I opened with a short preface yesterday about divine revelation. I have touched piecemeal on this topic before, but I thought a few specific meanderings on this topic might be in order. This might just be a flight of fancy on my part, but I think a lot of the doctrinal turmoil that Christians (or any religion for that matter), who believe they have the Truth, get embroiled really stems from our understandings of divine revelation.
We believe we have the Truth, and that Truth must come from God because God is Truth. Various Christian traditions come to believe they have received the Truth not because they were able to figure it all out on their own, but because God revealed his Truth to us in some manner. This is, in essence, Divine Revelation. The original Catholic encyclopedia had a snappy little definition of Divine Revelation that I found interesting and surprisingly concise, as that version of the Catholic Encyclopedia, though erudite, is not known for its brevity. It defines revelation as, “the communication of some truth by God to a rational creature through means which are beyond the ordinary course of nature.”
I think most Christians would believe in revelation. (To be clear, I do mean divine revelation, not the Book of Revelation in the bible.) I do not think most Christians other than perhaps some odd Gnostic variant, would argue that Christianity come up with all this stuff about Christ and the Messiah on their own. (Non-Christians in the school of comparative religion thought that believe all religion is man-made might, however, believe that Christians did make all this stuff up, but that is an issue for another day) The mode or means of how God reveals Himself is the contentious part.
Protestants tend to fall into varying schools of thought on this. Some would argue Sola Scriptura, (i.e. ‘by the Bible alone’) as the sole, or at least primary, means of Divine Revelation. Even in that school of thought, there are degrees of bible primacy. Some of the more Radical Reformers of the Protestant reformation believed that anything we teach, believe, or do as Christians has to be based on what we can find in the written Bible, and, conversely, if we cannot base it specifically and solely on the Bible, then it is a false tradition and something to be purged from the church, whereas other Protestants took a more moderate approach like Luther and Anglicanism (and least the non-Puritanical thread of Anglicanism) taught that as long as Church tradition did not clearly contradict or repudiate the plain meaning of Scripture, then it was okay.
The more Radical Reformer’s implementation of Sola Scriptura usually played out in very strange and oftentimes amusing practical applications. For example, since the Feast of Christmas on December 25th is not specifically in the bible, we should not celebrate it. Likewise, we should not sing hymns unless they are specific texts from the bible, or as in some denominations, they do not even use musical instruments of any kind because it is not found in the New Testament. This last case brings up another interesting phenomenon in itself of what to do when the Old Testament allows something but the New Testament is silent or vague on an issue because, oddly, the Psalms say to praise God with harps and lyres in a number of places. Likewise, the New Testament clearly says to do one thing that makes the modern mind squeamish like holding all possessions in common as in the Book of Acts or the forbidding of usury (Jesus personally forbids this charging of interest on loans in a number of places). In short, Christians often end up doing a lot of mental gymnastics to justify why they do what they do and still be basing everything on Scripture alone.
So, that leaves other means other than Scripture as sources of Divine Revelation. This can come in experience (John Wesley’s favorite) or reason (Liberal Protestants and Enlightenment era Christians loved this one). I have always been a bit skeptical of saying experience is a particularly coherent mode of divine revelation because they often tend toward Existentialism or very experiential statements of truth that are virtually impossible to tell if the experience was in fact God or was simply how someone personally felt. How do you prove a feeling is not a feeling by God?
Reason, likewise, can be pretty sketchy because humans can rationally justify just about any belief or action if they think long enough about it. Ripping apart unborn babies in utero is okay because it is “every woman’s right to choose.” Dropping bombs on Syria with no objective that will probably end up harming some civilians because Syria uses chemical weapons on civilians is an end that justifies the means. “Victimless crime” does not really harm anyone and is thus okay. Then there is the ultimate example: Every single thing the Nazis ever did was perfectly legal under German law at the time they did it. Those laws were premised on (though twisted) logical reasons and rationales. Had the Nazis after the war actually argued that their reasons and rationales were Truth and they were therefore justified in doing what they did under social Darwinism or whatever, convicting them would have been philosophically much harder, but almost all of them simply hid under the “We were just following orders” or “we did not really know the extent of what Hitler was doing” defense, which pretty much tacitly admitted they knew what happened was morally wrong.
So, what is a Christian to believe if Scripture unto itself is sometimes unclear? Are we just out of luck in terms of Divine Revelation, particularly if things like reason, intellect, and experiences are so shaky? In my next entry, I will tackle that issue.