Saint Michael and All Angels, 2016
The religions of the world with some simplification are either revealed or natural.
Revealed religions root in information communicated from the spiritual world through some kind of intermediary, such as a prophet or author of writings. The Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, are revealed religions. The sacred texts are the Tanakh and the Talmud, the Holy Bible, and the Qur’an and Hadiths, respectively.
Natural religions, on the other hand, root in information that is observable, obvious, or in a conclusion based upon a perception by the senses. These religions are based on principles derived from reason and the study of nature. Taoism exemplifies a natural religion since it has no divinely inspired books or prophets though it is guided by the Tao Te Ching traditionally ascribed to Laozi.
Revelation in Christian theology signifies two different things. Primarily, revelation is the act of God, seen in the progressive unfolding of his eternal plan of salvation in Christ, by which he manifests and communicates himself to people, calls the church into being, and invites the loving response of assent and obedience. Secondarily, revelation is the body of truth made known through God’s unfolding plan. Increasingly theologians insist that Divine revelation reaches us primarily through God’s activity, the “deeds of power” mentioned in Acts 2:11. The working out of history itself is a series of God’s deeds of power.
Certain truths about God can be learned through man’s natural endowments. This category favorably compares with natural religion. Aristotle, outside the Christian covenant, believed he could establish God’s existence as the unmoved mover. The author of the Wisdom of Solomon in the first century before Christ was the first in the Scriptures to assert that human beings can come to know God through reason. And then he blames them for not worshiping God consequently (Wisdom 13:1-9). Other truths, such as the Doctrine of the Trinity, cannot be known except by faith. And so, Christian philosophers have distinguished “truths of reason,” such as God’s existence, from “truths of revelation,” such as the Trinity.
Saint Thomas Aquinas gave this distinction its classic formulation, and it is analogous to the antithesis between “natural theology” and “revealed theology.” Another school of theologians holds that truths of revelation and truths of reason differ only in degree.
When revelation has once been formulated, it may be known as dogma. Christians of the Protestant tradition believe that all revelation is sufficiently contained in the Scriptures while Catholics believe that the unwritten traditions of the Church contain revelation also. Catholic theologians recently have contrasted tradition and the Scriptures less sharply and have rather stressed their essential unity.
The word revelation appears most often in the BCP as the title of the last book of the New Testament and as a word quoted from the Scriptures. Two exceptions to these uses are notable. The first is in the service of the Consecration of a Church. When the bishop lays a hand upon the Lectern, the bishop says, “Father, your eternal Word speaks to us through the words of Holy Scripture. Here we read about your mighty acts and purposes in history, and about those whom you chose as the agents of your will. Inspired by the revelation of your Son, we seek your present purposes. Give us ears to hear and hearts to obey” (BCP, pages 570-571).
The second exceptional use of revelation is to be found in the “God the Father” section of The Catechism. The word appears in two questions and answers.
Q. What do we learn about God as creator from the revelation to Israel?
A. We learn that there is one God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.
Q. How was this revelation handed down to us?
A. This revelation was handed down to us through a community created by a covenant with God (BCP, page 846).
A couple of observations may be made. The first question and particularly its answer are drawn from the text of the Holy Bible. Each of the assertions in the answer may be supported by the Scriptures. Deuteronomy 6:4 and Isaiah 44:6 support the assertion of there being one God. God as the creator of heaven and earth may be found in Genesis 1:1. And, God as the creator of all things, seen and unseen, echoes Colossians 1:16. Inferentially, the first answer suggests that revelation is contained in the Holy Bible.
The second question and its answer suggest that the revelation that is the Holy Bible was written and transmitted through communities of people whose inspiration was God to whom they were related by mutual agreement through centuries. These two answers indicate how Christians identify revelation with the Holy Bible.
A question to ponder, then, is whether revelation ended when the writing of the Holy Bible ended. Or does God continue to reveal himself to us through other means? And, if revelation continues, how do we know it is of God? How do we know that God brings it about and not we ourselves?
God does not speak in a vacuum but to human beings, and a response is expected. If it is God that makes human beings hear and know, then we are expected to hear and to know—including loving obedience and our assent to our dependence upon God. This response of obedience and assent may be termed faith. To be faithful remains a challenge facing each generation and each individual. The choice is free, and we may see Saint Paul’s response in conversion as an example of the choice to hear and to accept the revealed mystery of Christ (Galatians 1:15-16) and to assent to that mystery by pressing on to lay hold of the divine prize (Philippians 3:12-14).
© 2016 Howard Stringfellow III