How Theology is Defined
Special Revelation and Theology.(Opinion Piece)
For any Christian, the belief that the Holy Bible as a whole, is the true word of God, should be held as an undisputed truth. The fact that it is not, (in certain circles of “Christianity” that are critical towards the Bible and therefore no longer faithful to it) is only going to be examined in light of propositional revelation. The intention of this article, is to assess how that, the perspectives through which Scripture itself (the source of Christian information and Christian revelation) is read, determines one’s scriptural interpretation, hence consequently, one’s theology and apologetic.
This becomes important when one reads Baruch de Spinoza’s words, in his Tractatus Theologico-Philosophicus: “We see, I say, that the chief concern of theologians on the whole has been to extort from Holy Scripture their own arbitrarily invented ideas, for which they claim divine authority.” 1Benedictus de Spinoza, Samuel Shirley and Michael L Morgan, Complete Works (Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 2002), 456. see also Wisse, Maarten. “CHAPTER 1 Contra et Pro Sola Scriptura”. In Sola Scriptura, (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2017) doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004356436_003. Leaving aside the non-Christian world and thus further narrowing down the scope of this piece, the reason for any Christian to understand the application of correct scriptural interpretation, is to “rightly handl[e] the word of truth”(2 Tim 2:15). The author understands this phrase to mean; without prejudices and according to the single true historical sense of the text, although some scholars would argue of the impossibility of such a task.
There are passages in Scripture where the plain reading of the text can be simply and unequivocally understood, and although it seems superfluous to mention; just how such passages are interpreted and understood, are not within the confines of this article. It is within this narrower description of scriptural interpretation, that this article focuses upon and finds Luther’s 1517 Disputation against Scholastic Theology a reasonable place to start from.
‘Scholasticism consists in the conviction that reason is to be used in the elucidation of spiritual truth and in defense of the dogmas of the Faith’. 2Romanoski, J.T., 2016, A handbook of scholasticism, IHM Press, New York. Quoted in Potgieter, Raymond. “The 97 Theses (04–05 September 1517): A Precursor to the 95 Theses (31 October 1517)?” In Die Skriflig / in Luce Verbi, vol. 52, no. 1, 29 Nov. 2018, https://doi.org/10.4102/ids.v52i1.2392. Accessed 20 Feb. 2023.Romanoski (2016:318)
Firstly, Luther objects to bringing Aristotelian philosophy into the interpretation of scripture, hence he spoke against the impact that Aristotelianism had had upon Christian theology and the doctrine of his time. He does not mince his words: “Indeed, no one can become a theologian unless he becomes one without Aristotle” (Disputation against Scholastic Theology., No 44). 3 Luther, Disputation against Scholastic Theology., No 44 available at https://www.checkluther.com/wp-content/uploads/1517-Disputation-against-Scholastic-Theology.pdf Luther continues: “Briefly, the whole Aristotle is to theology as darkness is to light. This is in opposition to the scholastics” (Luther, Disput. cont. schol. theol., No 50). In other words Aristotle does not have any place in theology.
Secondly, Luther connects the idea of a proper limit to philosophy, or an establishing of reason within its proper boundaries, to that of its measure or to that of its applicability. “In vain does one fashion a logic of faith, a substitution brought about without regard for limit and measure. This in opposition to the new dialecticians”. (Disputation against Scholastic Theology. No 46). He follows this with “Syllogistic reasoning cannot be the all-expansive manner of knowing God who is shrouded in mystery to the limited human creature” (ibid, No 47), which is plainly understandable.
For Luther, metaphysics’ chief theological mistake is that it enthrones a finite, sinful human faculty, natural reason, as ultimate arbiter of truth and falsehood. Though natural reason is able to judge worldly or “civic” phenomena, it fails when it comes to theological ones because the infinite God totally exceeds created nature – the apophatic argument – and because all human faculties, reason included, are corrupted by sin. Reason attains what Luther calls the “general knowledge of God,” but this God remains an idol because God wishes to reveal Godself ‘in person’ through Jesus Christ (the “particular knowledge of God”), not through general metaphysical characteristics.4Oltvai, Kristóf. “Exegesis and Encounter”, Journal for Continental Philosophy of Religion 2, 1 (2020): 47-72, doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/25889613-bja10001 p.51Kristóf Oltvai
The idea that General Revelation is just as authoritative as Special Revelation, on a really basic level manifests itself as a self evident concept. Romans chapter 1 conveys the fact that the essence of General Revelation is communicated to all, so they are all without excuse. What is that revelation? That God exists:- “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: (Rom 1:18-20).
This Scripture speaks to the fact that everyone knows that God exists and are inexcusable for not knowing it, since the creation declares it. However, scripture tells us that, there are people who filter this truth through their own manufactured cognitive bias, refusing to acknowledge it, by an act of their own rebellious volition. A cognisant creation of an epistemic bubble ensues, by means of the utilisation of a bias, that skews or limits understanding in which important sources have been excluded by wilful omission. This then becomes the state of mind.
Classical apologetics, will employ various theistic arguments (cosmological, teleological, ontological etc. [from General Revelation]) to establish the existence of God. But scripture tells us people already posses this knowledge of His existence, but refuse to acknowledge Him. Therefore, scripturally the problem lies in not in the lack of knowledge but in a refusal to accept it. This is a spiritual condition that requires a spiritual remedy; not a philosophical one. God dispenses those. We can have the privilege of dispensing the Gospel.
This conclusion cannot be arrived at through General Revelation, but by Special Revelation understood as: a disclosure of God’s truth through means other than through reason. It can take the form of God’s revelation of himself and of spiritual matters to particular persons and at particular times such as (in this case) in the revelation of sacred writings which is (in the author’s view) propositional. This view is contentious and critics of it, contrast it with forms of the following (from an entry for “Divine Revelation”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy [Fall 2020 Edition]):
………… While here are different kinds of critique (Helm 1972; Gunton 1995: 7–13), the main objection has to do with how the notion of propositional revelation is thought to affect biblical interpretation. Standardly, the critics’ argument (made from a Christian perspective) goes something like this:
- If there is such a thing as propositional revelation, it is found in the Bible.
- If there is propositional revelation in the Bible, then it is communicated through literal language that straightforwardly expresses divinely revealed propositions (Dulles 1992: 48).
- However, it is very implausible that God communicates in this way, since the Bible often uses metaphor and narrative rather than literal language. Moreover, the Bible contains erroneous and problematic claims and views, and historical-critical scholarship has shown that the text is shaped by the contingent historical, cultural and political contexts of the human authors (Dulles 1992: 49).
- Hence, the Bible does not contain propositional revelation.
- Hence, there is no propositional revelation.5Wahlberg, Mats, “Divine Revelation”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2020/entries/divine-revelation/>.
The authors regards ‘Christians’ holding the above perspective as capitulating to an idol, namely a enlightenment humanist demiurge (called sola ratio); “a subordinate god who fashions and arranges the physical world to make it conform to a rational and eternal ideal”6Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Demiurge”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 30 Aug. 2022, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Demiurge. Accessed 28 March 2023.. This outlook, consents to their conviction that only reason (and science) can enhance human understanding.
Words written meaningfully are propositions and propositional revelation is revelation brought about by such propositions. “Since revelation is an epistemic concept (or at least has an epistemic dimension), any act of revelation must make something known or knowable, and this means making at least some proposition known or knowable” (Wahlberg 2014: 30–31).7Wahlberg, Mats, 2014, Revelation as Testimony: A Philosophical-Theological Study, Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.. To contest “propositional revelation” is to contest that God reveals, spiritual and other matters, to men through meaningful statements and concepts, expressed in words and is contrary to the biblical view of revelation: Jesus questions the Sadducees “But as touching the resurrection of the dead, have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God, saying,” (Matthew 22:31 KJV)
The Apostle Paul uses the terms “the oracles of God” in Romans 3:2. The Greek form λόγια (logia) from Strong’s 3051: means- Plur: oracles, divine responses or utterances (it can include the entire Old Testament). Neuter of logios; an utterance. It is the words of the Old Testament which are referred to as “oracles” (or logia). The same term is employed in Acts 7:38, in Hebrews 5:12 and in 1 Peter 4:11.
“In its primary acceptation it means an utterance inspired by a divinity;” (“Oracles from the McClintock and Strong Biblical Cyclopedia.”)8“Oracles from the McClintock and Strong Biblical Cyclopedia.” McClintock and Strong Biblical Cyclopedia Online, www.biblicalcyclopedia.com/O/oracles.html. Accessed 29 Mar. 2023. which finds its root in the Latin verb orare: to pray, utter or speak. An oracle is a revealed truth that is conveyed in the form of a revelational utterance, whose revelational character lies entirely in the words used. These propositions which are revelational, are so, because they are propositions uttered by their author, which ‘just happens’ to be God.
Christians need to honour the Holy Scriptures as God’s word. God’s revelation in and through Scripture, the fact that God has spoken, must be theology’s starting point. Theological conclusions need to follow from the text of Scripture and not be filtered through a philosophical set of metaphysical assumptions which a person may be dedicated to.
Luther argues that reason needs to be established within its proper boundaries:
His preoccupation for the source of revelation indirectly underlies the Disputation [Disputation against Scholastic Theology]: no metaphysical system, no matter how well constructed, can completely comprehend God and his ways: these are revealed exclusively through the Word of God.9 Kenneth Clewett, “LUTHER and SOLA SCRIPTURA: AN EPISTEMOLOGICAL SHIFT in SCRIPTURE and TRADITION?,” www.academia.edu, accessed March 27, 2023, https://www.academia.edu/4853086/LUTHER_AND_SOLA_SCRIPTURA_AN_EPISTEMOLOGICAL_SHIFT_IN_SCRIPTURE_AND_TRADITION.Kenneth Clewett,
He was primarily concerned with making clear distinctions between the disciplines of philosophy and theology, “which for him also involved becoming clear about the limitations of reason in relation to matters of faith.” (Stern, 2012) 10 “Stern, Robert, “Martin Luther”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2020/entries/luther/>. with the intention to “keep reason within its proper boundaries and under the right tutelage.” (Stern, 2012). “However, Luther then goes on to argue that precisely because philosophy is confined to reason that operates within empirical constraints,[Notes 10] and is unaided by revelation, faith, and scripture,……” (Stern, 2012) it does not portray a complete picture, “……for which the extra resources available to theology are required,…” (Stern, 2012).
However Luther recognized that reasoning from and about the text of Scripture was a critical element in the interpretational process. Inferences made from the text in Scripture, were always subject to testing against the biblical text itself. He, being an Augustinian monk shows respect to the patron of his Order by employing Augustine’s rule: “Sacra Scriptura sui interpres” Luther posits the Bible as the sole infallible source of authority for Christian faith and practice; hence affirms the Protestant principle of sola Scriptura. He makes this evident from his famous statement made at the Diet of Worms in May 1521:
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by evident reason—for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves—I consider myself conquered by the Scriptures adduced by me and my conscience is captive to the Word of God.11 Martin Luther, Verhandlungen mit D. Martin Luther auf dem Reichstage zu Worms (1521), WA 7:838.4–7; LW 32:112.Martin Luther,
The notion of ‘scripture as a whole’, tota Scriptura, is important and deals with embracing the whole counsel of God as it is revealed in the entirety of sacred Scripture. Some theologians, representative of a neo-Marcionite cause, would have Christians subscribe to the idea that, restricted portions of Scripture are deemed as God’s revelation, and not the whole of Scripture. These neo-Marcionites may include proponents of radical reductionism, ‘a la’ Bultmann, or those who subscribe to views of “limited inspiration” or “limited inerrancy”. The author would like to point out the self evidence of the inseperability of tota Scriptura from sola Scriptura for the definition of the term “bible believing“.
Scripture serves as the foremost witness to Christ’s saving activity because its very textuality repeats and reinscribes the “logos of the cross” that is “foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved … the power of God” (1Cor. 1:18). If, as a result of the cross, life itself must be ‘read’ per crucem, then the language of Scripture performs, in discourse, the same ‘destruction’ the cross visits upon “the wisdom of the world” (1 Cor. 3:19). Scripture is cruciform, insofar as it ‘crosses out’ the world’s language – that is, metaphysics – by imposing another language atop it.12Oltvai, Kristóf. “Exegesis and Encounter.” Journal for Continental Philosophy of Religion, vol. 2, no. 1, 1 May 2020, pp. 47–72, https://doi.org/10.1163/25889613-bja10001. Accessed 19 Feb. 2023.Kristóf Oltvai
“For seeing that in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom knew not God, it was God’s good pleasure through the foolishness of the preaching to save them that believe” (I Corinthians 1:21 [ASV]). How can this not be understood as propositional revelation? However this is not merely an eschatological promise, but also a present reality; that from the perspective of the Christian believer, the wisdom of the world has got it wrong. It is this proclamation that the world rejects most vehemently, wherefore it pours out its vitriol in derision and ostracises both the message and the messenger proclaiming it.
It would be fair to challenge Protestants to revisit sola scriptura and to clarify exactly what is meant by the term, inasmuch as it seems to have fallen victim of ‘semantic drift’, propelled by people invested in pluralism and various religious and secular commitments. The truth and authority of scripture should be a rallying point for all true Christians of all denominations.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.(II Corinthians 13:14 [ASV])
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- 1Benedictus de Spinoza, Samuel Shirley and Michael L Morgan, Complete Works (Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 2002), 456. see also Wisse, Maarten. “CHAPTER 1 Contra et Pro Sola Scriptura”. In Sola Scriptura, (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2017) doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004356436_003.
- 2Romanoski, J.T., 2016, A handbook of scholasticism, IHM Press, New York. Quoted in Potgieter, Raymond. “The 97 Theses (04–05 September 1517): A Precursor to the 95 Theses (31 October 1517)?” In Die Skriflig / in Luce Verbi, vol. 52, no. 1, 29 Nov. 2018, https://doi.org/10.4102/ids.v52i1.2392. Accessed 20 Feb. 2023.
- 3Luther, Disputation against Scholastic Theology., No 44 available at https://www.checkluther.com/wp-content/uploads/1517-Disputation-against-Scholastic-Theology.pdf
- 4Oltvai, Kristóf. “Exegesis and Encounter”, Journal for Continental Philosophy of Religion 2, 1 (2020): 47-72, doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/25889613-bja10001 p.51
- 5Wahlberg, Mats, “Divine Revelation”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2020/entries/divine-revelation/>.
- 6Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Demiurge”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 30 Aug. 2022, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Demiurge. Accessed 28 March 2023.
- 7Wahlberg, Mats, 2014, Revelation as Testimony: A Philosophical-Theological Study, Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
- 8“Oracles from the McClintock and Strong Biblical Cyclopedia.” McClintock and Strong Biblical Cyclopedia Online, www.biblicalcyclopedia.com/O/oracles.html. Accessed 29 Mar. 2023.
- 9Kenneth Clewett, “LUTHER and SOLA SCRIPTURA: AN EPISTEMOLOGICAL SHIFT in SCRIPTURE and TRADITION?,” www.academia.edu, accessed March 27, 2023, https://www.academia.edu/4853086/LUTHER_AND_SOLA_SCRIPTURA_AN_EPISTEMOLOGICAL_SHIFT_IN_SCRIPTURE_AND_TRADITION.
- 10“Stern, Robert, “Martin Luther”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2020/entries/luther/>.
- 11Martin Luther, Verhandlungen mit D. Martin Luther auf dem Reichstage zu Worms (1521), WA 7:838.4–7; LW 32:112.
- 12Oltvai, Kristóf. “Exegesis and Encounter.” Journal for Continental Philosophy of Religion, vol. 2, no. 1, 1 May 2020, pp. 47–72, https://doi.org/10.1163/25889613-bja10001. Accessed 19 Feb. 2023.