Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Long-Hidden Gems: On Revelation and Authority

Well...I''ll leave it to you whether what follows contains any actual gems. But as I was cleaning out a desk drawer last night I came upon a set of diskettes containing all my academic work from seminary two decades ago. One assignment from Systematic Theology was to write a major essay on Revelation and Authority. The topic was timely then and is perhaps even timelier now; hence I am giving it the light of day in this medium that was unimagined when it was written.

I've done only minor editing--punctuation, capitalization, and the like. Temporal references are left unchanged, and clearly date the work from early 1988. For the same class, I also wrote on Soteriology and the nature of Faith/Belief. When I've had a chance to clean them up, I'll post them as well.

Bear in mind that this is an attempt at serious academic theology. I wasn't writing as a pastor or a popularizer, let alone a blogger! It's a different "voice" than than to which you may be accustomed to hearing from me. For whatever it's worth, it may be closer to my authentic voice than anything else.

In this age of computers we have become accustomed to borrowing words from ordinary discourse in order provide a humane technical vocabulary for the electronic manipulation of information. So it is “meet and right,” perhaps, to borrow some terms back from the computer field in order to give some definition to the scope of this essay. We will be speaking here of “hardware,” the utilitarian, mechanical support structure of Christian theology. It is quite necessary but, except for a select company of theological “hackers,” not very glamorous. It will not save any souls or lead anyone to God. It does, however, make it possible to use “software,” that is, to do the real business of theology: reflecting on and articulating the nature of the divine and the nature of the human and how the two relate to one another.

Having said this, I must now acknowledge that I am one such “theological hacker.” The subjects of authority and revelation, scripture and tradition, were the crucial issues in a significant turning point in my own pilgrimage of faith which took place about fifteen years ago. They have continued to command my attention, in one way or another, since that time. The thoughts expressed here, then, are a current distillation of a long-term and ongoing process. It is an activity that has included wide reading from Hooker to Newman to Gore to C.B. Moss to C.S. Lewis and others. This is to say that, while none of the ideas put forth here are original with me, neither can they, with one or two exceptions, be precisely attributed to anyone else. They are, rather, the synthesis of the interplay between my prior thinking on the subject and the more disciplined reflection that has take place in the past few weeks, given shape primarily by the reading of MacQuarrie's Principles of Christian Theology.

I should add at the outset that what might be called “personal revelation”—a particular intense or illuminating religious experience which seems to the recipient as a message from God—is outside the scope of this paper. We will deal here with “revelation” as it is understood in a corporate, public sense. Suffice it to say that any such personal experience, if it is to be judged genuine, must be congruent with revelation as we will define it.

One further introductory note: Without any explicit statement to the contrary, the sum of what will be said here could be construed to be “apneumatic,” or at least agnostic with respect to the Holy Spirit. Let that not be the case. It is my belief that the Holy Spirit invades and permeates all aspects of the revelatory process, including scripture, tradition, and reason. This should be implicitly assumed throughout.


To speak of revelation in an ordinary semantic sense assumes the presence of four constituents: one who (or which) acts as a revealer, that which is revealed (content), the medium by which the content is conveyed, and one who (or which) receives the revelation. In the simple statement “I read in that paper that Gary Hart re-entered the presidential race” most anyone can intuit the presence of these four elements. In speaking of revelation in connection with religious authority, however, the question is clouded by the fact that “God,” by definition, is in some sense transcendent of ordinary human experience. So while one may be able to articulate the idea of divine revelation ontologically (“from above”), one must first approach it existentially (“from below”). We must begin with our own common human experience as receivers of revelation and work, so to speak, backwards through its mediation and content and finally to the Revealer before we can make generalizations about the process as a whole.

The notion of authority is a “hot” topic in the Church today. In some circles the word has taken on a connotation of oppression, of the restriction of personal freedom. I think we must disabuse ourselves of such an understanding, though, and recover a more etymologically grounded sense of authority as simply The Way Things Are, and, more importantly, as emanating from the Author. We tend to apprehend God's authority in the context of the doctrine of Providence, opening up the temptation of ascribing to him malicious intentionality, when we might do better to see it as flowing from the doctrine of Creation. We may have reason to wish the created order were constituted differently than it is, but such wishing will not help us come to terms with it. In any case, no matter how we understand authority, it is axiomatic that to the extent that any revelation of God is authentic, it is authoritative. The question of authority, then, is really one of credibility: What or whom do we trust as accurately conveying the content of revelation?

In the midst of all this, we must bear in mind that revelation is, by nature, not given for its own sake. It has an end, a telos. From a Christian perspective, this telos is nothing less than the salvation of humankind, individually and corporately, along with the entire created order. Underlying this essay is the contention that revelation is rooted in objective truth that is independent of any subjective knowledge. This should not be construed, however, to deny or minimize the salvific intention of God's revelation.

With these considerations in mind, we are now ready to proceed to an examination of the process of revelation “from below.”


(In this section, when I, an individual, speak in the first person, I do so as figuratively inclusive of all Christians, and potentially of all persons.) I first encounter revelation when I encounter a community which claims to bear it. This community, in some way and in some degree, is one of "”faith.” “Faith” is meant here to be understood multivalently: as mental assent or belief (per Aquinas), as total orientation of will and affections (per St. Paul), and as behavior consistent with both. This community, in its life of faith, mediates to me the content of the revelation it claims to bear. The character of this content is such that it provides me with a way of interpreting my own experience, and all of reality, in light of the decisive action of God. Since human language is the necessary medium (at least a necessary medium) for its communication, this content must be expressed, among other ways, in the form of verbal propositions. Now it is (or should be) understood that no proposition must ever be thought to exhaustively convey the reality to which it points. Just as the vocabulary of computer use (“file,” “user friendly,” “menu,” “handshaking hardware,” etc.) is based on analogy with more fundamental human experience, theological discourse is only an approximation and a rather crude one at that, of the reality of God. Moreover, human language is rarely univocal, and every verbal exchange contains an element of translation in which something of the speaker's meaning is lost on the hearer. “We always know more than we can say.” (Michael Polanyi)

It would be a mistake, however, to infer from this that all theological propositions are necessarily tentative. This may be the case from God's point of view, but, alas, it is a perspective we do not share. From a hypothetical satellite on a hypothetically clear day, hypothetically equipped with telescopic equipment, one does not need a map of the world; the real thing is plain view. A map, after all, is only a crude analogy. But to someone lost in the Sahara desert, a map showing the nearest oasis is life itself, and is therefore absolutely definitive and authoritative. It is the experience of the community of faith, the Church, that there are some propositional formulations which, while not in themselves adequate, are nevertheless normative. Any other expression of the same truth would be even more inadequate.

The mediation of this content (verbal and otherwise) to me by the community of faith is a manifestation of paradosis, literally in Greek "giving along", or, as it is usually rendered in English, tradition. The tradition I receive strikes a resonant chord in me somehow—affectively, intellectually, aesthetically, or in whatever way. It engages my attention to one degree or another, ranging from incipient curiosity to complete fixation. It is readily apparent, however, that the revelatory content which has been mediated to me is contingent. It is itself a mediation of a mediation. It draws me back, ultimately, to the faith community at the dawn of its existence, when the content of its tradition was first articulated. The community had been called into existence by a decisive act of God and formed by its own reflection on and interpretation of that experience. If the tradition through which I apprehend the revelation can be called a “contingent mediation,” this primary constitutive experience is an “original mediation.”

One of the ways in which the original mediation becomes part of the tradition is through a written record of the constitutive event. The word is used here in a broad sense, referring actually to a series of events between the Annunciation and Pentecost, and, on a secondary level, going back to the call of Abraham, and the initial reflection/interpretation. In time, the Church recognizes certain of these writings as Holy Scripture, as having authority in the sense described above—that of accurately conveying the content of the revelation. It is necessary, however, to refine this assertion in three respects: First, it must be remembered that it was the Church which recognized the Scriptures as such and it is in that context in which they must be understood. They are neither, on one hand, an independent witness which can function apart from the organic faith community, nor, on the other hand, subject to having their authority and credibility compromised by whatever factual errors and historical inconsistencies may be uncovered by critical scholarship. To elaborate, for example: If it can be conclusively demonstrated that Paul did not write the Pastoral Epistles, this does not subject them to decanonization or in any way vitiate their authority. Second, even while Scripture is part of the Church's tradition, it nevertheless stands in a special relation to the rest of the tradition on account of its place in the “original mediation.” It represents the community's initial response to the event which brought it into being, and, as such, becomes part of that event. It is normative. Third, since Scripture is verbal and, at times, starkly propositional, it is subject both to the promises and the pitfalls inherent in any verbal communication.

The point is that I am not advocating a fundamentalist sort of “plenary verbal inspiration” doctrine. Only now can I think of approaching (theologically, that is) the Initiator of the whole process of revelation, the Revealer himself. The original mediation leads me to God's definitive action within common human experience (cf. MacQuarrie's notion of “classic” or “primordial” revelation,” p.90). The words of the sacred texts are important because they represent one of the crucial defining characteristics of the sort of divine action that we are talking about. It is public and objectively accessible, which is to say that it takes place in history. The quest for the historical Jesus may be quixotic, but there is no doubt that there was a historical Jesus, that he was born under unusual circumstances, that his manner of life and teaching got him in trouble, that he died, and that his rising from the dead was well-enough attested that many thousands of ordinary rational men, women, and children soon thereafter submitted to torture and death for the sake of that proclamation. God's revelatory action is no mystical, private affair. Again, this is not to deny the validity of mystical experience. The tradition itself affirms the reality of personal divine-human relationship. Strictly speaking, however, this is not revelation. We are speaking here of God-as-Revealer, the ultimate locus of Author-ity, knowledge of whom can be communicated.


We are now in a position to look at revelation ontologically, that is, “from above,” reversing the direction of our inquiry and, presumably, arriving back at our starting point. God, the revealer, acted in human history in a definitive way in the “Christ event.” The experience of this action formed a community, the Church, which immediately engaged in a process of reflection and interpretation. This two-part cycle of action and interpretation can be said to form a unit, a “deed-word event” (I am reasonably sure that I encountered this expression in reading the evangelical New Testament scholar and theologian George Eldon Ladd, but I am not able to make a citation) which constitutes the original mediation of the revelation. It is recorded in a normative fashion in the form of Holy Scripture.

Since the deed-word event has taken place in history, the community which it formed is also a historical entity, and is more and more temporally separated from its primordial constitution. It continues in time as a living paradosis of the revelation. It does not exist in a vacuum, however, and since human experience does not cease, neither does the process of reflection and interpretation. As a result, succeeding generations who come into contact with the Church experience a doubly-mediated form of the revelation. They are separated not only from God's action, but from the original interpretation of it.

Moreover, the “community” in which they find themselves is not monolithic. The more time passes, the longer the process of reflection continues, the more the resulting interpretation is (to speak in a charitable euphemism) multi-faceted. These “complementary insights” (perpetuating the euphemism) into the revelation create sub-groups within the community, each of which sees itself as the center (or as part of the center) of the ecclesial universe, with the other groups inhabiting a series of concentric circles emanating from the center. This creates an environment in which anomalies are the exception rather than the rule (which is itself an anomaly) and in which the notion of authority—defined as that which credibly mediates revelation—emerges as increasingly important—indeed, as crucial.

To extend our Robin Hood approach to "computer-ese" (stealing metaphors from the thief), one might compare the anomalous world inhabited by authority and revelation to a “bug” in a computer program, a situation in which a program sabotages itself with its own logic. The task of the “de-bugger” is to carefully and judiciously—in a manner akin to that of a surgeon—locate and modify the offending link in the sequence of commands. This is usually accomplished by the intuitive common sense of the programmer, and not infrequently involves being illogical, fighting anomaly with anomaly. Care is always taken, however, to disturb as little as possible the non-offending links in the chain; the “de-bugging” process, illogical as it may be, is performed with the primary objectives of the program consciously in mind.

The Christian theologian (which in this instance includes any baptized person who is at all reflective on his or her faith) is at times called upon to be a “de-bugger,” to deal with the
anomalies in the Church's life and in the witness of the tradition. The primary tool in this endeavor is human reason, the critical faculty which can intuit distinctions and categories
that may be sub-verbal (in Polanyi's sense). It must be kept in mind, however, that the function of reason is utilitarian. It is able to critically evaluate the various media which claim to authoritatively transmit the revelation of God in Christ. This takes place with respect both to the “original mediation” and the various “contingent mediations.” But reason must not presume to offer access to the content of revelation itself, much less to the Revealer. It is employed judiciously, and with the telos of revelation consciously in mind. Reason is not itself an authority; it discerns authority.

The ultimate authority, of course, is the Author. God's very ontology, however, is such that we do not share his mind, his essence. This fact creates the very need for revelation, and decrees that revelation is mediated. The task at hand, therefore, is, with the aid of critical reason, to discern what is authoritative, to determine where we are most likely to encounter the mediation of God's revelation. This is a question a good number of brilliant minds have expended a tremendous amount of energy over the centuries trying to answer. There is a real sense in which this is necessary and healthy. Without trivializing the importance and the sincerity of this endeavor, we can suggest a methodology which lends a good deal of focus to it. The manifestation of God's revelatory authority is the community which was formed by it, which is in essence organic rather than institutional, which transcends time, which “gives along” the content of the revelation. Scriptures, creeds, councils, confessions, declarations, encyclicals, pastoral letters and (“as one untimely born”) General Conventions can be of genuine usefulness to the task, but only inasmuch as they are seen as rooted in an flowing out of the organic life of the Church.

Now without a good deal of qualification and nuance, much of the preceding paragraph is a rather naive statement of the obvious. When one is faced with an actual concrete theological issue, trying to discern the mind of the Church is, if one is simple-minded, suspiciously easy, and if one is sophisticated, evocative of despair. It is a telling irony that Vincent of Lerins formulated his famous “canon” as a polemical reaction to one who has come to be recognized as one of the most seminal and (in the west) orthodox theologians in Christian history. So we offer the dictum, “Seek the mind of the Church,” not as a solution to theological quandary, but as the only legitimate starting point in the search.

This is, after all, an essay on revelation and authority, not ecclesiology. But since we have so strongly located the mediation of revelation in the Church, there is an implied notion in the previous paragraph which needs to be made explicit. The Church is an historical entity. Paradosis happens in the context of the passing of time. Even though the “mind of the Church” on any of the controversial issues which she faces today may be impossible to discern, it is quite feasible to generalize about the mind of the Church on the issues faced a century ago. A hundred years from now, the mind of today's Church will be significantly clearer than it is to us now. Even though the expression consensus fidelium may be nearly equivalent to “the mind of the Church,” I would like to suggest a subtle distinction, that is, that the former term is more temporally expansive. An important theological issue is rarely settled within the space of one generation. Indeed, there was a time in the mid-fourth century when the mind of the church seemed quite made up on a crucial Christological question; as Jerome tells us, the world woke up and found itself Arian. This turned out, however, not to be the consensus fidelium.

So the pursuit of the authoritative mediation of revelation is, to put it mildly, elusive. Authority, when it is discerned, must be laid hold of confidently, but humbly, and with faith (in all the semantic richness of that word). In many cases, it is a trans-personal endeavor, because it is trans-generational. As it was with those who worked on medieval cathedrals (enough of computers now!), so it is with theologians: one generation builds onthe foundation laid by another. For any given individual, faith is the assurance that the telos of revelation will reach its fruition. His or her probing of the mystery, moreover, is not wasted effort. Not only does it provide the setting for the working out of one's own salvation “in fear and trembling,” but contributes to the consensus fidelium which will mediate, “give along” the saving content of God's revelation in Christ to those yet unborn.

1 comment:

Your former deacon said...

Gosh, after reading your "paper" I can now understand why you found my papers in your classes "less than desireable!" Thank you for making me stretch out of my comfort zone so that I could actually understand this post!