around saying, ‘I am the second person of the Trinity’. But it does imply the belief that Jesus was conscious of a unity with God and a vocation from God that was apparently quite unique to him.
The principle of historical criticism cannot be the only hermeneutic principle for a Christian theologian; for the theologian approaches the Scriptures primarily as mediations of the Divine Word, as witnesses to the self-disclosure of God. This witness contains, as an internal component of its meaning, the testimony that Jesus was in his own person the primary self-disclosive event. However one criticizes the Scriptures, using analogies from religious folklore, background cultural information, or literary analyses, this fundamental witness remains basic. The Christian theologian must therefore use a principle of trust to balance critical study of the Scriptures. Such a principle cannot overthrow strongly established critical findings; but it can add a very weighty consideration to the assessment of historical probabilities which is an appropriate response to the nature of the documents themselves.
For similar reasons the principle of correlation cannot be interpreted to mean that no supernatural actions or events can be accepted because of a supposed seamless web of natural causality. For the theist, there is no such seamless web and God is an ever-present spiritual power who may make a causal difference. It would in fact be odd if a claim that God had disclosed the Divine nature in a human life was not accompanied by reports of supernatural causality. If, by the principle of analogy, the claim is made that God can never act except in ways that are familiar to us, then one must recall that it is precisely Jesus’ uniqueness as being absolutely united to God that is in question. It is hardly to be expected that the subject of such a claim would conform to normal principles of human conduct. After all, what would it be like to be absolutely united to God? I do not suppose many of us have much idea. But it is no strange idea that holiness brings with it paranormal powers; and if any credence is given to that idea, one would expect that a person absolutely united to God in holiness of life would possess such powers, or would mediate Divine powers, in an unparalleled way. So, given the initial supposition that Jesus does mediate the Divine uniquely, one might expect his control of natural forces, his power over evil, and his insight into the minds of others to be startling and dramatic. A true mediator of Divine power and value would almost be expected to have paranormal capacities and humanly heroic virtue. Since the gospels witness to Jesus as the unique mediator of God, it is entirely consonant with that claim that they should record the use of paranormal powers. Legendary elements do enter into the gospel records and the tendency of the human mind gradually to amplify supernatural elements is well established by historical studies. Nevertheless, a basic theme of the gospels is that Jesus healed, exorcised, and showed extraordinary insight into the minds of others. Without such claims, any testimony to his unique mediation of Divinity would be lessened. They are entirely natural implications of a uniquely powerful human mediation of the Divine. The principle of analogy cannot be used to eliminate such paranormal elements from the gospel accounts, when the belief in question—in a unique supernatural mediation—must lead one to expect precisely such disanalogous behaviour.
Even if one can establish the justifiability of a basic trust in the gospel witness, thinkers who follow Lessing and Troeltsch would still say that the absolute commitment of faith cannot be made to depend upon the uncertainties of history.77 The simple and sufficient reply is that humans do occasionally have to make absolute (irreversible and wholehearted) commitments (to a vocation, to other people, to a public policy). Such commitments can only be based on probabilities. Religion is not a matter of necessary truths of reason, but of commitment to what one perceives as of commanding value. One has to be true to such a perception, even where theoretical certainty is unavailable. In the end, all absolute human commitments are based upon uncertainties. It is clearer to us than it was to Lessing that to turn from past history to the alleged deliverances of reason or of inner experience is only to turn from one uncertainty to another. What reason tells me is only what seems reasonable to my society or to me. What inner experience reveals depends upon what interpretation I put upon it. When we recall that what we have in the gospels is not a historical record, but a witness to the Lordship of Jesus, then we may realize that one does not have to reconstruct for oneself by painstaking historical research what really happened thousands of years ago before one can have faith. One has to trust the apostolic witness, that God acted for human salvation in Jesus.
Richard Swinburne has defended what he calls a ‘principle of credulity’—I prefer ‘trust’ to ‘credulity’—as a fundamental epistemic principle, without which knowledge would be impossible.78 His account in Revelation, however, takes a rather unexpected short cut.79 Having conceded that purely historical work on the New Testament would give only a ‘fairly slender and vague picture’ of Jesus, he concludes that reliable revelation ‘would be totally unobtainable without an independent guarantee of the reliability of interpretation’. One must have some reason for trusting the biblical witness as genuine. It does not at all follow, however, that one must have an ‘independent guarantee’ of the reliability of particular interpretations. It might well be enough to have a number of cumulatively strong considerations. Talk of a guarantee seems much too strong for what one typically gets in religion. In any case, what could constitute such a guarantee for the Bible? Swinburne says that ‘the only remotely plausible such grounds are that it was authenticated by the Church’. Why, it must be asked, should one trust the Church? There are many Christian churches, which disagree among themselves; and to most observers all of them seem to make mistakes fairly often. Supposing, however, that one can correctly identify a genuine, or the genuine, Church, why should one trust what it says? Swinburne says, ‘If God authenticated Jesus’ teaching that the Church would be the vehicle of [his] teaching, he thereby guaranteed that its interpretation would be basically correct.’80
There is a twofold appeal here; first, to the fact that Jesus founded a Church; second, to the fact that the resurrection occurred, as an authentication of Jesus’ teaching. The vicious circularity of the argument is only too apparent. We only know that we can trust the Church if we believe that Jesus (that is, God) founded the Church. We only know that this (highly contentious) belief is true if we accept that the Bible is trustworthy. Yet we are supposed to know the Bible is trustworthy because it is guaranteed by a Church which we can trust. It turns out that the Church is not an independent guarantee at all, since its claims to authority and trustworthiness are based upon a particular interpretation of biblical texts, whose trustworthiness is precisely what is in question. Appeal to the resurrection as evidence of Divine authentication of Jesus’ teaching obviously will not help. All the evidence for the resurrection is in the New Testament, which provides, according to Swinburne, only ‘slender and vague’ evidence on such matters. We should only trust the resurrection accounts if we trust the Bible. We are supposed to trust the Bible because it is guaranteed by the Church. We can trust the Church because Jesus founded it. And we know that is true, because the resurrection accounts authenticate its truth. From this circle there is no escape.
In my view, Swinburne is not wrong to think the Church is important in establishing historical credibility, as are the resurrection and background belief in God. What is wrong is the attempt to find one independent guarantee of biblical credibility. There are in fact many reasons inclining one to accept the New Testament as basically reliable. There are present experiences of the Spirit and of the risen Christ, which bring one to a close fellowship with God, and which are patterned on those of the New Testament. There is a general belief in God, and in the sort of God who guided the Prophets to expect a Messianic Kingdom. There is the insight and wisdom found in the New Testament, with regard to the nature of God's Kingdom, the goal of human life, and the moral teaching of the Sermon on the Mount. There is the fact that trust in the gospel has produced lives of holiness and altruism through many generations. There is the fact that many early Christians were martyrs for faith, which counts against them being deceivers. There is the fact that the gospels are fairly early testimony, often corroborating one another from apparently independent sources. There is the fact that the gospel is proclaimed as a reliable way to liberation from sin and fellowship with God, so that an acceptance of its reliability in this respect entails acceptance of its reliability on the historical facts which are an essential part of its proclamation. All these factors can quite properly lead one to accept a principle of trust in the witness of the Bible to the apprehended acts of God in the life of Jesus.
Of course, as we have it in the gospels this witness is imbued with theological reflection, scriptural interpretation, and spiritual exhortation. The New Testament Scriptures spring from a community of faith and are intended to be a training in spiritual perception, not in historical acuteness. They provide a number of icons of Christ, expressing the way in which the Divine love is manifested in a human life. But those icons incorporate a basic testimony to the impact of Jesus’ life on the apostles. Today one cannot become acquainted with the historical Jesus. But one can gain an experience of the risen Christ by reflection upon the gospels and participation in the life of the Church. One can thereby commit oneself to a trust in the scriptural witness to a past veridical disclosure of God in Jesus. In such circumstances, it is perfectly reasonable to affirm the occurrence of historical facts on faith.
14. Events and Interpretations
This, however is precisely what is denied by those like Van A. Harvey who always suspect ‘the falsifying influence of the demand for belief’81 and who insist on the autonomy of historical knowledge in such a sense that no assessment of historical fact can ever be influenced by faith. It is surely indefensible to hold, however, that even if I trust someone as the source of my moral and spiritual life, that should make no difference to my trust in their testimony. It seems clear that one who does not believe in God is bound to regard the apostolic testimony as fundamentally misguided, and so to suspect its witness in general. Whereas one who does believe in God and who finds new life in the Christ of John's gospel, say, is bound to accept this Johannine depiction as an authentic spiritual testimony. This in turn is bound to give a heightened weight to general trust in its reliability, to be put in the balance against any principle of sceptical doubt that a historian may feel. Faith will not always falsify; it may be the condition of a true perception of historical meaning and significance, if indeed God acts self-revealingly in historical situations.
Harvey accepts that faith is concerned with ‘a way of talking about the value or significance of the…secular realm of events’.82 This naturally entails that there are events which have a specific significance; that is, such events actually occur and they really do have the significance ascribed to them by the believer. It is not at all clear, however, whether Harvey really thinks this or not. He says that it is ‘one kind of problem to ascertain how and why the crucifixion occurred; quite another to see in it an event which discloses the love of God’.83 This is so only in the sense that a Jewish historian might accept that the crucifixion occurred because of Jesus’ alleged Messianic pretensions without seeing in it a Divine disclosure—historical assessment is not dependent on theological belief. However, if an event is a Divine disclosure, it must be appropriate for such a disclosure—it must, in the Christian case, be the freely accepted death of an innocent man who took himself to be, and who really was, obeying God's will. If it is not, the Christian is mistaken in reading this significance into the event. The Christian perception is dependent upon the historical facts being of a certain sort—appropriate to bear revelatory significance. The truth of some historical claims is a necessary condition of the truth of the theological claim. It is vital to distinguish this logical point, that the occurrence of some historical events is a necessary condition of certain kinds of theological claim, from the quite different epistemic claim that the historical events must be independently establishable, and thus form good historical evidence for the theological belief. All that the logical point involves is that history can in principle falsify faith; but since that is true of any factual belief at all, it is hardly worrying to the theologian. On Harvey's account so far, then, the truth of Christian faith does entail the truth of some historical claims.
Harvey often speaks as if this were not so, however. Following Richard Niebuhr, he sees a ‘paradigm event’ as one which gives a new perspective on all events.84 ‘A pattern is abstracted from the event and becomes… formalised parable’;85 ‘a significant pattern has been worked loose from the event.’86 The parable works loose from the event and has the function of expressing liberating insight into the trustworthiness of being. But if the parable has its force and function in challenging one to an insight into the trustworthiness of being, does the historical origin really matter?
Harvey's answer to this is ambiguous. He distinguishes the actual Jesus, who is of course not accessible to us, from the historical Jesus, or what can be recovered by historical study from the New Testament documents. Then there is the perspectival image which is the selective memory-impression of Jesus around which the gospels were constructed, which maybe ‘does have some real correlation with the historical Jesus and the actual Jesus’.87 Finally there is the biblical Christ, the theological interpretation of this memory-impression, including doctrines of pre-existence, birth narratives, many miracle stories, the resurrection accounts, and so forth. Harvey does think a historical Jesus is recoverable from the documents—including the ministry in Galilee, the baptism by John, eating with outcasts, the crucifixion, and the basic outlines of teaching. These accounts, he says, are ‘unintelligible unless we assume that they represent an authentic tradition’.88 However, the healing miracles, the sinlessness and Messianic consciousness of Jesus, and perhaps his apocalyptic teaching too, belong to the construct of the biblical Christ and are thus legendary.
So he does think that a historical Jesus can be reconstructed with a good degree of agreement among critical historians. Jesus was a prophet who called people to trust God wholly, who are with outcasts, and who was crucified. One is reminded of the six things that Ed Sanders thinks we can know with ‘virtual certainty’ about Jesus.89 But what is the religious point of such a historical figure? The blunt truth is that most of the things ascribed to him in the gospels as we have them are probably false—that he was sinless, that he promised to reign in glory in the Kingdom, that he was raised from death, that he performed miracles, and that he saw his own death as a ransom for sin. When we cut away this ‘biblical Christ’, what is left seems almost totally uninteresting religiously—a prophet who predicted an end of the world which did not come, whose mission ended in death, and who was totally misinterpreted by his followers within a generation of that death. Is that a figure of great religious importance?
One could solve the problem by saying that Jesus is not of any particular importance. It is the biblical picture which is important. Harvey says, ‘faith does not depend on getting behind the Biblical picture of Christ’,90 and even that ‘the content of faith can as well be mediated through a historically false story’ as through a true one, since the important message is that God is gracious, can be trusted, and that life has transcendent significance; and that is conveyed by the picture.
But now it transpires that the historical Jesus is simply the occasion, the catalyst, which happened to give rise to the Christ-image. That image henceforth lives by its own power; it has indeed floated loose from its historical moorings. Frankly, it does not matter at all what the historical Jesus was like. It is the picture by which we live, and which must be judged by its present power to illuminate our lives and bring us liberation. There are, Harvey says, ‘two kinds of certitude; that the actual Jesus was as the perspectival image,… and that the image does illumine our experience’.91 ‘Faith finds its certitude… in the viability of the image for relating one to present reality.’92 So, while the historian can discover the actual Jesus, that is irrelevant to faith and is not at all the basis of faith. ‘No remote historical event’, he says, ‘can, as such, be the basis for a religious confidence about the present.’93 This is a fatally ambiguous statement. True, no event which excludes consideration of any supernatural element, any disclosure of God, can be the basis for a belief that such a disclosure has occurred. But if the real significance of an event lies precisely in its mediation of a Divine self-disclosure, then one only understands truly what that event is when one sees it as a religious disclosure. Then it can be the basis for a religious confidence. Events do have an intrinsic connection with faith, if faith is a faith that God is really disclosed in events. For then faith must be an interpretation of events, presupposing that they really happened. It must be the case that a plausible providential interpretation can be given of those events. This situation is not clearly expressed by saying that faith is presupposed to a religious interpretation of events,94 as if the faith exists before the events. Faith is a particular (for the believer, correct) interpretation of certain events. So it presupposes the events and consists in an interpretation of them which may modify considerably any preceding beliefs about God one may have had. What secular history on its own does not provide is the general preparedness to interpret events providentially, which may arise out of a present belief in a benevolent God. Prior religious belief will affect one's interpretation of data; but reflection on that data may in turn considerably modify one's prior belief—as the crucifixion surely did. It is thus clear that considerations of historical plausibility are much more central to Christian belief in a historically acting God than Harvey seems to allow.
15. Faith and History
All this is in marked contrast to Harvey's own stress that ‘the Christian faith… is the confidence that Jesus’ witness is a true one’.95 Why should Jesus’ witness, historically speaking, be of any concern to Harvey? What matters is the witness of the picture; whatever Jesus may have thought or done is irrelevant. In any case, what does he mean by ‘Jesus’ witness’? Harvey's language about God is exceedingly vague. He speaks of ‘a new possibility of self-understanding’, of ‘trust in that last power that is said to… sustain and limit men’.96 He says that ‘faith is confidence in the nature of being’,97 and speaks of trust in the graciousness of God, the ‘acceptance of life as gift and responsibility’.98
Even though it is vague, this characterization of faith does have some content. Being must have a certain character if it is sensible to be confident in it; if it sustains and places responsibility upon humans. What must Being be like, if it is trustworthy? Do specific consequences not follow if, as the Christian picture suggests, Being is lovingly concerned with the weak and oppressed? If the whole picture is not to be wholly vacuous, then Being must be such that suffering and evil are not the final word, such that love in some sense triumphs, that trust will be confirmed by what actually happens to people. It is senseless to trust in Being if Being is utterly indifferent to the fate of human beings. Trust is appropriate only if moral effort is not in vain, if the tragic defeat of goodness by indifference is not the final word, if goodness is not defeated.
But what is it for goodness not to be defeated? It is empty to talk of the nobility of self-sacrifice in a universe which is wholly indifferent to that nobility, which treats it as on a par with the most impetuous arrogance. If one trusts Being, this must minimally mean that, despite appearances, good will triumph. The witness of Jesus is that good will triumph so that Being is trustworthy, gracious, and deserving of our total commitment. How is this shown in his teachings and life, if his teaching that the Kingdom would come immediately was false and if his life ended in crucifixion? Harvey writes that the question ‘“Is God gracious?” is raised and answered by the crucifixion’.99 It is certainly raised by the unjust death of an innocent man; but if crucifixion is the end, the only answer it gives is that justice is mocked; that Being is not to be trusted; that, as A. Schweitzer said, Jesus turned the wheel of fate and was crushed by it.100 The case is quite different if Jesus’ life is vindicated by the resurrection and his teaching of the Kingdom is vindicated by the outpouring of the Spirit in the new community of the Church. It is only if the resurrection is actual that the life of a crucified man can show, not just that self-sacrifice has a certain tragic, useless nobility, but that Being itself is to be trusted, since death, however cruel, is not the end. As Harvey himself says, religion has a ‘concern for beatitude and fulfilment’.101 There needs to be an eschatalogical element to faith, an element which makes room for the vindication of the weak and suffering. So at least one element of the ‘biblical Christ’ (the resurrection) must be true of the historical Jesus if the witness of the picture itself is that Being is trustworthy. Otherwise the picture is false, mere wishful thinking and not rooted in any objective disclosure at all.
At this point the central, fatal, weakness of Harvey's position becomes clear. The picture of the biblical Christ is essentially a picture in which identification with the outcast and a call to total trust in God does not find its termination in a criminal's death. Rather, that complete identification with human alienation results in the glory of resurrection and ascension to the right hand of God. The earliest Christian proclamation was not the tragedy of the cross, but the risen Lordship of Christ. In Harvey's account, the most obvious and important feature of early Christian belief has disappeared; that is, that Jesus has been raised to the glory of the Divine throne, where all humanity can be united in him. Instead, one has left only a teaching that God is gracious, that ‘his sovereignty appears as weakness’,102 that ‘we must trust him utterly’. This teaching now has no foundation; for Jesus is a man just like others, with no special authority to know these things, no deliverance from the usual human condition of confusion and uncertainty. How could anyone as normal as that have any right to be taken as a supreme authority who puts before us an ultimate choice for or against God? In the Hebrew Bible, Moses did so; and it is made dear that his authority derives from his unique knowledge of God, from knowing God ‘face to face’. In Jesus, a greater prophet than Moses is said to be present. How could a man have such unique and direct knowledge of God's nature, commands, and ultimate purposes, unless he had a uniquely direct acquaintance with God? If he had not, we need not listen to him. If he had, then we are committed to beliefs about his character and knowledge of God. Yet Harvey claims that Jesus’ person is quite unimportant for faith. The Christian message is complete ‘without any implicit or explicit reference to Jesus’ person, sinlessness or existential selfhood’;103 ‘The psychological question is an irrelevant one, just as is the predication of sinlessness.’104
That means that Jesus could have been a sinful, deceitful, arrogant, and obtuse fanatic, and it would not have made the slightest difference to the gospel. If that is so, then the biblical Christ has severed all connection with history, and one must ask why one should accept the biblical picture when so many other religious pictures are available. The biblical picture not only looks like wishful thinking; it actually claims to depict the character and role of the historical Jesus. If it does not in fact do so, it must stand convicted of falsehood from the first. That is hardly a recommendation of a picture which is meant to illuminate all human life. Harvey keeps returning to an older picture, according to which the disciples saw in Jesus ‘the disclosure of God's intention for human life’.105 But if they truly saw that in him, he must at least have lived in the way that God intended. He could not have been a thief, murderer, or deceiver. The question of the authenticity of their perception involves questions about Jesus’ personality and motives: was he truly loving, hating none, without lust or greed? If not, he did not truly disclose God's intention for human life. But if so, this entails matters of historical fact, of the hardest kind of all to establish on historical grounds, matters about a person's inner character and motives. If one retains the idea of revelation as interpretation of event, and if one accepts that some interpretations are appropriate and others are not, then beliefs about the character of Jesus are entailed by acceptance that he discloses God. In other words, some historical beliefs are not establishable by critical historical study, but are entailed by faith. To put it bluntly, the claim to sinlessness—or at the very least astounding goodness—is not establishable by historical research, but is nonetheless entailed by acceptance that Jesus is rightly interpreted as the disclosure of the Divine intention for human life.
The critical historian, according to Harvey, will assume that there is a natural tendency to exaggerate or invent the miraculous, as a proof of Jesus’ divinity—this is shown from the existence of the apocryphal gospels and from the history of other religions. There will also be a tendency to invent fulfilments of Old Testament prophecy and to apply Hellenistic God-man themes to the primitive Jesus-material. The authentic elements are thus those we get by eliminating all signs of such tendencies. But now it has been decided in advance that Jesus can only be seen as a preacher to the outcasts who was killed; the principle of analogy has been applied to the full, and Jesus must now be seen as rather like the best preachers and social reformers whom we know in our contemporary world.
The problem with this form of argument is that such preachers are not usually taken to be disclosures of the Divine intention for human life; indeed, they usually point to another as such a disclosure. The whole meaning of Jesus’ life, as presented in the biblical picture, is that it is the fulfilment of prophecy and appeared with a startlingly unique authority which led to belief in the Lordship of Jesus within a very short time. Of course this could have been a mistaken assessment; but if it was not—if the biblical picture itself is witness to an authentic Divine disclosure in and through Jesus—then biblical prophecies will be fulfilled in his life and the healing and forgiving power of God will be manifested in his person. Thus a historian who accepts Jesus as an authentic disclosure of God will not discount accounts of miracles and prophetic fulfilments as would an atheist. The logic of the situation is that fulfilments of prophecy and miracles will seem quite natural; and though critical faculties must still operate, the whole balance of historical probabilities will shift strongly in favour of reliable witness—without discounting the presence of later theological reflection.
In sum, the following fundamental objections must be made to any account like Harvey's: first, that the most important feature of the earliest Christian proclamation has disappeared, the Lordship of the person of Jesus. Second, any eschatalogical hope has disappeared, any real belief in a vindication for the poor of the earth. Third, the biblical picture of Christ is itself discredited by the fact that it includes so many wholly false assertions about miracles and about the self-understanding of Jesus. Fourth, Harvey regards the sinlessness or moral perfection of Jesus as irrelevant to his message, whereas such perfection is necessary if he is to be truly seen as the realization of God's intention for human life. Fifth, Jesus loses any uniquely privileged teaching authority if he does not have a unique and direct knowledge of the Divine nature and will. Sixth, the claim that Jesus’ personality is irrelevant to faith fails to see that the Divine disclosure in him is false unless he had a certain character, unless his life had a Divine source and a Divine validation which alone can make it truly ‘the disclosure of God's intention for human life’.106
16. The Presence of the Past
I am not simply opposing a more orthodox account of Jesus to Harvey's liberal account. I am accusing Harvey's view, and any like it, of internal incoherence, of a failure to see what is entailed by a commitment to the biblical picture of Christ as a theological reflection upon a real and authentic self-disclosure of God in history. One could try to accept the story of Jesus as pure myth, for the sake of the truths about God it is supposed to show. The trouble is that those truths include the claim that God acts in redemptive ways in history. The Christian myth has an internal relation to history. If one accepts the myth, one must accept the history, at least in a general sense. Of course the biblical picture is a reflection and the work of biblical scholars must be carefully digested. There is a danger that my argument may be taken to prove too much—the total inerrancy of Scripture in every detail. That is not what I am suggesting. I am asking what is required by an assent to the fundamental authenticity of Christian revelation, and pointing out that this will include some assent to particular historical truths not establishable independently by critical historians. That being said, one needs to do what Harvey recommends, a detailed case-by-case study of the documents. It will be quite clear that the stories of the three wise men, of the raising of Lazarus, of the dead walking around Jerusalem at the time of the resurrection, and of the crucifixion, are not all of a piece, as regards their historical credibility. The need for sensitive historical judgement does not disappear for believers. It is only that the principle of trust will change the balance of probabilities, particularly with regard to the fundamental character of those testimonies upon which human salvation is said to depend. One must note carefully and in detail the invaluable textual studies which have transformed our view of the biblical documents in the last two hundred years. But one must also take note of the points at which non-theistic presuppositions enter into historical criticism and begin to undermine the Christian witness to the Lordship of Christ.
If Harvey in effect severs the historical Jesus from the biblical Christ so completely, it may well be asked why he retains an interest in the historical Jesus at all. One finds the answer to this question in his suggestion that the story of a crucified rebel who was a human prophet may be a more powerful mediator of trust in God to the modern world than the myth of a pre-existent, atoning, risen Son of God. That, however, is where his approach seems to me wholly unconvincing. Why should anyone today be interested in the highly disputed events of the life of a failed Jewish prophet some thousands of years ago? I agree that they will not be interested, either, in an incredible story about a heavenly being who comes to earth, pays a terrible price to save everyone who hears about it from hell, and then returns to sit on a heavenly throne until the world, quite soon, comes to an end. However what may be of supreme interest is the claim that there is a Supreme Reality of wisdom, compassion, and bliss. It shares in the suffering of creatures and wills to bring their earthly lives into union with itself. In that union, which is beyond earthly existence, their suffering will be used to shape a future of overwhelming worth. The Christian gospel is that the creative Word which is the eternal wisdom of the Supremely Real has shown its nature as redemptive love, its sharing in human suffering and its ability to transcend evil and death in the life, death, and resurrection of the man Jesus of Nazareth. That man is the one in whom the eternal Word manifests its nature in a comprehensible way and through whom it mediates its power to unite humans to the Divine Life as they respond to this Divine self-manifestation.
This is not merely a remote past event; but neither is it a quite unhistorical picture of an unhistorical God. For the believer, the Word which was present in Jesus is also made present in the preaching of the gospel and the sacrament of his flesh and blood. It would be absurd if this uniting of a finite humanity to the Divine happened at one time in history and then was forgotten, or became progressively less certain as time removed it further into the past. There must be some way, if this account is to be believable, in which the Divine self-disclosure and the reconciliation of humanity and Divinity (the atonement) is extended throughout the whole world for the future. The claim that incarnation happened at a particular time and place stands opposed to the idea that the Divine must be available equally at every moment to every person. For Christianity, God acts in a particular historical way which introduces into human history a new reality, embodying and then extending and carrying forward that particular act until it changes the process of history itself. That reality is the Church, the community of the Spirit which Jesus promised and gave, the temporal foreshadowing of the eternal Kingdom which Jesus himself proclaimed and inaugurated. The Church has its true being in making present at many times and places that primal Divine act of self-manifestation and reconciliation. The central Christian claim is that there is in the world a form of communal life whose function is to create a new human community in which can be made present, through preaching and sacraments, the primal self-manifestive and redemptive act of God. One can see the life of Jesus, as the Church Fathers did, as the beginning of a process of the divinization of the finite world; whereby finite beings ascend to a self-conscious acceptance of the Divine presence and power in a new and living way.107
If it is asked whether Jesus introduced any new and distinctive feature of religion, one can point to the idea of the Church as the Body of Christ, to the birth of a community which sees itself as born of and guided by the Spirit, as making present the pattern of the life of Jesus, as that was understood by the apostolic community. There is no parallel to this in other religious traditions. The self-giving of the life of God does not come to all in the same way, by a sort of unchanging Divine offer. Since it is truly a gift, it is the result of a particular giving, in a specific way at specific times. And it grows in the world by a continuation of this giving, which is the mission of the Church: the making-present of the self-giving of God through the interior activity of the Spirit, patterned on the icon of Jesus the Christ. This is a present possibility, not the proclamation of things that happened long ago and far away. Yet it must refer to a real, historical, particular originative act of Divine self-giving if there is to be real talk of gift at all.
D. INCARNATION AS REVELATION
17. Divine Incarnation and Human Freedom
In this Part I am seeking to develop a Christian view of revelation as a historical self-manifestation of the Divine. I first sought to show the importance of history in general to the Christian idea of God. Then I investigated the question of what sort of authority is to be ascribed to the Bible, especially the New Testament, the foundation document of Christian faith. I suggested that it should be seen primarily as a witness to Divine self-revealing activity. I also argued that one can be justified in accepting the general historical testimony of the Bible on grounds of faith, without doing violence to proper historical method. The way is now prepared for the final and most important task of this Part, the exposition of the incarnation of God in Jesus, as the central revelatory act of God.
If Christian belief in incarnation is to be plausible, there must be a good reason why there should be just one mediation of the Divine in this way, in and through a human person. In the preceding sections I suggested that this reason is to be found in the history of Israel as a history of God's developing self-disclosure within a prophetic tradition. Jesus is unique in his cultural and historical placing, so that he can at once fulfil and radically change Messianic expectations and act as a transformative point at which the Jewish tradition is universalized and internalized. He does not have to be thought of as superior in intelligence or inherent human capacities to every other human who has ever lived. Newton was a better mathematician and Mozart a better musician. Jesus’ uniqueness lies largely in the uniqueness of his historical situation. Yet his personal character cannot be irrelevant to his unique historical calling. His Messianic kingship is not a role that anyone, of any character, could take on. In particular, his awareness of and devotion to God must have been particularly intense and his conformity to the will of God must have been complete if the apostolic witness to him as the mediator of God is to be justifiable. One can certainly conceive of this as a human possibility, though one unlikely to be realized in the highest degree, given human ignorance, uncertainty, selfish or merely irrational passion, and weakness of will.
It is not, however, a happy accident that this properly human possibility is realized in Jesus. Nor can one plausibly think of God as hoping that someone would show the necessary devotion and obedience when the time was right. The history of Israel is the history of a series of Divine initiatives which aim to relate humans more closely to God. As the prophets spoke ‘the word of the Lord’, they were touched and transformed by that word, at least in part and for a while. The prophets stood in a tradition which encouraged and trained them to be prayerfully related to God; to cultivate the capacity for poetic utterance and the gift of discerning the times. That tradition provided them with the cultural and conceptual resources which enabled a calling from God to be heard and acknowledged, and which provided generally accepted criteria for the authentic hearing of such a call. As faithful Israelites tried to live by Torah and to become free of the distortions of self-interest and partiality, the living wisdom of God could be formed within them, making their lives, in outstanding cases, almost embodiments of Torah. It was in such a long tradition of preparation that the ideal could be framed of a person who would know God face to face, as Moses had for a while; who would love God without deviation, as Torah taught and to some degree helped to make possible; and who would embody perfectly the demands of God in his life, as the saints came near to doing.
But if such an ideal was to be embodied in a human person, he or she would need to be liberated by Divine power from ignorance, passion, and weakness, being given a knowledge of God undimmed by sin and a moral power unweakened by selfish passion. Only from such a position of freedom from evil could the spiritual reality of God be discerned without distortion. When a human mind is supremely attuned to the Supreme Good, and when the conceptual tradition enables an adequate image of such attunement to be framed, then God is able to disclose his presence and power through such a mind in an authoritative manner. In this way, a perfected human life in an appropriately formed cultural tradition might naturally be the vehicle of Divine self-revelation. For it would become, precisely in its freely creative acts, an expression of the Creative Mind which is the only fully substantial reality, seeking to draw relatively autonomous creatures into dynamic relationship with itself.
But how can the existence of such a perfect human life, perfectly attuned to the reality of Cosmic Mind, be made intelligible? When the idea of human perfection is deployed in Buddhism, appeal can be made to the principle of rebirth, and one can account for moral perfection as an achievement over many past lives of moral and spiritual development. In that case, of course, it is possible that there may be many Buddhas, many enlightened beings. In fact there are, though their occurrence is so rare as only to occur perhaps once in every hundred thousand years.108 Such an appeal to progress over many lives cannot be made in the Semitic tradition. For that tradition, perfection is seen not so much as a human achievement as a gift of God. Yet it seems odd to think of God simply making someone perfect, as though they had no moral choice in the matter. That would appear to undermine the element of human freedom and responsibility which is such a marked feature of the Hebrew tradition.
A stress on human individual freedom seems to make a doctrine of incarnation much harder to accept, in its traditional form. For the classical view, developed by Athanasius and the Church Fathers, the Word assumed a human nature to itself. That nature was fully human. It had to be; for, as Gregory Nazienzen said, ‘That which he [Christ] has not assumed, he has not healed.’109 If any part of human nature is not assumed by God, then it is not united to Divinity. Nevertheless there is only one subject which possesses all the essential-kind properties of human nature, and that subject is the Word of God. There is no distinct human subject of consciousness and action. The human nature is, as Cyril of Alexandria put it, anhypostatos, not inhering in a human subject. Jesus is fully human simply by having all the essential-kind human properties possessed by the Word. For much modern thought, however, an essential part of being human is the existence of a subject of experience and action, a self, which is the heart of individuality. In that subject resides the power of reasoning and, even more important, moral choice. Each human soul has a basic moral choice for good and evil, for or against God; and at Judgement Day each soul will be called to give an account of itself.
The Church did conclude, after much deliberation, that Jesus had, or was, a human soul;110 his capacity of deliberation and choice was not simply replaced by the Logos, as Athanasius arguably thought. But now the difficulty emerges with full force. If Jesus, as fully human, must have possessed the capacity for free moral choice, it must have been possible for him to sin. It could not be guaranteed that he would be morally perfect. Moreover, since he could have chosen for or against God, he could not always have been identical with God—God cannot coherently be said to reject himself or even be able to reject himself! Therefore a strong view of moral freedom as an essential property of humanity seems to conflict with a classical view of incarnation, as the assumption of human nature by a necessarily perfect and self-identical God. If this idea of incarnation is impossible, it will be difficult to speak of Jesus as the self-manifestation of God, and therefore of his life as a distinctive revelation of the nature and purpose of God.
At precisely this point, however, Christian faith qualifies belief in a full moral freedom of every human individual. Jews and Muslims hold that each human being is born with a good impulse and an evil impulse, and is able to follow either. So each person can be held wholly responsible for their own acts at the Last Day.111 Christians, however, hold a doctrine of ‘original sin’, which entails that individuals are not free to choose either good or evil, starting from a neutral position between the two. On the contrary, every human choice is inclined to evil; and Jesus’ uncompromising moral teaching only reinforces the impossibility of obeying the requirements of God's law. The human will inevitably inclines to evil and the human mind is estranged from knowledge and love of God. The picture of the world that the New Testament presents is more like some Buddhist views than like classical Judaism or Islam. The human world is inevitably bound to desire and suffering, and all are enmeshed in its toils. The difference from Buddhism is that individuals are not suffering the consequences of their own past karma; they are involved in a world dominated by the powers of ignorance and passion which past ages have bequeathed to them and from which they cannot escape.112
If that is so, however, what is the importance of human freedom, since it can never bring us to perfection or full knowledge of God? In a corrupted world, repentance and the effort to strive after goodness are possible, even though they can never be completely realized. But that might still be thought futile if there was really no escape from the world of ignorance and desire. It is at this point that Christian belief asserts that there is an escape—not an escape made possible by human effort, but by the power of Divine love. For classical Christianity, Jesus expresses the power of Divine love entering a world of distorted vision and corrupted wills. He cannot therefore be thought to have a will exactly like that of fallen humanity, inevitably inclined to weakness and passion. There is something human Jesus does not have—a will corrupted by evil.
Verbally, this seems like a contradiction of Gregory's principle. But it is obviously impossible for God to assume corruption and evil, properties incompatible with Divinity. If God is to unite human nature to Divine nature, there must be a possible human nature which is uncorrupted by evil. And, of course, Christians are committed to the belief that there is such a human nature, since the redeemed in heaven are not corrupt, yet are properly human. One is logically committed, therefore, to the principle that God cannot assume properties incompatible with being united to the Divine nature. But it is not easy to say what these are. For example, it may seem that ignorance and weakness are so incompatible; yet Jesus was indisputably ignorant of some things113 and weak in his humanity.114 However, on reflection it can be seen that the possession of finite knowledge and power are essential to being human. So even humans united completely to God would not be omniscient or omnipotent, though one might expect them to share to some degree in Divine knowledge and power—for example, to have gifts of prophetic discernment and spiritual power not possessed by other human lives.
It might be readily agreed that a corrupt will is not assumable by God. Before unity with God is effected, even a finite human will must be wholly and freely conformable to the Divine will. Similarly, a will that, though not previously corrupt, actually performs an evil act is not assumable by God. By a natural extension, a will which is and remains, as it were, neutrally poised between good and evil cannot be assumed by God, since there is a fair chance that it will perform an evil act; yet this would be incompatible with such assumption. One cannot plausibly think of Jesus being God incarnate for thirty years and then ceasing to be so when, as is possible on such a view, he commits an evil act. It cannot be thought to be in Jesus’ moral power to cause the incarnation to be destroyed, after it had been going quite well for some time. Having been assumed, such a neutral will would no longer have the real possibility of performing an evil act. If a human will is assumed by God, it will no longer be able to commit evil, though it may be said to have that capacity in isolation from God. Thus it is that the redeemed in heaven will never fall into evil, though they might have done in their earthly lives.
Does this mean the will ceases to be fully human when assumed? I do not think so; for no one holds that a will unable to escape evil is not fully human. Why then should a will unable to turn from God be conceived as not fully human? After all, a human will makes choices in the light of its knowledge, desires, and intentions. If such a will knows God with absolute clarity and desires to love God above all things, its choices, made in that light, will be impeccable. Such a will is unlike fallen human wills. It is also unlike any Adamically neutral will, unfallen but capable of falling, since the Adamic will has not been assumed by God. So Irenaeus states, ‘The Word… having become united with the ancient substance of Adam's formation, rendered man living and perfect, receptive of the perfect Father.’115 One must think of the unfallen human will, symbolized by Adam, as not yet united to Divinity—the Genesis story puts this point symbolically by clearly stating that the tree of eternal life, of a life united to God, had not yet been tasted.116 Adam, we might say, was in a probationary state, capable of being assumed into God (of possessing eternal life) but also capable of falling from God into the way of death. The figure of Adam in this sense represents the natural capacities of human nature, considered in isolation from their sustaining ground in God. All of us are in a fallen state, a state of alienation from and opposition to the Divine will. Jesus alone, by the grace of God, is both uncorrupt and united to Divinity in such a way that he can and will naturally express the Divine love in his human choices.
Does this mean that Jesus is not morally free? The difficulty here is that ‘moral freedom’ can be construed in two quite different ways. If ‘to be morally free’ means ‘to be capable of sinning’, then he was not morally free. But if it means, ‘able to decide in full knowledge of the facts and in accordance with his innermost desires, without external constraint’, then he was morally free. Thomas Morris, in an admirable discussion of the point, argues that no more is essential to being a properly human will.117 Unfortunately, Morris then complicates the issue by requiring that, since Jesus was tempted118 he must have believed he could sin: ‘the full accessible belief-set of his earthly mind did not rule out the possibility of his sinning’.119 This move is not logically required, since someone can tempt me (can ask me to do evil in order to gain a great good) when I have no inclination to do as he asks at all. If it is asked what the point of such temptation could be, it seems plausible that the gospel temptation story simply outlines choices Jesus envisaged (proving his mission by miracles or by worldly success) but rejected. There is no need to suppose that Jesus in some way agonized over the choice; and early theological tradition accepted that Jesus was impeccable.120
Morris's unnecessary move lands him in deep water, since on this view Jesus believed it was possible for him to sin, when it was not, since the ‘centre of causal and cognitive powers’ in Jesus must be the Word of God itself.121 Thus Jesus was mistaken about his own nature, and necessarily did not know that he was the Word of God—since such knowledge would have convinced him that he was impeccable. For Morris, God directly acts in Jesus, but Jesus, qua human mind, does not know this is so, and believes himself (wrongly) to be a moral agent capable of sin. This does not seem a wholly satisfactory notion of incarnation, involving necessary error on Jesus’ part (and therefore on God's part, even though it is God as incarnate in Jesus who errs). It is simpler to say that Jesus’ unique unity with God rendered him incapable of sinning, yet fully free to act in the light of his own knowledge and desires. One does not need to ascribe ignorance of his own nature to Jesus. Nor does one need to see God as the centre of causal powers in Jesus, depriving Jesus of free human subjectivity. On this account, the incarnation of God in a free human person is fully intelligible, and allows for the possibility of a Divine self-manifesting revelation in a human life.
18. An Enhypostatic Christology
The model of incarnation outlined here is of an indissoluble unity between the human mind and will of Jesus and the being of God. This unity will in the end be, as Cyril of Alexandria said, ‘an ineffable and inconceivable’ union122 of the Word and a human body and soul; but it may be misleading to think of it as the possession of the essential properties of such a body and soul by the Word as sole subject.
The Word of God, though no doubt rightly construed as a hypostasis or individual of some sort, is not likely to be an individual of the same sort as any human person. Considering that the Word is truly God, and that God only possesses properties in a very stretched sense, being in its own nature infinite and beyond the powers of human comprehension, the sense in which the Word can possess bodily properties must be very different from the sense in which a human subject may possess them. If one is to avoid saying that Jesus is simply a passive instrument of the Word, like the lyre of a musician,123 it may be preferable to posit a subject of action and experience in Jesus (which the attribution of a soul to him seems to entail in any case). This subject cannot then be ‘possessed’ in the same way by some superior subject of a similar sort. But it may stand in a unique unity with the Word, in such a way that it expresses and mediates that eternal Word in the realm of history and time. One could speak of a trans-categoreal identity between Jesus and the Word, as an identity of two wholly diverse categories of being. The identity consists not in the fact that two things of similar sorts have exactly the same properties; but in the fact that the human is a manifestation of the Divine and not some sort of duplicate copy of it—a possibility ruled out precisely by the immense categoreal difference between God and creature, infinite and finite being.
An analogous case of trans-categoreal identity is the identity which a physicist may assert between light of a certain wavelength and the colour red. One may say without undue strain, ‘Red is light of this wavelength.’ However, when more closely analysed, it is more accurate to say that ‘red’ is the phenomenal property which occurs in the visual field of some consciousness when the physical reality of a light-wave of length x causes specific neuro-physiological events in the brain.124
One might say that the phenomenal property, red, is how the physical reality of a light-wave appears in conditions of human consciousness. This can be plausibly construed as a form of transcategoreal identity, since the properties of light-waves (spatial extension, public observability, oscillatory frequency) are of quite a different kind, or category, from the properties of phenomenal colour-patches (hue, intensity, introspective privacy, and a certain aesthetic or feeling element).
This idea is not, of course, uncontroversial, and I would not wish the account of incarnational identity I have given to depend upon its acceptability. But it may offer an analogous example which some find helpful. For it suggests how one can call two things of very different kinds, with very different sorts of properties, ‘identical’, when one means to point out that one is the way the other appears or is expressed in particular conditions of observation. To put it crudely, the life and person of Jesus is how the infinite Divine Being appears under the historical forms of space and time.
This should not be taken to mean that Jesus is merely a passive expression of a transcendent reality, as though he were a sort of puppet in the hands of a manipulative God. It is precisely in the free creativity and sensitive responsiveness of Jesus’ human person that the infinite source of all being is able to express itself as it truly is. At this point in history, human freedom and Divine freedom co-inhere. Their perfect union is the foreshadowing of the future fulfilment of all humanity in the Divine Life. In calling this a ‘trans-categoreal identity’, the intention is to stress both the infinite difference in kind between finite and infinite, and also their co-inherent unity in a human life whose unrestricted creativity and love makes manifest the essential nature of that unrestricted ocean of being which theists call God.
The classical doctrine of incarnation, as found in such theologians as Gregory Nazienzen, does not assert that God the Word is the true agent of all Jesus’ acts and the true subject of all Jesus’ experiences, though at first sight it may seem to do so. Such a view is actually ruled out by the fundamental belief that God is essentially timeless, immutable, and impassible. Since God is timeless, God cannot think and decide in time as Jesus does. Since God is immutable, God cannot learn and develop as Jesus does. And since God is impassible, God cannot experience human feelings as Jesus does. For the orthodox patristic tradition, the essential Divine properties of timelessness, immutability, and impassibility are never denied of God, and God does not change in any way at the incarnation.125 What is asserted is that there is an identity of the timeless, immutable, and impassible with the temporal, changing, and suffering. ‘The Word is passible in his flesh, impassible in his Godhead; circumscribed in the body, uncircumscribed in the Spirit; at once earthly and heavenly, tangible and intangible, comprehensible and incomprehensible.’126 Nevertheless, although there are two wholly different natures (physeis) involved, there is a true and indivisible unity. Cyril of Alexandria insists that ‘Scripture does not say that the Word united to himself the person (hypostasis) of man, but that he became flesh.’127 That is, there was not a human being whom the Word indwelt later or partly or from time to time. Rather, the man is from the first united to the Word, in such a unity that Mary can rightly be called Theotokos, bearer of God.
No one supposes that Mary is mother of the Divine nature; but she is not the mother solely of a human being, subsequently united to the Word. She is mother of one who is from the first united in such a way that God can be counted as the hypostasis, the underlying subject, of Jesus’ humanity. But this sense of hypostasis is very different from the sense in which the centre of experience and agency in Jesus might be called a human hypostasis. The Fathers got into notorious difficulties over their use of terms like hypostasis and ousia, which were used in an identical sense for many years, and then came to be generally used in different senses sometime between Nicaea and Chalcedon. The basic problem is that both terms can mean either ‘nature’, as in ‘gold’ or ‘water’; or ‘individual’, as in ‘this man’ or ‘Fred’. What theologians were attempting to do was to find some way of saying that Jesus Christ was not two distinct individuals, Jesus and the eternal Christ, contingently joined together; but that he was a unique union of Infinite and finite, forming one individual being. It is important to see that these terms represent attempts to develop a technical vocabulary for expressing matters at the bounds of sense. In the end, the term hypostasis was used almost entirely in a negative sense, to rule out the opinion that Jesus was a man whose life happened to concur with the will of God, though it might not have done, and to preserve the appropriateness of worshipping the Crucified as a true manifestation of God. In short, the Word is not the subject of Jesus’ humanity in the same sense in which Jesus’ soul is the subject of his humanity.
To grasp how the Word might be said to be the subject of Jesus’ humanity, it is necessary to grasp the essential nature of the Word in patristic thought as the limitless and changeless ocean of bliss. It would be absurd to think of such a Word perceiving, feeling, and deciding like a man, and so as being the personal subject, the centre of causal and cognitive powers, in Jesus. This is Thomas Morris's view, and the view of anhypostatic theologians, who hold that there is no human subject of thought and action in Jesus, generally. One must accept the fact that if Jesus has a human soul, then he is a subject of causal and cognitive powers, an agent and experiencer, not a passive or even (in Morris's account) a necessarily deceived instrument of a Divine agent and experient. But if Jesus is an agent and experient, and thus a free human agent, he is nevertheless, and uniquely among human beings, wholly grounded in the unlimited ocean of bliss in such a way that no distance, division, or opposition is even conceivable between them. It is because of this indivisible unity, and because every finite being receives its reality solely from God, that the Word can be termed the subject, the existential ground which supports and is unimpededly and creatively expressed in the human subjectivity of Jesus.
Jesus expresses the Divine saturation of a human life, taken into an indissoluble unity with the Divine. Whereas any unity of human persons in general with God is acquired (and is often not attained) and mediated through the teaching of others, Jesus’ unity with God is represented as being original, indissoluble, and direct. He is not a distinct person who may choose against God, but a human mind and will which is so united to God from its first moment of being that it is wholly suffused by the Divine Life. All his acts are properly human; but it is a humanity indivisibly orientated to and mediative of the eternal Love of God. For that reason, when one sees this man truly, one sees and may properly worship the Eternal Word which is openly and without resistance or distortion manifest in him. Such a Christology walks between two possibilities. One is the ‘Apollinarian’ possibility that Jesus is a purely passive instrument of the Divine Word.128 But that is ruled out by the fact that Jesus’ knowledge, being passible, and his action, being temporal, are the knowledge and action of a finite subject with its own proper freedom and creativity. The other is the ‘Nestorian’ possibility that Jesus is a wholly autonomous will, which comes to agree with God, or to be similar to God in will, though it remains distinct in being.129 That is ruled out by the fact that it simply would not be an incarnation of God in any true sense. What is left is the notion of a finitely free human subject which is from the first transfigured into the being of God, suffused by the Eternal and so raised to a unique form of human perfection which is fully and indissolubly expressive of its existential foundation in the infinite life of God.
It remains true that Jesus lacks something which God presumably thought it good for humans to have—the ability to sin. The humanity of Jesus, though it is fully human, differs from ours in the important respect that it is impeccable. A humanity assumed by God must be different in important respects from ours, which is not yet assumed by God. So one might say that human beings are capable of falling from God—unless united to God. The enfolding of the human soul in a higher level of being, the infinite being of God, places higher-level constraints upon it; constraints which enlarge its creative capacities but preclude its self-destructive tendencies. However, it also makes the humanity of Jesus unique in kind, as the only humanity which is a proper subject of worship—as orthodox Christians have always held. Such an enfolding of humanity in God, and only that, enables the infinite being to be disclosed adequately in a human life and establishes a way to reconciliation and unity with God for all human beings, as they are raised by the Spirit to share in this higher level of human existence.
From this point of view, the story of humanity is the story of souls created with the possibility of falling away from God to attachment to finite goods. This is a possibility inherent within the structure of separated existence. That which is created as existentially distinct from God is able to explore the possibilities of conflict and destruction in such a system, at the same time as it is able to explore the creative and co-operative possibilities. One might envisage an unfolding of all the possibilities of a physical system, in which human wills have become estranged from the creative ground of the universe. Belief in incarnation is the belief that God enters into this system of creation and destruction, cooperation and conflict, to reorient it to Divinity. God takes a human life and unites it to Divinity, so that it is no longer existentially alienated but united with the source of its being, annulling its destructive potentiality and initiating a power for creativity and life within the system. One might hazard the guess that it is not possible for God to create such a relatively autonomous system and prevent destructive choices being made. They occur not inevitably but unpreventably, given the general character of the system. Yet it might be possible for God to enter the system at a particular point to draw it back towards the Good.
God could do this by so uniting a human mind to Divinity that it would not desire anything other than the Good in which it finds its highest joy. It would be theoretically possible for God to have united all human minds to Divinity in this way; but then the created cosmos would have been different in its general structure; it would have lacked many of the possibilities which it possesses and it would not have had the sort of existential independence it does. It would have been a different sort of universe, with different sorts of good realizable within it. God chose to create this universe—perhaps the only one that could contain us, as the specific individuals we are—always foreseeing that, if the worst possibilities were realized, God the Word would enter this structure precisely as its redeemer, the one who liberates it from suffering and destruction.130 Yet God would do so as one who invites rather than compels and whose power is solely exercised in love.
God can unite one mind (or in fact a number of minds) in this way without impairing the structure. One might press the model further, and suppose that the structure has an inherent tendency towards incarnation and unification to its Divine ground.131 That is, the disintegrative tendencies of the structure are in the end self-destructive. As wholly dependent upon God, finite beings will only find their fulfilment in a creative acknowledgement and full realization of such dependence. As we might picture the cosmos flowing out from the Divine centre to the darkness of isolation and non-being, so a natural corollary would be to picture God as drawing that periphery of being back to the Divine by an act of reconciling grace. On this view, there could logically have been a number of incarnations; and it is just a contingent fact that there is only one, at least on this planet. There is, nevertheless, good reason why there should only be one, which is given by recalling the purpose of incarnation, according to the apostolic witness.
What the life-perfectly-united-to-God shows is the nature and purpose of God. Jesus has a free mind and will, which makes its own decisions and performs its own creative actions. He is united to God in such a way that, in freely obeying his distinctive calling, he expresses what God is, becoming a living revelation of Supreme Value. He is such a revelation precisely in the particularities of his personal character, teaching, and actions. This has sometimes been called an enhypostatic view, a term introduced by Leontius of Byzantium in the sixth century, since it sees the human subject as interpenetrated by the Divine Word, as, in Origen's image, iron becomes glowing red in the heat of a fire.132 The human subject exists as enfolded in and manifestive of the Divine. However, one cannot consider a human person in isolation from his history and culture, which provide the language he uses and the forms of action that are possible for him. The uniqueness of incarnation is explicable in view of the fact that God desires, and calls, a particular person to manifest the Divine nature by his human obedience; and thereby gives the whole cultural and historical context that gives rise to this life an important part in the revelatory process, which is not repeatable in human history. Moreover, because Jesus uniquely manifests what God is, he is able uniquely to mediate the power of God for forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation. He is a channel of the redemptive action of God; and his risen life continues to be such a channel as the true image which mediates the love of God to those who accept it. Jesus is the icon of Divine self-disclosure, the matrix of the community of the Spirit, and the mediator of the Divine Life to the human world. If the nature and purpose of God are shown in a human life which is inextricably bound up with a specific culture and a continuing history, and which has a distinctive role in the unfolding of human history, then the unrepeatability of all real historical events in their total context will provide good reason for such a unique incarnation as Christians in fact claim.
A Divine action of uniquely uniting a human nature to itself may seem an unwarranted interference in the processes of nature; but in fact such a prevenient liberating act of God should be seen, not as an inexplicable intrusion into the natural order, but as a full realization of the acts of Divine grace which in general give humans knowledge of God and strength to overcome temptation. It is the prevenient grace of God which brings about this perfected human possibility in relation to God, at just that point in Jewish history when its Messianic hopes could be at once fulfilled and transformed. When the time was right, at the end of the age of the Temple sacrifices, the perfectly mediating channel of Divine love, having been long prepared, was brought to be. The spiritual point made by Matthew's and Luke's birth-stories of Jesus is that Jesus’ birth is radically new and yet the fulfilment of a long process of preparation in Israel. At that point, the humanly improbable yet fully human possibility of a person wholly united to God is realized. For Christians, God's grace is at work everywhere. The culture and history of the Jews provide a context in which it can be focused in a distinctive manner. The devotion and Messianic hope of the families of Mary and Joseph allow Divine grace to come to an unprecedented fullness of expression in the birth of Jesus through the Spirit. Seen in its historical context, the incarnation becomes an intelligible focal point of Divine self-revelation through a raising of human personhood to unity with the Divine.
19. The Self-Involving Character of Revelation
The very fact of historical reality and uniqueness means that the revelation in Jesus shares in all the ambiguity of any historical interpretation. Whatever we would like to have seen, revelation as we have it shares the uncertainty of all human belief. It calls for a commitment of trust in the face of objective uncertainty. In this, however, is simply shares in the common human epistemic condition with regard to virtually all contingent truth. There is no reason to expect that religious belief should be exempt from the forms of uncertainty which characterize the vast majority of human judgements about matters of fact. All history is subject to a plurality of interpretations. It would not much improve matters if Jesus were alive in a physical body on earth today. Exactly the same problems would arise about whether he is indeed the Son of God. It should be recalled that the strongest confirmations of his role—the resurrection and the gift of the Spirit—were given only to the disciples. They never had the status of publicly accessible and universal demonstrations. So even if Jesus was personally known to us, we could put his miracles (if he performed them) down to paranormal psychic gifts or even successful trickery; we could put his intense experiences down to mental abnormality; and we could dismiss his proclamation of the Kingdom as histrionic delusion.
Is the ambiguity of past history any worse than the ambiguities of all historical phenomena? If the Infinite is mediated in historical encounters, such ambiguity is ineliminable from all its manifestations, whenever they occur. This suggests that the point of revelation is perhaps not to give theoretical certainty about some rather improbable facts, but, as Thomas Aquinas put it so well, to orient human lives to their supernatural destiny, to eternal happiness in God.133 The moment of revelation is the moment at which one begins to grasp what such an eternal happiness could be; and in that same moment one begins to see the way to attaining it. That happens in so far as one is able to respond positively towards a self-disclosure of the Being in union with which eternal happiness consists. Disclosure, response, and understanding are indissolubly linked. In that sense, the contemporaries of Jesus were no better placed to discern his Divinity than we are. We have the record that one apostle turned away, another publicly denied Jesus, and another doubted, and that all fled at the moment of testing, before the Spirit strengthened them to witness to what they had uncertainly discerned in Jesus.
One must consider again the concept of revelation, in the light of these facts. An utterly maximal revelation, it might at first seem, could be given in some such form as this: teachings are given which could not have emanated from any normal mode of human knowledge, perhaps about future events or about the nature of the universe, which can be independently confirmed with certainty. For example, Fermat's last theorem could be proved; Einstein's theory of relativity revealed; and the names of the next twelve Roman emperors written down. We would then be justified in thinking such teaching had a superhuman source. Then miracles of a public, well-attested, and undeniable nature—like the stopping of the sun for three hours or the appearance of writing in the sky sayings ‘Jesus is my beloved Son’—could occur in such a manner that no one with any sense could deny them. And finally, everyone could be given such an overwhelming sense of the Divine presence that atheism would become absurd. If the world were like that, revelation through inspiration would surely be a wholly acceptable mode of human knowledge, confirmed by prophecy and miracle and by the inner witness of the Spirit.
It is only too obvious that the world is not at all like that. If there are prophecies, they are set down in texts of such unknown provenance that they could well have been written in after the event; they are in any case usually so vague that they can be interpreted in many ways; and they are rarely fulfilled in exact detail. If there are miracles, they again suffer from being recorded only by biased witnesses; they are usually perceived only by small groups of believers; and there are variant accounts of even the greatest of them, the resurrection of Jesus. If there is a witness of the Spirit, it comes only to few; even many who pray heartily for it fail to receive it; and the fact of competing revelations seemingly allows the Spirit to witness to contradictory truths, if all religious believers are to be trusted. From all of which it follows that there is no maximal revelation, in the sense proposed.
This strongly suggests that, either God has not done all God could or should have done to reveal truths; or that revelation should not be construed on the model of providing well-evidenced information at all. I suppose any serious theist is therefore committed to the latter view. That is, given the character of the actual Christian revelation which has been claimed to occur, it strictly follows that revelation simply is not a matter of well-evidenced information from a supernatural source. So one is driven back to look at the actual character of revelation in order to discover what its nature is.
What is revealed in Jesus is the nature and activity of God; and it is revealed not only in words, but in the life of Jesus, who expresses the suffering and redeeming Divine love. For Christians, revelation is primarily the discernment of the Divine love in Jesus, working for human liberation and fulfilment. What are the conditions of such discernment? First that one must be prepared to renounce selfishness and attachment, to take up one's cross and follow Christ, renouncing everything for his sake.134 Second, that one must be open to a sense of disclosure of the transcendent as it is mediated in finite things and people, to treat even the least of people as though they were manifestations of God.135 And third, that one must be ready to receive the Divine love into one's own life as a transforming power, to receive the Holy Spirit as a little child.136 One might term these the predispositions to renunciation, illumination, and participation. They correspond fairly closely to the traditional descriptions of the stages of the spiritual life in Christianity—the purgative, illuminative, and unitive ways. Thus the effective reception of revelation requires at least a predisposition to the mystical life, a life of turning from the world towards union with its spiritual source and goal.
Seen in this light, revelation functions as an evocation of a process of spiritual self-transformation. The revelation discloses the goal to which one is working and empowers one to pursue it. This is at a far remove from the provision of possibly useful information about the world. Revelation is the self-disclosive, transformative, and empowering mediation of the being of God through the forms of the physical world. To regard it as a body of information which could be correctly recited, or which could be established unambiguously by historical research and thereby make one a ‘true believer’, would be to misunderstand it wholly. The true believer is one who discerns at a certain point of historical existence the reality of God and who is personally transformed by the power of Divine love mediated at that point.
The Christian vision suggests that revelation comes as a disclosure of value and power which is usually mediated in a specific historical and cultural context. It comes as something which transforms vision and capacity; the ‘seeing’ transforms the seer as the object of seeing is mediated through the perceiving consciousness. Information requires no existential commitment; it is clearly and precisely statable; it leaves the character of the subject untouched. But revelation comes primarily to those who prepare themselves by self-renunciation. Its content cannot be conceptually pinned down, but always has the character of ‘pointing beyond’ to a form of acquaintance beyond finite name and form; and it changes the life of the one who receives it.
The Christian faith originated because the apostles found in Jesus a manifestation of Divine power, wisdom, and goodness such that he became the mediator of God to them. Perhaps Jesus himself needed to have faith, in the sense of constant trust in the goodness and power of the Father to whom he felt uniquely close; though faith in this sense would be natural and unimpeded by the wilful blindness of passion. The apostles needed faith in the rather different sense that, lacking such a unique acquaintance with God, they had to trust that Jesus was indeed filled with Divine life, which he could mediate to them. The courage needed to affirm this is shown by their reactions at the crucifixion, when all abandoned him. But the resurrection appearances and the experience of the outpouring of the Spirit confirmed their wavering faith, giving them power to proclaim the Lordship of the one whom they had known personally.
Those who hear the apostolic proclamation can no longer know Jesus ‘after the flesh’ and so they stand in yet a different relation to the original revelation. They need to believe the apostolic testimony that God has manifested himself redemptively in Jesus, a claim confirmable to them only by the experience of the Spirit of the risen Lord and by general considerations of the plausibility of the revealed doctrine. This is now quite far removed from any idea of maximal revelation. They have only testimony to events already past, though they have—what the apostles almost certainly had not—at least the beginnings of a general theological reflection on the role of the cosmic Christ as the mediator between Divine and human. The three main sources of early Christian belief—personal experience of the Spirit; a doctrine and experience of the risen Christ; and trust in the apostolic witness—are strong enough to justify a commitment of trust to the God who is disclosed in this manner. But they still share all the ambiguity of the very varied claims to experience humans make; the uncertainty of all reflective doctrines about the ultimate nature of reality; and the fallibility of all human testimony, especially to strange and unusual events like the resurrection. In view of this, it would be dishonest to regard Christian revelation as so clear that only hypocrites or self-deceivers could reject it. The Christian proclamation is thus most naturally seen as a witness to a disclosure of the Divine in and through the life of Jesus which can be made present through the Spirit in the contemporary Church. To those who are able to respond in faith it can become a vehicle of the Divine Life; and it is ultimately by its capacity to make people sharers in and channels of the Divine wisdom, compassion, and joy that it must be judged.
20. The Idea of a Final Revelation
The Christian proclamation is not, of course, only that God appeared once long ago in a certain person, increasingly remote from each generation in time. It must be a direct disclosure of the ultimate character of reality in its saving significance for each individual at every time. Yet historical considerations about the person of Jesus are of great importance for Christianity; for that was the originative point of Christian revelation and the defining norm for the Christian understanding of God. For Christianity, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, as an embodiment (or incarnation) of God's Word in the human order, is the Divine constituting act of a new community of faith. As the Torah is constitutive for Judaism, so Jesus is constitutive for the Church; he is the originative matrix of the Church, the community related to God by the repetition of its founding events. The selection of the canon is the definitive decision by the community on what the founding events are which define the form of its relationship to the Divine. It is not that God once gave a revelation and then stopped. God continues to inspire, guide, and prompt human thoughts and lives. But a canonical revelation presents a particular view of the nature of the Supreme Reality and Value. It presents a view of the ultimate destiny of human beings and thus of perfected human life. It founds a community which presents a view of the way in which that destiny can be appropriated, a way of salvation or enlightenment. And it conveys, or records the mediation of, a power which will ensure the realization of that destiny.
It is not necessary to say that God has worked in only one community. God, as I have consistently argued, does indeed reveal something of the Divine nature in many communities, each with its own canonical matrix, though the content is always affected by its historical and cultural context. Thus the Semitic tradition develops the idea of an active personal God, whereas the Indian tradition is able to develop the notion of an inactive Supreme Value. While a full view may need to take account of many sets of images, in the end, where there are ineliminable contradictions, only one view (even if it is not found in one religious tradition, but is culled from a number) can state what is ultimately so. It would be odd to think of God as always seeking to guide prayerful thought towards an adequate idea, yet never succeeding. It is more reasonable to think that some adequate idea of the final human goal is realized. Even if one may need to look to many traditions to arrive at an adequate idea, it will be strange if no tradition is then able to embody it.
Thus one may say that a ‘final’ revelation is one that does state what the Supreme Value really is, what human destiny is and what the proper way to it is. The Christian claim is that God is redemptive love, that the human goal is personal union with God, and that the way to the goal is one of participating in the Divine love itself. This is final in that these truths are irreformable. No doubt they allow and invite many developments of understanding; many expansions of insight; many recontextualizations which bring out unforeseen meanings. But they are irrevocably true, and any view which denies them must be regarded as ultimately false. It is not, after all, too surprising that the fundamental truths about these things should occur fairly early in human history, even though their disclosure had to be prepared over a great number of years. For human spiritual development is, properly seen, a continual development from a few basic truths, not the continual replacement of some truths by others. Christianity is absolute in the sense that its basic view of the nature of God (that God is redemptive love), of the ultimate human goal (the uniting of all creation with God through the raising of human nature to share in the Divine nature), and of the way to it (through acceptance of the forgiving and reconciling love of God) is simply true—and that is quite compatible with there being many possibilities of development and understanding on the basis of those truths.
Jesus, from the Christian point of view, is a final revelation inasmuch as he is the self-disclosure of God as suffering and redeeming love and the disclosure of the ultimate destiny of human life as lying in participation in the Divine Life. This is not a disclosure remote and hidden in the mists of time past, for the simple reason that the Spirit continually makes this icon of the Divine present in the sacramental community of the Church. The icon had a historical origin and was mediated in a historical life; but its present function is to graft the believer into the life of the Word of God. Christian faith does not simply remember a Galilean prophet as having said the last word in religion. It looks for the coming of the Kingdom, to the dawn of God's rule, the perfecting of humanity by unity with the Divine which has been prefigured in Jesus. The ‘final revelation’ does not prevent new explorations of truth. It opens up a path to discovering what makes for human fulfilment and happiness in relation to God. It is a true orientation towards and a foreshadowing of final truth, not a closed and completed statement which only needs to be repeated to assure one of the fullness of truth.
In Christ, so Christians believe, the personal source and continuing foundation of the historical process is clearly manifested in history in a decisive and irreversible way. Its goal is also manifested in such a way that, although history continues, its end is already prefigured in the uniting of human and Divine in the glorified Christ whom the apostles believed themselves to encounter after Jesus’ death. Christianity can intelligibly claim to be a ‘final revelation’, not in the sense that there is nothing left to understand of God, but in the sense that Christians understand the goal of human fulfilment to be accomplished and manifested in the risen Christ.137 What is present at every time and place is the redemptive self-giving love of God; but its presence is often hidden, ambiguous, and conveyed in many more or less adequate images. The image of the being of God as redemptive love and the purpose of God as participation in the Divine Life is disclosed in the person of Christ and the true form of human redemption is proleptically completed in him.
Faith does not give a privileged access to theoretical certainty about the past; but it names the historical forms under which the value and the power of God has been mediated to Christians. Christianity in its historical aspect affirms the importance of history, particularity, creativity, and individuality. In its religious aspect it sees these things as illumined and transfigured by eternity, and so requires an absolute commitment in objective uncertainty to that which mediates the life of eternity. Christian faith offers participation in the life of God; what it affirms is that this life comes in particular, historical forms and that it is in such temporal forms, and not apart from them, that eternity is to be found. This does not restrict the manifestation of eternal truth to one tiny fading moment of time. It gives the eternal a temporal shape and form, founded on a historical matrix, a pattern and channel of the Spirit, which Christians believe has the power to transform the whole world.
In this Part, I have sought to develop a distinctively Christian view of revelation as based upon the incarnation of God in Jesus. I have stressed that such a revelation is not just a matter of recalling some past events. What the life of Jesus manifests is the nature of the eternal God. That nature relates to each individual as a present reality, in a new and individual way. It is given shape and form by the pattern of Jesus’ life, as it was remembered and celebrated in the early community of his disciples. This kind of reference to a historical life makes the Christian view of revelation distinctive among the world's religions. All views of revelation, however, have been affected by the great changes in human thought stimulated by the European Enlightenment, by their encounter with modernity. In this Part, the effect on Christianity of one element of modernity, the growth of historico-critical method, has been considered. While I argued that radical historical scepticism can be effectively countered, I think it has become clear that it is implausible to see Christian revelation as the provision of inerrant information on irrefutable evidence. It is more properly seen as a historical disclosure of Divine reality, articulated in imaginative and symbolic forms. That is a conclusion which Christian faith can welcome. It is one which the study of religious traditions more generally had already suggested, and which is well fitted to an incarnational view of revelation.
There are two other main elements of modernity which affect ideas of revelation: the rise of the natural sciences and the growth of belief in human autonomy and individual liberty. All religious views need to come to terms with these factors, which shape all post-Enlightenment thought. In so far as every religious tradition moves into a new historical phase of development as it is touched by modernity, a comparative theology needs to consider with some care what an appropriate religious reaction to modernity might be. Such a consideration will help to define more precisely the scope and limits of revelation, its sources and justifying grounds. In the final Part of this study, I shall therefore examine these aspects of Enlightenment thought, albeit in a rather general way, in their relation to revelation. I shall finally attempt to provide a view of Christian revelation, in the light of the historical development of religious traditions throughout the world, and of the encounter of religious thought with the Enlightenment, which can provide a basis for subsequent theological reflection.
Athanasius, De Incarnatione 54 (New York: Macmillan, 1946), 93.
John 18: 36.
Phil. 2: 10.
Exod. 19: 6.
Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy (London: Collins, 1958), 64 ff.
The Life of Swami Vivekananda, by his disciples (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1965), ch. 21.
This case is well argued in John Zizioulas, Being as Communion (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1985).
Exod. 36: 2.
‘He said to me, “You are my son, today I have begotten you”’: Ps. 2: 7.
Joel 2: 28; Jer. 31: 31–4.
Isa. 53: 12.
Cf. the examples cited in: Jacob Neusner, The Oral Torah (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986), ch. 7.
Cf. Solomon Schechter, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (New York: Schocken Books, 1961), ch. 9.
‘In the Talmud of the Land of Israel or Yerushalmi, c. A.D. 400, the Torah came to be represented in the person of the sage, who was, in himself, the Torah incarnate’: Jacob Neusner, ‘Is the God of Judaism Incarnate?’, Religions Studies, 24/2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 214.
‘Pure was the light and pure were we from the pollution of the walking sepulchre which we call a body, to which we are bound like an oyster to its shell’: Plato, Phaedrus 250; trans. W. Hamilton (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973), 57.
Plato, Timaeus 7; trans. D. Lee (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965), 50 ff.
Col. 1: 15.
Exod. 3: 14.
The distinction begins with Gregory Nazienzen (Orat. 38: 7); it is expounded in V. Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (New York: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1976).
The basic idea of God sketched briefly here is set out more systematically in: K. Ward, Rational Theology and the Creativity of God (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1982).
Hegel, who claimed to be the first Christian philosopher, did effect the recovery of the sense of temporality in Western thought, but relied on a speculative philosophy of history which has usually been viewed with some scepticism. Cf. G. W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History, trans. J. Sibree (London: Willey Book Company, 1944).
Vatican Council 1, Dei Filius 2, in J. Neurer and J. Dupois (eds.), The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church (London: Collins, 1983), 75.
Athenagoras, Supplication for the Christians, 9.
Denzinger and Schonmetzer, Enchiridion Symbolorum, 3291.
Cf. Matt. 28: 2 and Luke 24: 2, 10.
Dei Verbum 11, in W. M. Abbott, The Documents of Vatican II (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1966).
Certainly the disciples misunderstood him, right up to the end. Cf. Luke 24: 21.
e.g. Matt. 21: 1–9.
Cf. above, Part III, Sects. 3, 4, on Judaism.
This account, re-expressing the accounts given above in Part I, Sect. 6, Part II, Sect. 10, and Part III, Sect. 4, thus finds additional support from a consideration of the nature of inspiration and of the production of the scriptural canon specifically in Christianity.
Cf. Tertullian, De Praescriptione Haereticorum 13 (Ante-Nicene Christian Library; Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark). Also J. Stevenson (ed.), A New Eusebius (London: SPCK, 1957), 176.
Emil Brunner, Revelation and Reason, trans. Olive Wyon (London: SCM Press, 1947), 7.
Emil Brunner, 8.
William Temple, Nature, Man and God (London: Macmillan, 1934), 304.
William Temple, 312.
Cf. Part II, Sect. 10.
John Baillie, Ideas of Revelation in Recent Thought (London: Oxford University Press, 1956).
Cf. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. H. Beveridge (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1989): ‘How necessary it was to make such a depository of doctrine as would secure it from either perishing… or being corrupted’; ch. 6, 66.
Avery Dulles, Models of Revelation (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1992).
John Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology (London: SCM Press, 1966), 104.
H. H. Farmer, Revelation and Religion (London: Nisbet, 1954), 95.
Macquarrie, Christian Theology, 104.
F. Schleiermacher, On Religion, trans. R. Crouter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), Second Speech, 133.
F. Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1989), para. 10. 3, p. 50.
Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1951), i. 130.
Paul Tillich, 160.
Heb. 10: 20.
Ernst Troeltsch, ‘Uber historische und dogmatische Methode in der Theologie’, Gesammelte Schriften, 2 (Tubingen: J. C. B. Mohr 1913), 729–53. This is not translated; but in English one can find The Absoluteness of Christianity (London: SCM Press, 1972) and the article on ‘Historiography’ in Hastings (ed.), Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (New York: Charles Scribner's, 1914), vi. 716–23.
An example of a treatment which does so is G. A. Wells, Did Jesus Exist? (London: Pemberton, 1975).
J. Macquarrie, Jesus Christ in Modern Thought (London: SCM Press, 1990), 36.
References are to: Mark 1: 1, 8: 29; 1: 8; 1: 11; 1: 22, 4: 11; 2: 10; 3: 15.
Mark 8: 28, 10: 37–40, 13: 27, 14: 62; 8: 31; 9: 4; 11: 10.
Mark 14: 24; 10: 45.
A. Schweitzer, The Quest for the Historical Jesus (London: SCM Press, 1981). The third-person references to a future Son of Man are largely in Mark; the first-person references to Jesus are in Matthew; and one may see a development of interpretation here.
As in Athanasius, De Incarnatione 32, p. 63: ‘The saviour has raised his own body.’
A particularly good exposition of these possibilities is in: John Bowden, Jesus: The Unanswered Questions (London: SCM Press, 1988); and in Macquarrie, Jesus Christ in Modern Thought.
‘God said, “Let there be light”, and there was light’: Gen. 1: 3.
K. Ward, A Vision to Pursue (London: SCM Press, 1992). Any reader of that book will note a much more pronounced incarnational emphasis in the present work. I have become convinced that such an emphasis is necessary and possible, given relatively small amendments of the previous analysis.
2 Cor. 5: 19.
Lessing's famous comment that ‘accidental truths of history can never become the proof of necessary truths of reason’; G. E. Lessing, On the Proof of the Spirit and of Power, in H. Chadwick (ed.), Lessing's Theological Writings (London: A. and C. Black, 1956), 53.
Richard Swinburne, Faith and Reason (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981).
R. Swinburne, Revelation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), 120.
Van A. Harvey, The Historian and the Believer (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1966), 111.
Van A. Harvey, 237.
H. Richard Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation (New York: Macmillan, 1946), 93.
Harvey, The Historian and the Believer, 257.
E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (London: SCM Press, 1985), II, The six items are: Jesus was baptized by John; he preached and healed in Galilee; he called disciples (probably twelve); he confined his ministry to Israel; he engaged in controversy about the Temple; and he was crucified by the Romans.
Harvey, The Historian and the Believer, 280.
Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (London: SCM Press, 1981), 369.
Harvey, The Historian and the Believer, 264.
Harvey, the Historian and the Believer.
This notion of theopoiesis is found, e.g., in Athanasius, Vita Antonii, in J. P. Migne, Patrologia Graeca, xxvi. 837 ff.
‘Buddhas appear as rarely as a flower on the Udumbara tree, one only from age to age, with immense intervals between’: Nagarjuna, Mahaprajnaparamitaskastra, 93b, in: E. Conze, Buddhist Scriptures (London: Penguin, 1959), 213.
Gregory Nazienzen, Epistle 101, trans. C. G. Browne and J. E. Swallow, in Edward Hardy (ed.) Christology of the Later Fathers (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954), 218.
At the Council of Constantinople, CE 681.
Thus, for instance, Koran, 6: 164: ‘Every soul draws the meed of its acts on none but itself: no bearer of burdens can bear the burden of another.’
Rom. 7: 21–5.
Mark 13: 32.
Mark 14: 33.
Irenaeus, Against Heresies v. 1 (Ante-Nicene Christian Library; Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark), 1867 ff.
Gen. 3: 22–3.
Thomas V. Morris, The Logic of God Incarnate (New York: Cornell University Press, 1986), 122 ff.
Luke 4: 2.
Morris, The Logic of God Incarnate, 148.
‘[Arius] had the audacity to preach in church what no one before him had ever suggested, namely that the Son of God… as possessing free will was capable of virtue and vice’: H. E. Sozomen, 1.15.3, in J. Stevenson (ed.), A New Eusebius (London: SPCK, 1957). 341.
Morris, The Logic of God Incarnate, 162.
Cyril of Alexandria, Ep. iv, in Migne, Patrologia Graeca, lxxvii. 44–50.
Eusebius, Demonstration of the Gospel iv. 10.15–14.1, in M. Wiles and M. Santer (eds.) Documents in Early Christian Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 51.
Excellent philosophical discussions of this point can be found in: C. V. Borst (ed.), The Mind/Brain Identity Theory (London: Macmillan, 1970).
‘One then has to ask how the Word was made flesh—whether it was transformed into flesh or whether it put on flesh. The answer is emphatically that it put on flesh; for one must certainly believe God to be immutable and not subject to change’: Tertullian, Against Praxeas 27, in Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina (Turnhout and Paris: Brepols, 1953–) 11.1198.
Gregory Nazienzen, Epistle 101, in Hardy, Christology, 216.
Cyril, Ep. 4 (Migne, Patrologia Graeca, lxxvii. 44–50).
‘The Word has become flesh without having assumed a human mind’: Apollinarius, Letter to the Bishops of Diocaesarea, 2. in J. Stevenson (ed.), Creeds, Councils and Controversies (London: SPCK, 1966), 96.
Nestorius was almost certainly not a ‘Nestorian’, but the position is set out, with some degree of caricature, and anathematized, by Cyril of Alexandria in Ep. 17 (Migne, Patrologia Graeca, lxxvii. 122).
‘He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him’: Eph. 1: 4.
‘His purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth’: Eph. 1: 10.
Origen, De Principiis 11.6.6.
Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 1a.1.1.
Luke 14: 33.
Matt. 25: 40.
Mark 10: 15.
This point is well made by von Balthasar: ‘Jesus sees his end coinciding with the end of the world’; ‘Glaube und Naherwartung’, in Zuerst Gottes Reich, Theologische Meditationen, xiii (Einsiedeln: Benziger, 1966), 13.