What is the meaning of revelation? The question has been raised many times in the history of the Christian church. But its reappearance in contemporary theological discussion puzzles many men who are accustomed to associate the word revelation with ancient quarrels and their fruitless issue. They remember particularly the turgid debate about miracles, prophecy, revelation and reason in which Deists and Supernaturalists engaged at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The defense of revelation at that time seemed to mean social and intellectual conservatism; what was at stake in the quarrel was the right of the church, clergy, and traditional authority in general to exercise their ancient guardianship over society; the appeal to revelation seemed simply a defensive device. The cause of reason on the other hand was espoused by the rebellious and fresh powers of democratic, mercantile civilization which used it for the attainment of other victories than those of reason. And whatever the fortunes of the contending parties in that conflict were, reason and revelation were sadly damaged. At its close, as at the end of every war, victor and victim were almost indistinguishable. Skepticism, clothed in the Episcopal vestments Butler gave it, or in the more worldly armor Hume supplied, was left in possession of the intellectual field.
Yet reason and faith were far from dead; in a little while each recovered some health and in chastened mood turned to its own proper task. With Kant reason acknowledged, as in the sciences it observed, the limits of its rule; within that domain it proceeded to bring order among anarchic ideas, to clear paths through the jungles of superstition and to induce many a plot of nature to yield fruit for human nourishment. If it did not undertake to defend religion neither did it regard the destruction of faith as its mission. On the other hand faith acknowledged that the conflict had been an error, its fears mistaken. One of the leading champions of the cause of revelation, William Law, confessed, "I have been twenty years in the dust of debate, and I have always found that the more books were written in this way of defending the gospel, the more I was furnished with new objections to it." No set of scholastic and logical opinions "were of any significance towards making the soul of man either an eternal angel of heaven or an eternal devil of hell." With Wesley, Whitefield, Edwards and their associates, Christianity abandoned the defense of revelation as well as the attack on reason; it turned rather to its proper work of preaching the gospel, of exorcising the demons which inhabit human hearts and of guiding souls to fellowship with a holy spirit. Problems of relationship between reason and faith, theology and philosophy, natural and religious experience arose occasionally, of course, but for a while it seemed that a Platonic justice had been established in which each part of the Christian soul and each institution in Christian society minded its own business and made its contribution to the whole without lapsing again into imperialistic adventures. As for "revelation," the word was used sparingly, however much Scriptures and Christian history were employed in the preaching of the gospel.
When we recall that quarrel and its consequences we are tempted to turn away with some distaste from a revival of the revelation idea. Does not the re-establishment of a theology of revelation mean the renewal of a fruitless warfare between faith and reason? Is it not the sign of a retreat to old entrenchments in which only those veterans of a lost cause, the fundamentalists, are interested? To speak of revelation now seems to imply a reversal of the enlightenment in religious thought which began when Schleiermacher asked and answered his rhetorical question to the cultured despisers of faith: "Do you say that you cannot away with miracles, revelation, inspiration? You are right; the time for fairy tales is past." Such a reversal appears to be as impossible as it is undesirable. The work of a hundred and fifty years in theology cannot be ignored; the methods and the fruits of Biblical and historical criticism as well as of natural and social science cannot be so eliminated from men's minds as to allow them to recover the same attitude toward Scriptures which their seventeenth-century forbears had. We may admire the simplicity and directness with which these answered the question about the meaning of revelation by pointing to the Scriptures and may be ready to concede that there was a wisdom in this simplicity which is lacking in our complicated and analytical scholarship. Nevertheless it is evident that we cannot achieve their innocence of vision by wishing for it. When we reflect on these things it appears to us that the revival of revelation theology is not so much reactionary as fanciful. It seems to be part of the general flight of a troubled generation to fairy-tales and to historical romances. As Roman Catholic imagination flees out of the twentieth century into a fabulous thirteenth, so an atavistic Protestantism shuns the ardors of adventure with the social gospel, flees from the problems which historical and psychological criticism have posed for faith and out of dreamy stuff reconstructs a lost Atlantis of early Protestant thought. In any case, whether it be reactionary or fancifully antiquarian, revelation theology seems irrelevant to many modern Christians.
Closer acquaintance, however, with the thought about revelation which is developing in our time does not permit such an interpretation to stand long. If this theology intends reaction it does so in the manner of a revolutionary movement. No great change in political or economic life has ever taken place without a recollection of the past; no new freedom has ever been won without appeal to an old freedom, nor any right established save as an ancient right denied by intervening tyranny. Changes in religious and moral thought also begin with the remembrance of something superficially forgotten, yet real in a transcendent or social mind. In the sense in which a Socrates, calling on Greek youth to remember, or prophets, reminding Israel of a neglected loyalty, or Reformers, returning to the fountains of Christian inspiration, were reactionary -- in that sense the new theology of revelation may be reactionary too. But such reaction is the antithesis of a conservatism that seeks to maintain the customs established in a present time. The search in common memory for the great principles which lie back of accustomed ways and of which these are perversions as well as illustrations can be a very radical and pregnant thing.
Something of the same sort appears to be true with respect to the reputed antiquarianism of the theology of revelation. It returns, to be sure, to Paul, Augustine, Luther and Calvin for instruction in Christian faith and there are among its followers unimaginative authoritarians who seem content to repeat the affirmations of these older theologians or to make ancient thought the exclusive object of study. But this does not appear to be the purpose of the leaders of revelation theology. They do not seek so much to understand the great teachers of the past as to understand the reality toward which these directed their attention; the questions which they put to Paul and Calvin are questions which arise out of the experience and the dilemmas of modem Christians, and the answers older theologians give are not uncritically accepted, however great the filial piety of the disciples. The revival of revelation theology is not due to a conscious effort to repristinate ancient ways of thought but to the emergence in our time of a problem similar to that with which the classic theologians dealt.
The problem and the dilemma have been set by historical relativism. What has made the question about revelation a contemporary and pressing question for Christians is the realization that the point of view which a man occupies in regarding religious as well as any other sort of reality is of profound importance. This is doubtless an old conviction but it has been refreshed and given a new relevance by modern experience, especially by historical criticism and the self-criticism of theology.
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