(Part II will appear in the next issue)

The first World War seemed to explode quite decisively the eschatology of inevitable progress, and led to deep-seated uncertainty as to the rightness of the anthropocentric view of religion which had so gaily sponsored it. In this situation, two significant theological movements appeared, each stressing from complementary angles of approach the reality of the revealing action whereby God speaks to sinful man in judgment and mercy. The first was the dialectical “crisis-theology” of Karl Barth, which summoned the Church in the name of God to humble herself and listen to his catastrophic Word. The second was the “biblical theology” movement, which first became articulate in English through the work of Sir Edwyn Hoskyns, calling the biblical scholar in the name of historical objectivity to recognize that the Bible cannot warrantably be treated as a book of mystical devotion, nor as a hard core of non-supernatural history overlaid with unauthentic theology, but that it must be read as a churchly confession of faith in a God who has spoken and speaks still. These two movements, linked together in all manner of combinations, are the parent stems from which the theology of the past generation has grown. Taking as their own starting-point the reality of divine revelation, they have forced the Church to reconsider this theme with renewed seriousness, and to recognize that the proper task of theology is not reading off the surface level of the mind of man, as subjectivism supposed, but receiving, expounding and obeying the Word of God.

But this raises a crucial and complex problem for the theologian of the “post-liberal” age: how are we to conceive of the Word of God? In what relation does it stand to the Bible, and the Bible to it? The complexity of this issue in the minds of present-day theologians arises from the fact that they suppose themselves to be standing amid the wreckage of two fallen idols. On the one hand, the older orthodoxy, which recognized the reality of revelation and sought to build on it, was founded on belief in verbal inspiration and inerrancy; but these beliefs, it is said, have collapsed before the onslaught of biblical criticism, and are no longer tenable. On the other hand, nineteenth-century liberalism, with all its devotion to biblical science and the study of religious consciousness, left no room for revelation at all; and that is seen not to be satisfactory either. A new synthesis is held to be required, incorporating what was right and avoiding what was wrong in both the older views.

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The Bible And The Word

The problem, therefore, as modern theology conceives it, is this: how can the concept of divine revelation through the Bible be reintroduced without reverting to the old “unscientific” equation of the Bible with the Word of God? It is admitted that the biblical idea of revelation must in some sense be normative; and the main strands in the biblical idea—that revelation is a gracious act of God causing men to know him, that his self-communication has an objective content, that faith and unbelief are correlative to revelation (the former meaning reception of it, the latter, rejection), that the subject matter of revelation concerns Jesus Christ, and that the act of revelation is effected, and its content mediated, through Scripture—are matters of general recognition. It is seen, too, that Schleiermacherian mysticism, which denies the reality of revelation in toto, and naturalistic rationalism, which substitutes faith in what God has said for faith in what I think, are both wrong in principle. Yet, it is said, we cannot go back on the liberal view of the Bible. Hence the problem crystallizes itself as follows: how can we do justice to the reality and intelligibility of revelation without recourse to the concept of revealed truth? How can we affirm the accessibility of revelation in Scripture without at the same time committing ourselves to belief in the absolute trustworthiness of the biblical record?

The aim proposed is, not to withdraw the Bible from the acid-bath of rationalistic criticism, but to find something to add to the bath to neutralize its corrosive effects. The problem is, how to enthrone the Bible once more as judge of the errors of man while leaving man enthroned as judge of the errors of the Bible; how to commend the Bible as a true witness while continuing to charge it with falsehood. It is proposed, by drawing certain distinctions and introducing certain new motifs, so to refashion the doctrine of revelation that the orthodox subjection of heart and mind to biblical authority, and the liberal subjection of Scripture to the authority of rationalistic criticism, appear, not as contradictory, but as complementary principles, each presupposing and vindicating the other.

Revelation And Truths

Before going further, however, it is worth pausing to see on what grounds modern theology bases its rejection of the historic view that biblical revelation is propositional in character; for, though this rejection has become almost a commonplace of modern discussion, and is, of course, axiomatic for those who accept Schleiermacher’s interpretation of Christianity, it is clearly not something that can just be taken for granted by those who profess to reject his view.

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J. K. S. Reid recognizes that “there is no a priori reason why the Bible should not have this … character” (viz., that of being a corpus of divinely guaranteed truths (The Authority of Scripture, London, Methuen, 1957, p. 162 f.). But if that is so, the a posteriori arguments brought against this view must be judged very far from decisive.

Archbishop Temple, in his much-quoted discussions of our subject (Nature, Man and God, London, Macmillan, 1934, Lectures XII, XIII; essay in Revelation, ed. Baillie and Martin, London, Faber, 1937), rejected this conception of Scripture on three counts: first, that little of it seems to consist of formal theological propositions; second, that little or none of it seems to have been produced by mechanical “dictation,” or anything like it; third, that if we are to regard the Bible as a body of infallible doctrine we shall need an infallible human interpreter to tell us what it means; and “in whatever degree reliance upon such infallible direction comes in, spirituality goes out” (Nature, Man and God, p. 353). But, we reply, the first two points are irrelevant, and the third false. To assert propositional revelation involves no assertions or expectations a priori as to the literary categories to which the parts of Scripture will belong (only study of the text can tell us that); what is asserted is merely that all affirmations which Scripture is found to make, and all other statements which demonstrably embody scriptural teaching, are to be received as truths from God. Nor does this position involve any a priori assertions as to the psychology of inspiration, let alone the mechanical “dictation-theory,” which no Protestant theologian seems ever to have held. (“Dictation” in old Protestant thought was a theological metaphor declaring the relation of the written words of Scripture to the divine intention, with no psychological implications whatever.) Temple’s third point we deny; we look to Scripture itself to teach us the rules for its own interpretation, and to the Holy Spirit, the Church’s only infallible teacher, to guide us into its meaning, and we measure all human pronouncements on Scripture by Scripture’s own words.

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Others raise other objections to our view of the nature of Scripture. It is said, for instance, that modern study has proved that Scripture errs. But proved is quite the wrong word: the truth is, rather, that modern critical scholarship has allowed itself to assume that the presence of error in Scripture is a valid hypothesis, and to interpret the phenomena of Scripture in line with this assumption. However, the hypothesis has never in any case been shown to be necessary, nor is it clear how it could be; and the biblical doctrine of Scripture would rule it out as invalid in principle. Again, it is held that to regard the Bible as written revelation is bibliolatry, diverting to Scripture honor due only to God. But the truth is rather that we honor God precisely by honoring Scripture as his written Word. Nor is there more substance in the claim that to assert the normative authority of Scripture is to inhibit the freedom of the Spirit, who is Lord of the Word; for the Spirit exercises his lordship precisely in causing the Church to hear and reverence Scripture as the Word of God, as Calvin reminded the Anabaptists four centuries ago.

Denial Of Revealed Truth

However, despite the inconclusiveness of the arguments for so doing and the Bible’s self-testimony on the other side, modern theology finds its starting point in a denial that Scripture, as such, is revealed truth. The generic character which this common denial imparts to the various modern views is clearly brought out by Daniel Day Williams in the following passage:

In brief this is the new understanding of what revelation is.… Revelation as the “self-disclosure of God” is understood as the actual and personal meeting of man and God on the plane of history. Out of that meeting we develop our formulations of Christian truth in literal propositions.… Revelation is disclosure through personal encounter with God’s work in his concrete action in history. It is never to be identified with any human words which we utter in response to the revelation. In Nature, Man and God, William Temple described revelation as “intercourse of mind and event, not the communication of doctrine distilled from that intercourse.”

Doctrines, on this view, are not revelation, though they are formulated on the basis of revelation. As Temple put it elsewhere, “There is no such thing as revealed truth.… There are truths of revelation, that is to say, propositions which express the results of correct thinking concerning revelation; but they are not themselves directly revealed” (Nature, Man and God, p. 317). What this really means is that the historic Christian idea of revelation has been truncated; the old notion that one part of God’s complex activity of giving us knowledge of himself by teaching us truths about himself is hereby ruled out, and we are forbidden any more to read what is written in Scripture as though it were God who had written it. We are to regard Scripture as a human response and witness to revelation, but not in any sense revelation itself.

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After observing that nearly all theologians today take this view, Williams goes on, in the passage from which we have already quoted, to explain the significance of this change: “What it means,” he writes, “is that Christian thought can be set free from the intolerable dogmatism which results from claiming that God’s truth is identical with some human formulation of it” (scriptural no less than later creedal, apparently). “It gives freedom for critical re-examination of every Christian statement in the light of further experience, and in the light of a fresh encounter with the personal and historical act of God in Christ” (Interpreting Theology 1918–1952, London, S.C.M., 1953; What Present-day Theologians Are Thinking, New York, Harper, 1952, p. 64 f., drawing on Temple, op cit., pp. 316 ff.).

Problem Of Objectivity

Professor Williams’ statement well sums up the modern approach, and its wording suggests at once the basic problem which this approach raises: namely, the problem of objectivity in our knowledge of God. What is the criterion whereby revelation is to be known? If there is no revealed truth, and the Bible is no more than human witness to revelation, fallible and faulty, as all things human are, what guarantee can we have that our apprehensions of revelation correspond to the reality of revelation itself? We are sinful men, and have no reason to doubt that our own thoughts about revelation are as fallible and faulty as any; by what standard, then, are we to test and correct them? Is there a standard, the use of which opens in principle a possibility of conforming our ideas of revelation to the real thing? Historic Christianity said yes: the biblical presentation of, and pattern of thinking about, revelation-facts is such a standard. Modern theology, however, cannot say this; for the characteristic modern position really boils down to saying that the only standard we have for testing our own fallible judgments is our own fallible judgment. It tells us that what we study in Scripture is not revelation but the witness of faith to revelation; and that what we as Christian students have to do is critically to examine and assess the biblical witness by the light, not of extra-biblical principles (that, it is agreed, would be illegitimate rationalism), but of the contents of revelation itself, which the Church by faith has some idea of already, and which it seeks to clarify to itself by this very study.

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Such, we are told, is the existential situation in which, and the basic motive for which, the Church studies Scripture. And the “critical re-examination of every Christian statement in the light of further experience” which is here in view is a reciprocal process of reconsidering and reinterpreting the faith of the Church and the faith of the Bible in terms of each other: not making either universally normative for the other, but evolving a series of working approximations which are offered as attempts to do justice to what seems essential and constitutive in both.

Science And Subjectivism

Theology pursued in this fashion is held to be “scientific,” and that on two accounts. In the first place, it is said, theology is hereby established as the “science of faith,” a strictly empirical discipline of analyzing the contents of Christian faith in its actual manifestations, in order to elucidate the nature of the relationship which faith is, and of the object to which it is a response. (Reference in these terms to the reality of the object of faith is thought to parry the charge that this is just Schleiermacher over again.) Then, in the second place, this theological method is held to vindicate its scientific character by the fact that, in interpreting and restating the faith of the Bible, it takes account of the “scientific” critical contention that the biblical witness contains errors and untruths, both factual and theological—a contention which, no doubt, is generally regarded these days as part of the faith of the Church.

But it is clear that theology, so conceived, is no more than a dexterous attempt to play off two brands of subjectivism against each other. On the one hand, the subject proposed for study is still the Church’s witness to its own experience, as such, and the contents of Scripture are still treated simply as important material within this category. It is true that (at the prompting of critical reason) the prima facie character of this experience, as one of objective relationship with a sovereign living God, is now taken seriously, and that due respect is paid to the Church’s conviction that the biblically-recorded experience of prophets and apostles marks a limit outside which valid Christian experience is not found, but this does not affect the basic continuity between the modern approach and that of Schleiermacher. On the other hand, autonomous reason still acts as arbiter in the realm of theological metholology, following out only those principles of judgment which it can justify to itself as “scientific” on the basis of its own independent assessment of the real nature of Christianity. It is true that (out of regard for the distinctive character of Christian experience) this “scientific” method recognizes the uniqueness of Christianity, and resists all attempts to minimize it; and to this end it requires us to master the biblical thought forms, in terms of which this unique experience received its classical expression. But it does not require us to accept the biblical view of their objective significance except insofar as our reason, judging independently, endorses that view; and in this respect it simply perpetuates the theological method of the Enlightenment.

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A Play On Words

The effect of following the modern approach has naturally been to encourage a kind of biblical double talk, in which great play is made with biblical terms, and biblical categories are insisted on as the proper medium for voicing Christian faith, but these are then subjected to a rationalistic principle of interpretation which eliminates from them their basic biblical meaning (e.g., a story such as that of the Fall is treated as mythical, significant and true as a symbol revealing the actual state of men today, but false if treated as the record of an objective historical happening). Thus, theological currency has been debased, and a cloud of ambiguity now broods over much modern “biblicism.” This, at least, is to the credit of Bultmann that, having pursued this approach so radically as to categorize the whole New Testament doctrine of redemption as mythical, he has seen, with a clearheadedness denied to many, that the most sensible thing to do next is to drop the mythology entirely and preach simply that brand of existentialism which, in his view, represents the New Testament’s real “meaning.”

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Trustworthy Witness

It is clear that, “scientific” or not, this nicely balanced synthesis of two forms of subjectivism is not in any way a transcending of subjectivism. It leaves us still to speculate as to what the biblical symbols and experience mean, and what the revelation is which they reflect and to which they point. It leaves us, indeed, in a state of utter uncertainty; for, if it is true (as Scripture says, and modern theology mostly agrees) that men are sinful creatures, unable to know God without revelation, and prone habitually to pervert revelation when given, how can we have confidence that the biblical witness, and the Church’s experience, and our own ideas, are not all wrong? And why should we think that by a “scientific” amalgam of the three we shall get nearer to the reality of revelation than we were before? What trust can we put in our own ability to see behind the biblical witness to revelation so surely that we can pick out its mistakes and correct them? Such questions did not trouble the subjectivist theologians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, who assumed the infallibility of the human intellect and wholly overlooked the noetic effects of sin.

The mid-twentieth century, however, haunted by memories of shattered philosophies and exploded ideals, and bitterly aware of the power of propaganda and brain-washing, and the control that non-rational factors can have over our thinking, is tempted to despair of gaining objective knowledge of anything, and demands from the Church reasoned reassurance as to the accessibility of divine revelation to blind, bedevilled sinners. But such reassurance cannot in principle be given by those who on scriptural grounds acknowledge the reality of sin in the mind, and hence the bankruptcy of rationalism, and yet on rationalistic grounds jettison the notion of inscripturated divine truth. For unless at some point we have direct access to revelation normatively presented, by which we may test and correct our own fallible notions, we sinners will be left to drift on a sea of speculations and doubts forever. And when modern theology tells us that we can trust neither the Bible nor ourselves, it condemns us to this fate without hope of reprieve.

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James I. Packer is Tutor at Tyndale Hall, Bristol, England, to which post he was called in 1954 from St. John’s Church, Harborne, Birmingham. He holds the D.Phil. degree from Oxford. His article is an abridgment of his chapter on “Contemporary Views of Revelation” from the volume Revelation and the Bible, a symposium by twenty-four evangelical scholars, scheduled to be published this year by Baker Book House.

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