Revelation as Gods Acts in History

One of the main alternatives to the idea of revelation as divine discourse is the view, espoused by many twentieth-century theologians,28 that the locus of God's special revelation is the series of events in history which culminated in Christ's life, death and resurrection. In its strongest form, this is to claim that God reveals himself most specially to humankind through coming amongst us by incarnation, and acting out the divine love and forgiveness in person. Clearly this view would fall within Mavrodes's category of manifestation, though Abraham notes the surprising fact that there is no mention of the Incarnation in Mavrodes's book. Abraham himself, while stressing the importance of divine speech, as we have seen, gives the priority to God's acts in history and especially to the Incarnation. And, like Swinburne, he sees the Resurrection as God's guarantee that Christ's life and death, and Christ's teaching, do indeed have the exalted status claimed for them in the Christian tradition and its creeds.29

The most notable contemporary exponent of such a view is not a philosopher, but a theologian, the German systematician Wolfhart Pannenberg, who, as mentioned earlier, is one of the post-Barthian German theologians who pay serious attention to analytical philosophy as well as to the continental school stemming from Hegel. In his early, co-authored, book, Revelation as History,30 Pannenberg argued that once positivism is rejected, attention to universal history requires us to consider the significance of the history of religions and, within the history of religions, the significance of Israel's history, including the eschatological horizon to her own understanding of world history. ('Eschatology', the doctrine of the last things, is the subject of chapter 7 below.) Within that context of Jewish faith and eschatology, the life, teaching and fate ofJesus, and its aftermath, suggest construal in revelatory terms. This thesis is developed at length by Pannenberg, here and in later works,31 without special appeal to authority or inspiration. Of course, the theological conclusions drawn are expressed in terms of inspiration and incarnation, but these are the results not the presuppositions of the argument. Pannenberg's more recent work is admittedly more sensitive to the experiential elements involved both in the formation of the specific historical tradition, which provides the interpretative key to the meaning of universal history, and to the verbal witness, including scripture, proclamation and liturgical response, which the special acts of God in question evoke if rightly understood. But the fact that the revelatory events require mediation by words if their significance is to be grasped and communicated does not mean that the words, rather than the events, are the primary vehicles of revelation.

How are we to evaluate this preference for the model of special revelation by God's acts in and through a series of historical events over the model of special revelation by verbal communication? Certainly, it has the advantage of locating special revelation firmly in the public domain, in a particular life lived within a particular historical context, and in the specific effects of that sequence of events. All this is open to interpretation without appeal to authority other than to the moral and religious force of what emerged from that context. Further support may, of course, be given, and indeed is given by Pannenberg, by appeal to the Resurrection as authenticating the inner authority of what is allegedly revealed, but the primary appeal is to the purely historical events themselves, within the horizon of universal history.

On this view, the scriptures may be regarded as sources for our knowledge of the revelatory events. And the subsequent creeds and theologies may be regarded as propositional expressions of the truths revealed in the events, life and consequences under review.

To locate special revelation primarily in act, event and presence, rather than in speech, is not to escape the problem of the all too human media of divine revelation. First century Jewish categories may have enabled the incarnate one to carry out his divine salvific role, but they too were embedded in the relativities of history and cannot be taken over without question after two thousand years of further history, including the rise of modern science. Philosophers and theologians have to explore the rationale of indirect communication, whether the media of revelation are held to be fallible or limited human words, or messy, ambiguous historical traditions and events. What is required is a plausible theory of special providence, an account of why God acts in and through fallible creaturely action to build up the context for his own incognito presence. This notion of indirect communication, and its rationale, were captured classically by S0ren Kierkegaard in his parable of the king and the humble maiden.33 To woo the maiden and win her love for himself and not for his kingly state, the king had to put on peasant's clothes and live the life of a peasant in the village.

Generalized, this idea of indirect communication brings us back to Farrer's conception of double agency. This refers to God's action in special providence, incarnation and grace, as mediated by creatures with all their limitations and fallibilities. Whether the focus is on word or on event, a purely natural, purely human story can be told. But the puzzling, inadequate character of a purely naturalistic account is suggested, if not demonstrated, by the actual nature of the words or events in question and by their results, often when viewed in retrospect.

The idea of gradual, indirect, developing communication was already touched on with reference to Mitchell's use of the teacher—pupil analogy. It will recur with greater force when we turn to David Brown's recent work on tradition and imagination. But it is clearly crucial to the idea of revelation being mediated by a providential sequence of historical events and developments, culminating in the life story of a first-century Jewish rabbi.

This is made crystal clear in an excellent and thorough study of revelation by a philosopher of religion whose name will feature frequently in these pages, Keith Ward. Ward's Religion and Revelation is the first of four books on comparative theology in which central doctrines are explored in the context of the worldwide history of religions. I shall be considering the comparative religion aspect of Ward's treatment of revelation in the final section of this chapter. I mention the book here because, in its fourth part, entitled 'Christian Reflections: Revelation as Historical Self-Manifestation', Ward shows both sensitivity to the gradualness and historical conditioned-ness of the providential preparation for the Incarnation, and appreciation of the religious logic, if one can use such a phrase, of salvific revelation through incarnation. The revelation of God's love through incarnation to the point of crucifixion transforms the believer in a way no direct provision of information could possibly do. The distinctive Christian concept of revelation, Ward observes in his concluding chapter, is that of 'a historical self-disclosure with the power to effect liberating union with the Divine'.37

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