Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ. Models of Revelation (Orbis, 1992, 1983).
Dulles begins with “the problem of revelation.” Why is revelation a problem?
“Christian faith and theology… have been predicated on the conviction that God gave a permanently valid revelation concerning Himself in biblical times – a revelation that deepened progressively with the patriarchs, Moses, and the prophets, until it reached its unsurpassable climax in Jesus Christ. The Christian Church down through the centuries has been committed to this revelation and has sought to propagate it, defend it, and explain its implications.” (p. 3). He goes on to state that our definition of revelation remained more or less vague until the Reformation; and that it gained precision in defending the doctrine of revelation between Catholics and Protestants in the 16th and 17th c., against the Deists in the 17th and 18th c., and against the Enlightenment (“evolutionists,” who “held that all religious truth was the fruit of human inquiry,” and “positivists,” who “denied that the human mind could have knowledge of the divine”) in the 19th c.
The nature and the quality and the content of revelation all matter very much. Dulles will talk about three ways: in the individual’s life of faith, in the mission of the Church, and in the method(s) of theology (p. 4ff).
Next, Dulles briefly lists eight challenges or objections to “the concept of revelation as a permanently valid body of truths communicated by God in biblical times, preserved and commented on by the Church” (his working definition, p. 6). Let’s look at these:
1. Philosophical agnosticism asserts that God is not knowable from the phenomena of the natural world, or is not comprehensible as transcendent other. If this is true, statements about God cannot have meaningful content, and revelation can only be mythical or metaphorical.
2. As a particular subset of the first, linguistic analysis claims that all theology is only symbolic, not “real,” language.
3. Modernist epistemologies (i.e., how we know what we know) all tend to limit the capacity to know to material observation (some form of “empiricism”), and to discount any possibility of either infused knowledge or a priori knowledge.
4. Empirical psychology “has destroyed any naïve confidence that visions and auditions… can be credited as coming from on high…” (p. 6).
5. Biblical criticism has complicated revelation by seeking naturalistic explanations for necessary miracles, by importing the model of evolution (sometimes as the only model, which is highly problematic) into biblical textual history, and by stressing human agency (sometimes to the point of denying inspiration) in the generation of biblical texts.
6. A wrong understanding of the development of doctrine is used to show that ideas once thought to be divinely inspired are in fact false (most famously, the “geocentric” solar system and the Copernican revolution). “If the dividing line between revealed and non-revealed is in flux, the category of revelation itself appears questionable.” (p. 7)
7. A certain kind of comparative religious studies tries to level all religious experience to the human, even to the individually subjective, experience. (This is related closely to 1-4, above.)
8. Sociology using a certain kind of critical method reduces all religious experience to shared ideologies and tools for social power. Revelation here can be seen only as a claim to authority or legitimacy for a particular social construct.
What all these “deconstructions” of revelation have in common is roots in the radical “rationalism” of the Enlightenment. But, all of these ideas are very common, and their popular forms are not going away any time soon. What Dulles is showing is that defending revelation is not a trivial task for the modern believer.
Discussion: Where are these ideas in our local culture today?