Sunday, August 19, 2007

POST #2: Principles of Revelation: General Revelation

God speaks! Foundational to all Christian thinking is the assumption that God is self-revealing. Jesus is the Logos, the very Word of God (John 1:1). God talks (Hebrews 1:1-2). The Greek word here, LALEO, according to Thayer, means to use words in order to declare one's mind and disclose one's thoughts. God “takes the upright into his confidence” (Proverbs 3:32). The Hebrew word for confidence, SOD, has a graphic derivation. It originally meant a cushion or couch, came to refer to sitting together in a familiar or intimate setting, then came to mean the sharing of secrets. Those who listen are rewarded ... God is not silent!

Christian theology has historically recognized three guiding principles of revelation. I use these three principles as the base of my personal epistemology (how and where we obtain knowledge). They help me to understand the various ways in which God speaks:

1) Special Revelation
Examples include the inspired Scriptures, Old and New Testaments (2 Timothy 3:16); the person and work of Jesus, declared to be the one who explains the Father (John 1:18); and the personal illumination of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of believers (John 16:13).

2) General Revelation
The heavens declare the glory of God in a continual flow of speech and a constant display of knowledge (Psalm 19:1-2, NIV).

3) Progressive Revelation
We see progression in the formation of written revelation. Scripture builds upon scripture. New revelation expands upon, and expounds upon earlier revelation. But did revelation cease with the closing of written revelation? No. On-going Spirit illumination continues to this day, and will up until the end times (Joel 2:28-32 which was partially fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost).

While these three principles are widely accepted and taught in the church, the specifics of how we define them, and the ramifications of each term, vary widely among believers. Epistemology is the necessary beginning point for the discussions which will follow on this site.

The nature of Special Revelation, and in particular, written revelation, has been discussed at great length, and I do not wish to rehash the Inerrency debates here. I refer my readers to a spirited discussion of these issues which occurred on the web-blog, “Chrisendom” last November, and can be found here. Essential, however, is an understanding of the Authority of the Scriptures. For the sake of these discussions, Christian theology, by definition, is sourced in, and/or tested by the Scriptures. The Scriptures have served the church well as an anchor for two thousand years. They provide the parameters of truth, even as our understandings of those Scriptures grows and develops.

Of greater interest to me, four our purposes here, is a discussion of principles two and three. Today’s post will explore General Revelation. A follow-up post will explore Progressive Revelation.

A discussion of General Revelation typically begins with Romans 1:19-20. Here Paul makes it clear that we can glean revelation about God from creation. And this revelation goes beyond seeing his glory. From the things that are made, we can discern certain of God’s invisible qualities, including his power and his divine nature. It is clear that we have a far more profound understanding of the “things that are made” today than ever before. Because of the unique position of our solar system in the Milky Way Galaxy, we have been blessed with a front row seat on the cosmos. And today, we see and understand the Universe with far greater clarity than did those who penned the words of Scripture, or the great majority of those who formulated traditional Christian Theology. In addition to this improved view of the Universe, today we are beneficiaries of a rapidly expanding knowledge of how God knit together this cosmos on the atomic and subatomic levels. Much of the traditional theology that is accepted in the church today was formulated in a pre-copernican day, a day when planet earth was widely viewed as literally occupying the very center of Creation. Other aspects of theology are based squarely upon Newtonian physics, with its rigid laws of motion, time and space. As relativity and quantum mechanics show how fluid and bending these laws are, there may be theological implications to consider. Much fundamentalist theology is reactionary, constructed one hundred years ago in response to what was then perceived as an atheistic attack upon Christianity in the form of evolution. Today, we know much more about the history of life on the earth.

Without question, the Scriptures are the ultimate source and arbiter of our understandings about God. But the Scriptures have always been read through the prism of how the world and the cosmos are currently viewed. Let’s be clear: science has no capacity to explain God, or teach theology. But down through the ages, our growing knowledge of the cosmos has often adjusted, and sometimes revolutionized our understanding of the Scriptures, and what they teach us about God. A sad truth is that the church has often drug its feet, sometimes for hundreds of years, in this task of keeping theology current with our growing knowledge base from General Revelation. Theology has a way of settling into a stubborn inertia, becoming nearly immovable. Instead of rejoicing in new understandings about our wonderful Maker, the church typically resists changes in our understandings with guarded skepticism and suspicious fear. We have been given a fixed written revelation in the Scriptures which provides a stable anchor for our faith. But on the other hand, we have a very fluid, constantly changing source of information streaming in on many General Revelation fronts which should excite every believer. As one of the world’s foremost DNA scientists, Francis Collins describes the exhilarating joy and awe which he experiences as he uncovers some new truth about Creation, and thus the Creator, to which, for but a moment, he alone among humans is privy. It is as though God just whispered into his ear.

For too long has the church viewed scientific inquiry as an adversary to be feared. Truth is truth! The exploration of the cosmos, whether by telescope or microscope, is the friend of all who would know the Creator, and would understand his works with increasing clarity. General Revelation is not static. It is supplying us with a constant fresh flow of detailed information about what our God has created, and sometimes even how he created. No one should be more excited about this process of exploration and discovery than children of the Creator!

“It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of Kings” (Proverbs 25:2). This suggests something more than the passive observation of Creation. It seems evident that man has an active role to take up in this field of General Revelation. This active role is largely the work of scientific inquiry. I have a friend who is an artist. Every time I walk into his gallery, I learn something new about him just by observing his paintings. The entire field of science, limited as it is to this cosmos, is a continuing study of the very work of God. With each new revelation of science, we learn something new about him. Of course, much that is new in the realm of science must be tested rigorously, and for some time held tentatively. But the certainty of such findings grows with layers of validation and confirmation. As this certainty grows, we can receive new insights into the artist behind this awe-inspiring cosmos. In turn, many of these insights will compel us to reevaluate and adjust how we interpret the Bible, and fine tune our theology. But we must pay attention! And we must be willing to think outside the artificial constraints of our theological traditions.

God speaks. Are we listening?

A note added on 9/17/2007: C. Michael Patton posted a thoughtful piece on natural revelation at Parchment and Pen after I made the above post. If you’re puzzling about the notion of God “actively speaking” to us through natural (general) revelation, check out his answers. (If you are new to blogs, you can go directly to Michael’s article by clicking on the words “piece on natural revelation” above)

8 comments:

Timothy said...

Today at work I was thinking about the Wise Men from the biblical account of the birth of Christ.
Even though they were not part of the religious establishment of their day (as far as we know) they used a combination of the scriptures and their understandings of nature as ques to help them discover one of the greatest events in the history of man. It would seem to me that they were grounded in the sciencetific discoveries/understandings of their day and that very study was the key to their even greater discovery. Interesting that while much of the world was sitting on their hand's (content with the status quo as far as the scriptures and science are concerned) these men were going to much trouble to find something bigger and grander, something unknown, ageless and new, to worship and adore.
made me think of you dad...

tim

Cliff Martin said...

Tim,

The Magi were probably Zoroastrians. Zoroastrians are non-abrahamic (not Jewish, Christian, or Muslim) monotheists. Their theology (which bears a resemblance to much of my own thinking) sees a strong linkeage between the material world and the spiritual. For this reason, it seems Zoroastrians have historical paid closer attention to the material world for clues into theology and spiritualilty. Very interesting that your thoughts should turn toward them in this regard.

~ Cliff (Dad!)

Timothy said...

Yea, I guess the thing that got me thinking is the question, why would the Holy Spirit see fit to make sure they were mentioned in the scripture? I am thinking that Matthew was the only one to mention them (right?) Matthew is the one who was wanting to present Christ as the King (right?)

But beyond these reasons, was there some other reason that the H. S. was keen to have them mentioned??? I wonder what the lasting effects of this encounter were in there own spiritual journey. This worship they offered to the young child, outside of a religious system, was it true worship, and if they new to worship this boy/king, might they also understood a deeper significance of true worship. This whole thought process of interpreting truth through the lenses of creation and the possibility that we can discover more of the creator by studying the creation and worship arising out of scientific study.... wise men still seek him they say.

Also, the scripture is vague, I have always had the impression that the Magi had the Hebrew Scripture as part of there reference system, but I can't find that in the Bible, what do you know about that? I know that Herod consulted the scripture to help them find the Christ Child, but do you think they were students of the scripture?

Cliff Martin said...

I do not believe the Bible mentions anything about that. We are left to surmise that they found Christ totally through astronomy (astrology?). They needed the Jerusalem scholars to point them to Bethlehem. But I've always thought they must have known something of the promised Hebrew Messiah, and probalby had some knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Tom said...

Hi Cliff,

I've been selfishly posting on my blog and greatly appreciating your comments there without taking part in your blog which I hope to do more.

As you note, science and religion have a strange relationship. Science can expand religious beliefs or squelch them.

I see science as a threat for the more "naturalistic" religions that worship the mountains, sun, or sea. When we realize they operate as natural forces, such deities lose their magic and mystery more than expanding them. It is this battle with evolution right now that is going on that threatens the God image for many Christians. I wonder, as we unravel more of the operations of nature and explain away the mysteries, will the Christian God and its theology be whittled away?

I'm not expecting you to answer this question in this post, but hope you address it in various ways across your blog.

Cliff Martin said...

Tom,

Much of what has passed as “evidence” for a Creator (even in my own life, and probably in yours when you were in the church) (i.e. the beauty of the Canadian Rockies, the thunder of the Pacific Ocean crashing into my Oregon Coast, the power of storms, the majesty of the night sky) take on less of role for me as I move more toward a naturalist view of Creation processes. The wonder of it all, and that it points to a Creator, does not completely vanish, but it does alter the nature of the evidence. As I bring together Scriptures and scientific discoveries and combine them with common sense, what emerges for me is not a deist God, but certainly a God who leaves things be, a God who allows randomness, a God who has purposed to take his hands off of the processes of the cosmos to a very large degree. This undermines what many have held on to as foundational to their faith. But not me. What I am seeing is an age long drama in which we are central players, a battle in which we are not just pawns, but real warriors. This will all unfold as my blog posts continue, but suffice it to say: Biblical Christianity, slightly redefined, makes more sense than it ever has in my life. It is bigger, more all-encompassing, and in some ways even less mysterious.

So, you ask “will the Christian God and its theology be whittled away?” and I sadly respond, Yes, for some, perhaps for many. But not for me. And I hope to be able to open minds, at least to the possibilities that things are going on around us (and have been for 13.7 billion years) that standard, traditional Christian theology cannot explain, for which it has no categories; but there are possibilities exposed, in part, by science that make better sense than the worn out Augustinian theology which has been handed down through the centuries. And these possibilities are in keeping with the teachings of Jesus, the Scriptures, and foundational elements of Christian faith.

One reason that I enjoy engaging, and being engaged, by you is that many of the atheist arguments have long been questions in my mind. In fact, long before I ever heard of Richard Dawkins, or read atheistic arguments, I asked these questions. (In those days, atheists were epitomized by the likes of Madalyn Murray O'Hair whom few of us took very seriously.) So personally, I validate your contentions, because I have struggled with them from within the house of faith for 30 years and more. Strangely, science has helped me to solve many of those riddles and not only preserve theism, but strengthen it in my mind.

Mike Beidler said...

The entire field of science, limited as it is to this cosmos, is a continuing study of the very work of God. With each new revelation of science, we learn something new about him. ... As ... certainty grows, we can receive new insights into the artist behind this awe-inspiring cosmos.

That's beautiful, Cliff! Like I mentioned on my blog, I am more in awe of a God that front-loaded the universe with everything it needed to result in what we see today, than I am in a God who created it all in 6 literal days.

The wonder of it all, and that it points to a Creator, does not completely vanish, but it does alter the nature of the evidence.

Indeed, it does alter our perception of the evidence. Just the other day, I caught myself telling my kids how God created everything that they see. My oldest son (6) said, "God didn't make our car!" How right he was. God's method of creation is much more naturalistic than we give Him credit for. At the same time, it doesn't lessen my awe of the cosmos and how it came into being.

Mike Beidler said...

Cliff,

Rereading your post, you wrote something that I missed the first time around: Other aspects of theology are based squarely upon Newtonian physics, with its rigid laws of motion, time and space.

What do you mean by this? Can you provide an example?

Thanks!