This is the second in what will be a series of outtakes from an attempt at writing a book exploring theology in the context of the Disciples of Christ. This emerged from a "Theology 101" study we did at Central Woodward nearly eight years ago. This excerpt and another to follow form parts of chapter two: "Revelation and Our Knowledge of God." I am offering these as a discussion starter among fellow Disciples and others who are interested in the conversation (and perhaps I'll find the wherewithal to further develop the book).
St. Augustine is credited with the phrase “faith seeking understanding.” This phrase has important implications for the church at large, but especially for Disciples. The Disciples are a rational people, who seek out a faith that is understandable and practical. Ronald Osborn suggests that “the early leaders of the Disciples of Christ contended for a faith characterized as sane, scriptural, and practical. They were motivated by a faith which, to them, “made sense.” [Ronald Osborn, The Faith We Affirm: Basic Beliefs of Disciples of Christ, (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1979), p. 12].
The question is, how do we experience a faith that is “sane, scriptural, and practical?” Another way of putting it is to ask, how can we know the mind and heart of God in a way that is understandable and rational, as well as spiritually rich and life changing? Psalm 19 proclaims that creation reveals God to us in glorious tones, but the Psalmist also tells us that the Law of the Lord makes God and God's desires known to us. In Romans 1:19-20 Paul also speaks of God's self-revelation in nature, but then in chapter 2 Paul reminds his audience, which is primarily Jewish, that they are without excuse since they have the truth. The assumption here is that because they have Scripture, they should know the truth.
From these two passages of Scripture we learn that there are at least two means by which God is known—through nature and through the Torah or Scriptures. There are those for whom Scripture alone is normative—and the Disciples have historically placed themselves within this camp – while others have recognized other sources of knowledge and understanding. These range from tradition to personal encounters, from experience to history. Many Disciples have found the so-called “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” to be attractive, for it suggests four ways in which Christians might hear a word from God—Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason.
The Disciples of Christ are a biblical people. In rejecting creeds, Disciples have historically embraced a reasoned biblicism, focused on the message and witness of the New Testament. We have claimed to go where the scriptures speak, and have treaded cautiously where they do not lead. While the Disciples might be a biblical people, with a biblical mind, there is something underlying this premise. That is, we wish to receive a word from God, a word of revelation. What we desire is the disclosure or unveiling of the invisible God and the things of God. Our question is simple, if God is invisible, then how might know God and God’s will for our lives? Must we await a direct word from God—that is a special revelation? Or, can we discern the presence and purpose of God in other ways—such as through nature, human experience, reason, or history? These are questions that Christians have wrestled with over millennia of history, but this has been especially true in the last two centuries, as science and other arenas of scholarship have challenged traditional understandings.
As to the first, general revelation, a clue can be found in Romans 1, which speaks of God being revealed in creation. Therefore, general revelation is essentially the same as natural revelation or theology. Paul says that God has left us without excuse since we can gain at least some knowledge of God by observing nature (Rom. 1:19-20). Thomas Aquinas spoke of five proofs for the existence of God that could be discerned from observation of the world. Thus, as we observe nature, we see the work of the Designer or the Unmoved Mover. Of course, that idea has been challenged by Darwin and many others, as science has offered alternative understandings of the way nature works.
If nature is one external means of revelation, another possibility could be an innate knowledge of God. For example, John Calvin spoke of "the seed of religion" and the "sense of divinity." (Institutes I: 4.1), the idea being that God has planted a seed of religion within each person. This seed, while not providing a full or exhaustive revelation of God, leads to the human search for God and to the almost ubiquitous presence of religion in human society and culture.
Nature, or one’s inner experiences, for that matter, might provide a witness to the existence of God; those witnesses have never been deemed sufficient for knowing the person and ways of God. In part, this is because of the limitations imposed on us by sin. But, perhaps more important is the nature of God, which therefore requires special revelation, a revelation that comes directly from God.
A second and more specifically “religious” way of hearing God’s voice is what we call special revelation. When we speak of special revelation we generally have in mind Scripture. Alexander Campbell speaks of two books of revelation: "the Book of Nature and the Book of Revelation,” available to humanity as a means of revealing God, though the latter is only available to the believer [The Compend of Alexander Campbell's Theology, Royal Humbert, ed., (St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1961), pp. 75-76]. Campbell, unlike Calvin, followed John Locke in rejecting the concept of innate ideas, and so that form of revelation was ruled out from the beginning. Ultimately, Campbell believed that there could be no real knowledge of God outside God's supernatural revelation in Scripture.
The unbelieving Hume and the believing Locke, alike assent that our simple and original ideas are derived from sensation and reflection; and that the imagination is absolutely dependent upon the discoveries of the five senses for all its inventions and creations. But the Apostle Paul sanctions these conclusions by affirming that it is "by faith we understand that the universe was made by God" -- and that "he that comes to God must believe that he exists:" for the world by wisdom did not know God. [Campbell, Compend, p. 77].
Campbell makes it clear, therefore, that without revelation we cannot know God. For if humans could know of God’s existence and character without such a revelation, then “a written record or a verbal representation of himself was superfluous. And if, without a revelation, he can be known, they who have it not are just in as good circumstances as we, if not better.” Therefore, since humans are born without innate ideas of God, then they must be taught the things of God. [Campbell, Compend, p. 61]. Campbell strongly insists throughout his works that Scripture is the primary avenue through which God reveals himself to humankind. However, there remains the question of whether Scripture exhausts God's ways of revealing Godself to us.