Monday, September 26, 2005

Revealed Truth: Is it Theology or Metaphysics?

What is the type of information to which "revealed truth" gives us access? Is it soteriology or is it metaphysics? Does the Bible give us a priori knowledge about the world as it is (en se) or is it chiefly concerned with outlining God’s salvation-plan for the creation, governance and future of the world? Let’s call the former position Christian metaphysics, or, simply, metaphysics, and the latter after the name this position has formally been known by: Heilsgeschichte.

Heilsgeschichte, a crasis of salvation (das Heil) and history (die Geschichte), is a term that has been applied in two very different ways. There is Heilsgeschichte as God’s historical economy of salvation, and there is Heilsgeschichte which studies history as the arena of salvation. The former has God’s salvation in the centre; the latter is a baptized historiography. The assertive difference between the two positions is handily codified in the difference between the two German words for history: Historie and Geschichte. Historie was reserved for a Heilsgeschichte interested in historical facts as they are empirically verifiable. Geschichte was used for Heilsgeschichte that is more interested in the significance of revelation for history. Of course, depending upon one’s presuppositions, Geschichte-events may have actually occurred, or it may just be mythology that has become historically-significant because it has effected history in some way. The division between Historie and Geschichte could very well make revelation merely a category of mental experience, unrelated to the world of things and extention. One could teach Jesus’s resurrection as Geschichte, as historically significant, without believing it ever happened, Historie. This is not my position.

My position is Heilsgeschichte as salvation history, as the plan or economy of God’s saving acts in history. Heilsgeschichte in this moderate sense does not make the Geschichte-Historie distinction. What it does do, however, is put the emphasis on the significance of God’s saving acts. In other words: the point is what it means salvifically. Revelation is fundamentally soteriological rather than metaphysical. This doesn’t say that religious faith is merely an internal affair without referent in the real world. What it does say is, in what way does revelation want to be valued? How does it wish to be interpreted?

Now I don’t really have a good name for the metaphysical position. (And it is too bad, too, because knowing the correct terms for things makes understanding so much clearer.) This position tends more toward Historie as outlined above than Geschichte. Revelation, here, supplies a priori truth. The importance is not the significance of the act but that the act is historical. The soteriological significance of God’s actions is made secondary to their mathematical certainty as scientifically verifiable events.

The original question asks about the type of information given to us by Biblical revelation. What kind of revelation does the Bible want to give us? Given that we should avoid eisegesis as much as possible, and attempt to remove personal bias in order to correctly listen to the text, I think it is important to ask this question. Which of these positions is more appropriate to the handling of revealed truth? Which could very well mishandle it in the pursuit of its own ends? Does the need to make Historie distort or even obscure one’s ablity to grasp the Geschichte significance? Does an attendence to the Geschichte ignore one’s responsibility to defend the faith as truth within a modern, scientific context? And again, which one interprets the text in a way which is faithful to the design of its authors?

A litmus test to discover where one stands on this is Genesis 1.1. If you understand Genesis 1.1 as a priori truth about the world as it is, then you understand revelation more along the lines of metaphysics. Preaching and teaching on Genesis 1.1 would tend toward claiming and defending scientific possibility. One would probably adopt young earth creationism.

Now I read Genesis 1.1 as a theological statement meant to explain to the post-Exodus, wilderness-walking Hebrews (and all who would come after them in the faith) who they were and what their purpose was in the world. I understand the content of revelation to be Heilsgeschichte. Genesis 1.1, then, is included in the canon because it explains something about salvation history. I arrive at a priori, then, only as the theology allows. The theology of Genesis 1.1 tells me that the world was created out of nothing, ex nihilo, and I can begin to see order and purpose the manner of its creation. These things about the world en se I affirm. But I do not see that Genesis 1.1 requires me to adopt young earth creationism.

To sum up, the effects of adopting one or the other position, the metaphysical or the Heilsgeschichte, are far-reaching. Indeed, the result of either position is not far from the other: both come down squarely in orthodoxy, but the foundation and praxis suggested by both are slightly different. For one, there is a slightly different hermeneutic involved whether one understands revelation as giving a priori fact or soteriological fact. There is a different relationship implied between church and world, and also between religion and science. I’m sure there are many more, but best to get it out and examine it, and that is the purpose of this badly-written post.

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