Thursday, July 1, 2010

Models of Revelation - Excursus on the origins of Faith

Back in the first chapter (p. 14), Dulles indicated that he was assuming the question of the origins of faith. In other words, he takes as given the remote past of the faith, and the successive layers of covenants between God and man - i.e., Adam both before and after the Fall, Noah, Abraham, Moses; then the successive renewal of the Mosaic covenant down to the Incarnation. This allows him to look at the big-enough topic "what is revelation" without having to parse repeatedly the even-bigger question "what is the relationship between revelation and faith." That would be too difficult a project.

But Tom and Dennis are raising the question, so let's step out of the book for a moment to consider that more closely.

There is a traditional apologetic answer to this question -- Augustine's masterpiece "On the City of God" is an excellent example -- which I think is still really the clearest and fullest one. It is the one Dulles is in fact assuming. It boils down to a fairly simple theology of the Fall, its corrosive effects on various created natures, and their redemption in Christ.

(1) Adam sinned by an act of disobedience. Thereby he lost the gift of the possibility of not sinning. We his children, therefore, inherit a corrupt nature, carrying the not-possibility of not-sinning. We call this concupiscence. It affects our will (we sin) and our intellect (we can't grasp God properly).

(2) He did not, however, lose either his status as a creature (God still loves him and us in the same way) or his purpose as a creature ("to know, love, and serve God in this life, and to be with Him eternally in the next").

Moreover, the goodness of creation is still good. It still reflects the goodness of God.

(3) So, despite concupiscence, our purpose of loving God still draws us to those aspects of His creation that fulfill, even if only partially, that purpose. These we call "natural virtues," such as the "Big Four:" prudence, temperance, justice, fortitude. We know these are good from our experience, and from any reasonable analysis of the outcomes of actions based on these versus the alternatives.

God uses these, then, to call us to him. This is the underlying, "historical," layer of faith: a choice to respond with prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude to the goodness of creation.

(4) Those who make this choice are therefore open to a further step in "knowing, loving, and serving God in this life, and being with Him eternally in the next." Outside of the specific revelation to Israel, there were and are naturally virtuous people, even lacking any clear knowledge of God's person: Augustine and other apologists point to some of the early patriarchs, philosophers like Plato or Cato the Elder, statesmen like Cincinnatus, lawgivers like Solon, etc. And of course ordinary people too, about whom we may know nothing.

Within the specific revelation to Israel, knowledge of God slowly became more clear: rooted in this "natural revelation" but gradually adding more and more specificity about who God is as Father, and what He desires from us as His children. This reaches its fullest point in the Incarnation. Christ leaves this fullness in the Church He wills, etc.

(5) Like every good thing from God, faith is, therefore, first and foremost a gift. In the general sense, it is the invitation to respond with natural -- and, eventually, supernatural -- virtue to the goodness of creation, and of the gift of being itself. We are free to respond positively or negatively. In the specific sense, it is the grace of God in me, against the impulse of concupiscence, strengthening and guiding my intellect and will, so that I may choose more positively than negatively. But even under the action of grace, I remain free to believe or reject. (This is quite a separate mystery, btw.)

As gift, faith is prior to revelation. It can be received even by infants, and so we not only practice but strongly encourage infant baptism. But, in another sense, revelation leads us to faith, which is why adult conversion (and baptism) is always possible.


dbrockhaus said...

David, Dulles style of writing makes it difficult for me to understand what he is saying. i find your "translation" comprehendable and really necesary.i am beginning to see why your taking us down this path.

Question, how do you define Conservative Evangelicalism and Neo-Scholasticism? KNowing these 2 terms will help me brake Dulles "code"

Deacon David said...

Yes, Dulles is not writing for a general audience. He is very well-organized and clear, but also pretty technical. He deals directly with variation and complexity, rather than simplifying for the general audience.

Scholasticism was a particular approach to knowledge in general, and theology in particular, from the 11th c. to the 16th c., more or less. Its main pillar was to be systematic: to itemize as thoroughly as possible what we really do, and really don't, know about Subject A. To be systematic, it had to parse coherently the sources of knowledge: Revelation, Tradition, science, intuition, etc. It was extremely successful at doing all this, and our modern world rests entirely on these foundations.

Neo-Scholasticism was an attempt from the mid-19th-c. to the mid-20th-c. to recapture that movement, and especially to focus on Aquinas as the preeminent Scholastic thinker. (Only a handful of others can rival him in depth: especially Anselm, Bernard, Duns Scotus, Bonaventure; and of these, probably only Scotus can also rival him in breadth.) Neo-Scholasticism had only moderate success, but it supported e.g. the independence of Catholic education from public education at a critical time. It also supported e.g. the liturgical renewal of the same time. In the wake of Vatican II, Neo-Scholasticism was almost entirely abandoned.

Conservative Evangelicalism is a little bit like Scholasticism for Calvinists. It tries to be rigorously systematic in the same way, but takes only Scripture-in-the-plain-sense as its source of knowledge. So it is not as successful in general, although it is very good in particular areas like moral theology.

Does that help clarify a bit?

dbrockhaus said...

Yep, a bit.
Does this whole thinking process, or the labeling of thinking processes, have to do with the developement of man and the way we solve problems? Somewhere I read that the author atributed the advancement of human intelegance to Greek philosophy which took basic problems, broke them down and then solved them. this sparked new thinking with new ideas that lead to technology advancement. The christians also took these types of thinking processes and applied them to scripture for the developement of sacred scripture.

I take it Dulles (Bishop Dulles?)is explaining the specific processes (models) so we can recongnise authentic interpretations as well as understand God word by revelation?

Deacon David said...

Well, Greek philosophy certainly assembled an enduring set of tools for thinking hard and clearly about the nature of things. Other tools have been added since then, too, by the development of Western thought/culture. Without those tools inherited from pre-Christian Greek thinkers, we would not have had the flourishings of Christian Europe that has brought us to where we are today.

Dulles (he was a priest, and a cardinal right at the end of his life) is breaking down the models in order to think about the parts clearly. Recognizing what's what is part of the goal. Later, he will also build back up a usable conclusion, including all the key ideas to understanding Scripture (and revelation in general) correctly.