Knowing God Apart from Special Revelation (If “Revelation” Is An Accurate Term)?

At church this morning, the pastor told a story about theologian Karl Barth.  Barth spoke at Princeton, and someone asked him if he believed that God could speak through religions other than Christianity.  Barth’s response was that God does not speak through any religion, including the Christian one, but God’s revelation is through the son of God alone, Jesus Christ.

That reminded me of something that I recently read in my old notes about the Book of Isaiah.  In my notes about Isaiah 63, I wrote: “Israel is God’s heritage.  Without God’s people, who on earth would know about God?”  God in the Hebrew Bible works through a specific community, Israel.

Both ideas are a challenge to me, as one who has come to lean in the “spiritual but not religious” direction.  I’ve been believing in a benevolent higher power, but I have wondered if I could do so without adhering to Jewish or Christian holy books.

I believe that God can bless people who look to a benevolent higher power without adhering to a Jewish or Christian religious creed.  At the same time, I would venture to say that even, say, twelve-step groups—-which promote a belief in God that is not necessarily confessional (it can be, if you want, but it doesn’t have to be)—-get some of their ideas about God and Christianity from Jewish and Christian holy books.  Even they are not entirely independent of what Christians call “special revelation.”

There is natural theology, the notion that we can learn things about God from nature, reason, conscience, etc.  There are things in the Bible that seem to support that (Romans 1:20; Acts 14:17).  But nature does not strike me as univocally good.  There are destructive aspects of nature.  What message would nature even communicate about God?  That God loves beauty because nature is beautiful?  But not all of nature fits everyone’s conception of beauty.  That God is orderly because nature is orderly?  I wouldn’t see nature as too orderly were I to experience its harsh, destructive side!

Can we really bypass special revelation, if we want to know God?  The thing is, even if the answer is “no,” that does not solve a whole lot.  I’m reading Karen Armstrong’s A History of God, and she shows rather effectively that different time periods and contexts have had different conceptions of God or the divine.  I recently listened to a debate between agnostic biblical scholar Bart Ehrman and Christian apologist and scholar Mike Licona, and Ehrman made the point that ancient Christians would neither have recognized nor accepted evangelical Christianity (or Ehrman said something similar to that).  I have my doubts that many evangelical Christians worship the God of the Bible.  Rather, my impression is that they draw from certain pictures of God in the Bible, and they reinterpret parts that do not fit with their worldview, as many throughout history have done.

I can somewhat sympathize with Barth.  I believe that looking to Jesus’ goodness, his act of atonement, and his resurrection is quite a bit.  From that, I learn to do good to others, to recognize my sinfulness, to appreciate God’s love for me and for others, and to have hope of entering a positive afterlife.  But I don’t exclude that God can demonstrate God’s goodness apart from a Christian confessional context—-through nature, other religions, etc.  Does this contradict all that I have said above—-the doubts that I have expressed?  Somewhat.  I do see some thread of love throughout the Bible, and also in the cultures of the world, and maybe even in nature, even though I can also observe phenomena that appear to contradict love.

The thing is, within the Bible, God is often in competition with other religions, rather than treating them as alternative revelations of himself.

Anyway, I’ll stop here.  This post is starting to wear out its welcome—-and I mean to me, the person writing it!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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4 Responses to Knowing God Apart from Special Revelation (If “Revelation” Is An Accurate Term)?

  1. Stephen Colbert invites many religious scholars, theologians, and philosophers on his show and I remember one who wrote of God in the Old Testament and how his wrath could be measured as to how secure Israel’s position was as a nation state. His guests are always interesting with their various interpretations and arguments. Your post was illuminating in the same vein. 🙂

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  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    That sounds like a very interesting topic.

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  3. I often imagine Paul’s reactions were he to visit us today. First, he would be horrified to find his personal letters to friends in various churches considered to be the inerrant word of God. Secondly, he would be alarmed and dumbfounded to read extensive systematic theologies of God’s being and attributes.

    And if he were to write an article objecting to those things, he would be declared a heretic by most of our evangelical churches.

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  4. jamesbradfordpate says:

    lol. That wouldn’t surprise me!

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