A Series: Christian Theology—Answers to Questions: Five: What Is “Revelation?”
In my most recent essay in this series I discuss what Christian theology is based on and I said “revelation.” For the most part, with some notable exceptions, Christian theology has always begun with belief in God’s revelation to people. At the center of revelation, for most Christians, stands Jesus Christ as God incarnate, the “human face of God,” and/or “God’s deputy and representative” above all others. There are, of course, people who call themselves “Christians” who will not agree with this claim. But it is safe to say that the vast majority of self-identified Christians throughout two millennia have believed that Jesus Christ is the primary revelation of God, God communicating himself (not just something about himself) to humanity.
Perhaps the most influential Protestant theologian of the 20th century was Karl Barth who distinguished between three types of revelation: revelation of God in person, scripture as witness to Jesus Christ, and the church’s proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Barth ruled out any relevant revelation of God outside of those three forms of revelation. Others such as Emil Brunner have opened up revelation to other media while emphasizing Jesus Christ and the Bible as normative for Christian theology. My own professor Wolfhart Pannenberg wanted to view all of history as an indirect revelation of God but one only fully perceived as such at its end. Barth and Brunner and their followers would be nervous about that.
In spite of deep and serious disagreements among Christian theologians about the precise nature and media of revelation, very few, if any, would start theology with some other source and norm. Those who did and do tend to baptize those other sources and norms (e.g., “God-consciousness” or “the experience of oppressed people”) as “revelation.” So my argument is that Christian theology normally begins with revelation as its primary source and norm in contrast to philosophical theology which does not normally begin with revelation.
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We cannot limit God to revealing himself or something about himself solely in one way or solely using one medium of revelation. However, in theology, we need to stay with the Bible as our primary source and norm for reflecting about God and messages about God claiming to be “Christian.” We have an objectively given revelation of God that provides a source and norm for doing theology and any departure from that opens a Pandora’s box of possibilities that ultimately destroys theology as a science (in the way I explained it before).
But there are two extremes to avoid (at least): 1) limiting God’s revelation to the Bible, and 2) making every revelation equally authoritative for theology.
I believe we need to distinguish levels of revelation for the work of theology. First and foremost is the revelation of God in the biblical witness interpreted through Jesus Christ. Second is the revelation of God through the Spirit’s leading in Christian tradition (“the Great Tradition”). Third is revelation of God in history or history itself as revelation of God. Fourth is nature as revelation of God. Fourth is prophetic guidance of God’s people toward new ways of thinking about God—as permitted by scripture and as consistent with God’s self-communication in Jesus Christ. Reason comes in to play not as revelation but as a God-given tool for interpreting revelation for theology’s work.
I have already been working with a distinction between revelation for the work of theology and revelation for individuals and groups for guidance. The two should not conflict, but the latter is much less identifiable. If I have an epiphany that I really believe is from God, I can embrace it for me but not expect others to embrace it—as necessarily for them to accept as a true revelation of God. If a church believes God really led them to do something, that is for them and not for everyone. All revelations ought to be tested by the “touchstone” of scripture in which Jesus Christ is the “touchstone” for interpreting scripture.
I will address a doctrine of scripture in a later, separate essay here.
I suspect what I have written here may seem meaningless in practical terms for many people, including many Christians, because we Christians have falsely, dangerously, inexplicably (to me), by and large thrown out the idea of theology as a sacred search for universal truth about God.
What follows should not be interpreted as accusation but only as report of my personal observation. For whatever reasons, several very influential Christian publications that used to include “meaty” articles about doctrine and theology have all but dropped those in favor of articles of “practical interest” about sociology of religion, ethics and/or practical ministry matters, discipleship, world Christianity, etc.
When I was “cutting my teeth” in the formal study of Christian theology I could rely on several magazines that I read religiously to include deeply theological articles by leading theologians. I observed those slowly dwindle away. If you doubt me, I challenge you to go to a university library and compare the two major Christian publications past and today. Look for and at the number of articles in all of them about classical doctrinal issues. Both used to include a sizeable number of meaty articles by leading theologians—almost always at least one in every issue. See if that is still the case.
I’m not judging anyone. I’m not even criticizing those magazines! I think what I perceive as a shift in focus is due to a larger sea change in American Christianity. I am not sure those great magazines (great then and great now) would have survived if they had continued publishing as many articles about theology as in the past. I understand their editorial policies, which is not to say I’m happy about them. But I see them as inevitable given the near total lack of interest in doctrine and theology by most American Christians.
Back to “revelation.” Call me a “boomer” if you wish, but I stand by my strong belief that Christian theology is a crucial ministry among Christians that, if done rightly, acknowledging revelation as the supreme source and norm, could help preserve American Christianity from its seeming rush to the bottom in terms of intellectual inquiry and belief—its fall into subjectivism.
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