The philosophical issues of the Christian claim to revelation are very much to the fore amongst theologians. The turn of the philosophical wheel of fortune may now, strangely, yield unexpected support for those who claim the indispensable role of Scripture for revelation in contrast to those who claim experience of God alone as revelation. At best it is hazardous to inject personal experiences into an essay, but I beg the reader’s indulgence. It has been disconcerting to find my theological stance juxtaposed simply by change of geography. In Canada, as an evangelical Christian, I stressed the importance of personal faith. Since coming to the southern United States I find myself cast by some into the role of a “propositionalist” or “Reformation scholastic.” By this they mean one who advocates not personal religion but creedal subscription for faith.

The issue can be stated pointedly: Can we have the knowledge of God without the knowledge about God? Existentialist theologians answer, or seem to answer, yes. My answer is, no. The issue is not a new one. It shows itself, though in very general terms, in the continuing transcendentalist stress of German theology in contrast to the empiricism that has conditioned British thought. One might recall the indignation of Austin Fairer at the logical and theological ingenuity of Bultmann, the disjunction between the late John Baillie and Karl Barth, or even the questions argued between Barth and Brunner.

The problem is first how to conceive of the infinite and eternal God, and then how to state the relation of the impassible God to the world. Plato made only the world of Ideas and the Good real; the phenomenal world is fundamentally unreal and unintelligible, he said. The unhistorical character of the confrontationist claim to revelation is not unlike this. The Christian claim to historical revelation must mean that in at least some ways and at some times and places history does convey the reality and will of God. How often, how much, and how accurately, are the questions that divide us. This brings into view whether Scripture can be, and ought to be, viewed as revelation, or part of revelation, or revelation in part. The existentialist denies that the term revelation can be used in any other fashion than the direct confrontation of the soul by God. Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Tillich, Berdyaev, among others, are claimed to articulate this concept.

The confrontationist says that God reveals only God; that the meaning of the term revelation can be only “God speaking to me as God and commanding my obedience,” to summarize oft-thundered arguments that I have heard. It goes without question that God reveals God. But no pronouncements backed by reddened necks and dilated eyes should deter us from inquiring whether this is all that the term revelation carries for Christians. The apparent simplicity of the dogma is deceptive. We cannot accept the withdrawal to non-rational categories or the rejection of logical procedures too early in the game. Whoever destroys logic will by logic be destroyed.

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The Confrontationist’s Silence

In one such debate among a group of students, the confrontationist withdrew to the very propositional cliché that “God speaking to me directly” is the only meaning of revelation. When he was asked how this came, what it rested upon, or to say one thing about God, we got silence—a silence that seems quite appropriate to the totally subjective character of the claim, and not unlike the silence of the ancient skeptics. The argument ended as follows: “Do you believe in God?” “Yes,” he replied. “Well then,” we pursued, “do you believe in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ?” “This I cannot say,” he replied. One might concede that this could be an issue of Tillich’s doctrine, let us say, but it is evidently a far cry from the claims to faith in God of apostolic Christianity.

To say that we can have the Christian experience witnessed to by the New Testament without the truth from the New Testament that generates it seems to be a very precarious position indeed. It will be contended here that the saving confrontation with God in Christ depends upon, and takes up into it as part of its reality, historical elements such as the written apostolic word. We cannot claim the transcendent experience, the oneness of the soul with God, or of the soul with God in Christ, without the truth that God gives of himself, especially in the saving events of history, the truth of which comes to us by historical media.

Fact and theory, faith and knowledge go together in any reasonable and intelligible religion, especially in Christianity, which claims to be a historical religion.

The vitality of faith for life is apparent whether one thinks of Aristotle’s predication of the archai upon grounds of a settled conviction (pistis), St. Paul’s declaration that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” Jung’s notice that faith is fundamental to the modern man’s search of a soul, A. N. Whitehead’s argument that science developed on the medieval faith in a rational God who made an intelligible world, or Bronowski’s common-sense base of science. The solutions to the basic problems of life, not only at the outset of knowledge but also at its outer limits (for issues like history, communion, sin, and death), are made in terms of faith.

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Faith Founded On Fact

Christian faith is not hung on a sky-hook but is founded securely in fact. One senses that the writers of the New Testament were terribly empirically minded. “No belief,” said Thomas, “unless I plunge my finger into the nailprint.” “That which we have heard, seen, and handled declare we unto you,” says the writer of the first Johannine epistle. “We were eyewitnesses,” declares St. Peter. The fact-basis of faith is everywhere apparent in Scripture. This is to claim that faith without truth is impossible to Christians; and, that truth is not some ether that haunts the atmosphere or the brain but something that is the function of statements and that grasps us when there is conveyed that which is actually the case. States of mind are not propositions. If the confrontationist claims truth, then he must cast it into propositions. He cannot claim ineffability, truth, and non-propositionalism. This conclusion is reinforced rather than undercut by the words of our Lord to Thomas, “Blessed are they that have not seen and have believed,” because their faith will not stand in the faith of others nor completely of itself, but in the word of truth, which can scarcely therefore fall outside the penumbra of the term revelation.

Far from undercutting knowledge or the truth for faith, St. Paul vindicates it in First Corinthians 1 and 2. Against the wisdom of the world Paul puts the wisdom of God in the act and word of the Cross. Then by a play on a historic philosophical concept (to me on), he declares that the Christian things that are unreal to the world (ta me onta) have brought to nothingness the being or realities of the world (ta onta). This happens because the truth of God fills the void created by the errors of the world. St. Paul says that his speech and wisdom are not of men but of God. It is the wisdom in Christ known to the Christian in a mystery: it is “words which the Holy Ghost teaches,” he says, which issue for the Christian in the “mind of Christ” as against the speech and concepts of the natural man. Now, whatever charge of gobbledygook may be passed by men on such mysteries, let it be clear that the Apostle claimed a divinely articulated revelation in human language. This is the claim to the revelational function of language in its truth functions for at least a part of the meaning of the term revelation.

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An Intelligible Proposition

Similarly, when the writer of Hebrews says, “He that cometh to God must believe that He is,” he does not leave the matter there, but adds the perfectly intelligible proposition, “and that He is the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him.” In other words, it is not some god, nor any god, but the God who in fact exists and who is dependable, of whom he speaks. This is not the reign of silence, nor the stab of conjecture, but the triumph of revelation that gives the truth of what is actually the case. If the revelation is historical, why cannot God use such finite elements as language? There seems to be no sound reason for excluding ex hypothesi either the fact-basis or the revelational function of language from the faith that is Christian (note the suggestions of M. B. Foster in Mystery and Philosophy).

For Christians the highest conception of reality is that of persons in interpersonal relations. Such recent readable accounts as Leonard Hodgson’s For Faith and Freedom and H. D. Lewis’s Our Experience of God argue this in a highly competent manner.

But the concept of persons in interpersonal relations points up the categories by which we interpret reality as these bear upon the possibility and nature of revelation. Leonard Hodgson has given a very succint definition of human personal life. It is to be the individual subject of experiences mediated through a particular body in space and time. My own definition parallels this in essential respects: To be personal means to be a self, a rational self, a moral self, and a purposing self. Thus we are concerned with the environment (space and time) and the self-moved creature within it (as Plato would put it). The person is not an aggregate of experiences (as the behaviorist says) but the subject of these. This subject has the power of thought and action, in view of moral ends.

Thus, prior to, and more primary than, the questions of the validity and the change by new evidence of such categories as fashion the Ptolemaic, Newtonian, Einsteinian, or post-Einsteinian conceptions of the world, are the categories that make logical thought in the world possible at all. These I would like to call the intellectual and the moral, and the causal and volitional elements of experience.

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As a rational creature, man grasps the meanings of things, i.e., their sense (which he cannot even begin to do without presupposing the sense he looks for), but this intellectual part cannot be bifurcated from his moral life. He acts in terms of moral ends. In Logic and the Basis of Ethics, A. N. Prior renews the claim that ethics cannot be built upon a non-ethical footing. The noetic and the moral go together in experience. Response to the truth is moral as well as intellectual. P. T. Forsyth remarked in an apt aphorism, “The truth we see depends upon the men we are.”

In addition to these are the issues of, first, a dependable world, regular in its function and therefore patient of scientific study; second, the claim that contingency makes upon us with its double issue of moral freedom, which seems to threaten causal dependability, and a teleological interpretation of the world according to the will of God. To be personal and moral must mean that choices are real; it must mean that the course of events might have been otherwise and that this difference would have rested upon the decision of some will.

Other categories which Christians acclaim rest upon these. Some are: Creation, Fall, Grace, Redemption, and Church. All of these turn back upon the conception of reality at its highest as personal; that is, of a creation moved and sustained by God and looking to the sharing of the Trinitarian life of God by man.

What Confrontation Means

To speak of persons in interpersonal relations is to raise the question of the meaning of confrontation. What is personal confrontation? Everybody talks of this as if he knows what it is—until precise articulation is required.

There is involved here not only the issue of the divine-human encounter, but also the question of how human beings know one another and communicate with one another. Clearly, silence is something less than desirable (especially between lovers!); but on the other hand, language can include much more than words. Bodily states, such as pleasure, happiness, pain, fear, and disappointment, communicate meanings to others. Facial or bodily gestures do also. Other kinds of symbolic acts are employed by human beings as forms of language. Even the actions we perform in the normal course of living convey meanings to others.

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But of the symbols that man employs in very intricate ways to communicate with others, by far the most common and significant is ordinary language. Why should it be thought beneath the dignity of God to employ the language of men to communicate his truth? If Scripture is taken seriously, it will be seen that God has used this finite vehicle as one amongst others, yet as the primary one, to communicate his truth.

Surely human confrontations envision something more than the facings of faces. Something higher, deeper, and more meaningful is suggested by the term confrontation. It involves the meeting of minds, of common response to one another—in the truth. Is there ever personal confrontation of any kind unless a word is spoken? Is this not the primary significance of the Johannine employment of Logos for Jesus Christ as God incarnate? Logos, that is, not in any one of dozens of possible ancient usages, but in that usage now intended by the Holy Ghost to John and to us. The confrontation of persons involves the communication of truth. Truth is a function of language.

Truth—An Inescapable Function

The Christian revelation and message takes this form. How can we escape the revelation function of languages unless we substitute the primacy of theistic mystique for the Gospel which calls for repentance toward God and faith in Jesus Christ the Lord? This is to judge neither the importance nor the efficacy of the former—we leave that to God—but it is to claim that the truth of God, if it is given in a historical revelation, must involve propositions that articulate it. Can there be meaningful existential confrontation that evacuates events of their historicity? This possibility does not seem to occur to the New Testament Christians.

Limitation of space precludes discussion of two further issues: the problem of language and the problem of history; but the direction my thought takes can be indicated. First, words store up meanings for minds. Ambiguity is an insurmountable barrier only where the communication of meaning is impossible. Second, event and interpretation go together in our world. For example, the Cross is apostolically interpreted event, given to faith, and enscripturated for our faith also.

To conclude: Can we rest the case for Christianity solely upon unhistorical parables, myths, or events? Is the confrontation of persons meaningful unless a word happens? This seems to demand a language of some kind. I submit that ordinary language, used by men of God in extraordinary ways, conveys the revelation of God in statements that tell the truth. How truth can be disjoined finally from revelation has not been shown. What do the words “truth of person” mean? This difficulty is increased when “truth of person” is contrasted with “truth about person.” Ought we not to grapple with the concept “truth from person”?

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What the eternal state will be is not known to us now, nor do we know fully what “event” means for us both in history and in eternity. The living quality of historical events is clearest to us in the saving significance of the Cross; and that life into which the Cross calls us, the fellowship of the Trinitarian life of God, is foreshadowed in John 17. But for both we are dependent upon that apostolic word of Scripture that is normative of the vital experience of Christ we now know. We do not imitate the experiences of the apostles, nor is the norm for our experience determined by that of our contemporaries. Existentialist theologians are singularly reluctant to advance either their own or some extra-biblical saint’s experience as the norm and content of revelation. But references to biblical persons, to the words of the Bible, and to the record of Jesus Christ abound in their writings. In this the Holy Scriptures, whose words give the truth of God, find dramatic vindication of their revelatory function.

The claim of Kierkegaard, and other existentialists, that the knight of faith knows the truth because he grasps the paradox of faith that calls upon him to do the grotesque thing, the irrational or the mad thing, cannot stand, if by this is meant that the universal he answers to is only in himself. The moral law of God, the truth of God, or the knowledge of God stands in the universal revelation of his power and righteousness (the distortion, not the adequacy of which is in question) and in the specific communication of the will of God by the Logos to men capable of receiving the truth. The universal, the truth, is not given abstractly and timelessly only, but historically and concretely. This is that word of truth of the salvation of God that we have in Holy Scripture, vindicated to faith by the Holy Spirit. The vitality of Christian life and witness stands in the joyous fullness of a Gospel, not in the dark face of existential leap.

Samuel J. Mikolaski, professor of theology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, has the B.A. and, M.A. degrees from the University of Western Ontario (Canada), and the D.Phil. from Oxford University. An extended treatment of the subject of this article will appear in the British journal Faith and Thought.

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