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The Concept of Revelation

  • John J. Shepherd (a1)


The concept of revelation is a pivotal one, both in the study of religion in general, and with regard to Christianity in particular. Yet it is a fluid concept that has undergone notable transformations down the ages as succeeding generations have re-interpreted it in the light of fresh presuppositions which they have come to share. My purpose here is to offer a re-interpretation in the light of some contemporary presuppositions which, though not universal, are, I shall argue, sufficiently widely held, sufficiently basic, and sufficiently secure, to warrant accommodation. I shall be concerned primarily, though not in principle exclusively, with the concept of revelation in a Christian context.



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page 426 note 1 Barr, J., ‘Revelation Through History in the Old Testament and in Modern Theology’, in New Theology No. 1, eds. Marty, Martin E. and Peerman, Dean G. (N.Y.: Macmillan, 1964), p. 65.

page 427 note 1 Cf. S. Lukes, ‘Some Problems about Rationality’, and Hollis, M., ‘The Limits of Irrationality’, in Rationality, ed. Wilson, Bryan R. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1970).

page 427 note 2 Hollis, , op. cit. p. 218.

page 428 note 1 Cf. Miles, T. R., ‘On Excluding the Supernatural’, Religious Studies 1, 2 (April 1966), 141–50.

page 428 note 2 Cf. Swinburne, R. G., The Concept of Miracle (London: Macmillan, 1970), esp. pp. 47–8, 58–9.

page 429 note 1 Irrational, that is, for people who are aware of the sort of evidence referred to above in support of the principle. For although the giving of good reasons is a universal criterion of rationality, what counts as a good reason is not universal but context-dependent, depending on the data one has to go on at any given time. Thus while it is irrational for us to believe that the earth is flat, it would have been irrational for medieval man to believe that it was round. Similarly, although it is irrational for us who are aware of the developments of modern science and historical criticism, and so on, to deny the principle of natural explanation, it might be perfectly rational for, say, a Sicilian peasant to believe just the contrary.

page 429 note 2 M. Wiles, developing a Bultmannian position, avoids Bultmann's ambivalence (e.g. in his section ‘The “Act of God”’, in Bartsch, H.-W. (ed.), Kerygma and Myth (London: SPCK, 1972), pp. 196 ff.) by making it clear that for him ‘divine acts do not take place…in the gaps left by natural events, but in them in a hidden manner which does not affect in any way the closed weft of cause and effect’ ( Wiles, M., ‘Religious Authority and Divine Action’, Religious Studies VII (March 1971), 4, italics added).

The difficulty with this, however, is that it seems to slip into reductionism. Divine action is reduced, Wiles' overall argument implies, not indeed wholly to inaction (as that isolated quotation might suggest), but to creative-sustaining activity on the world. Yet surely that is inadequate precisely because, by eliminating specifically revelatory activity on the part of God, it reduces divine revelation to human discovery.

page 430 note 1 Shepherd, John J., Experience, Inference and God (London: Macmillan, 1975).

page 431 note 1 It is worth adding that the degree of independence from God ascribed to the world by this deference to the principle of natural explanation is in any case required on independent theological or philosophical grounds, in order to permit benevolent theism to cope with the exigencies of the problem of evil; cf. Tennant, F. R., Philosophical Theology, II (Cambridge: CUP, 1930). This further undermines the possible complaint of premature theological capitulation to science or the scientific outlook.

page 432 note 1 Cf. Whitehead, A. N., Process and Reality (New York: Harper and Row, 1957), p. 522: ‘He is the lure for feeling, the eternal urge of desire’.

page 433 note 1 Since writing this, I have come across the following remarks by Maclaren, E. (The Nature of Belief, London: Sheldon, 1976, p. 86): ‘Hints of mind-bending or hidden persuasion are sinister, and if God's effect on human belief can be depicted only in terms of subliminal, quasi-hypnotic suggestion by the Holy Spirit, theology is in a parlous state. Not only would such alleged operations be empirically undetectable, they would reduce man to a thing acted upon, and so trivialise any doctrine of creation…One would hope for less vulgarity of religious imagination than the overtones of hypnotism, blackmail or irresistible magnetism as modes of divine persuasion suggest.’

Forcefully expressed here are possible pitfalls in the kind of position I am defending – but I would like to think that I have avoided falling into them.

page 435 note 1 Tillich, P., Systematic Theology, I (London: Nisbet, 1953), 140.


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