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Lecture TH 302 - 07 - 3

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Lecture 302.07 - 3


This week we begin to actually explore doctrines, the "building blocks" of what we will be studying for the remainder of the course. Doctrines are the pieces we assempbe to form the systemsthat make up systematic theology. Doctrines both instruct us in what we believe, and they are themselves part of the content of what we believe.


So, this week, we explore the doctrine of Revelation.


By 'revelation,' we do not mean, in this case, a discussion of the last book of the New Testament (although the vision that John of Patmos had prior to the writing of that book is an example of what we mean by the term). In the sense we mean here, revelation points us to its root word: reveal. In revalation, something that was hidden is brought forward and made plain.  "Revelation," as Van Harvey tells us, translated the Greek word apokalypsis and literally means "an uncovering, a laying bare, making naked" (Handbook of Theological Terms 207).


In a discussion of doctrine, then, the term revealtion seeks to answer the question "how do we find God?" or "how does God find us?" We seek to answer this question because the God we know and serve is - in some ways, at least - hidden, remote, and unfathomable. And yet we claim to have some knowledge of God, and make statements about God's nature and presence authoritatively (both within the church and often from our own experience as believers). The doctrine of revelation is the broad category of theology that tries to make sense of how this knowledge is epistemologically possible.  ['Epistemology' means the study of knowledge, and is the branch of philosophy that answers the question "how do you know what you know?"]


In other words, when we examine the doctrine of revelation, we are basically asking ourselves "where does our knowledge of God come from?"


In our traditions, we come to know God from a variety of sources (remember our discussion from Lecture 1 of sources and norms). Some of what we could name as sources for our revelation of God include: the order of the natural world, scripture, what we've been taught in our faith backgrounds, our experience (the 'personal relationship' aspect), as well as science and philosophy (and there are many more examples we might name).


In our study of this doctrine, it is helpful to divide the discussion into General and Special revelation. Or, if you will, "theology from below" and 'theology from above" (referring to where the theology "starts" in asking the question)


General Revelation


Creation itself - the world, nature, and our experience of these things - is the ultimate example of general revelation. It is the evidence that is available to everyone (with the acknowledgement that certain physical limitations like blindness or deafness might modify this statement somewhat). It is the evidence "on the ground" that we can find without any presupposed beliefs or notions.


Moreover, we can say that general revelation is the knowledge of God that we gain through the use of our thinking and reason.  We put together knowledge of God from the facts we see in the world around us (hence "from below").  The world has a certain order (even though sometimes it feels disorderly and chaotic).  Also, our minds have an ordered-ness that allows us to see and categorize and understand things in the world.  The doctrine of general revelation takes all of these matters as evidence of a created order (and hence a creator who sets up order) and gives us certain things we can say, epitemologically about God (such as, "God is a creator," and "God prefers order to chaos - the sun rises in the morning and gravity keeps things from floating away, etc").


For some other examples of evidence that falls under the category of general revelation, refer to Guthrie pp. 41-42.


There are some aspects to this type of revelation that are very appealing.  For one thing, general revelation is knowledge that is available to everybody.  You might call it "equal opportunity revelation."  Often, the efforts of Christian apologetics use this type of revelation as the starting point: you don't have to be a believer to agree that the sun appears to rise every day and that gravity always works.  All you need is human reason.  Hence it is an easy starting point for apologetics.


A difficulty with relying solely of general revelation, however, is that it is not very helpful in getting at specific knowledge of God.  We can speak of God as a creator, and of God putting things in some form of order.  But is this God necessarily a good God?  If we just look at the world around us, much evidence would suggest no.  There is pain and suffering we can observe in creation, and simply saying "God creates" does not tell us how this pain and suffering fits into creation. 


Put simply, general revelation can tell us a lot about the philosophical attributes of God (for example, God's omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience), but general revelation does not necessarily lend itself to the belief in a specifically Christian God, nor what we might call a personal God interested in relationship with the creation.



Special Revelation


The doctrine of special revelation starts from the opposite assumtion: namely, that there are things we cannot know about God simply by looking at the created world, and things that must be said about God that are particular and specific (this is the basis, for example, of Paul's warning that not every spirit is the Holy Spirit, and thus the spirits must be tested to guard against idolatry).


In contemporary theology, we speak of Jesus Christ himself as the key source of special revelation.  First of all, this is because the person of Jesus Christ is precisely the way the creator God we speak of in general revelation chose to reveal the divine to humanity.  As general revelation is reliant upon human reason, special revelation is wholly dependent upon God's freedom to be whatever God wishes to be.  Thus God's self-disclosure in Christ is not dependent upon human need nor limited by human capacities of reason, but instead is the expression of God's freedom. 


This is one of the ways, theologically, that we express that God's wisdom in Christ confound the wise of the Earth, and how God's weakness on the cross can be stronger than any human power.  God does not play by our rules


So special revelation offers us theological categories to speak about the God who chooses to come to us strangely and not-limited by our expectations of nature and creation.  Hence, such revelation is by definition not open to everyone.  If these aspects of God were sensible (in all meanings of that word) then they would be mere expressions of Earthly wisdom and power.


This raises problems, however.  If special revelation is only open to some (those with "eyes to see," if you will) then by what authority do we judge who has eyes, and who does not?


However, special revelation has advantages, as well.  For it is through special revelation that we can get beyond the philosophical language about God and begin to speak about God as a personal God


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