Collect of the Day
O LORD, we beseech thee to keep thy Church and household continually in thy true religion; that they who do lean only upon the hope of thy heavenly grace may evermore be defended by thy mighty power; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Friday, August 14, 2009
Part XV: Thirty-Nine Articles: The Historic Basis of Anglican Faith: The Nature of Revelation, Part 1
"If revelation is in the event rather than in the interpretation, revelation becomes like a nose of wax to be reshaped according to every man's whim. In fact, if revelation is only in event, then there is no revelation in the sense of God-given knowledge of God."
Thirty-Nine Articles: The Historic Basis of the Anglican Faith
The author: Canon David Broughton Knox, B.A., A. L. C. D., B.D., M.Th., D. Phil. (Oxford), was Principal of Moore Theological College, Sydney, Australia. Ordained in 1941 he served in an English parish and as a chaplain in the Royal Navy before becoming a tutor at Moore College 1947-53. On leave in England he was tutor and lecturer in New Testament at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford 1951-53 and Assistant Curate in the parish of St. Aldale's, Oxford. He became Vice Principal of Moore College in 1954 and Principal in 1959. He was elected Canon of St. Andrew's Cathedral in 1960. His other books include "The Doctrine of Faith in the Reign of Henry VIII" (London: James Clarke, 1961).
David Broughton Knox also founded George Whitefield College in South Africa in 1989.
The Nature of Revelation
The Thirty-Nine Articles accept as axiomatic a view of the character of revelation which is now widely rejected as inadequate. In assessing the place of the Articles in the modern church it is essential to re-examine the presupposition about revelation on which the Articles are based.
Professor Lampe has pointed out that the Articles rest upon the presupposition that revelation comes to us in our day and generation in the form of propositions or statements, so that if these statements are properly interpreted to bring out their true meaning, 'the truth of that doctrine is decisively established and is not open to question. The appeal to the text of Scripture may be expected to provide a final solution to controversial questions . . .' It is on this score that Professor Lampe presses his criticism of the Articles. He writes: 'To many of us the matter is not so easily resolved. God's revelation is disclosed in certain historical events, as these have been witnessed, evaluated and subsequently recorded, by men gifted with insight to perceive their signficance, but, since they were limited and fallible men, not necessarily able to discern their whole meaning and implications or to express this perfectly, and, since their thought is inevitably conditioned by the circumstances of their time, not necessarily able to transmit their understanding of the revelationary events in a form which will be meaningful to later generations.'ii Here is the crux. This understanding of revelation (inspiration as a concept has apparently gone by the board) means that God's revelation is confined within the historical events, so that no statements about God, even though made by the biblical writers themselves, are of final authority for our own thinking about God. Christian doctrines about God, Christ, salvation 'are subject to reinterpretation from age to age and are to be modified as science changes our views'.iii It follows that the documents -- whether the Creeds or the Articles -- which state these doctrines, no matter how closely they may reflect the statements of Scripture, are involved in the same relativism.
This question of the nature of revelation, and consequently the character of Scripture, is crucial in evaluating the Articles; for, as Professor H. E. W. Turner has written, 'They depend closely upon the theory of propositional revelation.'iv If the truth of the Articles is to be established and the propriety of requiring assent to them to be vindicated, the nature of revelation must be carefully investigated and its propositional character verified.
For some time now it has become common for theologians to assert that revelation is not given to us by God in the form of truths couched in words, that is, in statements or propositions, but in acts and events. Thus, Dr. Leonard Hodgson, former Regius Professor of Divinity in the University of Oxford and Canon of Christ Church, writes: 'The "Word of God" is not a proposition or a series of propositions prescribing what we are to believe or think. It is a series of divine acts, when they are reflected on by the mind as it seeks to grasp their significance. The revelation of God of God is given in deeds; the doctrines of the faith are formulated by reflection on the significance of those deeds.' Hodgson denies that there exists for us 'revealed doctrine, presented by God, ready-made in propositional form'.v
This view may be traced back to F. D. Maurice, implicit in whose writings is the view that the Bible is not so much the revelation of God as the record of that revelation, and that God revealed Himself not in words but through events. Archbishop William Temple held the same view. He wrote: "There is no such thing as revealed truth. There are truths of revelation, that is to say, propositions which express the result of correct thinking concerning revelation; but they are not themselves directly revealed.'vi
The denial of 'propositional revelation', that is, that God reveals Himself to men through meaningful statements and concepts expressed in words, though widespread nowadays, runs counter to the biblical view of revelation. The view of the Bible is that revelation is essentially propositional. This may be established in two ways. First, by considering how the Bible describes revelation, and secondly, by examining biblical revelation to see what in fact its nature is.
On the first point, it should be noted that the Bible regards words spoken, and, in particular, written, as revelational. For example, St. Paul describes the Old Testament as the 'oracles of God' (Romans 3:2). It is the written words of the Old Testament to which he referred to as 'oracles'. The same term is employed by St. Stephen in Acts 7:38, where the law at Sinai is described as 'living oracles'; and the phrase 'oracles of God' is used in Hebrews 5:12 and in I Peter 4:11. An oracle is a revelational utterance, or, in other words, a revealed truth. Its revelational character lies entirely in the words. The words may be descriptive of an event, or of a concept; but in both cases the words form propositions, and it is the proposition which has God for its author. This is the meaning of the phrase 'oracle of God'.
The apostolic writers regarded the Old Testament as a series of oracles, of which God is the author, though different prophets and law-givers were the penmen. The concept would be commonplace to the Greek readers of the New Testament. (We need not, of course, follow the pagan Greeks in their unduly mechanistic concept of the methods of inspiration). Nevertheless, the phrase 'oracles of God' can imply nothing else than that the end-product, that is, the words uttered and written down, are God's words, and so properly called 'His oracles'. The biblical doctrine of revelation is concerned with the end-product --the words written down. Words written meaningfully are, of course, propositions. Yet it is such written words which the Bible avers to be 'God-breathed' (II Timothy 3:16). It is the written Word, the Scripture, which Christ declared cannot be broken (John 10:35). The Gospel, which St. Paul says is God's power to save, is adumbrated in 'holy Scriptures' (Romans 1:2). Saving wisdom comes through knowledge of these 'holy Scriptures' (II Timothy 3:15).
In all personal relationships, propositional revelation is the basis. It is not the sum total experience which the revelation makes possible, but in so far as communication takes place between person and person it takes place through propositions, that is to say, in concepts conveyed to the mind of the recipient.
An examination of the nature of revelation in Scripture confirms that this revelation very frequently is plainly in the form of propositions. For example, the opening verse of the Bible, 'In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth', reveals one of the most fundamental facts in our knowledge of God and ourselves; and in so far as this verse is revelational (and it is profoundly so), it is because it is in the form of a proposition. No one was present when the act of creation took place, to perceive it. The event to which the proposition refers in itself revealed nothing to us. This verse which brings to us the knowledge that God is Creator is a revealed truth, revealed by the use of propositions. The same may be said of all that has been revealed, for example, with regard to the second coming, or about heaven and hell. By the nature of things such revelation must be propositional, for the action of the second coming has not yet taken place, while heavenly things cannot yet be experienced by men. Consequently our knowledge of future events, or of heavenly supersensible realities, must be revealed to us propositionally, that is to say, through meaningful words, if we are to have any knowledge of them whatever. The revelation which God has given us of the second coming, of the judgment day, and of heaven and hell, form a very large and important part of biblical revelation, and are all exclusively propositional. We are enjoined in Scripture to orient our lives by these propositions about God's actions in the future. If they are not reliable, that is, if they are not revealed truths, this would be an improper injunction.
Similarly, the knowledge of God's providence comes to us through propositions. For example, our Lord's invocation of God as 'Lord of heaven and earth' (Matthew 11:25) is a proposition. Yet by this title a profoundly important truth has been revealed to us. God's providence is not deducible by observation of events; though having been given to us through propositional revelation we can see this doctrine reflected in events. In the Bible God is constantly represented as revealing facts about Himself in the propositional form; for example, 'I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.'
In the biblical narrative the event of the bush burning without being consumed was not revelation, but pre-revelation. It evoked from Moses no more than the comment, 'I will turn aside now and see this great sight.' It was the words that he then heard that revealed to him profound truths about the character and purposes of God and which sent him back to Egypt to risk all in God's service (Exodus 3). All the great 'I am' sayings of Christ are propositions. Nor would these truths about Christ have been apprehended by the weak minds of men had they not been given as propositions.
A great deal of the Old Testament revelation was given to the prophets in the form of vision. So characteristic is vision of prophecy that the whole book of Isaiah is described as 'the vision of Isaiah' (Isaiah 1:1; II Chronicles 32:32). In revelation through vision, the event (that is, the having the vision) is not revelational, but it is the content of the vision (that is, the concepts which God makes known through the vision) which is the revelation. These concepts are all apprehended by the seer and passed on to the hearer propositionally; that is to say, through meaningful words forming the concepts which God put into the mind of His servant. One of the most important revelations through vision is Daniel's vision of the Son of Man in Daniel 7. Both the vision itself, and the vital interpretation of it, cannot be described otherwise than as 'propositional revelation'.
Professor Hodgson's statement that the revelation of God is not given in words but in deeds minimizes the fact that, if the deed is to be true revelation, it must be interpreted correctly. Take for example the crucifixion of Jesus. The cross is rightly acknowledged as the supreme revelation of the love and righteousness of God, but in itself the incident was a total miscarriage of justice. The event is revelation of the character of God because of the interpretative context in which the event is set, an interpretation given by the words of Jesus Himself and the Spirit-illumined preaching of the apostles subsequently. If this interpretation is not inspired by God and so reliable, there is no revelation in the event, but each who hears of the event must disentangle his knowledge of it from the interpretation with which it is accompanied, and then must re-interpret the event according to his own wisdom and insight. Of those who knew only of the event, some mocked, some said: 'He saved others, Himself He cannot save.' Even those who sympathized with the victim 'when they beheld the things that were done' could do no more than 'return, smiting their breasts' (Luke 23:48). The unilluminated comment cannot get beyond the observation of Festus, 'One Jesus, who was dead, whom Paul affirmed to be alive' (Acts 25:19). This is in fact all that the secular historian has ever been able to say of the crucifixion; but it is devoid of gospel or revelation. Even if a hearer of the event happened to light on the proper interpretation, this would not mean the event had become revelational for him, for he would have no assurance that this interpretation was the right one. The most that he would be able to say was that he saw in the event the reflections of the character of God learned from previous revelation. If he had no access to such previous revelation, then there would be no revelation for him in the uninterpreted cross either, but only guessing. Truth about God must come by revelation from above, not by guessing from below. God is sovereign and is able to reveal Himself at any time to anyone. On the other hand, revelation is not continuous, but God has spoken to us by His Son, and this revelation comes to us through the inspired ('God-breathed') Scriptures, in which alone the knowledge of Christ is to be found.
Confining revelation to deeds, and making the Bible merely a (fallible) witness to the deeds and not itself part of the revelation, excludes from revelation some of the most important parts of the Bible. [Charlie's comment: This criticism might also apply to neo-orthodox methods of interpreting Scripture.] For example, Hodgson's view that 'the Word of God is a series of divine acts, to which the Bible bears witness . . . the revelation of God is given in deeds; the doctrines of faith are formulated by reflection on the significance of those deeds', means that the New Testament epistles are excluded from being revelation. A similar consideration applies to such statements of Christ as 'God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth' (John 4:24). To deny that this statement or proposition is revelational is foolish.
A further unfortunate consequence follows from the denial of propositional revelation. If the words of the Bible are made merely witnesses to the revelation of God, the unique position of the authority of the Bible is undermined, and it becomes merely one witness of no inherently greater authority and of no more infallibility a character than the other two witnesses which may be brought in at this point, namely, the witness of the Church and the witness of the human spirit and reason to the acts of God in experience.
The dichotomy between event and the interpretation of the event, with the singling out of the former as the important element, or indeed as the sole element making up the revelation, leads, as might be expected, to the ignoring of the interpretation which commends itself to the reader or the scholar. For example, our Lord's acts and parables may be set in a reconstructed context, giving a different meaning and message for us from that intended by the evangelist. If revelation is in the event rather than in the interpretation, revelation becomes like a nose of wax to be reshaped according to every man's whim. In fact, if revelation is only in event, then there is no revelation in the sense of God-given knowledge of God.
iiThe Articles of the Church of England, p. 99.
iiiIbid., p. 100.
vThe Doctrine of the Trinity, (London, 1961), pp. 22 ff.
viNature, Man and God, (London, 1934), p. 317.
GRANT to us, Lord, we beseech thee, the spirit to think and do always such things as be rightful; that we, who cannot do any thing that is good without thee, may by thee be enabled to live according to thy will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Posted by Charlie J. Ray at 2:01 PM