What if Scriptural revelation started now?

The point of the question is to reconstruct revelation from the beginning with whatever is its analogous matter in our own time, with a hope of getting a clearer view of the sort of thing revelation is.

Notice first that revelation is not a genre of writing, still less a style or a form. “Writing revelation over again” is not the same sort of thing as writing in hexameters again, or writing long, Russian-style serialized novels, or haiku, or Ciceronean rhetoric. Revelation is not even necessarily writing – it includes all sorts of songs, descriptions of land divisions, legal codes, etc. and the people who write things like this are not writers in a straightforward sense.

For revelation to begin again would involve writings that constituted a nation; and it would not be some conspicuous hegemon or grand imperial power but a far more modest notion, say, Guatemala. Revelation would thus start with scandal and offense: one part of the world is giggling and groaning at the thought that Guatemala would be God’s chosen focus and the Guatemalans are offended at the giggles. The groans are coming from, for example, American political theorists who are wondering why God would choose Guatemalan political ideas and legal traditions as the documents that will live forever in a Scriptural canon; or from scientists at Caltech or CERN who are horrified by the idea that Guatemalan science will now be the backbone of the cosmological picture that will be used in the wisdom literature.

Over time, some sort of narrative would grow out of this scandal. Let’s assume it’s the same narrative that actually arose in Scripture itself: God chooses the weak and makes them strong. In light of what’s just been said, we must stress that the “weakness” we’re speaking of includes even the weakness of being less true. It would be pointless to argue against groaning American political theorists that Guatemalan political theory is secretly superior to all of their original ideas, and even more pointless to fantasize about Americans getting their ideas political  from the Mayans (the way that some people fantasized that the Greeks got monothestic ideas from Israel). Again,it would be pointless to argue with the physicists at CERN that they ought to revise their theories in light of  Tz’utujil mythology. All of this is a rejection of the scandal that God chooses the weak. He doesn’t choose them because they are adorable in their smallness (like baby seals) or somehow more spiritually pure. To reason like this is to reject revelation as decisively as someone who rejects its divine origin because of its condoning of geocentrism or genocide.

But it is also helpful to consider another possible narrative that Scripture decisively rejects, sc. the Socratic account of humility. Socrates also saw himself as chosen by God, and he also saw himself as humble and lacking the possession of truth, but he understood this to mean that God’s true message was that all human knowledge was not worth much. In the Socratic narrative, God chooses the weak to show the reality of human weakness. On a Socratic account, the whole point of using, say Tz’usujil mythology was to show the physicists at CERN that none of their findings are ultimately better than a pre-modern myth. But this is also not true: God does not choose the weak to prove that weakness is given by nature but in order to make the weak strong.  

Strength, however, is any sort of perfection, and God does not appear to be interested in all of them. He chose a people with a weak cosmology, but he did not empower them to deliver a true one; he chose a people with a very non-progressive and unenlightened morality but he did not give them the full bloom of an Enlightened one; he chose a people with a much more rudimentary and unpolished rhetoric but did not give them polished and refined one (this last point was a great scandal to a young Augustine). What he gave this nation was the full revelation of himself in the incarnation of his son, who in turn gave the Holy Spirit that all persons, in the fullness of time, might be made divine though conformity to the image of the Father. This is at once an obviously more perfect good and one that is much harder to verify – a perfect rhetoric or Enlightened morality would be a lot easier to provide evidence for. For that matter, it would be a lot easier to verify persons who were just made divine right now, and who walked about the earth with resurrected and glorified bodies.  The early Church, in fact, could not stand the idea that this final moment would be put off for very long – in fact, one might even read Christ himself as unable to bear that this moment would be put off too long. But here we are, almost two millennia later, in the tension that Christ’s revelation has neither gone away or been fulfilled.

And so there is a scandal of revelation at almost every turn. God chooses the weak, but not because the weak are secretly adorable or clever; and he chooses the weak not to show the rest of the world that they are nothing but that he might glorify the rest of the world with a better good than any of the ways in which they are better than the weak. This greater good, moreover, is not one given right away, but one requiring a gamble to be made in the face of a scandal.

And so if revelation were started now all the same objections to it would arise as have already arisen. It is pointless – or at least unnecessary – to try to hide or find some hidden good in Scripture’s erroneous cosmologies or glorified genocides or bad rhetoric or moral backwardness or misguided religious ideas. God chooses the weak, with all of their backward ideas, misguided zealotry, cultural prejudice, copyist mistakes, half-baked guesses about the future, ignorance, sloppy writing style, and all the rest of it. All the glories of the people come along too, but these are no more necessary to the revelation than the other stuff.

All this might be taken as degrading Scripture, but I insist that it isn’t. Scripture marks a unique moment where, as Dei Verbum puts it God chose men and… 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. This does not mean God agreed with their intentions in writing the words, but he agrees to all the words all the same, in a way that he does not do in any other writing. We have what we are certain are divine words, but we are equally certain that there are times when these words must diverge from the intention of the human beings who wrote them down. Revelation will always be essentially an enterprise of starting from the effect of some intention, and trying to reason back to what the intention was, ever mindful that the intention of the human mind writing them might be a blind alley, a mistake, or perhaps even a monstrosity (unlike Islam, the Judeo-Christian tradition does not insist that prophecy or revelation must come through the saints. cf. John 11:51 And this spake he not of himself: but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation.) Seen from this angle, the errors of scripture are necessary guideposts and crucial reminders that we can’t just read off meaning from the sense of the words, whether we take the “the sense of the words” as fudamentalists do when they make their supposed “literal readings” or if we take it as Liberal theologians do when they make an exegesis of the original historical meaning of the text.

Scriptural revelation, whenever it would be given, requires a method of moving from a word to the divine intention of the word. It requires that the divinization promised in the revelation be already to some extent accomplished so that it might inform exegesis not by mere human science but by the very mind of the one who we desire to hear speaking in it. Scriptural exegesis is therefore by definition prayer as opposed to science, i.e. it is placing one’s mind in the domain of divine intentions. This is the way in which science and philosophy are considered as handmaids to theology, and apart from this ascent, theology is just more human reasoning that could be done better by the devil himself.

4 Comments

  1. July 8, 2014 at 9:37 pm

    In the end, revelation can only be attained by what Christ instructed, through Him, the Holy Spirit, and the Father. Let us not forget, “Lean not on your own understanding.” Such comprehension is incapable or discovering the mysteries of God. “Scriptural exegesis is therefore by definition prayer as opposed to science. . .”

    P.S. My new blog: PilgrimofLogos.blogspot.com

  2. Geoff Smith said,

    December 24, 2016 at 1:17 pm

    This is really helpful. Thanks for this.

    • robalspaugh said,

      December 25, 2016 at 8:00 am

      Thanks for digging this back up, Geoff. This is hands down one of the ten best posts James has ever done.

      Merry Christmas.

      • Geoff Smith said,

        January 15, 2017 at 5:17 pm

        My pleasure. It really is a thoughtful post.


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