Revelation and Confessional Theology

Beginnings are important but the way pursued is no less important. Theology finds itself forced to begin in historic faith because there is no other starting point for its endeavor. Yet deflections from the straight line that leads from the point of view of a common faith to the object of that faith are as common in theologies of revelation as in any other types of religious thought. The major cause of such aberrations is doubtless the same one which was responsible for the departure from the straight line that occurred in Schleiermacher's and Ritschl's thought -- it is the tendency to self-defense and self-justification, the turning away from the object of faith to the subject.

The justification of the Christian, or of the church, or of religion, or of the gospel, or of revelation seems forever necessary in the face of the attacks which are made upon these from the outside and in view of the doubts that arise within. Fear of defeat and loss turn men away from single-minded devotion to their ends in order that they may defend themselves and their means of attaining their ends. We not only employ methods for the discovery of truths but somehow feel it necessary to show, otherwise than by the fruits of our work, that these methods are the best. We not only desire to live in Christian faith but we endeavor to recommend ourselves by means of it and to justify it as superior to all other faiths. Such defense may be innocuous when it is strictly subordinated to the main task of living toward our ends, but put into the first place it becomes more destructive of religion, Christianity and the soul than any foe's attack can possibly be.

A theology of revelation which begins with the historic faith of the Christian community is no less tempted to self-justification and so to abandonment of its starting point than any other theology. It may seek to make a virtue out of its necessity and to recommend itself as not only inescapable but as superior in results to all other methods. It may direct attention away from the God visible to the community of faith and seek to defend that community, its faith and its theology. The idea of revelation itself may be employed, not for the greater glory of God, but as a weapon for the defense and aggrandizement of the church or even of the individual theologian. A recent book on the subject of revelation states that "the question of revelation is at the very root of the claim of the Christian religion to universal empire over the souls of men. Such an apologetic statement contains an evident inherent self-contradiction; for revelation and the "claim of the Christian religion to universal empire over the souls of men" are absolute incompatibles. The faith of Christian revelation is directed toward a God who reveals himself as the only universal sovereign and as the one who judges all men -- but particularly those directed to him in faith -- to be sinners wholly unworthy of sovereignty. To substitute the sovereignty of Christian religion for the sovereignty of the God of Christian faith, though it be done by means of the revelation idea, is to fall into a new type of idolatry, to abandon the standpoint of Christian faith and revelation which are directed toward the God of Jesus Christ and to take the standpoint of a faith directed toward religion or revelation. A revelation that can be used to undergird the claim of Christian faith to universal empire over the souls of men must be something else than the revelation of the God of that Jesus Christ who in faith emptied himself, made himself of no reputation and refused to claim the kingly crown.

The inherent self-contradiction in all such self-defensive uses of the revelation idea indicates that every effort to deal with the subject must be resolutely confessional. As we begin with revelation only because we are forced to do so by our limited standpoint in history and faith so we can proceed only by stating in simple, confessional form what has happened to us in our community, how we came to believe, how we reason about things and what we see from our point of view.

Other considerations also warn against the apologetic use of revelation and make necessary the adoption of a confessional method. Whenever the revelation idea is used to justify the church's claims to superior knowledge or some other excellence, revelation is necessarily identified with something that the church can possess. Such possessed revelation must be a static thing and under the human control of the Christian community -- a book, a creed, or a set of doctrines. It cannot be revelation in act whereby the church itself is convicted of its poverty, its sin and misery before God. Furthermore, it cannot be the revelation of a living God; for the God of a revelation that can be possessed must be a God of the past, a God of the dead who communicated his truths to men in another time but who to all effects and purposes has now retired from the world, leaving the administration of his interests to some custodian of revelation -- a church, a priesthood, or a school of theology. Revelation as a contemporary event is then solely a function of this teaching group. There seems to be no way of avoiding such static and deistic interpretations of the revelation idea -- interpretations which contradict what is said to be affirmed in revelation, that God is a living God and reveals himself -- save by the acceptance of the confessional form of theology. Finally, the confessional form is made necessary by a revelation which exposes human sin no less than divine goodness. A revelation which leaves man without defense before God cannot be dealt with except in confessor's terms. Religious response to revelation is made quite as much in a confession of sin as in a confession of faith and a theology which recognizes that it cannot speak about the content of revelation without accepting the standpoint of faith must also understand that it cannot deal with its object save as 'sinners' rather than 'saints' theology. As it is then with the starting point in revelation so it is with the confessional form of theology; necessity, not free choice, determines the acceptance of the way.

This is the sum of the matter: Christian theology must begin today with revelation because it knows that men cannot think about God save as historic, communal beings and save as believers. It must ask what revelation means for Christians rather than what it ought to mean for all men, everywhere and at all times. And it can pursue its inquiry only by recalling the story of Christian life and by analyzing what Christians see from their limited point of view in history and faith.

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