The Meaning of Revelation

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A Review of Richard Niebuhr's book

Niebuhr, H. Richard. The Meaning of Revelation.

New York: The Macmillan Company, 1941.


 According to Richard Niebuhr, revelation theology of seems irrelevant in the maelstrom of religious thought today (1941), but not so in past eras. Although we cannot look to the pat answers of Paul of Tarsus, Luther and Calvin in the light of modern sociological deductions, theologians must still be concerned with the same basic questions these men faced. And a modern theology of revelation is vital if one surveys the theological frontiers of the last few hundred years:

 The early 18th century battle of Deism versus Supernaturalism culminated in the faithless skepticism of the ecclesiast Butler and the philosopher Hume. Kant (d. 1804), in opposition, concluded that the boundaries of human reason became the beginnings of faith. The mystic William Law (d. 1761) proposed the need for both faith and reason in revelation theology, observing that objections to the gospel increased in proportion to the books written to defend it. Wesley (d. 1791), Whitefield, Edwards and crew abandoned the defense of the gospel entirely in favor of preaching it, offering the divine experience as proof of the existence and substance of God instead of apologetic theories. "The time for fairy tales is past," Schleiermacher's (d. 1834) rhetorical question, sums up 19th century thought.




Codex Sinaiticus

New Testament:

from the famed discovery


The earliest, oldest New Testament text has finally been released to the public.  You may read the Codex Sinaiticus online - but only if you know Greek!  To read it inCodex Sinaiticus New Testament H T Anderson English English, you need the only English translation we know.  The H. T. Anderson English Translation of the Codex Sinaiticus, with the three extra early New Testament books and the Sonnini Manuscript of Acts 29 included, and the original absences of certain verses (put in there later by the 'church') is now available only at here.  

THIS IS NOT A CHEAP, SCANNED-IN FACSIMILE. This is a first edition of the text published in easy-to-read Georgia font with plenty of room between verses for your notes.2 points between verses, hard or soft cover.


The Nazarene Acts
of the Apostles

Also known as
The Recognitions of Clement

Ever wonder why PAUL and not PETER received the mission to the lost tribes?  Wasn't Peter the stone upon which the "church" was to be built?  In this new translation of the Nazarene Acts, we follow Kefa (Peter) as he itinerates from Jerusalem and up the Mediterranean coast up to Tripoli, as recorded in the journals of his successor, Clement of Rome (Phi 4:3).  Every message Kefa preached, the company he kept, and the great works of faith the the Almighty accomplished through him are herein recorded.  This 300 page volume has been 'hidden' in the back of an obscure volume of the "Church Fathers" all this time.  Could it be that, in establishing the Gentile 'church' by pushing away from Judaism, this history was purposely hidden?


 Rather than totally discarding any of the themes of great theological thinkers of the past, we may look to their wisdom in constructing the revelation theology of today, just as we gauge the trends of the future by assessing the events of history, which must now be understood in the light of the greatest influence effecting 20th century thought - spatial and temporal relativity as applied to history (known generically as "perspectival relativism").

 Historical relativism is the concept first found in proto-psychology, then history and conflict method sociology where "all knowledge is conditioned by the standpoint of the knower," since we know that we are "historic selves whose metaphysics, logic, ethics and theology, like [our] economics, politics and rhetoric are limited, moving and changing in time." In this manner of thinking, exemplified in the writing of Marx, Weber and others, our dogmatic and authoritarian doctrines and attitudes seem merely "induction from a limited historic and social experience." In fact, all philosophies are useless between people of different cultural and ethical backgrounds, since reality is socially

constructed, and the ability to share values is limited to those of similar backgrounds. Thus modern theologians are constantly reminded that, no matter what method of doing theology they employ, their viewpoint is still relative only to those adhering to their rendition of reality, and of limited value outside of it.

 Although relativism limits the application of theology, it does aid in weeding out the chaff of secondary, unnecessary elements from among the wheat of the central ideas of the "historical movement." As such, any theory of revelation must proceed from faith, in the context of the church. Revelation, then, is "simply historic faith." In fact, "one can speak and think significantly about God only from the point of view of [historical] faith in [God]." This viewpoint is consistent with the reformed ecclesiastical history inasmuch that Luther, later Schleiermacher and even Ritschl (d. 1889) emphasized the inseparability of faith and God. In the text, Niebuhr includes a lengthy analysis and comparison of the latter two theologians, attributing their later theological inconsistencies to the abandonment of the faith motif. He warns that any theology done from outside the confines of faith will not expose God the Father of Jesus Christ, but some "instrumental value" instead, certainly not the one of whom Christ said, "Thy will, not mine...." So, there is no other starting place for Christian theology, our author tells us, than faith in the Father of Jesus Christ.

 The basic tenets of Christianity and her proponents are always under attack from within and without. Unfortunately, Christians always rise up to her defense using various ploys of self-justification, that is, any device besides the simple witness of the fruits of her faith. Such self-justification, Niebuhr advises, can only be more destructive to religion in general, Christianity, and one's soul than any attack. It follows that a Christian theology of revelation is tempted to self-justify by drawing attention to the community of faith rather than to God: revelation becomes merely a weapon to defend the church at large, or some theologian, thus constituting a subtle new form of idolatry.

 Therefore, the only theology a Christian can do must start as confessional theology rather than apologetic. Revelation can not be viewed as a commodity one has to justify one's unique way of thinking - this is revelation of a "dead god," or one who has dictated once upon a time, but is inactive apart from his former command. This theology of confession (of faith) must be revelatory not only of man's utter sinfulness, but God's absolute goodness and willingness to save.

 The earliest kerygma included the recitation of the historical events surrounding the Jesus of the gospel, and confession of the acts of his disciples. Anything of God revealed to the church could only have been through the intermediary of what was perceived as historic persons and events: Paul's confession of I Corinthians 15:1-11, the sermons of Peter and Stephen as recorded by Luke, and the progressive narrative of the Synoptics. Preaching of all ages has included illustrations used to exemplify spiritual truths; perhaps the most valid have been witness from personal history (testimonials). As Professor Whitehead remarked, "...religions commit suicide when they find their inspiration in their dogmas. The inspiration of religion lies in the history of religion." The church's compulsion to witness to history derives from its need to tell what it stands for. The only way it can effectively do so is by telling the "story of its life."

 Early reformers equated scriptures with revelation. But, read out of the context of the historic faith, scriptures become but a collection of stories, laws and ideas, which reveal little more than the state of the writer's culture. Only when scriptures are read through the their writers' eyes of faith do scriptures point to the divine. Form Criticism has shown us that since the New Testament arose from the community of faith, it must be seen through the history of the community that loved and venerated Jesus. Otherwise, the Jesus of faith is unknown and unknowable.

 The temptation exists to circumvent history through personal (inner) revelation. But, in order to communicate experiential reality to others, one must still describe it in social terms in order to distinguish the "true seed from within" from the false.

Once again, we must rely on models derived from our common, past history to evaluate and communicate religious and moral experience, despite all the inherent difficulties.

 When we speak of history in the context of revelation, we mean our history as it is understood from within. A physician may recite the case history of the curing of a blind man in technical terms, perhaps describing symptoms, procedures, and prognosis, but from within, the entire history may be summed up as "I see!" Such history comes from personal experience, and is mixed with emotion, inner feeling, and "revelation." It is events that have been accredited with enduring inner value, worth, personal meaning, and relevance to the destiny of self, thus not to be easily discarded or forgotten.

 When the early evangelists cited history as the starting point of their first-hand understanding of the world, they meant the history from within. Conversion became the turning point of their understanding, after which, they could see clearly the events of their world through eyes of faith. In the later church, history meant the story of "our fathers," "our church," "our Lord," etc. Likewise, internal history can only be personal testimony of what happened to individuals in the context of their culture, community, and church.

 There is a difficulty and danger in locating revelation in history, identifying it as some miracle, whether a single deed (turning water to wine) or the life of a community (Israel). The supernatural explanation is applied to the religious, but denied to secular events. For example, the regular, historic course of events is thus suspended for a time so that revelation could be identified as scripture, thus guaranteeing inerrancy. Substantiating and validating the Bible were miracles of nature contained within, such as the sun standing still, etc., in addition to the prophecy that is regarded as the supernatural foretelling of events. Consequently, for the Christian, two systems of reality coexist, the natural and the supernatural, perceived by the same senses, but having no real relationship.

 The assumption is that the difference in nature and super nature is not due to the situation of the beholder per se; rather, that things are comprehended while the beholder's point of view remains constant, resulting in the aforementioned conflict between the two realities of faith and history. The believer in the supernatural is always in direct conflict with "science" and the internal sense of natural reality, living in the confused state that equates faith in miraculous events with faith in God. By denying the exclusive validity of either view, we can understand how faith and history are actually allied in the believer's quest for social reality!

 Believing makes life worth living; in order to create inner history, one must then believe in some god: Jesus, Yale, Cincinnati Reds, or self as need be, for man is as much a believing animal as a rational one. God(s) give unity to life in general and life in the community of the living. Faith is inseparable from experience, yet one can never be the substitute one for the other. Likewise, the "standpoint of faith" and the standpoint of practical reason are identical but not substitutional. To be is to have a god; to possess god is to possess history. God and history, in the sense of community, belong together, thus are inseparable as well.

 In sum, The Meaning of Revelation advocates the method that is called "perspectival relativism" in understanding theology. Niebuhr urges those who believe in Christ to adapt a confessional faith. Though he is not an agnostic, or does he advocate agnosticism, he maintains that any perception of truth is conditioned by culture and perceived history. Though humankind does experience the Absolute through revelation, its perception is not absolute, thus one "faith" never has grounds to repudiate another. Revelation is personal; not a matter of dogma or proposition. Meaning is revealed (not information); different meaning is revealed to different people or people-groups. But for the Christian, the task at hand is to imitate the life of Jesus Christ.

 Considering the time in which this book was written, an era culminating a revolution in sociological thought, economic socialism, and world war, the case Niebuhr makes for a theology of revelation is typical yet convincing. After careful reading, I observe that Niebuhr has appropriated elements of both the Durkheimian and conflict sociologies of his day in formulating his theological viewpoint; that is, if the methodology is not original with him. The former is used in Niebuhr's insistence (by implication) that there actually is an unconstructed (by man) reality (which he sometimes calls external history); that there is indeed some kind of absolute foundation in the scheme of things, and that it can be discerned through unbiased or deliberate reason. I found the conflict method in his idea of a communal, cultural internal history, constructed by the community through shared beliefs about and interpretations of the unconstructed. (A good discussion of the modern conflict method is Pfuhl's The Deviance Process.) Although I gained a great deal of insight into revelation by current definition, and have acquired a great respect for deep theological thinkers through the reading of this book, I am still a little uneasy about what I consider fence-sitting in answering the question that age-old question: "What is reality?" But, actually, his response made more sense to me than the mainstreams of thought of either sociological viewpoint as I have been taught them in previous class work.

H. Richard Niebuhr (1894 - 1962), brother of Reinhold Niebuhr, taught theology at Yale University from 1931 to his death. Niebuhr was representative of the liberal left wing of American neo-orthodoxy. Besides The Meaning of Revelation, Niebuhr's other works include Christ and Culture (1951) and Radical Monotheism and Western Culture.