Biblical revelation

My starting point is the conviction that divine revelation is given above all (though certainly not exclusively) in modes that are addressed to the human imagination, rather than to any other faculty (such as the analytical reason or the moral conscience). But let no one accuse me of reducing divine revelation to mere human religious consciousness or projection. There is admirable precedent for my claim. As St Augustine saw, God is a poet and speaks to the world in metaphors, symbols and parables. The supreme revelation is the 'form' (as Von Balthasar would say) of Jesus Christ—the whole pattern of divine truth embodied in an historical person and shining out through him into human history. Blake said that 'the Whole Bible is fill'd with Imagination and Visions' (Ackroyd, 1995, p.27).

Austin Farrer, in his outstanding Bampton Lectures The Glass of Vision (1948), claimed that the revelatory character of the Bible resided in certain dominant images which lay at the centre of the teaching of Jesus: kingdom of God, Son of Man, restored Israel, suffering servant, sacrifice, covenant and so on. For Farrer, revelation was conveyed through the imagination of the Apostles and the Bible was the product of inspired imagining similar to poetic inspiration. 'Divine truth is supernaturally communicated to men in an act of inspired thinking which falls into the shape of certain images' (Farrer, 1948, p.57). It is the images that lend vitality and dynamism to the Bible, and determine its form and content. The inspired mind of the Apostles, Farrer claims, 'is a process of images which live as it were by their own life and impose themselves with authority' (ibid., p. 113). Farrer's theory, in the form in which he states it at least, has not found acceptance, but it has the heart of the matter in it. If—as I hope to show—all insight is given through metaphorical perception, if the deepest truths are conveyed in symbols and if those symbols drive the narrative identity of the community when they are constellated in myth, it would be astounding if this were not true of biblical metaphors, symbols and myths, handed on by the biblical community—Israel and the Church.

That is not how the majority of Christians today—especially Bible-loving conservative evangelicals—see the scriptures: they tend to view them as a system of factual, descriptive propositions, bearing divine authority, to be taken at face value and as literally as possible. Conservative evangelicals remain uneasy about approaches to biblical interpretation that play down the imperative of factual accuracy and dwell on the import of such figurative genres as metaphor, symbol and myth. Like the true fundamentalist, the conservative evangelical believes that the Bible makes explicit claims for itself and sets forth divine revelation accordingly in factual statements or propositions. He is uncomfortable with the notion that scripture reveals the truth of God indirectly, obliquely, through images and similitudes, and in a manner constrained by its historical and cultural context. Augustine's hint that God communicates with us in a poetic mode and Blake's tenet that Jesus and the Apostles were artists would seem to conservative evangelicals to make divine revelation rest on the shifting sands of subjective, arrogant human subjectivity. A recent major study concludes that an obsession with factual accuracy, a penchant for literal interpretation and a predictable tendency to arrive at maximally conservative conclusions—whatever arguments are considered along the way—mark (and mar) the conservative evangelical approach to biblical interpretation and serve to stake out common ground with fundamentalism (Harris, 1998).

Literal interpretations of the most patently figurative parts of scripture are relinquished by conservative evangelicals long after they have ceased to be tenable and not without a violent struggle. For conservative evangelicals, Genesis 1 was first history, then a sequence of geological epochs, before being reluctantly accepted as myth. Mark Noll's The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994) traces the sorry tale of the corruption of sober, scholarly evangelical thinking in the nineteenth century by fundamentalism, resistance to evolution, distortions of geology and ultimately full-blown creationism. The virginal conception of Jesus in Matthew and Luke is interpreted as literal biology by some evangelical theologians, even when it is admitted that that stance creates insuperable problems from the point of view of genetics and is in any case not helpful in defending the doctrine of the incarnation, namely the assumption of complete humanity by the Logos. The conflicting presentation of the resurrection appearances in the Gospels (exacerbated by the lack of any resurrection appearances at all in the original ending of Mark) still gives scope for the ingenuity of the harmonisers.

This literalistic approach is defensive and impossible to sustain indefinitely. Perhaps that is why there are so many 'post-conservative evangelicals'; possibly it accounts for the fact that a number of prominent liberal theologians originally came from the conservative evangelical stable. The deeper study of biblical images, parables and symbolic narrative, at which the early Fathers excelled and which Barth and Von Balthasar have revived, is more commensurate with the character of divine revelation. Blake's dictum that the whole Bible is filled with imagination and visions needs only to be thought about in order to carry conviction. The question of the metaphorical, symbolic and mythic complexion of the biblical revelation will be taken up in Chapter 5.

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