Revelation and Reconciliation

'Serious reservations ... must be voiced against the dominant position of the idea of revelation in theology, with its corollary that man's essential predicament is his lack of knowledge ... if the ignorance of man stands at the center, then the fact of revelation relieves that plight; but if man's guilt is the problem, then not revelation but reconciliation must become the theological centrum' (C E Braaten, History and Hermeneutics, p.14).
Building on Braaten's comment, we emphasize two important points:
(i) Man's basic need lies in his sinfulness rather than his finitude;
(ii) That need is met by reconciliation to God rather than mere knowledge about God.
In his treatment of the doctrine of Scripture, Berkouwer places the doctrine of reconciliation at the centre. Divine revelation is not merely an antidote for human ignorance. Scripture must be understood with respect to its specific intention (Holy Scripture, p.125), which is 'most closely related to salvation' (p. 142). An adequate doctrine of Scripture demands a proper understanding of the function as a pointer to Christ, through whom believing man receives eternal life (p.125). The revelation that comes to us through the Scriptures is precisely '(t)he powerful operation of the Spirit' which 'centres in the salvation that has appeared in Christ' (p.49). This work of the Spirit, pointing to a salvation that calls for the response of faith, is central to Berkouwer's understanding of the doctrine of Scripture:
'Believing Scripture does not mean staring at a holy and mysterious book, but hearing the witness concerning Christ. The respect for the concrete words is related precisely to this, and the 'is' of the confession (Scripture is the Word of God) points to the mystery of the Spirit, who wants to bind men to Christ through these words, through this witness' (p.166).
'It is possible to live with Scripture only when the message of Scripture is understood and is not considered 'a metaphysical document', but a living instrument serving God for the proclamation of salvation' (p. 333).
The relation of God's Spirit to Scripture is essentially connected with the concepts of guilt and reconciliation rather than the 'revelation' of a knowledge which is primarily cognitive. Assurance concerning the authority of Scripture is directly related to Christian experience. Such assurance is the expression of the faith which trusts Christ and finds Him trustworthy (p.241).
The assurance that God's Spirit continues to speak through Scripture concerning Christ is quite different from the kind of rationalism which turns the 'is' of the confession - Scripture is the Word of God - into 'a rationally developed infallibility of Scripture that was supposed to preclude all doubts' (p.32). (Note: It should not be supposed that Berkouwer has no doctrine of the infallibility of Scripture. His criticism is directed not aginst the notion of Biblical infallibility as such but against a particular conception of infallibility - 'a rationally developed infallibility').
Berkouwer's criticism of 'a rationally developed infallibilty of Scripture that was supposed to preclude all doubts' is directed against an approach to Scripture which operates primarily on a cognitive level with its concern for infallible and inerrant information. He suggests that this formalized notion of infallible and inerrant truth threatens to undermine the true meaning of faith.
Faith is not simply an addendum to cognitive knowledge concerning infallible and inerrant truth. It is misleading to place cognitive assent to a certain theory of the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture prior to believing trust in Jesus Christ. When ' rationally developed infallibility of Scripture that was designed to preclude all doubts' is made the prerequisite of reliable knowledge of Jesus Christ, this suggests that one believes the Bible with a different 'faith' from the faith which trusts Christ. Such a notion involves concepts of faith, truth and knowledge that are primarily intellectual in nature. The suggestion is that faith is to be thought of as assent to an external authority.
Critical of this rather static understanding of truth, Berkouwer directs our attention to the dynamic aspect of truth suggested by Bible passages which describe faith's relation to truth in terms of doing the truth (John 3:21), walking in the truth (2 John 4; 3 John 4), being set free by the truth (John 8:32) and being sanctiifed by the truth (John 17:19).
In making this criticism of 'a rationally developed infallibility of Scripture designed to preclude all doubts', Berkouwer is encouraging us to take care to avoid building our doctrine of Scripture on a concept of knowledge that is so generalized that it fails to appreciate the truly religious nature of our knowledge of God: 'For the purpose of the God-breathed Scripture is not at all to provide a scientific gnosis in order to convey and increase human knowledge and wisdom, but to witness of the salvation of God unto faith'. Clarifying his meaning, he comments, ' This approach does not mean to separate faith and knowledge. But the knowledge that is the unmistakable aim of Scripture is the knowledge of faith' (p.180).
Berkouwer's perspective is not concerned with infallible information secured by inspiration. Holding that 'the nature of the God-breathed character of Scripture cannot be deduced by means of various analogies to the inspiration', Berkouwer contends that 'Scripture is the Word of God because the Holy Spirit witnesses in it of Christ' (p.162).
By speaking of the Holy Spirit's witness to Jesus Christ, Berkouwer does not intend to draw our attention away from the human witness to Jesus Christ. Rather, he seeks to direct our attention to the 'deep dimension of the human witness'. Concerning this 'deep dimension', he writes, 'This witness does not well up from the human heart but from the witness of God, in which it finds its foundation and empowering as a human witness' (p.165). With this conception of Scripture as 'human witness empowered by the Spirit', Berkouwer maintains that 'the Word of God does not draw us away from the human but involves us with the human' (p.167).
Berkouwer's appreciation of the human aspect of Scripture, his insight into the relation between the Spirit and Scripture, and his distinction between the nature of the knowledge of God and other types of knowledge each constitute important elements in an adequate doctrine of Scripture.
Berkouwer is in basic agreement with Braaten's remark that the concept of reconciliation, as an antidote to man's guilt, should be more central in our theological thinking than the concept of revelation as an antidote to man's ignorance. It should not, however, be assumed that he is ready to dispense with the idea of revelation and replace it directly with the idea of reconciliation.
Berkouwer's understanding of the relation of revelation and reconciliation can be explored further by turning our attention to a book which contains the word, 'revelation', in its title - General Revelation.
Here, Berkouwer emphasizes both the reality of God's revelation in creation and sinful man's inability to understand this revelation. He maintains that there is 'an objective revelation of God in His works which man ... can no longer read because of the darkening of his understanding'. Taking account of human sin without denying the divine revelation in creation, Berkouwer affirms that 'the spectacles of special revelation ... are needed in order to read the revelation in creation' (p.30).
Expanding on this point, he emphasizes that general revelation can only be understood through grace. He insists that the one who has come to experience the grace of God in salvation is alone able to understand the revelation of God in creation. Writing on 'The Nature Psalms', he states this succinctly: 'nature is not seen isolated from the salvation of the God of Israel ... man in and by the salvation of God is delivered from the tenacity of the egocentric and commences to sing of the glory of God. It is this salvation that opens doors and windows towards God's handiwork ... This understanding, and seeing, and hearing, is possible only in the communion with him, in the enlightenment of the eyes by the salvation of God' (pp.128, 131).
Berkouwer affirms that while there is an objective revelation of God in creation, we can only understand that revelation properly when we experience reconciliation to God through Jesus Christ. While the idea of reconciliation is central to Berkouwer's theology, it should not be assumed that that God's act of reconciliation in Jesus Christ constitutes the entirety of God's revelation. God revealed Himself first in creation prior to man's sin and, therefore, prior to the need for reconciliation. Since man has sinned, he is no longer able to rightly understand this revelation. Man's sin, therefore, occasioned the need for 'the revelation of reconciliation' (p.26).
The redemptive revelation should not be seen as replacing the creational revelation. God has revealed Himself redemptively because of the failure of sinful man, and not because of any failure in His creational revelation. The purpose of creational revelation was not redemptive, for, prior to his sin, man did not require to be redeemed. Redemptive revelation has a restorative character. Man's original relationship with God, spoiled by his sin, is restored through the revelation of reconciliation.
The full process of the revelation of reconciliation includes five elements:
(a) The creational revelation through which God gave Himself to man in a relationship not yet marred by sin. That revelation remains revelation after man's sin, though it is not properly understood until man's sinful blindness is removed through God's redemption.
(b) The incarnation in which God Himself became man with the purpose of delivering man from sin and death (The Work of Christ, p.28).
(c) The Scriptures which serve as 'a living instrument serving God for the proclamation of the message of salvation' (Holy Scripture, p.333).
(d) Proclamation which calls for the Church to be joyful and faithful servants of the Redeemer and His mesasage of redemption. Through the Church's very human witness, Christ speaks His divine Word to the world. (Proclamation is used here in a broad sense. It is not to be identified exclusively with 'preaching' or 'pulpit ministry').
(e) The Spirit of God whose activity is indispensable if there is to be reconciliation. Without the Spirit's presence, Christ's incarnation would remain a matter of past history, the Scriptures would be no more than a record of Jewish religion and the proclamation of the Church would be empty religious tradition. Whatever there may be of past and present tradition, there would be no reconciliation, for it is the Spirit who enables the message of Christ in the Scriptures and the proclamation of the Church to be a message of reconciliation which actually brings us into a new living relationship with God.
As we reflect on the importance of each of these five elements, we must emphasize the integral unity of the whole process of revelation through which God comes to us as our Creator and our Redeemer. No part can be ignored without affecting the whole.
(i) The loss of the perspective of creational revelation results in the loss of an adequate perspective on man's sin, for man's sin 'is unmasked in its guilty character precisely because there is and remains revelation' (General Revelation, p.31).
(ii) Without Christ, there can be no Christian faith, for without Christ, we have no Saviour.
(iii) Without the Scriptures, we would not have the message of Christ available to us (Holy Scripture, p.57 - Here, Berkouwer cites favourably 'Calvin's rejection of a spiritualism that makes great display of the superiority of the Spirit, but rejects all reading of Scripture itself').
(iv) Without the Church's proclamation of the message of reconciliation, that message would remain in the Bible without reaching those for whom it is intended (The Return of Christ, p.132 - Here, Berkouwer comments on our call to be a missionary Church. He insists that there can be 'no distinction in this area between the "being" and the "well-being" of the church. It is a matter of the church's very being to turn towards the world').
(v) To lose the perspective of the Spirit is to open the door to the kind of barren rationalism which kills rather than giving life (2 Corinthians 3:6).
We need the presence and power of the Spirit if our knowledge of God is to be heart-knowledge of the kind which enables us to say, with Paul, 'we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into His likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit' (2 Corinthians 3:18).

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