Thursday, 25 October 2007

J. Barr on Verbal and Historical Revelation

A major point I've been trying to make in my posts is the centrality of verbal revelation as a component of Christian theology. This does not mean that God dictated the Bible and the prophets wrote what he said (i.e. verbal inspiration). Rather, it means that whatever we say of God and our world has to be filtered through the lens of that document we call the Bible. Words, texts, seem to be a central part of the way God has made himself known and continues to do so, and it does not seem to be the case that we we can separate 'the divine reality' from the words He uses to reveal himself. J. Barr has shown how this is an intrinsic part of the Bible's own self presentation:

"In so far as it is good to use the term "revelation" at all, it is entirely as true to say that in the Old Testament revelation is by verbal communication as to say that it is by acts in history. We have verbal communication both in that God speaks directly with men and in that men learn from other and earlier men through the verbal form of tradition. When we speak of the highly "personal" nature of the Old Testament God, it is very largely upon this verbal character of his communication with man that we are relying. The acts of God are meaningful because they are set within this frame of verbal communication. God tells what he is doing, or tells what he is going to do. He does nothing, unless he tells his servants the prophets (Amos 3:7). A God who acted in history would be a mysterious and supra-personal fate if the action was not linked with this verbal conversation ... ." (1966: 77, 8; italics my own)

"If you treat [the biblical] record as revelation through history, you commonly speak as if the basis were the doing of certain divine acts (what, exactly, they were is often difficult to determine), while the present form of tradition in its detail and circumstantiality is "interpretation" of these acts, or "meditation" upon them, or theological reflection prompted by them. Thus one may hear the great revelatory passage of Exodus 3 described as "interpretation"of this divine act of salvation, or as an inference from the fact that God had led Israel out of Egypt.

But I cannot make this scheme fit the texts, for this is not how the texts represent the Exodus events. Far from representing the divine acts as the basis of all knowledge of God and all communication with him, they represent God as communicating freely with men, and particularly with Moses, before, during, and after these events. Far from the incident at the burning bush being an "interpretation" of the divine acts, it is a direct communication from God to Moses of his purposes and intentions. This conversation, instead of being represented as an interpretation of the divine act, is a precondition of it. If God had not told Moses what he did, the Israelites would not have demanded their escape from Egypt, and the deliverance at the Sea of Reeds would not have taken place.

... this is how the biblical narrative represents these events. ... " (1963: 197; italics mine)

"... If we persist in saying that this direct, specific communication must be subsumed under revelation through events in history and taken as subsidiary interpretation of the latter, I shall say that we are abandoning the Bible's own representation of the matter for another which is apologetically more comfortable."(Ibid. 201; Pannenberg seems to comment on it here).


dave b said...

At first glance I quite like the direction of this post (although I am a little confused with your inconsistent use of quotation marks--I assume that all but the first paragraph are quotes from Barr).
I have one observation and one question:
The great acts God or salvation history approach to biblical theology (further) alienated the wisdom lit. from OT theology. So I think it is probably healthy to warn against the idea that "direct, specific communication must be subsumed under revelation through events in history."
However, much of the Bible is not represented so clearly as God "communicating freely with men," as for example God communicating with Moses or through the prophets. The primary example, I think, is the Psalter. I'm certainly not suggesting that God is not communicating through the psalms but clearly it's not as simple as either God communicating through great acts or God communicating directly to humanity. God's Communication through the Scriptures is multi-faceted.

John C. Poirier said...


You realize, I hope, that this doesn't really represent Barr's views on the role of revelation in Christian theology. There is a clue even in part of what you quote that this is not the whole story: "In so far as it is good to use the term 'revelation' at all . . .". Barr rightly recognized that the theology of the Bible does not accord revelation the same pivotal importance that twentieth-century theology did. In fact, the reason that the "revelation in history" movement went in such a wrong direction was that it started from the premise that revelation is a proper term to speak of God's general involvement with the world, and concluded from that that to speak of God's involvement in history (whether only in the Christ event or through "salvation history") was to speak of "revelation in history". Barr was opposed to this artificial and potentially confusing use of the term "revelation", so he tried to put the brakes on it. He was *not* saying that *verbal* revelation is thereby the proper organizing principle for a Christian understanding of Scripture.

James F. McGrath said...

I suppose the question I would ask is whether the impression given in the story is what matters most, or what happened in the events themselves. If the story can be shown to accurately reflect what happened, including the conversing of Moses with God 'face to face', then your point would seem very strong. If, on the other hand, we are open to the possibility that this later depiction gives the impression of conversation where people in the time might not have actually heard voices and responded verbally to them, then the matter becomes far more complex.

Phil Sumpter said...


something tells me you've decided on the Wisdom literature for your studies ...

I'm afraid I can't see what's wrong with the quotation marks. Every time they're closed they're followed by a reference. The blocks of quotes either come from different books or from different sections of one book.

God's Communication through the Scriptures is multi-faceted.

Thank you for pointing this out. I feel that the Psalter is a great test-case for many theories (e.g. the obvious independence of each Psalm puts pressure on a canonical approach to show how the whole collection received a kerygmatic redaction). Concerning God's self-revelation: you are right, God rarely talks directly in the Psalms, they are more talk to God then vice-versa. What I wanted to emphasise in the quote was the verbal nature of God's self-revelation, rather than the fact that he spoke at specific points in time to specific people. Barr included 'the verbal form of tradition' as a means by which people learnt of God (i.e. the commands to teach children of what God had done, explaining how and why). That, for me, belongs to God's self-revelation: making himself known involves the use of language and communication. Thus, the Psalms too, although originally talk to God, were taken in time to be the paradigmatic ways of doing this. They were associated with David, the paradigmatic man of God. They have been placed in a particular order, such that our interpretation of them is constrained in a particular (eschatologising) direction. R. Alter notes how Hebrew poetry usually presupposes a narrative in order to make sense of it. Thus, the Psalms would be meaningless without the interpretive framework of the rest of the Bible; the narrative superscriptions highlight this. This is an example of the 'traditioning process', where by material is taken to witness to God, and thus is shaped in such a way that it is heremeneutically accessible to later generations seeking God. Otherwise, as Barr says, God would remain a “mysterious and supra-personal fate”. The NT writers read the Psalms to learn who Jesus was, and I think it is arguable that this canonical shaping was key in the reading of the individual texts.

At base, this is what I understand by 'verbal revelation'. God's actually talking to Moses was one intensified example of that. Tell me if I'm stretching the Barr quote too far ...


thanks for pointing out that this is not Barr's personal belief. That is no doubt important, though for me the key text is: “this is how the biblical narrative represents these events”. If one takes the biblical presentation seriously, then Barr's insightful statements remain helpful. One would have to be convinced of his rejection of the Bible's self-presentation in order to then reject what he says here. I haven't yet read his arguments against this, so I will have to suspend judgement until I do so. For now, I'm convinced by the canonical approach, which takes the Bible's own angle of vision seriously.

In the light the sentence I've quoted, I can't understand how you can say that “Barr rightly recognized that the theology of the Bible does not accord revelation the same pivotal importance that twentieth-century theology did.” This whole series of quotes is all about what the Bible says. It would thus seem to be the case that, according to Barr, at least on the level of the Bible's own self-presentation, verbal revelation is an integral part of God's relation to his world.

The words in italics were meant for you, by the way. They illustrate what I feel to be a central weakness of your position, which is that Christian theology can only base itself on the three or so historical events which the kerygma proclaims, understood and evaluated independently of the kerygma's own verbal presentation of those events. Could you respond to them?


thanks for your thoughts. I think the matter is in one sense more complex. The relation between the world 'behind the text' (history) and the world 'in' and 'in front of' the text is complex, important, and needs to be taken into account in each independent case (my post of politics and the canonical process showed how for Childs one cannot bracket out history and just 'believe the story'). Nevertheless, when evaluating these texts theologically, i.e. how they relate to the church, I think it's important to take into account their nature as 'canonical', i.e. they function to witness to the reality of God. As witnesses to this reality, how they do that needs to be taken into account. Narrative is one particular way of 'telling the truth' amongst others, with its own generic conventions and rules (i.e. it relates to the object of its witness, the divine reality, in one particular way). However one evaluates the burning bush narrative, I think that at least one can say that the message it wants to convey is that God communicates verbally to his prophets, and that this verbal communication is key to Israel's relation to God. Other parts of the narrative talk of God commanding Israel to teach their children and answer their questions. I feel that the historical question is secondary to this more basic insight ... though I may be wrong. I find the question of the relation between the diachronic and synchronic dimensions of the text challenging.

Does that make sense?

James F. McGrath said...

That does help clarify where you are coming from. I find it helpful to think of Scripture as providing not just texts but examples of the way in which various forerunners in the faith interpreted and re-interpreted earlier events, stories, and traditions. The problems start when we ask only what they wrote, and not what they were doing when they wrote what they did in the context they did in interaction with those that wrote and told stories before them.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

Hi, Phil:
The Psalms would be meaningless without the interpretive framework of the rest of the Bible; the narrative superscriptions highlight this. This is an example of the 'traditioning process', where by material is taken to witness to God, and thus is shaped in such a way that it is heremeneutically accessible to later generations seeking God.

I appreciate the importance of this concept for your (Childsian) view of scripture. And I'm beginning to understand it better after repeated exposures to it, as here.

I'm afraid it's an area where we will not reach agreement. In essence, Brueggemann and I are more cynical than Childs and you. We see a church with a marked history of exercising control, out of motivations both godly and ungodly. A Church which frequently resorts to the suppression of dissenting voices; of ensuring that marginalized people are kept on the margins.

But they aren't really marginal people, or they wouldn't keep popping up in the biblical tradition. They aren't a new, postmodern phenomenon. They were there during the biblical era, most pointedly in the wisdom literature. But the Church has a habit of trying to box in those voices, to ensure that they are only heard in a certain way. In fact, the Church intentionally distorts those voices to make them conform to orthodoxy.

In other words, the traditioning process — the process of editing scripture and delimiting a canon — was not innocent.

Your example of the headings on the Psalms is an innocuous one. I don't think the headings are an attempt to suppress anyone's voice, but they have the effect of channelling exegesis down certain paths.

You and I agree on this point, that the editors of scripture wanted to determine the direction of interpretation: but where you see it as a beneficial development, I see it as having harmful consequences.

I don't think we will reach agreement on this point. I want to underline it for precisely that reason: here I think we have markedly different starting points, and our starting points lead us to arrive at divergent conclusions.

John C. Poirier said...


Your second paragraph in your response to me assumes that Barr connects the Bible with the doctrine of revelation. That, of course, is not the way he sees things. For Barr, verbal revelation consists in prophecies--*not* Scripture (except insofar that Scripture records those prophecies, of course). Scripture, for Barr, is not primarily revelation from God, but rather a record of Israel's dealings with God.

I agree with Barr on this. The meaning of God's works is communicated to us through the prophets (*not*, of course, in the sense of the OT canon, or the canonical prophets, but in the sense of God's revealing through prophecy in general). But meaningfulness is not the same as efficacy, and therefore is logically pendant from both the events and the alethiology that they trace. This prevents God from being "a mysterious and supra-personal fate", but that epistemic boon is logically secondary to the act of God. This is why revelation is *not* a proper organizing principle for Christian theology.

Phil Sumpter said...


The problems start when we ask only what they wrote, and not what they were doing when they wrote

That's an interesting point. Thanks. Childs seems to value both dimensions, as you say. However, he also grants a certain integrity to the final, written, form of the text, over against the canonical process that got it there. I'm still trying to figure out how the two dimensions relate to each other. I think this is related to the question of authorial intent, which I hope to tackle at some point.


I appreciate you consistent remarks on this topic. I'm glad to see that you've posted on this. I haven't read it yet, but will do, so I think it's best to leave my response for there.

The psalm headings could also be ideological. According to postmodernism, everything is ideological, it's not a matter of 'if'. The davidic superscriptions have eradicated the identity of the original author, the liturgical (?) context for which they were composed, the building blocks of each Psalm have been reshuffled, and a new context has been given to the Psalm (according to most historical critics). This is hardly innocuous and has profound interpretive implications. Reading the entire Psalm as davidic creates a different meaning to the parts hypothetically situated elsewhere (and, of course, the critical enterprise of reallocating the parts is itself ideological,though with a different ideology to the kerygmatic one of the biblical editors).


thanks for pointing out Barr's approach. I will need to read more of him, as he is clearly a significant figure.

I wonder about your/his defintion of 'prophecy', is it always oral? Were there not writing prophets? And what about the activities of the groups of disciples who gathered around, say, isaiah? Is their editing work not, in some sense, prophetic? The historical books are also labelled by Jewish tradition as prophetic. How does one discern this? And you point on the nature of the text as only a record begs the question of the nature of the relationship of text to reality. One cannot assume from the outset that they are only archival.Why should they be seen as only archival (aside from arguements about 'spacetime alethiology', cf. my comments here)

Which prophets communicate God's works? How do you know? If you reject that OT 'canon' (i.e. boundary marker), as well as the texts we have which are the only evidence either we or the early church had in relation to Jesus, which prophets and which prophecies? And what do you mean by 'prophecy in general'? That phrase seems (to me at least) to negate the OT on the one hand, but to be so vague as to say nothing on the other.

How do naked events intrinsically trace an alethiology? What brings you to that conclusion?

Why is efficacy dependent from events, independent of words? What makes you say that?

I feel that my recent comments on the philosphical and theological weaknesses of a 'spacetime alethiology' are sufficient to require you to give an account of the logic of the kerygma and the implications of that for faith and interpretation.

John C. Poirier said...


Some of your questions to me are addressed in my most recent comments under the last installment in the "In Accordance with the Scriptures" series.