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Systematische Theologie: Dogmatik


Clark, Tony


Divine Revelation and Human Practice. Responsive and Imaginative Inspiration.


Cambridge: James Clarke 2010. XV, 227 S. gr.8°. Kart. £ 20,00. ISBN 978-0-227-17313-8.


Hans Burger

How do we participate in the reality of God’s revelation? This is an important question if we depend on God’s revelation for our knowledge of God, as Karl Barth states. Barth has been criticized for creating an opposition between divine revelation and human practice. Can we as human beings know God in a human way? In this book, Tony Clark (Associate Professor of Ethics at Friends University) seeks to answer this question, building on Barth’s doctrine of revelation. He does so in line with criticisms of Barth by Colin Gunton and Alan Torrance. According to C., it is possible to improve upon Barth’s doctrine of revelation by reinforcing understated elements, like human involvement in revelation and religious experience. He tries to do so, using especially the epistemology of Michael Polanyi. C. wrote an earlier version of this book as his PhD thesis at the University of St Andrews.
C. starts his book with a critical treatment of Karl Barth’s doctrine of revelation. In his first chapter he gives a description of his doctrine of revelation, which he regards as »of seminal importance for the contemporary church«. He wants to demonstrate that human participation in God’s revelation is understated in Barth theology, however, »human participation in revelation is both consistent with Barth’s theological scheme and, to a modest degree, acknowledged within it« (71). The second chapter is a critical en­-gagement with Barth, to clear the path for a further development of his views on revelation. Important in this second chapter is Alan Torrance’s book, Persons in Communion. C. agrees with Torrance that to participate in God’s revelation (communication) we should participate in God’s communion, which is opened up to us in Christ and by the Holy Spirit. This participation is transformative but should not be limited to the semantic aspect, as Torrance does. Therefore C. points at the significance for revelation of the historical Jesus, his character, teaching and example.
After his treatment of Karl Barth, he turns in chapter 3 to Michael Polanyi’s theory of knowledge to explore how his work could contribute to the development of the doctrine of revelation. He regards Barth and Polanyi as congenial post-Enlightenment thinkers. Both try to surpass the dilemma of modernity’s epistemology between an »indubitable grounding and open-ended relativism« (81). Polanyi affirmed the personal element in knowing: the judgment, the passions, and the skills of the scientist are essential and should not be ruled out. Furthermore, he showed the importance of the scientific community and the participation (indwelling) in its practice. This active engagement in the heuristic vision of a community points at the fiduciary nature of knowledge: the holding of beliefs is necessary for the scientific endeavour. Another important aspect of Polanyi’s epistemology is his concept of ›tacit knowledge‹. We indwell our perspective and live within it in order to deal with reality, knowing more than we can tell. Focal knowledge always draws upon tacit knowledge.
Having shown in his fourth chapter that Polanyi can be used to improve Barth’s doctrine of revelation, C.’s final two chapters give an exposition of our ›participation in revelation‹.
Participation is more than just semantic participation (as it is according to Alan Torrance). First, C. distinguishes epistemic participation. God is revealed to us by participation in the communion of Jesus. He invited his disciples to share in his way of life. This participation is continued in the ecclesial form of life, celebrating the eucharist and making new disciples. Second, C. emphasizes that our participation is more than linguistic; it is also bodily. We sing, we eat bread, we drink wine, we are baptized with water. Third, participation in revelation is hermeneutical. He elaborates this, using the model of ›dramatic performance‹ of the Bible (Tom Wright, Kevin Vanhoozer). This brings him to a chapter on the positive role of imagination. To participate in revelation, we need imagination, but an imagination nurtured in the ecclesial forms of life, highly disci­- plined, trained and responsive. This imagination has to be respon­-sive to the text of the Bible in a faithful performance of its text.
This is a stimulating book, loyal to Barth’s doctrine of revela-tion but nonetheless improving upon his work where important elements are understated. The conversation between Barth and Polanyi he constructs helps one focus on the human involvement in revelation. However, the focus on the human might lead to a new understatement of the triune activity, giving us this participation in Christ and in the Spirit. In the more systematic chapters 5 and 6 I missed an explicit theological (trinitarian) framework. Further, I would suggest that one distinguish a moral participation, apart from the semantic, epistemic, bodily and hermeneutic. Nevertheless, in combining revelation with participation and imagination, a laudable effort is made.