Sunday, August 23, 2009

Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation, Pt. 6...

Ok, so let's keep going here... I am going to be summarizing more information in these last few posts on William Abraham's book, so they won't be quite as in-depth... but I don't think anyone will mind that. :-)

As we discussed, Abraham's central thesis in "Crossing the Threshold..." is that divine revelation, in the "special" sense (that is, not the natural revelation which is available to everyone, such as the beauty of creation, etc), is an event in one's life that is a "world-constituting experience" (p. 95) that can be described as crossing a threshold into an entirely new way of seeing, experiencing, and knowing. This statement, as an epistemological presupposition, has just as much a priori rational grounding as any other epistemological statement. So, the question then becomes: Once we consider this possibility, what happens? The rest of the book is, to some degree, Abraham's answer to that question.

In chapter six, he evaluates the relationship between divine revelation and "canonical doctrine." Again, by revelation, Abraham is referring to what he calls a "rich vision of divine action." (p. 96) In other words, revelation is multifaceted. Abraham describes doctrine as that which guides the Church as a whole. The canonical doctrine of the Church provides certain boundaries or guidelines within which revelation might be properly assessed. It is most clearly articulated in the creeds (he references the Nicene creed specifically).

Abraham distinguishes his approach from those like Alvin Plantinga who, though providing a great deal of valuable ideas to theological epistemology, do not need to rely on a specific theory of divine revelation. Rather, Plantinga relies upon the implicit trust in the Holy Spirit to reveal what is true in the teaching of the Church. Where we "hear" the Spirit rightly, God reveals truth to us, including doctrine.

While Abraham is quite sympathetic to this view, and indeed finds in invaluable in many ways, he does not think it can extend far enough to cover all claims to revelation. In other words, philosophical analysis can only be as extensive as the initial claim to divine revelation which it presupposes. If one is going to use Plantinga's approach to defend Christianity, one has to presuppose already that the doctrines of Christianity are properly revealed to us. So, what does this mean?

Abraham begins by noting the perplexing nature of standard answers to this question. First, there is the common notion that simply appealing to the Scriptures (and/or tradition) will give us viable reasons for our claims to revelation as doctrine. But which view of scripture? Abraham lists a variety of approaches; the point being that they are all more or less applicable, and each one has adherents who claim their interpretation is the proper one. But this is just begging the question - why this or that interpretation? It's a never-ending "battle for the Bible."

As Abraham points out, such an approach results in the primary function of the Bible becoming "a foundation and test of the church's teaching. To secure this end, some theory of divine revelation has been indispensable." (p. 102) So, scripture itself, although it is claimed to be the foundation, is dependent upon an epistemological theory -- which has the reverse effect of making the Bible subject to a particular philosophical theory. And this, of course, is a problem, because that would mean the theory is more important to us than divine revelation!

This is why Abraham actually asserts that the notion of sola scriptura is actually a theory "that has outlived its usefulness." (p. 103) In his estimation, the doctrine of "Scripture alone" has actually become a Protestant imitation of the Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility, inasmuch as it ascribes inerrancy in a broad sense to a source of divine revelation, without considering the epistemological assumptions required for such a view.

As a solution to this dilemma, Abraham proposes an approach that, not surprisingly, begins with the understanding that revelation is a "world-constituting event." (p. 104) This is, for the believer, an understanding that is brought to light as we reflect upon the history of the actions of God, in Israel and in the Church. Once we have decided that the new reality resulting from crossing the threshold into divine revelation is viable, everything else begins to fit together in a way that provides us with the epistemological background needed to trust in the Bible as a source of revelation.

So, with regard to, for example, the doctrine of the Trinity, Abraham states: "[T]he doctrine of the Trinity arose over time out of the deep interaction of the special revelation of God in Israel, the extraspecial revelation of God in Jesus Christ, experience of God in the Holy Spirit, and sanctified creative imagination and reason. It is radically incomplete and inadequate to trace the kind of revolutionary change in the doctrine of God represented by the Nicene Creed merely to the divine revelation enshrined in scripture. We must also take into account the place of religious experience, imagination, and reason." (p. 106)

[note: of course, in using the word 'imagination' he is not saying the belief is imaginary!]

Of course, one rejoinder might be that none of this makes any sense without the prior assumption that the Bible is true, since that's the source of our stories about God, Israel, Jesus and the Church. But Abraham would point out that even though the Bible is the "source", so to speak, to limit our understanding of doctrine to 'what the Bible says' is to discount the work of the Spirit in the Church, which is what enabled believers to first write down their stories, and then to develop their beliefs in light of what their experiences with God had revealed to them. God's revelation is bigger than the "book," even though the book is its central locus of written material.

I think I'll stop here for now... I was going to include chapter seven (on Conversion) here too, but I'll save that for next time.

1 comment:

stephy said...

This is interesting, a lot to look at here. Thanks for inviting us to mull it over.