Reason and Revelation in the Bible

The Bible, or “book”, is the great book of high theology in the Western Canon. Although it is a compendium of seemingly scattered texts, histories, poems, and other writings that were written across many centuries and in different languages (by people as foreign to one another as we are to them) these various writings do contain a consistent message. At its root, the Bible is an account of God. It relies on the impression of a God who is infinitely separate from the universe, yet He is also the creator of the universe. He is both separate and unique, and is, therefore, unknowable to mankind because knowledge cannot account for the absurd. God is not bound by time, although He appears to men at particular moments in time through divine moments of revelation, and revelation is the key thread that runs through the Biblical corpus.

Faith and Reason United by Italian painter, Ludovico Seitz in 1887, with Thomas Aquinas teaching in the background and a Latin inscription roughly translated as: “the illumination of divine truth, when received upon the mind, favors the intellect.”

Reason, on the other hand, is predicated on things that are knowable to men. Things that are knowable can be classified into orders, species, genera and so on. For example, in considering an object, such as a chair, we acknowledge both the particular and the universal elements of the chair. My particular chair may be worn and the wood may be rotting, but I nevertheless recognize its chairness -the distinguishing characteristics that prevent me from mislabeling it a table or a door. Teleologically speaking, the chair’s purpose is for someone to sit on. This is the root of the Platonic eidos, which include both physical things, like chairs, as well as intangible things, like numbers. If knowledge is a kind of creative construction that investigates the archaeology of the mind (see Plato’s Meno or Theaetetus), then the Bible is not a work of knowledge, per say. In fact, the Bible presents a skeptical view of man’s quest for knowledge (i.e. God resents the pride of human knowledge). God, as a shepherd, longs for a docile and obedient flock. He prohibits humans from the temptation to gain knowledge of good and evil, according to Genesis. Thus, theology is skeptical of human knowledge.

Yet revelation, as portrayed in the Bible, is an account of ‘divine knowledge’ dispensed from God to human beings, as Aquinas might suggest. There is no mathematical challenge to solve, nor any observation to account for. Instead, God implants His divine revelation into certain minds as He pleases. So, how do humans receive this divinely revealed knowledge? Two competing theologies are offered. One suggests that God offers His revelation haphazardly, regardless of human activities. Revelation is purely unreasonable and nothing people do affects whether or not they receive the revealed truth. The other more popular theology suggests that humans have the potential to compel a deity to reveal his truth (i.e. by means of prayer or prostration and sacrifice). However, the latter view poses challenges. For example, what does Abraham or Moses do to receive a revelation from God? Seemingly nothing, save for finding mysterious favorability in God’s eyes. Yet others, like Job, who follow the correct and pious path, are punished wantonly.

To dig a little deeper, let us consider what persuades people of the truth of divinity. In the case of Moses, he is given the power of performing miracles, such as transforming his staff into a serpent or making his hand appear to be diseased. When people see these physical transformations they are in awe, much in the same way people are stunned by a common magician or trickster. Therefore, the people who have not directly received the divine revelation must rely on the account given by Moses, bolstered by the authority of his tricks, but they must also rely on his testimony, thus justifying God’s power through “signs.” Reason plays little part in coming to this conclusion because the people are more persuaded by miracles than anything else. Reason does not rely on such a suspension of the natural order. However, when Moses is presented with his own revelation from God in the form of the burning bush, he falls prostrate begging not to be the bearer of His message. He does not wish to be a chosen leader by God. There is very little that reason can say about a direct revelation either. One can receive a revelation while on the road to Damascus, as in the case of Paul, or in the reading of a text, as in the case of St. Augustine, or when a voice booms from a burning bush. Revelations happen without preparation and it occurs inconsistently, whenever God chooses. One cannot conduct a repeatable, scalable experiment -as Francis Bacon would have wanted.

At the same time, reason cannot disprove revelation. Reason requires a certain degree of agency to discover particulars and universals, according to the Aristotelian framework. Unlike Thomas Aquinas, we make the claim that God cannot be knowable and that there can be no science of theology. Revelation is unpredictable, unrepeatable, and it acts independently of the mind of man. It cannot be denied or disproved, but it cannot be a science (Martin Luther echoes some of these problems inherent in Thomas Aquinas’s project). In the same way, revelation cannot disprove reason. The two represent separate spheres, or antimonies, that are independent of one another, but they provide a natural tension together throughout Western philosophy, and this tension has led us to our present circumstance.

For example, in an age of nuclear weapons and the technology to destroy all life on earth several times over, the lesson of theological skepticism toward human knowledge is well taken. Today, teleological questions are being re-introduced regarding science and technology. What is the purpose of our knowledge? Where is the scientific project going? Surely, unfettered scientific inquiry cannot be good for its own sake (i.e. life-affirming) when it produces the means to destroy all life.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s