God Reveals Himself

Our attempt to achieve clarity about what we mean by revelation in the Christian community has proceeded by progressive stages from the definition of the standpoint to the description of the historic context and thence to that illuminated section of the latter whence light streams on obscurer portions. When we speak of revelation we mean that something has happened to us in our history which conditions all our thinking and that through this happening we are enabled to apprehend what we are, what we are suffering and doing and what our potentialities are. What is otherwise arbitrary and dumb fact becomes related, intelligible and eloquent fact through the revelatory event. To the extent that revelation furnishes the practical reason with an adequate starting point it may be said to be validated.

But the rational value of revelation is not its first value and its validation in the reasoning of the heart is not the primary validation. When we speak of revelation we do not mean that a tentative hypothesis, however great, has been offered to us and that this hypothesis must be validated by its fruitful use before it is acceptable. We do not mean that we have freely chosen one section of our history because we found that it made sense of the remainder. We mean rather that something has happened which compels our faith and which requires us to seek rationality and unity in the whole of our history. Revelation is like the kingdom of God; if we seek it first all other things are added to us but if we seek it for the sake of these other things we really deny it. The kingdom proves itself to be the kingdom of God not only by its immediate worth but also by its instrumental value in leading to secondary goods, and revelation proves itself to be revelation of reality not only by its intrinsic verity but also by its ability to guide men to many other truths. But the first value of revelation as of the kingdom is intrinsic and we begin with it not because it will lead to further knowledge but because it is itself the truth. When Descartes was led to doubt almost all the things he had believed, he returned in his mind to the one fixed point of his own existence as a thinker. He discovered, to be sure, that when he began with this certainty, reasoning from that starting point, many things became clear that had been previously obscure; yet the certainty of his existence was not dependent on the consequences to which it led; the assertion, "I think, therefore I am," possessed validity prior to its validation through the service it rendered as a starting point of thought about other things. So it is with revelation, and if it were not so we would remain forever dubious of the knowledge we derive from our use of it in our reasoning about our history. In our reasoning about selves and their destiny we use some hypotheses which may be dropped or corrected if experience does not agree with them. Theological systems and theories of revelation are of this order. But back of all such hypotheses there are convictions which are not subject to criticism, since they are the bases of all possible criticism. The situation is similar in natural science, which cannot abandon its faith in the intelligibility and unity of nature without destroying itself; neither can the certainty that mathematical relations are discernible in all phenomena be surrendered, though hypotheses setting forth this or that type of relationship may be given up. In dealing with revelation we refer to something in our history to which we always return as containing our first certainty. It is our "cogito, ergo sum," though it must be stated in the opposite way as, "I am being thought, therefore I am," or, "I am being believed in, therefore I believe." We must ask, therefore, what this self-evidencing content of revelation is and how it comes to us through the historical event. Our definitions so far have been rough circumscriptions of the context in which we look for the meaning of the word and in which the significant phrase performs its meaning-giving function. Now we must turn to the illuminating event and the intelligible word, endeavoring to point out as precisely as we can the source of the light, the meaning of the word and the self-evidencing quality of light and word.

As we make this attempt we remind ourselves of the relative standpoint we occupy in history and faith. We are not trying to describe a common human certainty gained in a common human experience; yet on the other hand we are not seeking to set forth a private and mystic assurance which is not subject to the criticism of our community, that is of all those who occupy the same standpoint and look in the same direction toward the same reality to which we look as individuals. Assurance that we are not mistaken in our ultimate convictions is not to be gained without social corroboration, but it is not to be gained either from consultation with those who, occupying a different point of view, look in a different direction and toward other realities than we do in our history and faith. Assurance grows out of immediate perception plus social corroboration and out of neither one of these alone. We also recall to mind that the definition of revelation is a social task of the historic Christian community and that we stand at a limited point in the life of that community. Our effort to define grows out of a struggle with the problem in the past; it is one effort among many others in the present and it leads into future phases of a continuing conversation. Any present definition of the central element will need to be tested by an historical theology which will examine whether it is implicit in the theology of the past, above all in the classic source, the Scriptures; it will need to be tested by systematic theology which will develop from this starting point a Christian reasoning about God, man and human destiny, and by an ethical theology which will undertake to see in how far the world's behavior can be understood and Christian response guided when this definition of revelation is made the point of departure. Above all the test of our definitions is practical -- in a worship formed and reformed about this center and in a preaching informed by the conviction set forth in our definitions. No Christian can undertake at any time to define the meaning of revelation in any other way than this, if revelation really be the first thing in our community's life, the point from which we proceed and to which we must always go back in thought and deed.

With these limitations and relations in mind we turn to the central event with the question, "What is it that we are certain of as we regard the illuminating point in our history and how do we become certain of it?" We might state the question in terms of conceptual thought, asking, "What is the central idea in the invincible convincement that grows out of our memory of this event, or what is the unassailable proposition that is communicated and that we intuit in the presence of the historic occasion?" But idea and proposition are not the right terms to employ here. The most important fact about the whole approach to revelation to which we are committed by the acceptance of our existential situation, of the point of view of faith living in history, is that we must think and speak in terms of persons. In our history we deal with selves, not with concepts. Our universals here are not eternal objects ingredient in events but eternal persons active in particular occasions; our axioms in this participating knowledge are not self-evident convictions about the relations of such objects but certainties about fundamental, indestructible relations between persons. We need, therefore, to put our question in the following form, "What persons do we meet in the revelatory event and what convictions about personal relations become our established principles in its presence?"

When we raise the question in this way we understand why in referring to the historic event we have had to speak of revelation from the beginning rather than of discovery or vision. The only word in our vocabulary which does justice to the knowledge of persons or selves is "revelation." Our knowledge of other persons differs from our knowledge of objects externally regarded not only by being directed toward different aspects of reality but also by being a relationship between different terms. In objective knowledge the self is the only active being; it does the knowing; it brings to bear upon its object the concepts and hypotheses in its mind. In experimentation it manipulates the object; in evaluation it employs its own standard of measurement. To all the intents and purposes of the knower the object is a passive and dead thing. This is true even when objective knowledge is directed toward human individuals or communities. Human bodies cannot be regarded by such science as essentially different from other animal bodies, nor the latter as wholly distinct from inanimate bodies. The genius of the objective approach requires that no miracle or discontinuity be posited at the points where the inorganic merges into the organic, the vital into the mental and the mental into the moral. No distinction in kind is permissible between the methods whereby uniformity of behavior is discovered in the behavior of atoms or of thoughts. The most minute events in space and time, though they take place in the human brain, cannot be regarded as different in kind from the most majestic manifestations in the cosmos. In all such knowledge the knower is the doer; he asks the questions which are to be answered; he judges the answers; he probes into nature's secrets and discovers what was hidden. This knower, too, is essentially impersonal. He cannot really say of himself, "I think, therefore I am," but must rather say, "Thinking goes on in me but that same thinking may and must go in any other brain so related to such objects." Disinterestedness is required of such science and disinterestedness means abstraction from all personal concerns together with supreme interest in the relations of objects.

In the knowledge of other selves both the relationship and the related terms are different. This knowledge does not run from a subject to an object but from the other to the self and back again. We cannot know here save as we are known. We cannot be the doers but must first suffer knowledge of ourselves. To know a knower is to begin with the activity of the other who knows us or reveals himself to us by his knowing activity. No amount of initiative on our part will serve to uncover the hidden self-activity. It must make itself manifest or it cannot be known. Selves cannot be discovered as America was found by Columbus, by sailing in the direction of a secret and a guess; this new continent must come to us or remain unknown. No deductions or inductions here can lead to certainty. Knowledge of other selves must be received and responded to. Where there is no response it is evident that there is no knowledge, but our activity is the second and not the first thing. One cannot know a lover by any activity of one's own love nor a hater by any exercise of hate. Loving and hating selves must reveal themselves -- penetrate through the mask of eyes and bodies; before the merely inquisitive gaze they retreat into infinite distance. Selves are known in act or not at all. Martin Buber, more than any other thinker of our object-obsessed time, has analyzed this relationship for us in his significant book, I and Thou. "The Thou," he writes, "meets me through grace -- it is not found by seeking. . . . The Thou meets me. But I step into direct relation to it. Hence the relationship means being chosen and choosing, suffering and action in one." Meeting with such a Thou, the I is changed. The self which is known by another and so knows itself through another's eyes is not an impersonal process of thinking. It is a person with a definite character, just this particular self; it is a self which can no longer retreat infinitely behind its actions but is caught fast and held in the act of the other's knowing of it. The self which is known and so achieves self-knowledge is a committed self -- an I which must acknowledge what it is and so accept itself. Such meetings with others are events in our history through which we not only know but become what we are. A meeting with an incarnate self is an event of different character from all our isolated surmises, fears, dreaming and wishes about ideal companions or enemies; after such meetings we can never again return to the self-existence which was ours before the meeting.

Because the knowledge which we gain in our history from the critical event is of this order, a knowledge for men of flesh and blood as Unamuno has it, or, in more idealistic language, a knowledge of spiritual selves, therefore we must speak of revelation. But what person is it who reveals himself in our history in such fashion that we gain a certainty which forces us to seek an intelligible unity in all our life as selves?

In popular theology in which we do not ask difficult questions or face ultimate problems the answer is usually given in terms of the person of Jesus Christ or of human personality. The central certainty we derive from our view of the historic scene, it is said, is that persons are infinitely valuable or that Jesus is the worthy person to follow. In connection with the latter answer we remind ourselves of all the emphasis on the historic person and all the appeal for personal following of Jesus which has characterized modern faith. So too for many early Christians it may be that Jesus was god and that their certainty was simply this -- that they had met a person to whom they could be wholly devoted and who made persons of them.

Such thinking and preaching emphasizes that the effect of Jesus on men is greater than that of his teaching. He is, it is said, a life and not a purveyor of more or less original ideas about life; Christian life consists in becoming a person through association with him rather in the acceptance of creeds and laws. The evident truth in this conception lies in its retention of the fundamental personal note in faith. It manages, moreover, to keep in view the historical character of the church and the Christian. But despite its pragmatic values a definition of revelation in terms of the person of Jesus is manifestly inadequate. The problems which it raises are insuperable. How can we have personal communion with one who exists only in our memory and in the monuments, the books and sentences, which are the body of our memory? How can the letter and the document become a carrier of personal life unless they are part of the expressive body of a now living spirit? When we pursue this inquiry we are inclined to say that the living being with which we can have fellowship is really the church of Jesus or the spirit of the church. The latter becomes the real incarnation of the person of Jesus and faith is directed toward the community itself. What is revealed in our history, at the decisive point, is not the person of Jesus but the fellowship of the church. By a further development of this way of thought the Jesus of our history becomes the symbolic representative and product of the church; the story of his life not less than his death and resurrection, his ethical teachings as well as his eschatology, are regarded as expressions of the early church's mind. But this way lies disaster. The self-worship of non-Christian communities is enough to warn us that communal self-exaltation is an evil imagination of the heart leading to destruction of others and the self. Moreover, it is evident that if this interpretation of the central meaning of the critical historic event be true then there has been no revelation at all in our history, but only a self-knowledge on the part of the community; and such knowledge remains a very dubious thing, since it always magnifies the love and goodness of a society which to every other view is as untrustworthy as are all other human groups.

The tendency to convert concentration on the historic Jesus into concentration on the church is an indication of the fact that the definition of revelation as the self-disclosure of Jesus is rationally and morally inadequate. Unless we have another certainty prior to the certainty about Jesus' personal value the latter is very tenuous and uncertain. The fate of Jesus was like that of all persons we know. He died; and his death, being that of one we value highly, is even more disillusioning than the death of other persons. If the last certainty we have is that Jesus was the greatest of persons, then we may have a certainty beyond this one, that persons do not belong to the real structure of things in this world, that self-consciousness is illusory, that all this internal life of ours, this sense of other selves, of personal values and of our duration, are not indications of anything abiding. We must conclude that the external view affords us the only knowledge possible of dependable things and we must make our reckoning with a great impersonal cosmos which does not know that we exist and does not care for us, as it did not care for Jesus. We must conclude that we are not only mistaken in seeking the explanation of our personal existence in this or that egoistic or communal imagination but also in believing that there is any meaning at all in the existence of selves. Whatever route we follow from an original definition of our certainty in terms of Jesus' worth or person ends in uncertainty about him and about ourselves.

We must come to a similar conclusion if we say that the central certainty of Christianity is the conviction that human selves have infinite or sacred value. In a limited sense the statement is doubtless correct though when it is converted into the proposition that individuals have intrinsic worth it is either a thoroughly idolatrous, self-deifying confession of faith, a wild imagination of the heart, or wholly loose and ambiguous. It cannot be true that the proposition about the infinite worth of persons is self-evident unless there be some infinite being to whom they are valuable. It is evidently not true if value means valency, for nothing is more evident than the weakness of selves in the immense world of impersonal facts; and if it be maintained that this infinite worth is a demand of the valuing mind then the xiieakness of the valuing mind and its demands in our world obtrudes itself into view. In the reasoning of the head, dealing with things, the demand for rationality in the world of facts would be a quickly defeated, ever uncertain demand, if objective reality did not reveal a reason in itself corresponding to the reason in the mind and able to instruct it. We could not maintain the worth of the pure reason if we knew it only in ourselves nor could it be called back from all its errant ways if there were no objective reason. So all the sense of personal worth which men may conceive would remain a vain thing, and in the particular forms in which they conceive it, an errant thing, if it were not duplicated in and corrected by something beyond themselves. It is very true that recognition of the infinite value of souls is a concomitant of revelation, but it could not be given were not something else given in that event -- the infinite self for whom all souls are valuable.

When we say revelation we point to something in the historical event more fundamental and more certain than Jesus or than self. Revelation means God, God who discloses himself to us through our history as our knower, our author, our judge and our only savior. "All revelation," Professor Herrman writes, "is the self-revelation of God. We can call any sort of communication revelation only then if we have found God in it. But we find and have God only when he so incontestably touches and seizes us that we wholly yield ourselves to him. . . God reveals himself in that he forces us to trust him wholly." (Der Begriff der Offenbarung, 1887, p. ii.) One of our historical scholars sums up his inquiry into the meaning of revelation in the Scriptures in similar fashion: "Revelation is not the communication of supernatural knowledge and not the stimulation of numinous feelings. To be sure revelation can become the occasion for the growth of knowledge, and the revelation of God is necessarily accompanied by religious feelings. But revelation does not consist of these; it is the peculiar activity of God, the unveiling of his hiddenness, his giving of himself in communion." (Theologisches Woerterbuch zum Neuen Testament, Vol. III, p. 575.)

Revelation means the moment in our history through which we know ourselves to be known from beginning to end, in which we are apprehended by the knower; it means the self-disclosing of that eternal knower. Revelation means the moment in which we are surprised by the knowledge of someone there in the darkness and the void of human life; it means the self-disclosure of light in our darkness. Revelation is the moment in which we find our judging selves to be judged not by ourselves or our neighbors but by one who knows the final secrets of the heart; revelation means the self-disclosure of the judge. Revelation means that we find ourselves to be valued rather than valuing and that all our values are transvaluated by the activity of a universal valuer. When a price is put upon our heads, which is not our price, when the unfairness of all the fair prices we have placed on things is shown up; when the great riches of God reduce our wealth to poverty, that is revelation. When we find out that we are no longer thinking him, but that he first thought us, that is revelation. Revelation is the emergence of the person on whose external garments and body we had looked as objects of our masterful and curious understanding. Revelation means that in our common history the fate which lowers over us as persons in our communities reveals itself to be a person in community with us. What this means for us cannot be expressed in the impersonal ways of creeds or other propositions but only in responsive acts of a personal character. We acknowledge revelation by no third person proposition, such as that there is a God, but only in the direct confession of the heart, "Thou art my God." We can state the convincement given in the revelatory moment only in a prayer saying, "Our Father." Revelation as the self-disclosure of the infinite person is realized in us only through the faith which is a personal act of commitment, of confidence and trust, not a belief about the nature of things. 'When we speak of revelation we mean that moment when we are given a new faith, to cleave to and to betray, and a new standard, to follow and deny. Now when we fail in faith, we fail in this faith; and when we transgress, it is this person we transgress against; when we reason falsely it is in violation of the first principle given in this event. All this, since it is in our history, is part of what we are and does not belong to a serial past. It is our past in our present. From this point forward we must listen for the remembered voice in all the sounds that assail our ears, and look for the remembered activity in all the actions of the world upon us. The God who reveals himself in Jesus Christ is now trusted and known as the contemporary God, revealing himself in every event; but we do not understand how we could trace his working in these happenings if he did not make himself known to us through the memory of Jesus Christ; nor do we know how we should be able to interpret all the words we read as words of God save by the aid of this Rosetta stone.

The definition of revelation as divine self-disclosure must call forth many questions in our mind. Among these two seem to be of especial importance. We ask ourselves whether this is really what we mean in view of the fact that we have used and do use the word as designating certain truths and moral standards which are connected with the historic event. In Protestantism revelation has been commonly set forth as meaning Scriptures or its doctrinal content, such as that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, or that God forgives sin, while in Roman Catholicism revelation is always discussed as though it meant a supernatural knowledge about man s supernatural end. Moreover, we must ask ourselves whether the revelation of God as person is not so mystic an event that it becomes wholly separate from and irrelevant to our discursive knowledge and to our moral standards. A second question arises in many forms, but perhaps most frequently as the question about the meaning of the word God in this connection. If we say that revelation means divine self-disclosure we seem to infer that we can recognize God in revelation, which implies a previous knowledge of him. Is it really possible then to begin with revelation? Must we not go back of this self-disclosure to some previous knowledge of God, to an original or a general revelation, or to some ideal of God, some value-concept or other demand of reason through which we are enabled to recognize the historical event as a realization of the ideal? These are serious questions which we cannot dismiss, and it may be that in trying to answer them we shall be able to reach greater clarity about the meaning of revelation for us.

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