Divine Revelation

Written by Paul Avis (ed.) Reviewed By Paul Gardner

This book contains eleven essays which seek to examine in various ways and from very different viewpoints how divine revelation has been and is understood in theological reflection and discussion. While some essays no doubt would be useful for a first year student of theology, some will not be understood easily at that level. I seriously doubt that the essay by Gabriel Daly (‘Revelation in the Theology of the Roman Church’) or that by Paul Avis, the editor, (‘Divine Revelation in Modern Protestant Theology’) would be regarded as ‘accessible’ ‘for lay Christians of all denominations’ as the cover suggests.

The essays tend to be quite technical and several will require some degree of philosophical training if they are to make sense. However, for people with a little such background, all the essays will make interesting reading. Some offer a very useful overview and summary of approaches to and the history of the subject that they tackle. Apart from the two above, also notable is a useful essay by Terence Penelhum on ‘Revelation and Philosophy’. Here the writer starts (unfortunately) by speaking of Aquinas’ view of revelation and taking that as the ‘traditional’ basis. He then shows very briefly but clearly how various philosophers attacked this view of revelation with an overview touching on the views of Spinoza, Newton, Butler, Hume and so on. For a student beginning such studies the essay does help to provide a perspective on what people were saying, and how they differed from or attacked the more traditional view of revelation.

The book opens with a Foreword by the editor. Here he summarises well the prevailing assumptions of all the writers and indeed accurately reflects the problem of Divine Revelation for modern theologians. He says this: ‘The consensus is that we do not have direct, unmediated access to this original revelation; it is mediated to us through a body of literature—the Bible—that reflects the thought forms of its time and is itself the product of a complex process …’ (vii). Of course, even this begs great questions as to why we might look at the Bible at all for Divine Revelation, and where the revelation of God in creation fits. Some of these questions are discussed in later essays but not in any great detail. Strangely, the final essay (‘Revelation Reaffirmed’ by William J. Abraham), which surely should have been the first essay logically, is the most helpful in analysing for us why modern theologians find themselves in the state that they do. Here there is some attempt to reclaim the ground for a ‘Christian account’ of divine revelation. Here alone in the book is a strong statement about the work of the Holy Spirit in the process of our receiving divine revelation. And yet even here Abraham seems to be saying that the prime work of the Holy Spirit in such revelation is all at the reception end of the revelation. One wonders why the Holy Spirit is not mentioned in the discussion both about how the revelation is ‘sent’ and the means chosen by which the revelation is ‘sent’ (creation, Bible, Jesus etc.).

The opening essay by James Dunn (‘Biblical Concepts of Revelation’) is, to my mind, the best. It is the only essay that goes to the heart of the biblical material and seeks to analyse some of the particular means by which the divine revelation is received in Scripture (dream, vision, apocalypse etc.). My frustration through this article was simply what was not discussed. How do these constituent parts of divine revelation hold together in what we know as Scripture? Do they hold together? If they do, what does that add to our understanding of Revelation seen in its individual parts?

Richard Bauckham’s essay on ‘Jesus the Revelation of God’ is also worthy of careful study. It is one of the few essays which seeks to deal with specific issues of epistemology, which is surprising given the book’s title. This essay provides an analysis of three ways in the modern period in which the revelation of God in or through Jesus has been understood. The third option, which speaks of Jesus revealing the unique presence and action of God, is then developed by Bauckham. Again this is a complex essay but a very useful one, showing ways of moving beyond some current debates and arriving at a more distinctively Christian and biblical view of Jesus as the revelation of God. The avoidance of any male pronouns when talking of God results in a prose that is, in places, utterly tortuous (for example, we read whole pages like this: ‘… God not only gives Israel her identity as God’s people but also gives Godself God’s own identity as Israel’s God …’ Fortunately, this style is not uniform in the essays.

Anyone looking for a more traditional or evangelical approach to divine revelation will be disappointed by this book. Likewise anyone looking for quick help and easy answers to some very complicated issues of epistemology will not find them here. It is a somewhat disappointing book but probably an important read for those beginning studies in the subject at college or university level.

Paul Gardner