Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Natural theology and general revelation

Berkouwer makes a clear distinction between natural theology and general revelation. He emphasizes that knowledge of revelation is arrived at not through natural theology but through experience of the salvation of God “that opens doors and windows towards God’s handiwork” ("General Revelation", p. 131).
While this places the emphasis on the priority of divine revelation, it doesn't mean that we should opt out of the apologetic task of presenting a reasonable faith to a sceptical and unbelieving world.
The emphasis on the experience of the salvation of God is important. It reminds us that there is a difference between the living God and an idea of God.
The living God calls for our attention. He speaks to us about our sin. This is something that we can't get away from. He speaks to us about His salvation. This is our greatest need. The idea of God, reached as the result of an intellectual argument, is something about which many people are inclined to say, "That's for the academics."
The living God and the God of natural theology (or the God, reached through the traditional proofs of His existence) - What are we to say about this contrast? I don't think that it needs to be an absolutte contrast. It is a matter of emphasis. In a theology which emphasizes the reality and priority of divine revelation, there is a place for apologetics.
Handled sensitively within the context of the principle, "I believe that I may understand", philosophical arguments cam perform a positive function in Christian theology. They would not, however, be viewed as 'proofs.' Rather, they might function as an aid to Christian reflection concerning the meaning of faith in God. When, however, such arguments for God's existence are removed from the context of faith in the God of revelation, we are left with a pale reflection of the God of Christian faith.
Berkouwer insists that the question, "Does God exist?" implies the further question, "Who is God?" He emphasizes that this second question is "a most existential and relevant question ... not a theoretical question about God's existence as a 'thing'" ("A Half Century of Theology", p. 77).
The question of God is a deep question, which is raised by the question of the meaning and purpose of our whole experience of life. When we ask the question of God's existence in the context of the whole of our life, we are led beyond an academic debate, which remains, for many people, at the periphery of life.
By emphasizing the priority of divine revelation, I am not encouraging blind faith. I am, however, suggesting that Christian faith is not built on a foundation of natural theology. Christian faith is a humble and grateful response to the living God, whose revelation brings meaning and purpose to our life.
This is not to devalue the work of apologetics. It is, however, a call for each of us to remember that the God in whom we put our trust is always greater than all of the words we use when we speak of Him.
In his approach to God and His revelation, Berkouwer makes three important points.
(a) The way of authoritarianism is excluded.
We must always remember that our knowledge of God is not complete knowledge. In God's revelation, there is always a hidden element which remains beyond our understanding. While we are called to speak with conviction, we dare not suggest that we have all the answers.
(b) The way of rationalism is excluded.
Our thoughts cannot be compared with God's thoughts. His thoughts are always higher than our thoughts. This is why we must speak of the mystery of revelation. There is always something about God that defies our ability to describe Him.
(c) The way of mysticism is excluded.
God's revelation is not comprehensive. There are many questions that remain unanswered. We do, however, confess our faith in the clarity of His revelation. For our life's journey, His Word is a bright shining light (Psalm 119:105).
I think that this way, proposed by Berkouwer, is a way that combines both positive commitment and openness. It points to a way of overcoming three serious impasses.
(i) the authoritarian impasse between those who accept and those who reject
There can be meaningful conversation without any compromise of our strongly-held convictions;
(ii) the rationalistic impasse between "mindless fideism and faithless rationalism" (from a review of Berkouwer's "A Half Century of Theology");
(iii) the mystical impasse between those who have the experience and those who do not
While Berkouwer's theology is experiential, he is not dismissive of those who haven't had the experience. He does encourage people to experience the salvation of God, but he does not write them off with the rather glib remark, "You'll understand once you've had the experience."