GOD'S REVELATIONS TO MAN
Problems in Dealing With Revelations
Much of theology is based upon what is referred to as God's Revelations. These most often take the form of Sacred Writings of one sort or another. Theology often uses these writings to support their conclusions; but of course, the claim of "the sacredness" is actually in itself a theological conclusion. Many will even go so far as to claim that their declared sacred writings are the very written word of Almighty God.
Before defining Revelation, we need to examine these claims because our definition goes beyond the present exclusive suppositions of many faiths.
Too often, men dealing with sacred writings cling to reasoning that just because an individual may be inspired, their work becomes infallible in some way. But to say that any sacred work is the written word of God is in reality almost blasphemous, for it implies that a human being is as free from error as the Divine would be. In truth, the hand of the Divine, penned not one word of any sacred scripture; therefore, any declaration that written words (such as the Bible) are the written word of God is in fact misleading. To say that any human being is infallible is one of the most irresponsible things any theology can do. Such theological arguments tend to assert that an individual has no right to question. This is a dangerous premise in any school of thought, but it is particularly dangerous in religious ideals, for it gives men the power to speak for God. Any history book will show the danger of that most explicitly.
And not only do we have the problem of humans writing these so-called written words of God, but these works were compiled, translated, copied and then even declared sacred by men. To complicate literal or infallible claims even more, these works were often written in ancient languages that have been subjected to translations - once again, by men.
Let us start with translations. Very often words and phrases when translated take on different meanings. To give an example:
... He [Jesus) insisted that it [the
(Michael Grant, JESUS, IN HISTORIAN'S REVIEW OF THE GOSPELS, 1977, p45)
So, as we can see, while many theologians and religions define repentance as atonement for sin, in all probability Jesus may have had something very different in the reality of his mind.
Bishop John Shelby Spong also gives us another example of how scripture could in fact be mistranslated:
But before we can confront the Jesus of history, we have to move
from English to Greek (the language in which the New Testament was written), to
Aramaic. To move into Aramaic is to move into a world of oral tradition where
no written records exist. Did Jesus say, for instance, "Is it easier for a
camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the
(John Shelby Spong, RESCUING THE BIBLE FROM FUNDAMENTALISM, c1991, p16)
We must also keep in mind that for centuries these manuscripts were hand copied by monks, very often in religious orders that had their own theological agenda foremost in their minds.
While the ancient scribes of the Jewish faith were extremely faithful to the accuracy, the Christian Church did not adhere to such rigid disciplines until much later.
In the ages before printing when all text were individually hand
written, it was extremely easy for the Copyists Working in the scriptoria to
misread or misquote as they wrote. Through generations of such errors,
mistakes, even of spelling or of punctuation, could slowly deform the words of
the text. Since ancient times it had been recognized that perfect copies of
sacred text were essential. Scribes copying the Jewish Bible were obligated
under the Holy Law to use only the finest materials for their work and perfect
exemplars from which to make their copy. BUT NO SUCH REGULATIONS HAD EVER BEEN
PRESSED UPON THE
(John Romer, TESTAMENT, Henry Holt and Company, 1988, p250)
Romer goes on to point out that, Cassiodorus took it upon himself to purify the Latin Bible. He and his monks worked hard to iron out many of the inconsistencies from the varying texts. They ended up using the Jerome text as a guide and created what essentially became the basis of the European Bible known as the Codex Grandior
Granted, this was a major effort to clean up any corruption in the texts, but it was over five hundred years before this effort was made. Even if we grant the most sincere effort made by the monks, it would again almost certainly take a direct Divine intervention to ensure that the Book would be free from any possible error. Or, in fact, be the actual word of God.
Then in the 1600's, we get yet another revision of the so-called word of God. King James who had his own political agenda, namely the Divine Right of Kings, put yet another effort forth to extract the actual word of God from the Bible. As a consequence, we have yet another version of the Bible, which is also claimed to be the written word of God.
In fact, if one walks into any book store, or well equipped library, you will see many different versions of the Bible: the Jerusalem, the King James, the New English, The Book, to name just a few of the most common.
If we examine the contents of these various Bibles, we will quickly realize that all of them cannot be the written word of God, for there are differences, such as; the number of books, or, in the translations of certain passages. So even if we were to concede to a Bible being the written word of God, which one of them is the actual Word?
Responsibility also requires us to consider that men were the ones who determined what went into this book to begin with. Many Epistles, Gospels, and ancient religious texts were in fact rejected because the content did not fit the orthodox beliefs of the period. Romer, once again says it nicely:
By the second century, there were MORE THAN A DOZEN GOSPELS circulating, ALONG WITH A WHOLE LIBRARY OF OTHER TEXTS. These included letters to Jesus to foreign kings, letters of Paul to Aristotle, histories of the disciples and of many other characters in Jesus' life and times. And despite the fact that THEY WERE ALL OUTLAWED LATER BY THE CHURCH, many of these writings quietly survived in Christendom to become a source, a secret source, of mystic Christian knowledge. Indeed, their influence upon Christian art and literature is much greater than is generally realized.
(John Romer, TESTAMENT, Henry Holt & Company, 1988, p195)
So if there were all these texts around, how did they find out what was the written word of God. Most often they just picked and chose that with which they agreed, declaring heresy for that with which they did not agree. To be more blunt about it, if the word of God were in fact to disagree with the assumptions of men, it would have never gotten into the book.
Let's just take the Gospels as an example. If there were at least twelve in existence, why are there only four in the Bible? What Divine method was used to determine that? Romer answers that for us:
As for the Gospels, Ireaeus [a second century church leader] said that they were four in number; like the four zones of the world, the four winds, the four divisions of man's estate, and the four forms of the first living creatures - the Lion of Mark, - The Calf of Luke, the man of Matthew, the Eagle of John. Irenaeus' defense and definition of the canon of the Gospels soared like a hymn. AND AT A STROKE, HE HAD DELINEATED THE SACRED BOOK OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH.
The Bible, as we know it today, didn't even have beginnings as a single sacred work until the second century. It was only then that men had to sit in decision as to what should be included in this so-called word of God. Here again, given that religious biases and beliefs already existed among these men, it would have taken a direct intervention on the part of the Divine to ensure that every word in this book was inspired by God - and that every word that was omitted was not in fact God's inspiration.
The next problem with scripture being infallible has to do with the interpretation of this word of God. Even the most literal interpretation of Scriptures requires that we make assumptions, or take positions, which are often not clear in the text.
Let us take one of the most common texts which is used to cite the Divinity of Jesus:
Thomas said, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. So how can we know the way?" Jesus replied, "I am the way, I am the truth, and I am the life: No one comes to the Father except by me. If you knew me, you would know my Father too. From now on, you do know Him; you have seen Him.
Philip said to him, "Lord, show us the Father and we will ask no more."
Jesus answered, "Have I been all this time with you, Philip, and you still do not know me? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. So then, how can you say, 'Show us the Father'? Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? I AM NOT MYSELF THE SOURCE OF THE WORDS I SPEAK TO YOU; IT IS THE FATHER WHO DWELLS IN ME DOING HIS OWN WORK. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father in me; or else accept the evidence of the DEEDS THEMSELVES…"
… "I will not leave you bereft; I am coming back to you. In a little while the world will see me no longer, but you will see me; because I live, then you will know that I AM IN MY FATHER, AND YOU ARE IN ME AND I IN YOU."
… "Anyone who loves me will heed what I say, then my Father will love him and we will come to him and make our dwelling within him."
(John 14: 5-24)
At best, this whole passage is ambiguous. Jesus never says he is God incarnate; actually; he never makes this claim anywhere in the Gospels. It is the interpretations, which assert this concept.
This passage could just as easily be interpreted to mean that Jesus lived the way, the truth, and the life that God intended. And as we can see by the closing, Jesus implied that the Father could dwell within the disciples without making any distinction from the Father dwelling in him. In fact, Jesus flatly says, he "is not the source of his words or deeds." Might Jesus have meant that we should strive to live our lives according to the way God intended them to be lived, as he was doing? Could he possibly be saying that we as individuals are obligated to help one another, to love one another, to show compassion and concern for one another - just as he showed it? Is there anything in this passage, or any other in the Gospels, where Jesus asks us to worship him?
Bishop Spong cites yet another wonderful example of the problems of interpreting these sacred works and it has to do with the social realities of the stories when they were written:
'The issue of homosexuality is another reality in sexual thinking
and practice that places pressure on Holy Scripture. Once again, this prejudice
is so deep, so widely assumed to be self-evident that all the major churches
have in the past simply quoted the Bible to justify their continued oppression
and rejection of gay and lesbian persons. THE
In the biblical world of male values, the humiliation of a male
was best achieved by making the males act like women in the sex act. To act
like a woman, to be a passive participant in coitus, was thought to be
insulting to the dignity of the male. This, far more than homosexuality, was
the underlying theme of the
The story goes on to say that
(John Shelby Spong RESCUING THE BIBLE FROM FUNDAMENTALISM Harper Collins, 1991, p7)
This just illustrates, that if we are to interpret, especially in a literal fashion, then we must be able to think and interpret like the people for which the story was written. Such is not possible in our world that is so far removed from theirs.
And we need to address one more problem surrounding the idea of infallible revelation; which is, the potential and ability of men to manipulate the interpretation to fit their own selfish agenda or beliefs.
Let us just look at the contention of Christianity that Jesus is mankind's salvation. If we were to accept that, to which form of Christianity do we adhere? If we think about it, we can find a Christian Church that fits almost any personal agenda. There are liberal Christian faiths, conservative Christian faiths, moderate and extremes in all categories. There are Christian faiths, which might emphasize the deeds we do, and others the beliefs we hold. There are Christian faiths that express themselves in rituals and sacraments, while others claim that one need only live according to their interpretations of the Bible. Which of these is the true "Way, Truth and Life" which represents the reality of Jesus' teachings? So once again, if we were to accept a book such as the Bible as the Word of God, just what interpretation of that Word is the correct one?
We also need to recognize here that in recent times there have been many men claiming to be of God who have been exposed as being fraudulent faith healers, or sex offenders, or exploiters of the faithful. Very often, the mainstream churches are plagued by less than honest individuals, and are often more concerned about their finances than the messages of Christ. So once again, we are forced to accept that a direct act of Divine intervention took place to ensure the pure integrity of the interpretation of the Word of God; but God offers His church no protection from unscrupulous ministers?
So, let us recapitulate the faith that we would need to believe that the Bible is the inerrant, infallible or written word of God. We need to except that every author of every book was free of making any error in conveying what God was saying to him or her. We need to accept that God ensured the same freedom from error to the scribes who copied these books for thousands of years. We need to believe that the men who compiled the books were also Divinely inspired and were also free from making any error. Moreover, the translators, at least those who managed to translate the so-called actual written word of God would have had to have been free from error. Then we have to accept that God has infallibly led us to the actual translation that is Her written word. In addition, when we begin to interpret, or have someone interpret for us the meaning of many of the obscure passages, we once again must accept that these individuals can be as free from error as God Himself is!
It would do well to point out here, that these same criteria we have applied to the Bible are all applicable in some way to any sacred writing - of any faith that claims those writings to be infallible or the word of Almighty God.
These are just some of the problems we have in dealing with revelation. A responsible theology cannot ignore them, nor can it assert its authority based upon any scripture it had a hand in determining.
So, does this mean there is no reliable inspiration? Does it mean that Sacred Writings are useless? Does it mean the Bible has no value?
The answer to all these questions is no. God's inspiration is with us, as we shall try to explain in this chapter. The Bible, as well as many other sacred inspirations, can be useful and meaningful tools in the lives of individuals as well as being a powerful motivator to solve many of the social/economic issues we face today. It all really depends if we are truly seeking the guidance of God's Inspiration; or settling for the rhetoric of men. It depends on whether we want to listen to the Inspiration of God; or turn God's will into ours! It depends on if we are willing to take personal responsibility to implement the inspiration; or if we are just looking for magical answers to our problems.
The first thing the responsible theology will examine in regards to its use of revelation is the consequences of the teaching. If spiritual guidance doesn't lead to equality, brotherhood, tolerance, and a positive effect on the individual as well as the society it serves; or if the guidance leads to stagnation, denial of scientific reality, or avoidance of personal responsibility - then, its use of revelation is not responsible and therefore must be flawed. In our Western Christian society, it is amazing how Jesus is worshipped in our churches every Sunday, and his Gospel preached from their pulpits, and yet, our society is devoid of the primary message contained in those Gospels. It would seem that we have gone astray somewhere with our theologies, as they are failing to have real impact in the everyday lives of people.
God's Inspiration, God's revelation, would be there first and foremost to help us in the reality of the world in which we live. It is doubtful, to say the least, that God would allow men to use Her Inspiration to dictate to other men the way they should live and think. It is also doubtful, that God would allow any man the ability to speak for Him; nor is it likely, She intended that her words be used for one man to sit in judgement of another.
To help us deal with our lives in a useful way can be the only cornerstone of God's Revelation to Man. It should be applicable, usable, and realistic in the reality of our everyday lives.
As we shall demonstrate, revelation is God's inspiration to man and it can take many forms. It is of the past, but it is also of the present, and it will always be there in the future. It may change in presentation, content from one generation to the next; but the messages remain constant and its usefulness becomes apparent.
But it becomes the use and application of that inspiration which makes it truth! And, truth just might be different for one individual than for another. This is why revelation can not be God's edict that one man upholds over another. Instead, it is more personal, more relative - His help and guidance as we move through this life. Her revelations are not about other worlds, or lives to come; they are about life in the reality of our world with our very human problems and the daily trials that we face.
God's revelations are not His edicts or Her laws, but a guide we might use to establish responsible ethics that would help us to equalize and make our societies run more harmoniously.
Thus, the first problem responsible theology must overcome is: its approach toward God's Inspiration. We must always recognize that while God may be perfection; human beings are far from it. To think God would free any human being from the potential to err, even theologians, is a foolish, arrogant and self-serving premise that is not the least bit responsible to God or to one's fellow human being. To cite any human endeavor as the "word" of God is an insult to the Creative Intelligence.
As with all approaches to God from the human perspective, theology must recognize its own limitations. It must concede its ability to make mistakes and establish criteria to help it correct those mistakes and be capable of change when those same mistakes are made. This is not to say it should be fearful of taking positions, but simply that it should be aware that those positions could be flawed.
One of the simplest tests we can have in examining our belief structures is to examine its effect upon our lives, our interrelationships with others, and its affects in the everyday realities of our societies. There is something wrong with religious attitudes that spew the immorality of homosexuality; while they ignore a free market that puts people out of work for the sake of profit alone. Religious attitudes that see the poor as parasites deserving only very limited help, and yet, ignore the opulence of the most advantaged. These disparities would seem to be missing a lot of the message contained in inspiration. Faiths that build grand houses of worship while children suffer and starve seem to be missing the potential of the real inspiration of God! Religions that ignore environmental consciousness are in fact ignoring the concept that God is the Creator, for that alone should make one environmentally conscious.
So if theology is to be responsible, it needs to examine the positions of its religious suppositions to ensure that they have the most useful and beneficial affect upon individuals and society as a whole. In today's world, there are many tools we can use to help us gauge this aspect of our beliefs - and theology should embrace them instead of condemning them. Psychology, Sociology, History, Science, Philosophy: are all part of truth and reality - and they are part of God's continuing revelation as well as man's ability to discover himself. To ignore these things is irresponsible.
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