This may seem an odd question to ask, given the fact that, apart from its first article on God the Creator, the Christian creed is entirely concerned with what has allegedly been revealed through God's special acts, namely the
Incarnation of his Son and the sending of his Spirit. But the question, 'Does Christianity need a revelation?' has been raised, notably in the exchange mentioned in chapter 1 between Maurice Wiles and Basil Mitchell. Mitchell begins his contribution by noting the centrality of special revelation in Christianity and asks why theologians such as Wiles distrust it. He suggests three reasons for this: first, the conviction that the idea of divine intervention is incompatible with 'the modern worldview'; secondly, the fact that biblical criticism has inclined scholars towards naturalistic explanations of the contents of the Bible; and, thirdly, the crudity of some traditional views of inspiration.
These objections are not, on Mitchell's view, decisive. To hold that science can explain everything is not a scientific, but a metaphysical claim, open to philosophical challenge. Similarly, naturalistic explanations fail to do justice to key elements in the biblical tradition, such as God's active communication of his purposes to human beings. And, thirdly, crude views of inspiration can readily be replaced by less crude and more plausible ones, such as the teacher—pupil analogy, to be explored below.
The suggestion of theologians such as Gordon Kaufman and Maurice Wiles that God's creative act is universal, and that all particularity lies on the side of human response, fails to do justice, so Mitchell claims, to the notion of divine agency and communication. The process described by these theologians:
is analogous not to the situation in which I come to know your character and intentions through what you tell me, but to the situation in which I conjecture your character and intentions from your non-verbal behaviour alone. And this is precisely not a situation in which it is appropriate to talk of your communicating with me.12
Wiles begins his response by noting widespread agreement on the need to reinterpret what was believed in the past. The idea of revelation as 'God's communication to men of truths they would not have discovered for themselves' demands such reinterpretation precisely for the reasons Mitchell summarizes; direct intervention is implausible in the light of science and criticism. And the teacher—pupil analogy is not the only way to capture the notion of inspiration. The Bible may well inspire discernment of religious truth, but as an integral part of the history of religions rather than as direct communication from God. This does not, pace Mitchell, require acceptance of the biblical writers' own understanding of themselves as special recipients of God's Word. The upshot ofWiles's reinterpretation, then, is that Christianity does not need a (special) revelation in order to convey divine truth.
Mitchell returns to the fray in his 1993 contribution to the Festschrift for Wiles.13 His main argument remains that personal communication, in particular the making of promises and the pronouncement of forgiveness, requires particular words or deeds. God's revelation cannot be construed simply in terms of human discernment, as Wiles suggests. In this connection Mitchell develops the model of a teacher—pupil dialogue, allowing for active appropriation of the part of the pupil, but insisting on at least some novel input from the teacher. He grants that God's self-communication can be thought of too anthropomorphically. 'God does not literally speak.' But, however God's personal communications are conveyed, the notion of divine initiative, of being actually addressed by God, is essential, so Mitchell claims, to any truly personal theism.
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