In previous posts I have discussed What is the Good Word?, What is the Good Word (2)? The Old Testament, and What is the Good Word (3)? The New Testament; today I wanted to begin the discussion of revelation, inspiration and inerrancy in the Bible.

Even those who claim the Bible as the “inspired” “Word of God,” which was “revealed” by God to human beings and teaches theological truth “without error,” and mean it all, do not always know what this means either theoretically or in practice. Those of us who do accept the Bible as sacred Scripture know that this means we must treat the Bible and what it says with utmost seriousness, but the ways in which we do so can differ in fundamental ways.

The Bible is revelation from God. What does that mean? Did God speak to each of the authors of the biblical documents in a clear and obvious way? Sometimes it states that God speaks directly to an author, such as in the Revelation of John, in which John says, “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw” (1:1-2). In this case, John is reporting a private revelation given to him by God for the Church, but the authority of this revelation came only upon its acceptance by the Church, which was disputed for a number of centuries. Other texts do not make claims to direct, private revelation, for instance another text attributed to John, The Third Letter of John (3 John), but the Church has accepted this letter as a revelatory document. This suggest that John might not even have known this letter was revealed to him, that he was simply doing his duty as a pastor and leader of the Church, but the Church later confirmed its revealed nature. It is not necessary, then, that a “revealed” document would have been seen as such by the author, but only by the later Church.

“Revelation” also does not seem to have been determined on the basis of the theological seriousness or depth of the writing in question. Texts like Paul’s letter to the Romans, all of the Gospels, and many other letters are, indeed, of immeasurable treasure in terms of what they have to say about Jesus himself, his teaching and the nature of the Christian life, whereas other texts seem to be limited in their theological value. How does 3 John help to shape the Christian life today? How much time is spent studying Jude? This is not to say that these letters noted have no value, and it is possible that the problem is with the reader, in this case me, but given the amount of ink devoted to understanding the Gospels throughout the centuries, it is not just me who has found the Gospels more compelling but most other Christians and the Church itself (Dei Verbum 18. “It is common knowledge that among all the Scriptures, even those of the New Testament, the Gospels have a special preeminence, and rightly so, for they are the principal witness for the life and teaching of the incarnate Word, our savior.”). Does this mean that some texts are a “little more” revealed? In what way, for instance, does “special preeminence” manifest itself in the Gospels? Is it that Jesus himself, who is the fullness of revelation and his teachings are found there? Yet, on a practical level, it certainly could not mean that the Letter of James, for instance, which reflects the teaching of Jesus and interprets it should be taken as “less revealed” by God, should it? And would that mean in practice that we would pay slightly less heed to the teachings in James?

Revelation, therefore, is more complex than it initially seems, with all of the texts coming not only from the hands of the authors but from God himself (Dei Verbum 11. “In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted.”), yet the value associated with God’s revelation seems to differ from text to text. This might have something to do with “historical conditioning” or “historical context.” It is possible that some texts had more significance in their original historical context than they do today or even that they might again have significance in a future context of which we are not aware. The NJBC warns wisely against throwing out what we cannot understand or that is not amenable to the spirit of our age even when we account for “historical” and “cultural” context. “Careful exegesis can uncover what Paul thought, but only the church, guided by and guiding scholarly investigation, can tell us how much of Paul’s thought is revelation for his people” (NJBC, 1053). This is interesting in that a distinction has been made between what Paul wrote, all of it accepted as revelation, and that within the revelation which is “revelation for his people,” yet practically we know that this is true. The danger, however, is the desire to ignore, cast out, or dismiss that which one cannot understand, or which seems irrelevant to one’s one age.

Important to keep central in one’s mind is that  “by this revelation then, the deepest truth about God and the salvation of man shines out for our sake in Christ, who is both the mediator and the fullness of all revelation” (Dei Verbum 2). The revelation is intended for our salvation, which is why care, seriousness and prayerfulness must accompany its study: “Through divine revelation, God chose to show forth and communicate Himself and the eternal decisions of His will regarding the salvation of men. That is to say, He chose to share with them those divine treasures which totally transcend the understanding of the human mind” (Dei Verbum 6). This last phrase, “He chose to share with them those divine treasures which totally transcend the understanding of the human mind,” indicates both the need for revelation, but also why it is so often confounding. How should we understand those things which “totally transcend the understanding of the human mind”?

Next week I want to continue this conversation by taking up the last question.

John W. Martens

Comments

Marie Rehbein | 10/18/2010 - 2:37pm
John,

You have me wondering whether the spiritual determinations made by the ancient and medieval Church are considered conclusive or whether making these determinations is an ongoing process that is more visible to us in our time.  Maybe at times it looks like it is being undertaken by "naive realists" (I love that designation) or looks like it may be fragmenting the understanding that was determined centuries ago  -  when the majority of individuals were not so literate as they are today.  Might these be stages that have always been part of the process of discerning what God has revealed?  Should people be encouraged to question their conclusions or should they be told that the matter has been settled and they should simply inform themselves better?
Marie Rehbein | 10/14/2010 - 10:21pm
I was thinking (before I read your essay here) that there is a difference between asking "what does this mean?" and "what does this mean to you?".  As you seem to know, Luther had trouble with what James was saying to him.  However, growing up as a Lutheran this did not affect me at all.  So long as the various elements of the Bible are interpreted in the context of the whole of the Scriptures, no parts are toxic. 

How the context came to be established depended strongly on tradition I am guessing.  Am I right?  I would guess further that controversies over what to include may have been the result of having lost connection to some of the tradition over time, such that "paying less heed" had become the custom before the Bible was ever conclusively defined.

I am frequently thinking of the Koran as a comparably treasured religious document, that is believed by muslims to have been revealed to one individual over time, and how it refers to the holy books of the Jewish people and Christians, but seems not to know the specifics of the theology of these religions and seems to make judgments based on the observation of puzzling practices alone.  Is it at all possible that this was revelation?  Can the reception of revelation be flawed since it is being received by flawed beings?