The Nature of Biblical Revelation


 This post probably will ruffle some feathers. It's about my own personal view of  Biblical revelation. For those of you who don't know I'm sort of the CADRE's token liberal. So this view is kind of an alternative to "inerrancy" or verbal plenary inspiration. Adherence to VPR is not a requirement for CADRE membership. I don't think my view is all that radical. When push comes to shove I am not saying "ignore the Bible." The bottom line is still Do what the Bible Says. Provided we understand what it says. This is really more about how inspiration works.

Atheists on the internet are always talking about contradictions in the Bible. These alleged contradictions fall into many categories. Most can be extinguished simply by remembering that all language had connotative meanings and all good writing uses literary devices, but many are based upon an inadequate understanding of the nature of divine revelation. The problem is that most of these atheist notions of "contradiction" are only contradictions becuase they are judged according to the fundamentalist model, veral plenary inspiration, (aka "inerrancy") by which the Bible is understood as literal and perfect. Actually the model used for this concept is similar to the notion of the boss of company writing a memo to the employees. Dictated to a secretary but every word in the memo is exactly what the boss wants to say, the whole is literally the word the of the boss.

The problem with the notions of revelation in the Christian tradition is that they are based upon the human understanding of what God would do. The human notion can be seen with the Book of Mormon—handed down from angels on high on Gold tablets—or the Koran—dictated by an Angel who grabbed Mohammed by the throat and forced him to write. The human notion tells us that there should be no mistakes, no problems, and the revelation should be ushered in with fanfare and pomp, clear and indisputable. But that is not the way of many religious traditions, and certainly not Christianity. There are problems, and even though most of them are conceived by ignorant people (most of the Internet atheists claims to "contradictions in the Bible" are based largely on not understanding metaphor or literary devices), there are some real problems and they are thorny. There are even more problems when it comes to the historicity of the text. But the important thing to note is that the revelations of the Christian faith are passed through human vessels. They contain human problems, and they are passed on safeguarded through human testimony. Even if the eye-witness nature of the individual authors of the NT cannot be established, the testimony of the community as a whole can be. The NT and its canon is a community event. It was a community at large that produced the Gospels, that passed on the Testimony and that created the canon. This communal nature of the revelation guarantees, if not individual authenticity, at least a sort of group validation, that a whole bunch of people as a community attest to these books and this witness.

What is needed is a new model. We need a model that allows for the mistakes of culture and the presence of the kinds of texts we find in ancient lore, mythological and symbolic in places, becuase this is what we find in the Biblical text. The memo from the boss doesn't work as a model for the Bible becasue it's not faithful to the real way the word is handed down. A better model  would be a personal reminiscence with someone who interviewed the boss. That would allow for the personality of the author to get between the reader and the original subject matter, becuase that is what we find in the Bible.

The Traditional view of "Inerrancy."

Most people tend to think in terms of all or nothing, black and white, true and false. So when they think about the Bible, they think it's either all literally true in every word or it can't be "inspired." This is not only a fallacy, but it is not even the "traditional" view. Even in the inherency camp there exists three differing views of exactly what is inerrant and to what extent. Oddly enough, the notion of verbal inspiration was invented in the Renaissance by Humanists! Yes, the dreaded enemy of humanism actually came up with the doctrine of inerrancy which didn't exist before the 19th century, in its current form, but which actually began in the Renaissance with humanists. The documentation on this point comes mainly from Avery Dulles, Models of Revelation, New York: Double Day, 1985. The humanist argument is documented on p. 36. He also demonstrates that the current Evangelical view basically dates form the 19th century, the Princeton movement, and people such as Benjamin Warfield (1851-1921). Proponents of this view include Carl C.F. Henry, Clark Pinnock, James I Packer, Francis Shaffer, Charles Warwick Montgomery, and others.

Not all of those guys stayed in the camp of the evangelicals. The late Clark Pinnock for example, who started out as a read hot fundie who taught Paige Patterson, wound up being identified with "open theology" Regarded as a defector. Yet these are all models of revelation that were found in the evangelical camp. These are conservative views, at least according to Avery Dulles, in his ground breaking book Models of Revelation.

Dulles Lists Five Versions of Inerrancy.

*Inerrency of original autographs and divine protection of manuscripts.
Proponents of this view include Harold Lindsell.

Inspiration of autographs with minor mistakes in transmission of an unessential kind.
Carl C.F. Henry.

*Inerrency of Textual intention without textual specifics.
Clark Pinnock.

*Inerrancy in Soteric (salvation) knowledge but not in historical or scientific matters.
Bernard Ramm

*Inerrent in major theological assertions but not in religion or morality.
Donald Blosche and Paul K. Jewett

I would isolate three major concerns in discussing why I reject inerrency (verbal plenary) model. I'm not putting these over as "contradictions in the Bible," but they problems with the model:

(1) Doesn't account for different types of text

(2) Idealized history

(3) no room for mythology

Knowing the kind of text is important because not all texts are meant to do the same things. Gensis is not intended to be a scientific text book or a literal history of creation. It's a borrowing of pagan myth (Sumerian, Babylonian) that was probably re-worked when Israelites were in the exile. It doesn't matter if it's not scientific, the author of Genesis had no concept of modern science it wasn't written to convey to us anything scientific. The spiritual truths that it communicates are communicated mythological, Mythology is a powerful psychological means of communicating certain kinds of truth. The History offered of Israel's sojurn in the wildernes and the establishment o the kingdom in the promised land is all idealized history. Modern archeology basically rules out most of the events in the conquest of Canaan. The point is they were making idealized history, recounting the glory of the past because they were slaves in exile.  There are better models of revelation that more accurately reflect these concerns.

Basic Models of Revelation:

Dulles presents five models of revelation, but the faith model really amounts to little more than "the Bible helps you feel good," so I am presenting only four. This core summery will not come close to doing justice to these views. But time and space limitations do not allow a discourse that would do them justice.

Revelation as History:

The Events themselves are inspired but not the text. John Ballie, David Kelsey, James Barr. This view can include oral events; the inspiration of the prophets, the early kerygma of the church (C.H. Dodd) Creedal formulation, as well as historical events such as the atonement. This view was largely held by a flood of theologians up to the 1960s. According to this view the Bible is the record of revelation not revelation itself.

Revelation as Inner Experience:

This view would include mystical experience and views such as Frederich Schleiermacher's feeling of utter dependence (see argument III on existence of God). Religious doctrines are verbalizations of the feeling; the intuitive sense of the radical contingency of all things upon the higher aegis of their existence; part of the religious a priori.

Revelation as Doctirne:

This is the basic doctrine of inerrancy as stated above. In most cases it is believed that the autographs were inspired but some allow for mistakes in transmission and other inaccuracies of an inconsequential nature. This means that 90% of the criticisms made my atheists and skeptics on the internet don't count, because most of them turn on metaphorical use of language or scribal error. I take this position based upon personal experience on many apologetic boards.

Revelation as Dialectical Presence:

The view that there is a dialectical relation between the reader and the text. The Bible contains the word of God and it becomes the word of God for us when we encounter it in transformative way. Karl Barth is an example of a major theologian who held this view.

No one of these views is really adequate. I urge a view based upon all of them. In some sense, that is, the Bible manifests versions of each of these views. So it is not just governed by one revelatory model, but is made of redacted material which exhibits all of these views. For example, the prophets spoke from their experience of God--their inner experience of God's prompting. Their words are recorded as the books of the prophets in the Bible. The Biblical prophetic books are then the written record of the inner experience of these men. The Gospels exhibit all of these tendencies. Passed on from oral tradition, redacted by members of the communities which passed on the traditions, they represent the written record of the events of Christ's life and ministry. In that sense the events themselves were inspired. But Jesus teachings, which we can assume were transmitted accurately for the most part, represent the word actually spoken by Jesus, and thus by God's perfect revelation to humanity. Jesus is the revelation; the Gospels are merely the written record of that revelation passed on by the Apostles to the communities. Thus we see both the event model and the revelation as doctrine model (traditional view). In the Epistles we see the inner-experience model clearly as Paul, for example, did not know that he was writing the New Testament. He demonstrates confusion at points, as when (in I Corinthians) he didn't recall how many of Stephan’s household he had baptized, but when it came to his answers on doctrinal matters he wrote out of the inner-experience of God. We can also assume that the redactions occurred in relation to some sort of inner-experience, they reflect some divine guidance in the sense that the redactors are reflecting their own experiences of God.

I know these views sound wildly radical to most Christians, but they are based on the works of major theologians, including those of the most conservative schools. The dialectical model is vague and sounds unimpressive. It really seems to be tautological statement: the word of God becomes meaningful when we encounter it in a meaningful way. Therefore, I adopt a model of revelation based upon all four models (granting that we do encounter it in more meaningful ways at some times than at others, but provided we understand that this is not saying that it ceases to be the word of God when we don't so encounter it), and of the doctrinal model accepting the views that say inerrant in intent but not specific transmission. The transmission includes some mistakes but of a minor kind.

My own model is a dialectical encounter model. It sees the Biblical text as the product of an encounter between humans and the divine. The upshot of the counter could take many forms. In some cases its a straight forward reporting of "this is what the Lord says." In some cases a reminiscence, in some cases a redaction of a borrowed myth as in the re-telling of the Sumerian Garden of Eden story. It's political propaganda and idealized history told by slaves in a foreign land to memorialize the glories of their bygone people, to preserve the faith. The purpose of all of that is to form a framework for the mission of Jesus as messiah. It's dialectical in that it works through an encounter between the reader and the text. The reader must have her own "divine-human" encounter in coming to understand the nature of the text and the truths it reflects for her own life.


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