Revelation as Tradition and Interpretation

A key issue arising from what has been surveyed so far is whether special revelation is held to have occurred or reached a climax in the past, or whether, in Swinburne's words already quoted, 'the revelation goes on'. Any historically nuanced treatment will stress the gradual, mediated nature of special revelation, whether the stress falls on verbal communication or on manifestation through acts and events. The logic ofindirect communication applies both to the developing tradition which yielded the Jewish and Christian scriptures and to the providential preparation for the Incarnation. But should the notion of special revelation be restricted to those past culminations of long historical processes?

When, in his Bampton Lectures, The Glass of Vision, Austin Farrer set himself to explore the modality of divine action in special revelation, he restricted himself to the biblical images that constituted the vehicles of divine revelation in the minds of the prophets and in the thought and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. According to Farrer, what enabled the prophets, and indeed Jesus, to be the bearers of special revelation was the inspired development of certain key images that came, for instance in the parables of Jesus, to open up some novel vision of the nature and will of God. What differentiates divine inspiration from poetic inspiration, and indicates its ultimate divine control, is not some special direct dictation or internal divine causation of such inspired teaching. The images have a history in the development of Israel's faith. They become vehicles of innovative disclosure through imaginative development and novel use. Just such human creativity and imagination in the context of a particular tradition of faith are held by Farrer to be the media of divine revelation. What suggests this interpretation are the quality and authority of what emerges from this process, namely, the prophetic and dominical teachings themselves. It is not the mediated process of inspiration that is to be construed as revelation. Rather, it is what results from it.

In a later essay on 'Revelation',39 without going back on the idea that the inspired minds of prophets and apostles are indeed the vehicles of revealed truth, Farrer places the main emphasis on the Incarnation as 'the self-enacted parable of Godhead'. This includes, of course, Christ's teaching, but the very heart of revelation is the life and saving deeds of God made man.

So, for Farrer, special revelation took place in the past in and through a particular strand of history that reached its climax in the Incarnation. Inspiration, of course, continues, as believers and the Church hear God's word and appropriate it in faith, but believers add nothing to the content of the faith. I endorsed this view when I wrote:

By contrast with general revelation, providence, inspiration, and grace, special revelation took place once for all in the past — mediated, like those other forms of divine/human encounter or dialogue by fallible human words and deeds — but constituting an identifiable, public, event series, to which the Bible and the Church bear witness in ever developing, though equally fallible,


A strong challenge to this view has been made in recent work by David Brown. Already in his earlier writings, Brown was defending and developing the idea of indirect communication in ways that owed something to Farrer, but showed signs of extending the notion to allow for continuing and developing revelation. In his 1985 book, The Divine Trinity,42 he put forward a view of revelation as a divine dialogue, in which God always respects the freedom and humanity of the recipients and the stage of development that they have reached. This accounts for the failures of moral insight that sometime occur, even in the Bible. Brown makes it clear that the rationale behind this conception of gradual revelation in and through fallible human recipients is akin to the free will defence in respect of the problem of evil.

In a subsequent paper,43 Brown develops his dialogue model with the help of the teacher—pupil analogy, which we have already encountered in Mitchell's writings. The good teacher adapts and accommodates his instruction to the pupil's level and capacities, and gradually, through dialogue, raises the level of insight and understanding. Brown takes up, at this point, Farrer's notion of inspired images as vehicles of revelation, and extends it in a very interesting way to the creative transformation of certain natural symbols present in the unconscious. He stresses the point that such transformations are experienced in religious contexts not just as new insights but as encounters and interactions with their divine source.

This extension of Farrer's view from biblical images to natural symbols suggests a move from a theology of special revelation to a theology of general revelation; but, while Brown's later work does indeed involve a much wider conception of the media of revelation, it is clear that his two major books, Tradition and Imagination and Discipleship and Imagination, still belong within the sphere of reflection on special revelation. These two books constitute by far the most detailed and thought-provoking defence of the idea of continuing revelation that has yet appeared from the pen of a philosophical theologian. Brown's thesis, in brief, is that, since God takes seriously each particular environment and setting, the process of revelation has to continue beyond scripture. Its vehicles are the various trajectories of tradition, developing and correcting what went before, drawing on the insights of other traditions, and using all the resources of human imagination, including art, to clarify God's purposes and the meaning of his acts. Brown, no less than Farrer, sees the Incarnation as pivotal. But, unlike Farrer, Brown holds, to quote Swinburne again, that the revelation goes on.

Given Brown's conviction of the historical relativity and fallibility of all the vehicles of continuing revelation, the question of the criteria of revealed truth becomes paramount. The final chapter of the second of these books is devoted to this question. Brown lists nine types of criteria by which the Church might judge authentic from inauthentic developments of the tradition as a vehicle of continuing revelation: historical criteria, empirical criteria, conceptual criteria, moral criteria, criteria of continuity, christo-logical criteria, degree of imaginative engagement, effectiveness of analogical construct and ecclesial criteria. The reader is referred to Disciple-ship and Imagination for the details. But there is no doubt that we have here a most impressive analysis of revelation in terms of tradition and interpretation.

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