The Meaning of Revelation
Review of Richard Niebuhr's book
Niebuhr, H. Richard. The Meaning of Revelation.
New York: The Macmillan
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:
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
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 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
again, we must rely on models derived from our common, past history to
evaluate and communicate religious and moral experience, despite all the
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.