Let us Now Examine the Conditions under which a Revelation May be Expected To...
2. Let us now examine the conditions under which a revelation may be expected to be given to the original recipients.

It may be observed in the first place that a revelation must possess some distinctive character. Even, if it should turn out that there is no such thing in reality at all, at least the notion which we form in our minds must possess such points of difference as to distinguish it from all other notions. It appears needful to bear this in mind, obvious though it is, because there are not a few, in the present day, who deprive the word, revelation, of nearly all the distinguishing features which have commonly been supposed to attach to it, and so extend the meaning of the word inspiration as "sometimes to believe it in poets, legislators, philosophers, and others gifted with high genius," (Essays and Reviews, p.140). What this means it is hard to say. Shakespeare, Milton, Newton, and others certainly did not imagine that they had direct communication with God; that they revealed to us His nature, and the relation in which He stands to us; predicted future events, etc., in the same sense that Moses, David, Isaiah, and the other writers of the Bible are supposed to have done. If they actually did anything of this kind, they were assuredly wholly unconscious of their power; nor, we may add, has common opinion held that they afforded information on the same subjects as those which the writers of the Bible handled. Admirers of our poets, and philosophers, have not considered it necessary to promulgate what they have found in their writings, as matters in which the spiritual, and, possibly, eternal interests of man are vitally concerned; although believers in the Bible, and even in Mahomet, have done so. The word inspiration, in fact, as used in the passage above quoted, involves a confusion of ideas which we should hardly have expected to find in the writings of any one who professed to speak accurately, and appears scarcely pardonable, or even honest, in the case of so acute a thinker, as the late Mr. Baden Powell. We are not now saying that the Bible is a revelation from God, or even that there is such a thing as a distinctive revelation at all. All we assert is, that the idea of such a thing is a very common one, and that it is very different from that which is usually held with regard to the works of Newton, Milton, and other gifted sages and philosophers. We might add, in passing, that, unless the Bible be an imposture -- in which case it ought to be regarded as far inferior to the works of genuine and truthful poets and philosophers -- it does correspond, as we trust will be seen, on an examination of its contents, to the idea referred to.

Still further, revelation must not only have some distinctive character; but, in order to be effectual for its purpose, it should carry along with it, to the original recipients, a reasonable conviction of its authenticity. The Bible speaks of several professed modes of communication, and accepting them according to the ordinary meaning of words, and not in any mythical, or ideological sense, they appear to be such as might answer for the purpose of authentication. The Lord talked with Abraham. He appeared in a burning bush to Moses, spake to him and the children of Israel on Mount Sinai, and conversed with him afterwards on the top of that mountain, during a period of forty days. He spake in the night to Samuel. He appeared in a vision to Isaiah and others. To some He made Himself known in dreams. Christ spake to His disciples. All these are evidently ways in which God might communicate with man; and there is no difficulty in supposing that the attendant circumstances, such for instance as some of those recorded in the Bible, might be of such a kind as to authenticate the communication. It would be idle to argue that, because God does not make Himself known in any of these ways now, He has never done so; for, to omit other considerations, we may observe that, in accordance with the economy which prevails in the works of God, we have no reason to suppose that He would make special revelations to more persons than might be necessary for the purpose He had in view. If He revealed Himself to them, the promulgation of the revelation would be naturally and safely left to more ordinary instrumentality. At the present time, so far as Christians are concerned, they do not expect a special revelation to themselves, because, as they believe, God has already communicated all that He desires them to know.

But supposing a revelation to be sufficiently authenticated, -- What may be reasonably expected as to the extent of it? It is, we think, clear in the first place that no perfect knowledge of God and His relation to us could be communicated. Even if a direct presentation of the Infinite were given, the capacity of man could not grasp it, and therefore the result would be a finite conception; and, if the revelation were made by words or other signs, it is plain that these can only express the finite ideas of which they are the symbols.

Nor is there anything in this which need excite our surprise; for the limited nature of our knowledge with regard to God would be analogous to that which we have about other things. There is nothing with regard to which our knowledge is not limited. Some may be ready to affirm that we do not know things in themselves at all, but only the effects produced upon us, or their relation to us. We are not about to maintain this proposition; but it is at any rate plain that the most familiar objects, as science advances, often disclose to us new qualities, and that we have no reason to suppose that we are fully acquainted with all the qualities of even the simplest substances. There is no reason to expect that the book of revelation should be more explicit than that of nature.

Not only, however, must our knowledge, derived from revelation, be, in some degree, limited; but it is not difficult to see, why it would be probably kept even within the range of what it is possible for us to know. We can readily understand that the object of God in making a revelation would be to inform us about those things only, a knowledge of which might be essential to our interests; and here again the analogy of the natural world comes in to assist us. God has given to each existence such qualities as are requisite for the position in which it is placed. Ascending through the various classes of animals, we find, as we advance, the capacities for knowledge increasing, and bearing a relation to their actual circumstances. The mole is not endowed with the far-seeing vision which is essential to the well-being of the eagle: nor, on the other hand, has the eagle the power of threading its way through the earth, without which the mole could not exist. Viewing man in relation to the natural world, we find that he has the power of obtaining that kind of knowledge which is necessary to his welfare here, although, in many respects, he is far surpassed by the keener perceptions of the inferior animals. God has in fact ordered and limited his knowledge with an express reference to the position which he is called upon to occupy. This throws light upon the subject of revelation. It is reasonable to expect that God would limit the knowledge communicated in that way also, by a consideration of the state in which man is placed here, and of that which, upon the supposition of a future state, he is to occupy hereafter.

So far as we have yet gone, there does not appear to be any reason why the knowledge, although limited, should not be accurate as far as it goes. Though we do not know all the properties of particular objects, we may know some of them, and may also safely reason about those with which we are acquainted, so long as we are careful not to introduce into the reasoning anything which does not result from our actual knowledge; and so, turning from nature to a revelation, we may learn much from it about God, as for instance, that He is a God of love and holiness; that He will act towards us in a particular manner; that He will punish some actions and recompense others; and this knowledge also may be a true knowledge, so far as it goes, and one that we may safely act upon, although we may still be in ignorance of His exact nature and many points of our relationship to Him.

There is, however, a light in which revelation must be viewed, which involves considerations of a somewhat different character from those hitherto noticed, and to this we now turn. A revelation must not only be limited by the extent of the human capacity for receiving it, and by the proposed object of it, but also, in a considerable degree, by the state of knowledge existing in the world at the time it is made. In fact, without some such limitation, it would be unintelligible, and, consequently no revelation. As this truth has frequently been misapplied, we will endeavour to explain, as accurately as we can, our meaning. God could, perhaps, if He thought proper, give in an ignorant age a revelation, as full and explicit, as in a more enlightened period -- a revelation we mean which should be understood -- but it must be remembered that this could only be effected by altering the conditions under which human knowledge is acquired. For example, to have given a correct theory of the motions of the heavenly bodies, before the age of Newton, would have been impossible, without an entire change both in the existing state of knowledge, and also in the method of acquiring it. Down to the present time all history and experience testify to the fact that the acquisition of knowledge is gradual; but such a revelation, as that to which we have referred, would require that it should be made per saltum. If knowledge were given in this way the usual course would be completely changed; and not only so, but the knowledge communicated would be altogether out of proportion to that possessed on other points, and would place those who had it in a false and unsatisfactory state with regard to the world in which they lived. To see this we have only to picture to ourselves the condition of a man living in a savage, or only partially civilized state of society, with his mind preternaturally expanded to that of a Newton, and put into possession of the knowledge which he had on some of those subjects which the Bible touches on. How entirely out of harmony would he be with his fellow-men, and everything around him! and, how unable would he be even to pursue his studies for want of those instruments, books, and appliances which a more advanced state of society alone can produce! A revelation of this kind would clearly not be a boon, but an injury to him. It may be observed, moreover, that a revelation, adapted to the knowledge even of a Newton, would neither exactly correspond with facts, nor obviate all the difficulties which a more enlightened age might discover. We do not stop to dwell upon the obvious fact, that such a revelation, as that which we have been noticing, would require not only a preternatural expansion of faculties in the person to whom it was made, but also a similar expansion, or, if not, a long educational process in the case of all those who should receive it. We conclude, then, that a revelation must be adapted to, and in a great degree limited by, the state of knowledge existing in the world at the time when such revelation is made.

This leads us to a consideration of the necessarily phenomenal character of some portions of a revelation, respecting which objections against the Bible have been frequently raised. We will, to explain our views, take as an example, the familiar instance of the sun and earth. According to appearance the sun moves, and the earth is stationary: but science has demonstrated that the opposite to this is the real state of the case. What line might it be expected that a revelation would take, when it had to deal with a case of this kind? Should it speak according to appearances, or realities? This, we believe, is the exact point to be considered, and we do not think, when fairly put, that it is one about which there is much difficulty. If a revelation were given to an ignorant people, in accordance with the reality, it is quite clear that they would not be in a condition to receive it, and would therefore, probably, reject it as absurd; but if the description were given according to the appearance presented, then no difficulty would be felt. The question, however, is pressed -- whether such a mode of representation is consistent with the truthfulness which may be expected in a revelation.

It might, we think, be a sufficient reply to say that, as, according to our former reasoning, it is, in many cases, the only possible mode of revelation consistent with the established order of things, we may well be content with it; but we will pursue the subject a little further, with the view of making clear how the matter stands. It may be observed that, if absolute truth on a particular subject cannot be communicated, the nearest approximation to it is, not only all that can be expected, but is in itself highly desirable. If a man is unable to receive as full an apprehension of a thing as we have ourselves, we must endeavour to give him the most perfect information which he is capable of receiving. We do not injure him by doing this, but we should injure him if we omitted to do it. If a man, who had lived all his life in the Arctic regions, and had never heard of any other country, were to be brought to England, it would not be necessary to tell him, with a view to his comfort here, the motion of the earth with regard to the sun, and the causes of the length of our days and nights, and of the variation of the seasons. To enter into these matters would confuse his mind, and the man, if he had to earn his living, would starve while he was acquiring the knowledge of them. By such a course of proceeding we should, in reality, do him a great injustice. Instead of attempting anything of the kind, we should naturally give him such information as might be requisite for his practical guidance, in a popular manner, and leave to himself the acquisition of such scientific truth as he might be desirous of becoming acquainted with. In a word, we should describe to him things as they appear to be, and in this respect our description would be, in a certain sense, true; we should not describe them as they really are, and so far our description would not be in strict accordance with the facts of the case. We were about to say that it is a choice of difficulties; but, is there any real difficulty in the case? Does not the common sense of mankind declare that the mode of proceeding which we have described is the only proper one, and that there is no real untruthfulness in it? It may be noticed too that even scientific men continually make use of it amongst themselves, and in their intercourse with others, and this without any charge of untruthfulness being brought against them. What objection then can possibly lie against the adoption of the same method in a revelation? {17} The supposed object of a revelation is to save the soul, or, at least, to advance in a material degree our spiritual interests. Is that to be put aside till the world has learnt scientific truth, and is able to converse in scientific language? We feel no difficulty in leaving the answer to this question to the common sense of mankind in general. We conclude, then, that as phenomenal truth is in many cases the only truth which can possibly be afforded, and the imparting of it is a boon, and not an injury, there is no reason why the Deity should not, when He sees fit, make use of this mode of communication in revelation.

We will now notice, distinctly, words as a medium of revelation. It is plain, that in communicating knowledge, they are only effectual by calling up in the mind of the hearer ideas already existing. To speak to a man who has been blind from his birth, of colours would be useless, because he has had no experience of them, and consequently no ideas corresponding to them. Words may bring up ideas in a different combination from any which had previously existed in the mind of the person spoken to; but they cannot create ideas. They may make the hearer acquainted with something which he has never actually perceived; may cause him to reason in a new manner; to see a familiar object in a fresh light, or, in some other way, bring the faculties of the mind into play; but still the mind, so far as instruction by words is concerned, can only act upon its previous stores, and analyze or combine them into new forms. This being the case, it is clear that a revelation, so far as it is made by words, must be limited by the ideas previously existing in the mind of the person to whom it is made. These ideas, too, however numerous and refined they may be, are limited by the experience which a man has had of the external world, and of himself. He cannot get beyond these. If, then, God should think fit to reveal, in words, a knowledge of Himself, or any other object which does not come within the direct cognizance of our perceptive faculties, this can only be effected by calling up in the mind, through the words, some new combination of ideas already possessed. This may not correspond precisely with the object, respecting which the revelation is made; but, as it is the only way in which a revelation by words can be effected, we have no just reason to find fault with it. All we have a right to expect, is that the words should call up in the mind those ideas which best represent the object designed to be revealed.

This may tend to throw some light upon what are called anthropomorphic ideas of God. These have sometimes been spoken of as inadequate, and degrading. Inadequate they certainly are, as every notion which we can have of the Deity must be; but we are unable to see in what way they are degrading. Almost every nation, following apparently the necessity of our nature, has clothed its gods in the objective form of some familiar animal, or other existence, and endowed them with qualities of which they had experience. What wonder then if God, seeing that He must, unless the conditions of our nature were altered, make use of ideas with which we are already familiar, should adopt an anthropomorphic representation of Himself, purified, exalted, and adapted, as far as possible, to His own infinite perfections? In fact, we know not how God could declare Himself as just, righteous, pure, and loving, or reveal our responsibility to Himself, without a reference to man, inasmuch as he is the only being, of which we have any actual experience, who possesses, even in a limited degree, qualities of such a description. Assuredly then it cannot be a degrading notion of the Deity to regard Him as invested with the highest attributes of which we have a conception. We are aware that some philosophers talk much of the Infinite, and the Absolute, as conveying more exalted notions of the Divine Being. What the exact meaning of those terms is philosophers find it difficult to declare, and the common people are almost wholly unable to understand. Certainly such highly abstract terms convey little distinct meaning. It will be found upon examination, that the word "Infinite," to stir in any degree the depths of our nature, must be combined with some quality with which we are familiar. Infinite love, infinite justice, infinite purity, are things which we can in some degree understand and appreciate; but the point which we understand best is not the "Infinite," but the finite, -- the love, -- the justice, -- the purity; and these are ideas taken from what we find in some imperfect degree in ourselves. To those who believe that man was made "in the image of God," and that the Word, being God, became also man, the train of thought here indicated will come home with additional force.

What has been said with regard to a revelation, made by words, applies, in its main points, to a revelation made directly to the mind through ideas, without the intervention of words. To see this clearly, let us bear in mind the distinction between a perception and an idea. An idea is the result of a perception. We perceive a rose when it is presented to our senses, and we see, smell, or touch it. We have an idea of it, when, not being any longer presented, we think of it, and call to mind its qualities. We are said to have a perception of anger, or love, or any other emotion, when those feelings are present to the mind. We have ideas of them, when we think about them. It is not our object to enter upon any abstruse discussion as to the origin of ideas. What has been just advanced will be generally admitted by metaphysicians, and readily understood by others. Hoping, then, that the distinction between an idea and a perception will be carried in the mind, we will proceed with our argument. There is no difficulty in supposing -- and this, we believe, corresponds very closely to an opinion commonly entertained respecting inspiration -- that God could, without the intervention of words, call up in the mind such ideas as He might think fit. For instance, instead of speaking the words, "Thou shalt do no murder," He might, in a preternatural manner, excite in the mind the ideas corresponding to them. Still, however, unless we suppose the conditions of human thought to be altered in a manner for which we have no analogy, the ideas of a man, killing, etc., must previously exist in the mind, or the revelation would be unintelligible. Whether, then, the ideas are called up, through the instrumentality of words, or in some other way, is immaterial to our present argument. The point we insist on is that, except in the case of actual perception, the communication of knowledge, by revelation, or otherwise, must be limited by the ideas previously existing in the mind of the person to whom the communication is made. These ideas may be combined into new forms, and new relations may be discovered between them, or they may be analyzed into their constituent parts, but we cannot transcend the ideas themselves, except by new perceptions.

Let it not, however, be imagined that a revelation, conveyed through the instrumentality of ideas previously existing, must be so narrow as to convey little or no new information, or instruction. We have only to look at the works of Milton, Newton, Shakespeare, and other great men, to see the almost endless variety with which ideas, and the relations in which they stand to each other, may be so combined and disposed, as to minister to the imagination, or enrich the mind with fresh stores of knowledge. All the information which we derive from books, or conversation, is obtained in this way, and to it we must probably attribute by far the largest portion of our mental acquisitions, after the period of childhood. So far, indeed, as the promulgation of a revelation by its original recipients is concerned, it appears plain that it must be made, almost necessarily, through the instrumentality of words, inasmuch as they are the best signs which can be made use of in the communication of knowledge.

Before, however, proceeding to this portion of the subject, it appears desirable to make a few additional observations with regard to a revelation by perception. We have already had occasion to notice that "the Deity does not, like other objects, come within the direct cognizance of our perceptive faculties" (p.5), and that, "even if a direct presentation of the Infinite were given . . . the result would be a finite conception" (p.12). It may, however, be imagined that a direct presentation, even though issuing in a finite conception, or a representation either addressed ab extra to our perceptive faculties, or brought before us in a vision, or a dream, or otherwise, would convey to the mind a more correct apprehension of God's nature than could be obtained in any other way. These cases, though differing in some particulars, may, for our present purpose, be regarded as identical, and treated as perceptions. Now there can be no doubt that a perception conveys a more vivid impression to the mind than a description; and we may, therefore, reasonably suppose that, in a revelation, God might use this method of communicating knowledge in those cases to which it might be specially adapted. Thus, for instance, if God designed to give an idea of some place or being which we had never seen, He might effect this, in a very perfect manner, by bringing such a place or being, either in reality, or by representation, within the range of our perceptive faculties. The appearance vouchsafed by God to Moses (Exod. xxxiii.19-23), the vision of Ezekiel (Ezek. xxxvii.1-10), and the description given by St. Paul (2 Cor. xii.1-4), will serve as illustrations of our meaning.

It must not, however, be taken for granted that such a mode of revelation would, in every case, be possible; or that, if possible, it would always be the best method of communication. So far as we can see, no mere presentation, or representation of the Deity, could, in itself, give any deep insight into His moral character, or the relation in which He stands to us. Even if the Deity were constantly present, we know not how we could obtain any accurate knowledge of His attributes, except by observation of His words and acts. If we had been introduced to the philanthropist, Howard, we could not have become acquainted with his excellence by merely gazing at his countenance. We must have listened to his words, and followed him to those scenes of misery which he was in the habit of visiting, if we would obtain a clear understanding of his benevolence. So too, the holiness, love, and other moral perfections of the Deity, are not matters which can be apprehended from any mere intuition of the Divine nature. A glorious exhibition of the Divine presence, such, for instance, as that described in Exodus, as having occurred on Mount Sinai, might inspire feelings of awe, and enable those who witnessed it to apprehend more clearly, perhaps, than could have been effected in any other way, the dignity and majesty of God; but, for a revelation of His moral nature, and the relation in which He stands to man, we must look more to words -- such words, for instance, as He is said to have spoken to the children of Israel at that time, and afterwards, during forty days, to Moses. While, then, we think that a revelation by perception, with regard to some things, might be expected, we do not consider that it would convey a large amount of information, unless it were combined with a revelation through words. Words are, in fact, the most natural and effectual mode of imparting most kinds of knowledge, and we may, therefore, reasonably expect that, in any revelation which the Divine Being might think fit to make to man, they would form a chief method of communication. When we thus speak of words in connection with a revelation, we do not mean only words addressed actually to the ear, but also such, as in a dream or vision, may appear to be spoken. We desire also that it should be remembered that, for the main purpose of our argument, it is not so much words as ideas which we wish to keep in view. What we chiefly wish to leave on the mind is, that a revelation, except so far as a new perception may be given, must be limited by the ideas previously existing in the mind of the person to whom it is made. It may be reasonably expected that God would make use of those ideas which were best adapted to His purpose, but not that He should transcend the ideas themselves. If, too, we suppose that a new perception is given, that perception could not be explained to others, except through the instrumentality of such ideas as those to which we have referred.

Our object hitherto has been to explain the conditions under which a direct revelation from God may be expected to be given. If we have been able to remove from the minds of our readers vague and indefinite notions on the subject, and to put, in their place, something clearer and more distinct, our object thus far will have been answered.

It is, perhaps, hardly necessary to state that, by what has been said above, we do not intend to intimate that the recipient of a direct revelation must, necessarily, always understand the exact meaning of such a revelation. It may contain a hidden meaning, to be evident at some future time. Thus, for instance, on the supposition that the first chapter of Ezekiel is a revelation from God, it is probable that the meaning of it was as unintelligible to Ezekiel, as it is generally considered to be at the present time. But the meaning of the words themselves, and their connection with each other are clear. It is in the application that the difficulty arises. So, too, as advances are made in knowledge, words, and the ideas belonging to them, acquire a more extended and fuller meaning. The ideas involved in the word, sun, are very different to the philosopher and the peasant; and some ideas contained in a revelation may be of such a kind as not to be fully understood till more knowledge has been acquired, than existed at the time when the revelation was made. But to suppose that the words convey no meaning to the original recipient of the revelation, is to say that no revelation is made to him at all, and it certainly hardly appears probable that the Divine Being should make a communication which could answer no end to the person to whom it was addressed.

section 1 we may commence
Top of Page
Top of Page