Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Models of Revelation 5

We're still in Chapter 3, on the first model (revelation as doctrine). Remember Dulles's criteria of evaluation (see post #3):
1. Faithfulness to the Bible and Christian tradition
2. Internal coherence
3. Plausibility
4. Adequacy to experience
5. Practical fruitfulness – namely, “sustains moral effort, reinforces Christian commitment, and enhances the corporate life and mission of the Church” (p. 17)
6. Theoretical fruitfulness – humanly satisfying in the quest for religious understanding, and thus be of assistance for theology more broadly
7. Value for dialogue

Starting on p. 46, Dulles offers his evaluation of this model. First, its strengths: "The propositional model stands up well in terms of its faithfulness to tradition, its internal coherence, and its practical advantages..."

Faithfulness to Tradition: If revelation is in the form of doctrinal propositions, then these doctrinal propositions can be received immediately into Tradition, and preserved and passed on without having constantly to reinterpret and rephrase things. A good example of this would be Trinitarian and Christological formulae. Having been hashed out in finest detail once, and all the pieces and foundations of these formulae having been located in revealed Scripture, we don't need to redo any of that fight.

Internal Coherence: "Once the premises are granted, the whole theory follows with a certain inevitability. This, in turn, makes for a measure of theoretical fruitfulness. The propositional model provides firm doctrinal standards, so that the orthodoxy and heterodoxy of theological opinions can be measured..." (p. 46).

Practical advantages: A simple and useable theological method derives directly from this model. "Theology, then, has the task of systematizing the data of revelation, defending them against adversaries, and spelling out their logical implications." (p. 47). Even if one claims that theology may also do other things, these tasks are necessary as part of our response to revelation.

Moreover, "Among the more striking advantages of this model are its practical fruitfulness for the unity and growth of the Church." (p. 47). This would include loyalty to Scripture and Tradition, and clarity of and solidarity in identity and mission.

He then lists these weaknesses of this model:

"The Bible, in this approach, is viewed principally as a collection of propositions, each of which can be taken by itself as a divine assertion." (p. 48). And, "...every declarative sentence in the Bible, unless the contrary can be shown from the context, is to be taken as expressing a revealed truth." (p. 48-9). Both of these are true in a sense, but not absolutely. Some doctrines are revealed propositionally and immediately in Scripture (e.g., the sanctity of human life, in the Ten Commandments); some are revealed symbolically and must therefore be derived exegetically, which this model, as a pure type, does less well. Again, the quality of revealed truth in each sentence in Scripture must exist, unless we think that God can lie to us; but the nature of that truth is not identical from sentence to sentence. (This is sometimes referred to as the "four levels" of truth in Scripture.) These nuances are not contradicted by this model, but something must be added to the model to understand this in the way the Church asks us to.

Another weakness is adduced in the historicism of the day. If conciliar and magisterial statements of dogma are merely historical and not universal truths, then their foundation in Scripture may not be universal either. (You won't be surprised to know that I reject this sort of hyper-historicism root and branch, for very good epistemological reasons that are probably too complicated to deal with here.)

Another weakness is its "inadequacy to experience" (p. 50-1). It demands assent to explicit propositions and to past definitions, "irrespective of whether they actually illuminate the believer's own situation." (p. 51). To this it must be noted that this model, and its fruits, have certainly illuminated believers' situations, both in the past and in the present; and that the possibility of universal truth, as claimed, is not precluded by examples of weak or failed faith. To be fair, the other possibility needs to be considered objectively, also.

"Finally, it must be mentioned that the doctrinal understanding of revelation has not shown itself favorable to dialogue with other churches and religions." (p. 51). Again, this is true in one sense: if such doctrines are true, then their opposites cannot be, and those who adhere to the opposites are objectively in error. But, if one accepts that something in revelation is true, one can then pursue it in dialogue; while if one accepts that nothing is universally true in revelation, no dialogue is even possible.

Summary: On criteria # 1, 2, 5, and 6, this model is strong or very strong. On criteria # 4, this model is weak. On criteria # 3 and 7, this model gets mixed review, depending on other presuppositions. Dulles concludes with this final caveat: "In this chapter we have taken as a target a rather rigid form [what I called above a "pure type"] of the propositional model. In showing the shortcomings of this style of theology we should not be taken as implying that God's revelation is devoid of cognitive value or that the clear teachings of Scripture and the creeds are without grounds in revelation." (p. 52). To be revelation to us, at least some part of it must be graspable and expressible by our human intellects, in human language.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

St. Ambrose on service

St. Ambrose has a very thought-provoking exegesis on the footwashing in John 13 – icon of Christ’s diakonia – as the mutual sanctification of kerygma. It’s not just the Gospel message, but it’s the “water of the message,” the “heavenly dew” of divine love making our minds and hearts fruitful for Him. To wash feet in imitation of Christ means to proclaim the Gospel in such a way that, in oneself and in those who hear and accept the Gospel, holiness of life and intimacy with Christ result. Notice how the Liturgy of the Hours and lectio divina are even more fundamental to this sanctification than baptizing (!!). He’s thinking of himself as bishop, of course, and the fundamentals of fulfilling his ministry with all seven sacraments and the whole “triple munera.” But I think the same must also apply to those who share the duties of the bishop in the degree of the diaconate.

“How great is that excellence! As a servant, You wash the feet of Your disciples; as God, You send dew from heaven. Nor do You wash the feet only, but also invite us to sit down with You, and by the example of Your dignity do exhort us, saying: You call Me Master and Lord, and you do well, for so I am. If, then, I the Lord and Master have washed your feet, you ought also to wash one another’s feet (Jn 13:13-14). I, then, wish also myself to wash the feet of my brethren, I wish to fulfill the commandment of my Lord, I will not be ashamed in myself, nor disdain what He Himself did first. Good is the mystery of humility, because while washing the pollutions of others I wash away my own…. It is not, then, the simple water of the heavenly mystery whereby we attain to be found worthy of having part with Christ. There is also a certain water which we put into the basin of our soul, water from the fleece and from the Book of Judges; water, too, from the Book of Psalms. It is the water of the message from heaven. Let, then, this water, O Lord Jesus, come into my soul, into my flesh, that through the moisture of this rain the valleys of our minds and the fields of our hearts may grow green…. You have redeemed the world, redeem the soul of a single sinner. This is the special excellence of Your loving-kindness, wherewith You have redeemed the whole world one by one.” (On the Holy Spirit, Book I.14-17)

Monday, June 14, 2010

Models of Revelation 4

Chapter 3 examines the first of his five models: "revelation as doctrine." This is the most traditional of the models, at least in the chronological sense. "But it would be too much to claim that this theory was dominant in patristic times or in the Middle Ages..." (p. 36).

He notes in some detail how this model is used in conservative evangelical Christianity, but we're going to jump to his second section, how it's used in Catholicism (see p. 41).

This theory is strongest and most fully deployed in what he calls Neo-Scholasticism, an attempted revival of Scholastic method from mid-19th century to mid-20th century. "As we shall see in later chapters, the Second Vatican Council backed away from some [emphasis added] of the characteristic emphases and tenets of neo-Scholasticism" (p. 41).

Key aspects of this model

1. distinction between "natural" and "supernatural" revelation. Natural revelation is "by deeds" - phenomena of the natural world, up to and including human capacities and behaviors (e.g. natural revelation concerning the nature of sexuality and marriage, from the gender complementarity of human physiology). The existence of God as one divine and personal being is knowable from natural revelation alone. Supernatural revelation is "by words" - either inspired human words, or direct divine speech. The mysteries of faith, e.g. the Trinity and the Incarnation, are knowable only from supernatural revelation.

2. Supernatural revelation directly transmits conceptual knowledge. Even though human words may not capture totally the fully sense of divine speech, what is expressible is accurately expressible. E.g., this doctrinal statement about the Trinity, revealed in the totality of Scripture: "three persons in one substance," is accurate, even though it does not and cannot completely express the reality of the Trinity.

3. What is supernaturally revealed therefore commands assent, because of the divine authority of the speaker who reveals. Everybody loses arguments with God.

4. This applies most importantly to Scripture itself. Dulles quotes a key part of the First Vatican Council's statement on Scripture: "All those things are to be believed with divine and Catholic faith which are contained in the word of God, written or handed down, and which the Church, either by a solemn judgment, or by its ordinary and universal magisterium, proposes for belief as having been divinely revealed." In the Profession of Faith which all clergy take before ordination, and again whenever they take up an office in the Church, the same is sworn: "Moreover, I adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman pontiff or the College of Bishops enunciate when they exercise their authentic magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act."

5. Certainty in faith therefore derives from the perfection of God. Faith is inherently reasonable, both in its content and in the decision to assent and believe (see Pope Benedict's Regensburg lecture). But it is not provable by means outside itself (IOW, by reason alone). Miracles and the like support this, and give sensory evidence in favor of faith. Note that this does not exclude the need for interior grace to assent; faith, the act of believing, is a gift, first and foremost.

6. Revelation therefore has an inherent link with "the deposit of faith." The deposit of faith was built up in the process of Israel living through the events of the Old Testament, and gradually recording them through inspired human writers; and in the process of Christ's birth and life, death and resurrection, and recording them in the New Testament, again through inspired human writers. Revelation also implies communicating the contents of the deposit of faith to each new generation ("evangelization and catechesis"). So, in one sense, revelation is the deposit of faith; in another, it is the communication of it, first by God to us, and then generationally by the Church to us.

Go back to post #3, and begin applying his evaluative schema to this model. What works and what doesn't work? What are its strengths and weaknesses? We'll look at his answer next.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Models of Revelation 3

Dulles’s theological method in Models of Revelation

Dulles claims that method here is not obvious. There are two extremes: to treat revelation as strictly doctrinal, or as strictly rational. The first means testing revelation against itself, which is an infinite regress. The second ends up being too restrictive and contrary to the norms of faith. Some middle or third way is needed.

P. 14: “Our method, then, will be to start from a position within a faith-tradition that does appeal to revelation. More specifically, we shall write from a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, perspective. Dwelling within the tradition of faith that is common to the Christian churches, and more specifically, within the Roman Catholic phylum of that tradition, we shall be guided by the tradition and by its classical and binding expressions of faith. We shall… provisionally assume that revelation is implied in biblical and Christian faith, but we shall not presuppose that any given doctrine of revelation is the right one.”

He goes on to specify what he calls “criteria of assessing” revelation. These are the fundamental lines of what is “common to the Christian churches,” as he says above. Again, he gives a list:

1. Faithfulness to the Bible and Christian tradition
2. Internal coherence
3. Plausibility
4. Adequacy to experience
5. Practical fruitfulness – namely, “sustains moral effort, reinforces Christian commitment, and enhances the corporate life and mission of the Church” (p. 17)
6. Theoretical fruitfulness – humanly satisfying in the quest for religious understanding, and thus be of assistance for theology more broadly
7. Value for dialogue

He admits that these criteria are somewhat abstract, that their definitions can be ambiguous, and that they may not be decisive for choosing between proposed solutions. He’s looking for a starting point, here, not an end point. He promises to return to this list of criteria in his conclusion.

Chapter II lays out what he means by “types” or “models,” with a fairly extensive discussion (see pp. 24-7, and 29-35) of the limits to be understood in approaching a topic in this manner. He lists five models, which he will examine in detail in the next five chapters:

1. Revelation as Doctrine – “clear propositional statements attributed to God as authoritative teacher”
2. Revelation as History – “God reveals himself primarily in his great deeds,” especially in biblical history
3. Revelation as Inner Experience – “a privileged interior experience of grace or communion with God… held to be immediate to each individual…”
4. Revelation as Dialectical Presence – neither objective nor subjective; “the word of God simultaneously reveals and conceals”
5. Revelation as New Awareness – “an expansion of consciousness or shift of perspective” shared as a movement in history

So what he’s going to try to do, basically, is evaluate each of the five models against the seven criteria. In the end, one can either choose the best one and discard the others; or choose the best one and integrate bits of the others; or amalgamate the best bits of all of them into a new model; or discard them all.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Models of Revelation 2

Dulles continues his preliminary analysis of challenges to revelation on p. 8: "In view of the many and serious objections against the idea of revelation it must be asked whether it might not be possible to excise it from Christianity." He offers two examples of this "mythologizing" approach: one philosophical, and one theological. He's using these examples as representative arguments for a "reconstructed Christianity." (I don't want to get too bogged down in the details here; we can tackle those details when you've had a chance to read and digest them.) What this shows is how revelation is central to the traditional sense of faith. If one takes it out, one changes the faith quite radically.

After a quick sketch of the strengths and weaknesses of these two types of argument, he concludes (rightly) that this would be too great a change, an abandoning of historical Christian faith. So what does one do with the arguments against revelation? One can do one of two things: "Contemporary theology cannot and does not ignore the difficulties against revelation set forth above. The responses fall into two general types. Some theologians, adhering to the classical concept of revelation, attempt to show that the objections are unfounded and they they prove nothing against the reality of revelation." (p. 13) So one broad kind of theological defense of revelation challenges the objections on their own ground. I don't think any of you would be too surprised to think that I pretty much fall into this group.

He continues, "Other theologians admit that the objections, or some of them, have telling force against the naive conceptions of revelation purveyed by many theological manuals of the past centuries. But going back to the biblical and patristic sources, or moving forward to a more modern theological outlook, these authors attempt to develop a doctrine of revelation that can stand up against objections such as those here considered." (p. 13) The second broad kind of theological defense of revelation tries rather to deflect the objections in various ways: nuance this, balance that, distinguish the other, etc. This kind of approach can be very productive, but, I would add, one must always be careful to maintain a sufficiently clear and grounded (in Tradition) notion of revelation through this process.

The rest of Ch 1 and Ch 2 cover his methods and assumptions. We'll go through that pretty quickly, but it's worth noting some of his key benchmarks before we dig into his five models in more detail.