Book Review: Avery Dulles, S.J., Models of Revelation

Avery Dulles, S. J., Models of Revelation (Garden City, New York: Image Books, 1985).

Avery Dulles’ work on revelation exists as a sort of companion volume to his Models of the Church which I believe was published about five years later by the same publisher. The format is very familiar to any educated reader of theology. “Any educated reader” implies a broader audience than the profession of theology. Certainly, theologians have and will make use of it, and clergy as well; but Dulles seems to be writing to all those interested in religion, not just to the guild. The format follows that of H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic Christ and Culture in that it seeks to abstract types or species out of a morass of possible entities. It seems that these sorts of books, a staple for the middle to late Twentieth century, come with three or five distinct possibilities. Dulles provides five, and, all things considered, his methodology fits his project much better than Niebuhr’s ever did. Niebuhr’s types or models never fit any one thing and Niebuhr decided to argue for one model to take precedence over the others despite a lukewarm commitment to even that. Niebuhr set out to do what really he could not do because of a plenitude of variables contained within his project. Dulles remedies Niebuhr’s shortcomings by applying the method to something it can encompass. Dulles’ models of revelation have relatively obvious points of demarcation. They tend to be distinct even if adherence to one model or another is not consistent. Dulles provides a two-pronged approach to his project. First, he outlines the available options in the field. Second, he synthesizes the options in the field under what could arguably be called a sixth model, but Dulles presents it as a common denominator of all the models as they stand. As a test for this common denominator, Dulles places this concept of revelation through all the salient aspects of Christian faith and practice in order to determine whether or not the proposed common denominator maintains its integrity in helping to define and communicate the essence of the faith and its incarnation in conduct. He applies this test not through merely his proposal, but his proposal as found in each of the previously reviewed five models of revelation. His success at this, to a certain degree, will depend on the judgment of the reader. In brief compass, Dulles’ approach is essentially empirical. Indeed, it is arguably Baconian, following his rough outline in observation, hypothesis, and testing. The following is a description of Dulles’ process and a review concerning his effectiveness.

Dulles, at the beginning of the book lays out the issue for his readers. He rehearses the basic difficulties for revelation such as epistemology, psychology, historical theology, and comparative religions just to name a few. He briefly considers a revelation-less Christianity of Karl Jaspers and F. Gerald Downing promising to deliver an answer through the remainder of the book. Dulles also sets up criteria by which to attest the models of his project. These are considered to be “relatively neutral” (Dulles:17), indicating that Dulles, at this point, belongs to the intellectual frontier between modernity and postmodernity. Dulles moves from the past into the future, and, while sensitive to criticisms voiced by a nascent postmodernity, nevertheless retains his modernist methodologies. His criteria includes “faithfulness to the Bible and Christian tradition, internal coherence, plausibility, adequacy to experience, practical fruitfulness, theoretical fruitfulness, and value for dialogue (Dulles:16–17).” The reader should notice that almost all of his criteria are subjective; only giving the illusion of being objective much like we find in sociology.

Following his foundation for the study and methodology for embarking on his enterprise, Dulles takes the reader through a history of the doctrine of revelation, summarizing briefly the premodern period of Christendom only to go into great detail concerning eight modern trends in Christian theology concerning revelation. Clearly this pluriform teaching concerning revelation spanning only about 200 years is the agitation providing a raison d’être for this study.

The next five chapters give exposition to the five models currently in play within modern Christendom. I will treat these briefly. The first model is revelation as doctrine. This roughly corresponds to Lindbeck’s positivist cognitive approach to doctrine, but Dulles does not treat it with disdain. He describes two varieties: conservative evangelicalism and Catholic Neo-scholasticism. The first variant tries to allow Scripture to interpret itself while the second allows the life of the church to aid in interpreting the Scriptures. Dulles is careful to recognize the intellectual congruence of both inerrancy and propositionalism. Inerrancy makes sense within the model and propositionalism is not to be misunderstood as leveling the text to mere propositions. Nevertheless, Dulles finds this model falling short of the criteria mentioned above.

The second model is revelation as history. Whereas the first model placed the locus of revelation in a text, the second model places it in acts and deeds found in history. Dulles places C. H. Dodd, the Heilsgeschichteschule of Cullman and von Hofmann, and Pannenberg within this model. For these theologians, God primarily reveals himself through his mighty deeds, often for his people and against his foes. Dulles finds this model to be biblical and plausible, but it fails in its coherence because many of the historical deeds are related in a text. Dulles notes in somewhat negative finality that the Hebrew “dabar” may refer to both word and event (Dulles:67).

The third model is revelation as inner experience. This model and the two treated subsequently reveal a more subjectivist slant than the previous two, perhaps highlighting the fault line that makes this study necessary. This view encompasses the liberal Protestant pietist theologians like Schleiermacher and Ritschl, as well as their Catholic counterparts like George Tyrrell, and Anglicans like Evelyn Underhill and Dean W. R. Inge. In fact, under this heading, Dulles lists a multitude of adherents. These theologians view revelation as an inner subjective feeling that may only be precipitated by the aforementioned words and deeds. Dulles’ definition and explanation is thorough and complete even if C. H. Dodd’s position now spans two categories. Dulles finds merits and deficiencies in this model as well. Its subjectivity undermines its value in the criteria of productivity.

Dulles’ fourth model is the ever popular revelation as dialectical presence. In this category, Dulles places all the variegations of crisis theology from Barth to Brunner to Bultmann. The revelation of God is inherently existential. It seeks to handle the difficulty of a series of contrapuntal theological propositions: the transcendence of God and his imminent revelation in Jesus Christ, the holiness of God, and man’s sinfulness. There just seems to be no real way to God from below, but human experience and the revelation of Christ seem to tell these theologians something different. The Bible becomes the locus of oracle, not the product of oracle. Dulles spends some text explaining the various themes found within this model and concludes with his standard catalog of merits and deficiencies. Particularly deficient is the recognition of word and deed revelation with no real means of allowing this to happen, so the revelation is veiled. Its significance is not recognized until the appropriate crisis arrives.

Dulles’ fifth and final model is revelation as new awareness. This wins the award for the most subjective, ephemeral, and ethereal. In this model, revelation does not occur in the specifics of words, deeds, feelings (although they come close), or crisis. Rather, revelation is a heightened awareness. This works in and through human abilities that may be latent, but are energized so that the subject experiences a new perspective. In this model, the external reality which the perspective communicates nearly dissolves in the heightened perceptions of the subject. Again, Dulles duly adjudicates merits and criticisms, most of which should seem obvious.

This ends the most useful portion of Dulles’ project. What he does in categorizing, summarizing, and critiquing provides useful information to any student of theology, but his goal to provide some common denominator by which all may fulfill the criteria he has set up seems a tall order. In fact, it seems to look an awful lot like the death rattle of a modernist methodology within the field of theology. Dulles seems to sense that modernist means of theological method have been and are being quickly supplanted by a new way of doing theology. His frequent references to Heidgegger, Polanyi, and anonymous allusions to Gadamer mark well that he has kept current in the field. His provision of the common denominator of symbol itself straddles the two worlds of modernity and post modernity. He describes symbol in such a manner so that it is flexible enough to remain relative, supplying whatever lacks in any of the previous five models, and, yet, it remains a neutral ground for discourse – a sort of Diltheyesque Holy Grail of common discourse. It stands as a modernist chimeric fantasy in capitulation to postmodern criticisms.

Dulles draws upon more aesthetically communicable ideas to promote his concept of revelation as symbol. Indeed, he calls Coleridge and Yeats as witness to the validity of his proposal. But, looking back, from the vantage point of 2009, Dulles’ proposal seems like a simplistic tautology. Language is symbol. Historical acts are symbol. Inner experiences may be reduced to symbols (sounds almost Jungian). The tension of dialectics may be captured in symbols. A heightened sense of perception may be best communicated in symbols. These are the proposals he lays before his readers, who, after the passing of some 25 years, find nothing new here regarding perceptions of how language and experience work. Derrida has so trumped Dulles such that reading this seems like reading Copernicus’ theory of a heliocentric solar system. It is no breakthrough for us now.

Dulles continues to apply the symbolic model to each of the other five models as they, in turn, grapple with the basic questions of Christian theology: Christ, Bible, Church, Revelation, and Eschatology. His treatments of these aspects are mixed. At best the symbol metaphor may help with dialogue, but it will never help theologians using a specific model to recognize others using a different model as legitimate Christians. Symbol may be useful for understanding how another model says what it says, but the diverse premises of the other models preclude harmony. Dulles’ understanding of how symbolic epistemology aids theology or works with theology is useful, but it will never put an end to critiquing theology on the basis of difference. It only puts an end to dismissing certain theologies as out of hand because it brings to light the authoritative presuppositions that lie close to the heart of the theological method of each model.

About Van

Librarian, Theology faculty, and PhD student studying Historical Theology
This entry was posted in 20th Century Theology, Culture, Fundagelicalism, Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

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