Chapter 2: Revelation Theology

Mystery and Promise: A Theology of Revelation
by John F. Haught

Chapter 2: Revelation Theology

Rather than moving directly into the task of developing a contemporary theology of revelation, it may prove helpful to some readers if we pause here and sketch at least a brief outline of the history of Catholic revelation theology. Such background information may help us to appreciate the extent of the struggle the idea of revelation in Catholic theology has undergone in order eventually to be liberated, especially through the work of the Second Vatican Council, from association with theological schemes that tended to narrow its meaning unnecessarily. At the same time such an outline may help to locate more clearly the distinctive character of the present attempt to develop a theology of revelation.

We noted earlier that Catholic theology of revelation has suffered in the past primarily from a "propositional" and correspondingly impersonal tendency. That is to say, it has understood revelation very much as though it were a set of truths and very little as the unfolding of a dialogical relationship between God and the world. Today, on the other hand, most Catholic theologians, along with an increasing number of Protestants, interpret revelation fundamentally as God’s personal self-gift to the world. This is a dramatic departure from the dominantly apologetic treatments of our topic since the time of the Reformation.

The new personalist or dialogical emphasis in revelation theology is not incompatible with a propositional understanding, but it goes far beyond it. Gerald O’Collins, who certainly agrees with the new accent, observes that the personalist way of looking at revelation as God’s self-disclosure does not exclude the possibility of framing its content simultaneously in the form of statements of truth.

Is there no room left for talk of "revealed truths" and the "content" of revelation? With regard to this question we should recall that the relationship of the revealing God and the believing man is foremost a living experience which shapes man’s personal history. But this experienced reality is not so wholly incommunicable that it remains locked up in inarticulate subjectivity. The faith which arises in encounter with the self-revealing God feels the need to formulate true statements of faith both within the community of those who share this experience and also for outsiders.(Gerald O’Collins, Foundations of Theology (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1970) 27.)

Still, although traditionally revelation has been understood in a formal sense as God’s communication of truths to us, materially and in fact it has never been reducible to the mere transmission of information. In spite of the excesses of the propositional approach at the level of theological articulation, the lived experience of Christians throughout the ages has been one in which revelation, even when it is not called by this name, has been experienced predominantly in a personal, dialogical way. It would be an exaggeration to say that traditional theology has been mistaken in speaking of revelation in propositional terms, for example, during the period in which Scholasticism was virtually equated with Catholic theology. But it has failed, as incidentally all theology has to an extent in every age, by speaking of revelation in a manner that does not adequately thematize what actually goes on in the concrete faith life of Christian believers. The attempt to reduce revelation to propositional statements of truth may serve the cause of apologetics, but it leaves out the main substance or content of revelation as it has in fact been felt and internalized.

Theology has been so preoccupied with what we shall later call "boundary maintenance," the need to guarantee the integrity of revelation in the face of skepticism or alternative religious positions, that it has felt the need to codify its content in the form of credal and dogmatic propositions. This attempt at codification is especially understandable, and certainly forgivable, since the content of revelation needs to be guarded in one way or another. Without conceptually clarified boundaries, any religious tradition risks being dissolved into culture at large and thereby loses its critical edge vis-a-vis the social and political environment. The problem, then, is not with the propositional codification but with the narrow identification of a set of propositions with the sum and substance of revelation. Such an identification is parallel to the fallacy in science of identifying the world of nature with the scientific models that we use to organize our understanding of it. Nature is in fact always much richer and more complex than our imaginative and mathematical models, and we unduly shrivel our understanding of the cosmos if we equate it in a simple way with our scientific schemes. Likewise, it is of the very essence of faith that we acknowledge the transcendence of divine mystery over any of our propositional and symbolic representations of it. Indeed, not to do so is idolatrous. And so, if the ultimate content of revelation is the divine mystery of God, then no set of propositional truths can mediate it to us either. Avery Dulles writes,

The ineffable experience of the Word holds a certain precedence over its doctrinal statement. In the life of the individual believer and in that of the whole church, as Blondel observed, "it would be true to say that one goes from faith to dogma rather than from dogma to faith."(Avery Dulles, Revelation and the Quest for Unity (Washington: Corpus Books, 1968) 59.

Few theologians, it turns out, have rigorously equated the marrow of revelation with any particular set of propositional truths. But especially under the pressure of apologetical concerns, they have sometimes caused the theology of revelation to focus so intently on credal formulations that the life of faith and the intimate relation of God to the world underlying the statements of dogma have often been virtually ignored. The renewal of revelation theology, especially since Vatican II, is trying to redress this imbalance.

We must be careful to avoid caricaturing traditional theology. This is especially the case with the theology formulated along the lines of Thomas Aquinas’ great synthesis. Although Thomistic and later scholastic philosophies are rightly criticized for their rationalistic excesses, they did not totally obscure the personal dimension of revelation, but in their own way kept it alive. Aquinas himself did not lock revelation up in a purely logical mold, but instead saw it fundamentally as the presence of the Lord in the heart as well as the mind.(Summa Theologiae I a. 8, 3; 2, 3, 5, 6.) As we shall see in Chapter 4, religions all have an informational component which requires some sort of propositional formulizing, and Christian falth is not exempt from this requirement. But even the most "scholastic" theology of the late Middle Ages did not entirely reduce revelation to a set of sentences. Hidden beneath its rigorous preoccupation with dogmatic clarity, there was still the often inadequately articulated confession of the sense of God’s personal presence to. the world and to faith. It is this lived faith that revelation theology ideally attempts to clarify.

Revelation Theology Prior to Vatican II

Whenever the main theological concern is one of defending the faith from the threats of outsiders, it is difficult to undertake the work of a truly constructive theology. The latter occurs more readily in circumstances where religious energy can be focused on the development rather than just the protection of doctrine.(Sometimes, of course, serious challenges may help to stimulate doctrinal growth rather than retrenchment.) Before Vatican II, the Church councils and the Roman magisterium spoke of revelation generally in the context of the condemnation of unorthodoxy.(Dulles, Revelation and the Quest for Unity, 82.) At the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century, for example, there was no real theological deepening of the notion of revelation because the main concern was with safeguarding the deposit of faith that the council fathers held to have been passed down in Church tradition under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And although Vatican I did not explicitly dwell on the topic of revelation, its promulgations on infallibility and faith alluded to the "deposit" that comes to us from the apostles and that needs to be protected by Church authority.(Gabriel Moran, Theology of Revelation [New York: Herder & Herder, 1966] 27.)Vatican I understood revelation as a fixed body of supernatural truths under the protection of papal authority:

The Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of St. Peter not that they might make known new doctrine by his revelation, but rather, that with his assistance they might religiously guard and faithfully explain the revelation or deposit of faith that was handed down through the apostles. Indeed, it was this apostolic doctrine that all the Fathers held, and the holy orthodox Doctors reverenced and followed. For they fully realized that this See of St. Peter always remains untainted by any error, according to the divine promise of our Lord and savior made to the prince of his disciples. . . .(John Clarkson, S.J., et al., The Church Teaches [St. Louis: B. Herder, 1955] 101.)

The implied view of revelation here is that it is a somewhat manageable body of unchanging truths that can be clearly segregated from the "poison of error." The Council goes on to insist that papal infallibility is itself a "divinely revealed dogma," ( Ibid., 102) thus exposing once again its assumption that revelation comes wrapped in the form of doctrinal propositions.

Perhaps it is unfair of twentieth-century religious thought to be excessively critical of the rather emaciated views of revelation that came to expression at Trent and later at Vatican I and in the many manuals that followed. At the same time, however, it is not helpful to imagine that we can find much of a basis for a theology of revelation in these sources. The reason for such a sober conclusion is simply that the apologetic method, almost by definition, leaves too much out. Indeed, while it allegedly defends matters of faith, it typically deals primarily with revelation only from the point of view of what appeals to finite human reason. It rightly allows a place for intelligence and reason within faith, but it simultaneously suppresses much of the very substance of the faith it seeks to defend. Hans Waldenfels observes that in the standard modern manuals of theology, apologetics does not treat the topic of revelation in so far as it is known through faith, but only in so far as it can be grasped in a purely "natural" way.(Hans Waldenfels, Offenbarung (Munich: Max Hueber Verlag. 1968) 27.) Such a method is bound to abstract considerably from what lies in the depths of faith experience.

While the topic of revelation appears abundantly in apologetic treatises and manuals after Trent, it is impossible to find a fully developed revelation theology in Catholic circles until the present century. A formal theology of revelation does not appear in the Bible, nor in the Church fathers, nor in medieval scholastic theology, either. But this is not surprising since the fact of revelation was so foundational to Christian faith that it did not need to be reflected upon in the deliberate fashion that apologetics requires.(See Gabriel Moran, 22-23.) We look in vain for treatises de revelatione prior to modern times. And even after the Council of Trent in the mid-sixteenth century, the theme of revelation entered into the realm of theological discussion through the doorway of apologetics rather than as a fully developed theological notion. In their opposition to Protestantism, Tridentine and post-Tridentine theologians sought to defend the revelatory role of tradition and the magisterium over against the sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) emphasis of Protestant Christianity. In doing so, they and the many manuals that followed understood revelation usually in a starkly minimal sense as the locutio Dei, the speech of God. And in order to distinguish the Catholic position from that of the Protestants, they placed enormous weight on tradition and the Church magisterium as vehicles of God’s speech. Thus the Bible as God’s Word became a subordinate item in Catholic understanding of divine revelation. And in spite of Vatican II’s corrections, to this day the Bible is still quite often passed over by many Catholics as they look for the sources of their faith.

In our own century, the famous Dominican theologian Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, in a massive apologetically oriented two-volume work, De Revelatione. gives an elaborate definition of revelation, setting forth its efficient, material, formal, and final causes. According to his definition, revelation is a supernatural action of God made manifest "per modum locutionis" (by way of speech).(Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., De Revelatione (Rome: F. Ferrari, 1945) 136.) Such manuals as that of Garrigou-Lagrange typically cite Hebrews 1:1 as a scriptural basis for this understanding: "In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son. . . ." The notion of God’s locutio is easily assimilable to that of propositional truth which in turn best suits the interests of apologetics. And it is in this sense that most post-Tridentine Catholic theology prior to Vatican II understood the notion of revelation.

Even though this approach highlighted the "speaking" of God, it was still largely uninformed by, and should not be confused with, the biblical notion of "God’s word." And it shows little awareness of the biblical understanding of revelation as history, revelation as event, revelation as dialogical encounter, or revelation as personal relationship. The apologetic preoccupation was with preserving the "truth" of revelation, so much so that the biblical vision of revelation as the generous self-disclosure of God’s vision for creation and history was virtually forgotten. What is more, the central biblical experience of God’s revelation in the mode of promise was almost completely ignored.(We are speaking here of the formal theology of revelation and not of the concrete life of faith in which, at least to some degree, the theme of promise remained alive, though not always in the biblical sense.) Even now most Catholic theologies of revelation generally fail to accentuate sufficiently the promissory character of the biblical interpretation of God’s self-disclosure. In contrast to this puzzling oversight, we shall attempt in the following pages to give the notion of revelation as promise the prominence it deserves.

Protestant and Catholic tracts on revelation began to appear more abundantly in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They were still often written in an apologetic spirit, but by this time the enemy was not so much alternative Christian movements or heresies. Instead, Protestants and Catholics both had to defend the plausibility of any revelation whatsoever against the challenges of rationalism and scientific agnosticism. To an extent this apologetic tone still persists in many theologies of revelation, and even in this book we cannot ignore those questions raised by the critical spirit of academic modernity. Chief among these is the question whether revelation itself can be said to be a coherent notion in a scientific age.

When the apologetic emphasis is dominant, however, it becomes difficult to develop a very substantive theology of revelation. If the chief concern is that of defending the facticity of revelation (usually too narrowly defined), then the content and significance of revelation remain unexplored.(Moran, 25.) Accordingly, much that passes as revelation theology prior to Vatican II has failed to lead us very far into the depth and riches that the notion implies. For this reason, we shall devote most of this work to a setting forth of the nature of revelation, and reserve for our final chapter a brief inquiry into its possible consistency with reason. Such an approach is reflective of the pattern of many recent theological discussions of revelation. We shall not begin with a simple definition of the term "revelation" as the traditional treatises such as that of Garrigou-Lagrange have, defining it as the locutio Dei. Instead, we shall spend the largest part of our efforts groping toward a provisional understanding of the notion. Only after reaching at least a fragmentary grasp -- "definition" would be too strong a term -- of the nature of revelation would it be opportune to inquire into its critical plausibility.

Vatican II and Beyond

The Second Vatican Council’s document on revelation, promulgated November 18, 1965, is entitled Dei Verbum, the "Word of God." Perhaps nothing signals more directly the new ecumenical and biblical tone of the council’s understanding of revelation. Contemporary theologians, attuned as they now are to the renewal of biblical theology, may find the constitution on revelation quite unremarkable. But when we situate it in the context of previous magisterial statements, it takes on the appearance of a dramatic breakthrough in Catholic teaching. It is helpful to know that this document emerged only after a difficult struggle with those at the council who were simply intent upon restating the ideas of Trent and Vatican I. The first draft of the document was honed in a rigorously unbiblical and unecumenical way. Thanks to the intervention of Pope John XXIII and other bishops, the first draft was rejected. The final, approved text, like many other council documents, gives evidence of the modern Catholic Church’s intention to keep the lines of communication open to the world, of its willingness to learn from the experience of non-Catholic churches and theologians, and of a refreshing openness to the results of modern theology and biblical scholarship. It is the spirit of this liberating openness that encourages those of us who are theologians to keep probing ever deeper for the meaning of revelation in terms of our own circumstances almost thirty years later.

By accentuating the theme of God’s Word, the final text, known as Dei Verbum. clearly signals Catholic theology’s exposure to Protestant views of revelation in which the theme of God’s Word, rather than Church magisterium and tradition, is given primacy. No longer present is the old temptation to separate tradition or ecclesiastical magisterium from Scripture as autonomous sources of revelation. Instead, the document states that

there exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend towards the same end.(Dei Verbum, Article 9.)

In this way, the council avoids any narrow biblicism that would tend to derive all important truths for our lives from the pages of Scripture alone. It fortunately declares that the Word of God is not limited to the letter of Scripture: "It is not from sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed."(Ibid.) At the same time it emphasizes that the teaching office of the Church "is not above the word of God, but serves it."(Ibid., article 10.) Moreover, the council endorses the methods of modern biblical scholarship which reject literalist and fundamentalist readings of Scripture. It shows an awareness of the need to "search Out the intention of the sacred writers" by way of form criticism. It acknowledges our need to become aware of the historical context and different genres of the various books of the Bible. While still conceding points to Trent, Vatican I, and the apologetic orientation of previous Church documents, Dei Verbum overall is an inspiration to those who are concerned with developing and interpreting anew the notion of revelation. Although many of its articles are now commonplace in modern theology, the fact that it sanctions new methods and emphases gives one confidence that the Church’s teachers, including its theologians, are commissioned to search for an ever-deeper appreciation of the meaning of revelation.

In addition to the theme of God’s Word, the council also reflects the Catholic Church’s embrace of twentieth-century theology of history in which God’s Word is seen as inseparable from events and deeds. By way of revelation, Dei Verbum states,

The invisible God out of the abundance of his love speaks to men as friends and lives among them, so that he may invite and take them into fellowship with himself. This plan of revelation is realized by deeds and words having an inner unity: the deeds wrought by God in the history of salvation manifest and confirm the teaching and realities signified by the words, while the words proclaim the deeds and clarify the mystery contained in them.(Ibid., article 2.)

Thus revelation is no longer understood here simply as the communication of knowledge, but as a process, involving events as well as words, by which humans are invited into an ever-deeper relationship with God.(Dulles, Revelation and the Quest for Unity, 86.)

Most significantly also, Dei Verbum -- without developing the point in detail -- clearly understands revelation as the disclosure of God’s own selfhood: "Placuit Deo in sua bonitate et sapientia seipsum revelare. . . ." ("In his goodness and wisdom God chose to reveal himself. . . .").(Dei Verbum, article 2. Emphasis added.) Latourelle comments:

In saying that the object of revelation is God himself, the text thus personalizes revelation: before making known something, that is his plan for salvation, God reveals someone, himself. (Rene Latourelle, S.J., Theology of Revelation [Cork: Mercier Press Ltd., 1968] 458)

The document on revelation goes on to say that the fullness of God’s self-revelation becomes manifest in Christ.(Ibid.) It is this personalizing of revelation that we wish to highlight. The notion that revelation is God’s self-revelation has turned out to be one of the most important developments in all of modern theology. Greatly due to the influence of theologian Karl Rahner, Catholic theology of revelation has now shifted dramatically away from the propositional, impersonal, and apologetic features it carried in the past. In doing so, it has merged in substance with much non-Catholic theology of revelation as well.

The Present State of Revelation Theology

Although Vatican II’s document on revelation has de-emphasized the propositional approach to revelation theology, much work remains to be done in the area of bringing to clarity the unique content and meaning of biblical revelation. This is now a broadly shared ecumenical enterprise. Increasingly since Vatican II, Catholic and non-Catholic theologians have read and appropriated each others’ work in this area. The present book will itself reflect how Catholic theology of revelation can now be animated just as much by the reading of Protestant sources as of Catholic ones. Because of the Second Vatican Council’s endorsement of a biblical approach to revelation, with special emphasis on the "Word of God," Catholic theology has been implicitly commissioned to mine the resources of modern Protestant theology of revelation which traditionally has been much more explicitly concerned with the theme of God’s word.

The emphasis that both Protestant and Catholic theology must now develop more forcefully (and Vatican II already took implicit steps in this direction) is that God’s revelatory word comes in the form of promise. No contemporary theologian has brought out this dimension of revelation more emphatically than Jürgen Moltmann, a Protestant. And it is especially in relation to his own bold endeavors that a contemporary, ecumenically viable theology of revelation may be constructed.

Another area of revelation theology needing considerable development today is that of how to interpret the Christocentric character of Dei Verbum. The council’s constitution on revelation implies that the fullness of the divine self-disclosure occurs only in Christ: "The deepest truth about God and the salvation of man shines out for our sake in Christ, who is both the mediator and the fullness of all revelation (mediator simul et plenitudo totius revelationis)."(Ibid.) How literally does this powerful and sweeping claim, supported by several important texts in the New Testament and by centuries of Christian tradition, need to be taken? This question arises for Christian theology today primarily because of our growing awareness of the revelatory claims of other religious traditions. In our conversations with representatives of these alternative visions of reality, what does it mean to say that Christ is the plenitudo totius revelationis (the fullness of all revelation)?

The issue of how to interpret the alleged finality of Christian revelation is receiving considerable attention in theology today, and in Chapter 4 we shall look into it somewhat more closely. It goes without saying that any efforts we might make with respect to this difficult and controversial matter can only be tentative, not to say clumsy. But it does not seem wise, nor for that matter in keeping with the spirit of tolerance and inclusiveness that we associate with Christian faith, simply to ignore it. The question of the meaning of the traditional teaching about the centrality, finality, and unsurpassability of Christ in revelation needs to be raised and discussed over and over. Dei Verbum is not as sensitive to this question as we might have hoped, although in comparison with previous magisterial statements both its tone and content are significant departures from the apologetically bound past. The decree on revelation, as well as other products of the Second Vatican Council, make initial gestures toward acknowledging the situation of religious pluralism, but we need now to go much further.

Finally, the present condition of revelation theology is one in which the kenotic aspects of God’s self-revelation are thankfully being accentuated more forcefully than ever before. Dei Verbum implies that God’s self-revelation is indeed a self-emptying, but it does not make this point very explicit, nor does it develop it. In the present work, therefore, without in any way claiming adequacy for our treatment, we shall bring to the front the theme of God’s self-emptying as central to the theology of revelation. When taken together with the biblical motif of promise, the notion of a divine kenosis may provide for our own situation today a solid and compelling foundation for a fresh theology of revelation.