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).