Revelation and the Moral

We can approach our first problem by way of some standard definitions of revelation. The Council of Trent defined the content of the Gospel as the "saving truth and moral discipline" which Jesus promulgated and which is contained in the Holy Scriptures. The Vatican Council declared that God may be known "by the natural light of human reason, by means of created things" but that it pleased God in his wisdom and bounty to reveal "himself and the eternal decrees of his will" by another and supernatural way. It proceeded then to speak of truths which, though not beyond reason, are nevertheless made available to faith through revelation as well as to refer also to the knowledge of man's supernatural end which is given through revelation alone. Protestant confessions of faith refer in similar manner to truths and moral laws which, along with God himself, are the content of revelation. The Westminster Confession states that, "Although the light of nature and the works of creation and providence, do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of His will, which is necessary unto salvation; therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in diverse manners, to reveal himself and to declare his will unto the church; and afterwards for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; these former ways of God revealing his will unto his people being now ceased." Lutheran creeds are less insistent on the revelation of divine will than of divine favor, yet they speak of the grace of God also in terms of a revealed truth, for the content of the Gospel, the Augsburg Confession states, is "that God, not for our merit's sake, but for Christ's sake, doth justify those who believe that they, for Christ's sake, are received into favor." The Formula of Concord, seeking to do justice to the law, states, "'We believe, teach, and confess that the Law is properly a doctrine divinely revealed, which teaches what is just and acceptable to God, and which also denounces whatever is sinful and opposite to the divine will."

In other confessions and creeds, in the writings of the theologians and in the Scriptures also, the same duality in the concept of revelation is manifest. Upon the one hand, God reveals himself in Christ; on the other hand, Moses, the prophets and Jesus reveal the will of God and truths about his nature. Perhaps the double meaning of revelation is most evident in the Fourth Gospel in which Jesus is now presented as the Logos who teaches the truth about a God, unknowable in himself and now as the one through whom God revealed himself. "No man hath seen God at any time," writes John, "the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him." But in another connection he lets Jesus assert that whoever has seen him has seen the Father. This dualism is sometimes explained as the result of the double Hellenistic and Jewish background of Christianity. As an early Christian, John speaks of the immediate knowledge of God which comes to the Christian through his self-revelation in Jesus Christ; as a Hellenistic thinker he speaks of the inferential knowledge about ultimate being which can be gained through knowledge of the Logos. But it is significant that while the Greek Christian may need to speak of both God and truth, the Jewish Christian must also speak of two things -- of the person and of the knowledge of his will which revelation makes available. Whether we approach our history as Jews who seek to know the content of the divine will or as Greeks who inquire into the nature of God, in either case the question, concerning the relation of our knowledge about God to our knowledge of God himself, is a real one. On the one hand, a revelation which discloses God's self appears to be empty and incommunicable, on the other hand, knowledge of the nature and the will of God separate from the knowledge of God himself may be only a knowledge of traditional concepts and customs which are dignified with the name of revelation. The two things belong together as the confessions seem to insist, but how they belong together is not indicated in them.

Perhaps we may be assisted to a solution of the difficulty and to an answer to the various questions which arise in this connection if we approach the subject again through an analysis of our memory. We carry in our personal memory the impress of moral laws; in our social memory no less there are the long traditions of what ought and ought not to be done. As the latter tradition is embodied in laws, constitutions and institutions available to the external view, so the former doubtless has its physical counterpart in the structure, the neural pattern of our organism. In both cases the external view does not understand these laws as we do from within. When we are personally and communally identified with them, when they are our principles, when they are in our memory, then they are not simply prescriptions of behavior given by an external lawgiver but our own imperatives which we can disobey only at the cost of inner conflict and suffering, which we can deny only by giving up ourselves. They are for us illuminators of our way, guardians of the path of life. They admonish us and keep us or by them we admonish and guard ourselves. But when we ask ourselves about the true source of these "Thou shalt" and "Thou shalt nots," or of these scales of values we are baffled. They seem so august and majestic that sometimes we refer them to a heavenly pronouncement, to revelation as the great miracle which accounts for all otherwise unaccountable convictions in our lives.

But such a view is challenged. Many philosophers tell us that the laws in our memory which we must bring to bear on ever new experiences are intuitions or reminiscences derived from a sphere of existence non-temporal and non-spatial in character. They ask us to dig deeply down into our inner life where we will find them recorded as the great intuitions of a transcendent reason. The ultimate laws which we remember as citizens of another, intelligible world are not the detailed statutes we have devised for our lower stages of existence in space and time; but in a loftier region the soul has heard one or two or more great commandments; there it has seen the last and highest good or the whole host of glorious values; this vision it can never forget without forgetting itself. By means of Socratic reminiscence, or through Kantian analysis, or by recollecting with Hartmann the direct vision of insubstantial yet subsistent values we are enabled to make explicit the transcendent moral laws; with these we then proceed into the daily world of work and strife, making our lesser statutes.

Historians of culture, sociologists and genetic psychologists, on the other hand, look on the behavior guided or judged by such laws, and regard them in their literal, habitual and institutional embodiments as things existing in space and tune. They search for origins not in the depths of personal memory but rather in the retreating sequence of events in external history. They note how these commandments are inscribed into the habits of children by the approvals and disapprovals of their elders and companions. They trace back to the history of nomadic tribes and to their conditions of life the moral laws of the Hebrews, to the urban, aesthetic, technical, aristocratic civilization of the Greeks the spiritual scale of values and knowledge of the good. Historians follow the genealogy of the noble utterances of the Sermon on the Mount to a Rabbinic, prophetic, and pre-prophetic ancestry and find their individual differences due to life in the environment of an apocalyptic hope. There is no need to account for these moral laws by reference to any miracle of revelation. So also the kingdom-of-God ideals of modern Protestants may be traced to the social conditions of a late capitalistic time and of an early democratic enthusiasm, as original Protestantism's insistence on liberty and responsibility can be accounted for by its connections with early capitalism and a late feudalism. It may be possible indeed to indulge the over-belief that behind the long and painful history of human moral laws there is some inclusive purpose; but we cannot know, since no first purpose comes into appearance but only the interminable and knotted chain of human purposings.

It is not the task of a confessional theology to try to reconcile the differences of philosophers and sociologists, save as they are confessors, though one may venture to hazard the opinion that they are looking on the same process from divergent points of view and that strife is due to the confusion of views of the universal with universal views and to the totalitarian tendency which inclines us to believe that our outlook yields not only truth but all the truth there is. As for ourselves we cannot but accept the criticisms made of us by both groups when we refer our laws to special revelation. We recognize that they were written on our hearts apart from revelation and on our statute books without the aid of Scriptures. With Socrates we must do homage to them as laws of our society which nurtures us and which is to be obeyed more reverently than parents are. We must agree with the prophets who always presupposed that Israel knew what was good, and with St. Paul who believed that the Gentiles who knew not God had knowledge of his law in their conscience. Expressing the idea in temporal terms we can say that our moral ideas and ideals in 'Western society had their origin in events and experiences which antedate the appearance and teaching of Jesus as well as of Moses and the prophets. Speaking more mystically or idealistically we confess that a knowledge of values and intuitions of duty come to us in visions which are not mediated by Jesus Christ in our history. If we make our self-analysis in social terms we must say that we achieve understanding of the requirements of life through membership in other communities than the Christian church. In general, then, Kant seems to be right; we know an act to be our duty before we know it to be the will of God. Our standard creeds seem to be mistaken when they define knowledge of the moral law as part of revelation's content.

Yet this result leaves us unsatisfied. It is compatible with the idea of revelation as divine self-disclosure, but also with the idea of revelation as an unrelated and illusory element in life and with the substitution of a postulated for a revealed God. And neither of these alternatives represents what we mean in our confession. Kant's analysis of his moral consciousness does not represent the self-analysis of the Christian confessor. In the first place there is no way we know of deducing the certainty of deity's existence from the presence of the moral law in us. On this point Sidgwick seems more honest than the honest Kant. How can we reach the conclusion that there is a universal deity from the imperative of a moral law which we know -- however absolute it be for us -- is afflicted with the relativity of our historical reason, of our interest in the maintenance of selves and of our wishfulness for the preservation and victory of this particular individual or social self? Uncertainty about deity remains our lot when this approach is made. The deity we can deduce from moral law is no more absolute than that moral law and no more unified than we know it to be. Intimations of an existence beyond moral law we may have, but they are intimations and a great yearning only.

In the second place Kant's analysis is not an accurate description of Christian experience in its suggestion that the recognition of the moral law as the will of God, or that revelation of the person behind the moral law, leaves the latter unchanged. It is in the change which comes upon moral law with revelation of the person of God in Jesus Christ that an indication is given of the way in which the definition of revelation in the creeds must be maintained, yet the dualism between revelations of a person and of his will overcome. In so far as our analysis of this change is accurate a test of the definition of revelation as the disclosure of God's self will have been successfully met.

The first change which the moral law undergoes with the revelation of God's person is in its imperativeness. When God reveals himself the moral law no longer states what we demand of ourselves in order that we may become what we ought to be; from this demand we can escape by asking why we ought to be anything else than we are. It no longer states what the best reason of the best men demands, a requirement which may also be evaded through our doubt of reason's power and of the goodness of our best reasoners. Nor does it continue to convey the demand of our society, which we can avoid by getting out of our society; now it is not just the decree of life from which we may take refuge in voluntary or involuntary death. Through the revelation of God the moral law is known as the demand of one from whom there is no flight, who respects no persons, and makes no exceptions, whose seriousness of purpose will not suffer that his work be destroyed by the evasions and transgressions of this pitiful, anarchic creature who sets up his little kingdoms in rebellion against God's sovereignty, and proclaims ever new Messiahs to lead him to new disasters in the name of his own righteousness. Transgressions of our law no longer appear as acts which go against the grain of our nature, or of our social, or biological life; to be sure they do all these things, but primarily they go against the grain of the universe. Transgressions do not merely break the law of conscience or of our society or even of life, but the law of the beginner and perfecter of all that is. They do not merely violate the soul and body of the self or its community; they do violence to the body of God; it is his son who is slain by our iniquity. There is no escape from the judgment of that transgression or from the necessity of making good that violation through any hope of forgetfulness on his part or through a death which would remove us from his sphere. The imperative behind the law is the imperative of the faithful, earnest, never-resting, eternal self. As the prophets did not declare to Israel a new morality but directed attention to the eternal imperative behind a nomadic morality, so Jesus Christ gives us, first of all, no new ethics but reveals the lawgiver whose implacable will for the completion and redemption of his creation does not allow even his most well beloved son to exempt himself from the suffering necessary to that end. The righteousness of God which is revealed in Jesus Christ is the eternal earnestness of a personal God.

The moral law is changed, furthermore, by the revelation of God's self in that its evermore extensive and intensive application becomes necessary. There is no possibility now of so confining the law to a people that duty to the neighbor is duty to a blood-brother only, or that an explicit act is more subject to ethical judgment than the implicit movements which occur within the privacy of the individual organism, in the brain, in the body. Nor can the will of God be interpreted so that it applies within a world of rational beings and not in the world of the unrational, so that men must be treated as ends because they are reasonable but nonhuman life may be violated in the service of human ends. Sparrows and sheep and lilies belong within the network of moral relations when God reveals himself; now every killing is a sacrifice. The line cannot even be drawn at the boundaries of life; the culture of the earth as a garden of the Lord and reverence for the stars as creatures of his intelligence belong to the demands of the universal will. There is no possibility now of restricting moral obedience to the circle of the good, so that we love those who love us or who share our principles and do no harm to our values. Loyalty to the soul of the enemy, not only of our life but of our higher goods, becomes imperative when God, not life or reason or moral value, issues the commandment. In time as in space and social relations the moral law that is a law of God is extended and intensified. It is the law of a living contemporary being, new in every new moment and therefore forever changing in its specific form. No merely traditional way of doing things is right in the presence of the living authority. What is commanded by God is commanded anew in every new moment for that moment, though the faithfulness of the will binds all the moments together and gives abiding direction amid the novelties of changing days.

When our moral law is universalized and intensified in this fashion it is reborn. The limitations which circumscribed our law as Hebrews are overcome, and the barriers are shattered which confined our ethical requirements and possibilities as Greeks to men of intellectual reason and gave it an academically aristocratic character. So also this revelation must erase the boundaries of all the successive moralities, of Christendom as of Jewry and paganism. When God becomes the will behind the moral law a great process of leveling takes place; all the mountains are brought low and the valleys are all exalted. A revolutionary transvaluation occurs not in addition to the personal revelation but because of it. It may be better to say that a restoration is begun, for in the presence of the person we recognize that the moral law, as we had entertained it, was always a corrupted thing, that there never was in our conscience, in our philosophies, or on our statute books a law which was not in the service of some deity. No matter what standard of measurement we employed -- whether that of perfection, or that of pleasure -- or what intuition of benevolence or prudence we used, we used these laws and measures as interested men, who served a creature rather than the creator. If we used pleasure as our standard for measuring the good, it was our pleasure or my pleasure which was preferred. If it was perfection, then it was our perfection; if prudence was our law it was a prudence in the service of a larger or a smaller self, and if benevolence was our intuition, it was a benevolence for those of our own kind, from whom we might expect some return of our kindness. We were and are unable to achieve the single-mindedness of impersonal science in our moral thinking and acting not because we could and can not be impersonal here but because we would and will not look at things from the viewpoint of a universal person. It is always an interested morality, a wishful and idolatrous and corrupted one which we employ apart from God.

This great corruption of our values, standards and our moral laws is made most evident by a revelation in which we know ourselves as we are known. Revelation points the moral law at us, saying, "Thou art the man." In this light we know that we have used the law in service of self and in this use always corrupted it. We pride ourselves, as Jews, Greeks, Christians, democrats, socialists or nationalists upon our moral law, as though it were a thing that could be possessed otherwise than in act. We justify ourselves before men as churches and as other groups because of the nobility of our ideals. We disguise our transgressions by a vast self-deceit, and when the law too obviously disagrees with our wishes and vices we correct it, inventing new moralities, designed not to make possible the performance of our duty but its evasion. Then we call our greed the sacred right of liberty, our covetousness liberation from slavery, our economic warfare peace, our sentimentalities love, our callousness scientific attitude, our isolation love of peace, our wars crusades, our unwillingness to accept responsibility monasticism, our compromises churchmanship. And our workaday self-justification and self-deception is given academic rationalization in theological and philosophical treatises bearing the titles of "Christian Ethics" and "Moral Philosophy." In the light of revelation we discern the elevation and the degradation of our moral laws. Revelation of the person, then, is not revelation of the law but of the law's sin and so a criticism of the law as well as its validation.

Of the greatest change which comes upon the law through God's revelation in Jesus Christ we must say very little though it is the greatest change. The conversion of the imperative into an indicative and of the law whose content is love into a free love of God and man is the possibility which we see through revelation. Even more than in the case of the other aspects of the reborn law we discern this feature as a potentiality rather than as actuality, as a promise of what the law shall be for us when the great travail of historic life is past. Yet the discernment of the promise is the beginning of a new understanding of the law and the beginning of a new life.

So the revelation of the person may be said to involve the republication of the moral law. But what is republished is an original edition that had been hopelessly corrupted by a multitude of wretched translators and conceited scholars of whom we Christians doubtless are the worst. It is better, however, to dismiss the old parable of republication which the Deists and Supernaturalists of static societies have used and abused so long. The original edition of the moral law is not handed to us in definitive form through any act of revelation. Let us rather say that when the lawgiver is revealed with his intentions the reasoning heart is granted the rudiments of a scholarly equipment by means of which, with much pain and labor, it may through all its history work at the restoration of the fundamental text. That this reason will often be led astray by evil imaginations and that it will introduce new corruption is also certain in the light of a revelation which shows up man's sinful self even as it discloses the personal goodness of God.

In this sense a revelation which is primarily self-disclosure includes knowledge of "divine decrees" or of the will of God. The latter is not an immediate content of revelation as though God imparted to men, apart from their reasoning, new imperatives or moral truths otherwise unknown. In loose usage we may extend the term revelation to cover the reconstruction of the moral law but if we would speak accurately we must say that revelation is the beginning of a revolutionary understanding and application of the moral law rather than the giving of a new law.

What is true of ethics is true also of the opinions men hold about the world of nature and about history. Revelation imparts no new beliefs about natural or historical facts; it does involve the radical reconstruction of all our beliefs, since these always reflect both human provincialism and concern for self with its idols as well as objective knowledge. The story of the creation in six days is not a part of revelation; yet the account in Genesis, with its dominant interest in God and its partial displacement of man from the central place in the drama of becoming, represents at least the partial reconstruction of ancient beliefs in consequence of revelation. The reconstruction was not complete, for the revolution faith brings to belief is also permanent. It proceeds in many ways, on many different levels.

Faith in the person who creates the self, with all its world, relieves the mind of the pagan necessity of maintaining human worth by means of imaginations which magnify the glory of man. When the creator is revealed it is no longer necessary to defend man's place by a reading of history which establishes his superiority to all other creatures. To be a man does not now mean to be a lord of the beasts but a child of God. To know the person is to lose all sense of shame because of kinship with the clod and the ape. The mind is freed to pursue its knowledge of the external world disinterestedly not by the conviction that nothing matters, that everything is impersonal and valueless, but by the faith that nothing God has made is mean or unclean. Hence any failure of Christians to develop a scientific knowledge of the world is not an indication of their loyalty to the revealed God but of their unbelief. A genuinely disinterested science may be one of the greatest affirmations of faith and all the greater because it is so unconscious of what it is doing in this way. Resistance to new knowledge about our earthly home and the journey of life is never an indication of faith in the revealed God but almost always an indication that our sense of life's worth rests on the uncertain foundations of confidence in our humanity, our society, or some other evanescent idol. But this is not to say that new opinions about the nature of the world can in any sense be called revelation. The idea of an emergent evolution may be developed by a mind freed from the necessities of defending the place of man in nature. But in itself it is no more compatible with the revelation of the person of God than any other idea. The only question we can raise about such opinions is whether or not they are true to the course of events as we see them without fear or passion. And deliverance from fear and passion does not come to us through the knowledge of nature without the knowledge of God.

The situation is not different when we deal with opinions about the way in which our Christian community or Jesus Christ were born after the flesh and about their histories. Revelation of the person of God through Jesus Christ does not include the communication of the propositions that Jesus was born of a Virgin, that the Scriptures are inerrant, and that history is catastrophic. It does make necessary a transformation of the opinion that Jesus was only a carpenter's son, or an illegitimate child as some Jews asserted, that the Bible is another book like all the others that men write, and that human history is just another cycle of seasons. Revelation requires us to read the story of Jesus' birth like the story of life's beginnings, with God in the center of the story. It is his action we are attending to. But when we have conceived faith in him, or rather when by his revelation of himself he brings forth faith in us, we are freed from the necessity of putting our confidence in a natural miracle of birth, or a natural miracle of authorship. We are set free to trace the external course of events without fear or passion just because we have been given confidence in the author of those events. Here we verge once more on the problem of the relations of the external to the internal view which cannot be pursued in this connection. This, however, seems to be the consequence of the revelation of the person -- truth is transformed and the search for continuous relations in the world which contemplative reason views is expedited and liberated. The pure reason does not need to be limited in order that room be made for faith, but faith emancipates the pure reason from the necessity of defending and guarding the interests of selves, which are now found to be established and guarded, not by nature, but by the God of revelation whose garment nature is.

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