extracts from an email discussion

by Paul Smith, David Morling, Paul Bagshaw

from Signs of the Times, No. 30 - Jul 2008

Paul Smith

I would like to hear about members' views on the topic of revelation in both senses: (1) the revelation claimed by some for parts if not all of the bible (and by adherents of other faiths about their own scriptures) and (2) the personal revelations that people such as George Bush and Osama bin Laden apparently receive.

I have long ago stopped believing in miracles through which God occasionally intervenes or meddles with natural processes. It seems to me that given the close connection between the mind and the brain, God could not impart knowledge to us without our brain neurons being affected in some way. This would amount to God changing physical processes.

Do members believe that God really spoke to the Old Testament prophets? Does God 'speak' to people today?

I suppose I feel that at the root of many modern debates such as homosexuality lies our understanding of scripture and what God or his agents have said, if anything, about particular issues.

David Morling

Paul's questions get to the heart of all the matters we struggle with in Anglicanism. However, it is rare for people to discuss at the level of the basis of how far our faith is based on revelation, I guess because we all assume the basis of our belief as the norm.

People who begin with an act of faith, that in the Bible they receive the direct revelation of God, will assume that they can argue from text to truth. They will therefore quote biblical texts to back up their arguments without justifying the act of faith on which this rests. (See the letters page in the Church of England Newspaper !) People who think like this also seem to believe it is sinful to doubt, so their faith causes them to refuse to consider all the evidence that suggests that it is not reasonable to believe that the Bible gives direct revelation.

Those of us who believe that it is not acceptable to assume that we receive direct revelation from God see so much evidence that it is unreasonable, that we cannot understand how anyone can maintain faith in an inerrant Bible or believe in certain and clear direct communication from God. Scientific understanding of the way the brain works, modern epistemologies, theories of language and perception all argue against basing a Christian faith upon a belief that one can have knowledge of God through any form of direct revelation in a way that allows us to say, 'I know the will of God for me/for the world.' If we have concluded that certainty is impossible and that the search for truth must always be hedged with caution, we will argue on this basis and assume it in all we say.

All the time that Christians are talking about any important matter they will assume the principles from which they argue. So, it would seem on the face of it, that Anglicans are arguing about attitudes to homosexuality. However, in reality, there is no argument taking place because the assumptions upon which each side is speaking have no real point of contact. Genuine dialogue is impossible until one or the other side learns to appreciate the thinking of the other.

I watch the poor archbishop of Canterbury desperately and lovingly trying to hold the Anglican Communion together and I cannot see how anyone can. Those who believe that they have received a revelation of God's absolute truth will not compromise, indeed cannot compromise. They must have an acceptance of everything they believe because it is, for them, the absolute will of God.

Liberals will be willing to listen to those who think differently but will be unable to move the root of their thinking, partly because this would deny the foundations on which they build their understanding and partly because of the disastrous outcomes that result from belief in the possibility of receiving certainty through God's revelation. (If I truly believed that God had told Abraham to kill his son as a test of faith I would have to reject that god as unworthy of any further consideration.)

The importance of the Bible is assumed, obviously given its place in worship, with little thought about what we mean by biblical authority. Revelation is assumed without thinking about the implications of how it is possible to judge when something might be from God or when it is the product of the human thought/writings/experiences through which it is mediated. Prayer is offered without considering what we are trying to achieve by it and how this relates to the Christian beliefs that God does not change and that God is completely good.

Because there is so little reflection by the mass of Christians on what they actually believe, they are very easily led by whatever ideas are thrust at them by a leader speaking with confidence and a sense of authority. This is as likely to be true in 'liberal' church communities as in any other sort. Thus in fundamentalist or near fundamentalist churches small groups of leaders can express untenable ideas and appear to have significant followers accepting those ideas.

Any hope for the future? I find it difficult to see much.

It would be a start if we always made clear, in any argument, the basis on which we are stating our ideas. So we do not just discuss our attitudes on homosexuality but we begin by saying that on the basis of our particular attitude to seeking the truth we would reach the following conclusions about homosexuality. This may appear very pedantic but it will provide a more realistic basis for dialogue - if the other side of the debate could allow that to happen. It can also be a basis on which to require such honesty from those with whom we argue. It has always been helpful and refreshing to see the way Jonathan Clatworthy and others have represented the ideas of the MCU by making clear the grounds upon which conclusions are based.

The other need is to work for adult Christian education wherever possible; a genuine education that involves seeking new information, skills of evaluation, an embracing of doubt, an interaction with the widest sources of knowledge and a willingness to confront difficult questions. (There also needs to be a lot more thought given to teaching children in churches but that is a vast question on its own.)

Are we going to get such a drive for education? It does not look likely. Members of the churches seem to me to be frightened to take this path, frightened because it involves beginning by admitting ignorance. That is a terribly difficult thing for most adults to do. It also means making oneself vulnerable to having to give up existing thinking - very painful. Leaders of churches also fear education, fearing that opening up new possibilities and confronting difficult questions will mean that before they reach meaningful conclusions, people will enter a state of doubt and will no longer able to sustain Christian faith so that they will leave the church.

Paul Bagshaw

My immediate answer is 'dialogue' i.e. we engage with God who engages with us and in that process we (individually and in community) learn to see a little more of God's self-disclosure - and with each further glimpse we also see how little we know and how much more to God there must be than we had previously realised.

Revelation and Scripture

At risk of setting up an Aunt Sally, I suggest there are two approaches to revelation and scripture which don't have to be either/or but generally are in practice:

  1. The Bible (the written text) itself is revelation. It is timeless, unique, once-for-all, universal, and imperative. It can be apprehended correctly only by God's action in opening our eyes (which are otherwise clouded by sin, modernity etc). The Timeless model.
  2. The Bible witnesses to God. The great diversity of literature means that each book witnesses to different experiences of God. The Bible is to be understood in context, in comparison with other ancient and other religious writings, and interpretations change as time goes on. It points beyond itself and we are invited to follow where it points.

The Historical model

Centrally for Christians the Gospels replace the eye-witnesses to Jesus. Those original eye-witnesses would have engaged with their audiences, sharing the Good News in person, arguing explaining and telling stories, and would have met with acceptance, rejection, unconcern. We cannot debate with a written text, but we can interrogate it through modern critical and interpretative tools.

We are used to the idea that something either happened in the past or it didn't. Did the Battle of Hastings happen? Yes or No? But the past has gone and cannot be recalled and all we have today are traces, evidences of the past. Therefore we can't say what happened in absolute terms but only in probabilistic terms, depending on how much confidence we place in our sources. We are entirely confident that the Battle of Hastings happened, less confident that Harold got an arrow in the eye, and as to what the churl from Ramsgate did at midday on the second day of battle we can only speculate.

Therefore when we approach scripture in an historical frame we are asking how reliable is this witness to what it says: (a) how reliable is it as an historical source (that what it said happened actually happened in the way that it says), and (b) how reliable is it as a religious source (that what it says of God and God's action is trustworthy). There is also an important but subsidiary question (c) whatever degree of reliability we place on scripture as evidence of what was believed then, how does it correlate with what we might/should/could believe now?

All of which moves the emphasis off the text onto the reader.


In the Timeless model the reader is actively negated: in order to apprehend revelation you must obliterate yourself (your naturally sinful self and your inevitably culturally situated self). When you stop asserting yourself and submit God will act to grant you true vision: 'the scales will fall from your eyes'.

In the Historical model how we know is pivotal. Historians have developed a set of critical tools by which to interrogate documents and other evidences of the past in order to assess the degree of confidence which we may have in both what happened and the interpretation of what happened.

There have also been significant shifts (through at least the last four decades of the last century) in our understanding of cognition. Broadly the idea that we have an interior mental image which mirrors the external world has been (in many quarters) discarded. Instead our minds actively compose more or less fluid images of the external world through a melange of sensory perception, prior expectations, other people's comments and interior repetition. There is also some interesting reflection on the power of other people's beliefs to influence not just what we think but also how we are. This conception of cognition rapidly dissolves the differences between categories of 'objective' and 'subjective' and (critically for revelation) the categories of 'true' and 'false'. It also really mucks up the categories 'real' and 'imagined'.

Both Timeless and Historical models are, I think, post-Enlightenment understandings. The Timeless model asserts reality within a closed bubble of belief: the direct apprehension of God alone is real, all else is transitory. You're in or you're out. If you're in then reality is solid, clear-cut, seductive, self-affirming and dangerous. By contrast the Historical model has no foundations but rests on an understanding of reality which is fluid and complex: the model is relativistic, probabilistic and a source of anxiety. Those who stand in one tradition can critique the other from outside; but no-one can really get inside the skin of someone in the opposite camp (though, to be fair, most people muddle along without ever being too rigorous about their own stance). As David observes, there is no real argument: people just talk past one another.


So to dialogue. I think we understand the world around us by engaging with it: giving of ourselves and receiving from others in a continual process of both self-creation and modifying the world external to us. We ceaselessly make (construct, compose) our personal world and our external world - though (to paraphrase Marx) not in circumstances of our own choosing. We literally make sense of everything. What counts is less the 'fact' than the meaning of whatever we are considering.

Dialogue is predicated primarily on listening - understood as the possibility that we may be changed by what we hear (or see, or sense). Dialogue is primarily personal - conversation between people - and thence a process for engaging with the inanimate world (objects, past events, abstract ideas). Dialogue is also a loop: we shape the world which shapes us.


I believe God reveals God-self to humanity. This is just as much an act of faith as the Timeless model demands. I prefer the Historical model because it coheres with the rest of my life and understanding: God reveals himself through scripture, through other people, through the created order. My task of faithful discipleship is to enter into dialogue with these evidences in order to see both them and through them in religious terms - an exploration of my place in God's universe, listening for God and to God in ways which carry the risky possibility that I may be changed in directions I cannot control. The more I perceive the more I realise how much more there is: thus I become smaller and smaller by contrast; yet also the more I see the more it feels like finding my place (like being loved?).

I also prefer the Historical model on moral grounds. The Timeless model seems to me to be, simultaneously, a denial of personal responsibility and a claim to unquestionable authority - and thus a claim to the power to determine for other people both how they must perceive (and express) God and the world, and also how they must behave. To assert 'Thus says the Lord' is to claim divine sanction for your words and to pre-empt any further discussion: you're in or you're out. And if you're out you're damned.

The Historical model assumes people are partners in divine revelation. God reveals God-self and we make best sense of it as we can. We make sense not on a take-it-or-leave-it basis but by continual re-engagement and re-evaluation; in other words we learn and are changed by dialogue with God. It's a loop: our perception of God opens the possibility of further perceptions which in turn modify the perception we previously held. I suggest it is more fruitful to engage with scripture not (as some early historical-critical approaches did) by throwing out all the uncongenial bits, but accepting it all as witness to God's nature and activity and as witness to their experience of God. We engage with scripture as responsible adults, weighing what we find there with our own experience of God, our own understanding of the world, and with the narrative of belonging to faith in whichever sub-tradition we have inherited.

A Liberal Church

Neither model is solely individual. We are always individuals-in-community: we simultaneously define ourselves as part of a tradition, and part of a present day community, and as a distinct person over against them both. In the Historical model the only way in which willingly to be a full member of the tradition is to retain the possibility of rejecting it (by contrast to the Timeless model) - or, as one venerable Professor of Biblical Studies is reputed to have been heard muttering on his way to the pulpit to preach at St Paul's 'What if it's all bunkum?' .

Therefore our faith is inevitably formed by our inheritance and embodied by our distinctive action and consolidated into being the Church today in all its different forms. We do not do so as atomised individuals but by continuously seeking to co-ordinate our behaviour and ideas with other people's - either in harmony or in conflict. Publicly this is politics - the continual rubbing along together, and rubbing people up the wrong way, which cumulatively issues in the church in practice in continuity with the past and ever-adapting. I believe this process should be explicit: we make choices and should acknowledge our responsibility for those choices (and the limits of our own judgement) even as we argue passionately for them. Attributing our choices to God is a denial of personal responsibility and, I think, reprehensible.

I'm certainly with David on the importance of education for a liberal (open, generous, thoughtful) church (MCU is considering the possibility of some more liberal-minded adult education material). I am convinced that a transfer of power from the clergy to the whole membership would be invaluable, and that the weight of long tradition is against it. But I'm more optimistic than David. I think a liberal church may be small but lively. At the moment the conservatives are setting the agenda and liberals are on the back foot. But there's no reason this should last - we will make the church by our own, liberal, actions.