Revelation and truth

Yesterday’s post on Reformation Day generated a lot of comments, so let’s keep it going.

Amy responded to some of the comments about Luther’s beliefs with:

Guys, what matters is TRUTH, not the failings of Luther or anyone else. How has God revealed Himself?

Good question! I’m going to lift my answer out of the comments and do it here instead.

God reveals himself in two main ways: natural and supernatural.

The natural means of understanding God is to study nature and the things God created in order to learn about God through those means. (For example, we can know that God has an inordinate fondness for beetles.) We can study natural law and know about God’s values from the basics of the things he made.

Natural means would include philosophy and logic, things like “I exist, and I know I didn’t make myself, therefore something else made me.”

Supernatural revelation is an understanding of God that cannot be achieved through natural means. Direct communication from God would be one kind of supernatural revelation. Seeing God in a burning bush, or finding a golden book with God’s instructions, or receiving enlightenment under a tree, or being tackled by the Archangel Gabriel in a cave and told to write would all count as supernatural revelation.

Christianity divides supernatural revelation into Public Revelation and Private Revelation. Public Revelation ceased with the closure of the Biblical Canon. Private revelation still continues through the action of the Holy Spirit in our lives, both in a profound way (apparitions, locutions, visible signs) and in ordinary ways (lights and graces.) Private revelation mustbe discerned to make sure it’s really from God.

Catholicism and Orthodoxy understand tradition as the aggregation of established teachings and the combined private revelations that have withstood the test of time. Private revelation and tradition can never contradict the Bible. Canon law is derived from both tradition and scripture.

And like it or not, modern American Protestantism has its own full set of traditions. For example, “accepting Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior.” What’s in the Bible as necessary for salvation is merely “repent and be baptized” (according to Peter.)

And I think that covers how God reveals himself to us. Did that satisfactorily answer your question, Amy?


  1. fakegod

    Ok, ok, I Am revealed. Happy now?

    1. philangelus

      ROTFLOL! If only all the fake gods in our lives were so self-identifying. 🙂

  2. Amy Deardon

    Philangelus, this is an excellent discussion! Yes, I liked your answer — it is very clear. Thank you.

    The bottom line, I think, is a corollary of Murphy’s law — no matter what it is, even if God comes to earth as a person and speaks directly, people will still screw it up.

    There are inarguably alternate interpretations of Christianity between Catholics and Protestants. (Is it too snarky of me to say that as a Catholic, you probably have Luther to thank for having the Scriptures commonly available to laypeople in the first place?)

    I’ve learned through debates that it’s important to establish the facts that are agreed upon, then discuss the points from there — otherwise different assumptions, word definitions etc. make the discussion fall apart. Protestants and Catholics have a deep division in some basic concepts e.g. Christ’s sacrifice made once for all (Protestants) versus the bloodless sacrifice remade each time at communion to wipe out venal and especially mortal sin; the role of Mary as a human who bore the human body of Jesus (Protestant) versus Mary who is the mother of God, remained sinless, and was assumed into heaven; the universal priesthood of every believer (Protestant) versus the special sacrament of priesthood conveyed upon a few. And on and on.

    I loved your explanation of tradition — and of course, Protestants have tradition as well as Catholics. I think it depends what you call tradition — Protestants don’t believe that God is *revealed* in tradition, although our traditions certainly are consistent with the Word. For example, we have communion but this is because Christ says to “do this in remembrance of me.” There are differing beliefs among Protestants of con-substantiation or just a remembrance, but we do not believe in the trans-substantiation where the wafer and wine transform into the actual body and blood of Christ; this is from Catholic tradition, I believe.

    Bottom line — we agree that these are incredibly important issues. They are also obviously entrenched views, as seen by yesterday’s discussion.

    Catholics and Protestants also have common areas of agreement, especially the acknowledgment of Christ’s sacrifice being the necessary and sufficient sacrifice for sin.

    It’s important to be willing to be open-minded and consider the claims of the other side, not just trash the opponent. After all, there are many threats to the Church: the prosperity gospel, for example, and just the general non-acceptance of Christian values in the general culture. Surely we can discuss these issues calmly, without hurling ad hominem arrows.

    1. philangelus

      Thanks for your thoughtful response.

      I’d have to do some research,but I think a large part of the Bible not being in the hands of the people had to do with the rampant illiteracy and inavailability of paper products prior to about the 1500s anyhow. Vernacular translations were coming; it’s just a question of when.

      Catholics, like Protestants,do believe in Christ’s sacrifice once and for all. We also believe Mary was a human being. As you said yourself, a very important part of any debate is to define the terminology, but the problem is that a lot of antiCatholic sentiments are so firmly entrenched that dialogue becomes impossible. I cannot tell you how many people think Catholics added books into the Bible when the truth is that Martin Luther removed books. But they’ve been told the lie so often that even studying Church history and Biblical history renders them unable to look at the facts.

      So now I have some questions for you:

      1) if Sacred Tradition is not an option for you as authoritative, where did the Bible come from?

      Remember,Jesus didn’t give us any texts (and of course, he could have — he was probably literate and God could have arranged matters so he wrote.) Jesus didn’t give us a table of contents. The canon of the Bible was decided on almost a century after Jesus’s death. Sacred Tradition is what decided on those books (why we don’t recognize the Gospel of Peter as authoritative, for example).

      The refusal to recognize tradition as having authority is the same as saying you only have to recognize whichever books of the Bible you choose, and if you find that there are other texts which seem to speak to your soul, you can call those authoritative.

      2) If teaching passed on via tradition is not acceptable, then by what authority did Paul teach anything? Why is the Gospel of Luke considered to be canon,since Luke never met Jesus?

      3) Finally, we can assume that those for whom the original Biblical texts were written, the contemporaries of the Apostles and the very early Church (who would have had no language barrier and no culture barrier) have the best interpretation of scripture. The have the least barriers to full understanding of the text.

      And yet if you look at the very early church, the 100-250AD church, it looks an awful lot like Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox Church: belief in the Real Presence, belief in the Virgin Birth and the queenship of Mary, a line of bishops and apostolic succession, etc. If the Church Fathers and the very early Christians were interpreting scripture that way, shouldn’t we trust them? Remember, those folks could read, and the Bible was in their language. Their interpretations ought to carry a lot of weight, especially since they didn’t have an ecclesiastical structure or any political power to maintain. Why then should we disregard their longstanding and nearly-unanimous interpretations of scripture in favor of “every man for himself”?

  3. cricketB

    Minor point: Please don’t lump all Protestants together, or at least better-define the terms.

    Until five minutes ago, I thought any Christian who wasn’t Catholic was a Protestant. (So did my parents and the school census form.) From Wikipedia: “The term Protestantism is often used loosely to denote all non-Roman Catholic varieties of Western Christianity, rather than to denote those churches adhering to the principles described below.”

    (Wikipedia starts the article with listing Christian denominations which are neither Catholic nor Protestant.)

    Some of Amy’s list matches what I learned with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Canada Western Synod, but I’m not sure about the rest of the list. They were big on “differences and similarities between us and the Catholics”. I don’t remember if the United Church of Canada taught those things or not; it was more about finding common ground than differences, and, in hindsight, “going to church” was more important to me than comparing details. One church was formed by a break, the other by a merger.

    I think if it hadn’t been Luther, it would have been someone else. Henry whatever broke around the same time, although in he said, “I disagree with the Pope, and all other English will do as I command,” rather than, “If you read the text for yourself you’ll agree with me.” Society as a whole was getting more free time, so they could spend more time learning and thinking rather than following.

    1. philangelus

      Agreed, someone would have done it. But if you think about it, even saying it that way is a loaded phrasing because you don’t hear people saying, “Well, if Mozart hadn’t come along, someone else would have written those symphonies,” or, “If George Washington hadn’t led the colonists, someone else would have done it.” Right?

      By Protestant, I mean the groups that specifically broke away from the Roman Catholic Church, and their direct descendants. That would include Calvinism, Lutheranism, Anglicans — the ones who started during the Reformation period. The Orthodox Church, for example,would not be Protestant. Nor would Mormonism, Christian Science, Unitarianism, and the like. Some churches really are big on identifying themselves as “not like those Catholics,” and that’s a shame because it’s always better to be FOR something than AGAINST something else. 🙂

  4. cricketB

    True, it might have happened with more or less violence, a more or less charismatic leader, faster or slower, but the split was coming. Even if things were perfect inside the church, when people have time to think they will start asking questions and come up with different answers.

    Anglicans, at least according to Wikipedia, don’t consider themselves descendants of Luther’s Reformation, but a split directly from Rome. … and that article over-generalizes too much for me to put much faith in it … The website of the Anglican Church of Canada doesn’t give a quick answer.

    Okay, anyone have a family tree / time line like they have in linguistics? That would be interesting.

    1. philangelus

      Anglicans broke off directly from Rome during the Protestant Reformation, right. I’ve seen some family trees for churches, but the problem is that after a while, you have to stop including branches because there are something like 30,000 offshoots that consider themselves separate Protestant churches.

      BTW, I know nothing whatsoever about the Coptic Church, but I would like to learn about it sometime. It’s another one where the split happened very, very early in the development (if I understand correctly) and so wouldn’t be considered Protestant.

  5. cricketB

    So, I googled Religious Family Tree. Interesting!

    They also combined. The United Church of Canada (my teenage church) combined two Anglican churches (Methodist and Presbyterian) and one Reformed (Congregational).

    I wonder, though, how much of Anglican started out as following Luther, vs making their own decisions, vs change or the king will be annoyed.

    Also found this:
    On October 31, 1999, the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation signed a “Joint Declaration on Justification” that lays to rest the major issue that sparked the Protestant Reformation, salvation by faith versus salvation by works. In the Declaration, the fruit of 30 years’ dialogue, both Lutherans and Catholics acknowledge that the salvation of humanity comes from God alone. Yet that gracious act of God’s mercy, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, calls us to cooperate with God’s grace, to live holy, charitable lives. Reformation-era condemnations on both sides no longer apply, says the Declaration. The signing of this Declaration was a historic step in ecumenism.

    It sounds to me like it’s “God plus You.” Both are needed. Makes sense to me, and would remove the “I don’t have to try as hard because God can do it alone” interpretation. There’s a reason I’m not a diplomat.

    1. philangelus

      I’d included that link at the bottom of the previous post. Apparently the divide isn’t as great as I thought at first.

      One of the problems is that if a Catholic uses the word “justification” and a Lutheran uses the word “justification,” it means two entirely different things.

      And by the same token, if you go into many Evangelical churches, the worship consists of songs, a reading from the Bible, and a brief talk. Then those individuals see a Catholic group give a talk about Mary and sing “Immaculate Mary” and conclude they’re worshiping her.

      The cultural divides and the definition divide are sometimes the hardest to overcome.

  6. cricketB

    I hear you — my first visit to Husband’s ELCC church was during Pentecost. The long version of everything to do with “We are nothing, absolutely nothing, helpless worms in the dirt, without God.” Not what a self-reliant agnostic wants to hear. (Still gave them the benefit of the doubt, though, and stuck with it for a few years.)

    That’s one reason some Native North Americans don’t want us telling their stories. We get them wrong. Season, context, you name it. Some of them take an entire season to do right. It’s a huge continent, and there are many different religions. It’s like someone visiting a few Judao-Christian congregations over a year, then going home, telling the full story of the Last Supper during Advent, and Moses brought bagels.

    1. philangelus

      Well, Moses’ sister was Miriam, and Jesus’s mother was Miriam, therefore Moses is Jesus’s uncle! It makes perfect sense! I mean, other than being wrong. 🙂

      There are two sides to the “helpless worms” thing. One is that God gave us free will, and therefore wants us to be autonomous to some extent and make our own decisions, act positively, and make moral decisions.

      The other side is that God is infinite and we are finite,and therefore we’re allowed to ask God for help because, well, we need it.

      The proper balance of these is humility (the healthy kind) and I’m told the natural result of humility is generosity.

  7. Amy Deardon

    Thanks for a fascinating discussion! I admit I need to learn more about the differences in denominations. What I believe is Jesus is God, Jesus is man, he literally died, he rose from the dead, and his resurrection demonstrates that his sacrifice is sufficient payment for sin, for any who will accept him. This is, I think, the kernel that must be held to to be a Christian (although there are assumptions even within these statements, for example God is not a universal Force, but a separate Being who created all things). Much of what we have been discussing here has no good final answers, and people of good conscience may disagree on these issues. There will be Catholics and Protestants both in Heaven.

    I believe that only God is to be worshipped and prayed to. As a non-Catholic I do not believe the wafer and wine become the physical, actual body of Christ so have trouble with those in church who worship the sacraments as if they are God. Same with Mary — I may not understand the doctrine of Mary, but from what I see she seems to be prayed to. For example, there is a statue in front of a Catholic church near my house showing Mary surrounded by children kneeling and praying to her. Behind the kids, and at the bottom of the hill, is Christ on a cross.

    My thoughts, for what they’re worth. I greatly appreciate the opportunity to run these by to see where my understandings may be wrong, and conversely where they might strike a question in others.

    1. philangelus

      When a knight is commissioned, he kneels before the king. Is he worshiping the king? For that matter, kings kneel during their coronation, and they’re not worshipping the crown.

      That’s an example of what I said above, though, that Protestants look at things that Catholics do and interpret them through a Protestant lens, and come to a different conclusion about what’s actually going on. The message at Fatima (the statue with the three kids) was about bringing the world to Jesus, about peace, about the need for conversion of souls and for more prayer for souls who would otherwise go to Hell. Mary appeared, but not to talk about herself — only to get the world to pray more.