One of the foundational elements, I believe, to Christian theology and proper theological method is to first establish that God exists and how we know that he exists.
The technical term for this is revelation. I am not referring to the final book of the New Testament. I am referring to the various ways in which God reveals himself to us or makes his existence known to us. We Christians are not pantheists who identify the universe itself with God. In Christian theology God is separate from the universe. We do believe that God is present and active in the universe, but we do not identify the universe itself as a manifestation of God. This is, I think, part of what is implied with Genesis 1.1: “…God created the heavens and the earth.” God created, and therefore what God created is separate from God. It is not all that dissimilar from you creating something, like a bookcase for example. Once you’ve cut all the wood, done all the staining, and hammered in all the nails the bookcase that you’ve created is separate from you. This is basically what we mean when we say that God is separate from his creation; what God created is separate and distinct from God himself.
The only way that we know anything about God and can say anything about God is because God has revealed himself to us. Thus our knowledge of God is also limited to what he has revealed to us. Sometimes this revelation isn’t altogether clear and we are left to our own reason and logic, which by the way God has given to us, to make sense of it and articulate it clearly (e.g. the Trinity). Other times this revelation is very clear and we are simply left with the decision to either accept or reject it (e.g. the divinity of Jesus).
In any case, in order for Christianity to be true God must have revealed himself. That is he must exist and have made that existence known to us. Without revelation Christianity becomes just another philosophical or moral system devoid of any real power. Specifically what this would mean (if God does not exist and has not revealed himself) is that Jesus is not God incarnate, did not redeem humanity from death, (probably) did not rise from the dead, and most certainly did not ascend back into heaven. This also means that sin and the Devil are not real either since God is the one who has revealed them to exist. This leaves all the supernatural (and probably even some or most of the natural) figures in the Bible to be interpreted as metaphors or fictional characters. Since then there are no divine or supernatural powers there is no partaking of the divine nature in order to become divine, nor is there any evil to escape from that would make partaking of such a nature necessary (2 Peter 1.4).
Objections to Revelation
The chief objection to revelation is, I think, rationalism. That is, the belief that every supernatural occurrence can be explained entirely by rational, logical, or empirical means. An example of this would be explaining the birth of Jesus from a virgin as an appropriation of Horus’ birth. Now to be sure this is a very poor argument (mainly because it is false; Horus was not born from a virgin), but hopefully it helps illustrate what I mean by attempting to explain supernatural occurrences via rational, logical, or empirical means.
For much better arguments against revelation I think the objections noted by Avery Dulles in his book “Models of Revelation” are helpful. It is not necessary to go into great detail in all of these objections (and doing so would take quite a while), so I will just briefly list them:
- Philosophical agnosticism. God, even if he exists, is held to be utterly incomprehensible, with the result that all statements about God are devoid of cognitive value. Revelation is viewed as a myth or metaphor that cannot be taken literally.
- Linguistic analysis. Many analytic philosophers question whether language about the divine can have definite cognitive content. Thus it reinforces philosophical agnosticism.
- Modern epistemology. The idea that the human mind could passively receive information by some kind of transfusion from the divine is widely rejected. As a product of the knower’s own powers, all human knowledge must in some sense be “acquired” and must be subject to the conditions and limitations of the human subject. This realization, where accepted, puts an emphatic question mark against the divine authority usually attributed to revelation.
- Empirical psychology. Ecstatic states can be produced by hypnosis or by drugs. Involuntary hallucinations are frequently attributable to pathological states of mind. Some surmise that revelation in an age of rational thought is nothing but a vestige of a primitive mentality in which the subconscious regions of the psyche were more easily activated than they are today. Thus, it argues against naïve confidence that the visions received by prophets and seers came from the divine.
- Biblical criticism. Many modern scholars hold that the prophets and apostles formulated and expressed their own thoughts with the help of the conceptual and linguistic tools available in their place and time. Miracles and prophecies are viewed as historically unreliable, and therefore cannot be used as proofs of revelation or divine interventions.
- History of Christian doctrine. Some beliefs that were once viewed as divinely revealed truths have been reclassified as human or fallacious opinions. An example of this is the view (taught at one time) that the earth was the center and all the other planets revolved around it, which has since been shown to be wrong. The question arises then whether or not other doctrines, such as the Incarnation or Resurrection, might also be set aside in the course of time.
- Comparative religion. Asks the question: “Can Christianity credibly announce itself as the only revealed religion, thus putting itself above all other religions.?”
- Critical sociology. In many cases appeal to divine authority can be a hidden way of obtaining conformity and of oppressing doubt and dissent. This list is not intended to be exhaustive, but hopefully it gives an idea of some specific objections that are raised against revelation.
Response to Objections
The response I offer here will be general in nature since it would be impossible to respond specifically to each of the above objections and keep this post to a reasonable length. To be sure, some of these objections I do plan to discuss in future posts, such as 5 and 6, but for now I think a general response to the spirit of rationalism underlying the above objections will suffice.
Revelation, and thus the Christian faith, is not an exercise in reason, philosophy, or science. It is mostly, I think, a product of experiences that cannot be adequately explained by the above categories. While these experiences should not serve as a basis of faith (e.g. “I believe Christianity is true because I was miraculously healed of cancer without any medical intervention,” is not a good a basis for faith.) they can, I think, be a good supplement to an already existing faith. Sometimes these are “miraculous” experiences such as the aforementioned healing without any medical intervention, or perhaps provision(s) that came at just the right time and was exactly what was needed. It might even be a case of demon possession and subsequent exorcism, either experienced by the person themselves or witnessed by them. Some have reported also being able to miraculously understand another language despite having never learned it themselves. And let’s not forget all the times people have “heard” God say something to them. The list could go on and on and on. The point is that while these experiences do not happen everyday and should not serve as a foundation for anyone’s faith, they do happen, people have experienced them, and hold that they are not adequately explained by the above categories and disciplines.
There is a tendency in Western societies, I think, to subject and explain everything by reason, logic, and empiricism. If something cannot be explained by these methods then it is false and/or the person is delusional or mentally ill. This is not, I think, a good standard of truth to say that just because something does not fit into my own predefined and preconceived categories then therefore that something is false. What proves something true or false is, I think, whether or not that thing exists in reality. In the particular case that we are discussing here (has God actually revealed himself, assuming of course that he even exists in the first place?) it is impossible to definitively prove or disprove one position or the other. I do not think that there is any objective criteria that can be used to determine whether or not God exists in the first place and if he does that he has also revealed himself. The criteria that often determines an individual’s response to God is, I think, ultimately subjective because it is really their own interpretation of the sum total of the experiences that they have had over the course of their lifetime.
Theologians and scholars (at least of the “Evangelical” variety) usually distinguish two types of revelation: General Revelation and Special Revelation. In this next post we will deal with both of these types of revelation and hopefully fill out this idea with some specifics.