The Danger of Private “Revelations”

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Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The great seventeenth century Anglican theologian Richard Hooker once lamented the strange teachings that arise when Christians accept their own private interpretation of scripture over the tradition of the church. The result is practically seen today in 200+ major Christian denominations and over 20,000 total groupings of Christians in the United States alone. The Catholic/Orthodox tradition from the very beginning of the church was that Holy Scripture, while worthy to be studied by any Christian, does not find its final interpretation in the individual. Individuals are prone to error and often misread the Biblical text in terms of their own desires. Thus the Holy Spirit, through the Church Councils, the Creeds, the Fathers, and the Bishops, has guided the Catholic Church into all truth and set the boundaries of acceptable interpretation of Scripture.

A corollary of private interpretation is the tendency of some Christians to assert that “God laid a burden on my heart…..” or “God spoke to me, and therefore…..” It may be the case that God did speak to the person, but such revelations should not be accepted uncritically. I am very careful to make a claim about any private revelation–I prefer to say that God speaks to me through the Sacraments, through His Word in Scripture and in Tradition, and through the consensus of the Church as a whole. Thus, if I were to feel as if God spoke to me, I would determine first of all whether that alleged communication is consistent with Holy Scripture and with the teachings of the Catholic Church. If not, the “revelation” was either of my own (usually selfish) desires or a revelation from a source hostile to God. It is all too easy to justify our own selfish desires by appealing to “God told me I should do x, and it is so amazing that x is what I wanted to do in the first place.” Thus the alleged “revelation” becomes a justification for selfish, prideful, sinful behavior that “cannot be questioned” for “how dare you question the voice of God who spoke to me.” The problem is that God does not contradict Himself, and He would never command a person to violate His expressed will in Scripture, tradition, and His Holy Church. “Prove the spirits,” the Bible says, to determine whether they are genuine. Otherwise, our fallen, sinful nature will take over and we will mistake our own voices for the voice of God.

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When I was a student at Vanderbilt Divinity School, I believed that I would fit in well. At Harding University Graduate School of Religion, an excellent Churches of Christ seminary in Memphis, I had shed my Fundamentalist belief in Biblical inerrancy and had accepted a historical-critical approach to studying the Bible. I had come close to losing my faith–although I claimed to be agnostic, I was more of a doubting believer.

I quickly discovered that I did not fit in at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Many professors (though all all) denied the bodily resurrection of Christ, something I have always believed essential to Christian faith. In fact, to insist on the reality of the bodily resurrection would not have been good for my future there. And forget about the Virgin Birth–to most professors, that was not even an option to be considered (again, I’m sure there were exceptions). The school promoted a radical political agenda–to even question it was to invite censure. VDS was where I discovered that liberal Protestants and liberal Roman Catholics could be every bit as dogmatic and bigoted as Christian Fundamentalists.

I asked Professor Clement Dore, who taught in the philosophy department, what he thought about the Divinity School and its professors. He said I could quote him, and so I will–“Most of them are atheists, but they read the Sermon on the Mount and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if society would be this way’. So they try to change society.” Thankfully, I took most of my courses in the philosophy department which was more open to genuine discussion of ideas. There, an atheist was an atheist, a theist a theist, and I could tell the difference between the two.

Why are seminaries which are devoted to training Christian ministers filled with teachers who do not believe even one of the doctrines of traditional Christianity? Ultimately, this situation is the effect of the eighteenth century Enlightenment combined with the rise of modern science. Although Newton was a theist (though not an orthodox Christian–he tended toward Unitarianism), the world view of his science seemed more consistent with naturalism. According to naturalism, the world is a closed continuum of cause and effect with no room for supernatural intervention–all that exists is matter and energy. Even if there were a God, He would not interfere in the causal chain.

It is this view that led the New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann to propose “demythologizing” the Bible so that the really important message is one of gaining authentic existence. His project was a continuation of the project of liberal Protestantism to find subjective value in Christianity since the objective truth value of its traditional claims was considered to be “false.” So Friedrich Schleiermacher in the nineteenth century said that religion is a “feeling of absolute dependence.” Contemporary liberal Protestants have moved to a more political agenda with such movements as liberation theology, which interprets Christianity according to a Marxist framework.

I have no problem with denying inerrancy or with a historical-critical approach to the Bible. But alleged Christians who deny the existence of a transcendent-immanent God, who deny the Incarnation of Christ, who deny His bodily resurrection, are hypocrites in calling themselves “Christians.” I have infinitely more respect for a crusading atheist like Kai Nielsen than I do for a liberal Protestant who does not believe in God, even though he may hide his lack of faith in the complex language of Continental philosophy.

The good news for traditional Christians is that many younger theologians are more theologically conservative than their older counterparts. Hopefully this trend will continue. As Christianity begins a slow decline in the United States that parallels the radical secularism in Europe, hopefully those Christians who remain, including Christian scholars, will support the fullness of the faith and not some shallow, shadowy substitute.