You are here

Revelation and Religion

1949 to 1950
University of Glasgow

Revelation and Religion is the first course of Gifford Lectures given by H. H. Farmer in 1950. The volume offers a theologically Christian interpretation of the universal phenomenon of human religious experience and seeks to interpret world religions through the life and work of the person of Jesus Christ. Though Farmer’s lectures argue for the priority of the final revelation of God in Christ, he treats other world religions with a great deal of care and respect.

Chapter I, ‘Natural Theology and Christian Philosophy’, contains a brief reflection on the peculiar task of a natural theology. Though aspects of God can be found in nature, Farmer argues that it is only when God chooses to first reveal Godself that humanity can truly come to the knowledge of God. Within Christianity, this occurs chiefly through God’s self-disclosure in the person of Christ. Farmer’s Christian Theism demands that culture, natural theology and the universal phenomena of the ‘religious’ give heed to the incarnation of Christ.

Farmer himself describes chapter II, ‘The Problem of Classification’, as a technical and complicated chapter that establishes the ground rules for a Christian engagement with other religions. He argues that Christian theology must begin by taking seriously the final revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ before it can then proceed in its engagement with other world religions. Following in the footsteps of both Schleiermacher and Tillich, Farmer argues that the universal experience of the religious occurs at the point where human existence gives rise to a concern for the ultimate. For Farmer, Christianity is a unique locus where the personal revelation of God encounters the human pursuit of ultimacy, offering salvation and justification. Christianity is both a part of the universal experience of religion as well as being separate from all other world religions by virtue of its unique efficacy.

In chapters and IV, ‘The Normative Concept of Religion as Defined by Christian Worship’, Farmer explores the particularity of the Christian religious experience by examining the nature of the Christian encounter with the revelation of God. He argues that in order to understand the essence of a religion, whether Christianity or otherwise, one must both appraise the external manifestations of a religion and examine the inner workings of its practices. It is with consideration of the latter that these two chapters engage with the worshiping community of the church. By employing Buber’s I-Thou typology, Farmer discusses the possibility of the human relationship with the Divine vis-à-vis the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Though the Christian religion has a unique interpretation of divine self-disclosure, Farmer would argue that the revelation of God to humanity is not limited to the Christian religion, but undergirds (and to an extent is obscured by) all other human religions. In light of the universality of God’s self-disclosure, in chapter V, ‘Primitive Religion and Polytheism’, Farmer explores the experience of religious phenomenon within groups that possess no essential or intrinsic connection with contemporary religions, with specific reference to animism and polytheism, in an attempt to argue that human history points to the human need for a relationship to the Divine.

In chapter VI, ‘The Religion of Absolute Dependence; the Religion of Ideal Values; The Religion of Introversion’, Farmer engages with what are the first three of five basic religious types. These types, he argues, are consistent within the normative concept of religion, and he explores them with specific references to Christian revelation and experience. Accordingly, the ‘religion of absolute’ dependence is epitomised by Calvinist theology, which situates human destiny under divine sovereignty. The ‘religion of ideal values’ is described in terms of divine perfection, where the goodness of God serves as the ultimate goal of earthly perfection. The ‘religion of introversion’ is indicative of religious mystery or spiritualism, with emphases on the inner life as an encounter with the Divine spirit. His analysis of religious types continues in chapter VII, ‘The Religion of Obligation; Eudaemonistic Religion’. The ‘religion of obligation’ is one that grounds moral laws upon the demands of God’s law. And lastly, the ‘eudaemonistic’ religion (that is, the religion which promotes an ethic of happiness and personal well-being) is a religion that encourages balance, harmony, or union of the soul with the divine.

Up to this point, Farmer’s discussion of religion has been exclusively centred on the religious demands imposed by the Divine upon the religious subject. From chapter VIII, ‘The Corporate and Dynamic Elements in Religion’, Farmer looks at what he calls the five ‘subjective’ sides of religion. These are the aspects of a religion that cater to specific human needs. The first, the ‘corporate element’ of religion, is epitomised by the communal nature of the I-Thou relationship. The second, the ‘dynamic element’, addresses the human need for vitality by offering humanity a source of power and life that exceeds the human ability for either. The third and fourth subjective elements in religion are discussed in chapter IX, ‘The Elements of Withdrawal and Fulfilment in Religion’. The ‘element of withdrawal’ engages with the human need for transcendence. And the ‘idea of fulfilment’ or completion covers the notion of human lack being met by the superabundant love of God made manifest in Christ. In chapter X, ‘The Element of Unification in Religion’, Farmer addresses the fifth and final aspect of the subjective elements of religion. He argues that the subjective need for ‘unification’, at least for Christianity, does not imply the dissolution of the I-Thou binary, but rather that the perfection of the created order is a perfection of multiplicity within a completed unity.

Michael W. DeLashmutt
University of Glasgow