Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Orators, Actors, and Saints: Divine Revelation as Rhetoric and Drama

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Orators, Actors, and Saints: Divine Revelation as Rhetoric and Drama

Article excerpt

In 1961, Alan Richardson delivered the Cadbury Lectures at the University of Birmingham. The published version of those lectures includes a chapter entitled "The Theology of Images," in which he offers his appreciation for a model of divine revelation that emphasized the significance of images, and accented the role of the human imagination. Yet he ended that chapter with the following caveat:

The chief question in this field, with which theologians must occupy themselves in the immediate future, is that of the relation of the images to the biblical conception of the Word. Scripture says that the Logav, not the eikon, became flesh, and that the Word of the Lord, not the image, came to the prophets; Christian theology is a theology of the Word. When we understand the priority of the word over the images, we shall see the matter in its right perspective. The work of clarification here is likely to occupy us for a long time to come.1

Richardson's insights set the agenda for my comments here today-and, I believe, for any future doctrine of revelation. That doctrine may be provisionally defined as the teaching that our knowledge of God finds its ultimate source and origin in God, and that God communicates this knowledge to human beings. This divine self-revelation may take a variety of forms-including polyvalent images, divine action in history, and moments of personal encounter; and yet, as Richardson suggests, we will always eventually be brought back to language: to words, and to the Word. Making words central, without losing the rich diversity of God's self-disclosure, will remain "the chief question" for a contemporary revival of the doctrine of revelation.

Such a revival is necessary, because the doctrine has fallen on hard times in the modern era. To suggest why this occurred, and to offer an alternative account of the doctrine, will be the primary focus of this essay. At the end, I will offer a few tentative suggestions as to how this account might help us address one of the most vexing theological questions of the modern era-namely, the appropriate place for human agency in the process of divine revelation.

Act I. Revelation Becomes a Problem

In the early modern period, the theological discussion of revelation experienced a change in character. For the first time in Christian history, human beings began to imagine the possibility that God might not communicate anything to human beings at all-or perhaps, might not do so with sufficient clarity, or might communicate something that was incommensurable with knowledge gleaned from other sources. And conversely, human beings began to imagine that they might be capable of acquiring knowledge in ways that had no need for the hypothesis called "God." Suddenly, revelation was no longer simply one Christian doctrine among many; it was, rather, a problem for Christian doctrine-perhaps the problem for Christian doctrine in the modern age.

So while the idea of revelation is not a modern idea, the problem of revelation is a modern problem. And by "modern," I do not simply mean "contemporary"; I mean that it springs from some of the central assumptions of modernity. At the risk of considerable oversimplification, these assumptions might be characterized in three broad categories. First, modernity experiences a "turn to the subject" that makes the human observer the primary focal point of all intellectual inquiry. The subject is, as it were, "in charge" of all critical investigation. Second, this turn is often described in highly individualistic and privatized terms, thus drawing into question the widespread assumption that human beings are woven into a network of relations that bind them inextricably to one another, and to God. And third, the sort of human persons created by this process-now recast as "autonomous individuals"-are assumed to be very much like one another. Anything that can be known by one, can (or should) be known by all the rest as well. …

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